Want To Understand Game Design? It Doesn't Get Much Better Than Magic: The Gathering

Say what you will of Magic: The Gathering, when it comes to game design, there are few sources of information as good as Magic's current lead designer, Mark Rosewater. Rosewater has been posting design articles for many, many years, including insightful discussions with the game's progenitor, Richard Garfield. Best of all, you can read them all right now.

One of Rosewater's better known articles — it did the rounds in the Hearthstone community not long ago — is why so-called "bad" cards even exist. Given each new card is designed by a person, someone you'd expect would be very, very good at picking good from bad, how do abominations like the Rod of Ruin even exist?

Here's how Rosewater breaks it down:

1. By definition, some bad cards have to exist. (The most important reason.) 2. Some cards are "bad" because they aren't meant for you. 3. Some cards are "bad" because they're designed for a less advanced player. 4. Some cards are "bad" because the right deck for them doesn't exist yet. 5. "Bad" cards reward the more skilled player. 6. Some players enjoy discovering good "bad" cards. 7. Some "bad" cards are simply R&D goofing up.

While this is focused on card design, it can apply skill, ability and item selection in any game: if all magical swords are awesome, then no swords are awesome.

More specific to Magic is this article covering how the game would be designed if Garfield and co. could go back in time and do it from scratch. One of the changes would be to make cards easier to interpret:

One, I would have the mana symbol start with the colored mana. It's the most important info and it's how players just want to talk about the mana cost. It also would make the colored mana symbol be closer to the corner for easy reading while fanning. The second thing I'd do with the mana symbols is I'd change how we represented generic mana. I'd have a mana symbol that represents one generic mana, and if a card has more than one then the mana cost would list more than one.

The cool thing about Rosewater's articles is that a lot of them apply to games in general and even if you couldn't give two mana about Magic, they make for great reading for the budding designer. When you have a chance — say on a long weekend — be sure to check them out.

Making Magic [Magic]

Image: Wizards of the Coast


    I stopped playing Magic a couple years ago (too expensive for the level of competitiveness that I enjoy) but I keep reading Rosewater's articles and reading through every new expansion. There's lot of game design lessons to be learned.

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