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Point/Counterpoint: Targeted Card Draw?

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The letter T!his week, Making Magic and Latest Developments is going to try out a new feature, something we're calling Point/Counterpoint. I often talk about how R&D argues endlessly over the minutiae of Magic. It's one thing to hear about it and it's another to witness it firsthand. This week (and possibly in future weeks if you guys like this feature), I'm going to walk you through one side of an argument and then, on Friday, Zac will walk you through the other side. Zac and I have both agreed to write our columns without looking at the other's. The point of this feature is to show you that decisions are not always so simple. Oftentimes, both sides have very valid issues. That reality is a key part of making Magic.

So let's jump into today's topic: Should Draw be Targeted as a Default? Before I explain my side, let me clarify what exactly the issue is. Draw spells are spells that result in a player drawing cards. For purposes of this argument, cantrips—spells that draw a single card as a rider to the spell—are not going to be classified as draw spells.

Before you read my argument or which side I'm supporting for this, let's take an initial poll to get your feelings on the subject.

 Should draw be targeted as default?  
Yes
No
I don't know

Now that that's done, let's get down to business.

The argument is how we should template draw spells as a default. This means we could go either direction if the spell or set needs it, but if there's nothing pulling us one way or another how should the cards read?

Like this:


Or this:


I'm going to argue today that it should be the second version. Note that, from a debate standpoint, providing the burden of proof is on my side of the argument. That is, the version of the card that Zac will be arguing for on Friday is the simpler version of the card. I've spent many columns talking about how I feel the biggest threat to Magic's existence is complexity creep. Defending my version is going to boil down to explaining why we should add complexity. Also, as the card Divination clearly shows, I'm in the minority on this issue. I've been fighting for the second version for years but I've not managed to convince the majority of R&D. So for the first Point/Counterpoint, I've chosen the pro-Complexity Creep, anti-R&D-current-stance side of the argument. My back is to the wall. Luckily, this is where I do my best work. Bring it on!

Since at the crux this argument is about complexity, I want to begin by breaking down where the complexity lies in the version I'm proposing.

#1: It's in Magic-ese (aka, Not English)

Let's imagine this is the first card a new player reads. He or she will understand Zac's version. "You draw two cards." That's an actual English sentence. When that player looks at my version, the first question in his or her mind will be: "What does target mean?" It's easy to forget, once you've learned how to play, but "target" is a vocabulary word—meaning that in order to play, you just have to learn what it means. Yes, it has an English meaning that's related to its Magic meeting, but it's being used in a completely different manner. For starters, in English, "target" is a noun. In Magic, we use it as an adjective.

Increasing Confusion | Art by Dan Scott

#2: It Requires Choice

There's no thinking with the non-targeted version of the card. Only one thing can possibly happen. With the targeted version, there are as many choices as there are people playing the game. My version changes the choices from one to at least two and possibly more. As choices go, even one to two is a pretty big leap.

#3: It Requires Understanding the Choices

Understanding why you want to draw cards is pretty straightforward. Understanding why you would want to let your opponent draw cards is not. When determining complexity, you have to think about how much thought a card will create. Understanding a choice that doesn't on the surface make sense requires a significant amount of thought. While my version seems awfully close to Zac's, my version packs in a lot more thinking than Zac's version does.

#4: It's Wordier

This might sound trivial. After all, we're talking about four words as opposed to five words, but a lot of research has shown us that words are intimidating. The more words that show up on the cards as a whole, the more intimidating the game is and the harder it is to process. The reason I'm bringing this up is to point out that adding words also requires a burden of proof. Is the extra words, or in this case word, worth the addition?

Choice of Damnations | Art by Tim Hildebrandt

But Wait...

What about the experienced player? All my arguments about a beginner approaching the card ignore the fact that the majority of people who play with draw spells are not beginners. Isn't my best argument that the needs of the experienced player should outweigh the needs of the beginner in this case?

I believe the answer is no. I already said that this is about the default. If an expert expansion needs the draw to be targeted because it fits better, it gets to be targeted. When it most matters for the experienced player, we bend toward the experienced player. Today is about when it doesn't matter. (And yes, I get that, in certain ways, it always matters—I'll get to that.) I feel confident I could win the "draw spells should be targeted for experience players" argument pretty easily.

