New Mirrodin: Set Back and Giving Players What They Want
New Mirrodin is a custom Magic: the Gathering set I’ve been working on at Multiverse.heroku.com. It follows a clutch of pilgrims who siphoned a fraction of Karn’s spark and slammed through The Blind Eternities, crashing into another plane before The Phyrexians absorbed their home world. Mirrodin meets Lost in Space, perhaps. In that set, I designed this card:
I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s ever designed this spell. Unsummon has been around since Alpha, Annul was first printed in Urza’s Saga, and this card fits somewhere between those two. The surprising thing is that out of sixty-seven expansions, none of them printed Set Back. I guess there were always other needs. In my set, I need this card because it allows players to exploit a design flaw in one of my keyword mechanics.
Originally, I didn’t want New Mirrodin to have an ‘artifact matters’ theme, since the set revolves around a family of explorers discovering an alien, often hostile, new environment. It wouldn’t feel right, however, if the Mirrans didn’t bring artifacts with them to their strange new home. And those artifacts would be best expressed through homages to cards that appeared in Mirrodin and Scars of Mirrodin block. After a while, a number of artifacts piled up, and I began to ask “What are this stuff doing?” It was nice, in theory, to say “I just have some artifacts, and there’s no overarching theme,” but then I’d have to explain myself to every player who expected an artifact theme, since, you know, this set is called New Mirrodin. Wouldn’t it make more sense to give the players what they expected?
So I designed the keyword mechanic ‘Resourceful’. It reads like this:
Resourceful (When this artifact enters the battlefield, if it is not a token, put a token copy of it onto the battlefield under your control.)
Resourceful is a nice magic bullet. It allows me to double the number of certain artifacts in the set, and gives me breathing room so I can print a few ‘artifact matters’ cards, without having the artifact slot threaten the stability of the design skeleton. It also plays well with two previous Mirrodin keyword mechanics which love lots of artifacts on the board, Affinity and Metalcraft. The reminder text has few words and is simple to explain. And the mechanic doubles things. People like doubling things. Resourceful also happens to fall right into a theme on New Mirrodin, since I’m playing with Legendary versus ‘mobs of things with the same name’. Resourceful is a bucket full of stars, but it has one big obstacle. It’s really, really confusing.
I don’t mean Swedish-Furniture confusing, I mean Trying-to-Remember-Who’s-Who-in-The-Game-of-Thrones-Series-When-You’ve-Only-Played-The-Living-Card-Game-and-Haven’t-Read-the-Books confusing. Resourceful leads to a board chock full of random artifact tokens with abilities that you may, or may not remember how they work, now that the base card is gone, and you know, now that I think of it, I’m not sure if I had two Seeker Gnats and three Dueling Scimitars or if it was the other way around. In the past seven or so years, Magic has printed a creature token in every booster pack, which alleviated problems with creature token complexity creep. Unfortunately, I don’t have that option here, or if I do print copied artifact tokens, I’d be cheating. Resourceful makes an exact copy of the artifact, which means that that copy has a casting cost. The token would end up wrong, or look like a real Magic card, confusing drafters. Oh, and for those reading this who don’t think that creature tokens aren’t confusing to remember, I Googled “confusing to keep track of things example” to help me write the top of this paragraph. Guess what the first link that popped up was? Counter (noun) – The Magic the Gathering Wiki.
Most times, this won’t be real problem. I never intended to include a lot of artifacts in the file anyway, and Resourceful will only be a problem if someone is intentionally making a Resourceful Deck. Meanwhile, I’m taking pains to make sure Resourceful cards are straightforward, and there aren’t loose cards with the word ‘Resourceful’ on it.
Resourceful has a related problem. Despite my best intentions, people will try to abuse the ‘enters the battlefield’ ability by bouncing the base card back to their hand so they can cast it again and get another token artifact. It’s a good play, but one that leaves tokens on the battlefield without a reminder card sitting next to it. I wish this interaction didn’t exist, so I could design some wordier Resourceful artifacts. But things return to hand in Magic. And no matter how much I don’t want players to exploit Resourceful that way, they will, and I’m going to have to help them do it. That’s why I added Set Back to this set. I wanted a cheap bounce spell in the set that could return an artifact to a player’s hand and allow them to replay it either this turn, or the next. If people are going to abuse Resourceful anyway, I’m going to give them a good card that they could put in a number of decks that will give the player the freedom to play the way they want to, and allow them to slap the card back on the table next to the token they left behind.
