Monday, July 20, 2015

Tesla: Self-Improvement

Hello again, everyone! As we've been looking at the mechanics that Tesla can use to represent its themes of progress, one big idea keeps coming up: players themselves progressing and improving over the course of the game. This week, let's reflect on some 'self-improvement' mechanics you all have designed, try to improve them further, and perhaps design some more mechanics capturing the same themes as well.

One major mechanic we've discussed that captured the feeling of the player improving was Revolution. Since it was you, the player, that activated the ability and 'revolted', the mechanic felt as if the player initiated and experienced a paradigm shift alongside their permanents. Advance attempts to capture this same personal experience. As Droqen put it, "It's like, for this one untap step, you're untapping more than you started with, and it's amazing. You (& your Advance permanents) advance at the exact same moment you come back to full power." The flavor and gameplay are compelling enough to inspire multiple variants, and have been popular with the designers, so Advance, Revolution, etc. are definitely front-runners in the design space of 'player progress'. 

Lee Owens has been pushing hard for his mechanic 'Progressive', and as Jay said, "this really is a great start with a lot of potential". Lee's original iteration of the mechanic includes multiple levels and references level counters on the player explicitly, but to avoid having leveler frames work differently for different versions of level counters, I've taken the liberty of adjusting some of the mechanic to capture the general idea. Breakthrough creatures can work at full capacity on their own, though it won't be easy. However, breakthrough cards excel when working alongside other cards with breakthrough. This 'optional archetype' is really nice, and comparable to infect in some ways (though obviously not quite as severe).

Here's a twist on civilization counters that I mentioned a couple weeks ago. 'Research' still heavily assists players in winning the game, and also gives you an exciting goal to work towards (who doesn't like casting spells for free!?), but is easier to balance. Much like breakthrough, Corporate Spy works alright on its own, but unlike breakthrough, not all cards with research counters have to get you to 5 on their lonesome. Some of them could only give you a few of the research counters you need, unlike Corporate Spy (which could give you all five, but won't always.) This flexibility could prove valuable for balancing the mechanic and giving it some depth.

Level-up instants and sorceries are an alluring and frequent idea among custom Magic designers, and for good reason: its common in games for wizards to improve their own spells and abilities with practice. Though Magic just printed spell mastery, capturing this flavor very well, the suggestions by Jay Treat and Lee Owens for 'leveling spells' are nonetheless worthy of discussion. Note that, though this uses the same 'experience counter' technology as Breakthrough, they don't necessarily have to appear together at all.
Cards with the 'spell experience' mechanic are alright on their own. But, if you meet a certain prerequisite, the card will help you towards unlocking additional bonuses on future cards that care about 'experience'. Unlike breakthrough and spell mastery, this pushes you much harder towards the archetype in Limited, since (unless the card requires only EXP 1+) you'll need at least one other experience-granting card in your deck to get even the possibility of reaching its maximum potential. This might be problematic, but we've also seen cards like Enshrouding Mist, so there is precedence for it.

To sum it all up, here are our discussion topics for the week:
  1. How can we improve or refine Advance, Breakthrough, Research, and "Spell Experience"?
  2. What other mechanics or design space could represent 'self-improvement'?
  3. How important is player progress to Tesla? Is it a must-have?
Have a great week, everybody!


  1. I only used the levelers frame because I had no idea how to construct a new one. I like the shift in terminology.

    1. I figured as such. Just thought I'd explain my changes.

  2. Apologies in advance, I'm pretty down on this week's suggestions.

    I don't understand the excitement about the "untap 10 or more permanents" mechanic. It is a bit of a headache simply playing with Wake Thrasher in cube, and 10 is a large number to count to, and I don't want to be forced to count that high on both my side and my opponents side repeatedly. The ability to randomly tap lands just to untap them also feels unthematic.

