Making_Magic

On the Rebound

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Hello everyone,

For those of you who are unaware, today is an American holiday called Memorial Day on which we remember those that have died (especially those who died in military service). There is no new column today as everyone has the day off. Interestingly, the column being repeated is my column on rebound, so I am having a second rebound article even though I said in this column I wouldn't.

Rebound! You got me again!

Come back next week for a brand-new article that I hope won't be about rebound. I'd promise otherwise but that would probably make the universe force me to write one.

Happy Memorial Day everyone.


The letter W!elcome to Rebound Week. This week we'll be writing about the rebound mechanic from Rise of the Eldrazi. Then next week we'll write another article about rebound. I kid, I kid. It's not like anyone made a level up article actually level up. No, today I am going to tell you the glorious story about the creation of the rebound mechanic. Well, at least I'll tell you the glorious story of my search to find out the story of the rebound mechanic. Okay, I'll admit, not a lot of glory in either story, but an important lesson is learned and I'll give you a chance to take a look at part of the design process that I don't spend a lot of time talking about. And if you call now, I'll throw in a promise of no rebound article next week. Sound good? Let's move it along then.

Rebound for Glory

At the end of each column, I write a sentence or two about what to expect the next week. ("Join me next week when ... ") This is known as a teaser. It is to entice all of you to come back next week and give you yet another thing to speculate on in the thread. I bring up the teaser because when I write it, if there's a theme week coming up the next week (every other week is a theme week here on magicthegathering.com) I have to look up what it is. It is most often in that moment when I begin to figure out what I'm going to write about.


I was finishing up part 2 of my columns on Dieter Rams's Ten Principles for Good Design (Part 1 & Part 2 if you haven't read them) when I checked to see what I was writing the following week. Rebound Week. Rebound's a mechanic, so I went to the first place I always go when figuring out what to write about mechanics: "How was rebound designed?" Then I quickly thought back to the last few weeks worth of columns to see if I already answered the question, usually during previews, when I introduce it. I touched upon it but I didn't go in depth. Good enough, the rebound origin story it is. (Ooh, I hope radiation's involved.)

As I am on the majority of design teams, more often than not I know the story because I was there, but every once in a while I skip a design team (I was busy making Scars of Mirrodin—there is a serious chance that I'm going to implode before I ever get to talk about this set. Quick, while no one is looking—we're going back to Mirrodin and something is making things have scars!). In these cases, I have to go and talk to the lead designer of the set to learn how the mechanic came to be.

Now remember that while I wasn't on the Rise of Eldrazi design team, I was on the development team (to answer the question that will probably come up—how did I have time to be on the development team and not the design team? The answer is the development team happened later, after the design team was done). This means I was well versed in how rebound fit into the set, I just didn't know how the mechanic was created in the first place.

So, I walked over to Brian Tinsman's deck (Brian was the lead designer of Rise of the Eldrazi, if you've been living in a hole) and had the following conversation:

Me: Hey Brian. So, it's Rebound Week and I have to talk about how rebound was designed. Fill me in. I want to hear every juicy detail.
Brian: Okay. It happened pretty late in design. It was the last keyword mechanic we created.
Me: Let me write this down so I don't forget it. "Last keyword mechanic created." Go ahead.
Brian: Between Eldrazi and Eldrazi Spawn and the levelers and totem armor, we had pretty much filled in all the design space for creatures and creature-related mechanics, as well as design space for enchantments. We didn't want to do too much with artifacts, partly because of the confusion between artifacts and the colorless Eldrazi and partly because ... you're writing this all down, so I better not say, but you know the reason. Land had just been covered heavily in Zendikar and Worldwake and we were trying to make Rise have a different feel from the first two sets. That left us with instants and sorceries.
Me: And you guys had an idea that you'd created earlier in design that just happened to fit perfectly?
Brian: No.
Me: Maybe R&D had an idea left over from a previous design and we'd been waiting years to find the right place to use it?
Brain: No.
Me: Then how did rebound come about?
Brian: Well, we knew that our available space was on instants and sorceries so I asked the team to try and find a mechanic that would go on instants and sorceries. We spent some time looking through past mechanics that went specifically on instants and sorceries to figure out what areas were popular with the players. Research showed us that players like spells that could be played more than once, so we wrote down every spell that fell into the category and figured out an area in the design space that hadn't been tapped yet.
Me: So the design of the mechanic was just a raw crunching of data to optimize past player trends?
Brian: Not a great article, huh?

I walked away a little discouraged as I was hoping for a glorious tale of innovation and determination and instead got a story of process of elimination. Maybe I had to look elsewhere for my column. Maybe I could tell of the times I was on the rebound and how those lessons somehow shaped me into the designer I am today. The more I thought about it though the more I realized that this was exactly the type of story I needed to tell.

