Milling for 53
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Milling for 53

Questions I Try to Answer #1: What Can Be Done to Reduce the Number of “Non-Games” in Magic?

In September 2021, on the Goblin Artisans blog, Ari Nieh shared eight questions she had about Magic design that she didn’t have the answer to. Rightfully so — they’re hard questions.

Here are my attempts at answers — or, perhaps, ponderings — to each of these questions. This post answers the first question. I’ll be writing additional posts as part of a series, responding to Ari’s later questions.

1. What can be done to reduce the number of “non-games” in Magic?

Let’s start with a definition:

A “non-game” is when the choices in the game are meaningless to change the trajectory of the outcome of the game. Player A is winning for sure.

Much of the time, this is due to a stark contrast in the quality of opening hands kept between players in a duel — say, a 7-card hand with a great curve-out plan versus a 4-card hand that’s all lands.

Other times, a non-game happens when a deck matchup greatly favors one deck. Perhaps this happens in Limited if one player has an amazing card pool with multiple rares/mythics in the right colors while their opponent had a lousy card pool with little synergies and no “bombs.”

Then there are non-games that happen that could have been avoided during the drafting/deckbuilding process. The resulting deck didn’t have to end up as unlikely to win as it currently is. Usually, this is because a player is new to the game. But, hey, this can happen for anyone — a lapse in judgment in deck choices, or perhaps even an intentional “go big or go home” risky-gameplan attitude.

Someone who drafts Battle of Wits in Magic 2013 draft and runs hundreds of basic lands is intentionally creating a high likelihood of non-games.

I recall drafting Grim Reminder in Mirrodin draft, trying my best to draft as many different commons as possible. While the strategy worked at least once in one of those games, that I can remember, I did intentionally end up with a subpar deck in the process — increasing the chances of a non-game occurring.

Lastly, Magic tries to balance the likelihood of winning when going first. In a duel, the first player skips their first draw. In reality, as with chess, the percentages may be skewed toward the player going first anyway. Depending on the format, this favoring can be more pronounced. If it’s pronounced enough, then the game becomes practically decided at the coin flip.

What A Magic Designer Can Do

There are two categories of tools we can use as designers to help combat these situations: a) updating the comprehensive rules; b) following new design principles when creating cards/sets

A. Updating the Comprehensive Rules

Editing the comprehensive rules to try to lead to less non-games is a rare and serious decision to make. Examples of aspects a designer can tweak here for the sake of lessening non-games are mulligan rules and rules for the starting player’s first turn.

In HearthStone, there’s the concept of The Coin. This gives the player going second a single temporary mana. This is sorta like giving the player going second a Treasure token.

Imagine the second player does start with a Treasure token (and drawing a card on their first turn, unlike the first player). How often would you consider going first versus going second in this case? Perhaps you happen to be playing an affinity or metalcraft deck, and you’d always go second just to achieve having +1 to your artifacts count. (Though, for consideration, perhaps a Magic equivalent of The Coin doesn’t have the artifact type.)

However, I’ll nip this particular 1-to-1 translation in the bud, because of the nature of Magic’s resource system versus HearthStone’s. HearthStone doesn’t need to worry about whether your opening hand has the right mix of lands and spells. Magic does. A Treasure token doesn’t help the fact that the person going first can still draw terribly — and, thus, a non-game occurs.

In Settlers of Catan, there are many ways one can acquire the resources they need. As a failsafe for progress, any player can trade four cards of a single resource “to the bank” in exchange for any one resource. It’s the worst exchange rate, but it helps fight the variability of the game. Without this mechanic, players can end up pretty much stuck, at the whims of the die rolled each turn.

To contrast with Catan, some Magic environments have Clue Tokens, Blood tokens, MDFC spell-land cards, cycling, etc. that help with card flow and selection. These mechanics help create more consistency in games — and, thus, reduce the number of non-games.

However, these are all tools of the ‘B’ category below. So, for this ‘A’ category, what if we followed Catan’s example and had an “always on” outlet for allowing you to not simply “draw, *sigh*, pass” ad nauseum?

If we want such a rule for helping to prevent mana screw, then perhaps this:

  • Once during your turn, you may reveal your hand. If you revealed no land cards, exile two cards from your hand. When you do, create a land token of a basic land type of your choice and play it.

Or maybe, to help with either mana flood or getting to specific answers to a particular problem you’re facing (a planeswalker removal spell, for example):

  • Once during your turn, you may pay 2. If you do, look at the top two cards of your library. Put one into your hand and the other on the bottom of your library.

(There are many permutations for what the cost and effect of each of these can be, but the core of these concepts is to address the extreme results of the randomness that leads to non-games.)

A problem with adding these additional mechanical outlets is that the game becomes yet more complex. That’s true, but I urge you not to stop your exploration of this avenue there. Does Magic necessarily falter when you add one rule like this to the game?

Consider Planechase. Planechase had a similar idea of adding an extra action one can take during their turn: rolling the planar die. This was helpful for those who are mana flooded or are effectively dead in the water to a particular board state. Rolling a planeswalker symbol could lead to randomly destroying that enchantment that was greatly hurting your chance of winning — where your library may have only had a 1-in-40 chance of drawing an enchantment removal spell.