    Research Counters are currently balanced to be very unexciting. I have to do a ton of work to get 5 of them, so by the time I do I can probably cast every card in my deck. The ability to do so without paying its mana cost is very ho-hum. The numbers could certainly change, but mana cost cheating is about the last thing in the universe development would want to push. If this is going to do work, we need a much different payoff than "cast something for free."

    I think Breakthrough has the seed of a great idea, gaining markers that can't be gotten rid of and help your creatures (and spells) in some way is a neat concept that lets us really feel we're getting better. I suspect we'd want a wide variety of thresholds so that each additional counter feels worth fighting for. On the other hand, this walks us right back into the "having to count too high" problem that the untapping mechanic has. Having to constantly count cards in the graveyard (and count as high as seven) was a big part of why the original Threshold was considered a failure.

    Having multiple Breakthrough thresholds can make board states very difficult to parse (which is why Threshold only cared about 7), but having too few makes it not feel worth it. Could we get away with just two, like 2 and 5, and have it still feel exciting?

    The thing I really don't like about the current iteration of Breakthrough is that it triggers on damaging the opponent with these creatures. Thematically, that just feels like a miss (not to mention it plays in the space of the other mechanic we're at least talking about using). I think I'd rather cut the middleman and just make Breakthrough mean "Take an experience marker" and use it like Scry and Cantrips are used. The Breakthrough version of Alchemist's Apprentice has great potential to be a thematic home run, I think.

    1. No need to apologize. All of these mechanics are in unrefined states, and I myself agree with many of the objections you bring up.

      I thought Threshold's major difficulty was that you were counting things in the graveyard - which is usually a stack of unorganized cards all on top of each other, so it's annoying to count. If we're counting counters, or things on the battlefield, might it not get easier? I'm sincerely asking, not rhetorically asking - I feel like it still might not be easy enough, but it's definitely easier.

      Research counters are definitely unexciting on this one card. But it's just an example card. Still, I agree that 'casting a spell for free' is definitely a tricky reward - it's very strong so you often have to make mechanics unexciting to use the exciting reward. I should have noted this, but I don't think research counters HAVE to give you a free spell. I was just bringing up the idea of counters that work towards a reward of some sort.

      I too was thinking about multiple Breakthrough thresholds, and I actually came to the same conclusion. 2+ was the first one that came to mind, and when thinking about the logical next step, I just added two more. I think 2+ and 4+ looks pretty good on a card, myself. The card then exists in three states: 0-1, 2-3, and 4 and beyond. I like the idea of 5+, though, as it allows the reward to be that much bigger.

      I was actually talking with Droqen about varying Breakthrough triggers. We discovered the problem from a different angle - much like Poisonous, a player will often kill someone by damage before they actually reach (for example) 5 counters. So I was thinking of how to fix that. Making every Breakthrough creature small is not a solution.

      When I originally experimented with experience, it was exactly as you describe. Here is an example:

      Elementary Summons {2}{W}
      Experience (As you cast this spell, gain an experience counter.)
      Put a 1/1 white Homunculus creature token onto the battlefield for each experience you have.

      I never got to playtest it, but I just felt like it was... unexciting. The cards were very underwhelming on their own. I think the prerequisite that "spell experience" uses allows us to make some more exciting designs and tell some very flavorful stories, so I want to pursue that more. In addition, if we follow the prerequisite method, we don't have to make all cards in the set use this style. We can certainly include cantrip-style experience cards as well.

      Thank you for the feedback and critique! This is the kind of stuff that leads to good discussions.

    2. I don't really want three states on each card so much as each card caring about either 2+ or 5+ (say). I imagine it being rarity driven, say commons all care about 2+ and uncommons about 5+ for a bigger bonus.

    3. Ohhh I see what you mean. Okay, yeah, we had different ideas, my bad. I like your idea - some level of unifying the thresholds, but with enough variety to be interesting. Nice!

