Monday, October 13, 2014

Moving Activation Restrictions to the Left of the Colon

The Review for the last WAC will come later this week. Today, let's chat about a potential upgrade to Magic templating. Remember when they changed "Enchant Creature" to "Enchantment-Aura" and "Summon Knight" to "Creature-Human Knight"? Go even further back and remember when they clarified 'Mono', 'Poly' and 'Continuous' Artifacts? There have been countless tweaks and upgrades to the templates used for Magic cards over the decades, most of them small, in the form of word choice and phrasing, but some of them significant, noticeable.

A few days ago, Ipaulsen suggested "Sacrifice this artifact on your turn: Untap target permanent." The act of moving the timing restriction from the right side of the colon to the left spawned a conversation and rightly so. Turns out, it's got potential. The right side might not be the correct side.

Hell's Caretaker
Cinderhaze Wretch
Ancient Hellkite
Not only does this change reduce the amount of text needed to express abilities with conditions, it also makes considerably more sense. The items on the right of the colon are what you get for activating the ability, and on the left are the instructions for how to get them. Have you started reading an ability thinking "this is awesome" only to get to the reality-punch of a last sentence that explains when you can use it? Why on Earth would when be the last thing we learn about an ability?

Argent Sphinx
Bloodshot Trainee
Bloodsoaked Champion
Tested the idea of removing "if" from Bloodsoaked Champion's new template; With the understanding that everything left of the colon is a cost or condition, words like that are redundant. But that doesn't work for cards like Bloodshot Trainee, because then it sounds like we're setting the goblin's power to 4 as part of the cost; We want to be consistent, so let's use 'if' 'while' 'during' and the like whenever they would apply to the old template.

Bloodthirsty Ogre
Aside: How is Bloodthirsty Ogre's ability not merely: "{T}: Target creature gets -1/-1 until EOT for each Demon you control"?

Chronatog Totem
Haunted Plate Mail
I got a little bold with Chronatog Totem's and Haunted Plate Mail's {0} abilities. I'm not married to removing that {0} from the cost, though I suspect that the only reason to keep it is the comforting rug that is The Old Way. I even suspect this will make more sense to new players.

EDIT: Havelock and Bass suggested moving the restriction in front of the cost, and separating it explicitly. I agree that's even better than what we've got so far. Evan made a mockup I want to share of how that could be called out with graphic design:

Cinderhaze Wretch
The downside of this treatment is that it costs more space rather than saving space, but the win of making restrictions to ability activations so clear is considerable enough that it's worth discussing, at the very least.

Let's also see what that might look like without any special treatment:

Salt Road Patrol
This particular example is a little awkward since the {T} broke to a second line, though it probably wouldn't for Abzan Falconer. Even so, ordering the restrictions, cost, & effect of an ability this way makes far and away the most sense and seems worth the change in templating to me. Maybe we don't want to use an em dash to separate the restriction from the cost, since we use that for ability words, though we do also use that for modal "choose" spells, so maybe it's best to use it everywhere.

Something else this all brings up is the strangeness of the phrase "[Activate this ability only] as a sorcery." Sorceries aren't the only thing you cast "at sorcery speed:" Creatures, artifacts… oh right, everything except instants are cast when nothing is on the stack during your main phase. Maybe we can find or invent a term that gets directly to the point instead of waxing poetic about it. Can we use "only as a spell" given that all spells are 'slow' except for instants, emphasis on the exception? Please share your own ideas.

And as long as we're exploring that path, we should also consider the possibility of finding an icon to shorthand the concept entirely, as Chah suggests. Activating an ability as a non-instant is by far the most common activation restriction—more evergreen than protection and almost as evergreen as regenerate. I'd suggest a variation on the tap symbol, but {Q} is already a thing and not all non-instant activations involve tapping. I'd suggest replacing the colon with a semicolon, but that's too subtle (and suggests 'faster' more than 'slower.') Double colons? Might feel too technical, and I'm not at all confident it's obvious enough to make players ask what it means. Would love to hear more suggestions.

Salt Road Patrol
And here it is with an icon in the newly proposed restrictions space. Went with an hourglass over a clock to be less anachronistic. That actually looks pretty good. (Click to zoom, as always.)