I’ve talked about this before in Power Grid: First Sparks – Respect: What Is It?. There is a certain subset of players who want to subvert your game. Most Dungeon Masters know what I’m talking about. A common scenario looks like this: The players travel to a small village at the behest of The King. When there, they’re introduced to the village’s Mayor who explains to the players that many sheep herders are complaining about a sheep-stealing werewolf on the outskirts of the village. Later, at the local market, one of the players is confronted by a mysterious cloaked figure. She suggests a secret cult is involved, and that the werewolf story is an attempt to cover up far more nefarious activities. When two carts collide into each other, the mysterious woman slips back into the crowd, leaving the player with nothing but questions. After all that story and build up, these players decide the most fun thing to do would be to assassinate the Mayor, because that guy was kind of a jerk.
You didn’t plan for that. The Mayor is an important piece in your plot. This random act of violence derails hours of work you put into your game. What do you do?
In a game of Dungeons and Dragons, the answer to that question has a lot to do with how you think the people you play the game with would react to your direction. If your players are appeasing and open-minded, you might try asking them not to do it. Sometimes, all that’s required is that you inform your players that they’re pushing against the walls of the story, and you don’t think this path will be as much fun than if they continued with the plot. Alternatively, you can fudge the story. The players try to assassinate the Mayor, but he’s wily and paranoid, and doesn’t sleep in the same bed twice, and most definitely does not trust those filthy adventurers. If your players are encouraged by failure, this can strengthen the game. The Mayor stops becoming a diversion and becomes a worthy adversary that got away, and, ooh, won’t it be cool when we finally get our hands around that creep’s neck?
That’s two legitimate answers that work with two different play groups, but the general audience is not your playgroup. When you design a game for the general audience, you must assume that a lot of different people with a lot of different personalities will approach your game in a lot of different ways. Those people don’t need to be your friend later. Many of those people are discouraged by failure. And, many of those players love to tear games into pieces to see how much stress your design can withhold. Those players are greedy for a strong game, and, depending on your archetype, may represent the majority of your audience. You can’t tell those people “It’s your fault for failing to play the game the way I want you to play it,” because it isn’t their fault. It’s your fault for fighting human nature and pretending you can win. The players are going to assassinate the Mayor, and you will need to find a way for them to do that and show them a good time.
So, that’s why I’m giving my players Set Back, because I don’t want to see them use an awkward tool like Regress or Lost in the Mist. Since some players will desire to set up a continuous combo with Resourceful, I’ll have to print a useful uncommon so that players don’t end up with awkward cards like Dispersing Orb in their deck which feeds into the problem instead of helping players do what they want to do. One or two flicker effects should do a good job as well, exiling a Resourceful artifact and putting it right back on the board – no waiting until end of turn tricks. And if I do my job right, a lot of these cards will be used by players who are fighting against Resourceful decks, except they will be targeting the token artifacts, helping to clean the board.
And since players love to take an open ended ability and ‘turn on’ a bunch of otherwise unloved cards stuffed in the back of their deck boxes, I made Ibok, Neurok Engineer, a creature that makes all of your artifacts Resourceful. That card is bound to make things Next-In-Line-to-the-Hapsburg-Dynasty confusing, but he’s hidden in the Mythic Rare slot, where he’ll do the least damage in limited formats, and, if this was a real set, would require some dedication to get your hands on three copies. In other words, if a player really likes that level of chaos, that player can play that deck. Everyone else will only have to deal with The-Magic-Roundabout-in-Swindon confusing when playing against that player, who probably wouldn’t play the game unless we let him vent and occasionally make that sort of deck anyway.
Will Resourceful operate in a different way than I first envisioned it? Oh, yes. When I’m done many players may associate Resourceful with bounce and blink, ‘enter the battlefield’ style decks, and not the ‘artifact matters’ sub-theme or ‘Legendary versus many things with the same name’ theme that I intended for it. That’s not important, though. The ultimate goal of a game is that those who play it have fun. I could make New Mirrodin an elaborate piece of art, and bejewel it with austerity. But then few people would enjoy it, less people would talk about it, and the people who would appreciate it would never see it anyway. That’s not very different than writing, you know. If I didn’t let the story become the story it wanted to be, then I would have a catalog, I suppose, or a formula. Why would I want to write a stiff catalog when I could have an engrossing story?