    4. I think there are a number of reasons that Breakthrough should be tied to combat damage.

      1. Interactivity. If the conditions of gaining counters are not things that the opponent can't prevent then we are just planning a set of solitaire. One of the great things about Battle-Forge was its inclusion of risk by attacking. Breakthrough works on the same axis. Also of import is that tying the gaining of counters to any of the other parts of a standard magic game proposes just as many issues. Tying it to drawing cards leaves red and white at a disadvantage. Tying it to upkeep promotes heavy defensive play. Tying it to spell cast leaves you with lots of variance. Notably all colors have ways of stopping creatures. Stopping spells is the provenance of blue and black pretty exclusively.
      2. Modularity. Breakthrough works as a modular mechanic. Each creature with Breakthrough can make its own way to its threshold. Forcing players to play with a version that grants a counter as a one time deal means you have to play with many more Experience cards, which increases the parasitism of the mechanic. This is solved somewhat by the lowered threshold of 2 for modular-ish cards and 5 for the more parasitic cards, but still not something I think would make for a good constructed experience and it would be hard to hit a threshold of 5 for limited cards just through density.
      3. Threshold is an important comparison. Threshold counted cards in the graveyard. Creatures with threshold, in general, only contributed toward the number of cards in your graveyard when they died. Threshold required decks to be built with a support structure to turn them on. Breakthrough creatures advance themselves. They don't require a support structure. Now it will be beneficial to have that structure, and the intention would be to have one shot level gains as a cantrip effect. Obviously they'll be more specific than what you'd do to enable threshold/delve, but the core payoff being able to power themselves up goes a long way toward mitigating the issues surrounding most threshold mechanics.
      4. Reversibility. When you got to threshold, you could lose threshold at any moment. Coffin Purge and similar effects could remove threshold from you. To use another, more recent example, Devotion is a threshold mechanic. It asked you to count the number of mana symbols you had. While many of the effects with devotion were a sliding scale, the Gods were a hard threshold, and one that was way easier to mess with than cards in the graveyard. These mechanics created more complication because they could count down. Creatures could lose power. Experience counters only count up. Once a threshold has been reached it becomes part of the gamestate forever. That means that you are only looking ahead, and don't have to spend energy figuring out how to take your opponent off their power-up or how to attack into someone with a Relic of Progenitus.

      On the problem of getting people dead before you get to your experience bonuses. That is a legitimate problem. Its the same issue that poison had before infect. It might be ok to make the Breakthrough an instead? Instead of dealing damage you can get a counter. That way you are planning for the future. It gives you the decision of dealing damage now or planning for the long game. That has its issues too, but its an alternative.

    5. I don't think all interaction has to be this overt. It is fine to interact with the deck trying to dink around piling up counters by pressuring and attacking them. "I will do an awesome thing unless you stop me" "Okay, I'm going to attack you with these two Welkin Terns, hope you get your awesome thing soon!" is one of the most classic forms of Magic interaction there is. Still don't like the Breakthrough combat damage trigger. (It would make sense if the creature got the XP, for the record).

      Re: Modularity, from a design point of view what you say is probably true, but once development gets their hands on it it won't be. Cards are costed so that they are fair in the best deck they go in, and the best deck for breakthrough cards clearly involves a lot of breakthrough cards. If you want a lone wolf breakthrough card to get there on its own, you want the counters to go on the creature not on you (but that is a very different mechanic).

      I think "Players get counters that are good" is a great seed of a mechanic. The rest is TBD for me.

      PS: I think "You get an XP instead of dealing damage" really feels like a downside. Ophidian became Scroll Thief for just this reason.

    6. I don't think the leap from Slith to you getting the counter instead is a bridge too far. If that sort of sabatur effect makes sense for drawing cards or what have you then I think it makes enough sense. I also feel like for the complexity of the mechanic to be worth the trouble it should be one of the major mechanics of the set that its in. In that case having it be overt is desirable.