Salt Road Patrol


  1. I think removing the 0 will make it less clear that it is a cost. Non-mana costs like 'tap an untapped you control' and "Discard a card" feel like costs, and a timing restriction doesn't.

    I don't think this actually buys much in terms of ease of learning; my intuition, and my limited experience backs this up, is that new players don't really 'get' the colon syntax of activated abilities to a degree that would let them learn things faster if it was cleaned up. For the most part, they don't understand the difference between triggered and activated abilities for a while, and this would make that less clear, not more.

    The benefits we do get are basically the same as what we get from reminder text; it's not easier for new players, but there is less for experienced players to have to think about. There's a lot of bugs that would need to be worked out - most of your examples sound very stilted - but I think it's probably worthwhile.

    1. The trick with 0 is that it's not a cost either. It's a placeholder for "you can do this as much as you want, whenever you want." When the left side of the colon isn't just the cost of an ability, but the requirements for it, we don't need a cost to form an ability and can omit placeholders like {0}. That said, Abilities that currently 'cost' 0 and don't have any restrictions/requirements will still need something on the left of the colon. Either we should use 0 everywhere, or those will need text like "Whenever you like" which is pretty weird. For that reason, I'd be in favor of keeping the {0}.

  2. I'm sure this is just 20 years of doing it the other way, but this just looks so awful to me. I will have to look at this tomorrow after I've gotten over the shock and see what I think!

  3. Ooh, very interesting idea. I'm not sure if wizards would make the change as-is or not, I'm not sure it's _clearly_ better, but it's clearly solving a problem.

    Maybe it's time to move beyond ":" and use an arrow or something more visually distinct? Or even have little text blocks with slightly different background colours to make the cost and restrictions more distinct from the effect? If so, we could be a lot freer with longer text in the cost side of the 'colon'

    1. In all seriousness, yes, there is a better, more graphical, way to represent cost:effect than with a colon. The move to bulleted lists for choices presages such a change.

  4. I have an alternate proposal.

    The current template for activated abilities is consistent with the structure of the rules:


    This proposal makes activated abilities read like:


    Which means that inferring what's a cost and what's a restriction is left up to the players. This seems like an unnecessary danger, especially since it will become less clear in which order to consider them. Look at Cabal Inquisitor or Cephalid Coliseum. If the template of Cephalid Coliseum is now:

    "Threshold = {U}, {T}, sacrifice Cephalid Coliseum, if you have seven or more cards in your graveyard: do stuff"

    then players will definitely think they can activate it with six cards in their graveyard. So restrictions need to go first, and I think they shouldn't be mixed into costs. That gives us:


    In this language, we get templates like:

    While Ancient Hellkite is attacking - {R} : Ancient Hellkite deals 1 damage to target creature defending player controls.

    If Bloodshot Trainee's power is 4 or more - {T} : Bloodshot Trainee deals 4 damage to target creature.

    Raid - If you attacked with a creature this turn - {1}{B} : Return Bloodsoaked Champion from your graveyard to the battlefield.

    I think this much more closely matches the way we speak about abilities. "This card has the ability that, if you attacked with a creature, you can pay 1B and return him to the battlefield."

    I'm not certain this is better than the status quo, but I prefer it to mixing things in front of the colon.

    1. Props to Jay for thinking outside the box and trying to figure out how to increase clarity. I am in agreement that restrictions don't belong with the ability text, but they don't really belong with the cost either

      I am not a graphic designer, but I wonder if something like this might be more appropriate:

    2. I this, and Evan's mockup of it is very clear.
      Way better than cluttering the ability text with the explanation of the restrictions. People can parse the info quickly and intuitively when the info is chunked.

    3. Very on-board with this iteration, but we do have to make sure we have a clean way of writing the granting of these abilities. Would the following be correct in this setup? Is it sufficiently parseable?

      Enchanted creature has "During your turn only - T: Target player discards a card."

      Put a colorless artifact token named Battery onto the battlefield. It has "During your turn only - Sacrifice this artifact: untap target permanent."

