Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Reinventing Alpha, Part 4: Are You the Keymaster?

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 killed Banding and Flash, fixed Protection, and changed Shroud.  What could be next?  Past columns: 1 2 3.

Now that we've edited our evergreen keyword abilities to a more presentable form, there's a more pressing issue which Jay pointed out: how many of these are actually going into Alpha?  And which of them will receive keywords?  

Our list of candidate abilities is:
  • Deathtouch 
  • Defender
  • First Strike
  • Flying
  • Haste
  • Intimidate
  • Landwalk
  • Lifelink
  • Protection (edited)
  • Reach
  • Shroud (edited)
  • Trample
  • Vigilance
We also had the Quick supertype (replacing Flash) and Regenerate keyword action.  Neither of those is a keyword ability, so I'll address them later.

Obviously, we're not going to release Alpha with thirteen keyword abilities.  In fact, I think we can get it down to six.  The others can go on single cards as poster children for their abilities, so that they can be worked in during future sets.  For example: 
Serra Angel (uncommon)
Creature - Angel
Attacking doesn't cause CARDNAME to tap.
Putting Vigilance on a large, evasive body makes it clearly useful, and players will already have a good understanding of the ability long before it gets its own keyword.  (Indeed, this is exactly what happened back in the day: players called it "Serra Angel ability"!)

Here are some other poster children:
Thicket Basilisk (uncommon)
Creature - Basilisk
Any amount of damage CARDNAME deals to a creature is enough to destroy it.
For the sake of fantasy resonance, this works better as a basilisk than, say, some venomous insect.  A gorgon or assassin would be fine, but green needs the quasi-removal more.
Bloodthorn Vines (uncommon)
Creature - Plant
CARDNAME can't attack.
Defender certainly isn't worth the keyword in Alpha, considering how short its rules text is.  Reach for usefulness, a point of power to make "can't attack" feel a bit more relevant, and vines for resonance.
Raging Ogre (uncommon)
Creature - Ogre
CARDNAME can attack and Tap as soon as it comes under your control.
Hopefully, this will make new players think, "Hey, I could make a deck with those, and some burn spells, and..."
Bog Monster (uncommon)
Creature - Horror
CARDNAME is unblockable as long as defending player controls a swamp.
An alligator or rusalka would also be appropriate, but I like a good old swamp monster.
Ethereal Servant (uncommon)
Creature - Illusion
CARDNAME can't be the target of spells or effects your opponents control.
Again, evasion makes Shroud more relevant.
Hunting Vampire (uncommon)
Creature - Vampire
Damage dealt by CARDNAME also causes you to gain that much life.
Even without Deathtouch, Vampire Nighthawk is still a beating.

That leaves First Strike, Flying, Intimidate, Protection, Reach, and Trample to be keyworded.  These six are basically unavoidable.  First Strike is very complex.  Flying and Reach need the keywords for reference.  Protection, Trample, and Intimidate all have awkward rules text.

I don't think Alpha needs a Quick creature, so Ashcoat Bear will have to wait.  However, the Regenerate action is excellent for resonance, so let's have a troll:
Uthden Troll (uncommon)
Creature - Troll
1G: Regenerate CARDNAME.  (The next time this creature would be destroyed this turn, it isn't. Instead tap it and remove all damage from it.)
Would you have a different choices on keywords?  Let me know in the comments!


  1. Gah, I hate it when an error happens and a comment gets eaten. It was pretty beefy, too. It's probably better it was eaten. Perhaps outside forces are telling me to write more concisely:

    I think that you should remove the cards that have the keywords that aren't being used in the first set. And, yes, if you don't keep vigilance, I'm proposing you remove Serra Angel. Not that she won't be in Magic anymore; just that she'll be saved for a future set when vigilance is already keyworded.

    I recognize you may value the ability to reference abilities that are placed on iconic cards, but, to me, I'd rather have less retroactive keywording. I like avoiding it as much as possible, and I'd rather have Serra Angel be first printed with "Vigilance," even if it means that I lose the "Yeah, vigilance is a keywording of that Serra Angel ability!"

    Wow, that was shorter (Hah). Anyway, great series, I'm all caught up now, and I applaud this endeavor. It's a great card game design exercise in general.



  2. Why? What's wrong with retroactive keywording?

  3. It's one thing to keyword retroactively when you only decide something should be a keyword after the fact. But if you have the intention of something eventually becoming a keyword, it's probably better to make sure all the cards with that ability are consistent. Seeing a Serra Angel and another creature with the Vigilance keyword side by side and having their text not match up despite doing the same thing is unfavorable. I'd favor saving some keywords for a release after the initial core set, certainly, but just using the keywords without the keyword doesn't seem like the best solution to me.

