Friday, December 9, 2011

21 Ways to Design a Card #10: Break a Premise You Didn't Know Existed

In a my 21 Ways to Design a Card article Part 3, I talked about how you can arrive at a new mechanic by looking through a Magic rulebook. For each rule that you encounter such as "creatures tap when they attack" or "creatures can't attack the turn they were cast," you can think about a mechanic that sidesteps that rule, resulting in mechanics like vigilance or haste.

Those rules are explicitly stated, and it's easy to consciously recognize those things as rules. In this post, I'd like to talk about taking this one step further and breaking rules, premises, and conventions that are so obvious that you didn't even think about them existing.

One such assumed convention is: Each card contains one spell.

This seems so obvious that it must have felt absurd to question it at first. Yet R&D has found many ways to break this rule over the years - with split cards, flip cards, and now with dual-faced cards.

The reverse of that is also assumed: Each spell appears on one card.

If you're reading this, you probably know of the card(s) that broke this rule.

It's difficult to think about a premise that is so obvious that you don't realize it's there. However, I recently read Gregory Marque's column about the possible future uses of Dual-faced cards, and it inspired me to apply this line of thinking to Dual-faced cards.

With the existing dual-faced cards, there's a similar assumption to the ones I mentioned:

The Day side of a card is always paired with a particular Night side. 

For example, Thraben Sentry is always on the flip side of a Thraben Militia.

What if it wasn't so? What kind of card would benefit from not being that way?

One type of card that I could think of was a card where your opponent can't be sure of what it transforms into.

Here's an example I came up with.

The above card might flip into this card when it dies:

But the reverse side might be this card instead:

The flavor implies that Avacyn has transformed herself into a human girl, lost her memory, and is wandering the streets of Innistrad as a beggar. How did that happen? Who knows. But I find that mental image to be intriguing.

If you were to choose up to 7 of these cards, how many Avacyns and how many Chorusing Souls would you choose? If two of your Urchins flip into Angels, they both die from the Legend rule. The Angel is strongest if you have a few Chorusing Souls on the board to give it +1/+1 counters and pseudo-hexproof.

When I first try to find an exception to a premise, I tend to get very complex examples because I want to find if it's doable at all. Any example, whether realistic or not, serves to help understand the viability of a concept. Here I'm trying to create some abilities that make the deck builder want to play with both versions, not just choose the one with the more powerful flip side. However, it could be too forced of an example.

It could be possible that there's some way to boil these down into a simpler form. Maybe the Urchin doesn't need the "7 cards per deck" clause. Instead there could be other creature cards that also flip into either Avacyn or a creature that helps Avacyn.

Another example I came up with is:

To experience what this card intends to do, look at the clock on your computer. What's the minute?

If it's an odd number, click here.
» Case 1 «

If it's an even number, click here.
» Case 2 «

I realized that with these examples, when you have these cards in your hand, even you might be confused about their identity. You can't very well pull it out of its sleeve to look at it while your opponent is watching.

To solve this, some rules convention is necessary. When you hold it in your hand, you see the card's true identity, which is the Wolf or the Wrongfully Murdered. But when you cast it, you pull it out of the sleeve and cast it showing only the Suspect side.

It means having the rules allow players to cast the Back side (the Suspect side) of a card. Or, another way of looking at it is that the Suspect side is the Front side, but you're allowed to sleeve cards with the Back side showing. It's messy rules-wise, but some solution might be possible.

This made me think, what if you, the caster, didn't even know what the card was? Usually you would know what spell you're casting, but that's another premise you can break. It made me think of a card like this:

It could turn into a lot of things, but you don't know what. Imagine it's turn 3 and you're being attacked by a Vampire Neonate with a Furor of the Bitten on it. It's currently a 4/3. Your board consists of a Red Mystery Egg and 3 lands to transform it with. Try your luck by clicking one of the links below. The first one you click is the one that you get.

» Egg A «

» Egg B «

» Egg C «

What creature did you get? Was it enough to survive the onslaught?

During the drafting stage, other players will be able to see that you picked an Egg card, but that won't spoil the surprise because they won't see the side that shows what it turns into when it hatches.

There's another premise that is so fundamental that we don't question it:

Cards that are part of a dual-faced card are never printed as a single-faced card.

I think it would be fun if the things that pop out of these eggs of randomness are just ordinary cards that appear as single-faced cards in the set.

If there is ever a Time Spiral 2 (which there most likely won't be) it would be funny if all the time-shifted cards came in these eggs, and turn into cards that were originally single-faced cards.

Unfortunately, this random Egg mechanic lacks a reason why you would play many different egg creatures together in a deck, rather than just the one you think is most efficient. If it was Limited, the reason is simple - there would be many creatures like this and you would end up with a lot of cards that are Eggs of your color.

For constructed, I don't know yet what reason there could be that one would play many different creatures. I'm sure there's some use for this mechanic somewhere in the world of possibilities, although I don't know how elegant or forced the solution would be. Maybe there is a Egg point system where the best Eggs have negative points, less good Eggs have positive points, and those points need to add up to 0. ...yeah, it's forced.

However, this mechanic already comes very close to a mechanic that we know and love, a mechanic that can make sense in constructed - Morph!

Mark Rosewater has talked about how Morph is too complex for today's design standards.

But perhaps dual-faced cards can make morph a printable mechanic again.

