Making_Magic

Getting a bead on counters.

+1/+1 For the Road

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My friends call me Chip.

The letter H!i. Uh, Mark is taking off this week as, um, well, he didn't actually tell me. He just said, “Hey G.B., fill in for me.”

So, I did. I mean, filling in is kind of what I do. I'm sort of a Jack-of-all-trades by nature. I see a need and I fill it. Anyway, I'm G.B. That's short for Glass Bead. And I'm your guest author today.

I guess I should start by answering a few basic questions. Um, why am I named after an object people use to represent different elements in the game of Magic? I'm not. I am a glass bead. And to be honest, people don't really give us names. Not permanent ones anyway. We're kind of disposable. Although quite valuable in the moment. Think about it. How many times have you been playing and wished for a glass bead? Yeah, yeah I know you, you just use a coin. But coins are about as dirty as they come. Do you have any idea how many people touch money before you touch it?

I and my kind, on the other hand, are generally very clean. I mean, we're a game aid and we understand that. Okay, okay, you can buy us in bulk at a decorating store, but that's just because people who fill up vases with us don't understand our real worth. Come on, would you rather sit underwater with a hundred other beads or be the winning Pente stone?

The next question is why did Mark ask me to fill in for him? Once again, I don't know. He's never asked before. But then how often does a piece of glass get a chance like this? Not often. So here I am.

Anyway, I'm off topic. I'm here to talk about Ravnica. Why is a glass bead talking about the latest Magic expansion? To paraphrase a very old Saturday Night Live bit – because Ravnica been very, very good to me. Two different guilds need us, and each for completely different reasons. But before I get to that I need to break up this column with a header. Mark told me that I shouldn't run on too long without one as it makes the thing easier to read. Oh yeah, and he said I had to use a bad pun. Okay.

First Glass

I was instructed to do that. I can't begin to fathom the strange mind that is Mr. Rosewater, but when in Rome…

So, Mark told me that he wanted me to talk about the history and design constraints of the counter/token. And as someone who's had the chance to fill both roles for over twelve years, um, I guess I'm about as much an authority as anyone.

It all began twelve years ago with Magic's very first incarnation, Limited Edition Alpha. While designing cards for the game, Richard Garfield ran across a problem. Memory issues. Some cards wanted to do things that required a player to remember things for longer than a single turn. In order to ensure that the players remembered these things, Richard used various bookkeeping techniques. Let's examine them. I've, uh, broken them up into several categories, as there seemed to be some obvious dividing points.

#1 – The Creature Gets Bigger (Or Smaller)

A number of cards, and by number I mean four, had the ability to grow or shrink in size. They were Clockwork Beast, Fungusaur, Rock Hydra and Sengir Vampire. To help the players remember the permanent shift in size, Richard created counters that designated an increase in power and/or toughness. For two of them, the Fungusaur and the Sengir Vampire, this growth was merely upward. They just continued to get bigger. The Clockwork Beast and Rock Hydra proved more complex. They wanted the ability to both grow and shrink. To solve this problem, Richard came up with an ingenious idea. What if the base stats of the creatures were dropped to nothing (or in the case of the Clockwork Beast the power was dropped to nothing)? This way, the counters would help define the base stats and allow the creature to grow and shrink accordingly. As we will see, the technology in this area would grow in years to come.

#2 – Keep Track Of A Resource

Alpha had two cards that, when something specific happened, gained the ability to do something later in the game. In both cases, the potential to gain this ability could be built up. The two cards in question were Living Artifact and Scavenging Ghoul. (I guess I'll add a parenthetical sentence here as Mark seems to like them; Alpha had two other cards that if you count the modern day Oracle text fit into this group: Illusionary Mask and Time Vault.) Richard solved this problem in the most direct manner possible. He used counters to track the gaining of these resources. In each case, the controller of the card could trade in the counters for the ability in question. At the time these counters weren't named, unlike the power/toughness boosting ones (which were), but later would be given names retroactively.

