Thursday, July 31, 2014

Tesla: Pick and Choose

Over the past few weeks we’ve done a lot of work to get Tesla rolling. We’ve run a playtest with a bunch of mechanics we designed and in addition to getting the testers’ thoughts we’ve discussed which we liked, and how they could be improved. Now it’s time to decide what we’re going to keep working with and what we should replace. These mechanics will almost undoubtedly change over the course of design (if they make it through at all), so rather than asking you to vote on a particular implementation, I’m asking you to choose space you’d like to continue to play around with. Below are a few examples of how to use that space as well as my own thoughts on how good a fit it is for Tesla. You can vote for any number of mechanics from zero to all of them, everything with at least 33% of the vote will stay in the file in some form, the rest will sit out for now.

That said, please hold these mechanics to a high standard. I have every confidence that we can come up with plenty more that are just as good if not better, and we’ll form a more cohesive set with fewer unrelated mechanics as starting points. With that, let’s take a look at our options.

Everything has more iterations to try, but if we kept pursuing all of those we’d never finish. We have to make the hard choices and kill our babies, even if there’s still a small chance they might lead to something good.

The basic idea here is to allow players to build something unique and greater than the sum of its parts.

Many of the implementations we’ve tossed around have issues with board and comprehension complexity, and those issues are certainly endemic to the space, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find an implementation that avoids them. The basic idea not only fits Tesla like a glove, it has the potential to be Johnny’s favorite mechanic of all time. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like something we should keep looking into.

These mechanics are all about embracing technology (colorless mana) as a means towards self-improvement.

Transcend and its ilk offer a number of interesting deckbuilding and gameplay decisions about how much you’re willing to sacrifice to get the colorless bonus. On the other hand, it has the potential to create one-sided games when one player has spells turned on and the other doesn’t, and that’s on top of the one-sided games it creates by encouraging mana screw.

Yes, you can just treat colorless as another color when constructing your mana base and it will work out fine, but that’s not an intuitive way to view it and even some of us were getting too greedy in the playtests. Your average Magic player is going to have a harder time, so my recommendation is to scrap it.

At their core these keywords are about improving your creatures as you accomplish ever greater things, as tracked by spending mana.

There are some questions as to whether players will intuitively grasp what constitutes a single payment versus multiple. If we can’t find an intuitive version the mechanic’s sunk, and there are some development issues already rearing their ugly heads (balancing creatures that start with low power requires very unappealing costing). All that said, this setup nails gameplay that feels like progress, especially when only working with spells, and when balanced it’s fun to boot.  I vote keep it.

Dominance/ Bully
These mechanics are about oppression of the masses by those who have more power.

Both of the mechanics we tried in this category play in pretty fun, interactive, and interesting ways, though they do have the potential to snowball. On the whole I’d say this is space worth exploring, just not in Tesla. Yes, we can weave these elements into the world, but they don’t get at the essential qualities of the set. If we end up wanting something for this sort of flavor I’ll certainly push to look at these again, but for now I recommend we leave them out.

These mechanics hit at ideas of technological improvement the same way we do magic design: iteratively!

This sort of mechanic inevitably leads to less varied gameplay as players are encouraged to run more similar cards to power them up. That’s not a huge issue, and I could definitely see something of this kind winding up in a set, but I’ve yet to see a take that wows me. I’d say come back to these if one of them perfectly fills a need that our set develops, but I’ll hold my breath for something a bit more breathtaking.

These mechanics take the opposite tact by representing improvement with fresh ideas.

Mechanics like these are problematic in limited where they’re almost always on; all that additional text feels extraneous. Some might claim that the issue is outweighed by these cards’ ability to diversify decks: no more four-ofs. That’s true to an extent, but there’s a reason Vintage is the only tournament format with restricted cards. They don’t actually make for fun gameplay. Things get awfully swingy with decks full of individual bombs, and deck diversity can actually suffer because you can’t really build around a card without a lot of copies. You can claim that the tournament scene needs fewer four-ofs, but I’m inclined to disagree. If R&D thought so then the rules would only allow 3. As you may have gathered by this point, my vote is to leave these by the wayside.

Whatever the implementation, the Mech mechanic is about combining the unique capabilities of different cards into something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a lot like Cog/Cogwork that way.

So why are we even considering them when we have alternatives that don’t require wonky rules, expensive printing, and extreme parasitism? Mechs have astounding emotional impact and at the end of the day we’re trying to create an experience. The arguments against Mechs are 100% valid, the question is just whether it’s worth putting up with all of that for something with this much potential. I can’t say for sure, but I can say that I’m going to keep voting to keep them around until I’m absolutely sure we can’t overcome their inherent issues.

