Thursday, November 15, 2012

Defeating My Inner Naga Demon

"I'm not going to let my life suck," I said to myself as I scrambled out from under five layers of blankets. After my cozy session of re-watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind followed by reading the comic by The Oatmeal about creating content for the web, I turned on my house's heater for the first time this season.

What did turning on my heater have to do with not letting me have a sucky life? Was I really that dramatic? Nay! I was thinking a series of "this will lead to that which will lead to..." thoughts! It went something like this:

  • That was an inspirational comic I just read!
  • In fact, it relates to how I'm currently behind in designing my card game at the moment.
  • I'm behind in creating my game because I just stare at the computer sometimes for periods at a time or distract myself with social media and interesting YouTube videos.
  • I sit there in front of my computer consuming content instead of creating some of my own because, often, my hands are tucked underneath my legs.
  • My hands are underneath or tucked in-between my legs because I'm cold.
  • I'm cold because I don't have my house heater on.
  • If I don't turn my heater on, I'm probably going to keep doing this perpetually.
  • If I keep not creating, I'm not going to have an original game by the end of November.
  • Not having a game I can call my very own means I'll have regret and be sad.
  • Me living with regret and sadness would suck. Thus, a sucky life.
  • So... I must turn on that heater!
I recalled how my decision to purchase a box of hot chocolate packets was fantastic. Sure, I could just live off of water. My body would be taken care of but my soul wouldn't. So I made sure to treat my soul. And then, sure enough, my happiness points increased, and it made doing whatever I was doing that much more awesome. And that helps when you're trying to do productive things!

Anyway, I was recalling my hot chocolate experience and applying it to myself in regards to my situation with my home's heater. Sure, I could survive and make do with always wearing a sweater around the house and using tons of blankets. But, since I wasn't completely comfortable, I was hindered from creating! After turning on the heater, I'm already blazing through and typing out this blog post about how I'm blazing through and typing out this blog post about... and so on and so forth. =P My sweater is off, and I'm super comfortable!

All right, I'm comfortable. Now what? I work on the card game I'm designing for National Game Design Month (NaGa DeMon)!

Last time, I brainstormed a ton of different themes I could use for the mechanical sketch of my game's design. I discovered something, though - I could keep coming up with all sorts of themes to apply to my card game, but I'm going to come up with a bunch of crap. Some are good, but there would be a bunch of unfiltered nonsense as well. While brainstorming, I wasn't focusing on what would make for an exciting theme for players. I was just coming up with ones that fit the criteria I listed out.

This is part of knowing your audience. When you're creating content for whatever medium it is you're creating content for, whether you're a writer, game designer, comedian, etc.; you gotta know the consumers. I'm making a game that anyone that is interested in board games would want to play. A theme of being eaters of ice cream in an ice cream factory isn't really interesting, even if it does fit as a theme. But being a zombie IS interesting, for example (except the theme as a whole has been severely played out).

So I learned that I would need to come up with not just a theme that fits but one that is compelling. A lot of the themes I brainstormed during my previous post I threw out. I eventually settled on these themes:
  • a party of rogues on a dungeon quest trying to get the most treasure
  • zombies trying to eat the most brains
  • pirates voyaging to different islands trying to get the most booty
  • pandas trying to eat the most food
  • kids trying to have the most fun toys out of everybody
  • a group of adventurers trying to be the most brave
As you can see, most of the ideas I have fall under one of two things that players would want to have the feeling of when trying to acquire the most of something: food and wealth. The prisoner's dilemma mechanics with the goal of trying to get the most of something easily led itself to tangible goods like num-nums and treasured goods.

The only one that stands out from the list above is trying to be the most brave. Bravery as a desirable goal appealed to me because of The Legend of Zelda. Zelda had been on my mind because of this Kickstarter. And acquiring bravery was DIFFERENT.

Having the most courage as the goal in the game wasn't the usual "slay goblins and dragons, get gold and loot, yay!" thing. I want my game to stand out. I want to be refreshingly original. And that's what this theme is delivering. But it's more difficult to convey. Bravery is an abstract concept and not a physical thing that people will instantly get when they're trying to learn and understand my game.

