Friday, June 3, 2011

Design Born of Diagramming / Breeding a Better Limited

Limited formats (draft, sealed, and variants thereof) have long been one of the most popular ways to play Magic, as they sit in the interstice of casual and tournament interests, blending the simple pleasure of cracking packs with the skill-intensive process of card selection and spontaneous deck building. As Magic has progressed, significant care has been taken to ensure that each block brings with it a unique and balanced limited format capable of properly representing the various mechanical themes concocted by R&D. And because a successful limited format promotes the purchasing of sealed product ($$$), many of modern design's greatest lessons can be understood through the careful study of what makes a good limited format, as design's primary goal is "how do I make this a thing people want to buy?"

The lesson pertinent to today's article is one of diversification and layering, a concept quickly demonstrated via this handy Arcana about Shadowmoor. The core theory is that while modern design dictates a conservative approach to the introduction of new mechanical concepts, each set should layer in sub-themes built on pre-existing mechanical devices to support those new concepts, allowing players to more comfortably process the format while still perceiving it as a unique and exciting experience. Though not every format should be quite as dense as Shadowmoor, a review of each set since Shards of Alara (i.e. Post-Shadowmoor) reveals that each color-grouping has at least 50% of its commons devoted to one theme or another. This is nothing to scoff at when you consider that the "on-theme" qualifier can't simply be met by throwing a keyword on a creature, as the premature dilution of mechanical innovation should rightfully be a concern during set development.

Applying this idea of thematic nesting is as simple as constructing your own mechanical web, one that I typically start by noting core keywords and the basic functions that those keywords demand and produce. In the case of "Melody", both of my keywords are dependent on the player having a sufficiently well-stocked hand, as well as the means and willingness to cast their spells in quick succession. This overlapping dependence is defined by two simple desires: access to cheap spells and the ability to maintain the aforementioned well-stocked hand. With those desires in mind, the next step is to solve how to satisfy those desires, and then see how those solutions connect with other potential and/or known thematic elements.

In the above diagram I've sketched out the developing web, visually representing the thought process that lead to incorporating Gating and alternative costs as familiar sub-concepts that support and complement the primary mechanical identity of the set. For those not entirely clear on what "Gating" is, Gating presents the player with creatures slightly above the curve in exchange for a knock in tempo by requiring that the controlling player return another creature to hand. Most widely explored in Planeshift, Gating has many parallels to Lorwyn's Champion mechanic, but Champion negates the ability to re-cast the bounced creature, problematic when considering the intended mechanical interactions with Melody and Rhythm. You'll notice that I then marked a connection from Gating to "ETB Abilities", which is hopefully a relationship that I don't need to explain.

The next step (as shown above) is to introduce other intended primary themes into your diagram, in this case an emphasis on modality and multicolor (through a lens of "enemy pairs and their mutual ally"). By doing so, you can start developing designs that bridge these theoretical connections and bring into focus a cohesive, yet diverse, mechanical identity for your set. In my exploration of the possible interactions between my multicolor theme and the two complementary mechanics, I developed an additional sub-theme of "secretly" multicolor cards, cards that are in some respects hybrid designs with monocolored costs.

» Click to Reveal «

Prison of Silence connects many elements within the structure of the set: alternative costs; Rhythm, both as anti-rhythm removal and possible rhythm tricks when cast via alternate cost; emphasis on land types; and an abstraction of multicolor. This last element brings me back to my statement about what I meant regarding "secret" multicolor cards that are effectively hybrid designs. In order to comfortably justify allowing a monowhite card be cast for free by GU decks, I needed to find effects that fit across all three colors. Each of these colors (even green) has dabbled with "doesn't untap during your untap step" and "tap this during your upkeep" during the last two years, and while blue might seem to be the best primary candidate for the effect, I've made this a white card for two reasons:
  • Mechanically, tapping as removal is a common function of white cards, a mechanical identity being emphasized in the upcoming M12 by Gideon and his League of Lawmen.
  • The flavor of the set dictates that the oppressive white-centered organization, the Vastal, possess the greatest amount of cards dedicated to shutting down the music-related mechanics.
Though I've used this process to showcase a single design, diagramming your design structure is useful for both revision and expansion, as it strips away much of the artifice and subjective assumptions we make about our work as we create. Oftentimes we see connections that don't really exist, our vision corrupted by flavor or an obstinate desire to keep a card in the file. And while not everything need connect, it's important to keep an eye on the truth of what is being made. When I decided in my last design article to accept the obvious solution and embrace multicolor, I spent a number of hours churning out cards that were interesting (maybe even good), but when I sat down and began to diagram I saw that many of them were wholly tangential to every other aspect of the set. They were just multicolored cards for the sake of multicolor.