I feel the biggest strike against that argument is how targeted draw enables heavy-permission strategies because it allows the decks to not have to run separate win conditions, but we've been going after heavy permission decks in so many other ways over the last few years that I just don't think that's as big an issue as it once was. I assume Zac will touch upon this on Friday. (Remember, though, that I don't know as I won't see Zac's article until after this is turned in.)

Anyway, I feel like the crux of this argument is about complexity, so my task is to win the fight on that battleground—which brings us back to the four points above. My version adds complexity. Can I justify it? Is the value added worth the extra complexity?

Yes, yes it is.

#1: It's in Magic-ese (aka Not English)

In order to play my version of the card, beginners are going to have to understand it. That means they're going to have to learn a vocabulary word. Why am I okay with that? Because it's a vocabulary word they have to learn to be able to play the game. I'm all for being careful how many vocabulary words we expose new players to, but there are a few that are essential to being able to play. At the very front of that line is "target."

Library of Lat-Nam | Art by Alan Rabinowitz

Some people might argue that "library" or "graveyard" or "battlefield" are more important, but I believe those are very different kinds of vocabulary words—ones that are much, much easier to learn. "Library," "graveyard," and "battlefield" are all what I call "replacement vocabulary." The game has a deck, a discard pile, and a play zone. You don't have to grok what a library is. It's your deck. Every card game you've ever played has probably had a deck and discard pile. Magic gives them flavorful names, but all you have to learn is that this thing you're already familiar with is called something different—a flavorful English word you already know. The play zone requires a touch more knowledge, but being that many famous card games have a play zone (bridge, cribbage, gin, certain poker variants, etc.), it's not something I expect many players to have a problem with.

The other big vocabulary issue is keywords (and ability words). The majority of those are spelled out in reminder text or rules text. The more troublesome ones tend to be kept out of common. In addition, with the exception of flying (which is the most flavorful and grokable keyword in the game) there just aren't that many cards in any one set with a particular keyword. That's not at all true for "target."

"Target," though, is more than just a new word. It's a whole concept. Many elements of the game are built upon the player understanding the concept of targeting. It's something R&D has accepted must be learned to play. Magic 2012, the core set designed as an onramp for new players, as an example, has the word "target" appear on ninety-six cards, forty-three of which appear at common.

As a game designer and communicator I've spent some time learning how best to teach. One of the most key facts I learned about teaching is the importance of repetition. For example, when a teacher in a classroom teaches a new subject, he or she is supposed to repeat it at least five times. That is how many times on average it takes for a student to get a new thing.

What that says to me is that once we've committed to something being fundamental to the game, more is actually better than less. The new vocabulary doesn't want to be used sparingly but rather often. Make it something the new player has to encounter. Looking at how we've placed the word "target" in our core set, we've obviously made this choice. With that in mind, adding target to the forty-fourth common is not nearly as daunting as it might seem in a vacuum.

#2: It Requires Choice

"He is intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking."

—Spock to Kirk about Khan in Star Trek II, Wrath of Khan

One of the trickiest things about designing for Magic is that the game itself is dynamic, in that it keeps changing what it is. While this is one of the game's greatest strengths, it also causes havoc with design. Why? Because the designers are essentially designing a moving target. One of the biggest shifts over the last five years has been the open acceptance that Magic is not just a two-person game.

Cyclical Evolution | Art by Matt Cavotta

Magic has always had multiplayer formats, but for a long time that wasn't the focus of design. We were making a two-player game mostly for tournament play. Along the way, we started to get a better sense of the casual audience. One of the things we learned is that many players, much more than we originally thought, play outside the scope of two-player play.

In the early days, we just made our cards and the multiplayer players would adapt to what existed. Then they got on our radar and we started making a few cards each set with them in mind. Next, we started to be more conscious of how to tweak cards to make them friendlier to multiplayer play. Finally, we recently began to try and make as many cards as we can multiplayer friendly.

Another big advantage of targeting draw is that it turns from a mostly two-player card into a multiplayer card. You can still use it to gain cards if you need to, but now you have other uses. You can help an ally. You can bribe an enemy. You can make a trade. One little change and the card is enabled to allow so much more.

