The recent launch of the Great Designer Search 2 has people discussing “worst” and “best” mechanics as part of what each designer hopeful must write about. I’m not participating in the contest myself, since the internship isn’t something that I’d take at the moment.
Anyone who describes quitting sanctioned Magic and relocating to Washington for an “internship” certainly isn’t discussing
“dream job,” even if we were to exclude fictional jobs like “Bikini Inspector,” or whatever it is Tom Martell claims to do full-time.
The GDS2 topics got me thinking of what I regard as the most poorly designed recent mechanics, and “planeswalker” is near the top of my list. When I say the “design,” I mean how they work, in other words what the rulebook has to say about â€˜walkers. I don’t mean specific planeswalkers like Ajani Vengeant or Nissa Revane. Planeswalkers appear to be a more permanent part of the game than any one printed instance, so I’m talking not just about today’s planeswalkers, but also tomorrow’s (but I also discuss below why their power level is likely to remain high in the future).
Overall, as currently designed, I think Magic would be better off if no more planeswalkers were ever printed except for the occasional block featuring them (like other mechanics such as affinity or morph).
The fundamental question is whether the “fun” of casting a â€˜walker outweighs the added rules complexity and the “not-so-fun” of playing against them.
Real estate in the basic Magic Rulebook that players use to learn the game (and to a lesser extent, real estate in the more expansive Comprehensive Rulebook) is a limited resource. New players will try to learn the game from it, and we don’t want them feeling overwhelmed. Intermediate players will try to learn
the fundamental elements of the rules as they transition to tournament or just more serious play.
Adding a complex rule to any game is only justified from a game design perspective if the rule comes up frequently (or happens to be the least cumbersome way to solve some tricky problem created by the other rules. Think of the stalemate rules in chess as an example of this corollary. This isn’t what is going on in the planeswalker section of Magic’s rulebook). Simplicity has so many advantages over complexity in the rules that every complex addition should be heavily scrutinized.
I’ll use one of the earliest mechanics that was too complex to justify its own existence — banding — to name this principle (I’m certainly not suggesting this is a novel idea or that it hasn’t been named elsewhere; I just don’t have any prior article handy, and naming things is fun).
The Banding Principle:
if a part of the game adds more complexity to the game than it adds fun, it shouldn’t be in the game. Â
Imagine a card in the “Chance” deck in Monopoly that said, “You become the Administrator of Free Parking” with a corresponding addition to the Monopoly rulebook that defined what it meant to be the Administrator of Free Parking. It wouldn’t come up every game, and the player who compensated for this infrequency by never really bothering to learn the intricacies of the Administrator of Free Parking rules would be punished whenever it did come up.
The “go to jail” rules that already exist in Monopoly take some memorization and some getting used to (“How many turns do I get to roll out of jail? Do I take my turn immediately when I finally bust out?” Etc.), but they come up often enough in the game to (at least arguably) justify making everyone learn those rules. This is just another way of saying that even if something might be fun, it needs to be simple enough or come up often enough to justify having all the players learn how it works. Thus, we can see that The Banding Principle has the following corollary: something might not be “fun” enough to justify its existence because it doesn’t come up often enough.
Planeswalkers are complex. They have
not all of which are intuitive, and what you need to know simply isn’t printed on the cards.
Given the complexity of the planeswalker rules, they better come up a lot to justify having to learn them. Two possible ways to ensure people will play with â€˜walkers are to make them very powerful or to insert them into the lower rarities (power pushes them in Constructed and Limited, rarity only in Limited and Casual). Wizards has obviously chosen to make them powerful, Constructed playable cards. Wizards decided to dedicate significant rulebook space to planeswalkers and also to make them “evergreen” by including them in most sets instead of a select few. Thus, what I’m trying to demonstrate is that Wizards has no real choice but to make them either powerful in Constructed or common in Limited.
of the mechanic (its complexity) demands that the cards see a lot of play. So before you think, “Perhaps they just made ‘walkers like Elspeth and Jace too good, but the underlying idea is solid,” you should keep in mind that if the ‘walkers as designed weren’t very powerful, they shouldn’t exist at all according to The Banding Principle and should go the way of banding itself.
Another way in which planeswalkers lend themselves to being powerful is that the design incorporates several drawbacks. Unlike an artifact or enchantment you might control, an opponent can attack your â€˜walkers or use burn spells to kill them. This inherent drawback means the abilities of a planeswalker must be more powerful than those available on a similarly costed artifact or enchantment, since that’s how inherent drawbacks work.
For example, to distinguish Jace Beleren from Temple Bell, Jace gets to be better, but it can be attacked or burned to death.
The tendency to have more powerful abilities, which is compensated for by allowing the opponent to attack or burn a â€˜walker, leads to the next two types of issues: 1) subgame issues, and 2) frustrated opponents.
Planeswalkers often create what one might call a “subgame” in that all of a sudden, one player’s focus shifts to removing the planeswalker while the other’s focus shifts to protecting it.
Subgames are only fun when they don’t dominate the main game.
â€˜Walkers aren’t unique in their tendency to create a subgame; in fact I’d argue that many cards could be placed along a continuum from “creates an overwhelming subgame” to “creates a minor subgame.”
A subgame can overwhelm the main game in two key ways. First, the game can consume logistical resources like time or mental energy (think Shahrazad). Second, the subgame can make all cards that don’t interact with the subgame irrelevant (temporarily or completely). Imagine the following card:
Target player wins the game.