But whatever I do, my game will suck. It's gotta suck because it is my first game. Somehow, someway, it's not going to be as impressive as whatever I would like it to be in my own head. While I was in college, somebody once said that the first ten games I make will suck. So it's better to get them out of the way as soon as possible so that you can get to making the good stuff. In that case, and because the game mechanics and not the game theme is the focal point of the project: I might as well choose a theme that is most resonant with the player, originality be damned!

For deciding factors, I decided on tangibility, what theme has its components that most easily fits the mechanics, and what lends itself to some compelling content. And this led me to cutting the possible themes down to this:
  • a party of rogues in a dungeon trying to get the most treasure
  • pirates voyaging to different islands trying to get the most booty
  • kids trying to have the most fun toys out of everybody
I cut zombies because it's boring to deal with different kinds of humans. What you want to see are a bunch of different zombies - but you're the zombie! And you have to be the zombie because the game's mechanics need you to be trying to eat the most brains. It's not quite the same if you flip it around when the human goal is trying to survive the longest or kill the most zombies or something.

Having a party of rogues is funny. And it's fitting of the mechanics because everyone is doing things that a rogue does - trying to get the most money, even by stealing, and killing monsters while sometimes backstabbing others. 

Pirates naturally seek out treasures and is a better flavor fit than rogues since more people get what pirates are all about. The different islands correspond with the possibility of going through different themed decks - in this case, it'd be different island decks. 

The thing that's throwing me for a loop is whether or not I want to push dirty innuendo of "getting the most booty." I could change it to "getting the most treasures," but it's not quite as in-theme as "booty." Oy vey.

Young children can sometime want to hoard all the toys for themselves. Or, at least, have the best toys. Having a "get the most fun toys" theme would let you channel your inner child-like desires of toy-hoarding.

Now that I've got a few themes picked out based around amassing tangible wealth, I can just leave my possible themes on the table for now and continue forward with fleshing out the rest of the game's mechanics. But that's a topic for another day.

Pst. Would you rather quest through dungeons (rogues), sail the seas (pirates), or get as many toys as you can?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Dragon's Maze Will Have Four-Color Cards

Prophetic Bolt by Slawomir Maniak
Edit (03/11/13): Read my follow-up article!

I could feel it. It’s coming. The article you’re about to read has been sitting for weeks on my laptop’s hard drive, half-completed. I fear the announcement of “Sinker’s” set name, the name of the third set in Magic: The Gathering’s Return to Ravnica block. After all, Pro Tour Return to Ravnica is over, and so are the U.S. presidential elections. Commander’s Arsenal has already been released, so there should be news of some kind coming up soon to keep players excited.

It’s 9:01 P.M., and I’m on the west coast – I check Daily MTG. I hold my breath. I see the "Announcing..." Magic Arcana image. Heart beat increases. *click* …And there it was: Dragon’s Maze was announced. Crap. The impact of my article has now been at least slightly diminished. I better finish it – now. Also, I must replace all instances of “Sinker,” with “Dragon’s Maze.

Sinker? I Hardly Know 'Er!

Dragon’s Maze, the third set in the Return to Ravnica block, will have four-color cards. Now that I've said that, I must say that this is merely a speculation blog post. And I am setting myself up to look extremely foolish if I turn out to be foolish. I'm O.K. with that. I don’t usually passionately write speculative blog posts, so let me explain why I’m doing this now.

Within the community of Magic: The Gathering design enthusiasts who don’t work for Wizards of the Coast, I have my own identity. When you consider Jay Treat, you think of The Great Designer Search 2, Goblin Artisans, and the fan-made Magic 2013 set. I, on the other hand, am the guy perhaps most-known for writing a regular column designing a four-color Magic set called "You're a Designer, Harry!"

As others within the Magic: The Gathering design community know, I’m an advocate for “four colors” as a viable theme for a set. However, some doubt the merits of four-color cards being a part of a major theme. While I haven’t solved the problem of supporting a four-color cards theme myself, I don’t doubt the ability of a bunch of the most seasoned Magic designers at Wizards to be able to crack the code. Once the eventual four-color set is released, it’ll all make sense to everyone how it was possible.