The Night side of the card would be something like this. Or, it doesn't even need a concrete flavor like an Egg, it should just be mysterious silhouette. The type line could say, "Creature - Mystery"

Once again, there needs to be a rule that allows you to cast the Night side (the Egg side) directly. The Day side needs to say, "You may cast the back side of this," or just have an icon that signifies that, such as a U-shaped arrow that points to the back.

I think putting Morph in the form of a Dual-faced card makes the mechanic much more visual and grokkable.

This made me think, what other awesome mechanics are there that are doomed in the New World Order of design but can be made simple and visually grokkable by putting it on a Dual-faced card? One awesome but texty mechanic came to mind.

If you've been playing Magic for many years, I think you can guess which mechanic I thought of:

» Click to Reveal «

I hope you enjoyed this.

While the most difficult part is to come up with the invisible premise that you want to question in the first place, once you get there it's still difficult. It's like a Rorschach test where you think "What could this be a picture of?" As you can see, the ideas I came up here resemble some pre-existing things because those things come to mind first during that Rorschach test.

I did come up with a few more uses for Dual-faced cards. (Some of them also have elements similar to proposed mechanics and mechanics I thought of before.) I hope to write about them some time.

EDIT: At the time of writing, a few weeks had passed since reading Gregory Marque's article on the possible uses of dual-faced cards. I've recently re-read his article and I realized he had already mentioned morph as well as cards that can be cast from both sides! I may have just missed that part, but most likely I read it, forgot it, and was subconsciously influenced by it.

The comment section of that article also contains the same idea as Red Mystery Egg. The poster even uses Dinos as an example. This is unnerving for me because I'm almost sure that I got the idea from Japanese toy vending machines where you insert a coin and get an egg-shaped capsule with a random plastic toy or trinket in it. I think I read that article before that comment was posted. Either way, the guy who wrote that comment (Chomps) came up with the idea of random Dino eggs first.


  1. Crazy ideas are where brilliant ideas come from. I support this insanity 100%.

  2. Well, you figured out a way to do triple-sided cards, I guess. Congratulations.

    Even if the rules could be changed to properly support this (I'm not entirely sure if they can or if that's a good idea) I don't like the idea of there not being a 1:1 relationship between the front face and back face of a card. That would mean that the card's functionality would be determined by what's printed on it, rather than being defined by its Oracle form.

  3. Oh, and the back face of a card is always public information in all public zones, so the "it's a mystery!" aspect doesn't work. And no, changing that just to facilitate this wackiness is probably not a good idea.

  4. You're forgetting how crazy it is to have dual-faced cards in the first place.

    I think making morph printable again is a worthy goal.

    The transmorph text could explicitly state that opponents can't look at the back side. That way, Innistrad cards can still work the same way.

    Oracle text can be issued to affect all card faces with a particular name.

    Finally, idea generation requires an open-minded exploration mode. (As one of many modes.) Based on tweets and articles, Wizards R&D at least considers and plays around with crazier things than this.

  5. That doesn't change the fact that I don't like the idea in the first place. I want you to be able to determine reliably, 100% of the time, what any given card will do just by knowing its name. You can't do that if there are multiple versions of a single card with the same front-face name and different back-face names.

    Morph is printable in its current form without any of this, so I'm not sure what you're getting at with that. It's far less complex than DFCs and those got green-lit in the end. Trying to "fix" morph by making it even more complicated logistically seems backwards. And I don't remember Rosewater ever saying that Morph was too complex to print today, do you remember where that was?

  6. There's gameplay in not knowing what your opponent's card will do. A guessing game. Morph had that gameplay; other mechanics might too.

    MaRo mentioned during the GDS2 something along the lines that if morph were ever reprinted, R&D would need to have some serious discussions about how it's being used in the set. He didn't completely rule them out, but it probably can't be used as freely as it was in Onslaught block.

    Why do you think morph is less complex than DFC's?

  7. Double-faced cards have more complexity outside of actual gameplay. Maybe complexity isn't the right word. But Morph doesn't require any special rules for how to draft the set, or using special proxy cards, or having to use certain sorts of peripheral products. The only physical action involved is flipping a card over, as opposed to flipping a card after taking it out of a sleeve or having to swap a proxy in and out of the game.

    How would you handle these sorts of cards with checklist cards, by the way? You can't go just by front name, you'd have to have a checkbox for every version of every front-face, or else you can just pick and choose which version you want to have played if you have multiples. And then you can't declare that the back face is hidden information, either, since anyone can clearly see what the name of the back face is on the checklist.

    The DFCs we have now already push the line hard in terms of breaking rules and making extra work to facilitate fun gameplay. Adding these extra things pushes that past the breaking point I think.

  8. I guess there is a type of "logistic complexity."

    Yeah, I guess Innistrad checklist cards won't work - it would either require that sleeves become mandatory, or require a complicated multi-step checklist scheme.

  9. When you mentioned "what if you, the caster, didn't even know what the card was?" I immediately thought of a few of the online cards that embrace randomness. There's the Akroma MTGO avatar, the Astral cards from the old PC game, and the entire format of Momir Basic and Jhoira Basic. Those are all pretty mad.

    Interestingly, back when the two card frames to Mayor of Avabruck was known but the card text wasn't, one of my friends proposed that what we now know to be DFCs would come in booster packs as intermixable "day halves" and "night halves". Whenever the trigger condition for a day half was met, you could turn it into a night half from your hand. Like ninjutsu with different conditions, or something. It's an interesting idea that's similar to some of those you discuss here.