Clearly, if my opponent has this card in their hand (or perhaps even if they
have it), my game becomes about stopping that player from resolving it. Mana denial might be relevant, counterspells might be relevant, discard might be relevant, etc., but any creature removal in my hand is likely irrelevant, and worse yet, unless I’m threatening a quick twenty damage, all my creatures are likely irrelevant. This might not be very fun for me if I’m not packing a lot of cards that are relevant in this new “subgame” the card creates.
Towards the lighter end of the spectrum, we find cards like Tendrils of Agony, Coalition Victory, and even something like Frost Titan. All of these cards can demand the opponent’s attention in a way that Wild Nacatl cannot. Heck, perhaps even Wild Nacatl creates a subgame, but it’s one that we’re so used to seeing it feels like the “main game.”
Even if we accept that all that a game of Magic really boils down to is just a series of subgames, somewhere along the spectrum from “1UU — Win the game” to Wild Nacatl, the subgame
feels like Magic
such that we don’t really feel that there’s a subgame at all. I guess the litmus test I’d suggest for acceptable subgames is, from the perspective of the person who didn’t initiate the subgame, “Does it still feel like I’m playing the game I sat down to play?” Twists and turns are okay; feeling like you showed up to a basketball game in football pads isn’t.
So what about â€˜walkers? I’d argue they’re somewhat fun to play with, but too often frustrating to play against
Because â€˜walkers lead to a subgame that can be repeated using multiple copies or multiple â€˜walkers, and because the rules of the subgame often require different tools from the main game, â€˜walkers can be frustrating to play against.
Sometimes the frustration is just having a Doom Blade in hand when the opponent drops a Jace, but that issue is present with the simpler card types, artifact and enchantment, as well. More critically, spending two or more turns worth of attack phases to kill, say, an Elspeth feels like too much work to be fun.
Casting Grave Titan certainly creates a “Grave Titan subgame” in which I’ll need to kill or quickly race the Titan to win, but there are two key differences. First, creature is such a common card type (it appears in large numbers at every rarity and in powerful enough iterations to be consistently played in many decks) that I’m likely packing several ways to deal with them. Some of this distinction is evaporating as â€˜walkers become very popular, but certainly not all of it (especially in Limited).
Second, I can’t just invest “time” into killing Grave Titan. When the opponent casts a planeswalker, and you’ve got a creature or two out, often you can spend a few turns attacking the â€˜walker, and none of your creatures have risked death or damaged the opponent, so it just kind of feels like a waste of time. Much of the “fun” of cards is the experience they create, and I just don’t think moving a â€˜walker’s loyalty counters downward or losing as the ultimate builds up is as fun as trying to kill a big creature before it smashes you down to zero. This might be a distinction without a difference to some, so I guess all I’m doing is casting one vote in this regard, and I’m interested in hearing what you guys think.
Alternatives to the Current Design
Here’s a simple way to frame the issue: if artifacts and enchantments can provide enough of what’s fun about planeswalkers, planeswalkers don’t need to exist. Much like how Temple Bell captures some of the fun of Jace Beleren, Venser could have just been an enchantment that blinks things you own. Not all the fun of the â€˜walkers is captured by their enchantment or artifact versions, but I think there’s a way to capture enough of the fun to eliminate the need for â€˜walkers.
“Venser, the Enchantment” could be:
2: Blink target permanent you own. Use this ability only any time you could play a sorcery.
2, sacrifice this: Draw a card.
Johnnies who want to blink stuff will blink stuff.
“Jace, the Artifact” could be:
U, T: Brainstorm, then add a charge counter to this. When this has three or more charge counters, put it on top of its owner’s library.
Not quite as breathtaking as Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but sacrifices on the altar of simplicity aren’t made in vain, remember. The reward is that new players avoid having one of two fates: either learning a complex set of rules that only comes up if they happen to open or play against certain mythic rares, or encountering a planeswalker during a game and having no clue what the hell it is or does.
If we really do want to make planeswalker a card type for flavor or other reasons, here’s what I would pitch. A more simple loyalty rule is that if you lose life equal to or greater than the loyalty of the planeswalker in a single turn, you must sacrifice the planeswalker. For example, if I have a three-loyalty planeswalker out, and my opponent attacks me and deals me four damage (damage counts as loss of life), I must sacrifice my planeswalker.
Here are some samples under this template that are much simpler than current planeswalkers while maintaining much of the “cool” stuff. Instead of a clunky “Use once per turn, as a sorcery” rule that everyone needs to memorize, just have them tap.
T: Draw a card.
When you have nine or more cards in hand, sacrifice Jace Beleren, and target opponent puts the top fifteen cards of their library into their graveyard. Â
T: untap two target lands
T: put a 3/3 Beast token into play.
When you attack with seven or more creatures, sacrifice Garruk and give all attacking creatures +3/+3 and trample until end of turn.
These aren’t doing as many novel things as the old versions, but that’s okay if the flavor and most of the fun are preserved. The opponent doesn’t have the annoying decision of which to attack, the walker or the player; they just attack the player. A layer of strategy is removed this way, but I say good riddance, since it was more often annoying than challenging to decide who to attack.
Magic is doing very well, sales are good, customers are happy, etc., etc. That doesn’t mean recent trends are all positive or that nothing can be improved going forward. I didn’t mind learning planeswalker rules when Lorwyn came out, but for this card type to stick around, it has to add more to the game than it subtracts. None of the other card types appear only at mythic rarity, and planeswalker is one of the more complex card types to learn!
“Volition Reins your Koth.”
“In response, Bolt it.”
“Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. JUUUUUDGE.”
Good times were had by all.