#3 - "As simple as that" (A custom card design guide: complexity and elegance)

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The Lion’s Lair #3

“As simple as that”

(A custom card design guide: complexity and elegance)

(This article was originally published here.)



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In this issue, we’ll examine the concepts of simplicity, complexity and elegance. We’ll see how the first two mirror one another and how all three are interconnected. As I explained in my first article, I’m not a professional game designer and these topics are just a passion for me, so I apologize in advance if my presentation won’t be exhaustive or if it may not be 100% coherent with the broader game design theory. This is just how I have these concepts in my head. Another warning: in this article my chemistry background will be showing up multiple times. After all, some say that intelligence consists in finding connections between apparently separated things. I hope at least it will help in looking at these concepts from a new perspective.

Mirrored Entities

Everyone likes a nice simple card. But in order to understand what makes a card simple, we must understand what makes it complex. Simplicity and complexity are two concepts perpetually reflecting into one another, like an image in a kaleidoscope. They’re opposite, but they couldn’t exist without one another.

In Magic, we can see simplicity manifesting in multiple ways, for example ease of understanding what a card does, or ease of resolving an effect, that is how many operations it takes to do it. The former is usually more important than the latter, as if you don’t understand what a card does, how can you execute in practice what it says? To understand simplicity, we must look at complexity, and this has already been done by MaRo in his article about “New World Order”. In that article, he explains us there are three types of complexity in Magic. As I see it, to each of them corresponds a type of simplicity that mirrors and helps “healing” that complexity.

Comprehension complexity – MaRo defines this as follows: “This type of complexity has to do with the players understanding what a card does”. So this type of complexity asks us: Is this card easily understandable? If the answer is no, we have a problem. If a player has to read the card multiple times just to understand what it does, we have a problem. The aspect of simplicity that mirrors this type of complexity is ease of understanding. A simple card is understandable at a glance. MaRo would say you “grok” it, where “to grok” means to understand deeply and immediately at a profound inner level. A grokkable card is one that is immediately clear to you after you only read it once. The more short and the less linguistic intricacies its text has, the more grokkable it is. Note that here we are considering the card in a vacuum. To summarize, grokkability is what defeats comprehension complexity.

Board complexity – MaRo tells us that “This type of complexity isn't about what cards can do but rather about how they interact with one another while they are on the battlefield”. This type of complexity depends on how complicated the board state is, or better, how complicated the decision tree to make the next play is, given a board state. I think there are two aspects to this type of complexity: you have to be able to both understand (tracking complexity) and correctly manipulate (logistics) the board state. So, to achieve simplicity here you need a card that doesn’t affect other cards on the board in unintuitive or hidden ways, to help with tracking complexity, and/or that instructs you to do just a few and easy manual operations, ideally the minimum number of them, to help with logistics. This reminds me of a concept we have in chemical engineering, which is that of “unit operation” (I warned you!). Wikipedia correctly defines that as “a basic step in a process”. Any chemical plant is made of a sequence of those. To project the plant, I have to divide the process I want to happen into single steps, each corresponding to one unit operation, and then build the plant putting those in the right order. I think a similar concept may be easily adapted and applied to Magic design too. Here, unit operations are the most basic things you can do in the game: draw a card, tap a permanent, deal X damage, and so on. You can imagine a card as being made of a sequence of those. The fewer of those are on a single card, the simpler the card is in logistics.

Strategic complexity – MaRo explains that “This complexity is all about maximizing a card's usefulness” by knowing the advanced concepts of Magic strategy (tempo, card advantage, knowing your role in any moment of the game, etc...). To do this, you have to understand the strategic implications of both the board state and the cards in your hand, and maybe also the cards that you think your opponent might have in his or her hand. This isn’t about logistics, but they may help, as having to think about effects that are simpler to resolve frees up more mental space, that is now available to process all this information. A simple card here is one that doesn't have particular strategic interactions with other cards, but if you do this too much you risk to remove depth from the game or to be accused of “building the decks for the players”, if you exaggerate in using linear strategies to help with this type of complexity, or even of “dumbing down the game” (that’s a classic). So you have to reach an equilibrium here: you have to find the right point where your card has some strategic interactions, but not to the point that evaluating those takes up all of your mental energy.

