Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Questions I Can't Answer

I considered several possibilities for what to write about here- what words of wisdom I could bring back to the design community that gave me the skills to work in R&D. Ultimately, I decided the most interesting thing I can offer is not any advice (19 Ways To Get Your Commons In Shape For Set Design Handoff- #6 Will *Shock* You!) but questions. Hard questions. Questions that I don't know the answer to.

  1. What can be done to reduce the number of "non-games" in Magic?
  2. What templating advancements could make cards easier to understand or open up new design space?
  3. To what extent should the color pie be format-agnostic? Should any allowances be made for formats with different needs?
  4. How should the increased popularity of Commander impact our choice of premier set themes? 
  5. What can design do to make Magic more appealing to new or underserved audiences?
  6. How weak should the weakest cards be? We don't make cards like Mindless Null anymore- should we?
  7. What currently nonexistent way of playing paper Magic would be most beneficial to create? 
  8. What design convention are we still following because it's always been that way, not because it's actually good for the game?

I hope these spur some interesting discussion! I'm curious to hear your perspectives on them.

[You may be wondering, "Why is Ari writing for Goblin Artisans again?" I've decided to move on from Wizards of the Coast. I enjoyed my time in R&D immensely, and am proud of many things I accomplished there. Starting next week, I'll be working for Blizzard on Hearthstone Battlegrounds.]


  1. Always nice to hear from you ari!

    From my own playing experience, I think I have some weird points to make fore the first question. So, what is a non-game? Well, from my own experience, it’s when one player “can’t stop what the other is doing”. (This includes winning/racing) Which can be abstracted to the more useful: “can no longer meaningfully interact with the opponent”

    Now, there’s one word which makes this a pain to try and “design” around, and that’s the word *when*. A non-game is a gamestate that can be reached, and as such is dependent on the matchup, the luck of the draw, how one has played this far, and most damming to a designer of all: individual deck building choices. I don’t think I *could* stop non-games from happening to someone using very poor deck building.

    I think the only things that can be done is to encourage players to include interaction in their decks (such as modal cards that have a main plan, as well as some interactive utility Dawnbringer cleric comes to mind.) further is to stop there from being much in the way of “I win the game” cards that are hard to interact with.

    Think I will try to tackle those other questions sometime later.

  2. Welcome back Ari! I truest hope that you had a great time working on Magic. This list is fantastic and I can’t wait to think about these questions (and people’s answers) more.

    1. What templating advancements could make cards easier to understand or open up new design space?
      - Magic should continue its trend towards meta-contextual templating, as seen with Mill and Conjure and on cards like Growth Charm and Garth One-Eye. Referencing Magic’s existing card pool and shorthand for effects like Tutors or Impulse or Rampant Growth can significantly shorten card text. While it may feel more jargon-heavy, I’d argue that the current structure of legalese requires just as much background knowledge while also alienating players with too much text

    2. What can design do to make Magic more appealing to new or underserved audiences?
      - Sell/give away packs of blank cards with unique backs. The number one barrier to Magic being played and taught is the cost of the product and the perception that Magic can only be played if one can afford the cards. Enabling people to craft their own cards and decks opens the game up to economically disadvantaged players and allows players to create cards that reflect their hobbies and interests. Imagine a book publisher that actively discourages independent creative writing. How are you ever going to reach new audiences with that mindset?

    3. What currently nonexistent way of playing paper Magic would be most beneficial to create? 
      - Duplicate Sealed/Small pool constructe (http://goblinartisans.blogspot.com/2021/09/cubelets-mini-cubes.html?m=1) As spelltable play becomes more prevalent as a way for players to play paper Magic, the game should offer a format that has:
      1. A fixed price point so that each player spends X and has access to the product
      2. Deck building decision that encourages players to discuss optimal choices online when not playing
      3. A format where players can easily identify and know cards despite being played over a webcam
      4. The ability to competitively metagame

      Even as conditions improve post-pandemic, the ability to play remotely has the potential to retain players that would otherwise leave the game once a local playgroup moves or starts families. Commander and big constructed formats provide some of that, but it’s much harder for limited players and fans of Cube. My experience suggests this could be a good alternative.

      Other communal pool formats would also meet a similar need, like Battle Box or Big Deck (http://goblinartisans.blogspot.com/2018/07/big-deck-energy.html?m=1). Ironically, the closest Wizards has come to such a product was UnSanctioned, but due to the physical nature of UnCards it’s not really playable over webcam.

    4. To what extent should the color pie be format-agnostic? Should any allowances be made for formats with different needs?
      - Right now, I think eternal format products should hew closely to the standard color pie at the time they’re created, while the standard color pie should only drift fairly conservatively. I don’t see any massive holes at present in any format.

