Thursday, October 3, 2013

Designing for Low-Skill Players: The Best of All Possible Worlds

Gottfried Leibniz may have been a brilliant philosopher and mathematician, but he just couldn't catch a break. Not only did Newton's cronies unfairly accuse him of plagiarizing the calculus, but Voltaire viciously parodied him in Candide. Leibniz was caricatured as the naive Dr. Pangloss, who persistently asserted that we live in the best of all possible worlds. 

Little did Voltaire know that this ideal world, known to us as "Magical Christmas Land", would one day be populated by millions of low-skill players!

How is this not banned in Modern?
It's easy to determine the value of a card in Magical Christmas Land. Electrickery will take out your opponent's whole team of X/1s. Ardent Recruit is a 3/3 for one mana. Utvara Hellkite is an exponential torrent of dragons. It's a lot harder to evaluate cards in the real world: Will there actually be a bunch of 1-toughness creatures to zap with Electrickery? How frequently will your Ardent Recruit be an Eager Cadet? And in what proportion of games will you even hit eight mana to cast Utvara Hellkite? Answering these questions requires experience, judgment, and a degree of emotional detachment.

That's why LSPs, like Pangloss, tend to live in the best of all possible worlds. They read the card, see what it can do, and assume that's what it will do. The astute designer will find plenty of ways to capitalize upon this tendency.

Linear themes always work in Magical Christmas Land. Kragma WarcallerChrome SteedEvangel of HeliodKor Spiritdancer, and the like are full of potential. Similarly, specific synergies are also attractive. Bogbrew Witch and Crown of Empires will always find their teammates.

The best of all possible wurms.
Expensive cards are fine in Magical Christmas Land. Worldspine Wurm can get there!

Kicker variants work particularly well. In the best of all possible worlds, every Mizzium Mortars is overloaded, every Rite of Replication is kicked, and every Boon Satyr is bestowed.

Auras carry no risk of card disadvantage in Magical Christmas Land. Instead, they offer the promise of a creature that's simply too badass for your opponent to handle.

Essentially unbounded cards are perhaps the sweetest of all Christmas cookies. Erdwal Ripper will grow arbitrarily large. Soulmender can gain any amount of life. Shades, X spells, and even the humble Rod of Ruin all represent unlimited potential.

Of course, those of us who live in the real world do not take Pangloss seriously; these cards with high potential are often too conditional, fragile, or inefficient for the benefits they provide. But as long as there are LSPs, Leibniz' optimism will live on in every deck that dares to dream big, from your nephew's Advocate of the Beast deck to the Tempered Steel monstrosity that made up half of the Top 8 at Worlds in 2011. (I guess that one was more LSV than LSP...)


  1. Is it a good thing or a bad thing to offer LSPs a dream that will rarely come true?

    1. Good.

      While there are assuredly countless variations, the three primary outcomes of LSPs playing with these cards are:

      1. The card does not live to its potential, resulting in the LSP developing a negative perspective about the game.

      2. The card does not live to its potential, resulting in the LSP re-evaluating their understanding of the game.

      3. The card does live to its potential, assuring that the LSP has a story to tell for the near future.

      2/3s of those archetypal reactions are positive, either in the short- or long-term; and since many of these designs are not nearly as extreme as some of the examples, designing such cards is not purely in the service of "deceiving" LSPs, but rather to supplement the excitement of variance within the game.

    2. I think this also falls under the umbrella of my final post in this series about "newbie traps", but metaghost's answer is solid as well. In particular, variance is important; that one time you hit the Sliver god draw makes up for a lot of losses.

      Tangentially, LSPs will sometimes make the transition to HSPs and either (A) make a conscious decision to prioritize fun over winning or (B) be Travis Woo.

    3. Also, a cardinal rule of performance is to always leave the audience wanting more. High-variance dreams are one way to do that. A deck that does something amazing 10% of the time can be more compelling to play than one that does something merely good 80% of the time.

    4. The dream only needs to come true in the games that the player plays. In a less competitive environment, Worldspine Wurm does get cast, and Evangel of Heliod does come out late enough to generate tons of tokens. While there are cards whose fun level and power level do line up (Thundermaw Hellkite), their competitive value can put them monetarily out of reach of casual LSPs. I remember when Lorescale Coatl came out in Alara Reborn, I actually wished that it cost 2GU instead of 1GU, to put it out of competitive play and make it easier to acquire.

      I guess my point is that it's nice when a card's power level matches its fun level, but it's also important that cards make it to their intended audiences.

    5. I'll add one more positive outcome. Players imagine/write/build decklists in imaginary christmas land and never actually play them, thus having the joy of creating something capable of wondrous things, without every feeling the sting of failure. That's part of the metagame and I know players do; I used to write decklists for fun quite a lot.

  2. I'm not quite sure what you are getting at here. are there any tips for designing for low skill players?

    I think a good point to come from this is that it is good to provide players (lowskill and otherwise) with stretch goals. but to not make them too difficult or complex to obtain, and make the downside for not getting them not too severe.

    1. My advice is in boldface. Design cards that do those things, and LSPs will use them even if HSPs don't.