To wrap things up, I'm just going to leave a chunk of text-based designs to show other cards derived from this process and hopefully inspire some good discussion.

» Click to Reveal «


  1. That Shadowmoor mechanic web is one of my favorite Magic design articles of all time. Seeing how everything in the set was made to feed and connect with one another is simply beautiful. That set was far from a perfect one but it definitely inspires similar patterns of interconnectedness and unity.

  2. Oh, and I LOVE enemy-pairs-love-their-shared-ally. It's multicolor design space that is completely untouched, and I'm always eager to start exploring it in any way.

  3. Visually diagramming the components of your set and how they relate to each other ala that Shadowmoor Arcana is brilliant. Designers are great at having vague ideas of how things work together but seeing it on paper can help illustrate what doesn't link sufficiently or what needs to be linked better.

    It's interesting how much your skeleton has coincidentally in common with Shadowmoor, between the charms, multicolor use and untap effects, though I'm not really sure why the melody/rythym set needs multicolor.

    I feel like Sanguine Surrakar should key off creatures rather than sorceries or instants since it specifically "helps" you to cast at least one more creature.

  4. Have you considered Convoke? It ties into cheap spells/alternative costs, tapping and untapping creatures, and multicolor creatures. And there's something to be said for the image of a group of creatures forming a "chorus" to cast a spell.

  5. @ Jay - It wasn't until I started diagramming things that I even noticed some of the similarities between Shadowmoor and "Melody", though Rhythm was initially developed from a desire to work with the Untap symbol. I'm honestly not even very familiar with Lor/Sha, since I started with Shards and have spent most I've my "historical" exploration digging into Magic up through Rav block. Time Spiral + Lor/Sha are big gaps.

    The "need" for multicolor isn't very well defined, which may be why I'm doing my best to approach in a sideways manner. Nonetheless, my previous article did explain how I came use multicolor, so...

    As to Sanguine Surrakar, it keys off Instants/Sorceries because all the triggers of that cycle relate to aspects of the bounced creature. The current triggers of the cycle are:

    RW - Whenever an equipped creature attacks...
    WB - Whenever you gain life...
    BG - Whenever a creature dies...
    GU - Whenever you draw a card...

    @ Luminum - My plan was to bring Convoke into play in the second set, but once I get my commons ready for playtesting I'm going to experiment with it. I'm a little worried that Rhythm may make it totally busted, but it's certainly enticing.

    Also, glad to see you vibing on "enemies care about mutual ally", though I'll be the first to admit that what I've designed so far is only tenuously different from a traditional allied shard perspective.

  6. I was looking through your GDS2 wiki the other day, and I thought your cards have a certain quality my cards don't tend to have. I tried to think what it was, and it was subtle resource management. That's one thing I can definitely learn from.

    At the same time, I think the cards here don't have clear identities. I think each card should represent a single concept.

    As for tying music with colors, I want to suggest these mechanics:

    "Melody" - an ability word associated with casting spells of many colors.

    Aria of Flame 2R
    Melody - CARDNAME deals 1 damage to target creature or player for each color among spells you cast this turn.
    Draw a card.

    Sonata of the Wind 1U
    Melody - Draw a card for each color among spells you cast this turn.

    "Symphony of A and B":

    Frenzied Fugue 2B
    Symphony of red and blue (You may tap a red creature and a blue creature instead of paying this card's mana cost.)
    Draw a card for each card put into target opponent's graveyard from the battlefield this turn and each card that opponent discarded this turn.

