Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Conflicting Metaphors—Inspired VS Heroic

Games are metaphors and game designers are poets. In order to make a card feel thematic, we need to find one way to express the concept it represents through game mechanics. That's all that's needed to make a player feel, "Yeah, that is a dragon. That is a unicorn. Yup, that's dark magic."

This affords us simpler designs, since a single card that needs to represent every trope about dragons will be a bloated mess of text. It also affords us quite a lot more cards. Once you've made The Dragon, representing every dragon trope possible, you're done. You can make a couple variations if that first dragon was The Red Dragon and you want to make The Black Dragon, but those cards will be 90% the same and the second just won't have the impact the first had.

When you focus on one dragon-y thing per card, you can then make scores of dragons. Shivan Dragon breaths fires. Hoarding Dragon sleeps on his treasure. Siege Dragon eats castles for breakfast. Each one of those feels unique and draconic, not detracting from each other's value, and keeping the game fresh with flying reptilian goodness.

A week ago, I casually mused on Twitter:
Heroic and inspired were both interesting mechanics with good flavor. The problem is that their flavor is the same. They both represent determined Therosians rising to the occasion to do great deeds. By fighting to represent the same concept for the block, we've got a mixed metaphor which drops the player out of the fiction as they try to figure out the distinction between the two.

There is a distinction, in fairness. Heroic is about powerful entities—native gods and roaming planeswalkers—taking an interest in the denizens and inspiring them… er, sorry, empowering them to do amazing things. Inspired is more about those denizens realizing they don't need the gods and that they can be heroes… I mean, do great things on their own. Y'know, through violence. And that distinction actually follows the story line of the block, so it's not some random coincidence.

But heroic and inspired fit the same mindspace. "Do cool things with your creature, watch it do more cool things." That tweet was precipitated by playing some Theros while waiting for Khans of Tarkir to come online; I confused an inspired trigger for an heroic trigger. The overlap between the two mechanics is not as egregious as past mindspace mistakes (like Murder of Crows' trigger being slightly different than Falkenrath Noble's) since the triggers are distinct, but the effects they generate and the gameplay they engender (from a high level) are dangerously similar.

Monstrosity and tribute had a similar issue. Both mechanics represent the monster faction and involve +1/+1 counters. They both illustrate the daunting problem that monsters pose, one with a monster that will only get worse if you don't deal with it fast, and the other with a monster that gives you a riddle and then punches you in the face. Both of those are interesting and compelling situations fit to inspire our heroes to greatness, and highly appropriate to the greek epic theme, but they compete with each other, both mechanically and thematically.

What's the difference between making a Shivan Dragon and a Siege Dragon versus putting similar mechanics in the same block? Despite appearing on a fraction of the cards in a set, a keyword mechanic describes the whole set. Theros is a world defined by heroes and monsters (and gods). If the block had only ever used monstrosity or only ever used tribute, Wingsteed Rider would have been different. It'd be the exact same card, but its context wouldn't be the same and nothing exists without context. In contrast, Shivan Dragon is a wholly unique card to Siege Dragon, and not just because they were printed in different sets, years apart.

Does that mean mechanics can't be replaced or supplemented over the course of a block's evolution? Not at all. What comes and what stays in the subsequent sets is the primary identity for that set. It is, for some players, the only insight into the story progression for that plane. What we need to be careful about is that new mechanics are properly distinct, either representing how the old concept has changed via new gameplay (which is where inspired and tribute didn't wholly fail but neither quite succeeded), or representing a new concept entirely.

How could this have worked for Theros? We could have stuck to just heroic, but moved from triggering it primarily via auras in the first set to sorceries and instants in the second set. We could have introduced inspired (which I quite like, outside the shadow of heroic), but made sure all heroic abilities were one thing (spell-like effects or +1/+1 counters) and all inspired abilities were the other. We could have kept monstrosity and left off tribute (which, for the record, I enjoyed more than most spikes), or if it was important to the story that the monsters stopped growing over time and started demanding hard choices (it wasn't), then tribute could have made the default option life-loss instead of +1/+1 counters.

What about new mechanics? Every set needs to introduce something new and players would have rioted if Born of the Gods and Journey into Nyx kept reusing heroic and monstrosity without adding anything new. Part of the difficulty was in how each faction in Theros was defined by their behavior in the world, by their mechanics. Heroes had to hero and monsters had to monst. Once we already had mechanics to do that, what could we introduce? As I pointed out above, inspired or tribute could still have worked if they were more distinct, but the better point is that these are all creature mechanics and most of the set is not creatures. We could have made a new sorcery/instant keyword, or an enchantment keyword.

Remembering that the story is malleable, we also could have introduced another faction; perhaps the less-heroic denizens (he said, knowing a citizenry mechanic is a bit of a trap); or maybe the Eldrazi could have landed and then wrestled with the gods. We could have narrated a bigger shift in the monsters to warrant a new mechanic on them. Given that both heroes and monsters got +1/+1 counters, we could have introduced a new mechanic that cares about them, giving both existing mechanics new meaning.

It wouldn't have been easy, I'm not saying that. Nor am I saying Theros was bad by any measure. I loved the set and think it was an admirable successor to Innistrad's top-down slam-dunk. But I do think we'll improve on future sets by learning what could have been done better, even if only slightly.

Choose one mechanical metaphor per thematic concept. Stick to it.


