Friday, November 1, 2013

Designing for Low-Skill Players: Conclusion

In the course of this series, we've talked about the various desires and priorities that appear more strongly in LSPs than their more skilled counterparts. We've discussed what sorts of designs appeal most to LSPs. But there's an underlying question we haven't addressed: to what extent should the game cater to LSPs?

Here's my answer: Magic needs cards that appeal to all LSP tendencies. However, only a handful of those cards need to be good in tournament play. 

Why Grave Titan is Strong, Angel's Mercy is Weak, and Mistbind Clique was a Horrible Mistake

Seriously, who doesn't hate these guys?
First, notice that cards which satisfy various LSP desires have wildly different effects on the metagame. Linear mechanics, for example, are highly appealing to LSPs, but you don't want to make them too clear-cut, or players will feel like their decks are being built for them. There's also a risk of decreased deck diversity because one boxed set of toys is just too strong together: Affinity was the most egregious offender, but the goblins of Onslaught block and faeries of Lorwyn were oppressive as well. I certainly hope we don't see another block with such overwhelming tribal themes in the future.

Similarly, defensive cards are dangerous for development to push hard. A powerful life gain or fog effect means longer, slower games, which creates tedious tournament rounds.

But other LSP-beloved cards, like splashy fatties, are a positive force for the game. Big, swingy plays like Inferno Titan push the game to completion, capitalize on the fundamental tension between speed and power, and create memorable experiences. These are the kind of cards that deserve the limelight in tournament play as well as at the kitchen table.

It is also productive to build in mechanical support for LSP play styles. Casting a Giant Growth on an unblocked creature satisfies the LSP's desire to measure progress in relative life totals, even though it's usually a bad play. However, mechanics like Heroic reward this action instead of punishing it. Throwing the LSP a bone by letting Magic work the way they want it to work is a good way to keep players happy.

When I first learned to play Magic in the late '90s, it was a game about summoning dragons and casting fireballs. Then, I learned that I'd been playing the kiddie version of the game: high-level play was about doing some elaborate dance with a Memory Jar or Illusions of Grandeur or Necropotence to kill your opponent out of nowhere. But nowadays, R&D's attitude is different: the game that LSPs play and the game that gets played at the Pro Tour bear a much stronger resemblance to each other. They've accomplished this by pushing appropriate LSP cards and styles for high-level play, which lowers the barrier to players who want to enjoy their first tournament.

Upgrading and the Problem of Truly Bad Cards

I wish I knew how to quit you.
But what about the many LSP cards that are genuinely, well, bad? Isn't it unfair to create so many cards that players are destined to outgrow and eventually dislike? I've heard this argument many times: that "limited chaff" is a waste of cardboard, since even new players who are happily building Fencer's Magemark decks today will toss them aside tomorrow.

First of all, it's worth noting that all players start out at a low skill level, and many of them don't improve very quickly. Some of that "chaff" is still seeing play at kitchen tables somewhere. (In fact, I recently bought a box of several hundred commons for teaching my girlfriend how to play.) But leaving that aside...

The issue of newbie traps in games is a complex one. I am both a lover and vocal critic of the RPG system Exalted, whose extraordinarily convoluted combat system makes it impossible for a new player to build an effective character from scratch without knowing the appropriate secret recipe: learn this Charm, combo it with this one, max this stat, that skill, and only bother with this sort of weapon. It's cruel to give new players a maze of options with little clue how to make effective choices between them. But it's not all that different from the situation of a Magic player building his first deck.

However, Magic has crucial differences from RPGs; among them is the ease of "rerolling". When an Exalted player learns what particular array of Charms she should have selected at character creation, she's powerless to fix the problem. But when a Magic player figures out that Dark Confidant is better than Fleshmad Steed, he can simply swap them into his deck! Piece of cake.

The one sticking point here is that our imaginary player, upon gaining skill, may need to buy more cards in order to improve his deck. But put yourself in the shoes of a Wizards employee: is that really such a terrible problem?


  1. I like this conclusion.

  2. I enjoyed this series. On the topic of bad cards, I don't think they're a bad thing for LSPs. Games where low-power cards are played on both sides tend to be more forgiving of misplays, since each card has less of an impact on the game. What's most important is that both players in a duel have decks around the same power level.