This entry is part 19 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth


All of my articles in February were devoted to multiplayer. The month of March will have a theme as well: design. The design of Magic is a tightly controlled process that includes only the bare minimum amount of people necessary to actually produce a viable product. For a game with a playerbase in the millions, it’s simply amazing that the bulk of the concept work comes from so few people; they really are the shepherds of Magic’s future.


Because only a handful of people work on a particular set during the design phase, the team can achieve a unity of vision and avoid the costly distractions that come from larger groups. However, it also means that some ideas will never be introduced, because they’re not the focus of the few members who are on the team. This month, I’m going to be focusing in on some key principles in game design that are not receiving proper treatment by the team that creates the game.


Easy to learn. Difficult to master.


This phrase is commonly known as Bushnell’s Law in the world of game design. It holds as its premise that all good games are both (you guessed it) easy to learn and difficult to master. This creates a natural draw for players that moves them through the progression from novice to expert and continues to engage them for years thereafter.


When a player immediately understands a game, then they will get a sense of agency and confidence. No one wants to feel confused, and very few people want to play a game where they know they’re going to lose because of that confusion. Games that are easy to learn alleviate this problem through the simplicity of their mechanics. A key example here is tag. Tag is remarkably simple: one person is “it,” and their job is to “tag” another player by touching them, then that player becomes the new “it” and the game starts over again.


Do you understand? Yes. Can you do that? We find out by playing the game.


Tag actually has pretty good sticking power. It stays fun for way longer than you would expect, which is perhaps why it’s a favorite of elementary school teachers at recess. The children can reliably have fun with little thought or input from the supervising adult. (Spoiler alert: it’s still fun as an adult. Try it.)


As it turns out, though, tag fails at being difficult to master. There really isn’t a deeper level of strategy for experienced players to access. Both the novice and the expert are competing on the same axes: speed and agility. Tag could benefit greatly from the addition of new mechanics that could enrich the experience for regular players. Why do you think we’ve created so many variants over the years? “Sharks and Minnows,” “Manhunt,” “Capture the Flag,” even “Humans vs. Zombies” are extensions of the core mechanic of Tag. We layer on new mechanics that require us to strategize, cooperate as a team, or change the ratio of “It” players to increase the difficulty. We yearn for Tag to be more difficult to master. We shape it into the game we want it to be.


With respect to Bushnell’s law, a prime example of a great game is Poker. You can learn the basic rules of Poker in one game, but the strategy of Poker can take months to master; the mathematics might take years. Even then, you’re just starting to scratch the surface: the mental game of Poker is so much more important than anything else.


The strategy of a psychological levelling game is simple to define, but impossible to master. You can never be perfectly certain of the right move, because there’s hidden information involved. The options given to you are discreet and simple: raise or don’t, call or fold.
Despite the simplicity, these decisions are still difficult to make for a variety of reasons. There are consequences to a bad move. The stakes of a Poker game add strategic depth to the game by increasing the stress of players during decision making moments. This is ingenious game design. NFL commentator Cris Collinsworth has a reputation for saying things that make you scratch your head and wonder how he graduated high school, much less got his job, but he did offer up this gem once upon a time: “You can practice making two-foot putts, but you can’t practice making a two-foot putt to win the Masters.”


A Magical Game

Magic shares those high pressure decisions with Poker, at least at the premier competitive level, but how does Magic fare when you evaluate it through the lens of Bushnell’s law?


Magic is tough to learn. It’s also pretty much impossible to master. It’s like Magic has been blue-shifted up the spectrum of intensity. The game is so complex that just teaching someone the basic rules–like the phases of a turn, casting spells, how the stack works, etc.–can take dozens of games, and even then the new player is bombarded with too much information too quickly. They can’t retain it all from one session to the next. The intricacies of combat math or timing your spells correctly is so context-dependent that even if you explain these principles to another player, they won’t be able to apply them properly until they’ve seen hundreds of different game situations.


