Yorke on Games #5 – The Unexpected Virtue of Origins

Origins is a more interesting set than Battle for Zendikar for the same reason that a smorgasbord is more gastronomically appealing than a bag of tomatoes: it enables a variety of aesthetic experiences rather than just one. Magic itself would be a much worse game if it didn’t have its five colors; it probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the success it has so far if it didn’t have that inherent diversity in its flavor and mechanics built into its core. Today we will discuss the importance of aesthetic experience, explain why BFZ fails on multiple aesthetic axes where Origins succeeded, and explore what Wizards of the Coast could do in the future to avoid similar outcomes.

10 Planes Good, 1 Plane Bad

Before the idea of planeswalking was fully embraced as the default mode for Magic storytelling, the plane of Dominaria sufficed as a backdrop for the action for the first four years of the game. Dominaria contained within it various continents with dramatically contrasting flavor (each of which would have probably been reskinned as a separate planes under WotC’s current creative management). As a result, playing on that plane never got dull, because new continents could always be discovered / invented.

Now, however, each plane has rather restrictive parameters. You like cities? Well, Ravnica is all city. You like metal? Hey! Mirrodin is all metal. You like pastoral scenes? Lorwyn’s nothing but that. As a result, you get an overload of drawings of robots in New Phyrexia and altogether too many floating acid-hangovers in Saviors of Kamigawa.

Magic is nevertheless a richer game for having explored all of these various worlds. And since planeswalkers, who have the ability to jump between these worlds, became the protagonists of the game, WotC Creative can now feature multiple planes in the same cardset. The most successful realization of this fact came with Origins, which was unique in that it featured ten planes rather than one. It was the most original set released in years, brimming with build-around-me cards and engaging visuals. Indeed, perhaps because the set was not tied to any single plane, the number of interesting modular card designs spiked considerably.The exception being Ravnica, where each of the ten guilds function as their own ‘planes’, with their own unique looks and mechanics. Here we can see how the visual aesthetics of a set can influence its mechanical realization.

Don’t Chain Your Artists to a Style Guide

Remember that Magic card, you know, the one with the clown on a teeter-totter with a bound and blindfolded kangaroo, holding an artist’s palette under the moon?

Neither do I.
Neither do I.

While it’s true that Stasis might have the worst card art in any non-Unglued set (remember, there’s always Look at Me, I’m the DCI), it is certainly memorable. When I saw this card for the first time, it was definitely a ‘Whaaat?’ moment. In a fantasy-themed world filled with junior-high school notebook depictions of buff warriors and gnarly zombies, this card jumped out and said ‘I do something altogether different… just look at me!’ And sure enough, it did.

If you look back at the early Magic sets, there wasn’t so much of a concrete style guide as there was an outside limit on absurdity. Drew Tucker’s Holy Light looks like a naked dude sitting at a bar; Harold McNeill’s Darkness looks like a low-budget Aliens poster. These oddball pieces of art constitute talking points: they are some people’s favorite pieces of card art, and are categorically despised by others. Whatever the case, their originality is not in dispute, and they add greatly to the visual diversity of the game.

Let’s fast-forward to BFZ. There are fully one hundred (100/274!) cards depicting bony-faced, tentacular messes in the set. I know this, sadly, because I stayed up last night counting them in the card image gallery. Not only did I suffer from visual burnout, but as another consequence I have great difficulty visually distinguishing one card from another. I can imagine the following conversation happening today (not even weeks or years from now):

“Do you have that card? You know, the one where the eldrazi dude is looming in the foreground, bony face looking to the side, multiple arms reaching out in every direction, sitting on a rope of tentacles?”
“Aren’t you describing every card from Battle for Zendikar?”

Aesthetic fail. This failure is due to WotC straightjacketing their artists with restrictive style guides, and writing overly-prescriptive card descriptions on their art commissions. Consider the following actual card descriptionSource: http://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/arcana/art-descriptions-not-khans-2015-04-02:

Setting: DRAGONS OF TARKIR
Clan: Dromoka (GW)
Color: White creature
Location: In front of a sacred ancestral tree, in the wilderness

Action: This is a portrait of ANAFENZA, who in this timeline is not the khan of the Abzan clan but instead a young woman who was killed for practicing forbidden ancestor worship. Start with the image of Anafenza in the Khans of Tarkir world guide. Instead of the clothing she wears there, use the updated Dromoka-clan armor motifs in the Dragons of Tarkir world guide. She carries the same long sword as the khan, but she holds it horizontally before her in two hands, in an attitude of watchfulness.

Anafenza is a spirit made of sand, in the old Abzan tradition.

This illustration is intended to recall that shown in the card Kin-Tree Invocation in KTK. This kin-tree is not planted in a fortress like those of the former Abzan, but rather is hidden among other trees in an oasis far from the cities.

Focus: Anafenza
Mood: I bring you the blessings of the ancestors now that I am one of them.