      I don't think most of the cards would be great on their own. There can be a few that are constructed playable in whatever deck you want them in. Obviously having EXP decks would be desireable, but having a couple pushed cards that can function on their own lends to the mechanic spreading out. This is possible with the current iteration of Breakthrough. If development makes the mechanic overall want to be played with other cards that support it than that's fine. The lone wolf might as well be putting counters on itself. I think there's enough space for a few cards to exist between the deck where they would be fully supported and the deck where they support themselves. They'd probably be cards that are just efficient balls of stats eg,

      EXP Goyf 1G
      Level 2 - CARDNAME gets +2/+2

      That card would not be embarrassing to play on its own, but it scales well in a deck that wants to have lots of EXP. However it scales in a way that is understandable, predictable, and that opposing decks could easily be prepared for.

      The ophidian thing was just a potential alternative. I can see it not being the way to go. I just liked the long term planning angle since that is one of the strong draws to player levels in the first place.

    7. "I will dink around and hope you can't kill me before I do my awesome thing" "I attack with everything!" sounds an awful lot like Red Aggro vs. Storm, which is not a matchup that most players would consider "interactive" or "fun."

      I think that having low EXP guys that pass the Vanilla Test, but aren't exceptional, will make for more interesting gameplay differences in Sealed and Draft. In Sealed, you're more likely to play an unexciting card because it happens to fill the curve in the colors you've selected as the best, so the EXP is just a nice bonus. In Draft, you're not likely to pick one of these highly unless you're specifically driving for the EXP archetype, so it's more likely these will get around to the players who want a lot of them, and we can push the archetype by seeding an extra common or two in specific colors (the way that all colors had levelers in ROE, but the support for the levelers archetype was specifically WU).

    8. On Research, I strongly disagree with Tommy's claim "I have to do a ton of work to get 5 of them, so by the time I do I can probably cast every card in my deck." If you hit 5 Research at the same time you hit 6ish mana, you can cast two 6-drops on the same turn! Or cast a 6 drop without needing to worry about leaving mana up for the counterspell/removal/etc in your hand. Plus of course people could build decks around 9- or 10-drops expecting to only ever cast them via research.

    9. You can cast two 6 drops if you have two six drops in your hand, which is incredibly unlikely. In limited you very rarely even play two six drops in your whole deck!

      There will be games where the tempo matters, but the existence of games where a mechanic matters is not exactly the bar it has to get over.

    10. Also Jenesis, I agree the Storm/ Red Aggro match-up pushes that too far, but this isn't as far along that axis since the "combo" side of things is entirely based around creatures.

    11. Also, to further Alex's comment, yes, you could (in casual constructed) build a deck with a bunch of 9/10 drops and research cards and try to go off. But this is far too linear to work in tournament decks (which, because of how development works, essentially never play a bunch of cards with the same mechanic).

    12. If gaining EXP counters isn't tied to combat damage, why the the mechanic necessarily be based around creatures? What alternative methods of gaining EXP are you proposing? The example you gave was Alchemist's Apprentice, which functions like a creature as far as attacking and blocking goes but the card draw effect can't be interacted with by any color other than blue (possibly black if you count discard, but it's 2cmc so unlikely).

    13. I agree that Research working toward a free spell is suboptimal. Your mana capacity increases as the game goes on, while the number of things you can do with that mana decreases. We want a reward that remains valuable or gets better even when it takes you a long time to achieve it. Draw/tutor/scry/recur are promising options.

      I would much rather receive a gold token than a research counter.

    14. Whenever you cast a spell, if you spent less mana than the number of research counters you have, you may pay {2} to draw a card.

      Whenever you cast a spell that costs less than or equal to the number of research counters you have, you may remove one to draw a card.

    15. Draw is definitely a promising option. And it makes flavorful sense too.

      Jay, I like your two ideas. Could we push it more, make it simpler in doing so? "Whenever you cast a spell that costs less than the number of research counters you have, draw a card."

      That seems overpowered, of course, but it's definitely simpler and more exciting.

    16. This is super cludgy, but I hope it might inspire something "At the start of each turn you may Scry X where X is the number of research counters you have. If you do, discard a research counter."

