Tricks of the Trade - Week 4 - Mechanics and Flavor

Thu, 2012-03-01 08:10
Creative Direction Award
Kiku's picture

Mechanics and Flavor

Phasing, Multikicker, Horsemanship, Fear, Super haste, Denimwalk, Gravestorm, Absorb, and Banding. What do all of these names share in common? They are all mechanics, and almost all of them are considered failed experiments (that's a debatable point on some of them). But what makes a mechanic "bad" and creates such a negative response to it? In today's article, I will explain common pitfalls to avoid in creating mechanics, and show you some ways you can design the perfect mechanics for your set.
Engineering Mechanics

Before we look into how we create mechanics, lets first understand what they are and why we use them. A mechanic is a shorthand way of signifying a complex line of text that could be featured on several cards. Suspend is a great example of a keyword that performs this task. Imagine if every suspend card was written out...

1 mana symbolBlue mana symbol: Exile ~ with four time counters on it. At the beginning of your upkeep, remove a time counter. When the last is removed, cast it without paying its mana cost. It has haste. You may only activate this ability from your hand, and only at any time you could play a sorcery.

So one of the key roles of a mechanic is to make key abilities within the set easier to understand and more relatable to each other. The second, role is related to the last one, a mechanic needs to show what is Key to the set, what it is about. Mechanics are often the most notable thing in your set to someone looking at it for the first time. Because of this, your mechanics also need to be exciting and directly show your topic/message, as they are the main factor that make your set different from some one elses. In Agralnat , I needed to emphasize the idea of growth and evolution, so I chose three mechanics that could join forces together to show how three different kinds of things in the game would evolve.
Experience focused on the player themselves, level up on the creatures and enchantments, and cultivate on instants and sorceries. It's important that keywords focus on doing two things here, emphasizing the topic/message, and working cohesively together to make each kind of card in your set interesting and a part of the theme. For example, it would be a very bad idea to include flashback, buyback, and rebound as your only three keywords in one set, because they are all mechanics that only fit on instants and sorceries. The creatures in that set would have no guiding mechanic to tie them into the theme. As a general rule of thumb, a set should have at least two mechanics, one that focuses on creatures and other permanents, and one that focuses on instants and sorceries. This brings us into the next big point, how many mechanics should my set include?

The numbers behind mechanics

Three things determine the number of mechanics your set will need, set size, position in the block and the topic/message of the set.
For our purposes, were only discussing how to design the first set in your block, but when you do get into the second, and third sections of a block, each should add at least one keyword to make it distinct from the first set in the block. For most sets around 256 cards or so, you will want to have three keyworded mechanics. In Innistrad, they have double faced cards, flashback and morbid. Note that "fight" is a new terminology for an existing effects, and therefore does not count as a true mechanic. Curses on the other hand, are featured as a new card subtype for auras, but it does not function as a true mechanic because being a "curse" doesn't actually do anything to the card, it only lets them be supported by cards such as Bitterheart Witch . If you are aiming to do a set with 350 cards like onslaught, you may need four mechanics because of the sheer density of cards you need to design. If you are creating a miniset, or something smaller than Innistrad, 2 mechanics is normally is a good number to include, though you could squeeze a third in. The final part that will determine the number of mechanics you should include is the topic/message of your set. Lets look at the most extreme example of this, Time spiral. With a whopping thirteen keywords featured in just one set, something crazy happened here. First off, the set size is 422, which would warrant the ability to support 4 or 5 mechanics effectively. However, this was the nostalgia set, and wizards decided that by returning a total of 10 mechanics, they could demonstrate some of the most well remembered eras of magic. Note that with flash, split second, and suspend as the only new keywords, they maintained the three keyword idea, and used their set theme to justify the inclusion of 10 returning mechanics. For Arknia, a world centered around greed, with a message of "Greed is a undeniable component of human nature, and it will consume us all if we indulge it", no special cases really arise. I should most likely include three mechanics here, and perhaps add a subtype to artifacts called "treasure", just like how zendikar featured "traps" and innistrad "curses".
Which mechanics fit the set best?

Last week you saw that I chose to return buyback in my set. While you certainly don't have to, including a returning mechanic lets you include a familiar element to your set that players have experienced before, and allows you to conserve design space by expanding upon it rather than creating something entirely new. With so many mechanics in magics past (all of which are archived under the mechanics tab of magic set editor), there should be a gem from the past that fits into your set perfectly. I chose buyback because it resonates so clearly with the idea of wanting to get the most out of things, and using "money" (in this case mana) to get an advantage over your opponent. The "buy" in the name also gives it the mercantile feeling we need. But of course, you will need a few totally new keywords of your own in the set as well. This is one of the most daunting prospects for a very "young" (in terms of projects completed) designer. How do I make a mechanic out of nothing?
Mechanics fresh out of the oven

One of the most useful techniques for creating a mechanic is to look at past mechanics. For example undying came directly from the very popular persist ability. While it may not be the most original mechanic, it piggybacks off of a popular idea, and fits really nicely into the horror genre, because a creature coming back larger after you kill it the first time is much scarier than coming back as a weaker version. You can also look at tropes in past mechanics, such as the idea of instants and sorceries that can be cast twice. Rebound, flashback, replicate, buyback, epic and splice are all different forms of this kind of mechanic, and you could also create a variation on the "instant and sorcery multicast mechanic".

