Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A Set in Three Mechanics

The pendulum swings, but make no mistake, its resting state is not the center.

Every set needs to introduce new mechanics to entice players, even if it offers a new gameplay experience by remixing existing mechanics; that's [one of] the biggest reason[s] the core sets were so unpopular for so long. But how many new mechanics does a set need? 1? 3? 5+?

Kaladesh's success demonstrates 3 is one ideal.

Remember New World Order? The concept was shared with the world in late 2011. Time Spiral had taught R&D that putting too many mechanics in a set made the game too complex for new players to approach, so they cut back in Lorwyn and realized board complexity was a deal-breaker too. NWO promised to lower the barrier to entry for future sets, while preserving a deep gameplay experience for established players. The plan was to keep the game's complexity at rare and uncommon, and out of common, so that each game will see a few complex cards that keep it unique and interesting, but not so many that players are bogged down by walls of text, myriad options, and on-board tricks.

It worked well enough that they felt comfortable joking about doubling down with New New World Order. (Many of the ideas in NNWO were valid at a lower threshold). In fact, as the blocks rolled on, even the principles of NWO were bent more and more, with blocks introducing 11 or 12 new named mechanics, and texty abilities crowding even common text boxes. Don't get me wrong, we were still better off than before NWO, and the core principles behind it continued to be leveraged and to improve Magic's accessibility, but as the proverbial pendulum swung between slow blocks and fast blocks, between gold blocks and artifact blocks, between two-sided conflicts and five-sided ones, it also trended toward more complexity again, over time. Which it always will.

But here's Kaladesh, with three new mechanics and no returning mechanics (save the evergreen ones, obviously). Fabricate is deadly simple (but so functional). Vehicles have some complexity but not too much: We'll get used to them just like we did equipment, but for now we're still sorting out how to value them, and getting used to their gameplay implications (like crewing them on defense, or letting you tap your creatures freely). Energy is straight-up alien. The rules are very easy to understand, but it's taking players a while to fully understand the mix-and-match nature of energy—we're not used to mana as an accumulating resource.

And it's good. The pendulum has swung back toward lower complexity again, and the game's still great.

So where's the threshold between too much and not enough? M10-M15 addressed the biggest complaints established players had with core sets—that they were boring because it's all old news—and had a great deal more success, but still couldn't compete with expansion sets. Visiting a world is a big deal, and WotC markets each new plane a lot harder than core sets and supplemental products; that's part of it. But it's also very true that one of the things Magic players love about Magic, is how it reinvents itself. We want / need / and expect to see something new.

A block that introduces something truly novel, like double-faced cards or energy, can get away with less named mechanics—new or old*, as Kaladesh shows. More traditional blocks can distinguish themselves based on the combination of more traditional mechanics, and the unique gameplay environment they support, and that will usually require more named mechanics to keep the players satisfied.

(* While it's important to think of past keywords as being reusable, it's better to focus on the driving force behind that: That each set should use what it needs to be novel and fun, and nothing more. Sometimes, that means using old keywords, sometimes old ones, and sometimes just fewer.)

Kaladesh delivers on the same high-strategy-high-variance experience Magic always has, while offering something completely new to explore. Anything more would just muddy the message and dilute the experience. Aether Revolt will add a new spin on that, but not before we're ready for it.


  1. It's clear wizards made a push to reduce the mechanic complexity of Kaladesh, although I'm not sure how well they got the goal. This: http://www.channelfireball.com/articles/sperlings-sick-of-it-kaladesh/ makes a pretty compelling argument that there's still a lot of unintentional complexity creeping into the set. Vehicles clearly fall in a very unintuitive space and I wish they'd figured out a more intuitive variant of Crew. As is, I can't see vehicles return in their current form, even with how cool they are.

    1. Specifically, I'd like to see the summoning sickness rule brought more in line with players expectations:

      "302.6. A base creature card’s activated ability with the tap symbol or the untap symbol in its activation cost can’t be activated unless the card has been under its controller’s control continuously since his or her most recent turn began. A base creature card can’t attack unless it has been under its controller’s control continuously since his or her most recent turn began. //A base creature card can't be tapped to pay a cost unless the card has been under its controller’s control continuously since his or her most recent turn began.//"

      Basically, this would mean that summoning sickness would only apply to cards with a printed type of creature ("base type" like base power and toughness), not cards that becomes creatures like Mutavault. It also closes the "invoke loophole" by preventing summoning sick creatures from getting behind the wheel of a vehicle.

      This would give Folklands and Vehicles haste, which would be an issue for development. The solution would be to have more of those cards etbt and just remove ambiguity. You can still print a superfluous haste on vehicles if you need to.

    2. That article tries to make a big deal of a bunch of miniscule things for the purpose of entertainment.

      It is interesting to discuss whether it's more or less complex to use an existing mechanic without its label.

      I fully agree that Cultivator's Caravan is confusing. But I see no argument here that vehicles as a group are too complicated. I think crew is intuitive as far as it's intended purpose goes; it's only the sideways stuff that's weird: That you can crew a vehicle multiple times each turn; that a vehicle can crew itself, etc.

