Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Tesla: MapQuest

[WotC Safe: No Original Designs in this Post]

We're still in exploratory design for Tesla, and as such we haven't nailed down many absolutes about where the eventual design is headed. Really all we know is that the set is going to involve artifacts and be themed around progress: change, improvement, and abandoning the old ways. That's all well and good, but thus far I've been leading you on a sort of haphazard perusal of design space.

Well not today. Exploratory design is supposed to map the territory, which means not just knowing what's out there, but where each fork in the road leads. We need an answer:

How does the way we represent our progress theme mechanically influence the rest of the design?

But it begs a more basic question:

What are our options for representing progress?

That's what I hope to answer today.

Grown-worthy Pun

How do we make things feel like they're moving forward? Like they're getting better? What about by making them get better?

And as we all know: bigger is better.

But we're not limited to growth alone. Power and toughness are just two facets of a much broader space: cards that improve a little bit every time you use them.

On permanents this will often mean tracking the improvement with counters, but Knight of the Reliquary also falls into this camp. This linear growth is predictable and tends to feel like steady improvement.

But it's not how technological growth works in the real world. That's exponential. That is, the rate of growth is proportional to the growth that's already happened.

Attack with Kalonian Hydra and it'll be an 8/8. Attack again and it's a 16/16. A third time makes it a-

Oh, wait, your opponent's dead.

Exponential growth is exciting and it has the potential to make incredible things happen. That makes it a perfect fit for a mythic rare, but not so much for a common. Well, at least not the way we've looked at it so far. No common should just take over the game by itself.

But what about in conjunction? Zendikar's Allies each trigger whenever any ally comes down on your side. It's not exponential growth, but for ones like Ondu Cleric which count the number of allies you control, it's polynomial rather than linear. More importantly, it still feels explosive.

And here's the important point: it doesn't matter what accurately reflects the world. What matters is making the cards feel right to the players. We'll need to test to be sure, but I suspect that polynomial growth will prove to be a perfectly good analogy for the feeling we're trying to convey; the real question in my mind is whether we can get away with linear.

Further Afield

Now there's another aspect to the Allies I haven't mentioned yet. Unlike my first few examples, they aren't self contained. By and large each subsequent Ally will be more impactful than the last, but there's nothing to stop a Day of Judgment from setting the ones in your hand back to square one. That's good for reducing snowballing power in gameplay, but it may undermine the feeling we're going for. So let's look at some other things that tend to expand as the game goes on.

Lands are much less prone to dying than creatures, but calling them out explicitly like this begs the card to have some connection to nature or exploration. That is to say, land counting doesn't feel flavor-neutral to enfranchised players and that may prevent us from using the space to connote technological progress. Luckily we have a workaround.

Lands tap for mana.

Looming Shade gets bigger and bigger as the game goes on; in isolation it looks like the perfect fit. But if you've ever had two Shades on board you know how much they fight for resources. We can't pick a singular implementation for something that's going to have high as-fan if it upsets players every time they end up with two. There are other permanent types to consider, but any set built around, say, artifacts is going to have enough removal for them to mirror the creature problems.

Zoning Out

So let's move on from the battlefield to other zones.

Mark Rosewater often gives his eponymous card as an example of green's growth. Which is strange, given that in a normal game of Magic Maro gets smaller over time as you only draw one card per turn, but often play two. However plenty of other zones do grow as the game goes on. 

Barring Delve shenanigans the occasional Disentomb isn't enough to keep graveyards from growing. This seems like prime territory to explore for our progress theme. Cards in the graveyard certainly can feel like things that came before, and with designs like Kindle each "advance" can lead to further improvements.

We could look at cards in exile as an ultimate sort of irreversible progress, but there are far fewer backwards interactions than with the graveyard, and aside from potentially easier development due to lower power level, I don't really see the advantage.

We could also try to look at decreasing library size, but that's a pain to count. The stack empties too regularly to be a stage for progress, and nothing's going on in the command zone. So if we want yet more options we'll need to look beyond where the cards move. What else changes in a consistent direction as the game goes on?

Turned on its Head

Well, the game is on a later turn, but beyond Serra Avenger's cutoff it gets rather unwieldily to figure out what turn it is. Doing so also undercuts one of the greatest strengths of the mana system: you're not entirely sure which turn you'll have access to which cards.

Hmm, speaking of the mana system...

Converted mana cost is by no means a perfect indicator of how long the game's gone, but a large percentage of games involve a player waiting to draw more lands or draw their expensive bomb so that they can cast something big. Of course, if we wanted to care about converted mana cost at common we'd need to find a way to make it read intuitively.

Our final option is easy to track and has nothing to do with cards at all.

