Sullivan’s Satchel: Players Tour Online Legitimacy And Finding Your Voice As A Game Designer

Patrick Sullivan opens the mailbag for questions on game design and gives his thoughts on the Players Tour Online and Organized Play.

Werebear, illustrated by Carl Critchlow

Hello, and welcome to this week’s edition of Sullivan’s Satchel. There was a, uh, Pro Tour, or Players Tour, or something (?) this past weekend, and with all the caveats of it “not being the same” (which I agree with) it was cool to watch some high-level Magic for the first time in what felt like forever. I do like watching paper Magic more than the digital platforms — I don’t find Arena to be appreciably more watchable than Magic Online, which is itself not very watchable. Seeing players fiddle around with their lands or draw cards with a certain flair is more entertaining for me than the average game, especially when the battlefields are not always clear or the graveyard is an obfuscated live zone.

I wasn’t a big fan of the “this doesn’t count” discourse that came up in the event’s wake. Lots of talented players tried hard to qualify. All the feature matches showed two very good players. Maybe the prize purse was a tough pill to swallow, maybe the sum of all the Organized Play (OP) announcements is dispiriting and confusing. I get that. But I think this fetishization of “back in my day” or whatever is not great; I was there and it wasn’t cool. I’m almost 40 and I think it’s okay to let people appreciate their own accomplishments without having to measure them against yardsticks that no longer exist.

With that, from Christopher Burke:

Is there a game mechanic from a deceased CCG (like Star Wars CCG, Middle Earth, etc.) that you really loved and miss today and/or that you think should be brought to MTG?

I have probably worked on more deceased CCGs than anyone currently in the Magic community and I can assure you that most of them are dead for very good reasons. Magic was in full bloom by the late 1990s and early aughts and since no one knows anything about game design now, much less twenty years ago, a bunch of studios had the idea that if they just slapped a game onto a popular property, things would work out fine. Magic is dope because the game engine is a masterpiece, not because it happened to be first to market. I’m grateful insofar as it got my foot in the door, but I’m not exactly proud of my professional output in retrospect. Gotta start somewhere though.

The two biggest physical and now dead trading card games I worked on were Vs. System (Marvel/DC trading card game released by Upper Deck Entertainment) and the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game (Upper Deck Entertainment and then Cryptozoic Entertainment, under the guidance of Blizzard Entertainment). One mechanic from each game strikes me as something that could be ported over to Magic. (Though maybe not now, I don’t know how these intellectual property laws work and I might be poisoning the well. No one cares though.)

Threshold: The “spells” in Vs. System (called “Plot Twists”) didn’t cost mana. Instead, once you had a certain number of resources in play, you could play them for free. This is obviously deeply problematic on a game engine level, but I could see exploring the space of “this card is free if you have X or more lands” on a card that has a mana cost. It’s basically kicker that helps subsidize expensive cards (since you can more easily cast two cards in one turn) and is basically zero rate once the delta gets wide enough (a sorcery-speed Naturalize with threshold 6 is appealing and probably weaker than Dissenter’s Deliverance, and maybe even plain old Naturalize). I think a handful of cards in this space could be cool.

Time is Money: Goblin-tribal keyword from WoWTCG that was essentially “haste, but only for activated abilities.” It’s the brai child of Ben Cichoski, the most talented initial designer you’ve probably never heard of, and it plays very well, it’s really fun, a way to do the tone of haste without making the game just about running someone down, etc. I think you could just do this with no modification to the keyword and it would be a great addition.

From Steven Gulsby:

I have another question for the satchel. Given how busted the ramp we’ve had over the past few years, is fast mana always a mistake, or is there a way where WOTC can make it balanced enough where it’s viable but not oppressive?

So, lots of this is a rate question. Like, you can just make their cards worse or other cards better, and that will naturally solve it to some extent. When a strategy keeps cropping up over and over again, it’s a reflection that Wizards of the Coast (WotC) thinks this is something fun to promote, there is a systemic leak in their ability to analyze ramp cards, or both.

My criticism of certain ramp strategies isn’t that they’re too good but that they’re extremely boring and repetitive. At their worst, they sit around in isolation gaining mana until they cast stuff that’s overwhelming and/or avoids interaction. There isn’t much of a game there, and it isn’t interesting to try to solve it. I think Wilderness Reclamation runs afoul of this about as badly as I can recall, since it’s very little but cantrips, a personal Mana Flare, and a Braingeyser / Fireball to finish with. The amount of satisfying, two-player Magic that emerges with those cards is so limited.