Homeward Rebound

As a storyteller I am attracted to the design stories that allow the crafting of compelling stories. (This, by the way, is why I often write the "me vs. them" stories as conflict is one of the most compelling storytelling elements.) As such, I tend to prioritize what I'll call the "glorious inspiration" stories. In movie terms, it's fun to show the lone individual struggle with an idea.

You see him sitting at a desk, writing on a notepad. He writes something down, but then, upon looking at it a second time, he instantly dislikes it. He rips the page from the pad and balls it up, throwing it away in disgust. It misses the garbage can and then we pull back to see the many other balled up pieces of paper that also missed, littering the floor.


Our writer hero finally takes a break. As he is walking around, he spots something happening—some kids playing, or a parent and a child interacting—and he has the great idea. He searches all his pockets for a pen and a piece of paper. How could he have forgotten his pad with which he rips off pages as a sign that he is frustrated? He looks around and finds something, a napkin, somehow in this outdoor setting. Then he searches for a writing utensil. He spots a small child with a crayon. He grabs it away to scribble his great idea on his napkin. Once done, he returns the crayon to the child and then looks at what he has written.

Cue the montage.

He is now all excited. We see him furiously writing away in various different scenes. He tries to eat a sandwich, but his constant bursting forth of ideas doesn't even let him have a bite. He writes a lot on a blackboard, which for some reason he has, complete with chalk. Finally, we see the thing he's been working towards in its completed form. He is exhausted and weak (I mean he couldn't even eat his sandwich) but he is happy, as we can tell, because the camera zooms in on his smiling face. Odds are the scene will end with him asleep on his couch.

Now that is how Hollywood tells the inspiration story. That's what people expect. Creative guy gets idea and one hard-working montage sequence later he finishes it. The random inspiration story is sexy, but the vast majority of the time, it's not how it happens. My goal for today is to walk you through a less sexy but equally valid design story. Along the way, I'll show you the many tools available to the designer that should be used

Homeward Rebound 2: Lost in San Francisco

Let's go back to Brian's version of the story:

Brian: Well, we knew that our available space was on instants and sorceries so I asked the team to try and find a mechanic that would go on instants and sorceries. We spent some time looking through past mechanics that went specifically on instants and sorceries to figure out what areas were popular with the players. Research showed us that players like spells that could be played more than once, so we wrote down every spell that fell into the category and figured out an area in the design space that hadn't been tapped yet.

What was the first thing the design team did? They figured out what was missing.

Design Tool #1: Restrictions

Restrictions breed creativity. This might be the hundredth time I've written that sentence in my column. Why do I keep hitting on this point? Because I think it's one that many people miss out of a misguided understanding of the process. Here's why. If I told you that you have to build a house and I offered you two toolboxes. In the first box was a hammer and in the second toolbox was a hammer, plus two thousand other carpentry tools (it's a big toolbox). Which would you choose? Most would choose the second. Why? Because a hammer probably isn't enough, and more tools would make it easier to complete your task.

Now, if I'm going to force you to write a column and I give you two envelopes. Your topic has to come from one of the envelopes. The first envelope has a single topic. The second envelope has the same topic, plus two thousand other topics. Which do you choose? Many people think that the answer is the same as the toolbox question. They assume more "tools" makes their job easier. Here's the thing: it doesn't. Also ideas aren't "tools" in a traditional sense; I'll get to this in a moment.


The act of problem solving—and please be aware that most design work is problem solving—is finding an answer. In well-designed puzzles, there is a single answer. Life, unfortunately, doesn't make things quite as easy. Much of finding an answer in the real world is about removing things that aren't answers. When you give a person more space to explore, you are not helping them. In fact, you are making their task harder. The reason the single topic envelope is better is that it actually helps the column writer—it tells them what they need to write about.

Column topics aren't tools in this scenario because they aren't something that is going to aid the writer in their task. In fact, they're the opposite. They are obstacles to solving the problem. If you are looking for a needle in a bale of hay, more hay doesn't help.

The other important thing to remember is that thought, like most other things, follows a pattern. When a person approaches a problem, their brain tends to follow the same paths, meaning they are quite likely to end up at the same or a similar answer. The reason restrictions are so helpful is that they force the person to radically shift their mental processing. I'll give an example from "Making Magic." What do I consider to be the best article I've written? I'm up to 438 so I've got a lot to choose from. (Feel free to check out my "XXX Hundred and Counting" columns for a breakdown on my columns including how I rate them: 0-100, 101-200, 201-300 & 301-400.)