#3 – Mark A Permanent Change

Alpha had two cards, um, Cyclopean Tomb and Gaea's Liege, which permanently changed the state of other cards. Actually, that's a bit of a fib. Alpha actually had nine cards. The ones I mentioned plus Sleight of Mind and Magical Hack and, of course, the five Laces (Chaoslace, Deathlace, Lifelace, Purelace, Thoughtlace). To help the players remember which lands had been changed, he used a counter as a marker. In each case, once the permanent that caused the change went away, the cards would revert back, although significantly slower in the case of the Tomb. I should also point out that a later Oracle rewording took away the use of counters from Gaea's Liege. Speaking as a glass counter I think that's a horrible mistake. There are so many glass counters out of work, why deprive them of the ability to help remove memory issues. That's what we do. I don't mean to get political. I'm not hear as a bead's rights advocate or anything. It's just that when all you do is designate things, you take your job pretty seriously.

#4 – Make Tokens

Mark had an entire column where he talked about tokens and the design rules behind them. It was called “Tokens of My Affection” and you might really want to check it out if you are at all interested in how tokens are designed. But the point here is that Alpha had one card that created creatures. I'm speaking about The Hive. Richard knew that he couldn't make creatures without something to represent them so he came up with the idea of tokens. That is, as opposed to counters. (Although the Alpha Cyclopean Tomb, while trying to refer to counters, does in fact call them tokens. Little fact.) So, The Hive made the bold move of making creatures that weren't represented by cards. But it went farther than that. The Hive took the first step to defining how tokens work. It said that they had summoning sickness even though the item that created them might have already been in play. It said that they were removed from the game when destroyed. This rule was tweaked a little later (token creatures now touch the graveyard ever so briefly before traveling on to the great unknown). It even specified what kind of card they were. In the case of Giant Wasps, they were artifact creatures. Later token generators would make their creatures colored.

Bead Trap

The important lesson here is that Alpha paved the way for counters and tokens. It stressed that memory issues trumped the desire to keep play to just the cards. The design really needed ways to extend things beyond a single turn. So much so, that counters and tokens were pulled in as a core part of the game. But that didn't mean that there weren't some growing pains. Let's take a look at each of the four categories and see how they've advanced over the years:

#1 – Power/Toughness Shifting (aka The Creature gets Bigger or Smaller)

In the beginning, any kind of power or toughness enhancement was okay. For example, take a look at this card:

Let's say you glance over and see this on your opponent's side with three counters on it. How big is the creature? Would you believe you have seven different options? The creature could be:

  • 0/7 (three +0/+2 counters0
  • 1/6 (two +0/+2 counters and one +1/+1 counter)
  • 2/5 (two +0/+2 counters and one +2/+0 counter; one +0/+2 counter and two +1/+1 counters)
  • 3/4 (one +0/+2 counter, one +1/+1 counter and one +2/+0 counter; or three +1/+1 counters)
  • 4/3 (one +0/+2 counter and two +2/+0 counters)
  • 5/2 (one +1/+1 counter and two +2/+0 counters)
  • 6/1 (three +2/+0 counters)

Hey, it's Shapeshifter. Magic isn't good if cards have that much variance in what they could represent. This led R&D to consolidate its power/toughness changing counters. They started by creating a rule that said that no card can have more than one kind of power/toughness altering counter. As time passed, they started to realize the value of the +1/+1 counter. First, it was the easiest to process of all the counters. Everything notched up one proved the simplest for players to parse. Second, it proved very versatile. So versatile, in fact, that R&D eventually decided to abandon the other types of power/toughness altering counters.

The reason was twofold. First, the designers realized that with base stat technology (things like what Rock Hydra and Clockwork Beast did) allowed +1/+1 counters to do the vast majority of the work that the other counters were doing. And second, and most importantly, it made understanding what was going on much easier. Once players were educated that +1/+1 counters were the only type of enhancing counters, it made figuring out creatures much easier. That 0/1 with three counters across the table? It's a 3/4.