I would argue this is even important for the newer player, because having the right language opens one up to the idea that cards can have value outside a two-player game. That makes the idea of multiplayer play that much more accessible.

So choice is good for multiplayer play. How about two-player play? Let's continue to point three.

#3: It Requires Understanding the Choices

I often talk about how humans are creatures of habit. We are resistant to new things, preferring instead to stick to the things we already know. Luckily, our biology has an answer to this problem. We are born with an innate sense of curiosity. This compels us to learn about things we did not know. But here's the problem: our curiosity is not as strong as our desire to stick with familiar things. This means that there's a barrier to embracing and sticking with something new. Which brings us to a concept I call crystallization.

Crystallization | Art by Zoltan Boros & Gabor Szikszai

Crystallization is the process of taking something new and internalizing it in a way that bonds you to it. In order for you to crystallize something, there has to be a strong emotional connection. You have to take something foreign and find a way to make it personal to you. More often than not, the crystallization process is invisible to you, meaning that most people just find themselves attached to something without knowing what in particular is making the emotional connection.

To do my job, though, I realized that I have to understand what makes Magic crystallize. What about it makes people embrace it as something familiar that they want to spend their time and money on? After years of thinking about this, I came to the following realization: the thing that separates Magic from the vast majority of other games, and other entertainment avenues, is that it allows the player the opportunity to customize it.

As I've explained numerous times, I don't believe Magic is a single game, but rather a large grouping of games all under a shared umbrella or rules system. Magic's dynamism and flexibility allow the players to craft the game into what it means to them, which makes it very personal. I've talked about how there's a lot of what's called ego investment in deck building. Players think of their decks as their own creations and get emotionally attached to them. Magic has a lot of opportunities for players to see the game as something of their own creation. They are not passive observers but active participants.

Fine, the game has the ability to allow this customization, but how does a new player stumble upon it? Remember that there's a lot of inertia to fight in trying something new. What is the thing that first grabs a player's imagination? The answer includes a number of things, but the one I feel is the most potent is the following dynamic. (I'm going to use the targeted version of Learn to demonstrate my point.)

The new player plays a card as he or she believes it works. In most cases, the player assumes it only has one function.

The new player reads the targeted version of Learn. ("Target player draws two cards.") What does it mean? The player has to work through the word "target," but ultimately, what testing has shown us is most new players figure out that they get to draw two cards. Players tend to start thinking of cards as having a single functionality, so once they figure out what that functionality is, they're happy and they stop looking for other uses. Drawing two cards seems like a good thing so most players leave it at that.

At some point, the player realizes the card actually has more than one function. This doesn't mean the player understands why the second function would be used, just that it exists.

Eventually, the player gets a better understanding of targeting. At this point, the new player now realizes he or she is allowed to make an opponent draw two cards. The player doesn't know why he or she would do that, but the door has been opened. The card could do this. This knowledge makes the player start to think.

Knowledge Exploitation | Art by Darrell Riche

The player gets into a situation where the unobvious choice is correct.

The game goes long. Both players are about to run out of cards. For the first time, the new player is now taught the rule that running your opponent out of cards is another way to win. The new player counts the libraries and realizes he or she is going to draw the last card one turn before his or her opponent.

And it hits the new player. One could use the card in a way other than the way he or she always thought it was intended.

Oh my goodness. Here's why you would want to make your opponent draw two cards. The player casts the card in the untraditional way and it works out. In this case, the new player wins the game he or she would have lost.

What has happened here is a very important moment. The player went from having a mindset of the game as a locked set of functions (how most games work) to a game where there are unknown possibilities. Also, and this is important, the new player doesn't see the game as always having the possibilities but rather that he or she found the possibility. It was something self-generated. Perceptually, to that player, he or she shifted the game.

I believe this nugget is a key crystallization point. Shifting the game from something you play to something you affect is very profound and empowering. It's exactly the kind of thing that bonds you emotionally with the game.

Awesome Presence | Art by Lawrence Snelly

As I said above, all the things I'm spelling out I believe are mostly not on the conscious level. They come across more as, "Neat, I did something cool; this is fun," but psychologically, it's paramount to making the crystallization happen.