All the semi-complex mental math required in Poker is necessary for Magic, too: combinations, probabilities, constant arithmetic; all of these things are vital to an understanding of the game and can’t be taught in one sitting. Most of them can’t even be referenced until the new player has mastered another concept or set of concepts on this list. We haven’t even begun to address the most complex aspect of Magic’s mental game: actually playing against another human being.


The psychology of prediction, representation, and levelling are game mechanics that are completely invisible if you can’t play a perfect technical game. This is a game with so many elements that a full understanding of it could be a lifetime pursuit. In complexity, it rivals constructs of human behavior like culture or romance. If good games are easy to learn, Magic: the Gathering is an utter failure.


There is a bright side. Magic is, in fact, difficult to master. I’ve been playing since I was a small child–twenty-one years, by the most generous accounting.


A list of things I have been doing the longest:


  1. Breathing

  2. Eating

  3. Speaking

  4. Reading

  5. Playing Magic


Even after all that time with the game, I commonly describe myself thusly: “I never said I was any good at this game.” Magic is a monumental success of the “difficult to master” school of thought.


At the heart of this success is Magic’s business model: Wizards wants to sell more cards. Their job as a business is to unite my ongoing search for deeper levels of interaction within the game with their need to have predictable and constant revenue. In this endeavor, Wizards is a resounding success. The matrimony is pure poetry. Wizards releases a new product that’s separate and distinct from what we have seen before. The cards, the mechanics, the gameplay experiences are new… at least in theory.


The product itself, however,  is modular in nature. You can play with it by itself or you can jam it together with your old stuff to create something that you haven’t seen before. Every time a new set is released, the player base gets excited to know how these cards will interact with what they already have; they desire to purchase and play with the new product. Basically everything about Magic’s brand is aligned around the idea of getting people to play and buy the new set. Premier events are scheduled to coincide with releases. A season’s worth of competitive play will revolve solely around the new cards, whether it be sealed deck, draft, block constructed, what have you. We transition the cards and the conversations to new formats with rotating card pools, changes to the restricted list, or even adoption of new competitive formats. All this gets the attention of every type of player on this new set of cards.


What elegance! This is magic in every sense of the word! With every card printed, the game deepens. On day one of a new draft environment, the Reid Dukes of the world are created equal with the Grandpa Growths (essentially the only time this is ever true). Neither of us has an advantage until we play and explore and learn the details of this new environment. This is what keeps the competitive landscape moving and it creates a game where it’s incredibly difficult to stay on top for long. In Chess, if you’re the best player in the world, you can expect to win every tournament. You will likely be world champion for years, maybe even decades. Because there is no variance in the game, no hidden information to befuddle decision making, and no new game pieces to alter the strategy, in order to beat a better player you have to become a better player.


In Magic, this is decidedly not the case. One of the best competitive hot streaks I can remember is Owen Turtenwald in Return to Ravnica-Theros Standard. He had been a professional-level player for years before that, but along with his brethren of the “Peach Garden Oath,” Reid Duke and William Jensen, he resolved to practice more and win more than he ever had before. During that season he was like a shark in the kiddie pool, taking down multiple Grand Prix victories with the same deck: Pack Rat, Thoughtseize, Ultimate Price, and some Swamps. He was considered the best player in the world at the time and his performance could only be described as dominant. But you know what? He didn’t win every event that season.

The season after that, he was still a great player, but he wasn’t executing at nearly the same level. The game changed. The game changes all the time and just because you were great last season, doesn’t mean you will be great next season. You are faced with a new set of skills to learn and it is much easier to outwork someone when everyone is given an even playing field.


But What To Do?

It’s clear that Magic is great once you get to know it, but how do we shine up its first impression so that it can be more easily digested by new players? Presentation should be the first step, because it’s the easiest to implement and some of these changes are already underway. Core sets have been removed, to be replaced by a new product aimed specifically at new players to help them learn the game. Duels of the Planeswalkers games are meant to serve dual purposes. First, they act as outreach to subset of gamers that is known to have overlap with Magic players: video gamers. People who play video games on console or PC can buy Duels and learn to play Magic through the course of playing that game. Secondly, duels features a simplified system of timing and interaction. The phases of the turn and the processing of the stack are still technically sound, an important detail, but the interface is smooth and proceeds much more like a paper game in real life. The game only stops when someone actually wants to do something. Duels also features a small card pool with a limited set of mechanics that are generally intuitive and easy to learn. This helps to train the player’s memory and makes the daunting task of learning to anticipate certain cards or lines of play much more manageable. Duels is a great model for how we can simplify the core elements of the game, while still delivering the core essence of Magic gameplay and whetting the player’s appetite for a more complex and deeper strategic experience.