(In fact, there's a lot of heavy hitters on the design and development teams for Dragon's Maze, including Eric Lauer, which might indicate that this set was extra-difficult to design - perhaps due to a four-color card theme.)

But I spent a lot of time thinking about how to do four-color cards as part of a major theme. I put in effort along with the design community, especially Jules Robins, in making four-color cards work in a set. In fact, Jules and I met up at his to playtest mechanics from my “four colors matters” set. Also, on a related topic, Jules wrote about four-color Commanders here.

Ink-Treader Nephilim by Christopher Moeller
As a budding Magic: The Gathering designer, I can’t prove what was figured out correctly by me and those who collaborated with me in supporting a four-color card theme unless I write about it BEFORE we see the solution to the puzzle – which I believe to be in Dragon’s Maze. So that’s why I’m writing this right now, on the heels of the announcement of Dragon’s Maze.

Now that that’s said, read on to see why I think four-color cards will be in Dragon’s Maze.

Drafting Class

You’re in the middle of a Magic: The Gathering draft of Magic 2013. Cleverly, you draft cards belonging to one of two colors since you know that Magic decks can easily accommodate this. From experience, you also know that you could dabble into a third color if you’re careful enough with your card selection and have cards that support your mana base, like an Evolving Wilds. What’s most important is a smooth mana base! Also, having some fantastic cards in your third color would make “splashing” a third color worth it.

Now, you’re drafting the Return to Ravnica set. There’s no doubt you’re going to be building a two-color deck. There’s a bunch of great two-color gold spells, after all; and there are more cards that help you build a smooth mana base for your two-color deck. However, like the wily guildmage you are, you know that with all the extra cards in this set there are for mana support, it is even easier to build a three-color deck.

Compared to Magic 2013’s Evolving Wilds and Gem of Becoming (and besides green’s usual card slot in sets that enable multicolor in the form of Farseek), there’s a high chance you’ll see these kinds of cards in your draft: any of the five Guildgates, any of the five Keyrunes, and Transguild Promenade. That’s 500% more lands and 400% more artifacts than Magic 2013 has! Also, green has THREE nonrare cards that help fix your mana base as opposed to Magic 2013’s one.

As an aside, I’m only mentioning nonrare cards as cards that you can count on for building a multicolor deck, since it’s so rare (hah!) to find any one particular rare card in a draft. But if we’re counting rares, Return to Ravnica still definitely has the upper-hand over Magic 2013 in terms of mana support.

So, in Return to Ravnica, you might draft an Azorius/Selesnya deck. To support your three-color deck, you might have acquired a Transguild Promenade, a Guildgate, and a Keyrune. Or maybe just a couple Guildgates and a green mana-fixing spell. This is great mana support for including a third color!

Witch-Maw Nephilim by Greg Staples
In the future, you’ll be drafting Gatecrash. Again, you’ll be doing the same thing you were doing in Return to Ravnica with these new cards pertaining to the five remaining guilds. There’s going to be five more Guildgates, and there will be five more Keyrunes. And then there will be a common artifact or land that is the equivalent of Return to Ravnica’s Transguild Promenade.

Though, keep in mind that I’m not saying going with a three-color deck is always the correct choice. You might open a Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice, and you’d need to adhere very strongly to green and white. Perhaps you wouldn’t have the right color-fixing cards, either.

In the more-distant-future-than-the-Gatecrash-future, you’ll be drafting the third set in the Return to Ravnica block, Dragon’s Maze. Dragon’s Maze is a small set, and it will be drafted with both Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash. Representation for all ten guilds will be available in Dragon’s Maze. After you draft the first pack (the Dragon’s Maze pack), you’ll draft the Gatecrash pack. So what colors will your deck be?

