Thursday, December 5, 2013

Designing for Low-Skill Players: a Postlude on Rules

There's one more LSP tendency that I didn't mention earlier. Unlike the others I discussed, it's not a question of preferences; rather, it's about knowledge of the game. LSPs rarely have a deep and detailed understanding of the rules of Magic.

This fact won't surprise anyone who has read the Comprehensive Rules. They are absurdly long and complicated. This is desirable, in one sense; Magic has a lot more space for complexity than many other games. But it also means that the average player has only a crude understanding of the game engine's inner workings.

Here's an incomplete list of rules knowledge that most LSPs lack:

  • priority
  • state-based effects and damage
  • steps and phases
  • layers
  • replacement effects
  • stacking triggers and APNAP
  • details of Trample, Protection, and Regenerate

Of course, we can't avoid all designs that might involve these rules. (Maybe if we wanted to make Portal: Fourth Time's the Charm.) But a line must be drawn somewhere. And here's my rule of thumb: no card should require esoteric rules knowledge for optimal use under normal conditions.

R&D has a pretty good track record with this issue. Most of the stinkers are several years old. Tarmogoyf is particular egregious; if there are no instants in graveyards, a 2/3 goyf will die to Last Breath, but survive a Lightning Bolt! Rakdos Guildmage is much more powerful with the end-of-turn loophole. Sudden Shock in the same set as Morph was a blunder, since most players assumed it would kill a face-down creature, no questions asked. I'm sure there are many more examples in this vein; leave your favorites in the comments.

On the positive end, we have cards that were very clearly designed to work optimally without rules expertise. Awaken the Ancient doesn't need haste, but its inclusion prevents players from losing out on seven points of damage from misunderstanding summoning sickness. Both Gideon Jura and Gideon, Champion of Justice have a damage prevention clause when animated, because who knows how damage interacts with loyalty counters and toughness? 

Designers who lean towards the Melvin end of the spectrum are most likely to violate this guideline. Personally, I think it's a bad place to play. It's vital for players to feel confident that they understand the game they're playing- even if they actually don't! Highlighting the labyrinthine engine underneath Magic is about as appealing as displaying the source code of a computer game onscreen.


  1. Very useful stuff. I fall into this kind of trap a lot. Thanks!

  2. Yep, makes a lot of sense. Reminds me of a design by... was it Ken Nagle in GDS1? The Forestfolk, 2/2 Land Creature - Forest Treefolk, that ETBT. Mark Rosewater praised it for dodging one of the rules complications of land creatures (that you couldn't tap it for mana the turn you played it) by using ETBT. (Wizards went on to /not/ do that themselves with Dryad Arbor a few months later.)

  3. Bestow is another example of a mechanic that doesn't do exactly what it looks like it does.

    Note that many of these mistakes can be fixed or alleviated with different templating.