As I mentioned above, implementation is the easy part. The more difficult task will be to try and build a better new player experience from within the design department–literally making the game more friendly for first-timers. This will be a gradual process that will take years and may not be immediately noticeable, but subtle decision points can have massive impact on future outcomes. I’m not a member of the R&D department, nor do I have any plans to apply for that job in the future. That being said, I do have a few ideas:


  • Create a distinction between new sets for limited and new sets for constructed. Limited is incredibly difficult to learn and relies upon mastery of mechanics that are already present in construct play. Products like the Duel Decks series are much smaller environments and don’t require the same skill floor. Additionally, you can open the product and actually play and learn the game immediately. Constructed is where we should promote new player interaction, not limited.

  • The “new player ques” on MTGO need to be redesigned to actually teach players the game. Like the tutorial stage in World of Warcraft, these new player environments should focus on basic situations, walk you through the process of playing, and provide tips on on how to play better.

  • Commit to fixing MTGO problems immediately, and do better quality assurance testing before new updates go live. MTGO is the digital face of your game and a core pillar of the Magic brand. When it doesn’t work correctly or the user interface isn’t enjoyable an extra layer of adversity is interposed between the new player and gaining mastery in the game. If you make MTGO more user friendly and provide better functionality, more people will want to play and they will have a better experience when they do. This should be considered a key driver of growth and revenue for the game. Can you imagine how many more people would play Magic online if the software was unanimously considered to be perfect instead of unanimously considered to be embarrassing?

  • Sets should be smaller and more frequent. This idea has actually already gained some traction under the new block model. Smaller environments are easier to learn and remember, and the point at which we get a new player to feel a certain level of agency in the game is the point at which we can hook them with the rich strategic depth Magic has to offer. A limited environment that has 350 cards total is feels different than one that includes over 700 like RTR block.

  • Dramatically reduce the number of “new” mechanics used in a set. My proposed guideline is to have one new mechanic in a set. Fully examine it, and then move on to something else in the next set. As it stands, there are roughly four new keywords per set, with ten or more in each block. This adds a lot of unnecessary vocabulary to the game every few months making it more difficult to get in the game while not really adding much to the greater volume of strategic play already available to more seasoned players. I propose to do away with this entirely. There will be, at most, one new keyword. Reinforce, Bolster, Outlast, Support, etc. they are all tired, rehashed versions of the same concept: put a counter on a thing. Only veterans of the game who have seen every version of this mechanic can appreciate the nuanced differences between them, and as one of these players I can confidently say that it isn’t appealing to me. To new players, they all work effectively the same way in concept, but the execution is different in the most meticulous and tiresome of ways. This is no bueno. If you’re going to make me memorize a new keyword and understand a new mechanic’s strategic applications, it should really be new and it should really be worth adding to the game’s already enormous complexity.

  • Similarly, do away with functional reprints as a design trope. If a card does the same thing as another card, it should have the same name. It should also cost the same, unless you are truly making a landmark statement about a shift in the thinking of the design team. When you declare that Counterspell is no more, and decide that Cancel is the new standard, it should feel like a watershed moment for the game. Doing this 50-75 times in every set is just too much.