These mechanics are about resource exploitation, drawing on the benefits of card filtering and the wasteful feeling of mill to capture the appropriate mood.

These cards hit a nice level of filtering and enable graveyard synergies without players having to intentionally pursue them. Did we beat Scry? Not quite, but we did our design aesthetic proud. This space is not so integral that we couldn't ditch it for a more perfect smoothing mechanic, but these certainly get my vote for at least one more round. After all, I’m in favor of Mecha and those mechanics demand some way to let players see a lot of extra cards looking for the right part. We can come up with a smoothing mechanic that lets you go deeper than Mine or Scrounge without becoming overpowered, but they’re near the top and the possibility is open that we’ll be constructing Mechs from the grave.

Price of Progress/Public Works
These mechanics let you risk a lot of little lives to get what you want on the cheap.

I like Price of Progress. A lot. In fact, it’s my favorite mechanic here. And that’s why I’m voting to excise it from the Tesla set file. It is not the job of the set to support a mechanic; it’s the job of each mechanic to support the set. With careful flavor management we could make Price of Progress fit into Tesla, but they’re not about the same thing. This mechanic deserves to be saved until it can really shine, say, representing a fanatical crusade.

So there you have it. Place your votes for whether to keep or ditch each mechanic here by next Tuesday and we’ll see how it all falls out.


  1. It doesn't have to be a keyword, but while Mine is in the set, I really want to have a mechanic that cares about what's in your graveyard. Refine, delve and flashback do this, though they may not be right for Tesla. It's likely a dead-end, but I'm eager to try "Count [type] in your gy" effects, particularly where the type is land, to really double-down on the flavor of mining the world to exhaustion. That's more industrial-world than steampunk, but I don't think pure steampunk has gotten us as far as we'd hoped.

    1. Yeah, if mine stays I'm certainly going to be looking for some graveyard-matters. I imagine that what exactly that should be will bocme clearer as we sort out the setting.

    2. I'm not sure if a mechanic that makes you keep count of multiple categories in your graveyard is a good idea, but a graveyard theme in general could work.

      It could be about salvaging things from your graveyard, or exiling them as a resource.

      Milling myself and then picking up stuff that fell into the graveyard can feel like a post-apocalyptic world where people salvage the products of lost tech to survive. Or a treasure-hunting world where people have started to explore and dig with their newly budding technology, and are discovering the artifacts of a highly advanced civilization that existed before them.

    3. Perhaps this makes room to reprint the Scrivener/Grave Digger line? Or maybe a new take on it.

      Grave-er Digger-er 4B
      Creature - Zombie
      When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, you may return target creature from your graveyard to its owner's hand.

    4. Agreed. The gy-counting mechanic I envision only ever cares about one card type throughout the block. Whether that's land or artifacts (or elsewise) is wide open.

      Hell, if we went all-in on gy-matters, mine could be "Put the top three cards of your library into your graveyard, then put a card from your graveyard on top of your library." (but I like that less in the abstract, and much less in steampunk/industrial world.)

  2. I was writing up a long and detailed post, but blogspot ate it. >:/

    Vote to keep, mechanic is good as-is:
    Dominate/Bully, with Bully preferred if we only want one.
    Mechs (attack trigger version).
    I think these two could be interesting points of a rock-paper-scissors combat triangle, with Bullies losing to Mechs, Mechs (without trample or evasion) losing to token swarm/small deathtouch guys/wall-type creatures, and those things losing to Bullies.

    Vote to keep, mechanic is solid but could use tweaking:
    Cog/Cogwork, which provides a non-creature, non-combat mechanic and could work if we could reduce the board complexity (maybe only one trigger per turn cycle somehow).
    Public Works/Price of Progress, which I think would play well as a contrast to the "go big" strategies but I'd rename to emphasize the aspect of uniquely "Tesla" flavor that the mechanic represents.

    Mine/Scrounge -- I'm nervous about repetitive gameplay, particularly degenerate combo decks always "drawing to" the 2-3 key cards in their deck. If there was a sufficiently good payoff for dumping lots of cards in your graveyard independent of the Mine/Salvage cards themselves, I'd like it more.

    Vote to ditch the rest of the mechanics.