Barring one-sided affairs with large Lifelink creatures and specialized constructed decks, life totals tend downwards as the game goes on. On the other hand, they're a central enough part of the game that it's going to be pretty hard to pass off decreasing your opponent's life total as "making technological advances" as opposed to "beating them to a bloody pulp with a warhammer."

Forward March February

So right off the bat tracking graveyards looks like it holds the most promise, but we'll certainly want to look into every option that has potential. In the meantime, what space are you excited to explore for progress mechanics and what do you propose we do with it?


  1. How about a combination? For instance, looking at the CMC of cards in the graveyard could convey a sense of moving forward. As the game moves forward, larger cards go to the graveyard. It has the benefit of working especially well with artifacts, because you get the feeling of upgrading your machines based on what has come before.

    1. That's definitely worth looking into, and if it only cares about artifacts it makes the CMC point much easier to address as well since their cost is the same as their CMC.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. I like this idea a lot. Riffing:

      Humble Worker 1W
      Creature- Human
      When CARDNAME enters the battlefield you gain life equal to your progress. (Your progress is the highest converted mana cost of any spell you've cast this game.)

    4. Why not (Your progress is the highest converted mana cost in your graveyard)?

    5. Because that could perhaps be missunderstood to refer to the cmc of an ability on a card.

    6. Why not (Your progress is the highest converted mana cost of a card in your graveyard)?

      I like where "that you've cast is going" and if cards only hung out on the battlefield and graveyard that would be perfect, but I'm not eager to ask players to remember all the cards that have been exiled or shuffled away.

      Maybe (Your progress is the highest converted mana cost among face up cards you own.) The "face up" there is important not for morph but for clarifying it doesn't count cards in your deck or sideboard.

      One nice thing about only looking in the graveyard is that it perverts the concept of progress a bit. It's very industrial revolution. It's not enough to create, you must consume.

  2. We discussed progress counters when the topic first came up, and transitioned from there to more organic means, but if you look at the way poison tracks inexorable progress (toward defeat), progress counters could explicitly track inexorable technological progress.

    1. I'd forgotten all about that approach! As discussed before it's highly parasitic, but that's not a death knell, merely a red flag.

  3. Have we given any consideration to listing converted mana costs on Common cards that care about that, as reminder text? The same way that Convoke was given more specific reminder text, and overlay cards for Morph and Manifest have reminder text. Like, if Accelerated Mutuation were reprinted, it would be:

    Accelerated Mutation 3GG (C)
    Target creature gets +X/+X until end of turn, where X is the highest converted mana cost among permanents you control. (This card's mana cost is 3GG, so its converted mana cost is 5.)

    Reminder text like this could be on anything that references CMC in the set, and if that creates a wide enough as-fan, players could learn to anticipate what CMC would be for any given card.

    1. I like it (except that putting the reminder on an instant that looks at permanents is a bit misleading). Iterating:

      Accelerated Mutant 3GG
      Creature - Mutant Beast (cmn)
      Whenever ~ attacks, it gets +X/+X until end of turn, where X is the worth of your most expensive permanent. (A card that costs 3GG is worth 5).

    2. All those instants and sorceries in Scourge reference permanents, but I get your meaning. Oh, maybe player's would've gotten the point of Scornful Egotist if it had the reminder text.

      Scornful Egotist 7U (Common)
      Creature — Human Wizard 1/1, 7U
      (This card costs 7U, so it's converted mana cost is 8.)
      Morph U (You may cast this card face down as a 2/2 creature for 3. Turn it face up any time for its morph cost.)

    3. It feels really off to me to do this on something like Scornful Egotist, but on cards that actually reference the quantity it could help. My one qualm is that cards caring about converted mana cost are already on the textier end of common, especially if we rule out ones with Xs which have comprehension problems of their own.

    4. It definitely adds text, but this is the perfect way to transition from CMC to 'worth.'

      FWIW, I love this reminder text on Scornful Egotist, because it gives players a hint why it exists.

  4. Other things that can be tracked (but probably not that NWO friendly):

    *tapped and/or untapped permanents
    *potential targets for a spell or ability
    *mana in the mana pool
    *playing with part of your hand revealed and counting how many revealed cards you have in hand
    *number of attatched/equipped/fortified permanents

    Discarding ideas from the past leads to a discard theme, too... It could be Grandeur or something like: discard a card that has the same name with a card in your graveyard: do something.

    Well those are probably not too usefull, but still. Spitballing.

    1. Mana in your mana pool could be a cycle maybe:

      False Medicine B
      Sorcery (U)
      Target creature gets -X/-X until end of turn, where X is the amount of mana in your mana pool.

      Unstable Medicine R
      Sorcery (U)
      Unstable Medicine deals X damage to target creature, where X is the amount of mana in your mana pool.
      Always watch out for the side effects.