I’m not suggesting we all add Planechase decks to our games. But I want you to compare your experience of how well Magic games were able to handle “roll the planar die” as an extra game action one can take in a turn. Use that as precedent for considering pursuing your own creation of a rule that adds a new game action.

B. Following New Design Principles

Magic already has a lot of rules in place that help fight against non-games from occurring.

For example, there are more two-drops than there are six-drops in each new set. This is important for draft, where you need enough copies of lower-mana-value cards in each color.

Then there are more subtle rules, like not having too many cards in a set with more than one color mana symbol. If you imagine every card only had color mana symbols, there’d be a whole lotta strictly-monocolored decks. Which is fine in a vacuum, but because there are eight drafters in a pod, and only five colors, some of those drafters would get the short end of the stick for drafting quality cards in their color. And when that happens, you get — you guessed it — more non-games.

On the flip side, if every card only required generic mana to cast, you’d still get non-games occurring. Because then it becomes a matter of whether someone was lucky enough to draft the best cards.

But I digress, as they say. The point is that there are rules in place for how to design a good Magic: The Gathering set. And some of these rules help to create non-games. So how can we improve on our approach to designing sets to reduce the number of non-games in Magic?

Standard Vs. Limited: Strong-But-Narrow-Answers

Tthe usual lens through which I design Magic cards is in the context of a single draft set. This is mostly because my experience and expertise isn’t so hot when it comes to creating a good Standard environment. I mention this because there are absolutely multi-set Constructed design principles.

Original Innistrad was released after the artifact-laden Scars of Mirrodin block. Stony Silence was designed to hate on artifacts because of those Mirrodin sets.

Designing cards that are harsh answers to previous sets’ cards is a tactic to help ensure new sets’ cards can shine. You don’t want a Standard that only features cards from a year ago. More importantly, if any set ever contains strategies that are too oppressive (creating more non-game), these answers can then make sure this design accident doesn’t last for too long in Standard (except when the tactic of banning cards occurs).

Interestingly, however, if a card is so narrow in how it answers other cards, its existence can contribute to slightly increasing the number of non-games in at least Limited. Stony Silence isn’t exactly a bomb rare in Innistrad Limited — even though it can help stop Manor Gargoyles and Invisible Stalkers trying to wield Butcher’s Cleavers. That Stony Silence could been a strong playable card for your white Limited deck that you might have desperately needed in pack three of the draft.

So let’s consider a different approach to these kinds of silver bullet Constructed answers.

In Kaldheim, Reidane was designed as a “break-in-case-of-emergency” card in case snow became “too good” in Constructed. Unlike Manor Gargoyle, it was placed in the same set as the snow it hates on (this is because it’s too weird to mention snow hate in a future set where no other card in the set cares about snow). Again, it’s good to have answers like this, but it also helps that Reidane has a lot to offer besides hating on snow.

The scenario of a drafter with a white deck needing a bomb rare in pack three? Here’s what they now get:

  • A 2/3 flier with vigilance for three (amazing) AND hating on expensive spells; OR
  • Protecting yourself against, say, an army of 1/1 tokens

The praise for Reidane is more focused on the fact that we’re dealing with a rare card. In reality, a lot of cards at rare are above-average for strength. If you imagine that there were only 5 rare cards in a draft instead of 24 (three single-rare packs per player in an eight-person draft pod), then whoever ends up with those rares are probably more likely to win in a game. And when it comes down to that, more non-games occurs.

But perhaps the concern for a balancing act of “answer cards in Constructed but also be a playable card for Limited” is making a mountain out of a molehill. If that’s true, then we can still ask Pithing Needle to exist in sets from time to time. And perhaps the allowance for rares in a set that have way-too-narrow effects can be a small, nonzero amount without greatly affecting how games play out in a Limited environment.

But I think there’s some merit to the concern for doing better than Pithing Needle for the sake of Limited. Because Sorcerous Spyglass exists.

Sorcerous Spyglass, at the very least, lets you look at a hand. Always applicable in Limited, so that’s good (though, still sideboard material). But if you find out your opponent is running a planeswalker, you can side in Sorcerous Spyglass. And, at the very least, due to how Limited features many different cards from draft to draft, looking at a hand then naming is a means to help increase the chances your card actually does something.

Pithing Needle was reprinted in Midnight Hunt. Should it have been Sorcerous Spyglass instead? Or did Standard need the faster Pithing Needle?

(Though, it needs to be mentioned that reprints can occur for the sake of addressing scarcity of physical copies or for formats other than Limited and Standard. And choosing Pithing Needle over Sorcerous Spyglass could also have been a matter of wanting new art for Pithing Needle and/or that Pithing Needle felt more flavor-appropriate for Innistrad than a Sorcerous Spyglass.)

Liberal Use of Mechanics that Fight Non-Games

Blood Tokens in Innistrad: Crimson Vow can help players look for answers or otherwise have something to do with those excess lands they’re topdecking in the late-game. Innistrad: Midnight Hunt didn’t have Blood Tokens. But that set did, wildly, return investigate on a handful of cards.