  4. I find this concern a bit hard to wrap my head around. When you see a Revised Serra Angel next to a modern one, does the inelegance really bother you?

    I think of pre-loading keywords as a useful teaching tool for evergreen abilities. Here's what I mean by that:

    New keyword abilities generally have thematic importance and mechanical linearity. They will appear multiple times within a set, including more than one common. (E.g. Infect, Level Up, Exalted...) This gives new players enough examples that they quickly learn what the keyword means.

    By contrast, evergreen abilities such as Vigilance and Lifelink appear once or twice per set, including no more than once at common. Introducing a new keyword for a single Lifelink core set creature would be highly unfortunate. So why do we have the ability to keyword Child of Night?

    Because of precedent. There were creatures with Lifelink/Haste/Vigilance/Deathtouch before they were keyworded, and that meant that players were already used to the idea of these abilities.

    In summary, I think the way this worked in the real world with Vigilance was very healthy. I don't really care that my old Yotian Soldiers are missing a keyword.

  5. I'm with LuminumCan on retro-keywording. First of all, if we're going to rebuild Magic with the knowledge that we've earned from two decades of development there will be no excuses for errata. Revised Serra Angel is functionally different from 2011 Serra Angel because one is affected by "Creatures with vigilance get +1/+1" and the other is not. Worse, they're actually both affected by it but only one will be apparent to non-experts. Was it worth reprinting Serra Angel with the keyword Vigilance? Absolutely. Should we ever make that same mistake again? Absolutely not.

    I would further argue that we shouldn't be including abilities that we intend to keyword later at all. We're missing the point of keywords, thinking that we're getting away with something by omitting them. A keyword is a graphical symbol that stands for an ability. The fact that the symbol is comprised of text in this game is irrelevant to its purpose and function. It's quicker and easier to say "first strike" than "This creature deals combat damage before creatures without first strike" and it allows players to talk about it outside the context of White Knight. Including an ability and excluding the keyword saves us nothing in terms of complexity or learning curve and, in fact, costs us more brain power realizing that Serra Angel and Courier Hawk have the same abilities.

    While the difference between keywords, ability words and action words are relevant to design, remember that players should never have to understand those differences or even hear the phrases to play the game correctly.

    I was totally going to question this wording for proto-Haste until I saw it's exactly the reminder text being used right now:
    "CARDNAME can attack and T as soon as it comes under your control."
    I think Wizards has used confusing short-hand (making it sound like non-haste creatures can't be tapped to pay costs) and missed a learning-through-context chance to make it more clear that creatures normally can't attack the turn you cast them. That said, my version is unfortunately wordy:
    "CARDNAME can attack and its T abilities can be activated without being under your control since your last turn began."

  6. Count me in the camp of "don't make cards you're already planning to errata." If you don't want to keyword an ability yet, but do want a card that uses that ability, then use a similar but separate ability on your card - that allows you to save the entirety of the keyword ability for maximum splash in the set you do print it. For example, Thicket Basilisk until you're ready to unveil Deathtouch.

  7. To be clear, every keyword in Alpha should come with reminder text just as it does in modern core sets. I'm taking it for granted that you agree with that, but calling it out specifically preempts one of the few arguments against using keywords.

    As far as how often these abilities should be used, I would direct you to Tom LaPille's recent article (that is, I would if I could find it) in which he suggests that every keyword used in an introductory product should appear on at least one common so that its reminder text can be printed somewhere. Based on this, I would argue that no keywordable ability should appear in Alpha on just one card and that each should appear at least once on a common card.

    While we want to leverage our modern understanding to limit how complex new Alpha is, I think the game would feel anemic with too few abilities, particularly the really iconic ones examined in your post, so it's safe to introduce more abilities than even an expert level set, as long as we can justify the inclusion. Or—more to the point—we can't justify its exclusion.

    Landwalk, deathouch and lifelink are very flavorful abilities, but I'm not sure there's room for them in Alpha. More importantly, none of those abilities are likely to hook a player that wouldn't already be hooked by the rest of the set. We could similarly survive without haste and vigilance, but they are useful for teaching the normal rules of combat, which is an important trait for abilities in the first set.

    Finally, it's important to establish the colors identities in Alpha. A big part of that will happen outside of keyword abilities, but since players are more aware of keywords, some of it has to happen there. Obviously, blue and white will have a good deal of flying and green won't, but hopefully other similar patterns will be obvious as well.

