Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Lenses for Friends: Making Mechanics Play Well and Tell Stories

As some may know, I recently had the pleasure of being a guest on the Beacon of Creation custom Magic design podcast, discussing their community designed set Castmire with Bradley Rose and Adam Victor Klesh. On that podcast, I mentioned something I called "mechanical lenses", which I use to evaluate the mechanics of game designs, especially for custom Magic design. Today, I'd like to begin a series where I formally introduce these mechanical lenses, by telling some stories about how I've used them to help fellow designers with their design troubles. In this part, we'll introduce two lenses which most designers think they're very familiar with already...

Whether you're designing a custom Magic set, or your own game, the mechanics of a game (defined in this article using MDA framework) are important as they contribute the most to your game's dynamics. For games which have many expansions or sets, like Magic, these are going to be the mechanics specific to your product, such as your set's keywords and other mechanical themes or subthemes. Your mechanics need to fulfill many needs, but no needs are more important than that they help your product play well, tell stories, and get players hooked.

Prismatic Lens by Scott Murphy
These three dimensions - gameplay, experience, and interest - are the "lenses" a designer should look at their mechanics with respect to. You likely already view mechanics through these lenses, but being actively aware of them can help you think more deeply about them. Consciously applying the lenses means identifying problems that would evade passive perusal.

Gameplay Lens

Stations art by Stephen Tappin
In Magic, mechanics need to be balanced across colors, card types, quadrants, playstyles, etc. In addition, this lens covers choices made to optimize the play experience, such as your number of mechanics, overall total complexity, including mana sinks and card smoothing. Most custom Magic designers are familiar with making sure their mechanics are spread across all five colors, all the card types, and so on... but fewer think about fulfilling the broader needs of good gameplay.

These broader needs are the core, optimal gameplay experience and activities of your game: the core gameplay loop, when it's running smoothly and playing at its best. In Magic, players:
  1. Untap lands, draw a card.
  2. Have the opportunity to spend mana (and other resources) to cast spells or activate abilities throughout your turn. (Sometimes requiring 'instant speed'.)
  3. Attack with their creatures.
  4. Pass the turn to their opponent - now, only instant speed spells and abilities can be cast.
  5. Block their opponent's attacks with their creatures.
  6. Return to their turn.
The best games of Magic are the ones where players have the most opportunities to participate in the gameplay loop. The best mechanics are ones which, put together, both keep the gameplay loop circulating, and have their presence felt throughout the gameplay loop.

As Jay discussed in Non-Games, Magic has to be concerned with making sure the optimal gameplay loop is experienced in every game, and the best solution is not to change the rules, but to change how we design cards and mechanics. For this reason, many Magic sets feature mana sinks, and card smoothing. Non-games can be broken down in a few cases: players draw too many lands, too few lands. they don't draw their spells in the right order for their strategy. Mana sinks help players who have drawn too many lands spend their mana, and card smoothing helps players find more lands, and draw their spells in a more fun order. Through the lens of gameplay, it becomes obvious how such mechanics complement each other.

The gameplay lens is at its best when used to identify whether mechanics are overlapping too significantly in their gameplay - as discussed by Jay in a previous article regarding Inspired and Heroic, and how their contributions to the gameplay loop were not different enough from each other - or identifying parts of your gameplay that aren't being adequately covered. 

As an example of the latter, I've had the pleasure of helping zarepath, of Netropolis fame, with his new project Karsus. Karsus is built around the mechanic Crystallize. However, zarepath was struggling with coming up with more mechanics for Karsus. Using the lens of gameplay, I knew these other mcehanics should flesh out the other parts of the gameplay loop. At the same time, they should work well with Crystallize, helping the mechanic achieve its full potential.

Crystallize, at its core, is a mechanic about a meaningful choice. It can be a mana smoothing mechanic, helping alleviate missed land drops or fix colors, or it can help a player improve their board state.  If Crystallize doesn't present a meaningful choice, one where the 'correct' choice is varied and controversial, then its gameplay is undermined. The best way to ensure the set makes the choice matter is to make its mechanics care about which choice you make. Therefore, I encouraged zarepath to look for a mana sink mechanic, which the Crystal would contribute to, and to look for a mechanic that made the size of creatures on the board significant, and was lower-to-the-ground, like exert, which would be most easily fought-back-against by choosing the counter.

However, designers can't just create a suite of mechanics focusing only on how they meet the needs of gameplay; they need to not just play well, but tell a story, too.

Experiential Lens

Feeling of Dread by John Stanko
The experiential lens is another that many custom Magic designers are well-aware of after the Fifth Stage of design, and which many game designers in general strive to understand. Starting with Scars of Mirrodin block, but perhaps exemplified by Innistrad, "themes are no longer the canvas, but the paint." In other words, mechanics in the experiential lens are used to cultivate specific aesthetics; experiential design evokes genres, emotions, atmospheres, moods, and role-play.

As discussed on the Castmire Deepdive on Beacon of Creation by myself, and in many other places by authors more distinguished than I, Innistrad was trying to capture the "horror genre". Specifically, it emphasized Hitchcock's idea of suspense, as "the bomb under the table" - known information to the players, that evokes looming dread and terror, rather than shock and surprise. Double-faced cards, of course, best exemplify this: they are just sitting on the board, menacingly, with a dark promise to transform into something far more dreadful if you fail to stop them. Flashback references the graveyard, of course, but even better, the opponents waits in suspense, nervous of when it will be played again in the future. Morbid also directly references creatures dying, but more importantly, it makes any death of a creature into a sinister event, a thing to dread. Unnamed mechanics, like the Vampires 'slith' abilities, invest such dread into parts of the core gameplay loop as well.

