Monday, May 23, 2011

21 Ways to Design a Card: Part 3 - Find a Rule to Break

The Magic rulebook states that Magic is full of cards that change how the rules work. Haste breaks the rule that a creature summoned this turn can't attack. Vigilance breaks the rule that a creature attacking must tap.

Finding a rule to break (and an interesting way to break them) is a great source of ideas for cards. 

So you only get one attack per turn, or one land drop per turn? Players have to take turns alternately? You're supposed to access your sideboard only between matches? These restrictions have been great sources for rule-breaking cards.

While this method can be hard, when it works you can make a big change to game play with just a simple twist.

So, flip through the rulebook, and every time you see a sentence that says you can't do something, or that you have to do something in a certain way, think of a card or mechanic that breaks that rule. If there was a card that breaks it, what are some ways it might do that?

It might feel like the most obvious ones (such as haste or vigilance) have been mined already. But I'm sure there must be plenty more to be found. For example, during the GDS2 several people suggested a mechanic for a creature that can attack other creatures. Now that people are familiar with planeswalkers and know how to attack things other than players, a simpler implementation than the Provoke mechanic may be possible.

Another example is DrJones's Sidewalk mechanic, which Jay Treat adapted as the Dreamstep mechanic (CARDNAME can be blocked by tapped creatures and only tapped creatures) for Devon Rule's Utopia set in the GDS2 (actually, I can't be sure if Dr.Jones's version is the one Jay adapted from. There may have been others.) It reverses the rule that creatures can only be blocked by untapped creatures. I'm guessing that the flavor is that the creature is stepping into the realm of dreams when it attacks, where only sleeping creatures (which means tapped creatures) can stop it.

For this post, I tried designing a couple of cards using this mechanic. This mechanic can probably create interesting board situations.

The Dream Thief and Dream Intruder are nasty if unblocked, so your opponent is forced to attack to make a blocker for it. Your opponent might be forced to trade a valuable evasive creature for these guys, if it's the only one that could get itself tapped safely. 

The Dream Weaver and Dreamdiver Wurm get to be unblockable often, because your opponent can't even safely attack into it to get his or her creature tapped for blocking.

I haven't playtested mechanic this yet, and it could have its problems:
  • The flavor behind it isn't well-defined. 
  • Dreamstep might make it difficult to evaluate the board state, especially for beginners.
  • The mechanic could be swingy at times because if your opponent has a fatty that is too big for you to block, it will hit you one-sidedly and you won't be able to hit back with a dreamstep creature.

On the other hand, it does add a twist to combat. And the best point is that it encourages both sides to attack.

Even if it turns out these concerns are real, I don't think the mechanic is completely undoable; it may be a matter of finding the right frequency, cost range, and type of creature to put it on. Mirrodin besieged had very few cards with Battle Cry (probably the reason why they lost the war, heh) and the cards that did have it tended to have similar stats. It must have been an ability that needs to remain at low frequency, but it still made it into the set.

If there's ever a set with a mechanic that involves tapping creatures (such as convoke), or a set about invading dreams(?) this mechanic might do well in that set.

I hope to revisit this theme of breaking rules a few more times in this series.


  1. My mind isn't totally on-point at the moment, being frazzled by a bad cold, but Dreamstep seems like it's a more complex and even more fun-destroying take on Shadow. I'd certainly want to playtest it before declaring it an abomination, but I don't have high hopes.

  2. Shadow is non-interactive all the time. Dreamstep's interactivity is highly variable, as it really depends on the P/T's of both dreamstep and normal creatures on the battlefield.
    Shadow is also very parasitic in that without other shadow creatures on the opposing side, it's functionally identical to being unblockable. Dreamstep creatures immediately force your opponent to re-evaluate their attack and defense thinking, even if they don't have any.
    I do think dreamstep creatures need to be carefully designed -- just randomly throwing dreamstep on various bodies is not likely to end up with fun cards. I think an interesting design would be something like this:

    Dream Invader (Uncommon)
    Creature - Illusion
    Dreamstep, deathtouch
    CARDNAME can't block.

    I think this design is interesting is that Dreamstep allows the opponent to block with whatever fatties they attacked with the previous turn, but the deathtouch makes them wary of doing so at the same time.

  3. Even if it possesses greater interactivity, all signs point to one giant headache of a boardstate.

    And I'm not just saying that because I have a giant headache right now.

  4. First, credit where credit is due: Dreamstep was a variation on someone else's idea. Probably Devon's and maybe shdwcat's but I want to say JVWoodward for some reason.

    Second, from a designer's perspective Dreamstep is vastly better than Shadow for all the reasons shdwcat points out. It's much more interactive, it's not parasitic at all and it creates a very different gameplay experience with a very simple and grokkable rule.

    From a player's perspective, it's quite likely as bad as metaghost suspects. It really isn't a challenge to imagine a board state that gets a lot more complicated with just one or two dreamstep guys in there.

    That said, the mechanic has so much promise that it would irresponsible to throw it away without ever trying it out. Playtesting may well confirm it's too complex, but it may very well show that it just takes a game or two to really get it and then it provides deep gameplay. This is the sort of mechanic that really can't be Socrates'd.

    I find it amusing that Vigilance on a Dreamstep creature effectively reads "~ can't block other creatures with Dreamstep."

  5. DrJones had a similar mechanic in his casual GDS2 world, and I tried twiddling with it during the Trading Places challenge. I didn't have a play testing partner to try the designs with, and the mechanic is basically impossible to goldfish with (which is probably a bad sign by itself, though I admit I didn't gave myself bad cards to test with).

    If you do try play-testing, I recommend trying out really basic versions before adding vigilance and stuff to the mix. Dream Intruder is probably a good place to start - you could also just try a bear and basic wurm...

    Dreamstep Bear
    creature - bear

    Dreamstep Wurm
    creature - wurm

  6. Hmm, just noticed this post.

    Yes, Dreamstep was invented by me and named by Jay in Twitter discussion as a response to the Dreamwalk mechanic that Devon ended up using in the GDS2. (Personally, I think Dreamstep would have been a better choice it encourages combat instead of discouraging it like Dreamwalk does.) I later noticed DrJones's mechanic, which certainly predates ours, but I think his implementation (letting you choose whether to attack tapped or untapped) adds a lot of unnecessary complexity and, while more powerful, is less interesting in terms of set design.

    I think a set with Dreamstep could definitely do neat things with Vigilance, Haste, and "enters the battlefield tapped", but I'd lean towards keeping those abilities (except for maybe Haste) off of the Dreamstep creatures themselves.