    1. While it's certainly cool how the Mechs vs. small creatures vs. Bully dynamic plays out, Rock-Paper-Scissors isn't a balancing model I want to pursue in a game as lengthy as Magic. It's often just unfun to be stuck on the wrong side and feel like you can't play.

  3. Cog/Cogwork: I vote to keep these, but only if it appears at Uncommon and higher. I don't want to see it confuse Limited, and I don't want it to eat up Complexity Points. But Blasting Station, Grinding Station, Salvaging Station and Summoning Station were my favorite cards in Fifth Dawn, so I think we can do something fun with it.

    Transcend/Surpass: I vote to pass on these. These mechanics suuport an "artifacts matter" theme, but I don't think we're trying to make an artifacts matter set. Yes, the set may have a lot of artifacts in it, but it's not our theme.

    Progress/Iteration: I vote to keep these. Rewarding players for casting spells is on theme, and rewards players for doing something they already want to do. Whether or not the effect puts +1/+1 counters on a thing, or does different things, can be decided later. Also, if we add an activation cost to Combine, this will play very well with them.

    Dominance/Bully: I vote to pass on both of these. Bully is great, but without a strong weenie theme for it to check, I don't see why we need it. Dominance is cool too, but doesn't feel on theme, and Progress/Dominance doesn't need it to be successful.

    Training/Refine/Eureka/Innovate: I vote to keep Refine and Innovate, but pass on mechanics that call out card names. Some small amount of graveyard play feels right for our theme, and if we ask players to compare mana costs, it will give non-artifact based decks a unique direction to build in. I don't like mechanics that call out card names because they are hard to balance in Limited, predicatble and boring in constructed, and unusable in Commander. UNLESS they had the "A deck can have any number of cards named X" language, then I am on board.

    Combine: I vote to keep this, though I'll say I think we are far away from a final version of this mechanic and Mechs in general. I don't like both halves being creatures on the front. I don't like free Combine triggers. I don't like that we have to create two weird new supertypes. I don't like the continued confusion about equipped or enchanted, tapping to attack, whether they even can attack, and how many permanents it becomes.

    Mine/Scrounge: I vote to pass on these. What started out as a riff on Cycling or Scry, now looks like dredge. I think we'd need to price cards with Mine right out of being a smoother effect.

    Price of Progress/Public Works: I vote pass on these. There is potential for them to be sure, but I don't know how it helps what we're trying to do, and I still don't see a weenie theme to take advantage of them.

    In summary,

    Keep: Cog/Cogwork, Progress/Iteration, Refine, Innovate, Combine

    Pass: Transcend/Surpass, Dominance/Bully, Training, Eureka, Mine/Scourge, Price of Progress/Public Works

    1. This sums up my thoughts pretty well, except for combine and mine. And as much as I love mine, I'm starting to wonder if steampunk-Tesla is really the best place for it. Hmm.

    2. I'm not completely convinced it's the right fit either, but at the very least it will act as good support for Mechs in our next round of playtesting. On which front, I definitely agree that they're not there yet.

  4. I vote to keep experimenting with Cogs and Mechas, since the set is a Steampunk set. Even if the particular feel that we chose to aim for is that of technological progress or domination by the technologically superior, we still want a mechanic that represents Steampunk technology directly as well.

    I vote for Mine as well, because both Cogs and Mechas want a way to sift through your library. Mechas in particular can't be contained in a set without these effects.

    Mecha require a large presence in the set as if they were the main set mechanic, but they don't enrich or add interest to the rest of the set. They only tangle with other Mecha cards. Despite hogging the set resources, they don't prop up the rest of the set like a backbone mechanic should.

    If there is a way that Mecha could be justified inside of a set, it is by keeping the Mecha portion relatively smaller than what you would expect from such an uber-linear mechanic, and providing lots of cards that create a mini-game of searching for those cards.

    There could be a bigger theme of searching and questing for artifacts, and the set could have lots of things that are worth searching up. The Mecha could be just one component that is wrapped up in that bigger theme of searching and questing for artifacts.

    1. If we decide the set is about questing for artifacts, that "quest" could be represented in different ways: exploring and searching like in Treasure Planet, dreaming up a fantastic invention from your imagination, or salvaging the remains of lost tech like in Mad Max.

      I don't think we should keep the current versions of Eureka/Innovate or Progress/Iterate, but the concepts they represent can be molded for these purposes.