    5. What design convention are we still following because it's always been that way, not because it's actually good for the game?
      - Not allowing access to sideboards during games would have been a good answer, then Strixhaven happened. Not using outside components during a game would have been a good answer, then AFR happened. Now I’m not sure. There are certainly some boundaries left to push, but also the game seems more willing to push them in weird supplemental sets like Convention Bonus cards or Digital Jumpstart or even in standard sets. My answer to this would probably be similar to my answer in 2, but even there a lot of what I’d recommend is already happening.

    6. What can be done to reduce the number of "non-games" in Magic?
      - This is really hard to answer outside of the context of a specific set, but if pressed for a specific answer I’d probably recommend format specific mulligan rules. Requiring all formats to used the same mulligan rules is a holdover and winds up with a mulligan system that is less effective than it could be. You already see this on Arena where Bo1 offers behind the scenes smoothing or free mulligans in casual formats and in paper with the variety of home brew solutions for Commander.

    7. How should the increased popularity of Commander impact our choice of premier set themes? 
      - I’d love to hear more about how Commander is impacting set themes from behind the scenes. The main thing that I can think of is trying to avoid mechanics that explicitly can’t work in Commander. Lesson/Learn is probably the big one here, but I think continuing to track Day/Night after it’s no longer relevant for permanents on the table is another recent example. If a major component of a set is going to be problematic in one of the most popular Magic formats, I think WotC should work with the rules committee to find a solution rather than just leaving it ugly.

    8. How weak should the weakest cards be? We don't make cards like Mindless Null anymore- should we?
      - Weak cards are only interesting when they’re contextually strong. Weak cards that only ever get played out of the necessity of a limited card pool are dull and negatively impact the game around them. If a truly bad card isn’t at least interesting to Conch (https://www.cubecobra.com/cube/overview/conch), I just don’t see the point.

    9. RE:Your response to #2. This is two things, shorthanding rules text (Mill, Tutor, Blink) and conjuring preexisting cards. I don't see a ton of examples where shorthanding opens up design space. How much extra mechanical text do you want to add to a tutor, for example. But I also like the idea of being open to it, should a need present itself. Conjuring seems to have a much more certain future. Early Strixhaven had those scroll artifacts that could be sacked for a famous spell (Scroll of Giant Growth, Scroll of Mass Polymorph, Scroll of Spectral Procession, etc) and Arena has literally coined the game term conjure to give you a St*rmfront Pegasus or a Tropical Island. Spellshapers are pretty popular (even if they have play pattern problems) and being able to just say "create a copy of Naturalize and you may cast it this turn." is much cleaner than writing out the whole effect. My preferred direction is using meta-contexual detail to streamline token making. Treasure and Food are two recent success stories here, but I want to branch out to creatures. For example, I wish Strixhaven had made Silverquill Mascot tokens, or Prismari Mascot tokens, and left the detail in reminder text. And the dream is creating a Sliver Queen token.

    10. RE: Your response to #3. I strongly agree that every product should adhere as closely to the Standard color pie as possible. Everything that comes out in a given year represents the design of that year. And it undercuts the pie to include color breaks or strong bends in a product whether it's directly tied to a standard set or existing out on its own. Don't reprint Harmonize and then ask why players misunderstand G's mechanical space. I understand there are different philosophies regarding this though.

    11. My perspective is that Commander is a format defined by old cards which are design mistakes by today's standards, and there's little we can do to enforce the modern color pie in it through reprint policy. I'm sympathetic to the idea of omitting Harmonize or Beast Within from precons, but it does come at a significant gameplay cost. (I've designed a relatively small number of Commander products, so don't have the best grasp of the tradeoffs.)

      If we don't reprint color pie breaks in any product, they become a de facto second reserve list- is that a cure that's worse than the disease? We're still letting players break the color pie, just at a higher financial cost.

      Actually the intent of my question was more about new cards. I.e., since we can print new cards directly into older formats that skip standard entirely, should they have to adhere as strictly to the color pie as standard cards? And how does this interact with color pie being rate-dependent, when the mana cost and utility of different effects is extremely different between formats? E.g., Pongify is much closer to Swords to Plowshares when your opponents have 120 total life.

    12. RE:3
      Yes, I was thinking of that question in terms of new designs. Old cards are part of the format, but new cards for that format should largely stick to the standard pie. Harmonize gets in via legacy, but maybe green doesn’t get a card like Benefactor's Draught.

      On rate, it seems largely card dependent. I don’t know if Pongify is more or less in pie if it gives all of the opponents apes, but it’s certainly more in the color pie than giving blue artifact removal like Ravenform.

    13. There is already a de facto second reserved list based on the secondary market. Mana Drain is the example. It is a great include for most U commander precons, but it's expensive, so it gets held back for promos or high-end reprint sets. If Sol Ring hadn't been reprinted that first time I think it would live in the same space. Players just got lucky.
      I am also not with you that the format is defined by old designs. At higher levels players who have access to everything will include them no matter what, but new products don't have to. With the Harmonize example, most commander products are 2+ colors. So if the appropriate G draw cards like Hunter's Insight aren't doing enough to draw the deck cards, maybe G will just need to rely on artifacts or the precon's other color(s) to draw. Commander products are certainly powerful and exciting enough without the color breaking cards in them. So that's why I think in this case the cure IS better than the disease.