So why am I so adamant about targeted draw? Because I want to set up as many crystallization potential moments as I can. I want as many players as possible to realize that yes, they could make their opponents draw and yes, it does matter. Be aware, I'm trying to put this element throughout the game as many times as I can. That's why I'm very big on the modular elements of the game (I'm using the normal English word here and not the modular or linear vocabulary I often use). That's why I'm picky about the little details of how the cards work. And that's why I keep fighting tooth and nail to make as many draw spells as possible targeted.

#4: It's Wordier

It's time for me to let you in on an important secret. Complexity isn't bad. Not all of it, anyway. There's good complexity and bad complexity. Bad complexity gets in the way of people being able to play the game. It adds unnecessary bookkeeping or confusion or it makes the player have to monitor more elements than most are comfortable dealing with.

Good complexity, on the other hand, allows players moments of cleverness. It creates depth that makes the players want to keep drafting or tweaking their decks. Good complexity enhances. Bad complexity reduces. The trick, though, is finding ways to get the good complexity in the game in a way that keeps out the bad complexity. I know this has been on my mind a lot recently because I've come up for a term for it—lenticular cards.

In normal, non-Magic speak, lenticular cards are those cards you move to change what image you are looking at. I use the term in design to describe cards that have complexity built into them in a way that the complexity is invisible to newer players. You look at them one way and they seem simple; you look at them in another and they seem complex. For example, take the card Black Cat from Dark Ascension.

Lenticular Kitty

To a less experienced player, the card is a creature that has a nice bonus when it dies. To a more experienced player, the card is something you can use to manipulate attacks and blocks, something you can set up to be as advantageous for you as possible. The death trigger doesn't just happen for the experienced player—it's planned for. This is the kind of card I love to create because it allows the new player and the experienced player to see what they need to see.

I believe targeted draw is lenticular. To explain, let me start with the card Lava Axe.


This is a common card in Magic 2012. Does this card ever cause any problems? The card could be used to deal 5 damage to its caster after all. But it isn't. Research shows us that players get what it does: it hits your opponent upside the head for 5 damage. Why don't they get confused? As I explained above, less experienced players tend to look for a single functionality in cards. What does it do—not what things does it do? Once the player gets an answer that makes sense, he or she stops looking. "Target player draws a card" hitting you is the same kind of obvious leap as "Lava Axe deals 5 damage to target player" hitting the opponent. If this wasn't true, Lava Axe and many other targeted common cards wouldn't be in Magic 2012.

The reason we apply our metrics such as word count is to help us identify when cards might be more complex than they seem. Certain traits push toward making things complex, but we have to be careful not to judge cards solely on the metric but also on the underlying principle. For example, a card that has a higher grokability (aka, the players "get it" because the card does exactly what they'd expect it to do) and higher word count might be less complex than a card with fewer words but less overall connectivity.

Yes, the word "target" makes the targeted version slightly more complex, but the differential is not really that big because the basic assumption it quickly leads to gets you to the same place. Somebody draws two cards? Must be me. This is particularly useful, because the targeted draw has other uses the experienced player (and multiplayer fan) can use that will be mostly invisible to the less-experienced player.

Let's Recap

It's time to wrap up my "Point" argument, so let's go over my major issues one last time:

  • Newer players have to learn the word "target" to play the game, so forcing them to encounter it slightly more often is good for them.
  • Multiplayer play is an important and growing part of Magic. Templating cards to make them multiplayer friendly is crucial to evolving the game to where it wants to be played.
  • To help Magic crystallize with newer players, it is key that we build into the game the hooks needed for them to emotionally bond.
  • Evidence points to the fact that newer players have no problem figuring out what targeted draw does and having good complexity hidden in the game out of their sight makes Magic a better overall game.

And all of this isn't even talking about the needs of the experienced players.

And so ends "Point." To see "Counterpoint," turn to Latest Developments this Friday, where Zac argues the other side of this issue. Once he's done, I'm very curious where all of you stand.

Join me next week when I raise some Helvault.

Until then, may you know the joy of arguing your side.



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