This then led to one final decision. In order to make it easy on the players to glance across the table and see what is going on, the designers and developers try to focus specific counter types in specific sets. What this means is that blocks with +1/+1 counters don't tend to have other kinds of counters, especially ones that go on creatures. The only counters put on creatures in Mirrodin block, for instance, was +1/+1 counters. (Non-creatures got charge counters.) Champions block (with only one exception) used counters on creatures that specifically weren't +1/+1.

Now I'm sure this revelation will prompt some letters to Mark and since I don't have to read them (glass beads don't exactly have easy access to e-mail or you know digits to type in the password) I don't really care. But as a guest columnist I assume I'm obliged to point out that almost all design decisions cut off available space for design. The key to making these decisions is understanding what is lost when a certain avenue is cut off, and what you gain in return. At least, that's what I assume Mark would say. I'm just a round piece of glass with a light tinting of color.

#2 – Resource Management (aka Keeping Track of a Resource)

These counters have proven popular with the designers, as the ability to build up resources over time is essentially what Magic is all about (from a raw game design slant anyway). The rules for this type of counter are a little simpler than the +1/+1 counter. For starters, R&D has decided (as a general rule, almost everything I'm saying today has been broken at one time or another) that cards that produce counters that are resource management type counters stay on the card that produced them. This way the players have the ability to easily see what the counters represent as the counters are literally sitting on the card that says what they are.

As a general second rule, design likes to keep the ability that results from this set of counters to do a single task to make it easier for everyone to keep track to what's going on. Which of course probably leads a lot of people to ask about this card:

Yeah, that worked out well.

So what gives? I said a “general” rule. A default. Something for design to aim for. Man, how does Mark do this week after week?

#3 – Mark of Permanent Change (AKA: Oh, this is the same.)

Most of the time in Magic, effects don't last longer than the end of the turn. Because, well, I guess people's memories just suck. But what would the game be if there were never any permanent changes? So, of course, that leads to more work for me and my kind. And we're glad to have it. I don't like vase work and even that's hard to come by.

Anyway, there are times when you have to let the world know that Card A isn't exactly what it says. But following the logic listed in the last section, R&D has decided, once again as a general rule that yes they do break, but not often, that counters that designate permanent change are tied to the card that created them. The reason for this is simple. If I'm sitting on a card and the only thing that tells you what I am isn't in play, I'm just a little shiny glass enigma. The end result of this is that most cards that create counters designating permanent change have a rider that says the counters leave play when it does.

There is one major exception to this rule. Um, actually there are two. One's coming in a second. But the other one I've already talked about. The +1/+1 counter has become the default counter. That is, if you see me or one of my fellow beads sitting on a creature and no one's around to tell you otherwise, it's pretty safe to assume it's a +1/+1 counter. This allows R&D to avoid the rule I just listed for +1/+1 counters.

#4 – Token Creatures

See how dirty that money looks?!
Which takes us to the other exception. The one other time the game's willing to strand a glass bead by itself without any card to define it is the creature token. The reasoning behind it is twofold. First, it would be almost impossible to tie creatures to the cards that create them. Many of the time, for instance, the card that makes them isn't even a permanent. Second, a random counter on a card might be hard to remember. A 2/2 that can attack you every turn; odds are you might have made a mental note about it. Plus the “not sitting on a card” thing helps punch home that one of my brethren is a token not a counter.

This category has a lot more rules than the rest, but as I explained above, Mark spelled this out in his column on tokens. But as it's pretty relevant, and Mark's not here to prevent me from doing this, I'm just going to reprint the relevant section, quaint "Bacon" reference and all.