    14. Yeah, that's a good point that Commander as experienced by new players is quite different from how longtime veterans tend to play it.

    15. The concept of the color pie also being rate dependent keeps me up some nights. How can you scale effects to match their intended format without accidentally breaking what a color can do at that rate?

    16. It's something we're still learning to do. There are various knobs that make things stronger or weaker in different formats. Esper Sentinel and other "punisher draw" cards scale well to multiplayer and give white a boost where it needs it. Conversely, Guardian Project is completely backwards: its downside is meaningless in Commander, which is where green card draw is already stronger than it needs to be relative to black and blue.

    17. Duplicate Sealed as a product sounds good on paper but has logistics issues that would have it go stale.

      Since each player needs the exact same pool, either you are selling what amounts to a big precon two players are meant to buy the same copy, or the product would have multiple lists that players would need to buy the same of.

      In either case you would have to be a god of limited design to build a pool of 100 cards or so that would have enough replayability that it wouldn't be solved in a weekend. Even for a casual player that doesn't netdeck, what's to keep them from just building the same deck or similar each time?

      The advantage of limited is it is constantly changing. Replaying the same pool over and over again seems worse than just buying six packs and doing normal sealed.

    18. I actually think a "big deck" product is a good idea. You can randomize it so it's not stale and then you can have player just buy it board game style and play it out the box. If I was in Product Architecture, this is what I would pitch.

  3. Re (6) I'm a believer that no card should be printed that is never going to be played. Every card should have the chance of making someone's sealed deck, or shaman tribal, or Rebecca Guay themed art deck. Someone should want it.

    1. I mostly agree. The trend I've noticed that inspired this question is that making final cuts to a limited deck has gotten significantly harder in recent years. There just aren't as many cards that you obviously don't want, so the decision is much more challenging. Is that a good thing?

    2. I’d be interested to know how much of that shift has been due to open pod drafting online. Having a higher floor for your worst cards means that the “range” in power level of decks that would go 2-1 or 1-2 of their given draft pod is smaller than it would otherwise be.

    3. I haven't noticed a difference between the size of the effect for open pod vs. closed pod play. Open pod play causes more weird effects at the top end of the power curve than the bottom. (e.g. survivorship bias towards RW cycling decks in Ikoria)

    4. (It also hadn't occurred to me until just now that closed pod play has been basically nonexistent for most people during COVID.)

  4. Alright, I want to answer two of these:

    (2) R&D is currently exploring conditional trigger abilities in nearly every set. ETB if you attacked, or if your opponent lost life this turn, or if you control three or more creatures with different powers, etc. It is very wordy. And variations can be overlooked in all those words. Oh, I thought this hit creatures with power 4 or more, but it's toughness. Also keywords get to be soft and utilitarian, but triggered abilities cannot. So there is already competing messages when you look at a card. Does Magic want to spell everything out or just present data points? All this to say, I think "When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, EFFECT." should be changed to "Entry trigger - EFFECT." Then when you have conditions, the info is nicely chunked, "Entry trigger - If a creature died this turn, you gain 3 life."

    (8) Now that Set Boosters are an alternate means to collect, I want Draft Boosters that don't have a Rare slot. Very few Rare/MR cards are designed to benefit Limited, and in fact often Rares are bumped up to MR to relieve pressure on limited. Remaking draft boosters to optimize the experience could also drop their per pack price, making draft a cheaper option. One of the reasons people like Commander is that after you make a deck you like it's free. Cheap draft would be able to better compete. Moreover, this works for all draft products. Imagine Double Masters where the draft isn't $50 a pop. R&D spends so much time on draft, it's a shame when a Rare/MR breaks the format or is opened and is totally blank because it's a constructed card, or when the price of premium set packs cut people out of the experience entirely.

    1. Re (2): I agree somewhat here. as ive had a similar thought. But I’ll hat I thought of was just “E T B is long and unwieldy” The battlefield is the only place that things “enter”. Why can’t “when - enters the battlefield” be shortened to “when - enters”.

      This is more of what wobbles was talking about, but:
      I’d also want wotc to keyword “searching your library”, as that action is rather unwieldy and leads to a lot of superfluous text on the cards that use it. I would have used the word “fetch” for it. (So rampant growth would become “fetch a basic land card and put it into the battlefield tapped. then shuffle)
      What annoys me somewhat is how some tutors have *slightly different shuffle timings*

  5. I had "Read this article" on my to-do for way too long. ^_^; Finally done so. Thanks for these challenging questions, and congrats on Hearthstone Battlegrounds. I've decided to write some thoughts out in response to these hard questions in the form of blog posts, starting with question one:


    1. Second question, second blog post: