Zen Of Design

The design and business of gaming from the perspective of an experienced developer

Month: January 2013

We Now Return To Your Regular Scheduled Random Posting…

As both of you may have noticed, this here blog took a little hiatus.  I assure you that there are two or three very, very good reasons why this blog disappeared for a little while.

  1. I was pushing to release Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and I was finding it increasingly difficult to post stuff that might not be construed as a promise to our ever eager fan-base.  
  2. I was writing a column for Game Developer Magazine, and to be honest was having enough trouble finding content for THEM every other month, without also feeding the beast here.
  3. I am a lazy, lazy man.

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Life After Ship

This is a version of an article that appeared in the January 2013 issue of Game Developer magazine.


When Magic: the Gathering first entered the gaming scene back in 1993, the mere idea of a game based upon an ever-evolving pool of collectable cards was just a zygote of an idea. Richard Garfield and the rest of Wizards of the Coast knew the game had real potential, but no one really knew how the game experience would really play out.

It’s not surprising that they got some things wrong. Their limited playtesting was not nearly enough to find all of the convoluted strategies that players would devise, and they had no historical data to look at problem spots. Sophisticated analysis of the game did not yet exist—they did not know (or fully appreciate) how powerful drawing cards would be in their game, and thus printed a cart that allowed a player to draw three cards for one mana.  And many of the rules were written to be ambiguous, so new expansions that introduced new rules brought in unexpected conflicts, and made it clear that card rules language needed to be much more structured and unified than it was previously.

They also underestimated their own popularity. They expected players to buy a deck and a couple of booster packs. Hardcore players started to buy booster packs by the case. Rare cards that Wizards of the Coast assumed would only show up once or twice in a deck ended up being highly sought after, and soon devoted players were packing 4 of each (the legal limit) in their decks, and destroying their less-invested opponents in the process, often in a couple of turns. The value of the best rares shot into the stratosphere, creating a legitimate aftermarket for cards.

Wizards has succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, reinventing the board games industry (and in the process saving America’s gaming and comic book stores) in the process. But it was clear that Magic had some bad structural problems that would need to be addressed. Fortunately, Magic had a winning core game design, which gave them the resources and time they would need to fix these structural issues. Magic was a game that had a long life after ship, and their game designers took advantage of this to great effect. Continue reading

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