    4. I believe so. Seems no worse than:

      Enchanted creature has "T: Target player discards a card. Activate this ability only during your turn."

      Though ability-granting doesn't play well with Evan's graphical highlighting idea, which is otherwise very compelling for its clarity.

      I'm more iffy on whether this template reads well for non-timing restrictions. I'm not in love with the new Bloodshot Trainee.

      Honestly, the only way to be certain about this sort of thing is to give such cards to new players and see which group parses them more quickly and accurately.

    5. I was also tought something simular as HavelockV, but i said it first

    6. There are 354 cards (or so) with restictions on their activated abilities. This is all of those restrictions, as written from HavelockV's proposed template.

      Any player may activate —
      Any player may activate, only during his or her draw step —
      Any player may activate, only during his or her turn —
      Any player may activate, only during his or her turn, before the end step —
      Any player may activate, only if he or she controls enchanted creature —
      Any player may activate, only if he or she owns NAME —
      Forecast — Only during your upkeep, once each turn —
      Hellbent — If you have no cards in hand —
      HOURGLASS, Any player may activate —
      HOURGLASS, only once each turn —
      If an opponent controls four or more lands —
      If an opponent controls more lands than you —
      If an opponent was dealt damage this turn —
      If enchanted creature is untapped —
      If enchanted creature is white, and is untapped, only once each turn —
      If enchanted land is untapped —
      If NAME blocked or was blocked by a blue creature this turn —
      If NAME entered the battlefield this turn —
      If NAME has four or more quest counters on it —
      If NAME is attacking —
      If NAME is attacking or blocking, only once each turn —
      If NAME is in your graveyard —
      If NAME is on the stack, any player may activate —
      If NAME is suspended —
      If NAME’s power is 4 or greater —
      If there are no charge counters on NAME —
      If two or more hatchling counters are on NAME —
      If you control a Demon —
      If you control an Island —
      If you control a Plains —
      If you control a Sliver —
      If you control a Swamp —
      If you control five or more lands —
      If you control five or more Vampires —
      If you control four or more snow permanents —
      If you control no creatures —
      If you control two or more black permanents —
      If you control two or more blue permanents —
      If you control two or more green permanents —
      If you control two or more red permanents —
      If you control two or more white permanents —
      If you have exactly seven card in hand —
      If you have more cards in hand than each opponent —
      If you have no cards in hand —

    7. If you’ve controlled NAME continuously since the beginning of your most recent turn —
      Metalcraft — If you control three or more artifacts —
      Metalcraft — only during your upkeep, if you control three or more artifacts —
      Morbid — If a creature died this turn —
      No more than three times each turn —
      No more than twice each turn —
      No more times each turn than the number of snow Swamps you control —
      Not during combat —
      Not during your turn —
      Only any opponent may activate —
      Only before blockers are declared —
      Only before combat damage step —
      Only before the end of combat step —
      Only during an opponent’s turn, before attackers are declared —
      Only during an opponent’s turn, before combat —
      Only during an opponent’s upkeep —
      Only during an upkeep step —
      Only during an upkeep step, any player may activate —
      Only during combat —
      Only during combat, after blockers are declared —
      Only during combat, before attackers are declared —
      Only during combat, if defending player controls a snow land —
      Only during combat, if defending player controls no snow lands —
      Only during the declare attackers step, if you’ve been attacked this step —
      Only during the declare blockers step —
      Only during the declare blockers step, once each turn, if at least one creature is blocking NAME —
      Only during the end of combat step —
      Only during your turn —
      Only during your turn, before attackers are declared —
      Only during your turn, once each turn —
      Only during your upkeep —
      Only during your upkeep, if NAME isn’t enchanted —
      Only during your upkeep, if three or more creature cards are above NAME —
      Only during your upkeep, if you control a Swamp —
      Only during your upkeep, once each turn —
      Only once each turn —
      Only once each turn, if an opponent controls a creature with flying —
      Only once each turn, if NAME is a creature —
      Only once each turn, if you control a snow Mountain —
      Only once each turn, if you control no creatures —
      Only when you could cast an instant —
      Only you may activate —
      Raid — If you attacked with a creature this turn —
      Threshold — If seven or more cards are in your graveyard —
      Threshold — HOURGLASS, if seven or more cards are in your graveyard —
      Threshold — Only once each turn, if seven or more cards are in your graveyard —

    8. Awesome! And the more of these I see, the more I like the proposal. I mean, yes, these wordings are fairly silly in many cases, but that's because the cards are silly; these wordings make a better job of silly original cards than the current Oracle wording does.