    It would be difficult to make modality a theme. There can only be so many cards like Crown of Gluttony to provide bonuses to charms, and the wording is difficult too. Does choosing a target or choosing to act on a "may" clause count as a choice?

    I think Tremulous Aquemoba is cool how it can change sizes between the first and second attack, in addition to changing size with rythym.

  7. Chah, could you elaborate on what you mean by "each card should represent a single concept"?

    Part me suspects that that statement is simply at odds with my desire to have a card like Prison of Silence represent the unity of various thematic elements, but maybe I'm just misinterpreting your terse language.

    RE: Modality as a theme - For the sake of understanding my usage of "theme", I think you should just define it as "any abstract element that provides structural support to the whole". It's certainly true that only so many cards can offer pure modality in the form of "Choose one or the other", but as per my diagram, alternative costs are themselves a way of representing modality, as you have a choice of ways to cast it. Tremulous Aquamoeba offers modality through the traditional duality of "defensive form" and "offensive form", but it's modality controlled via rhythm.

    As to Crown of Gluttony, that templating is only a guess at what should be written. I'm under the impression most wacky cards depend on a certain amount of Tabakian support to get working properly.

    "Symphony" is definitely an interesting way to keyword a block-based alternative cost mechanic, but I would have two concerns, though one is rooted in flavor:

    1. Because Rhythm is absent in black, and diminished in red, it would seem somewhat strange to keyword an alt-cost mechanic that offers so much more benefit to certain colors, unless it was only found in those colors.

    2. As of right now, I haven't quite come to grips with my intent to incorporate multicolor, and even less sure that I want to explore color-matters concepts. (Even though color-matters is a natural extension of multicolor.)

    Regardless, I like how you're thinking, though maybe I should be concerned about bring thinks too close to the world of Shadowmoor.

  8. What about an effect that continues as long as you can keep a rhythm going?

    At the end of your turn, if you didn't cast a [quality] spell, sacrifice ~.

    At the end of your turn, if cast a [quality] spell this turn, put a rhythm counter on ~. Otherwise, sacrifice it and do [effect based on the number of counters].

    The quality could be a specific color, or multicolored or a spell-type, etc. It's probably not needed at all

    And as you hinted at in your color-pair triggers list, the rhythm could care about events other than casting spells like attacking.

    Just a thought.

  9. Coincidentally, I had designed the following card after the various discussions on expanding red's repertoire:

    Temporal Dilation (R)
    At the beginning of your draw step, draw an additional card.
    At the beginning of each phase during your turn, untap each land you control.
    At the end of each phase during your turn, if you didn't cast a spell during that phase, you lose the game.

    It's a bit messy, but the idea was to represent the red mage as having the ability to take turns within turns at the cost of having to maintain, as you say, "rhythm". Of course, in traditional red fashion, the consequences are quite dire.

    But now that you mention it, I'm not actually using +1/+1 or -1/-1 counters for anything, so I definitely have room to try and experiment with other counter types and see if they can generate good ideas.

  10. Concerning cards that have "a single concept," I meant each card should be a unified whole rather than be an assortment of unrelated text. The cards I felt had unrelated text were Burnwillow Rondo, Sanguine Surrakar, and Prison of Silence.

    I went through your GDS2 wiki again (previously I had only seen a small part of it) and now I see tons of awesome multicolor cards that incorporate effects from each of its colors in a way that makes sense as a whole, like in this page:

    I think you are trying to tie the different planned elements together by inlcuding a piece of every set theme on each card. But not every card needs to support every set theme, as long as the cards that support theme A mesh well with cards that support theme B.

  11. Can you go into specifics parsing which elements feel unrelated in those cards? Having designed them, I know why they feel unified to me, but I'm a bit blind to a contrary opinion.

    I do understand that it's less than ideal to try and have each card act as a conduit between every theme, but I also think that if it weren't for this article, many of the intersections in a card like Prison of Silence wouldn't be apparent. And on the whole, a design like Pelora's Circle is more the norm, a multicolored card that does what both colors like to do (gain life) and does it in a way that makes sense within the set and within Magic as a whole.

