Monday, March 29, 2021

Designing for the Kitchen Table

Common knowledge among those who pay attention to Magic design is that the most-played format isn't really a format: It's "kitchen table" or "cards I own", where casual Magic players assemble decks from the cards they have on hand and slam them against each other. However, there hasn't been much of a discussion about what it actually means to design for kitchen table Magic. Let's take this opportunity to explore the implications of truly casual Magic formats and what that means for design teams.

The closest article I've seen to focusing on kitchen table Magic was Mark Rosewater's article "Casual Play", but that was more about designing for casual players, not casual formats. (Incidentally, that article also has the line "force your players to make entertaining choices," which should be mailed to all new game designers in 800-point font.) What I'm interested in is how to improve the experience of playing the most casual form of Magic possible, despite it being the format over which a design team has the least control.

In order to do this, we need to lay the groundwork and make some educated guesses about how kitchen table Magic usually goes. My concepts for designing around kitchen table Magic are based on three assumptions. While of course they don't apply to every casual player or group, designing for the lowest common denominator will catch players more to the center on the casual-enfranchised gradient, as well. Additionally, like I mentioned in my article about designing for Tammy, these assumptions are not to imply that kitchen table Magic players are less intelligent or anything like that – you're of course going to be less knowledgeable about something if you dedicate less of your time to it.

With that said, let's make some assumptions.

Kitchen table Magic players can own any number of cards, from any set in Magic's history, in any combination.

Everyone acquires their first set of Magic cards in a different way, but usually people are given their cards by a friend, loved one, or generous game store. What these have in common is that players aren't generally given composed cards that add up to a larger strategy and illustrate a wider world of Magic cards beyond them. So each casual player has a patchwork collection of Magic cards that could be from any set in history, with a wide variety of mechanics, card types, and power levels.

The fact that the silent majority of Magic players might not have a chance to see any cards we design in their context means that most cards have to pull double duty of being a fun standalone card and finding greater meaning in its Limited or Constructed environment. At the very least, the card has to have some small-l legacy compatibility with previous cards. Using tribal payoffs as a simple analogy, elf or dragon or merfolk tribal are more likely to work with all kinds of casual players because so much of those tribal cards have been printed already, and the creature types are so common, that it's significantly more likely that you'll have some elves or dragons or merfolk laying around than, say, crabs.
Many of the most solid Magic mechanics are either backwards-compatible or their payoffs are. In its Limited environment, proliferate was intended to synergize with the -1/-1 and poison counters other cards made available. However, proliferate worked with any kind of counter, ranging from the +1/+1 and level counters available even in the previous block to older and more esoteric counters, including the charge counters from the original Mirrodin. In this way, even if someone ended up with one proliferate card and nothing else from Scars of Mirrodin block, they'd still have a lot of chances to make the best of it.

This is also the benefit to not letting all of your draft archetypes reinvent the wheel and sticking with some tried-and-true ones like UR spells or WB lifegain. Since all cards from this archetype work together regardless of the set they came from, it's more likely for a kitchen table player to make a cohesive deck even if they have a random pile of Eldritch Moon and Guilds of Ravnica booster chaff laying around, for example.

Of course, if you focus too much on backwards-compatibility, you'll end up chained to the designs of the past. Kitchen table players are still players, and enjoy finding exciting new Magic innovations as anyone else; instead of steering away from the next transform or adventure, it's better to ensure that innovative cards can function outside of the set or deck it was originally made for.

Kitchen table Magic players don't know any cards besides the ones they own.

Enfranchised Magic players have created a mythology around certain cards – Brainstorm and Bonfire of the Damned have more history than Hardened Berserker and Corpulent Corpse. Even if a card is personally meaningful to you as an enfranchised player, you have the ability to differentiate between something being important to you and important to the Magic community as a whole. Wizards will frequently print cards that reference these mythological cards, Moxes and Lotuses most prominently but also things like Rite of Belzenlok that nod to previous designs.

Kitchen table Magic players have most likely heard of Black Lotus and maybe some of the Moxen, but besides that they don't really have the shared mythology of enfranchised players. They instead judge the cards based on their own standards playing against them – a mediocre card can be the stuff of legends if it wins a lot of games within this player's group, and a great card can be ignored because it doesn't have the play context that earned it its reputation.

