Theory: Taking Mark Rosewater Out of Context

On Monday Mark Rosewater posted his annual “State of Design” article, in which he reviews Magic: the Gathering’s successes and failures for the past year. It’s an interesting read for any Magic player, but as a designer what I think is most fascinating about it are the lessons that could apply to any game. The article has design rules that are still powerful when divorced from their context.

Take, for example, Mr. Rosewater’s conclusion that “[f]lavor is key.” He explains that Magic used the same mechanic (that is to say, a thing cards did) twice: once with a flavorless label, and the second time with a name that evoked ancient Greek mythology. The mechanic was much better received the second time around, in part because players understood what the mechanic represented in the fiction of the game world and got more excited about playing cards with the mechanic as a result. Accessing “chroma” sounded technical and boring, but showing “devotion” and being rewarded for it was fun–even though in both cases players were doing largely the same thing!

Reading Mr. Rosewater’s comments immediately put me in the mind of Over the Next Dune’s rules for keeping searchers on the map. When explained step-by-step, people often find them rather opaque. Say that searchers “bounce like a screen saver,” however, and everyone understands instantly. Picking the right context helps players understand the rules enormously–so much so that I’ve considered switching to a Tron-esque theme just to be able to make the screen savor metaphor more explicit.

Other lessons presented in the article are similar. His self-critique of Magic’s execution of an “enchantment block” is interesting for anyone considering a game with expansions. The discussion on rescuing a failed idea has something to say about every game where the designer’s options are limited. More generally, the fact that Mr. Rosewater criticizes his own work despite the fact that this year saw “the best-selling Magic set of all time” sets a good example.

Mr. Rosewater is a controversial figure; opinions differ on whether he’s saving Magic or smashing it. Whatever one’s opinion of his “New World Order,” however, there can be no denying that he’s learned game design in an environment where sales numbers provide quantitative feedback, with his job staked on his continued success. Hard-won experience like is is always worth considering, and the lessons he has to teach are general enough at the macro level to make figuring out how to apply them to other games time well-spent.

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