Monday, December 11, 2017

Big Picture Mechanics

What kinds of mechanics does a set need to click? If we were designing a new set, what sorts of mechanics would we want to be sure to include?

First, let's review the marketed mechanics from the last few years of sets and try to categorize them.


Enrage gives you effects primarily when your creature combats other creatures. It is, primarily, a rattlesnake evasion mechanic, because it punishes your opponent for blocking. Because it can also be triggered on defense, via opponent's damage spells, or your own spells, it is also a turtling reward, a (rattlesnake) resilience mechanic, and combo challenge. There are only 7 cards with enrage, and only 2 are common.

Raid gives you effects after any attack you make. It's an aggression reward, because it incentivizes attacking. There are 14 cards with raid in Ixalan, 4 of them common.

Treasure fixes your mana and/or temporarily accelerates it. It is part mana fixing and part cost reduction. Because these are artifacts, treasure is also an linear enabler for artifact decks and decks that sacrifice artifacts or permanents. 19 cards make treasure, 7 at common.

Explore either makes a creature bigger and gives you scry 1, or it draws you a [land] card. The +1/+1 is fun and feels great, but I argue explore is card smoothing first, and monster making second. While the method doesn't affect the game state, the fact that this is a random mechanic is notable in terms of audience appeal (Tammy, specifically). 15 cards care about exploration, 7 common.

Vehicles are like equipment/auras—monster making. There are only 5, none common.

Double-Faced Cards are quests, challenging the player to fulfill the requirements to transform them. They are also splashy af. 10 cards / 0 common.

Tribal in general (especially dinosaurs and pirates) is the set's splash.

Hour of Devastation

Eternalize is a second-use mechanic with a dose of monster making. 10/2

Afflict is a rattlesnake evasion mechanic. 10/3

Exert is an additional cost on attacking—or in the case of a few cards like Oasis Ritualist, tapping—that gives you access to a repeatable effect. 11/4

Deserts are lands with alternate uses. Many cards check for deserts, which is a linear reward. 23/11.

Wizards didn't re-market Cycling after its return in Amonkhet, and that's a great reminder that there are many more mechanics in a set than those that get keyworded or marketed. Cycling is card-smoothing and appears 22 times in Hour, 14 at common.


Embalm is a second-use mechanic. Most such mechanics are mana sinks and this is no exception. 15/5

Aftermath is a second-use mechanic and a mana sink. It's a multicolor reward. 30/0

Exert is strictly available through attacking in Amonkhet, which makes this repeatable effect an aggression reward. 17/7

Cycling 40/20

-1/-1 Counters are a destruction mechanic, the effects that count them are a linear reward, and the cards that 'spend' them are monster making. 27/8

Aether Revolt

Revolt is primarily a loss reward , and secondarily a combo challenge to get a repeatable effect. 17/5

Energy is splashy and a combo challenge, but most of the cards that use it make it, and just enough for once, so its somewhere between an ETB effect and a repeatable effect in practice. Aether Revolt made a lot of attack triggers that produce and/or spend energy, so it was also an aggression reward here. 23/10

Improvise is a cost-reduction mechanic in the form of a linear reward tied to artifacts. 16/5

Vehicles are like equipment/auras—monster making. In this block, there were a bunch of vehicles-matter cards which are a linear reward. 16/4


Revolt is primarily a loss reward, and secondarily a combo challenge to get a repeatable effect.

Energy is splashy and a combo challenge but most of the cards that use it make it, and just enough for once, so its somewhere between an ETB effect and a repeatable effect in practice. Kaladesh made a few attack triggers that spend energy, so it was also a bit of an aggression reward. 47/16

Fabricate is a modal mechanic where you can choose either monster making or threat production. 14/7

Vehicles are like equipment/auras—monster making. In this block, there were a bunch of vehicles-matter cards which are a linear reward. 18/4

Kaladesh block had a lot of artifacts, which is a sort of smoothing mechanic, in that your color requirements are just lower on average.

I'd like to invite you to continue my breakdown for other recent sets, mention un-marketed mechanics that are significant to their set, and/or to question my classifications. Later this week, we'll try to synthesize this analysis and form some hypotheses.