    17. "Whenever you draw a card, you may pay a research counter to discard it and draw another card."

    18. I thought about scry X too butI think it's too powerful.
      Spending research to loot/filter, though, I like a lot.

    19. I like that last idea, Tommy. Makes a lot of thematic sense. But is it exciting enough?

    20. Also, it treats it as a currency, not as a goal you're building towards. If we do that, we lose a lot of sense of 'progress' - specifically, we want to feel like we're progressing towards something. Not gathering resources simply to expend.

    21. Agree. I didn't love it as is, I was just trying to suggest ways to push.

  3. Experience counter on spells, as presented, would be incredibly parasitic. Look at Spell Mastery in Origins: it needs a lot of spells, and it still isn't something you can consistently hit in Limited except in really warped decks (that are usually weak because of low creature count). This is like that, but even more limited; unless it's focused in a subset of colors and made so that the cards are only valuable in the experience deck, it wouldn't turn on.

    I think using Breakthrough as an ability word where the default version for commons is a saboteur ability or simple "{T}: You gain experience." makes the most sense. Uncommons can have it as a rider on other abilities (a looter would be very flavorful, tapper would be good, too), or even a passive trigger.

    1. I don't think commons with "tap: you gain an experience" are developable. The numbers involved are potentially huge and timing is super swingy.

      I definitely agree with your other concerns. Spell Mastety wasn't exactly a huge hit in limited, so more narrow Spell Mastery is a big warning.

    2. I never suggested that leveling spells be used separately as their own thing. They would exist with Breakthrough creatures. The spells are pretty reliant on the creatures, and I would be fine dropping the leveled spells for proliferate as the way to have spells gain you levels. The original intention was to have spells that get more powerful while in a hidden zone. Its likely that just having creatures that will be stronger later is enough of an incentive to promote interaction.

    3. "Spell Mastery wasn't exactly a huge hit in Limited." Um, the set hasn't even released on Magic Online; I think your claim is a bit premature. But clearly you have concluded it's lacking, Tommy. Let's discuss your findings and see if we can find a better solution.

    4. For instance, one assertion I'd support is that some of the spell mastery bonuses are so small, it hardly seems worthwhile. Of course, they need to be small since the threshold is so low. Do we think 3 would have been unworkable, or that they just wanted it to be easy for new players?

    5. My experience with prereleases was that hitting 2 spells for spell mastery was hard enough as it is.

      In a deck with a bunch of spells, the bonus is enough that it's worth considering which order to play your spells in, because some will get the mastery bonus and some won't. In a deck without a bunch of spells, the playable spell mastery cards are the ones for which the bonus is ignorable (e.g. Unholy Hunger), because the ones with a significant bonus tend to be quite bad without it.

    6. This is a big part of what the twitter conversation Reuben and I and others had. "Sometimes you get two bonus life" just isn't a big enough rider to warrant what is actually a very difficult hoop to jump through in limited but is trivially easy in constructed.

      I think what happened is probably that Spell Mastery seemed awesome in design and then when development got their hands on it they depowered everything so much as to make it (in my opinion) not worthwhile.

      I too suggested upping the count from two to three to maybe get some sweeter bonuses, but I'm not sure there is any way to make Spell Mastery awesome in limited.

      Just to address your point that "it isn't even out on Magic Online yet," I think when Limited Resources says in their set review "When drafting and playing just pretend the Spell Mastery text isn't there," that is not a ringing endorsement of a mechanic that took up a giant amount of text.

      Mark has previous said it is okay for mechanics to be constructed only (and I don't see any reason it shouldn't be) but they have never taken advantage of that. Maybe a harder to reach higher pay off Spell Mastery was the right place (only showing up at Uncommon and higher rarities).

      The gap between my seeing Spell Mastery and going "Wow that is an awesome mechanic" and my seeing the cards and going "wow, what a waste" has rarely been so large.