      Energetic Medicine U
      Instant (U)
      Untap up to X target creatures, where X is the amount of mana in your mana pool.

      Hardy Medicine W
      Instant (U)
      Prevent the next X damage that would be dealt to you this turn, where X is the amount of mana in your mana pool.

      Growth Medicine G
      Sorcery (U)
      Up to X target creatures gain trample until end of turn, where X is the amount of mana in your mana pool.

      Like X spells, but you still get to cast something else. Blue and white felt like they could use instants here. The rest require tapping out for full effect.

      Like you said, probably not too useful.

    2. I agree that there's less immediate room to work with these, but given that we're trying to enumerate all the possibilities they're worth pointing out. Thanks!

  5. I have to say I really like the idea of a non-competing Shade-esque ability to represent progress. It reminds me of some of the ideas we had for Progress. I think Access the Machine might have been the name for this ability at one point? If you put a slightly higher set cost on it, you can make sure it's never degenerate unless you do enough work for it.

    Something like this should be simple enough for common:

    Technocrat Shade
    Artifact Creature - Golem - Common
    Access: Technocrat Shade gets +1/+1 until end of turn. (You may pay 3 to activate all Access abilities on all permanents you control. You choose in what order they resolve.)

    ...and have enough play that you could do stronger things up the rarity/CMC pole:

    Artifact - Uncommon
    Access: Choose one:
    *Target player exiles two cards from his or her graveyard.
    *Target player puts the top two cards from his or her library into his or her graveyard.

    Recycling Plant
    Artifact - Rare
    Access: Add 1 to your mana pool.

    Gelend, the Central Computer
    Legendary Artifact Creature - Construct
    Access: Put a research counter on Gelend, then you win the game if Gelend has 8 or more research counters on it.


    1. The Access idea certainly has potential, assuming it can be developed to be useable on a lone card without being broken when drafted around.

  6. With the correct flavor approach, land counts could be doable (Scute Mob and Dragonmaster outcast also play around in this space). A kind of "this land provides resources for me to use towards progress" could work?

    Terra Nova Woodcutter 1G
    Creature - Human Warrior (C)
    Exploit 5 - When Terra Nova Woodcutter enters the battlefield, if you control five or more lands, put two +1/+1 counters on Terra Nova Woodcutter.

    1. Mechanically, this seems really solid.
      Thematically, it feels more like nature world or exploration/colonization world.

    2. Yeah, I'm having a hard time seeing "I have lands!" as the strip mining setting you're envisioning.

  7. Mine Collapse {R}
    Instant (cmn)
    ~ deals damage to target creature equal to your industry. (Your industry is the number of land cards in your graveyard.)

    Cargo Mech {4}
    Artifact Creature-Construct (cmn)
    ~ ETB with a number of +1/+1 counters on it equal to your industry. (Your industry is the number of land cards in your graveyard.)

    Mine Car {3}
    Artifact (rare)
    {T}, Put the top card of your library into your graveyard: Add an amount of colorless mana to your mana pool equal to your industry. (Your industry is the number of land cards in your graveyard.)

    Compulsive Research {2}{U}

    Glimpse the Future {2}{U}

    Bitter Revelation {3}{B}

    Harrow {2}{G}

    Scout the Borders {2}{G}

    Tormenting Voice {R}{R}

    Abolish {1}{W}{W}

    Polluted Mire

    Flagstones of Trokair

    and that's before we even get into dig as a smoothing mechanic.

    1. Industry is certainly a good approach to graveyard progress, especially given its piggybacking to real world issues. One area to watch out for is having cheap cards like Tormenting Voice and Polluted Mire that are going to encourage players with industrial spells to mana screw themselves. I'd start testing with all enablers under three mana avoiding discarding or sacrificing lands and instead getting them from the library.

    2. I really like counting lands in your graveyard as a marker for progress. In addition to Dig, we could do a cost reducer that's basically Affinity for land cards in your graveyard. To avoid making players mana screw themselves, we could have lands with sacrifice effects that have mana costs well beyond range of mana screw, like "4R, T, Sac: CARDNAME deals 4 damage to target creature or player."

  8. Exploring the idea of P/T as progress, in a way more similar to Kalonian Hydra or Allies:

    Gnomify (To gnomify, put a colorless Gnome artifact creature token onto the battlefield with "This creature's power and toughness are each equal to the number of Gnomes you control.")

    * Gnomify can be used on all manner of spells and effects, like proliferate, populate, or Elddazi token effects.
    * Since it makes an artifact, it could be used on spells of any color or on artifacts.
    * At Common it creates some board complexity that is a red flag for NWO.
    * I think it's an exciting looking effect if there are enough spells to support it. Not sure what the As-Fan would need to be.
    * It lets us have colored spells that create artifacts if having artifacts is a thing the set cares about.