On the other hand, when it seems like you need to make a mechanic appear from thin air, you have to remember that there is something guiding what that mechanic needs to look like. The flavor of your world is still with you, and you should refer to your list of common tropes to see what kind of things are needed in your world. The two most crucial factors on my list were possessions and money. For possessions (treasures in this set), I aim to create a subtype for artifacts that means nothing alone, but is supported by a few cards. For money, I knew I had to start with a totally new mechanic. I thought about what defines money (it can be spent), how it is stored (usually on your person), the kinds of people that would use it (merchants and mercenaries), and how it would be attained (working). Ultimately, I took a lot of inspiration from the eldrazi spawn tokens (brood birthing ). Obviously gold isn't a creature, so I changed it to a counter for players, similar to experience counters from Agralnat, except that instead of memories from your past that make you a more powerful planeswalker, these were precious resources to be spent wisely. All keywords should have a form of interaction, and I knew that I needed cards that would improve if you paid them (the mercenaries) and cards that could generate it (merchants and general laborers), in order for it to really matter in the set.

What about the perfect mechanic for my set?

In all honesty, finding the proper mechanic for a set really requires a deep understanding of the lore, theme, and message that you want to portray. Every set has a different "perfect mechanic", like suspend in time spiral, or landfall in zendikar. If you know what your set is all about, that's what your big new keyword needs to represent. Feel free to send me a pm with questions about your individual sets if you are struggling (please include your topic and message).

When good mechanics go bad

I promised a section on common mistakes in mechanic design, so I will briefly cover the biggest pitfalls.

1. Never make a drawback into a major keyword for your set.

This is why phasing, cumulative upkeep, and fading were all considered to be failed mechanics. Your mechanics "sell" the set to people looking at it for the first time, and are supposed to excite them about the flavor of your world. If a good chunk of the cards in your set feature a keyword that makes you sacrifice them unless you pay 3 mana symbol at the beginning of your upkeep, players won't be excited when they look at the cards, instead they will feel repressed by them, like their ability to use these cards is being constrained (granted, if the topic of your set was taxation, it could work, but it will still look very discouraging to players). Whenever you think of a great drawback based keyword that could fit your set, try to make a spin on it that makes it an upside. The obvious example here would be to switch the payment to your opponent, and change the penalty for not paying to some good effect for you...

Drawback taxation
UU01 Blue mana symbol
Creature - Merfolk Blue mana symbol
Taxation - At the beginning of your upkeep, sacrifice ~ unless you pay 3 mana symbol.
At the beginning of your end step, draw a card.

upside taxation
UU01 3 mana symbolBlue mana symbolBlue mana symbol
Creature - Merfolk Blue mana symbol
Taxation - At the beginning of your upkeep, target opponent may pay 3 mana symbol. If they don't, you draw a card.

2. Avoid creating a mechanic for each color in your set, or just too many mechanics to be supported in general

I have actually created a set that broke this rule myself, and I can tell you it was a train wreck of a project, which I never finished (it was called reconcile if you want to find it, I do have the link, but I'd rather not show it). One of the most difficult things for a new designer to understand is that your set can only support so many of your cool ideas. Pick the 2-4 mechanics that best firt your set and run with those, leaving other ones for later projects. Be especially conscious of which colors are getting which mechanics, and try to spread them evenly so that each color has at least 1-2 mechanics to play around with. For example, the ability to create spawn tokens was in black, red and green in rise of the eldrazi. Look for each mechanic to be usable in at least 2 but preferably 3 of your sets colors. Be very cautious of using a mechanic in only one color.


To create a new mechanic, you have two main options. Either create something based off of one of the common tropes, or just from a popular mechanic in magics past, or create something based on the flavor of what your set dictates. Next week, I will continue creating the common design skeleton for Arknia (including the red and green portions), and will explain how we create and choose from several different cards that are vying for just one slot.

Until then, may you allow function to follow flavor.

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Fri, 2012-03-02 12:47
Anuttymous's picture

You're really getting this out there. I think this is by far gonna be the most useful for new designers, the mechanics are always tough, and I think you cinched it here. I'm even learning a few things now, too. Thanks!

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Sat, 2012-03-03 02:47
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Guitarweeps's picture

I really like your comparisons of taxation. Great job kiku!

I would also comment that you can design mechanics in two different ways. One is strictly flavorful where you have a some action, object, characteristic, or trope that you want represented in some way into a mechanic. Good examples of this are transform, level up, and infect. These mechanics resonate with flavor. You can kind of "see" it taking place real world. This evokes a connection of the player to the game.
Another way is to just find some type of cool interaction that you want to introduce to the game and... well, "make it work". Examples of this are retrace, landfall, and imprint. These mechanics don't neccessarily translate via flavor very well or right away but are very straightforward and fun mechanics to play with.
Both methods bring something different to the game and are equally important and fun.

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Tue, 2013-07-09 18:39
Moderator Best Set of 2016
Daij_Djan's picture

Just found this article because of yamato's post - it was quite a nice read (even if nothing new for me). I just don't agree with your proposed number of mechanics - nowadyas "big" official sets (~250 cards) often tend to have five mechanics (and sometimes even another minor theme as well - like new Ravnica's Guildgates and related cards). Otherwise, again - very nice article (like all your others, I've read so far)!

Sat, 2014-01-04 19:19

Just read your article, and now it's making me rethink some of my design ideas for my decks. I had thought of installing drawbacks into cards I was making so I could justify cheap mana costs. But you make an excellent point that drawbacks make cards unappealing and perhaps I should rethink this strategy. Thanks for writing this I think it will help me out.