Planning for Obsolescence

It would seem like common sense that if you tell one of your game players that you’re going to devalue all of his shiny toys, he’d get upset.  But in practice, game designers do this all the time, and players, eager to continue their devotion to their hobby, happily jump on board.  This is most commonly visible in MMOs, of course.  Every time we add a new raid, or add 10 levels to the game, we devalue all of the ph4t purples you earned before.  In SWTOR, we do allow you to salvage that gear by putting in higher level components, if you want to keep the appearance.  But the intent is clear: we want to deliver new content, and we want that new content to have powerful carrots to pull the player through the experience.

FIFA also devalues their customer’s shiny toys.  FIFA makes millions of dollars selling packs of ‘cards’ with soccer players every year, and every new FIFA season brings a new edition of the game, and resets the card chasing game as well.  Rather than be upset about this, FIFA players hungrily jump at the chance to collect again – which isn’t too wierd, when you consider the close parallels to real life sports trading cards’ seasonal releases.

However, no one has mastered this design concept quite like Magic: the Gathering.  Magic releases releases a new base set (currently Magic 2014) and a new 3-part expansion (called a ‘block’) every year.  Late in September of this year, the first part of the new block (the greek themed ‘Theros‘) will come out.  More significantly, though, is that with the release of that block comes the annual ‘rotation’ when old cards become invalid – cards from Magic 2013 will become invalid, as will cards from the Innistrad vampire-themed block.  Casual players will still be able to play these cards against friends, and these cards will still be legal in older formats like Legacy and Modern, but they will by-and-large disappear from Standard, which is by far the most common constructed format for Magic.

Put another way, on August 27th, Wizards of the Coast will decree that roughly half of the cards that players are playing with right now are no longer legal and must be retired from your decks.  And make no mistake: players are ecstatic.  Why does this work so well?

  • New cards.  It probably goes without saying that this rotation will happen at the same time as a new set will be added to the mix, which means that players’ attention is already devoted to hunting down new strategies and tactics amongst their new shinies.  The need to fill holes left by disappearing cards undoubtedly sells packs, but it also forces players to rethink decks and entire strategies.
  • The hunt for hidden treasure.  There are plenty of cards that aren’t played right now because there are better alternatives (Deadbridge Goliath, for example, will probably enjoy more play once Thragtusk leaves) , or are affected poorly by the overall meta (decks involving any amount of use of the graveyard generally suffered because everyone was building hate for Unburial Rites, a powerful standard deck linchpin now).  Certain players (myself included) love searching for undervalued gems.
  • A controllable metagame.  Rotating out cards means that in Standard format, there is a controllable number of interactions to track.  Gatherer currently lists 1734 standard legal cards, which seems like a hell of a lot of game components to balance against each other until you realize that more than 15000 unique cards have been printed in Magic’s 20-year life.  The generally smaller pool of cards has managed to allow the Wizards’ team to do a good job at least preventing utterly abusive card combinations, as evidenced by the fact that they’ve only had to ban 2 cards from standard in the last decade.
  • Shifts in the metagame.  The rotating environment allows Wizards to experiment with major changes in the overall flow of the game, adding major new mechanics or shifting key balance points.  As an example, for the last two years, the addition of a card called Cavern of Souls has pretty much resulted in the disappearance of pure counter control decks, where the opponent never gets to cast a spell.  I don’t know what Wizards thinks about that experiment, but I think that it’s probably not entirely coincidental that interest in Magic has blossomed in that time.
  • The death of hated cards.  Perhaps most importantly, now is the time when the dominant cards that you’re sick of playing against (including whatever mistakes Wizards made from chances they took) get corrected.  As an example, Thragtusk is currently appearing in 35% of top end decks, and is the only non-land card to appear in the top 9.  It appears almost as frequently as the aforementioned Cavern of Souls, which is staggering.  Which means that if you don’t play green, you will likely dance a jig once Thragtusk disappears forever.

 Magic is a master of reinventing itself every year.  Strategies that work today won’t work tomorrow.  This means that there are always new cards to try, new strategies to consider, and new combos to experiment with.  This idea of planned obsolescence is what makes this design strategy work.

One comment

  1. I am not a Magic player, but I really enjoy reading your posts that analyze the game. I find them very interesting from a game design perspective.