Monday, April 18, 2011

Pursuing the Obvious Solution

As I continue to pluck away at designing Melody, the set I first conceptualized for GDS2, I've found myself succumbing to instances of self-doubt brought on by an uncomfortable realization of re-treading the past. As a musician, writer, painter, I've had to overcome this same debilitating condition a number of times, it being both intrinsic and anathema to nearly all creative endeavors. Perhaps I could go further and say that it's one of the absolutes of the human condition, a quality born of the struggle between individualism and an acknowledgment of history. So hopefully you all know what it is that I'm talking about and can empathize, even if you are not currently engaged in Magic design.

And as with music (etc...), overcoming an insistence on uniquity and innovation is one of the greatest steps you can make in refining your craft. In the process of writing a riff, I might stumble upon something that at first sounds great, the notes flowing, pick-hand never faltering. Then I pause for a second and realize: all I've "discovered" was the opening to some song I had just been listening to during the commute home. But the fact is, very little is truly new. That's why the "vision" that was sought by MaRo and Company during GDS2 was not simply an idea of "newness"; rather something far from it. They wanted an individual who was familiar with the history of the game and capable of distilling its best qualities into something that will allow it to thrive well into the future. Hopefully they found just that someone in Ethan Fleischer, a designer who time and time again demonstrated a willingness to simplify and redraw, favoring familiar forms reborn.

So there I was trying to solve a riddle of creation, yearning to reshape the themes of this first set, building on the various critiques from my fellow writers here at Goblin Artisans and the many kind people who stopped in to explore my pages strewn about the wiki. The original outline called for two extremely similar mechanics that explored sequencing in spell-casting as a reflection of music composition. In fact, the two mechanics use such similar design space that throughout the development process I've been continually alternating the playtest names between them. My previous article introduced Harmony, now reverted back to being called Melody, an ability word that more or less acts as a form of uniform kicker, where the only kicker requirement you'll ever find is a question: "Have you cast a spell this turn? If yes, this spell is kicked; congratulations!" The other mechanic is something I won't even bother to mention as it has now been cut, temporarily moved to a future set where it awaits an uncertain fate. Having freed up some mental resources in the foundation of the set, I decided to work on possibilities for additional mechanics.

To start, I wrote out the known mechanics and their relationship to the overarching concept:

1. Melody - Represents composition, rewarding players for structuring their plays in a specific order, resulting in an effect greater than the sum of its parts.

2. Rhythm - A creature-mechanic that ties tapping/untapping behaviors to spellcasting, allowing for continued spell-casting (music) to invigorate the creature and enable it to perform certain actions repeatedly.

Two keywords (albeit one ability word) should be sufficient for a large set in modern Magic, as the smaller set sizes and commitment to expand upon mechanics over the course of a block mean that you need to leave room for the addition of new keywords in later sets. This does not, however, mean that you're restricting the number of mechanics.

I then wrote out the potential concepts to explore:

1. Modality - This is mostly a linguistic connection, as modality in Magic is a bit more literal than modality in music. But it struck me as a valuable path to follow after many people expressed concerns regarding the decision tree for whether or not to save spells for Melody. And while upping the number of modal spells could actually exacerbate that potential for brain freeze, adding utility to cheaper spells allows for a greater ease of deck-building in limited, and should ideally provide impetus to not stockpile.

2. Harmony - Having scrapped my original concept for Harmony, I reviewed earlier wiki-based discussion of how to represent this prominent musical idea. At its core, harmony is a statement of unity and simultaneity. One of the more inappropriate ways to approach this is by referencing the stack in some way or another, a well-defined "no-no" in the unofficial design handbook. Mechanics like Splice do manage to circumvent directly referencing the stack while still expressing a harmonious mixture of spells, and for a while I experimented with various things in that style, but ultimately I'm not in need of a second spell-based keyword.

A parallel thought had been a permanent-based theme that explored relationships between converted mana costs as though they were intervals, where players developed their board in certain "chordal" arrangements. Each color would have a subset of cards that care about whether you control permanents of two specific CMC values, values that would ideally tie those cards in some way to cards of allied colors, similar in some sense to the Sanctuary enchantments from Apocalypse. The problem here is that referencing CMC at common in the abundance needed to really express this is an undesirable level of complexity that also happens to greatly increase average word count. (Just like my articles do to this site.) It would also be awkward for limited if each color had imbalanced CMC densities in order to support this secondary level of interaction.