  1. You're categorizing these mechanics with a lot of language that, while often intuitive, probably needs more concrete defining.

    That said, almost all sets are going to want a new mechanic for creatures. Sometimes that will be evasion. Sometimes that will boost that creature (or your team). Other times it's going to reward your for doing the thing the set wants you to do. I think the better distinction here is workhorse/marquee.

    A workhorse mechanic is something like afflict, fabricate, or any named mechanic in Ixalan. It's not splashy, but it's something that is versatile and, as part of the package of the card its on, shapes the metagame and the set identity.

    Marquee mechanics are much more attention-grabbing. These are the mechanics the set will use to sell itself with. Embalm and Eternalize are marquee. Vehicles (when first used) and Energy are marquee. In Ixalan, there's no named Marquee mechanic, but the tribal elements and splashy new tribes are the marquee mechanic. Raid and Enrage on their own are not mechanics, but the tribe's mechanical identities overall are.

    1. There definitely needs to be one or more creature mechanics, that's a good call. And we also need a marquee mechanic to sell the set. (I agree Ixalan's marquee mechanic is tribal, especially dinos and pirates.) I think workhorse mechanics aren't so much something a set needs, as much as a byproduct of having mechanics that aren't marquee.

      Why do you say raid and enrage aren't mechanics?

    2. Meant to write not marquee mechanics. They are definitely mechanics.

    3. I think workhorses are definitely needed, as I think having more than one marquee mechanic ends up hurting a set. Energy and Vehicles fought for a lot of the "cool new thing" space going on in Kaladesh, and I think the set (and each of those mechanic's respective debuts) would have been better if one had been left out in favor of the other.

    4. I agree a set only wants one marquee mechanic.

  2. Interesting angle, Jay! This is not how I'd have thought about designing mechanics for a set. And FWIW I don't think it's how WotC thinks about it either. From what I've read about the design process, it sounds like they start with "what would be cool / flavorful / appropriate / on-theme" and try things, and if the set is missing something mechanically they go back and change or add it later-- maybe even in development.

    The one obvious exception is the smoothing mechanic. Ixalan got explore, Amonkhet / Hour got cycling, and Shadows got investigate. Some sets don't get it (Kaladesh and Battle blocks stand out that way) and it's interesting to speculate why. I see you tagged artifacts as a smoothing aid in Kaladesh block, which was my first thought too. Battle is a bit more puzzling. It's got awaken, Eldrazi Scions, landfall, and more lands than usual at common / uncommon. None of those would be enough on its own, but I claim that each of them contributes to effective smoothing in its own way.

    If I were designing an arbitrary large set and had to bucket the mechanics in advance, here's what I'd go for:

    1. A bread-and-butter smoothing mechanic, preferably one that can go on any card type (e.g. cycling, investigate, explore, morph, kicker)

    2. A straightforward creature-centric mechanic, preferably one that encourages attacking (e.g. raid, afflict, exert, fabricate, skulk, support, rally, dash, prowess)

    3. A value-y or resource-focused mechanic that will appeal to Spike and possibly Timmy (e.g. treasure, embalm/eternalize, energy, emerge, awaken, exploit)

    4. A splashy, novel mechanic that will catch players' interest and help sell the set (e.g. aftermath, vehicles, colorless mana, and all varieties of DFCs).

    1. (Obviously these categories are pretty rough, but I find them more helpful for thinking about set design than terms like "rattlesnake", "monster making", and "linear reward".)

    2. I'm not suggesting this line of inquiry as a basis for designing a set, but something to think about as you do. I don't want to create a set/plane premise that prohibits the kinds of mechanics necessary for a fun set, nor do I want to make a bunch of fun and flavorful mechanics only to discover my set is missing something fundamental. If we can say, "Every set needs a smoothing mechanic, a creature mechanic, a spell mechanic, and a marquee mechanic (as well as something that appeals to each major audience segment)" that could save literal months of time trying to find a balance of mechanics that makes a set feel whole, play well, and appeal to everyone.