I think a deck that was more focused on accelerating into something like Dream Trawler (tough to interact with but not impossible, major advantage for the person controlling it but not deterministic or immediate in how it ends the game) would be way more palatable than Temur Reclamation even if the deck was roughly as powerful, and were I tasked with making ramp strategies powerful but not obnoxious, I would guide the card pool in that direction.

From Chris Candreva:

For Sullivan’s satchel: As a long time player with some competitive chops (won a gp earlier this year) I found myself unable to care about Magic right now. I scrubbed out of the “PT” this weekend cause I didn’t put in the work I normally would. I know I’m less invested in Magic right now than I would otherwise be, but that leads to my main question: Why should I care about Magic right now? Why should any of us care? WoTC has shown countless times recently that their player base does not matter to them. They’ve made so many decisions that hurt their enfranchised groups, through numerous bannings, their haphazard approach to OP, their disdain for our feedback, etc… Given all this, why should any of us care anymore about that once meant so much to us? The game we’ve sacrificed nights and weekends to. The game they we sacrificed time with loved ones to play, why should we care about it anymore? I want to, I really want to, but WoTC doesn’t seem to want to let me.

As the Librarian of Leng says, “You are not your DCI number,” and that thing doesn’t even exist anymore. I’ve been in the game for 25 years and I’ve seen it all, and even if the puzzles are new, they aren’t so new that they necessarily reinvigorate. So, a large part of the stimulation I get from Magic is the surrounding architecture — the people I’ve met, the places I’ve visited, how new cards remind me of old cards and how that can make me travel back in time, all that. All of that exists independently of my feelings about WotC or OP or whatever else. People engage in formats like Old School or Commander that exist outside the grasp of their organizational structures.

I’m not telling you what to care about, and most of the changes to OP would have been very dispiriting for me had they occurred when I was trying to grind. But it’s hard for me to imagine that you play the game out of some altruistic sentiment towards WotC. You probably find it stimulating, you like the experience of playing in tournaments, you have a fulfilling social circle connected the game, you like the sense of adventure that tournaments can provide, or whatever else. If the total sum of everything leaves you in a place where you don’t enjoy it, or you feel taken advantage of, that’s one thing, but I think that allowing your hobbies to be shaped by your feelings towards the corporations that own them is a recipe for a lot of disappointment.

Lastly, the Question of the Week, and winner of $25 in SCG store credit, from Liam Cahalan:

How do you find your voice as a game designer? I feel like I understand how to apply concepts people give me, but I really struggle with piecing together my own thoughts into a new philosophy or principal.

I started working in design knowing less than nothing. Over time, if you’re around enough smart people and have some humility around your own mistakes, you start developing amoebas of intuition around things that can be charitably described as “philosophy” or “principle.” Then, you learn all that stuff is wrong or at least not universally applicable and you start over.

I was very fortunate in my arc. I was working on a game where I had divergent philosophies from what was being done but didn’t have the vocabulary to express it. Then we hired Matt Place, a former Magic designer and one of the baddest who ever did it, who gave me some of the principles and language to describe what I was thinking and feeling. But Matt and I didn’t agree on everything, and so it was important to still get in the weeds and hash out the details.

That would be my biggest advice: don’t get too hung up on philosophies and principles. Magic’ s”New World Order” (a philosophy surrounding the appropriate complexity at lower rarities, among other things) has gone through a variety of executions over the years. Sets are more complicated now than Magic 2010 was, and there’s no reason to think the current complexity is set in stone, either.

If I had my druthers, first strike would not appear on common permanents because the gameplay upside (nebulous at best, to me) is vastly outweighed by the increase in complexity and possibility of “feel bad” for less experienced players. I do not think that philosophy is shared by the rest of Play Design, but we all agree that “being mindful of complexity at common” is a valuable heuristic. The short version is, the philosophy and theory only get you so far; the details matter, and so I’d suggest focusing on what works and what doesn’t and then trying to tie that into something that can be applied going forward, rather than trying to come to a philosophical “understanding” and then using that to guide your process.

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