Let’s say that, after drafting the Dragon’s Maze pack, you decided to go into red and white – Boros. When it comes to the Gatecrash pack, like someone with a sharp wit, you’ll draft white cards, red cards, and white-red gold cards. And then the Return to Ravnica pack is drafted, and you’ll draft the white cards, red cards, and… wait a minute. There no white-red gold cards in Return to Ravnica. Every single gold card isn’t in your colors! Also, the amount of color-fixing support is limited to, barring whatever will be in Dragon’s Maze, is limited to the Boros ones, Transguild Promenade, and whatever the Transguild Promenade-equivalent is in Gatecrash. You’re missing out on a lot of cards in the Return to Ravnica pack!

On a side note, I want to share how interesting it is that the amount of guild support your deck has exponentially correlates with the number of colors your deck has:

  • 1 Color = 0 Guilds 
  • 2 Colors = 1 Guild 
  • 3 Colors = 3 Guilds 
  • 4 Colors = 6 Guilds 
  • 5 Colors = 10 Guilds

So, the more colors you have in your deck, the more mana-fixing you need. Luckily, the more colors you have, the more guild mana-fixers you have access to! And, of course, there will be more cards to choose from that are in your colors. So, you might think to yourself, “If going two colors is a bad idea when drafting Dragon’s Maze, then how many colors should I be drafting?”

Glint-Eye Nephilim by Mark Zug
Here’s the answer: at least three. If you have at least three colors, you’ll be sure to have access to powerful gold cards in both the Gatecrash and Return to Ravnica packs. Let’s say you pick red-green-blue: Izzet, Simic, and Gruul. In Gatecrash, you’ll have access to red, green, blue, and all Simic and Gruul cards. In Return to Ravnica, you’ve got your picks of red, green, blue, and Izzet cards.

But, as you can see, the amount of cards that are relevant in each pack is not equal. Dragon’s Maze will, of course, have something for everyone, but Gatecrash will have the greater share of cards for you when you choose red-green-blue than the Return to Ravnica pack. If you want a more even spread of support for your colors, you’ll need to kick it into either four colors or five colors.

Dragon Fource

Now, five colors, as a theme has been done more than once. It was done back during the Invasion block as domain, and it reappeared in Conflux. So, I’m not suggesting that there is going to be a five-color theme in Dragon’s Maze. No way. …I’m speculating that there will be a four-color theme instead!

Here’s why Dragon’s Maze will contain a theme where it’s important to focus on four colors: the mana-fixing support, the block structure, the cards referring to basic land types, the flavor support, and the existence of Commander. O.K., the last one doesn’t necessarily influence set and block design decisions, but it helps that it’s a boon instead of something bad for Magic: The Gathering. Whenever something would be bad for Magic, it can even be scrapped as a decision. This is not the case for four-color cards and its impact on the Commander scene.

Multicolor as a theme is very popular, and players love the identities given to each of the ten two-color pairs in the form of the guilds. Shards of Alara brought us five more identities for each of the ally three-color groupings. Domain (five colors) has already been done twice. This leaves just ten identities left: the five “wedge” colors and five four-color groupings.

I feel that, like the shards in Shards of Alara, the “wedge” colors have enough design space to merit its own block. When it comes to four-color cards, however, it’s tougher. And this is especially why four-color cards would be a perfect fit as a small set twist for the Return to Ravnica block.

The mana-fixing support you need for four-color cards is tricky – if you include too many cards in a set/block’s design that help you have access to four colors, then what would stop a player from simply having a five-color deck? This is a unique challenge for the four-color theme: it would be “domain” all over again. So, you’d have to be careful with how you dole out your mana-fixers.

Yore-Tiller Nephilim by Jeremy Jarvis
Luckily, Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash has already helped set up for four-color card support. The Guildgates and Keyrunes only offer two colors of support – and rightfully so. They support two-color guilds. These cards, along with Transguild Promenade, the Gatecrash-equivalent to Transguild Promenade, and whatever mana-fixing support is available in Dragon’s Maze will help to make four-color cards possible without going overboard and enabling five-color decks.