This was a concession to increasing the complexity of Midnight Hunt, as Midnight Hunt already has mechanical themes that aren’t investigate. It’s yet one more mechanic for newer players to keep track of.

When reviewing blue cards at common, there lacks a Divination equivalent, so I’m not sure investigate, in Midnight Hunt, helped uptick the number of ways to increase card flow. Secrets of the Key could very well be considered the Divination replacement at common.

Regarding choosing including investigate, there could have been another motivation at work here. Maybe a strong desire to connect to Shadows Over Innistrad as well (there may be those whose nostalgia for Innistrad goes hand-in-hand with investigate).

As an aside, I notice that there have been rares in 2021 that care about specifically Clues, and sometimes I wonder whether another rule for designing Magic that creates fun for players is providing a few more tools for the fun toys to synergize with, around a relatively close time period.

In any case, maybe we need to take a page out of Midnight Hunt’s book. Whatever Midnight Hunt’s intent was with investigate, this opens the door to not being so shy about slapping mechanics onto cards. The guiding principle I’ve followed up until now for designing sets is to try to aim for only four major mechanics, at most, for a set. For complexity reasons.*

*Funnily enough, both Midnight Hunt and Crimson Vow are quite bloated with mechanics. Both Strixhaven and Adventures in the Forgotten Realms follow more closely to the “up to four major mechanics” principle.

Even for faction sets that tend to have five groups, Strixhaven showed us that we can avoid the conventions of older Ravnica sets and still be able to craft a mechanical identity for a particular, say, color combination.

Now, investigate itself is flavor-dripped. I don’t think investigate is appropriate to return for every set. But that’s OK — we can ensure that every set has at least something that functions like investigate. Like Crimson Vow using Blood Tokens.

Cycling has been an all-star in the past about ensuring you can toss your expensive cards away so that you can, well, cycle through your deck more to get to lands and cheap cards. And kicker lets you have great consistency in your curves as well as provide a dumping area for your excess mana.

Both cycling and kicker have the advantage of being flavorless, unlike investigate. Due to this, I feel like it’s tempting to make cycling and/or kicker evergreen and call it a day. However, I don’t think this should be our path. That’d be unnecessarily burdening every set with the specific gameplay patterns of cycling and kicker. Not all evergreen or deciduous mechanics even appear in every set, so it’s OK to not constrain ourselves this way.

Instead I want a new guiding principle that is employed for every designed Magic set. While I’ve seen before design articles discuss how beneficial smoothing mechanics are, I don’t recall seeing hard metrics for how many cards with such helper mechanics should be present in a set. Just that “it’s a great idea.”

Like, cycling appeared in every color in Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, but had more concentration in red and white primarily and blue secondarily. That’s fine, but green didn’t even get a cycler at common. Was there another card at common that helped smooth the randomness and prevent non-games? Not sure — if there was, great.

But imagine we could have ensured every color had at least a couple cycling cards at common. The baseline for how smoothed-over the randomness in Limited games, for any color combination, becomes increased (of course, we don’t want to accidentally make cycling-focused decks too good …so, instead, just imagine we peppered in investigate on additional commons for this purpose like Midnight Hunt did with their handful of cards).

I want to see the same energy that we have for, say, ensuring blue always has a soft and a hard counterspell at lower rarities but put into these helper mechanics. Rules like “every set has a Colossal Dreadmaw or Honey Mammoth that also has a cycling-like mechanic on it.”

It reminds me of the approach of the modal double-faced cards at uncommon and higher rarities in Zendikar Rising — every color had access to the same number of MDFC spell/land cards. This only helps with a mana base and, subsequently, combat non-games.

Of course, we can’t just stick cycling on every card in a set. Because then we might as well do the Catan approach of creating an invisible rule that’s true for all cards. But there’s gotta be some magical number between 0% and 100% that we could devote to these cycling-like mechanics.

We’re already using Treasures often enough nowadays that helps to ensure we’re not mana screwed and/or color screwed, albeit only in colors like red.

Let’s make a new mechanic if we have to, to help ensure we meet these new metrics — perhaps named “trade” or “barter”. Look at color indicator dots. They’re used when needed and are discreet. Think in those terms as well. Invent an icon if you need to. Remind yourself of how card frames, iconography, and templating are all a canvas for you to paint your solutions.

Conclusion

To recap, here are a few things to consider going forward for how to reduce non-games in Magic:

  • Invent a new game action a player can take to either address mana-screw, mana-flooding, or to help increase card flow
  • Design your silver-bullet-for-Constructed rare/mythic cards in a way so that they’re not always sideboard material in Limited
  • Establish a metric for your sets, that a number of cards have helper mechanics that help to fight the symptoms of non-games. Then do whatever it takes to have your set meet that threshold, whether it’s designing a new mechanic or bringing back an old one that fits well.

That last bullet point, for finding that magic number to follow for each set, can be more of a collaborative effort amongst the Magic design community.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. Until the next hard question I try to answer, take care.

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