  12. Ok, I had spelled out the specifics in the previous post but I edited them out because it made the post feel like a torrent or barrage of opinions, and I was afraid it gave the wrong feel. I'll take them one by one:

    For Burnwillow Rondo, I'm not a fan of 2-mode cards with unrelated abilities. This is subjective because I don't feel a problem with a 3-mode charm, but it could be rooted in human psychology.

    Three is the number of many-ness. With three of something, you expect an assortment of varied things. With two of something, you expect duality, some kind of similarity or some kind of contrast.

    I think if it was something like "Deal 3 damage to each player or deal 3 damage to each creature," (similarity) or "Destroy target noncreature permanent; or return target noncreature permanent from a graveyard to hand," (contrast) it would feel right for me.

    Or it could feel natural by linking the abilities: for example, a lava axe that deals 4 damage and generates mana equal to the damage dealt.

    Aaron Forsythe mentioned something similar in his daily card comment
    although this might be a different case since it involves entwine.

  13. With Prison of Silence, I don't feel a sense of purpose that I feel with other alternate cost cards such as:

    Fireblast ("Haha! You didn't know I could deal 11 damage in one turn, did you!")
    Force of Will ("You'll never catch me off guard!")
    Gitaxian Probe ("I can take out a counterspell AND play out my combo on the same turn.")
    Mental Misstep ("Now I can respond to turn 1 shenannigans even when I'm playing last.")

    It feels like the alternate cost of Prison of Silence is there purely to provite a critical mass of free spells for the set to trigger harmony and it doesn't have to be on that card.

  14. With Sanguine Surrakar, when a player looks at it and thinks about what deck it goes into, s/he has to think about
    - how to pay its cost (a deck that ensures you have creatures of the right colors in play to bounce for it) and
    - how to capitalize on its effect (a deck that playing lots of instants).

    Most cards don't have complexity in both cost and effect - If a card has an effect that makes you build around it, the cost or condition for casting it would be straightfoward, such as merely having a high mana cost. If a card makes you build around its cost or condition (such as the Champion mechanic), the effect would be straightfoward, such as getting a powerful French vanilla or a creature with a tap ability.

    In cases where the cost and effect are both complex, I don't think they should be about different themes. It shouldn't have a build-around-me cost with theme A and a build-around-me effect with theme B.

  15. Thanks a lot, Chah!

    Those are all really good points, and I'm pretty sure your explanation regarding the Surrakar connects back to Jay's confusion as to why it doesn't trigger off creatures.

    I'm most concerned about your perspective on the Rondo and Prison, concerned in the sense that I'm most inclined to revise those cards after further review of modal concepts and the historical application of alternative costs.

    With the Surrakar, I already knew that the cycle was a bit awkward and fussy, and it's just going to take some experimentation to figure out how to implement Gating in a more logical way.

  16. What if gating in this set were different? "When ~ ETB, return a blue instant or sorcery card from your graveyard to your hand or sacrifice ~." It helps you to keep casting spells, but it also requires some prep work that could be flavored as composition or rhythm.

    I won't speak for Chah, but from my perspective, Prison will make enough sense in the context of its cycle, but Rondo just makes no sense at all. Why does a green spell deal damage to non-flying creatures? What does 3 damage have to do with X mana? How often will players even want to cast a five-mana ritual?

  17. Jay, really cool idea about returning spells from the graveyard. Very thematically relevant and pushes the mechanic towards an all upside orientation that also pushes players to cast their spells. Five thumbs up!

    As to Rondo, both functions are RG. The damage ability is Savage Twister set to X=3, and the "ritual" ability is an extrapolation of Manamorphose that also scales.

  18. Another idea! Following the (loose) doctrine of "Mana-producing artifact that costs 2 = land" I've thought about the idea of a cycle of land equivalents to the Medallions from Tempest. They'd have great synergy with a theme of casting multiple spells per turn.

  19. Hmmm, that's an interesting idea...

    Emerald Sanctum (U)
    ~ enters the battlefield tapped.
    T: Add 1 to your mana pool.
    T: Until end of turn, green spells you cast cost 1 less to cast.

    Seems risky, but I'm sure playtesting could quickly discern any problems.