      Tiny nitpicks: I think I'd prefer to frontload "Any player may activate" whenever it's present, as it's a different kind of modifier - an extra permission being granted. So I'd reorder "Only during an upkeep step, any player may activate" as "Any player may activate, only during an upkeep step". Also Martyrdom's "Only you may activate" probably can't be forced into this system (it doesn't use the current standard either of putting the restriction inside the ability).

    9. I agree that "Any player may activate" should be at the front, (except for when there's an hourglass symbol). That's a great nit pick. Most of my "Any Players" are formated that way. Lightning Storm kind of worries me, because I don't want to confuse players. Anyway, there are two changes:

      Any player may activate, if NAME is on the stack —
      Any player may activate, only during an upkeep step —

      Martyrdom seems like a lost boy of Oracle. No other spell grants a creature an ability with the caveat that only you can use that ability. The restriction only even makes sense if you could target an opponent's creature, to keep them from also activating the effect and redirecting the damage you've redirected. But it specifices it can only target a creature you control. The original card doesn't have this clause, so I feel like it's an old change that hasn't been looked at for a number of years.

    10. Martyrdom's Oracle wording is very deliberate. It's phrased that way so that if you lose control of the creature later in the turn, it's still only you who can redirect damage to the creature. It's an attempt to match functionality of the original wording, as best as possible.

      See also this thread, on which I proposed the deliberately ridiculous alternate wording

      Until end of turn, target creature you control gains "0: The next 1 damage that would be dealt to target creature or player this turn is dealt to this creature instead. Any player may activate this ability." Only you may activate this ability.

    11. I had a much longer reply to this, but that thread you linked to flattened me like a pancake. This card and others like it (Veteran's Voice, Nature's Chosen, Merseine, Grizzled Wolverine, etc) should have been errata'd when 5th Edition was printed. They either have or grant activated abilities in overly convoluted ways that can be expressed so much more simply. There's no reason Caribou Range was errata'd to:

      Enchanted land has "WW, T: Put a 0/1 white Caribou creature token onto the battlefield."

      while Veteran's Voice wasn't. It is still:

      Tap enchanted creature: Target creature other than the creature tapped this way gets +2/+1 until end of turn. Activate this ability only if enchanted creature is untapped.

      Its erratta slips through the cracks. Anyway, Martyrdom is a stupid card, and we shouldn't care about preserving it's functionality in the way we are. Especially for an event that might have never happened EVER before, and which could be corrected if it no longer granted an activated ability.

  5. What does it look like if the timing comes before the cost? So "Only during your upkeep, T: [effect]."

  6. Wow, I hadn't thought this would be such a big deal-- I'd only considered it as an optimization on the Battery ability. Seeing the reasoning extended, I'm much more inclined to favor the HavelockV / Bass proposal or some variation on that.

    As far as the example cards go: my reaction to the first group is "hmm", my reaction to the second group is "eeh", and my reaction to the third group is "ugh". I'm sure MSE makes rendering these templates a pain, and in some cases there are probably good ways to reword the conditions, but it seems like an uphill battle to me. Replacing most of the "if"s with "while"s might be a good start.

  7. I've always wished there was a "Sorcery speed" symbol to put in front of abilities. Maybe the symbol of a clock?
    There are many abilities and mechanics that would play better/more balanced/more strategically if they are restricted to sorcery speed, but it costs so much space on the card to state the timing.

    1. I agree this would be very helpful.

    2. Me too. It's high on my "if we could reboot Magic" list.

    3. To clarify: in my dream rebooted Magic, all spells and abilities default to sorcery speed. A lightning bolt symbol denotes creatures with flash, sorceries with flash (previously known as instants), and some activated abilities.

