Monday, October 12, 2020

Memorizing MDFCs: Zendikar Rising Edition

Zendikar Rising was the first set to introduce modal double-faced cards (MDFCs), cards that had two sides where each could be cast from your hand. MDFCs offer a unique challenge to designers through the memory problems they naturally create, but also represent innovations in reinforcing player recall. This is the first article in a three-part series about how Magic R&D designed MDFCs to get around their inherent memory issues.

The core problem with MDFCs is that players essentially have to memorize the back of every card in the set. If you draw an MDFC, you have to know both sides so you can choose the best side to cast (or play in Zendikar Rising's situation). However, if the back side of the card is too complex for you to remember, there's no way to look it up without betraying to your opponent that you have that card in your hand. If you're using opaque sleeves, you'd have to take the card out of the sleeve and flip it around, while if you're using a checklist card, you'd have to physically pick up and flip over the card in your sideboard. (You could fully write down both sides of the card on the checklist, but that's asking too much of players.) Even if you pull out your phone to look it up on Scryfall, your opponent will suspect something's up.

So, in essence, MDFCs have to have a back side that you can remember with a bar this big:

I expect that each of the three sets with MDFCs this Standard season (ZNR, Kaldheim, and Strixhaven) will employ different methods to solve these memory issues. For ZNR, the design team played their hand with the utmost restraint, both to slowly introduce the audience to the new technology and to internally shake out how to design cards like this.

Uncommon and Rare MDFCs

Besides the Pathway lands, every uncommon and rare MDFC works exactly the same: The front is a monocolored card and the back is a land of that card's color that enters the battlefield tapped.

These cards are about as simple as it gets. By the time you've played with the cards a little, you can remember the rules for their back sides by simply looking at the MDFC symbol in the top-left. However, just because they're simple doesn't mean they aren't exciting or have variety. Some of these cards have narrow or conditional effects (Song-Mad Treachery), making the utility of these effects go up significantly when you can toss it onto the battlefield as a land. Others are simply very expensive (Ondu Inversion), turning the MDFC land into a variant on Cycling where the draw is free, but it's sorcery-speed and always gives you a mediocre land.

The most interesting, to me, are cards like Skyclave Cleric and Tangled Florahedron. The fact that both the spell side and the land side are only good in the early game lowers the utility of these cards compared to their more expensive compatriots. Normally in a set with landfall, having a late-game land wouldn't be so bad, but many decks try to fit creatures with classes for party, and since all of the landfall creatures have no class, the early-game MDFCs go back down in value. However, making weaker executions of these cards is just as valuable as making strong and exciting ones; if you were drafting, and all of the uncommon MDFCs were extremely good, it would make your decision as to what to pick too easy. It also helps illustrate how slapping an MDFC land on the back can change your evaluations of strong cards before the later sets presumably get more complex.

Making these tapland MDFCs en masse was probably the ideal execution of MDFCs for the first time, because, while easy for any level of players to remember, they're powerful enough to entice enfrancised players and interesting enough to play to make Spike happy.

Pathway Lands

The Pathway lands are also pretty simple, but I would like to note that the placement of the "preview" box in the bottom-left makes it easier for you to tell at a glance what colors you have access to in your opening hand. Assuming a player holds their hand of cards in their right hand, the left side of each card is visible when splayed. This is more important for these cards than the other MDFCs because in decks with three or more colors, sequencing your land drops is important and it's necessary to know all of your options at once.

Mythic MDFCs/"Bolt" Lands

Unlike the other land MDFCs, the mythic ones let you pay 3 life to have the land come in untapped. While it's not the biggest difference in the world, forgetting you could have an untapped land when you need it could make for a pretty debilitating feel-bad. Fortunately, the design team put in two precautions.

The first precaution towards preventing players forgetting the land on the back is different than usual is that all of these cards are mythic. That means that in limited and "kitchen-table" Magic, you'll likely only have one of these in your deck. It's a lot easier to remember one exception to a rule than four or five, especially when the one exception is attached to a card that's much bigger and splashier than most of the uncommon and rare MDFCs. 

The second precaution is that all of these cards have three colored mana symbols, except Shatterskull Smashing, which still has two. This makes it more likely that you'll play these cards in a deck with two colors maximum, meaning you're most likely to have two of the "bolt" MDFCs maximum, as well as a smaller mix of tapped and bolt MDFCs. 


I keep coming back to a comment Ken Nagle made during GDS2 judging:

I’ve sampled most TCGs out there, and some of them have a problem I call “designer boredom.” The designers work forty hours a week on the same game, and through sheer boredom their card designs become laden with complexity by the time the product ships. It takes honed discipline to hold fast to the simplest cards possible knowing that every player starts playing your game completely clueless in the beginning.

 Case in point: most cards in Uno are as simple as “Red 2”, which can be played on a red card or a 2 card. Similar cards include “Green 4” and “Blue 7.” The uncommon-esque cards mess with the turn order (“Skip” and “Reverse”), while the mythic rare is the broken “Wild Draw Four.” There are few cards in Magic as simple as Uno’s Red 2. And yet, tons of people enjoy a simple game of Uno every day.

The Zendikar Rising MDFCs are the design studio's method of making Red 2s and Blue 7s before they start exploiting the technology for Skips and Reverses. It might not demonstrate the full potential of MDFCs right away, but for a mechanic that still needs to test the boundaries of what people can remember on the other side and how to remind them.

Look for the continuation of this series when the full Kaldheim spoiler is revealed!

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