  1. For token creatures within a block, all the same color and size must be the same creature type. For example, every block we choose what our 1/1 green creature is going to be. In Invasion, they were saprolings. In Odyssey, they were squirrels. In Onslaught, they'll be… let's just leave it at not saprolings or squirrels. The reason for this rule is consolidation. By making all the Odyssey 1/1 tokens squirrels, we were able to make cards, like Squirrel Mob, that interact with them. Odyssey block was particularly interesting as flashback forced us to make more tokens than normal. Our breakdown for Odyssey was:
    • 1/1 (green) - squirrel
    • 1/1 (red) - cat
    • 1/1 flying (white) – spirit (Battle Screech was a special exception)
    • 2/2 (green) - bear
    • 2/2 (black) - zombie
    • 3/3 (green) - elephant
    • 4/4 (green) - beast
    • 6/6 (green) - wurm
  2. All token creatures should have power equaling toughness. This rules exists to help unify the tokens and make it easier to deduce their power and toughness when modified. The major exception to this rule is 0/1 tokens. We make these when we don't want the tokens to be able to deal damage. We break this rule more often than most of the others. Bacon (the 2003 large fall expansion), for example, currently has a very cool card that makes 3/1 tokens.
  3. Creature tokens are vanilla creatures. That is, they have no abilities. We do this to minimize what we call “memory issues.” The only ongoing exception to this rule is flying and haste. The first because for flavor reasons we want to be able to make creature producers that create fliers (like The Hive). Haste is okay as it requires very little memory. You attack with the creature as soon it comes into play and then you can forget the ability because, except in corner cases, it doesn't matter again. Of course, even the exception to the rule was broken with Penumbra Wurm (the token had trample), so anything is possible.
  4. We don't create cards that produce more than one type of token. If a card makes 2/2 token creatures, for instance, that is all it will ever make. The reason we do this is to avoid confusion. In Judgment design, we actually experimented with a flashback spell called Cone of Creatures that created a 1/1 squirrel, a 2/2 bear, and a 3/3 elephant. But playtesting showed players kept confusing the tokens for one another, so the card was scrapped.
  5. Token creatures can't escape their token-ness. That is, tokens must always be tokens. We would not make one, for example, that could leave play and return. (By the rules, token creatures cease to exist if they ever leave play.) A token's vulnerability is a key element of any token.

Uh, what Mark said.

Glass Action

At this point, we're three thousand words in and you're going. Isn't Ravnica coming out in a week or so? What does this have to do with Ravnica? Doesn't “Making Magic” try to be relevant to the most recent set?

The answer is that Ravnica block is kind of a renaissance for the counter/token. And we owe it all to green. Why? Because green has this little theme called growth. And whenever green gets together with another color (you know, guilding up), there's always this question “So how does growth interact with this color?”

The end result is that each of the green guilds in the block needed to find some way to reflect this growth over time. Not just any growth. Permanent growth. Get my drift? Permanent change. This is why I like Ravnica block. Excellent employment opportunities. Now, I can't explain how my kind and I are going to get used in Guildpact and Dissension (although we most definitely are) but I can talk about how they get used in Ravnica.

When the designers sat down to design the four guilds, they had all sorts of issues to work through. Here's one you might not have thought about. With four two-colored guilds, three colors had to show up in two different guilds. This meant that mono-colored cards in three different colors had two different masters to worry about. You see, blue could just focus on how it was going to interact with black (and red likewise just focused on how it and white we're going to play nicely together). But white, black and green had a little divided loyalty.

And in a block sense, this problem wasn't just isolated to these three colors. All the mono-colored cards long term had to deal with the fact that they were going to be played with four different guilds. This meant that design had to create cards open-ended enough that they allowed subtle shifts as each mono-colored card got examined by each guild.

What this meant was that the designers had to find themes that shifted nicely with each of the four guilds it would be forced to join up with. For green, this ended up being the growth theme. Magic, in general, likes having things that evolve over time (within guidelines, of course). Because of green's association with this theme, it has become the color that creates the most token and most often produces +1/+1 counters. Green is our friend. Us glass beads like green quite a bit. The coolest thing about +1/+1 counters and tokens is that we are insanely versatile from a design standpoint. There are a lot of things you can do with us. And when the Ravnica team stumbled upon this mass of potential nicely allied with a very adaptable theme, they ran with it. And not in a wacky Fallen Empires kind of way.

And that is why Ravnica is kind to the glass beads. I know I like it. I think you will too.

And that is all I got for you all today. I hope I did Mark proud. If you have any comments about today's article, you can send them to me through Mark's e-mail. Other than that, I guess it's time to call this column quits.

Mark wanted me to remind you to join him next week when he serves a little color pie.

Until then, may you shine your beads with extra care.

G.B.

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