    3. I agree completely that a creature with summoning sickness being able to pay a tap cost is counter-intuitive and that vehicles bring that wrinkle front and center. "Base creature card" is confusing to me, but I'm confident they could fix the rules around this loophole.

    4. Vehicles are an example of things that seem like an "easy mechanic", but really are just a black hole of corner cases.

      For example: This set has +1/+1 counters, auras and equipment. Counters stay on a vehicle while equipment falls off. Auras fall off, except Aether Meltdown and Malfunction which stay on.


      When do I have to crew my vehicle? Can I say "attack with two servos and my sky skiff crewed by my third servo"?
      Rules lawyers abound.

    5. All the more reason not to fill the set with other distracting rules questions, and let players focus on figuring out these answers.

    6. Certainly. I'm just thinking of ways to avoid having so many questions in the first place. Like allowing all of the Auras to also enchant vehicles.

    7. I tried to Revoke Privileges a vehicle today. So, yeah.

  2. Replies
    1. Now I can't remember whether I realized that originally or not, but I'd definitely since forgotten. What makes it tricky is that everything in that article has a kernel of truth to it. Modifying the post.

  3. Regardless of where the perception of Kaladesh falls out at the end of this block, I do think three is a very natural and reasonable number of named mechanics to use (though those around here who know me know I've been pushing for that for years).

    That said, Innistrad used it's three mechanics (flashback, DFCs, and Morbid) very well, and all three were essential to the set as a whole. I do not think Fabricate is essential to Kaladesh, and though there is nothing wrong with some cards that say "Hey, pick between a +1/+1 counter and a 1/1" my experience both drafting the set and watching pros draft the set is that Fabricate wasn't the right #3. I think Fabricate probably got locked in when vehicles required a number of creatures rather than an amount of power to crew, and then stopped making much sense after that change.

    Great design is all about doing more with less, and Kaladesh uses much, much less design than recent sets, including copious reprints of the simplest possible versions of things, like Tasseled Dramedery and Mind Rot. The downside of striving for great design is that when you choose deliberately to focus the spotlight on so few things, as Kaladesh does, and one of them doesn't pull its weight (as Fabricate doesn't, imo) it really has a big effect on the set, much more than, say, Ferocious flopping had on KTK.

    Short Summary: Three is the Magic number, but I look to Innistrad, not Kaladesh, to see it implemented correctly. Three is the choice of the artist that wants to make something truly great, but that may not pan out.

    1. It's pretty rare that I totally disagree with someone on here but I have to speak up here - I think Fabricate absolutely pulls its weight and is one of the best new mechanics since probably prowess in its understated effect on games.

      While drafting, deciding whether you are "the +1/+1 counter deck" vs "the artifact deck", while deck building deciding whether you can make up a slight lack of creatures through some of them providing double-duty, and while playing deciding whether you should go tall or wide (especially when the correct decision is either A: vague or B: the opposite of your deck's normal theme) mean the ability is skill testing in all parts of the game, which is rare and should be celebrated.

      I also think it still interacts well with the vehicles - knowing when you need to leave a 1/1 untapped and when the bigger body is important enough that you'll survive without an untapped creatyre until you topdeck another creature can be game-deciding.

      I love energy and think it's really fun, but Fabricate is an awesome, awesome limited mechanic, and for someone who doesn't play very much constructed it's basically the reason I've been pouring so much money into the set. (The +1/+1 counter deck and the Ovalchase Daredevil B/x artifact deck are two of my favorite KDH-KDH-KDH archetypes.)

      Which brings me to my next point - one of the great things about all three latest sets is that the limited experience has been excellent with generally good and skill testing games. The number of supported archetypes and sub-archetypes also seems to be higher than usual. This is another type of complexity that Core Sets were SEVERELY lacking and one I think strongly contributed to their unpopularity. Players will crack packs until the cows come home if the limited format is good, and one major hallmark of a good limited format is some amount of complexity at common and uncommon so that drafts are deep enough to support varied archetypes and keep the experience fresh.

    2. I will never argue that Innistrad isn't a masterful set all Magic Design shouldn't strive for. I won't even argue Innistrad isn't still the best set ever, for now.

      But I personally agree with R Stech about Fabricate. It looks boring and uninspired, but it does support vehicles, artifact-matters, and the set's theme, and it is full of solid gameplay.

    3. And to be clear, I'm neither saying that Kaladesh is bad (I think it is pretty good) nor that Fabricate is a bad mechanic. I think in the KTK model of set design, Fabricate would have made a fine choice. A cycle (like the FRF cycle) of commons with an un-keyworded Fabricate would have certainly done good things for the set, as the Fabricate decision can certainly be an interesting one.

      However, when there are only three mechanics to distinguish your set, they have a Herculean job to do. Energy and Vehicles do this, but Fabricate is ultimately filler. Is it a filler that fits with the mechanics of the set? Sure, but it isn't up to its job. With three mechanics, you don't get filler.

      Contrast this with Morbid, which is clearly the third fiddle to DFCs and Flashback in ISD, but which contributes to the mood and gameplay of ISD in a deep way that effects every combat step of every turn, even if only on the fringes.

    4. I was definitely surprised when I learned there were only three new named mechanics in Kaladesh and that one of them was Fabricate.