How did WotC try to achieve that equilibrium? Their solution is called “lenticular design”, which MaRo explains in detail in a “Making Magic” article. In brief, it consists in designing your card in such a way that its strategic complexity is hidden from the less experienced players and visible only to more experienced ones. This way, the former don’t have “feel bad” moments because they just doesn’t see the potentially better strategic choice they could have made, while the latter get to enjoy the additional strategic depth. The classic example of a lenticular design is Black Cat. The less experienced player just plays it normally and when it happens to die he or she gets to enjoy the bonus from the death trigger. This player considers the death triggers only when it matters, not before. Instead, the more experience player is constantly aware of the death trigger, for example considering it when making decisions on how to block.

As I’m writing this, Fate Reforged is just a few days from officially coming out, but the set is already fully spoiled. As an exercise, I tried to identify an example of lenticular design from that set. I think that Reality Shift could fit. A less experienced player just sees a piece of removal that leaves behind a 2/2 and moves on, considering the manifested creature just as a 2/2 vanilla creature. Instead, a more experienced player sees deeper: for example, he or she considers what the manifested creature could be. Did I just remove my opponent’s threat while giving him or her a potentially bigger one (if the manifested creature later turns face up and is revealed to be an even worse threat than the original)? And how probable is it that the manifested creature is actually a creature? What if it can’t even be turned face up at all because it’s not a creature? And even deeper: if I know the top card of my library and it’s useless for me right now given the board state, what if I cast Reality Shift on a useless 1/1 token of mine so that I get a slightly bigger creature out of the deal instead of a dead card? That could be incremental advantage. All these are questions an experienced player can ask his or herself while the less experienced player doesn’t even notice.

An elegant suit

And now let’s talk about elegance. The way I see it, the concept of elegance can be applied simultaneously and separately to the rules text and to the whole card. Let me start by examining the rules text in isolation. I consider elegance in rules text to consist in saying the most possible in the least room possible. The most content with the fewest words. If you allow me to use another metaphor from my chemistry background, it can be thought of as the chemical concept of concentration. A solution is more concentrated if it either contains more solute in the same volume, or the same amount of solute in a minor volume. You can substitute “solution” with “rules text”, “concentrated” with “elegant”, “solute” with “content”, and “volume” with “word count”.

Seen in this way, the main enemy of elegance in rules text is wordiness. The more wordy an effect is, the more diluted it is in the metaphor. Some effects just need to be wordy (for example, suspend), and in that case you have to live with that, but other times we can find shorter templates among standard ones, and in this last case a (custom) card designer should go for the shorter standard template if possible. How can you do that? Going on with the metaphor, you have to “distill” your card idea, trying to come up with the shortest and most elegant wording possible for its rules text. Sometimes, to do that you’ll come up with wordings that have a slightly different functionality from your original idea. In that case, you can choose to accept a compromise between elegance and a slight change in functionality. An example of this comes from my own experience. I faced this very problem in round 3 of January CCL. The challenge asked for a creature with flash. Here’s what my thought process has been: first, I asked myself what effects need to be at instant speed to work. I thought of damage redirection, and I came up with the following card:

Militia Avenger 1WW
Creature — Human Soldier (R)
When Militia Avenger enters the battlefield, choose another target creature you control. The next time a source an opponent controls would deal damage to that creature this turn, prevent that damage. If damage is prevented this way, Militia Avenger deals that much damage to that source’s controller.

I think the concept is clear: cast this in response to a creature of yours taking damage, and that damage is redirected backwards to the source’s controller. The problem is that there’s no way to word such an effect in a short and elegant way. This card would leave a not so good first impression, as it would look like a wall of text, even though it’s clear if you actually take the time to read it. So I tried to come up with some way to achieve a similar enough functionality with a more “concentrated” wording, and I thought of indestructible. Granting indestructible to a creature is another way to save it from incoming damage. I was losing the “deal damage to the source’s controller” part, but I was gaining a lot in elegance. Accepting that compromise also freed enough space on the card to insert some flavor text, which by the way I like very much. Thus the Avenger became a Shieldmate:

Militia Shieldmate 1WW
Creature — Human Soldier (U)
When Militia Shieldmate enters the battlefield, another target creature you control gains indestructible until end of turn.
“He’s my best friend! We fight together! How could I ever let him die?”

The card has been fairly received, and I think the difference in elegance between the Shieldmate and its earlier version is clearly visible.

My name is Bond!

Now we can easily see what is the bond between the two concepts of simplicity and elegance, as defined above. We can follow two logical paths:

• An elegant effect is shorter, thus (usually) easier to process for the brain, thus more grokkable, thus simpler (as grokkability is a part of simplicity).
• An elegant effect concentrates all of the card's effect in just a few manual operations, so it's easier and quicker to resolve and logistics are easier, so it's simpler (logistics being another part of simplicity).