The experiential lens revolves around ludonarrative harmony: actions and activities that reflect the intended goals of a set. Just as Innistrad's mechanics tried to instill dread in players, so too did the mechanics of Theros try to make them feel triumphant, and Kaladesh tried to make them feel like an inventor. Mechanics play a significant role in the experience, as they're the majority of what people consciously are aware of when playing the game, but individual cards are vital too. However, one must be careful when designing for an experience. Many times, a game comes into conflict with their intended experience unintentionally, or they rest too much of their weight on the presentation of a mechanic, rather than how a mechanic is embodied as an activity.

The experiential lens can help designers pierce through the bias of knowing what the experience was meant to be, and identify how it actually plays out. Recently, for example, I was helping Reuben Covington with their wonderful set Vastuum after the results of the last Custom Magic Discord Custom Standard poll. The "wasting" mechanic was intended to be the set's mechanical core, but wasn't appealing enough to audiences. The set's intended experience was a world of scarcity, survival, and desperation. Wasting a land was supposed to feel like wielding magic so powerful, it shatters the world.

Looking over the cards, the problem with wastes was subtle - it fit all the themes, so why did it not land with audiences? The problem was that many cards that waste lands did not live up to the promise of its flavor. The idea of magic so powerful that it drains the land of its color is quite splashy, but the execution in cards like Downcast Elder was at odds with that concept. While wasting's play experience matched the broader themes of the set, and the intended role of being a 'person scrabbling for survival', it did not carry the potency that it had in-fiction, and thus did not have the splashiness that Reuben imagined it having, as creating a 1/1 token does not feel like "world-shattering magic". The solution is to pursue more designs that feel "world-shatteringly" powerful at common, through more awe-inspiring flavor, and pursuing more impactful effects.

Lay Bare the Heart by Karl Kopinski
In game design, I am a strong believer that a game should have an "emotional thesis"; to put it more romantically, your games should have heart. It should be saying something. Creating a game is an artistic, expressive act, and that means coming at it with something you wish to express, from an emotive, meaningful place. This means more than just designing with a specific experience in mind; it means designing with a message in mind. A game does not necessarily need to be designed from the start with such a message, but as a designer, you should be working to uncover your message as you design: your reason for making your game. You should be trying to say something with that experience, to share with others why you're making your project about what it's about, what makes it fun and something to love. For example, if you're making a custom Magic set about fairy tales, you clearly feel enough passion for that concept to choose it; find that passion, and channel it into your set as a message, sharing that passion with your players, helping them see what you love about that experience.

Designing with heart is a unique strength that hobbyist designers and custom Magic designers have, as all of our projects are passion projects. So leverage it!

Pull from Tomorrow by Sara Winters
Unfortunately, that's all the time and space we have for today's article. Coming soon in part two, we'll discuss the final lens, and my favorite: the lens of interest. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments, and any personal experiences, triumphs and struggles you've had with designing mechanics that play well and/or tell stories.


  1. Thank you for the article. Very insightful!
    The most story-worthy mechanic I may have designed was based around drinking, literally consuming alcohol. This was for our 2HG chaos draft extravaganza, where drinking was already the norm and the custom cards only reinforced that. Drinking consisted of either a shot or a significant swig (always based on the don't-be-a-dick rule) and could either be a cost or an action.
    The best moment was when a player used two cards that would be an infinite loop, provided he could drink a sufficient number of times. He tried to argue that since he had demonstrated the loop three times, it could be shortcutted, but we had none of it: either he performs the full loop or he loses! He tried to keep going... and fell well short!

    1. A great story! Memorable game play is definitely the pinnacle of the gameplay lens! It's also key to the third article in the series, coming soon: splashiness...

  2. This was a great piece and your participation in the podcast the last two episodes was nicely illuminating. I've been kind of struggling to figure out what they're looking for when I'm trying to participate in the design challenges they're having for Castmire, and your first episode really helped highlight the issue that I'm just not clear what sort of "experience" players are supposed to be having in the haunted house and with the mechanics.

    So it was your contribution in the first episode that led to my Leota U/B design. And as I was staring at her, that's when a sort of light bulb went off. "I'm doing this because it fits both the Disney character and also the set's mechanics, but hey, it really suggests a certain type of experience for playing U/B in this set." It's not clear on the podcast episode, but I actually submitted the card challenge first, and then afterward I hit them up with another message suggesting that artifact animation is a mechanic that could tie together U/B in this set, deal with the fact that the two colors are not sharing any of the special keywords of the set, and really create an experience for that color pair.

    As for my own iterating, I'm still very much a novice but in the set I've been crafting (on a plane that is pregnant, causing both life and disease to grow out of control) I find that frequently going back to iterate uncommon "signpost" cards is helping me nail down whether or not my mechanical plans are really creating actual interesting gameplay or experience. There are uncommon cards that I've changed four or five times as I keep fiddling with the mechanics as I keep thinking about what I want it to "feel" like to be playing various faction or color combinations.

    1. Thank you! I'm happy to hear that you found my presence helpful.

      I think you're on the right track here. Giving each archetype clear concerns and goals in gameplay is huge for building a set. And it helps us with the experiential lens too: how does what that archetype uniquely cares about or does, reflect a unique aspect of our setting, or our experience? Each archetype should portray a different facet of your set's overall experience.

      Talking about archetypes using the lenses sounds like a good idea for the future. Could be the sequel/companion to my article Types of Archetypes from the Tesla days.

  3. Really excellent game design theory. Thanks, Trevor.