      Origins was undoubtedly an ambitious set, and as such I'm sure they were reluctant to mess with a passable mechanic when they had so many other things to get.

      Worth noting also, if the bonuses on Common Spell Mastery cards were large, it would loudly tell newer players to draft instants and sorceries highly, which would be a strategic mistake. Again I feel this mechanic was kind of doomed from the start in limited, and then they aimed it at limited.

      (For the record, I think Fiery Impulse is a beautifully developed card that has just the right payoff, even though the card reads poorly.)

    7. Incidentally, although blue and black are positioned as the "graveyard matters" colors and get an extra spell mastery card each, I think red is the color to be in if you're on this plan. Dragon Fodder and Act of Treason, in particular, are great ways to up your instant/sorcery count without either giving up creature pressure or being forced to be reactive.

    8. I wasn't trying to suggest that "Spell experience" be used on its own. I was just noting that it doesn't need specifically Breakthrough to work - it can work with any number of 'experience counter' mechanics.

      We definitely want 'experience counters' to be granted by permanents, especially creatures. I totally agree.

  4. I can envision that personal counters can be given a lot of support and space in the set. Just as infect which had support like proliferate.

    The original reason for personal counters is to auto-win when you reach a certain amount of them (like 10.) It doesn't have to be rewriting game rules. It could be an artifact:

    Ultimate Victory {7}
    Legendary Artifact
    At the beginning of your upkeep, gain an experience counter. If you have 10 or more experience counters, you win the game.

    This gives players an incentive to build a deck around personal counters. Now this topic proposes two different paths to acquire personal counters. As opposed to infect and poison counters, where the only vector was with creatures. We can gain experience counters with both creatures and/or spells. And perhaps both methods are viable. However, unlike infect, it's not all or nothing. You can play these cards in any deck because they provide value by themselves but don't bind you into a perpendicular wincon. Of course it encourages you to play a bunch of them together. The only all-in deck is deliberately with a (rare) legendary card.

    As for the specific threshold values, I can envision 3, 6, and 10. 10 is only for the ultimate victory artifact. All other experience cards would use both 3 and 6 levels. 3 gives some breathing room for opponent. Spell mastery is essentially 3 threshold if you count the current spell. Then if you're more dedicated, 6 gives you a bigger edge. It's also nice because it can represented with just one dice that moves in one direction only.

    1. If we do XP counters, I like the one off mythic that wins you the game with enough of them.

    2. In the initial discussion this was brought up and I agree wholeheartedly that having an alternate win condition card for hitting sufficient exp is a thing that should happen.

    3. Agreed! It's such a fun idea for a card.

  5. Me and tommy were discussing our own takes on Revolution we have designed as its a great area of top down design.

  6. One thing to note is that Augment currently chews through a large amount of comprehension complexity. I didn't realize until the 3rd reading that the counters go on YOU and are thus shared by the cards.

    1. It might be worth the hassle to rewrite the trigger, "Whenever this deals combat damage to an opponent, put a experience counter on target player." The cons are mostly about MTGO where you'd then have to click on yourself for each trigger, but it would make it a lot easier to figure out what's going with the ability on first read. Even then it would still be pretty high complexity.

    2. Would "put an experience counter on yourself" work?

      I honestly hadn't realized it had comprehension complexity. I do agree that it seems problematic now.

  7. I agree with all the refinements and problems suggested in the comments, but I just wanted to say in general I was quite excited by all the cards suggested in the post!

  8. Research (Choose a number. Get an emblem with "Spells with CMC equal to the chosen number cost you {1} less to cast.)

    I don't expect that's great as-is, but I'm looking for a reason to care about our 'counters' outside of the cards that create them.

    1. This is interesting, but again, memory issues.

      I very much like the seed of this idea though. I like that you can spread it around or focus on one CMC.

      The wording is confusing, by the way. Does my 'chosen number' update every time I research, or does each emblem have its own individual chosen number? It looks like the former, but I think it's the latter.