How can we benefit from this as designers, or at least design with it in mind? The first thing to do is to make every card impactful in some way. As much as we'd like our players to know about the splashiest rares and weirdest designs in the new set, there's a reasonable chance that many people's exposure to new cards will primarily be through unassuming but necessary effects like Shatter. That means that through flavor text, trinket text, art, or titles, every card should be able to tell its own story without being reliant on others. Cards like vanilla creatures deserve special attention, as while we can ignore them during a draft and still get a lot out of the set, a kitchen table player might see only this vanilla creature and nothing else. 

The second is to make use of as many top-down designs as possible, even in "bottom-up" sets. Mechanically interesting cards are often interesting because of how they function in the larger environment of the game – self-contained cards like Ichor Slick are rare (and even Ichor Slick is much better if you knew about both madness and cycling beforehand). However, since top-down designs are based off of cultural knowledge that the majority of players would bring into the game from outside, the impact rate even among people who haven't seen a single other card before is significantly higher. 

In the end, kitchen table Magic and Commander have the same issue in that we don't know how many of the components we design will actually make it to tables. However, while Commander has the issue of an enormous card pool and a ruleset that heavily emphasizes a few strategies, kitchen table Magic essentially selects a card pool at random without our knowledge or control. We can't guarantee perfection, but we can at least try to design cards that function under those circumstances.

Kitchen table Magic players don't know any rules besides the bare minimum needed to play the game, plus any rules on cards they own.

Unlike a video game, where we can update the game to remove irrelevant or unwanted components, Magic's almost 30-year history is both indelible and massively confusing to someone who only plays kitchen table Magic. As more and more cards are created, the comprehensive rules grow steadily larger, increasing the barrier to functional knowledge of Magic as a game. Fortunately, one of the factors that makes Magic significantly more accessible is that players only need to know about 1% of the rules to have a fun time.

If someone owns Magic cards, they probably know the basics of things like mana, attacking, blocking, and so on. They might also know some of the slightly more nuanced rules like hand size limits and deck size minimums (although they are less likely to know why keeping a deck at the minimum size is good). Besides that, the only thing we can be reasonable assured of that a player knows is the mechanics on the cards that they own and/or are familiar with from a friend's collection. A kitchen table player from 2010 might not necessarily know how planeswalkers work, since they're relatively rare, but one from 2019 post-War of the Spark would be more likely to since there are so many more and at lower rarities.

If everyone playing kitchen table Magic has roughly the same level of rules knowledge, this is no issue whatsoever. The problem is when one player has more rules knowledge than another, and is able to exploit this to a perceived unfair advantage. WotC ran into this problem when they introduced vehicles in Kaladesh. Previously, all that players really needed to know about attacking is that you picked some creatures and then attacked with them. If you didn't know that the gap between declaring an attacker and that creature attacking existed, you would at worst lose a little bit of equity. However, with vehicles, whether you crewed your Renegade Freighter before combat made an enormous difference, and losing because you didn't realize it would be a good way to sour on the format, card type, or even game as a whole.

Note that the big issue here is more with cards where you can make an unknowing rules blunder, instead of cards where you can exploit a rules loophole to gain an advantage. If I flicker Dreadful Apathy with the ability on the stack, and my opponent didn't know I could do that, they've now learned a trick that they can use against other people and don't feel too bad about it because there was no way they could have interacted with what I did. However, if I call someone out on not crewing a vehicle before they sent creatures to attack, they feel like they cost themself the game – and I don't know about you, but I don't like playing games where I feel like I'm my own worst enemy.

When designing a new card, or especially a new mechanic, besides asking how someone could exploit it at its best, you also have to ask how someone could shoot themselves in the foot with it if they didn't understand it well enough. If the answer to the latter question is dire enough, that means you have to redesign the content, alter its rarity, or even consider cutting it altogether depending on the project.


Because Magic is a modular game, we shouldn't assume that everyone who plays it is going to have access to or understanding of every single component. So designing for the kitchen table doesn't mean overhauling our philosophies of good gameplay or card design; it's ensuring that someone with even 1% of the cardpool available to them still has access to good gameplay and card designs. Magic's been able to develop a broad, almost mainstream audience because of this focus, and continuing it is the only way to ensure enough of a player base sticks around for the TCG model to even make sense.

No comments:

Post a Comment