Hello, reader (whoever you are).
There are many, many places where people talk about game design. Some more fundamental philosophy, some more specific. For no particular reason, I have decided I would like to write some of my own thoughts and explanations about design theory. Note that I have little to no credentials in this area, but I played a lot of different kinds of games and read a lot about design theory, enough that I feel adequately qualified to write this humble blog post.
Today, I will be discussing one of the most important aspects of MTG design, mechanics. In particular, this will be in relation to custom or fan design. I will begin by discussing the fundamental of the concept, then applying that to how mechanics are designed and what makes mechanics good. This is the rough template for any other design theory topics I post about in future.
Let's begin then.
What is a mechanic?
Mechanics is a term used by R&D to refer to a particular mechanical (gameplay) theme in a set or block. While mechanics don't have to be named officially (think gating, or any tribal theme like in Innistrad), the term mechanics is more commonly used to refer to ones that are. Hence, for the rest of his article, I will refer to named mechanics as simply mechanics. In modern sets, there are typically several mechanics, with varying themes and colour associations. Mechanics are always features on a large number of cards (depending on the set and mechanic, but typically around 10 for smaller and 15 for larger sets) and across multiple rarities.
Why are mechanics used?
Using mechanics gives several important advantages.
- It allows players, especially less enfranchised ones, to easily identify major themes in a set/block. This may not sound very important, but it has mattered quite significantly in several cases historically (such as Naya's 'five or greater power' theme).
- It makes it easier for players to understand cards with a mechanic once they understand the mechanic itself. This allows a designer to put more than the usual allowed complexity on a card, especially at common.
- In the case of a keyword mechanic, it can save text space and allow unique conditional abilities. Goes hand-in-hand with the previous point.
- It adds additional 'flavour' (story and world context) to the cards with it.
- It gives players easily accessible themes to build around.
- It adds some level of depth and novelty to the game.
What makes a mechanic good?
When designing any mechanic, there are many ways to evaluate your ideas and determine the most successful execution (if at all).
This is where you start. What is the core idea behind your mechanic? What does it do? Why does it do it? It can be easy to forget this part of the design process when evaluating things, but it can helpful. When you don't know why a mechanic just doesn't seem to work well, consider the reason why it exists in the first place. What are you trying to do with it and is that something that you really think is going to add to your design? This is normally some combination or role, strategy and flavour.
This is as simple as it comes, what is new about your mechanic? Depending on the mechanic and how it is used in set, a different level of novelty is required. The important rule is that at least one of your mechanics needs to be very significantly novel, depending on how much other themes (such as colours and types) you have that carry some of that weight. This is difficult to get determine and is best evaluated with help from a variety of players.
The most relevancy a mechanic has is to the design it is in. Because mechanics are the hinge of gameplay themes, making sure your mechanics actually contribute to your design as a whole in a positive way is very important. Consider what kind of strategies it will encourage, what kind of flavour it evokes, what kind of thematic gameplay it will create (i.e. massive armies, gladiator arena, world-shattering battle) and such things.
Mechanics always allow some level of design making, some more than others. Always consider how players can use the mechanic in different fundamental ways. How many different effects does it grant players? How many different ways are there to enable it? What kinds of interactions can it have?
Because mechanics add flavour, they can be designed to take advantage of this. When designing a mechanic, consider if there is any flavourful connections you can take advantage of to mechanic your mechanic more desirable. For example, you may want to change something a 'leaves the battlefield' clause to a 'dies' clause to evoke the flavour associated with death.
Mechanics will play a larger influence than just their own set, block or constructed environment. Other formats will be able to use it as well and this forces you to consider how the mechanic will play with any kind of card. You need to analyse it's interactions beyond what you can control, in a larger metagame of cards and mechanics. This is more of a development aspect, but it must be at least considered in a design sense as well.
Rules and Complexity
Mechanics need to be understandable. They need to be explainable at an comprehension level and a deeper rules level. As a general rule, if your mechanics has three or more lines of reminder text (for a keyword), it has too much. Either find a way to summarise it in reminder text without cutting necessary information, change the way it works or get rid of it altogether. Once you have the text that will appear on cards, consider the applications in the rules. For most mechanics, referencing the basic rules will be enough, but if you or other people think it is a little worrisome, the comprehensive rules will allow for a more definite answer. Keep in mind that if something is not allowed by the rules, you can change them for your design, but only to an extent.
What categories does your mechanic fall into? Does it reduce costs? Is it an alternate mode of playing cards? Is it a threshold ability? Is an activated ability? Does it encourage a certain deck? Or does it support a certain deck? etc. Consider what mechanics will be in the same environment (older formats don't count here because of how many mechanics are available) and whether there are too many or too little mechanics of a certain kind. Keeping the right balance here is normally not much of an issue because mechanic design tends to produce the necessary variety automatically. Nevertheless, it is still something to be aware of in case it becomes more important.
Common mistakes and my suggestions
Based on the previous analysis, we can gather some useful data. Here are some of the mistakes I have seen a lot and some tips on how to avoid them.
Novelty is important to a mechanic's design. Many newer designers create mechanics that are very similar to existing mechanics, intentionally or not. Make sure that you reference existing mechanics during design to check if there is any unwanted similarities that you can change.
This is a more common mistake on individual cards, but mechanics still suffer from it. Playtesting is an easy way to see how complex a mechanic is. If you really can't understand how your own mechanic works, there is a problem.
Does something that is considered bad for the game
Certain effects are should not be done as a mechanic. Things like land disruption, buyback effects (normally) and storm effects. Most of the time, these sort of effects can be done as the occasional card, but are problematic in higher numbers and in a more open way that is necessary for a mechanic. These effects either affect your opponent very oppressively or encourage oppressive gameplay.
Doesn't fit the set
Mechanics are essential to establishing a set. Every one needs to add to the set's themes and work well with the others. Adding a mechanic that you like but doesn't have any tangible connection to the set is always a mistake. This is often correlated with the set itself lacking definite themes.
Doesn't obey the colour pie
Most design theory articles about MTG will bring this up eventually, and here I am. Mechanics that can't be used on any one-colour card or (more commonly) mechanics that are distributed in colours that can't use them is a fundamental mistake that designers should eventually learn to avoid. Even still, it pays to consider the viability of a mechanic in colour use.
That will be all for now, I hope you enjoyed this article and I hope you take something out of it. Feedback is welcome and stay tuned if you liked this, as I will eventually post more. : )