Doesn’t that get your creative juices flowing? Nope, mine neither. I know a picture is supposed to be worth 1000 words, but WotC takes this literally and cashes them out up front, ramming them down their artists’s throat. For comparison, imagine a patron commissioning ‘The Thinker’ from Rodin, and first handing him this on a slip of paper:

Setting: GATES OF HELL
Color: Blue creature
Location: On a stone

Action: This is a portrait of THE THINKER, who inhabits the outermost circle of Hell. He is not a true sinner but instead a philosopher who lived and died before the establishment of Christianity. Start with the image of Aristotle in the Philosophers of Greece world guide. Instead of the clothing he wears there, THE THINKER should be bare-ass naked. He sits, holding his chin up with his right fist, muscles straining as if his head were made of lead, gazing downward, in an attitude of pensiveness.

Focus: THE THINKER
Mood: I solve problems you don’t know you have in ways you can’t understand.

Anyone who has any experience of the creative process knows that no great work of art could have this as its starting point. But the aesthetic experience of Magic is only half in its art, and the other half is how it feels to play it, which largely relies on the qualities of the mechanics or keywords on the cards and how they operate in the game.

Mark Rosewater Knows a Linear Mechanic when He Sees One

In his October 6th 2003 column, BFZ lead designer Mark Rosewater makes an important distinction between linear and modular designs. He states that whereas modular design gives players a ‘box of Legos’ to experiment with, “Linear mechanics force players to build decks around a single aspect of the cards.”See: http://archive.wizards.com/Magic/magazine/article.aspx?x=mtgcom/daily/mr92 He acknowledges that while linear design is beginner-friendly, in that it gives strong deckbuilding direction to new players, enfranchised players resent having to build their decks on rails laid down by R&D. In a later article on September 20th 2010, he further defined parasitic design as being characterized by “mechanics that are very insular”.See: http://archive.wizards.com/Magic/magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtg/daily/mm/109

If there is a meaningful distinction to be made between what Rosewater means by linearity and parasitism, I take it to be a difference not in the type of cards created, but in the number of cards that could be affected by them, or in other words the measure of how deeply these cards rely on specific others for their function. Whereas linear cards can still leave some room open for deck choices, parasitic cards strictly rely on other cards of a specific type existing for them to be meaningful. Compare:

Goblin Chieftain

And:

Tivadar's Crusade

Goblin Chieftain is a linear card that could (sub-optimally) be run in any red deck as a 2/2 creature with haste, although it gets dramatically better in a deck with other goblins. Tivadar’s Crusade, on the other hand, is a parasitic card that does absolutely nothing unless your opponent has goblins in play. Both, however, generally serve to narrow the aesthetic experience of playing Magic, by limiting the kinds of decks that are built, and by blanking those cards which lose their relevance outside of the context they were designed for.

Before BFZ was even released, on September 21st 2015, pro player Paulo Vitor Dama da Rosa complained that the set was full of “random and nonsensical” mechanics.See: http://www.channelfireball.com/articles/everything-thats-wrong-with-battle-for-zendikar/ He was mainly criticizing the arbitrary connection between the mechanical and creative aspects of the cards. However, to his complaints I would add that all the new mechanics and keywords in BFZ are without exception linear: Devoid rewards you for playing as many colorless creatures as you can; Rally rewards you for playing as many allies as you can; Landfall rewards you for playing as many lands as you can; Converge rewards you for playing as many colors of mana as you can; and Ingest rewards you for exiling as many of your opponent’s cards as you can. The fact that these linear mechanics sometimes conflict and compete for deck slots does little to combat the monotony of playing the set. When my wife expressed interest in coming to a draft, I prepared her by saying: “Well, it’s easy. If you have enough allies, you want to play a Rally deck. If you have enough eldrazi, you want to play a Devoid deck.” That’s the simple, bland truth of the matter.

In other words, the experience of playing BFZ is less aesthetically satisfying than playing Origins limited. For those who don’t recall, Spell Mastery and Renown were keywords in Origins that incidentally rewarded you for doing things you wanted to be doing anyway: playing combat tricks and getting your creatures through for damage. They didn’t tie you to any specific build. Sure, there was an ‘Elf matters’ theme running through one of the ten color combinations in Origins, but there were still nine other archetypes to play that were largely open-ended and modular in nature. It feels good as a player to have more meaningful choices at your disposal: ten choices are better than two.

How Wizards of the Coast Can Do Better

My advice for avoiding another BFZ-style aesthetic vacuum in the future is simple:

1. Make sure that all sets have their backstory take place on multiple planes simultaneously.
2. Let the card artists breathe; don’t choke them with too many details.
3. Favor modular card designs and greatly limit the number of linear and parasitic cards.

WotC should follow the Star Wars precedent. The Empire Strikes Back was such a cinematic masterpiece partially because it made the universe feel appropriately immense; it took us to exotic planets such as Hoth, Bespin, and Degobah, in addition to deep space — all in two hours’s time, with a sensible narrative that connected these locales. The ‘blind eternities’ of the Magic multiverse should also be appreciated on a grand scale, and serve as the backdrop for its own epic tales.

To achieve this goal, the art department cannot be operated on a factory farm model. Images are able to inspire cards, but cards are far less likely to inspire images. Let the creative minds of the artists roam at will: a set with an open look is liable to generate more interesting card designs for players to enjoy.

Finally, WotC needs to show more respect for their players. They need to assume that we will be able to find the implicit connections in a modular design, and even surprise them with a few of our own. They shouldn’t keep us tied to linear designs simply to make their internal playtesting quicker and easier. And they shouldn’t underestimate the ability or desire of new players to explore the complexities of the game.