Saturday, December 15, 2012

What makes a major set mechanic?

The final pitches are due tomorrow at midnight, so I thought I'd say a bit about what I consider to be the most important questions in determining what makes a good central mechanic for a set.

How easy is it to understand upon first glance?

There is no such thing as a mechanic that's too easy to understand.  But there certainly are mechanics that are too confusing upon first reading.  Veteran players consistently underestimate the difficulty new players have in grasping rules and definitions, because we're far too used to them.  Haunt, the original Orzhov mechanic, is a perfect example of this; it seemed utterly straightforward to many experienced players, but it was poorly received because lots of people just didn't get it.

How parasitic is it?

The canonical bad example here is Arcane from Kamigawa block.  Cards like Glacial Ray screamed, "Play me with other Arcane cards!  Otherwise, I'm an expensive Shock!"  But some degree of parasitism is acceptable if there are positive interactions with cards from other sets.  Infect is moderately parasitic, but  it also plays well with proliferate, pump spells, cards that grant evasion, and the odd -1/-1 counter booster like Flourishing Defenses or Crumbling Ashes.

What deckbuilding messages does it send to the player?

The best mechanics present the player with an obvious deckbuilding idea at first glance, but also have more subtle synergies.  Werewolves send the initial message, "Play Full Moon's Rise and Immerwulf!" but then goes on to say, "Or Darkthicket Wolf and Elder of Laurels, so you have something to do on the turns you skip casting a spell."  Populate says, "Play token generators!" loudly, but it also goes on to add, "But you'll get a lot more value from Slime Molding than Ant Queen."  Chroma was a failure in this sense: it had little to say beyond, "MOAR MANA CYMBALS PLZ."  And any mechanic that fails to have a clear initial message is unlikely to be successful.  If players can't look at a card and think, "Oh yeah, I want four of these in a ______ deck," then they're not going to want the card.

How much design space does it have?

Some veins are richer than others.  Overload can only go on spells which make sense both with one target and with all possible targets.  Undying can go on creatures, which gives it more potential space, but is still limited in the kinds of interactions it creates.  Kicker can go on any card type and do almost anything.  A flagship mechanic doesn't need to be at Kicker levels of broadness, but it does need to be bigger than Overload.

How flavorful is it?

Not every mechanic has to have great flavor.  Cycling and Kicker are wonderful mechanics with little or no flavor behind them.  However, in modern Magic design, the main role of central set mechanics is to illustrate the world.  Mechanics like Detain and Unleash exist specifically because they embody the mindset of their respective guilds.  If a central mechanic fails to evoke some sort of flavor appropriate to the world, you should be asking yourself, "Why is this even here?"

How does it reward the player?

Every card is appealing to some player, and what makes it appealing is some kind of reward for playing it.  For Dead Reveler, it's the prospect of getting a cheap 3/4 and beating down early.  For Drudge Beetle, it's those well-earned +1/+1 counters in the late game.  For Eyes in the Skies, it's two points of flying power, a possible surprise blocker, or maybe even a Centaur or Rhino token.  Any new set mechanic needs to offer a sufficiently tasty cookie, or it's not going to be loved.  Note that the price of the cookie may vary; both Unleash and Scavenge look a lot worse than they are.  But the cookie still has to be present and delicious.


  1. One mistake I've seen a lot is to make a mechanic that doesn't make sense on its own, and then make another mechanic to force the first mechanic to make sense. To make up an example, maybe there's a mechanic that says "Etheral 3 - When this dies, exile the top 3 cards of your library" and then there's another mechanic that says "Aethercast - This spell's X is equal to the converted mana cost of an exiled card you own of your choice."

  2. It seems to me that the most difficult challenge in designing these pitches is to find a mechanic that changes how Magic plays in a big way and creates a new game experience - something like Infect, DFCs, Level Up, Annihilator, Landfall, Hybrid mana, or Soulbond.

    Not every mechanic needs to do that - there can be fun but minor mechanics on the side like Cascade or Clash, or utility mechanics like Cycling. But it seems to me that most real-life sets have at least one mechanic that really sculpts new game play.

    The exception to that might be sets where the structure of the set itself rather than any single mechanic distinguishes the set's game play (such as the faction systems in Return to Ravnica and Lorwyn, or the high density of artifacts in the original Mirrodin).