Both paths show and justify how an elegant effect is usually also simple, and, if followed backwards, how a simple effect is usually elegant. Simplicity and elegance aren't usually able to exist one without the other. I keep on writing the word "usually" because Magic has this strange tendency to break its own rules, so there is certainly some exception somewhere, even if now I can’t come up with any.

But let’s take a look now at how the concept of elegance is represented in the MCC rubric:

Elegance – Is the concept easily understood at a glance? Does the design just 'click' with the flavor?

The first question contains everything I’ve tried to say until now. You understand a design at a glance (you grok it) if it's simple and elegant, and I consider those interchangeable, as I’ve just explained. But note how that question is talking not only about rules text, but about the whole concept of the card, and that’s clarified by the second question. In fact, there is another component that helps you understand a card at a glance, and that's flavor. So let’s now discuss elegance in flavor.

The perfect blend

The obvious places to establish the flavor of the card are name and flavor text, but what that second question is really about is the interconnection between the mechanical components of a card (mainly rules text and to a lesser extend the type line) and flavor, which brings elegance at the next level. Above we looked at the elegance of rules text, now we're looking at that of the whole card concept. A whole card feels much more elegant when flavor and mechanics are intertwined. The same thing can be said for a whole set, by the way, as the latest real blocks demonstrate (Innistrad, Theros). In the blocks where there are factions that’s even easier: just give each faction a mechanic and that’s it! You’ve created mechanical identities (mechanics) tied to factions (flavor). Obvious examples of this are both Ravnica blocks, Scars of Mirrodin block, and Khans of Tarkir block. But this is at the level of whole sets, let’s return at the level of single cards in a vacuum. So, what means do we custom card designers have to intertwine flavor and mechanics in our card designs?

1) How can you bring flavor to rules text? You can use what is called “trinket text”. That means a piece of rules text that is on the card mainly for flavor and which functionality isn’t relevant in the majority of cases in real games. A classic example of trinket text is “protection from Demons and from Dragons” on Baneslayer Angel. Another example is the “can block 99 additional creatures” text on Hundred-Handed One. Trinket text can be a powerful weapon in a (custom) card designer’s arsenal to bring flavor to a card, but you must not exaggerate with it, both in the single card (say, a card with five lines of trinket text) and also in the set (say, a third of the cards in your set have it), otherwise it can quickly lose its elegance effect and become too heavy.

2) What about the type line? You can take advantage of the recurrent correspondence between specific subtypes and specific abilities or effects. For example, a Spider tends to have reach, and repetition has established an expectation. If you make a Spider without reach you're disregarding that expectation. I'm not saying it can't be done, but you should have a valid reason to do so, as always when you’re defeating expectations.

3) What about noncreatures? Their type line has to make sense with the name and the overall flavor of the card. You can't have a card called "Stone of Denial" and have it be an Aura. Either it should be an artifact, or you should totally change name and flavor. Which way to go depends on which one is more adaptable in the specific case: mechanics or flavor? Hint: most of the times flavor will be more flexible, and so it's usually better to change that. This is a general rule: when flavor and mechanics clash, mechanics usually tend to win, because they’re just less flexible.

Signing out

How can we summarize all this reasoning? Or alternatively, what do I look for as an MCC judge when judging "Elegance"? I look for a card that:
• is not too wordy.
• is simple to understand (grokkable) and to resolve. A simple effect or card is usually very elegant, and vice versa.
• has mechanics and flavor well intertwined. This can be done by trinket text and/or correctly using the type line.

I’ll close this article as I opened it, remarking again that this is just the way I have these concepts in my brain. I hope this helps and that I didn’t write anything too stupid. As I explained in the introduction to this series, my goal is not to speak to those who already know all these things, and who can probably teach me a lot more than this, but rather to try to explain them to those who may not know them, either because they’ve just approached custom card design or never got serious about it before. My goal is to contribute to close the gap I talked about in my first article by helping those who are behind to get better. So I have to build up everything from scratch, because I don’t know what those people do or don’t already know.

I don’t know yet what I’ll be talking about next time, I’m writing up a list of ideas from which to pick the topic for each article, but I haven’t picked the one for my next one yet. As this article was more on the theoretical side, I’ll try to find something more practical for the next one. Well, I’ll see where inspiration takes me!

Until next time,