Thursday, October 25, 2007

Game Grammar

Just read

I don't see myself applying this sort of technology anytime soon, but I'm glad that somebody out there is thinking it through. Every shared symbol system smooths* communication; the question is, will there be anybody with whom to communicate in this language? (Such concerns haven't stopped my sister from devoting her university career to learning Latin...)

I do hope that in the future, hordes of game designers can communicate entire systems and mechanics in a shared language.

* Brought to you by the Dept. of Unintentional 4-word Alliterations.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Set Review Checklist

As mentioned in last post, I need to be more formal about measuring the power level and quality of individual cards. Coming out of a 4-player draft, I couldn't remember the precise cards each player had in their deck; nor which cards they'd left in the sideboard; and had no clue whether everything was relatively balanced other than the occasional cry of "Not another 7/7 flying demon token!!!"

So here's a checklist I'm going to print up for the next draft. I wrote a Word macro that pulls each cardname out of a database and sticks them - one cardname per row - into this checklist. Then, after players draft and build their decks, I'll get everybody to whip through their stacks of cards and fill this out.

The columns are:
Drafted? Answer "Y" if you drafted this card; leave blank otherwise.
Deck? If you drafted the card, did you include it in your deck? Leave blank if not.
Cool - A rating of 1 to 5 as to how cool the card is (whatever that means to the individual player.) 1 = "What a pile of tripe, I'd rather open One With Nothing in a draft!!!" while 5 = "Sweet! I wish Wizards of the Coast would make cards this good!!!"
Power - A rating of 1 to 5 as to how powerful the card seems; how much you'd like to open it first pick of the draft. This is not as important as the next rating.
Power (After Games) - A rating of 1 to 5 as to how powerful the card actually was during the draft. This isn't a perfect measure, because a good card might not be useful in a given context. But it's a rough idea of whether the playtester's opinion of a given card matches my own.
Comments - Just a place for the tester to leave any remarks about the card. Hopefully these are more constructive than "This sucks" and "This rules"....Although there isn't an awful lot of room to write...

I haven't figured out what to do with all the resulting data yet. Probably I'll manually enter the feedback into a database, then crunch numbers such as "how many cards have cool = 1?".

Playtest 2

Had a great playtest draft a few nights ago. MikeP recruited buddies Luke and Jared to draft the second printing of the set with us.

Jared hadn't played Magic in a while, but got back up to speed pretty fast because he trounced me with a white enchantment-based creature lockdown (Advanced Logistics, Righteous Indignation). It was a scene I'd never really encountered before in a draft deck, which is great! (The fact that he constantly had Wallopin' Websnappers out with Resonate didn't help me much...) We found that Advanced Logistics was overpowered, and it has been changed to this.

I don't remember anything about Luke and Mike's decks, which tells me that I need to become more formalized about tracking the cards people are using, how they feel about them, etc. I think I'll put together a set checklist and print it for each player. Similar to the one you get at a tournament for recording your sealed deck contents. They can check off the cards they select in the draft, rate their initial impression (power level, cool factor), then re-rate them after a few games. Also track their win/loss performance with the resulting deck.

I do know that MikeP brought pain to Luke with Ritual Chanter.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Chopping Block

Hey guys, here's a quick aside: one of the really neat things I've discovered during the set-design process is how much a certain part of it feels like your own personal Magic draft.

I'm talking about the point in time where you have too many cards for the set, and it's time to cut parts of it away. It's like what a sculptor must feel, given a massive block of stone and a chisel (or whatever tools a sculptor would use in that situation...) You have a great chunk of really nice stone, but much of it is standing in the way of the piece you want the audience to see. You cut and cut, and in so doing, you shape what's left into its purest form.

It feels like the point in a Magic draft when you have 27 good cards, but only need 23 of them for your deck. I'm horrible at making the choice of which cards to cut (I'm usually the last to finish), but it's also a big part of what keeps me coming back for more.

It's fascinating to me to have found almost the same sensation and process here, during set-design. The only difference is that it now carries the additional (and quite stirring) weight of the personal work, attachment, and ownership you feel to the whole thing. You have a much stronger bond with a card you've designed than you do with one you just opened in a pack. The only stronger bond (in Magic design, anyway) is what you feel with your whole set; if cool card X makes set Y worse by its inclusion, then you have to let X go.

Having a "Design File" where you can put all these bits and pieces that you chisel away makes the whole process much easier; even if you never end up using the card down the road, the fact that you *might* makes it easier to put the card aside.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Set structure: Rarity

I managed to drag some of my long-suffering friends into a Magic draft using the new set. From a playtesting standpoint, it went great: some fun things were identified, some un-fun things were identified, and most importantly, a laundry list of changes emerged as a result. My good buddies Mike P and Mike N even designed a few cards during the playtest as they noticed obvious holes that I wasn't exploiting, which was great.

One of the results that most surprised me was how little each of my themes and mechanics became apparent during play. I believe MaRo has said that "it's not a theme if it's not on a bunch of common cards", and that makes sense, but going in to the playtest I had thought that (for example) Resonate was on a bunch of cards. It turns out that there were way too many (common) cards that referred to or were affected by resonate, and not nearly enough that actually had resonate. This was pretty much true for my other two big themes as well: Debris (lands being relevant even in the graveyard); and Husks (piles of 1/1 creature tokens that are overrunning the land.)

What I learned from this is that I need to be more deliberate in putting the set together. For example, there needs to be a structure that dictates how many common white enchantments are in the set; how expensive they are, what rarity, and how many of them should refer to at least one of the set's themes.

For now, I'll start with figuring out the breakdown by rarity, and get into more detail about card types later. I just checked Mirrodin and Champions of Kamigawa, and they have:

286 cards (not incl. basic land)
110 Common : 88 Uncommon : 88 Rare (actually Kamigawa only has 87 uncommons)

So, the same number of uncommons and rares, but 125% as many commons as either of those.
In my set, I'm aiming for the following structure:

265 cards (not incl. basic land)
115c : 85u : 65r

Almost 175% as many commons as rares! What am I doing?? Well, I think WotC includes the amount they do in a set to encourage us to buy more packs: the more rares, the more incentive to buy packs since you only get one rare per pack. (Of course, by this logic, they should have 500 or 1000 rares per set, so that you have to buy thousands of packs if you're trying to complete a set or get 4 of a given rare. But WotC also has to consider the willingness of the players to spend, and I'd bet that they've arrived at these counts thru market research and trial & error.)

My emphasis is not on selling packs; it's on having fun drafts. I want my small group of players to see a good variety of common cards and have a reasonable chance of seeing most of the rares over the course of a few drafts. I don't know how willing the guys will be to keep testing my set - hopefully they love it and we play it a bunch, but it might not gel immediately and they might run out of enthusiasm for testing...At WotC, they can iterate on a design until it's good, because their testers are paid to be there trying things out.

I should say, I didn't pull those numbers out of thin air. Based on what I've got so far, I've decided to go for 47 cards per color, plus 18 artifacts and 12 lands.
47 * 5 = 235
235 + 18 + 12 = 265 cards in the set.

I also will be adding 20 multicolor cards, bringing the total up to 285 cards, but I don't know their final rarities yet.

I think I'll stop there for now, but I'll come back to talk about how I have "slotted" the card types across each color in my set.

Today's Preview Card (subject to continuing development, but this one is pretty popular and not likely to change).