The answer is very clear in my mind. The best column I think I've ever done was called "To Err Is Human." How did I come up with the topic for it? I didn't. This was the first of my Topical Blend articles where I went to my readers and had them pick their favorite Magic-themed and non-Magic-themed topics. I then combined the two to create a column. The topics picked were "My Ten Biggest Design Mistakes" and "Girls." I'm not sure if in a million years I would have ever written the column that resulted had I not been forced into it by my writing challenge. The reason I did the challenge though was I was excited by the idea of being forced someplace as a writer that I might never have thought up on my own. It is no coincidence that one of my most creative articles came from the time I had the most restrictions.

So, the Rise of the Eldrazi design team, started by mapping out their restrictions. What did they do next?

Design Tool #2: Studying the Past

As the saying goes (slightly paraphrased), those that do not learn from history are forced to redesign it. A giant part of the job of a Magic designer is understanding what has been done before. If there is one tool I use more than any other, it's Gatherer, the database here on magicthegathering.com with all the cards. Why? Because I am constantly looking up old cards. Whenever I have an idea for new design space, I always look back to see what we've done with it in the past.

Be aware that the past was not always a success. Sometimes you look back to figure out what went wrong. What were the lessons you could learn from the last time Magic played around in this area? Other times, you're just looking to see how it was done. As Magic design technology improves, we keep upgrading how we design things. Sometimes an idea existed before the technology needed to maximize it was even discovered. Remember, with over 11,000 cards in existence, many ideas have been tried, even if only on a single card.


R&D's attitude about old mechanics has drastically changed in my fifteen years. In the beginning, we thought of mechanics as disposable. With time we realized that mechanics were a valuable resource that can be used again and again. In fact, in every block we now try to consciously bring at least one thing back. Shards of Alara block had cycling. Zendikar block had kicker. Scars of Mirrodin has ... better wait on talking about that just yet.

This applies to more than just mechanics. We have begun to revisit themes, cycles and even settings. Plus, we put a lot of thought into what individual cards we reprint. One of the fun parts about working on a new set is thinking about what Magic cards from the past feel like a natural fit. I'm currently working on the design for "Shake" (the large fall set of 2011), and I've been having a blast finding old cards that seem like they were made for the set's theme. I've even managed to find a few cards that fit better in "Shake" than the set they were originally printed in.

Designing for the seventeenth year of a game has its ups and downs, but one of the greatest advantages design has is the remarkable amount of work that's already been done. If you are going to learn to paint, you go to the museum and study the classics. If you are going to be a musician, you want to put on some headphones and listen to the masters. Magic design is no different. The past is an excellent teaching tool.

The Rise design team figured out their holes, pieced together what they could do to fill them, and did some research on the area of design. What next?

Design Tool #3: Market Research

Our job is to make all of you happy. To do that we have to figure out what exactly it is that makes you happy. How do we do that? One way is to try something a little crazy—we ask you. The department that does that kind of thing is known as Market Research. Regular readers of my column should know that I often quote market research to explain why we are doing something. Game design is filled with subjective qualities so it's important to try to get an objective look at them whenever possible.


Be aware that market research is not the ultimate answer to what players like. Market research doesn't tell us what you enjoy as much as it tells us what you all believe you enjoy. While more often than not these two overlap, occasionally they don't. Sometimes we have to deliver what you need rather than what you want, but that's really a topic for its own column. Most of the time, market research does a wonderful job in helping clue us in on what you all are enjoying.

Traditional market research comes from directly asking the audience questions, but modern technologies allow us a lot of different ways to gauge whether a particular card or mechanic or theme or block plan was liked, be it by the majority or by a targeted minority that the card was intended to please. What articles people read, what decks they play, what tournaments they play in, what products they buy—all of this data helps create a picture of what our consumers want. This is far too useful a collection of information for design to not take into account. While people think of design as constantly looking forward, an equal important part is the ability to look back.

Lost and Rebound

The goal of today's column is to stress that there is a lot of technical, dry work that goes into design. Yes, there are flashes of inspiration and "eureka" moments, but those are actually the minority. Most of design comes from doing the homework. It might sound dry and boring, but much of the richness of the design comes from this simple legwork.

That's all I got for today. I'm curious for any feedback you all have into today's insight. As always, you can comment on the thread, email me or drop a tweet on my twitter account (@maro254). I make sure to read all three, so if you speak up, I'll hear you.

Join me next week, when I’ll be out celebrating the American holiday Memorial Day by not writing my column. The week after, though, I’ll be back talking about the little card subtype that could.

Until then, may you find the numbers extra crunchy.

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