Monday, October 14, 2013

Designing for Low-Skill Players: Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em

Here's an obvious fact about human psychology: Losing feels bad, whereas winning feels good. 

Here's a less obvious fact about human psychology: Losing feels significantly worse than winning feels good. This phenomenon is called "loss aversion", and it explains why consumers would rather avoid a $5 surcharge than get a $5 discount, even though they amount to exactly the same thing. Our brains place a heavier weight on keeping things we already have than on acquiring new things of equal value. From the perspective of classical economics, this is utterly irrational. But it's how people work, and designing against human nature is a losing battle.

In Magic, this tendency causes LSPs to place inordinate value on their creatures and life total. They will prioritize actions that protect these resources, and avoid actions that could lead to losing them. This attitude is strikingly at odds with that of HSPs, who will gladly throw away permanents and life for increased probability of victory.

There are two overlapping categories of cards that appeal to the "don't lose" instinct. First, there are "don't lose the game" cards whose role is entirely defensive, and have no chance of actually killing the other guy. Examples include life gain, walls, and damage prevention.

Second, there are "don't lose my stuff" cards which are aimed at preserving themselves or other permanents. Some cards in this category are very obvious in their function: creatures with (or auras or instants providing) regeneration, hexproof, or indestructibility, for example. Others are more subtle: any form of evasion makes one less likely to lose an attacker during combat.

What's the worst that could happen?
(Aside from the fact that you're playing
with an Abbey Griffin in your deck.)
The tricky part of designing these sorts of cards is that the player's goal (maintain the status quo) is in direct conflict with the designer's goal (make the game end in a timely fashion so that players don't get bored). The solution to this conundrum is to sneak in cards that enable safe attacks, so that life totals will continue to drop. LSPs will often leave a creature home just in case they unexpectedly need another blocker. Or they may be too worried about what would happen if their attacker got into a fight. But if you put vigilance and evasion on the same creature, both of these reasons go away; attacks with an Abbey Griffin are guaranteed to be safe! On-board combat tricks such as Aquus Steed similarly enable risk-free actions that propel the game forward.

We're nearing the end of this series of articles. Readers, do you have any requests for card types or LSP tendencies that you'd like me to write about? Otherwise, I'll finish next week with some discussion of "newbie traps", how good these LSP-oriented cards should be, and cards that teach lessons.


  1. A few other LSP tendencies that spring to mind (though I'm not convinced that all of them are worthy of columns):

    -Conflating the power of a card's mechanics and flavor. "Angels are awesome, so my Starlit Angel card must be better than Air Elemental."

    -Seeking cohesion. Building a vampire deck because you have a lot of vampires, even though none of your cards reward you for doing so.

    -All zones are created equal. As a rule, LSPs don't understand the costs of getting a card from your hand onto the battlefield, or library to hand. They're just your cards. That means that however good Hymn to Tourach looks, Glimpse the Unthinkable is five times better! That's not to say that they don't understand that bombs are more important than a bunch of little cards, it just means that Memoricide is the best card you've ever seen.

    1. I think it's fair to point out that R&D has been pushing that first one to be more of a reality. They want it so that the cards that look awesome (Planeswalkers, Baneslayer, even the Gods) are in fact awesome.

  2. I think that there is also a very important difference in how LSP handle turn order compared to the HSP:

    Playing lands when they are mana flooded instead of holding them to represent a combat trick (same with playing things before attack in general, playing instants before combat etc etc)

    Tapping mana for 2 spells at once instead of trying to resolve them one by one, grabbing the pen/die to write down lives indicating they have no play in hand...

  3. It would be great to have an index page that points to all the articles in this series.

    • LSPs undervalue cards with a powerful primary effect and a very conditional bonus effect; if any part of the card is obviously 'bad,' they assume the entire card is bad.

    • LSPs hate additional costs. Sacrifice, life payments, and even self-milling are all abhorrent to the LSP.

    • LSPs undervalue smoothing mechanics: Scry, cycling, kicker, etc

    • LSPs lean heavily on the rarity symbol to evaluate cards. Rares are almost automatically stronger than uncommons, etc. Part of this is trusting the game's designers to do something those designers never promised to do, but maybe should.