Now, when you’re drafting Return to Ravnica by itself, going with a two-color deck is an absolute minimum with the option of going with a three-color deck is you pick up those mana-fixing cards. And like I said above, when you’re drafting with Dragon’s Maze, going with a three-color support is the minimum for optimal card choices between the Gatecrash and Return to Ravnica packs. So, it stands to reason that your color strategy for the Dragon’s Maze drafting format is: three-color minimum with the option to go four colors.

Four In Policy

Normally, when you’re increasing the number of colors your deck supports, you’re sacrificing some of the punches your deck could have in exchange for smoothing out your deck and having a wide variety of spell effects. But when you’ve got two-color gold cards, something happens: the power of the card is higher compared to a spell of the same converted mana cost. This makes up for you going out of your way to make sure your mana base supports two colors! You get powerful cards.

As a rule, the more colored mana symbols there are in a card’s converted mana cost, the more powerful it can be. It has heavier restrictions. This is why the guild leaders can be more powerful because they each require a whopping four colored mana symbols. The guild leaders also scream: play just my two colors. Have a ton of black and a ton of red, and Rakdos will be yours to summon. And he will be powerful.

But, as another rule, the more different kinds of colored mana symbols there are in the mana cost of a card, the more powerful it will be. A gold card with a white mana symbol and a green mana symbol is more powerful than a card of the same converted mana cost with two green mana symbols. That’s because you can simply throw a ton of Forests in your deck to achieve casting the latter card.

So, take these two rules of the power of cards with colored mana symbols in their mana cost, and apply them to a theoretical four-color card: you get super-powerful cards. This power you get balances out the fact that they’re difficult to cast. Just look at Woolly Thoctar as an example of how much it dwarfs Centaur Courser in size because it requires red, green, AND white instead of the Centaur’s measly “one green” requirement. Here, let me demonstrate:

Bonebreaker Giant is a 4/4 for 4R.

Add one more colored mana symbol for a cost of 3RR yet still keep it monocolored, and you get a 5/4 Fire Elemental!

However, if you make that extra colored mana symbol a second, different color instead of the same color, perhaps with a mana cost of 3RG, you’ll get a 6/4 Streetbreaker Wurm! Two more whole points of power for the same amount of mana as Bonebreaker Giant because there are more colored mana symbols and more colors.

Lastly, to demonstrate the power of requiring maximum number of colored mana symbols with the maximum number of colors on a card with a converted mana cost of 5, I present to you: an 8/8 Fusion Elemental! That’s QUITE the jump from 4/4 (yes, I do realize that its uncommon rarity may mean it had a bump in power level - which, on a side note, makes me upset - but you get the point)!

With all this power of four-color cards, you’re going to want to run it in Standard. But how will you support four-color decks? Ah, with a heavy-hitting line-up of the five ally dual lands in Magic 2013, the five enemy dual lands in Innistrad block, and ten guild dual lands in Return to Ravnica block.

It’s these guild duals that are particularly important because they each have basic land types. There’s been a curious increase in the number of cards that care about lands that are not just basic lands but have the basic land types. In Magic 2013, there’s Arbor Elf, Farseek, Ranger's Path, and Gem of Becoming. If you have the Return to Ravnica block duals, your color selection is vastly increased, despite fetching "just a Forest," which might be helpful when you’re trying to cast your four-color cards in your Standard Decks!

Notably, what was determined with my own “four colors matter” set is that the key to making a set that supported four-color decks but not five-color decks was basic lands. Cards that required you to need basic lands in your deck were leveraging the natural restrictions of devoting card slots for those basic lands. The similarity between cards that cared about basic land types and cards that care about basic lands is interesting!

Now, for something completely different: Commander needs four-color legendary creatures. There are currently none to choose from when you’re trying to find a Commander. Mark Rosewater said that if he could go back and change the only five four-color cards in Magic: The Gathering to be legendary creatures, he would. And with Wizards of the Coast’s recent strong support for Commander by providing new Commander products every year, it’s safe to say that Wizards likes it when something is Commander-friendly. So the fact that having a set with four-color cards in theme means there’s an opportunity for the existence of four-color legendary creatures only helps to reinforce the decision to have a four-color theme.

