Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Reinventing Alpha, Part 2: Y'all Know the Rules

After traveling to the past and inadvertently running over Richard Garfield with a DeLorean, our protagonist is on a quest to rebuild Alpha.  Last time, he replaced the Instant type with the Quick supertype.  What will he "fix" today?

The rules of Magic: the Gathering are a remarkable accomplishment.  On the one hand, they were so well crafted upon inception that they have undergone little cosmetic change since 1993.  If you sat down a person who hadn't played since Alpha and showed them a game today, they would notice very few changes in the rules.

On the other hand, a peek under the hood reveals that Magic is perhaps the most complicated game in existence.  The comprehensive rules PDF is 182 pages long.  182 pages?  You could fit all the rules of chess, Monopoly, Scrabble, poker, Uno, Clue, and Risk into a tenth of that!  R&D has a guy whose job is "Magic Rules Manager", for crying out loud.

What can we do to build a more streamlined engine for our new Alpha?  Well, there's one easy answer: don't print certain problematic cards.  The most obvious offenders are Chaos Orb, Illusionary Mask, Word of Command, the ante cards, and anything with Banding or Protection.

There are also some hidden culprits like Blaze of Glory, which opens a moderate can of worms by allowing a single creature to block more than one attacking creature.  (And some cards have absurdly clunky rules text, such as Raging River and Siren's Call, but they don't create additional complexity in the comprehensive rules.)

All right.  So, we won't print anything resembling Shahrazad.  And we'll definitely tweak certain abilities, such as Protection and Regeneration.  But what about changes to the basic rules of the game? 

There are two that I would certainly make.

Get rid of maximum hand size.

The maximum hand size serves no purpose in modern Magic.  Perhaps it was more meaningful in the early days of the game, before we had sensible land counts and mana curves.  And who could forget Ivory Tower + Library of Leng?  (Apparently not R&D, since they gave us Venser's Journal.)

But nowadays, it's nothing more than an annoyance: a slap in the face to the mana-screwed.  Worse, discarding requires a decision that is simultaneously hard and irrelevant.  Hard, since you have eight non-land cards to choose from, and irrelevant, since you're quite likely to lose before it matters.  Furthermore, it's an extra thing to remember that adds nothing to gameplay.  In fact, by punishing the player who is presumably already behind, it actively worsens the game.

R&D can't kill the rule now without creating some serious problems with existing cards.  But hey, it's 1993!  We're dropping that sucker like a hot potato.

Get rid of the upkeep.

Generations upon generations of new spellslingers begin each turn by muttering the mantra: "Untap, Upkeep, Draw."  Why?  Because once a list gets to length three, remembering the order becomes significantly more difficult.  Wouldn't it be great to eliminate a step in the already complicated process of a turn?

Well, we're in luck, because the upkeep is completely unnecessary.  For the past several years, the upkeep has been used almost exclusively for triggered effects.  These could equally well read, "At the beginning of your first main phase," and retain almost the same functionality.

The other few cards in modern Magic that mention the upkeep (Kuldotha Phoenix, Scourglass) use it as a timing restriction.  Such cards could either be templated as triggered effects or restricted to the draw step instead. 

Why is it so desirable to get rid of the upkeep?  Not just because it simplifies the turn, but also because it creates a more natural order.  Players of all experience levels forget upkeep triggers, and that's because in most of your turns, it's safe to simply untap and draw.  Inserting triggered effects between two halves of a very simple process is unintuitive.  What's more, drawing a card for the turn is exciting and interesting; it's like turning a page in a novel.  People actively look forward to it.  When players are emotionally invested in your game, the last thing you should do is punish them for it!

Requiescat in pace, Paradox Haze.


  1. Good stuff. Two good suggestions, and very good arguments about how these rules are more hindrances than benefits. Too bad that the amount of retro-compatibility would be quite colossal. But yeah, having the chance to start with Alpha would solve the problem.