It was at this point that I realized I was wasting my time circling around the titular obvious solution. By trying to convolute "cares about CMC" and "cares about allied colors", I had been willfully ignoring that all I really need to express harmony was in fact multicolor. First introduced to the game by Shards of Alara (that is to say I was first introduced, not multicolor), I was conditioned to think of multicolor as the easy way to make things exciting, and put an unnecessary amount of weight on designing without it. But game design is hard enough as it is, no reason to inflict unnecessary challenges upon the process.

Obvious solution in hand, the first thing I did was double up on obv and craft a cycle of very familiar dual lands to help support this multicolored endeavor:

I can't decide if it's more asinine than clever to have a cycle of enemy lands that care about their mutual ally, but I did it for two reasons. The first is that even though I'm ready to embrace multicolor as a defining quality for the set, I'm still only apportioning roughly 1/7th of the set to multicolored cards, with many of them appearing at higher rarities. As such, I wanted duals that felt especially oriented towards splashing. The second reason is that I wanted to include land types in order to better support cards that care about such things without punishing players for wanting to splash. Thus the opportunity for these lands to enter untapped is much more limited than what you can get from the M10 duals, doubly ensuring that these lands don't eclipse either the M10 duals or the Ravnica duals in functionality.

Comments, criticism, and cruel jokes are all appreciated. And check back later in the week as I hope to get some sort of contest up and running in order to celebrate the continued operation of this lil' blog.


  1. I'm quite fond of Alluvial Sanctuary. It's much harder to use than the M10 duals as you said, but it definitely competes with the Alaran tri-lands.

    What's not clear is how you plan to use multicolor to express music or harmony. That is, are you just going to have some multicolor cards, or will there be something distinctive about them tying them to this plane?

    Are you considering hitting the CMCs/Harmony theme at uncommon. Maybe just a cycle or double-cycle?

    Would love to see an example card for each of the mechanics you're talking about.

  2. I was worried about the hyper-density of my previous article, so I tried my best to just touch upon the various thoughts that lead into Alluvial Sanctuary and its siblings.

    I haven't really had time to consider how to use multicolor, as I just came to this conclusion early last week. The CMC/chordal theme is definitely something I'd like to continue exploring at uncommon/rare, but my early designs are all kinds of clunky.

    I'll try to post some examples later in the week.

  3. Neat. I'd be tweaking a similar set of lands for a wedge block, but they haven't gotten off the doodle pad yet. They go something like this:

    Wedge Place - uncommon
    T: add R or B to your mana pool
    ~ enters the battlefield tapped unless you control a Plains.

    The first sticking point is that I'm afraid of giving them basic land types, mostly because it has major Legacy implications, and I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not.

    The other thing is that I'd like to push the power level of uncommon lands. Each block in recent memory has gotten a cycle of etb-tapped duals at uncommon, and they're really underwhelming. So I'd like to see uncommon lands in the future have a etb-conditionally tapped ability (so for example, the current M10/M11 duals would get dropped to uncommon). I think this would be a lot more fun for constructed players, and it'd open up space for more exciting, "rare-feeling," rare lands. But again, I'm having trouble gauging that impact in Limited, so I'm not sure if it's a good idea or not.

  4. As a big fan of "enemy colors support their shared ally," I love the land and am kicking myself for not coming up with something similar in the past.

  5. A very good article. I'm interested in seeing where you go with this set.

    Note: deciding to use multicolor may be an easy solution, but designing good multicolor cards is far from easy!

  6. @Dan - Having spent a lot of time as of late drafting Invasion block on MTGO, and an even more considerable amount of time with Shards, I feel comfortable stating that there really isn't any reason these duals or any other fixing of this nature shouldn't naturally exist at lower rarities; they simply end up at rare due to their marketing influence. What I mean is that in such a heavily multicolor format as Invasion, it's infinitely scarier to watch an opponent cast Harrow or Primal Growth than it is to see them drop a dual land. Though I will admit the ramp-factor plays a part in that fear.

    @ Luminum - It's probably time for you to start writing an column titled "Kicking the Can". Ba-dum-ching!

    @ Ethan - Thanks for the kind words! I wasn't sure if you were allowed to stop through, though I know Jay got a comment from Monty. And yes, multicolor is no joke. One of my GDS2 essays contained a bit of vitriol directed at some of what I perceived to be lazy design in Shards block, but I have since come to terms with how cleanly they managed to put that block together. That said, I still hate 9 out of 10 hybrid cards.