Theory: the Value of Being Explicit

Magic’s designers have known for a long time that theme helps teach a game. Sometimes the game’s flavor is in the background, helping players get an intuitive understanding of complex mechanics. In the most recent set, though, the Magic design team has chosen an even more direct approach–one that I think is a good move for new players.

Theme has been helping teach Magic since its first set. Fireball, from way back when, is an elaborate card from a rules perspective. Nevertheless, it plays easily because everyone gets how a fantasy fireball works. This is the classic Magic use of theme: tapping into what players expect,so that they follow the rules just by playing cards intuitively.

Now compare that to italicized helper text on this forthcoming card:


“Your artifacts can help cast this spell” is the key line. Those few words accomplish at least two things:

  1. They create a framework for the text. Even though it includes intimidating, precise timing (“after you’re done activating mana abilities”), the rules are easy to understand because it’s clear that the critical part is “pays for 1.”
  2. They give new players a reason to use the ability. Tapping my own stuff is bad, right? Because I can’t use tapped cards? Oh, but it’s making bigger stuff cheaper–I get it!

It’s hard to emphasize enough how important both of those are. New players often don’t do powerful things because they have a drawback (e.g., painlands) or because one has to have a deep understanding of the game to know why an effect is strong (e.g., Timetwister). Clarifying why new players should use an ability with an apparent drawback and potentially unclear value is huge.

The framework for understanding also must not be underestimated. New players could be forgiven for thinking that Improvise’s timing is central; it appears immediately after the ability’s cost, where one might look for its effect. Thanks to the key line, though, we understand that we haven’t gotten the point of the rule until we find out how it helps pay for things. Complicated timing recedes, appropriately, in importance.

I’m curious to see how the Magic community views this kind of explanatory text. There are tradeoffs; if nothing else, it takes up valuable card real estate. On balance, though, I think it’s great for the game. Here’s hoping others agree, and that we see more of it in sets to come.


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