  2. I like the goal of simplifying the turn structure, but moving upkeep triggers to the draw step makes an existing rare problem common: Things that trigger at the beginning of your draw step happen AFTER you draw, which is counter-intuitive. I think this is our chance to fix some language which has always been very clunky. We should never have to say "at the beginning of..." particularly not the end step.

    Upkeep triggers were originally "during your upkeep" but were changed to the current wording to make it clear that they would all go onto the stack at one time. Similar functionality could be achieved with "After you draw for the turn." You may also have to preserve the ability for effects to trigger before the draw so that you can affect your draw with something like "Before you draw for the turn."

    While I think dropping the hand size maximum has a lot of benefits, it doesn't seem like you've considered most of the negatives. Without a hand size limit, how do you promote active play? What keeps a control player from building up an indefatigable hand of countermagic? What stops the combo player from putting together his 8-card unbeatable play?

    Finally—and this is a completely irrelevant niggle—people don't gloss over details when reviewing changes to something they once loved. An Alpha player looking at the game now will see a completely different game (even though it's fundamentally the same) and will have a negative initial response to almost every rule change he discovers. People aren't forgiving.

  3. I'm not proposing moving upkeep triggers to the draw step. I want to put them in the first main phase. "After you draw for the turn" might also be a good solution, depending on the associated rules baggage.

    As for promoting active play, I'm not worried. Holding cards in hand simply isn't a viable strategy in modern Magic, and that fact has nothing to do with the hand size limit. A control player with eight counterspells in hand is no more dangerous that one with five- for either one, the optimal strategy is to cast a threat and finish the game, not to sit around drawing more cards.

    I can see some argument for a lack of maximum hand size changing, say, the Dragonstorm mirror match circa 2006. But since we're time-traveling, I'm not obligated to design for mechanics like Storm or Dredge; in my alternate history, they might never get printed!

  4. Obviously simplicity has value, but do be aware that dropping the upkeep step eliminates some design space: namely, cards with an upkeep effect that makes you discard. Having Masticore trigger after your draw eliminates discard as a way of killing it, and Bottomless Pit can't be printed at all (as it is a one-card soft lock).

  5. Yes, that's undoubtedly true. It's a trade I'm willing to make.

  6. willing to trade away masticore...
    guess you don't play goblins or lands in legacy because you don't know how rishadan port works (-_-);
    no upkeep step breaks that card too...
    how many cards you willing to trade away? more than you even know...

  7. I know how Rishadan Port works, and I'm quite happy to trade it away. It's completely un-fun to play against, and would never see print by modern design standards.

  8. Jay is right.


    I suppose that's the difference between new players and old players.

    Continuous artifacts are shut off by tapping them. Mana burn hurts. You have until the end of the phase to get your life back to positive.

    Interrupts made two stacks. Not hard to grasp. Never was. Interrupt stack resolves first, then instants. You cannot start a chain of effects if it not your turn, you may only respond to them. I can't believe someone thought this stuff was confusing. Monopoly really IS harder - how many people really know that Free Parking is actually intended to be the only space on the board that does absolutely nothing?

    Generally the way we played was that "at the beginning" was treated as "before you do the thing you're supposed to do in this phase." That means during the draw phase, before you draw. "During" meant "interchangeable with whatever the phase was for," so either before or after you draw a card, and "at the end of..." meant afterward. We never fought over what effects happened first, because there was no need - it's my turn, mine go on the stack first.

    Triggered effects during upkeep need to be remembered just like any other triggered effect. You would forget it in your main phase just like you forget it during upkeep. It doesn't matter when the effect goes off, it's still forgotten. Ditching a whole phase just because someone is peeing their pants to draw a card is lame.

    It is amazing just how complex this has become, in the interests of simplifying it. I played 1995 until 2000, stopped for a while, and now I'm afraid to find new people to play with as *I no longer know the rules of the game I played for years!*

    Something's wrong there.