Which brings me to my next point: flavor. It’s difficult to define each of the four-color groupings. What does it mean to be nonblack? How do we do what we did for Shards of Alara but with even more restriction? How will a four-color nonblack card feel different from the Bant or Naya shards?

This is yet another reason why Dragon’s Maze would be perfect to house four-color cards: the flavor supports it. You see, the protagonists have already been defined and have clear identities: the guilds. The guilds are back and all ten will return in Dragon’s Maze. The difference between the original Ravnica block and the Return to Ravnica block is that there now needs to be a strong opposing force to all of the guilds (Nicol Bolas? Maybe.)

However, as in the Ravnica story in the books and in articles on DailyMTG, there WAS something terrible all of the guilds were facing: the Nephilim. Sadly, these four-color Nephilim creatures didn’t get much presence card-wise. There are seven Nephilim-related cards: one for each of the five Nephilim and two measly cards that referenced the Nephilim.

Dune-Brood Nephilim by Jim Murray
In the original story, Niv-Mizzet had quite the ordeal with these Nephilim. He destroyed two of ‘em and then fled the scene (Ravnica) with Rakdos destroying a third Nephilim. The last two retreated underground or something. …which is a fact that’s important! Niv-Mizzet eventually came back, and… well, what’s he up to now? He’s having the Izzet League doing strange things. I wonder why? Perhaps he’s BUILDING A DEFENSE AGAINST THE NEPHILIM?! …and creating a maze of stuff underground, thus the “Dragon’s Maze” set name! Eh, eh? All right, so that's a bit of a stretch, but you see where I'm going with this, right?

Ultimately, the story is right there and ready to welcome the four-color Nephilim cards. A few may have died before, but the nature of the Nephilim is unknown (regenerative properties, for example) and the new Ravnican story was able to accommodate the re-forming of the guilds despite the Guildpact being broken in the previous block’s story. So, the plus-side is that this totally supports having five four-color legendary creature cards.

On a tangential note, Wizards has stated that there will be new guild champions for each of the guilds. What better time to have guild champions to fight for each of their respective guilds than when the Nephilim re-emerge to wreak havoc upon Ravnica? And, yes, I am aware that this means there would be fifteen legendary creatures in one set. It’ll be all right – five mythic legendary creatures and ten rare guild champion legendary creatures.

I can also see as a possibility that there would be humanoid/dragon/other four-color legendary creatures that channel their respective four-color Nephilim. I’m stating this in case I get so close in my prediction yet people will point out that the Nephilim didn’t end up being the four-color legendary creatuers. Might as well cover my bases with far-reaching speculation like this!

I also realize that designing four-color legendary creature is entirely possible to do with just the Commander products. This is something I fully support happening and think should happen. This would mean even MORE potential four-color commanders. However, this shouldn’t take the place of Magic: The Gathering eventually having four-color Block and Standard decks! That’s an experience yet to be had!

Fourm of the Dragon

I can see how I could be wrong about the four-color card theme, though. For example, there could be a multicolored vs. monocolored theme between the guilds and "the guildless" with cards that use the words “multicolored” and “monocolored” as hinted at in the cards Pyroconvergence and Ultimate Price. Jay Treat at least briefly mentioned thisbefore. (Though, "monocolored matters" would be a hard sell for me since the drafting Gatecrash and Return to Ravnica both encourage multicolor). Perhaps Gates will be very important (or they’ll help fuel the four-color card support in the mana-fixing cards in Dragon’s Maze). But four-color cards is going to have to be my guess (which may or may not also have the "multicolored matters" theme, too).

Multicolor as a theme doesn’t happen every year. And when multicolor does show up as a theme, it isn’t always the right time for four-color cards. But Dragon’s Maze is the perfect time for four-color cards. The block structure is right, mana-fixing support is correct, and “four colors” is something that needs to happen in a Magic: The Gathering set someday. If there’s any time to do four-color cards… this is it!

If hindsight is 20/20, four-sight is Dragon’s Maze.

Ral Zarek by Eric Deschamps