  1. Inclined to agree. Born and Journey weren't bad sets, but they did muddy up a lot of the elegance of Theros's mechanical web, and I don't think limited gained a whole lot in the process.

    1. I think the last two blocks, as blocks, have been pretty subpar (despite some pretty awesome large sets), and I think the reason for that is that there has been insufficient coordination between the design teams. The Inspired/Heroic and Monstrous/Tribute problems being symptoms of this.

      I am hoping that the introduction of advance design for Khans will help to remedy this problem, as the block plan for Khans sounds quite ambitious when you consider what happened with DGR.

      I do think the problem of designing a large set and a small set so that the small set seems to do enough new things yet plays well with the large set requires a truly extreme amount of coordination, so I don't envy the problem.

      Worth noting, I think it is a problem if the second set is seen as significantly improving the environment form the first set, so the balance is quite intricate, as it needs to be a lateral shift.

      Looking at the track record, I'm not convinced that, in an ideal world, draft formats with more than one kind of pack have a place in Magic (though I'm not necessarily convinced they don't).

    2. That's a worthwhile point for consideration. What are the multiple-set draft formats that have really shone? Ravnica-Guildpact-Dissension, certainly. Possibly Time Spiral-Planar Chaos-Future Sight.

      But do these compare favorably to triple Innistrad or triple Rise of the Eldrazi? I'm not sure about that.

      However, shaking up draft formats every few months is important for Magic's business model; the spice must flow! And small second sets allow for mechanical evolutions.

    3. MBS-SOM-SOM is my favorite draft format of all time. I think Scars block as a whole is too often overlooked by people talking about Magic design. I think it is the only time Magic has ever had a homerun integrating story and design. They have admitted that NWO messed up SOM a bit (as they were still getting used to it and they overcorrected a bit with stuff like pushing Thrummingbird to Uncommon when it should have been common) but MBS really smoothed this out well.

      For the deckbuilder, I think NPS-MBS-SOM is one of the best formats because all of the decks you draft are so different. I think if I would have been a better player at the time I would have appreciated it more than MBS-SOM-SOM.

  2. "Inspired is more about those denizens realizing they don't need the gods and that they can be heroes... I mean, do great things on their own."

    I had thought that Inspired was also about inspiration from the gods-- as in, my creature goes to sleep (taps), is visited in a dream by a god, and when it wakes up (untaps), triggers some effect.

    Part of the confusability was probably not only the similarity of effects, but also the similarity of gameplay. Inspired was commonly triggered by means of a combat trick or aura (like Heroic) that let the creature survive combat and get the untap effect next turn. The tapping Enchantments (Epiphany Storm et al.) where a nice attempt to give Inspired different gameplay, but they were so weak to be useless. I wonder why there weren't more "tap an untapped creature you control" effects beyond Springleaf Drum and Black Oak of Odunos. That would have been a great way to show the denizens working together without the gods, and given Inspired a different identity.

  3. Jay, I wrote about this problem in my review on Facebook that you're unable to view since you don't have an account. I agree quite a bit with your assessment of Heroic and Inspired and my solution was to make Inspired an Aura keyword ("Whenever enchanted thing untaps..."). That way to develops the theme of Heroic without competing for slots in the deck. I like the idea that the problem is one of motifs. I honestly don't think Inspired is supposed to represent Heroes empowering themselves. I think they are still getting divine assistance, but I could be wrong. Boy, the dreams aspect of Theros block was poorly explained.

    1. Cool. Link to it here, for those who can see it.


  4. If Inspired *was* meant to show the influence of the gods, it did a poor job communicating that. The metaphor for gods in Theros was enchantments = divinity, which is why enchanting a hero to make it awesome was so thematic. Since inspired creatures don't need enchantments at all, and in fact can trigger themselves without any outside help, they feel much more DIY than gift-from-the-gods.

    1. The most damning clue to WotC intent is that the common Inspired enabling Auras are all concepted as influence from the gods Ephara, Erebos, Keranos, and Karametra.

  5. Good analysis! You make some excellent points here.

  6. Another explanation for this that hasn't been mentioned so far is the conflict between design and creative in Theros. This was never explicitly described, but if you read between the lines of Maro's articles it is pretty obviously there.

    Maro originally had his own creative vision for the block that hinged much more on inspired/dreams, and set up the conflict as humans/gods versus dream world rather than humans versus gods/dream world. The actual Creative team had other ideas, and design got pulled in a different direction as a result.

    But there was still a push to keep the original mechanical ideas around, and as a result the block's mechanics ended up being mashed together in ways that didn't quite fit. It's likely that a lot of the best opportunities for top-down design got lost in the process, pushed out by the mechanics' bottom-up demands.

    1. I love this and very much agree. The enchantment creatures as born of nyx never really followed through as I hoped they would. Once Theros introduced Bestow I was really expecting something different from the Nyxborn creatures in Born of the Gods. Something that felt equally strange and dreamlike.
      Additionally, the conflict between mortals and gods seemed to come from nowhere. Our hero, Elspeth was a champion of a god. The gods were constantly bestowing gifts on mortals. What had the first two sets done to earn the conflict in set three of mortals versus gods? And how does that conflict connect with the original design triumvirate of Gods, Heroes and Monsters?
      There was a very clear disconnect between creative and design. And you're right, it hasn't been discussed enough.

    2. I blame block design. One or two sets might have been enough to sustain a purely top-down Greek mythology theme, but the need to stretch things to three muddied their mission.