  • Be conscious of the words that you use on a Magic card, particularly in names and keywords that will be used often. They need to be read quickly and easily. They need to be spoken aloud frequently. Phthisis is a sweet name, but it was a mistake. Names are powerful and incredibly important. They should be easily translated and they shouldn’t rely on a knowledge of the language or spelling conventions of a language not used on the card. In the example above, the origin of the name is Greek, but I am always reading the card in English. Although many modern English words have Greek roots, they are not themselves actual Greek words. I shouldn’t need to know Greek to be able to pronounce the card name and to understand what that word means. There’s no joke here about it all being Greek to me. The most egregious exponent of the poor naming conventions in Magic is with legendary creatures, which are of particular importance to Commander players. The creative team exercises far too much liberty in crafting these names, creating some truly monstrous abominations that defy pronunciation. In general, any card name should be shorter than three syllables total, regardless of how many words are in the title. The name should be conscious of Zipf’s Law: common words tend to be shorter. Short, common words are the most easily understood. We can apply this same concept to the rest of the text box as well.  

  • This same idea should apply to naming mechanics, but with an added consideration for deeper flavor meanings. “Menace” is a cool word and is short and catchy enough to serve as name for a mechanic. The problem with Menace is that you have no idea what it does by looking at the name. If you asked someone to guess, “requires two or more blockers” would probably not be in the top ten. Flying, First Strike, Trample, Haste. Is it by coincidence that these are so resonant with players? No, of course not. They have simple, evocative names that easily identify with simple and entertaining mechanics. There are no moving parts. There is no extra text necessary to explain the concept that my thing flies over your things head so you can’t block it. It just makes sense. If a mechanic isn’t similarly intuitive, it needs to be scrapped. If you don’t have an equally intuitive name for a mechanic, the name should be scrapped.


Finally, for about two years, I’ve been working on what I call the new player pack or  “N00b Cube.” It’s a collection of very basic cards with simple iconic effects that can be used to teach new players the game. There are specific lists for each color that can be assembled from the cards in the cube that can be used to teach a specific lesson.


On the basic level, there’s a specific decklist to go over the basics of the game. As your new player masters some key skills the guide in the new player pack would specify a new deck list to use to introduce the player to a new strategic situation or mechanic so they can learn in an isolated environment.


Let’s say you wanted to teach a new player the purpose and process of countering spells. You would look at the little guide in the “N00b Cube” and it’ll tell you to assemble specific lists for two decks that you can play against each other to highlight the act of countering spells. Interacting with each other in a teaching moment like this will help transfer the necessary information about the game by actually playing the game. The lessons in the new player pack’s guide would walk you through play situations of escalating difficulty and combine mechanics together slowly until we have covered all of Magic’s evergreen mechanics. The collection of cards used in the new player pack would include all of the things necessary to introduce a variety of formats, as well.


I call it a cube because I fully intend that it be used to create a limited environment to teach draft and sealed once players have a solid foundation from playing these predetermined constructed lessons. Personally, I believe the biggest obstacle to learning limited is the steep learning curve associated with card selection and deckbuilding skills. Once you’ve played through the counterspell lesson, you’ll know what they do and why you need them. You’ll play through other lessons and think “I wish I had a counterspell here.” You’ll learn what a deck wants naturally by playing with different strategic archetypes. When it comes time to pick your own cards, you’ll already know what cards you like, so you can very quickly learn to force draft your favorite archetype.


Typically, learning limited requires a strong base of knowledge in several areas and a few leaps of logic on top of that. By teaching this way, we only ask new players to embrace one new idea at a time and then focus on concept while playing games with other elements they are already familiar with.


The fact that a product like this doesn’t exist already is tragic. I have high hopes that whatever new product Wizards develops to replace the core set will work well and incorporate some of these principles. I also sincerely hope that over time R&D takes steps to actively reduce complexity in the game, cut down on unnecessary vocabulary, and make the game easier to teach to new players. I love the game and I want to see it grow and flourish in the years to come. The only way to guarantee that is to make it accessible and appealing to new audiences.


How do you feel about the complexity of learning Magic? What would you do to make the game easier to learn? What systems does your community have for teaching Magic to new players? Let us know in the comments.


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“In General” is the place where I share my ideas on unconventional topics that are often only tangentially related to Magic. This column is a mixed bag where I collect and present ideas that don’t have a home anywhere else. If you want a column about strategy, psychology, design, economics, philosophy, internet culture, and referential humor, you have come to the right place.

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