Monday, July 20, 2020

Impact Tremors

My defining guideline for game design is impact. Broadly speaking, impact is how much a game sticks with you: How much you remember a game after you played it ("that was a good game" versus "I blew up an alien spaceship with my kicks"), how excited it makes you, and how much you want to tell the stories of the game to your friends. Well-designed games don't necessarily need impact, but a good game without impact is dry, inaccessible, and hard to pitch to your gaming group. I make sure that every game I design is as impactful as possible.

Until now, my writing on impact has focused on general/"hobby" games because my game company's blog is aimed at a general audience who might not know that much about Magic. This article views impact through the lens of Magic design: What makes individual cards, and Magic as a whole, impactful, and defining guidelines for creating more impactful cards.

Note: Impact is a subjective topic, so your experience with what cards you find memorable may differ from mine. I hope this article provides you with something even if you disagree with the examples.

The ideal Magic set would have 100% high-impact cards. Obviously this doesn't mean they should all be strong or even mechanically unique, as sets need glue to hold them together and making a set of all playable cards is essentially impossible, but it's achievable in concept to make every card memorable

A card can be impactful in lots of different ways; let's look at some of them.

Pushing Boundaries

One easy way to make an impactful card is to push the boundaries of the game. This doesn't necessarily mean through power, and in fact some pushes to power level are so subtle they don't end up being that memorable (eg. Falkenrath Reaver, the first ever red vanilla 2/2). It should be very flashy and obvious.

You can push the boundaries of what cards are capable of doing mechanically (Mindslaver); the boundaries of a card's layout and formatting (Fire//Ice, double-faced cards); the scale of already existing effects (Enter the Infinite, the various tripling effects we're now seeing in modern Magic design); or even the boundaries of how high numbers can realistically go (Darksteel Colossus).


Simpler cards are more impactful because it's easier to remember what a simpler card does, so it'll be more likely to stick in your memory. Compare One With Nothing and Questing Beast. One With Nothing is extremely impactful, both because it's notably terrible (I expound on this later in the article) and because its rules text is an easy-to-remember three words long. Meanwhile, Questing Beast is clearly the more powerful card, but it has so much text on it the running gag is that nobody can actually remember what it does.

Mythic rare cards have more of a responsibility to be impactful than rare cards, as they are supposed to make less invested players want to open more boosters. As such, despite being the least-occurring card type, mythic rares are frequently less complex than rares.

This also applies to individual abilities on cards. Ajani, Mentor of Heroes' ult isn't particularly strong, but I'd argue it's the most impactful ult of any planeswalker yet printed. It's four words long, has a ridiculously high number in it, and immediately informs you exactly what this lion dad is all about.


Cohesion is how well everything on your card unites into a single concept. It's easier to remember a card that did one really cool thing as opposed to two or three kind of cool things, so cohesive cards are more impactful.

Top-down design is a great way to combine seemingly disparate elements into a cohesive whole. One of my favorite examples is Impetuous Sunchaser – it has three separate abilities that all do different things, but once your brain chunks it into "oh, this is a top-down Icarus", the card becomes a lot more memorable than small hasty fliers from other sets.

Cohesion and simplicity are usually closely linked because the less stuff your card does, the easier it is to be a cohesive whole. However, there are ways around this. Let's compare Primal Command and Austere Command: Both are complex modal spells that share a cycle, but Primal Command does four completely different things, while Austere Command's modes are all mass removal targeted at different things. Thus, Austere Command sticks in your mind much more easily than Primal Command.

On a side note, this is one of the big issues with planeswalker cards, especially since they're supposed to be the face of the set. A traditional planeswalker card has three fairly complex abilities, loyalty numbers on each ability, a starting loyalty, and a mana cost. Worst of all, the ult abilities, which are supposed to make the players' eyes bug out with awe, are usually fiddly, with multiple lines of text and emblems.  It's difficult for a card to stick with you if it does a million different things, especially since you only tick up once before it gets killed by a removal spell. Unsurprisingly, the most impactful planeswalkers are almost always the most powerful (Jace, Oko, Liliana).

Narrative Equity

Mark Rosewater's best ever article was on narrative equity. Briefly summarized, narrative equity isn't the story the card tells, but the capacity for the player to tell stories using the card. This is, of course, makes a card significantly more impactful, because now you have a personal story of how you used the card in a weird way to tell your friends about. The article focuses on how Magic as a whole provides many opportunities to create narrative equity; this post will go into how some cards have more narrative equity than others. (I also comment on Rosewater's article and its relation to general board game design on my blog.)

Cards with stronger narrative equity often have an element of variance. The Miracle mechanic had a lot of flaws, but the ability to turn around the entire game based on a lucky draw would sink into your mind for the rest of your life. The variance can even have a really bad failure state – the most memorable Collected Company cast is when you whiff on all six cards.

Another key to making high narrative equity cards is versatility. The more situations in which a card can be used, the higher the chance of a player doing something with the card that few other people can say they did. Stifle has higher narrative equity than Counterspell because abilities come in all forms, from a fetchland's sacrifice ability to a Ravenous Chupacabra, or even as a Hail Mary defense against a Phage the Untouchable hit.

Power, For Better Or For Worse

I've mentioned this a few times already in this article, but I'll put it here for clarity's sake. In order to make an extremely impactful card on power level alone, it has to be either extremely powerful or extremely weak. Of the two, weakness is easier to demonstrate, especially because different formats have different busted cards but truly bad cards are bad in every format. It's easier to know why Sorrow's Path is terrible than why Fatal Push is good.

It is a very, very bad idea to make a card more memorable by making it more powerful (or weaker). Wizards learned this very quickly around BFZ-EMN when they tried to make story-important cards stronger and thus more impactful. It's best to look at this academically and in terms of how the player base reacts to older cards, like how Black Lotus is the most impactful card in the entire game based on reputation alone.

Art and Flavor Text

Impact on a card isn't limited to just the text box. The right art and flavor text can elevate even the most unassuming draft common into the talk of the set. A great recent example is Ferocious Pup from M20 – if the card was an elf druid with a wolf companion or something, it would be easily overlooked, but because it had a cute puppy on it (and because of the narrative equity of sacrificing it to Bloodsoaked Altar, chump-blocking an opponent's huge monster, etc.) it became one of the most talked-about cards in the set that wasn't later banned.

The most impactful flavor text is either funny (Reparations) or deeply tragic (Reckless Cohort). There was a push in the mid-2000s for more poetic flavor text, like on Wandering Ones and Brine Elemental; although these could get aesthetically gorgeous, they weren't "quotable" (ie. impactful) so I can understand why flavor text transitioned to something snappier.


Games are more than a pile of math bound together with some graphic design. Designing for emotional meaning is just as important as designing for intellectual fulfillment, perhaps more important; many games are as well-designed strategically as Magic, but it's Magic's immense level of impact and ability to create memorable moments that keeps players engaged for, on average, over a decade. Great games tell stories, and the greatest games tell stories so good you'll run to tell them to others. 


  1. Great post, thanks!

    The part about bad cards makes me wonder: Is Storm Crow impactful, just because it's so well-known for being mediocre? (This is like the math joke-question of "what is the smallest uninteresting natural number?")

    1. I was considering putting in a section about cards that are memorable based on external reputation, though I was thinking about Séance. I felt in the end that the designer can't really control how players interact with the game so cards that become memorable because of some weird meta joke that doesn't really have to do with the text on the card wouldn't be helpful as a design guideline.