      If it's about inventing an artifact, it could be something in this general direction (although it's only an example and may be too wordy to be a real mechanic):

      Iterative Research 3U
      Draw two cards.
      Iterative Invention (Exile the top 5 cards of your library. You may swap a card in your hand with one of the exiled cards that shares a card type with it and costs 1 or 2 more. Put the exiled cards on the bottom of your library.)

      Torch of Experimentation 2R
      ~ deals 3 damage to target creature or player.
      Trial and Error 3 (Exile this card and two other cards that cost 3 mana from your graveyard: Search your library for a card that costs 4 or 5 mana, reveal it, put it into your hand, then shuffle your library.)

      If it's about salvaging artifacts in a ruined world, there could be lots of self mill effects to represent the world is going down and you're on a time limit. There could be effects like:

      Seeker of Lost Arts 1W
      Creature - Human Scout
      Salvage (Whenever this creature deals damage to an opponent, you may sacrifice it. If you do, return to your hand target artifact card in your graveyard that costs equal or less than the amount of damage dealt.)

      Junkyard Scavenger 2B
      Creature - Human Rogue
      Scavenging Run (Whenever this creature deals combat damage to an opponent, you may put that many cards from the top of your library into your graveyard. You may put one of those cards on top of your library.)

    2. So, questing for artifacts is one possible direction.

      The concerns that Jenesis wrote about is true - we don't want every game to follow the same game progression. Maybe we can combat that by:
      - Making sure that the act of activating the tutoring/scrying is like a minigame in itself, rather than something that is automatically achieved like Transmute or Transfigure.
      - Keeping the power levels of rare cards flatter than usual. The stronger cards would be conditional cards that require drafting/constructing around it - something like Obelisk of Urd.
      - Try to make it so that you look for a different card every game. The Mecha are kind of like that - if you have a Core already, you may pass up that Mythic Rare Core for a Common Body. If you have neither piece, you may pass up a Core or Head for an artifact that is good on its own.

    3. Another possible direction is to focus more on the Domination vs. social upheaval. The artifact theme could be an equal part to the Domination theme or they could take a back seat.

      It could be a world where only a few hold the tech and the others are forced to work in slave-like conditions in bleak factories. I'm not sure if this struggle between the classes can be appealing to the general public, but maybe it can be.

      It could have the general look of the town in Castle in the Sky (a Hayao Miyazaki film). Maybe the Dominant people live in floating pyramids in the sky while the masses toil working the contraptions in the mine-towns below, and there are flapping flying machines and gliders going between them.

      In this direction, Domination and Overthrow can fit together well as contrasting strategies. Sneak (a reverse Bully) can fit into the underdog side as well.

      Mechanically, it's easier to make this direction work with the mechanics we have now.

      Other than a class struggle world, it could also be a Mad Max world where people use mechas they dug up to dominate other tribes, in the place of the modified cars in Mad Max. Such a barbaric world might exude Domination more directly than a class struggle.

      I'm not sure if this is the way to go. But I vote to continue to examine Domination and Overthrow as a contrasting pair.

      If I were asked in a vacuum what world Domination belongs in, Steampunk would not be it. But maybe it could work with the right flavor (in a way that can be communicated on the art of every card, not just as a complicated backstory).

    4. To sum it up:
      Cog/Cogwork + Mecha + Mine/Scourge
      Dominance + Overthrow (Price of Progress/Public Works)

      Pass: Progress/Iteration, Eureka/Innovate,Transcend/Surpass, Bully, Training/Refine
      (With the understanding that we'll keep looking at them for inspiration whenever a mechanic is needed to fulfill a particular function)

    5. Thanks for laying all these thoughts out! The artifact questing angle is definitely intriguing, but I think we're going to have a really tough time making it work. Toning down bombs sounds good in theory, but in addition to having to find other ways to keep things exciting, we also make it hard for LSPs to feel like they have a chance against more skilled opponents and make limited play all but impossible except for very skilled players.

      The Domination front is certainly workable, but I agree it's not tied up with Tesla per se, and I say if our mechanics aren't doing a good enough job supporting our theme, we likely just need new mechanics.

  5. BTW, I think it should be understood that none of the mechanics we're ditching can't come back later, and none of the mechanics we keeping are locked into the set permanently. To my mind, we are still rather early in the process of finding a mechanical heart for the set; this is simply another version of Tesla that will itself see substantial revision.

    1. This is precisely right. My apologies if this was anything less than crystal clear. Nothing's set in stone, it's just that an essential part of design is finding a more restricted space to work in and this is how I'm finding that space. Once we've reaped some of the benefits we'll be reevaluating these initial premises.