    4. The above is exactly my stance as well, but given that we're in no position to reboot I think a clear Sorcery-speed symbol is one of our better bets. Alternatively, if we implement HavelockV and Bass' setup, perhaps we can cleanly make the change by keeping new cards with sorcery speed activations still looking distinct from old instant speed ones.

    5. I think Mark Rosewater has strongly hinted (or said?) that he would prefer it if magic had an instant supertype that could be applied to all types of spells including sorceries, instead of having permanents-with-flash and instants. But also that it probably wouldn't change now.

      I'm worried a symbol would be harder to learn because it doesn't say what it does, but I agree something like would be really good. Or maybe, make abilities sorcery speed by default and have an instant-speed rider, or have indicate a phase you can play them in, or something?

  8. Agreed! See the edit in the body of the post.

    1. Excellent treatment. I'm not sure whether we want the clearer graphical treatment, but if not I'm totally on board with moving to the final template.

    2. The hourglass treatment is awesome, and clearly says "Hey there are different-than-normal time restrictions on this ability"

      Any existing player will easily adopt the hourglass to mean "sorcery speed only:

      and I can see any new player scenario going something like this:

      NEW PLAYER: whats this hourglass thing?
      OLD PLAYER: you know how normal activated abilities can be done at any time?
      NEW PLAYER: Yea?
      OLD PLAYER: That symbol means you can only do it at any time you could cast a sorcery or an artifact or creature. Its slower to use.
      NEW PLAYER: oh ok!

    3. A bit late on the conversation, but I'd like to point out that MaRo is contrary to symbols for sorcery speed. A quick research on Blogatog: (In the second link he clearly meant "NOT used enough")

    4. Ant, in my experience, new players always think that activated abilities can only work at sorcery speed. For example, I just saw two new players (both women) playing and I asked one, "why didn't you attack with Sarkhan?" She said, "He has summoning sickness." New players presume only instants and flash cards can go outside of turn order. They often think lands have summoning sickness. Timing is a lot more confusing than I think you're giving it credit for. In fact, I think the discussion would be like this:

      NEW PLAYER: What's this hourglass thing?
      OLD PLAYER: It means you can only do it as a sorcery.
      NEW PLAYER: What do you mean?
      OLD PLAYER: Normally, you can activate things whenever you want. This means this one can't. Only when you could play sorceries, creatures, etc.
      NEW PLAYER: So, the ones with the hourglass work the way I thought and aren't special, and all the other abilities work differently to how I thought, but aren't labeled as such?
      OLD PLAYER: Yes.
      NEW PLAYER: Ok. It's weird.
      OLD PLAYER: I know.
      NEW PLAYER: I feel like I'm an analogical construct manipulated to prove a point.
      NEW PLAYER: I'm off to play with my pet unicorn in this fantastic world of make believe.
      OLD PLAYER: I think Bass has lost it.
      BASS: I am quite tired and I kinda lost what my point was.
      NEW PLAYER: Uni!

    5. I don't see the introduction of the hourglass symbol as any different to the introduction of keywords for hexproof, vigilance, haste and so on. During their first couple of years, provide reminder text for what the symbol means. After that, the symbol is no more cryptic than a keyword someone doesn't understand. (Though I guess a symbol is a little harder to google.)

      There's always Tips & Tricks cards in boosters.

  9. I think the "—" in the Outlast reminder text is a mistake, as it makes it seem far more complex. The hourglass symbol is a nice idea, but it just puts me off.

    I do really like the first one, the Cinder Wretch thing. That looks terrific (there is a problem in multiple activated abilities with different timings, but I think there's a design problem in having two different timings on the same card, so I'd be glad if that graphic design reduced the chances of such cards).

    Here's my solution to salvaging the hourglass symbol: to the left of the card type line or underneath the mana cost, there should be an hourglass symbol on everything but instants and cards with flash. That way, you instinctively would know that symbol has to do with when you can play things. That would then make it's appearance in card text seem more natural and consistent.

    The only problem is that the symbol could only ever mean, "As a sorcery" which means other timings couldn't be represented, which to me, feels like keywording things like mill. There's a number of related effects, but only one is getting iconized/shortened/keyword, and not the rest. I think the Wretch is the best one.