    PS, I like your sample cards.

  8. Jay, the LaPille article you're trying to remember was (I believe) not an article at all, but rather Tom's commentary on that Intro Deck round of GDS2.

  9. I'm gonna jump on the bandwagon and agree that if you don't plan on using the keyword in Alpha, you shouldn't include a card with that ability.

    For me, the biggest issue is player education - I'm just not swayed by the line about pre-loading the abilities. The whole reason abilities get keyworded in the first place is so that they're easy to talk about, and so we can include them on later cards. If you include the ability without the keyword, you A.) make it more difficult to discuss and evaluate the original card, and B.) miss an opportunity to introduce concepts in an accessible environment, which is what player education is all about.

    If you want to make the case that leaving off keywords makes it easier to educate players, you're going to need a much stronger argument than the one here.

    I'm with you that not every ability need show up in the first set. Deathtouch, Defender, Lifelink, and Shroud seem like the easiest to leave out. These abilities more or less mimic functions that get included in a core set regardless (like bad removal, fat-butt crab type creatures, lifegain-on-a-sorcery or ETB creature, and creatures with protection), so I think you the set could balance well without them. This would leave 8 keywords + Quick and Regenerate, which seems good to me.

  10. @Metaghost: He did first talk about it during his GDS2 commentary, but then proceeded to right a proper column about it (Intro packs being the subject). http://www.wizards.com/magic/magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtg/daily/ld/130

    The column itself doesn't talk about reminder text though, you're correct.

  11. I'll have to make another post addressing these concerns. Since that'll take me a few days, here's the short version: aside from Double Strike, _every_ evergreen keyword ability created since Alpha was pre-loaded! This is not a coincidence. It has to do with the fundamental difference between evergreen and non-evergreen keyword abilities.

  12. Which of these cards is most approachable in a game you've never seen before?

    Serra Angel, 3WW
    Creature - Angel
    Flying (This creature can't be blocked except by creatures with flying and/or reach)
    Attacking doesn't cause Serra Angel to tap.

    Serra Angel, 3WW
    Creature - Angel
    Flying (This creature can't be blocked except by creatures with flying and/or reach)
    Vigilance - Attacking doesn't cause Serra Angel to tap.

    Serra Angel, 3WW
    Creature - Angel
    Flying (This creature can't be blocked except by creatures with flying and/or reach)
    Vigilance (Attacking doesn't cause Serra Angel to tap)

    If you've never seen the game before, then versions 2 and 3 seem basically identical. Both of them give you the effect of this "vigilance" thing and also give you a name for it, to discuss it when talking with your friends, in a way that 1 doesn't. If anything, 2 is more confusing than 3 because it makes you wonder what the difference is between the ability with parentheses and the ability with italics. 3 avoids raising that question. So for this reason, I'm in favour of introducing the keyword at the time you first introduce the ability.

    That said, I'll look forward to your post about evergreen keyword abilities (and what you're counting as the preloading of deathtouch).

  13. Precedence is the worst possible argument to use for an exercise like this. The /point/ of rebuilding Alpha is to do right the first time what wasn't originally.

  14. I'm not arguing that we should pre-load keywords just because they did it. Rather, I'm going to analyze the circumstances under which they were able to keyword all these abilities, and what that has to do with pre-loading.

    As I said, you'll have to wait for my next column for the full explanation.

  15. I'm really enjoying this series and think the exercise is worthwhile. I have a non-preloading question though; how do you plan on breaking these abilities up around the color wheel?

    We all agree that keywords are important to the game, as is the color wheel. My suggestion is that each color in Alpha should have strong keyword identity too.

    Here's my rationale. After nearly 20 years it only makes sense that keywords would get shared among multiple colors, but is it as important to do so in the very first set? When first introducing Haste, do we really need to include it in Red, Black and a little in Green? I think the game benefits from leaving that sort of exploration for future sets.

    Secondly, I think that each color should get its own keyword at all rarities, (except for Flying and Reach). It is another way to demonstrate each color's identity for the first time. What this means is that you would need more than six initial keywords. I count eight:

    White - First strike
    Blue - Shroud
    Black - Intimidate
    Red - Haste
    Green - Trample

    these 5 abilities are grokable enough to be printed at common and deep enough to foster card ideas at each rarity. Next, Flying could be printed in WUBR with Reach in G. Finally, Protection could be shared among a few colors. and serve as an example of how more complex keywords get implemented in the color wheel.