In this article, I want to take a look at some principles of format design and how they can be controlled. I set out to design a format with my Cube, and I believe that I have been fairly successful. (Most who play my Cube agree.) The first thing to realize is that at the center of every format is one thing: interactivity. In formats that are boring, one of two things happens:
- There is little to no interactivity in the format.
- The format revolves around a miniscule number of small, overpowered interactions.
So, we know that we have to have an interactive format, but what exactly is interactivity? If we don’t understand the concept of interactivity, we can’t really build a format that is interactive. Thus, the first step to format design is to understand the basic principles of interactivity.
The basic principles of interactivity apply to all games. In my view, there are three basic categories of interactivity, which I’ll talk about in a general sense, and then apply to both Magic and other games:
- Strategic interactivity – Strategy is, effectively, the use of various resources to secure victory through long-range planning. In Magic terms, this is about understanding how your deck operates overall, in terms of stage theory, and asking questions about whether you are beatdown or control, how you plan to win the game (card advantage, philosophy of fire, tempo control, etc.), and so forth.
- Tactical interactivity – Tactics, in Magic, deal with the actual positioning of your cards within the game to accomplish your various goals. This is why we, as Magic players, watch videos to learn how to use certain cards and how to play in certain situations. Things like recognizing combat tricks and playing around various cards are all tactical situations.
- Resource interactivity – This is almost always better named “resource denial.” Every competitive game uses resources, and an active part of any good game is the ability to deny your opponent of resources. Sometimes, this is passive, but active resource denial is an element of many good strategy games.
The important thing to note is that greater interactivity results from greater options. Here are two examples, one non-Magic and one Magic. Consider two games, checkers and chess, both of which are very much focused on the capture of opposing pieces (material). Both are played on a sixty-four-square board. Both games give each player the same starting material. However, chess is a much more complicated and interactive game because of the greater number of options presented to the player. Why? Chess pieces move differently, whereas checkers pieces all move in the same way.
Now, consider a Magic situation in which your opponent has no hand and plays a 2/2 into an empty board. Now, suppose there are two possible hands for you to look at.
Hand 1: 3/3 Deathtouch, 3/3 First Strike
In the first hand, you don’t really have an option. The 3/3 Deathtouch and the 3/3 First Strike are basically the same card, and it doesn’t really matter what you play. The fact that your 3/3 partially nullifies his 2/2 is an added benefit. Not playing the 3/3 is not really an option, and the fact that it nullifies your opponent’s 2/2 is just an added benefit—that result is a passive result of a decision you made for other reasons. With the second hand, you have three distinct options. You can kill his creature, invalidate his creature, or simply ignore it. Now you have a means of interacting with his creature instead of simply doing your own thing.
Options = interactivity. Let’s move on.
Strategies have interactive properties based on how they function within the confines of any given game. Within Magic, the basic principles are within our aggro/control/midrange paradigm, which I explored more in my articles on the Circle of Predation. In essence, this is an aspect of what Flores has called “strategic superiority,” but you don’t have to reach the actual point of superiority to have interactivity. Even strategies that are strong (but not outright superior) to others have strategic interactivity. Let’s look at a few examples from other games.
Let’s say I’m playing StarCraft II (feel free to skip this if you don’t play StarCraft) as Zerg, and my opponent is Protoss on Shakuras Plateau. I open with a 15 hatch, followed quickly by a Spawning Pool and Zergling speed research. I scout my opponent and see a Forge near the ramp of his natural expansion. I go for a fast Lair and third base, throwing down a Spire and double Evolution Chambers, as well—essentially rushing for Mutalisks. Just as my Spire is about to pop, I sacrifice an Overlord into my Protoss opponent’s base and see that he just threw down two Stargates. I have some choices.
- I can use a small group of Mutalisks to harass and try to pick off Void Rays or Phoenixes while they are in small numbers. This also allows me to attack his probe line when his air force moves out.
- I can build a Baneling Nest and attack him with a bunch of Zerglings and Banelings, because his ground army is going to be very weak.
- I can throw down a Spore Crawlers and go for Hive and Greater Spire, allowing me to push him back with Corrupters, which I will eventually turn into Broodlords.
Note that all three of these take advantage of my existing resources. Option 1 and Option 3 take advantage of the fact that I already have my Spire up, whereas Option 2 takes advantage of the fact that I have my Spawning Pool and Zergling speed. But the important thing to note is that all of these are interactive choices that respond to my opponent’s strategic choice. I have already largely determined my own strategy with a tech-focused opening, but I have options as to how to deal with his air play tactically. I can shift the focus of my own strategy a bit, allowing me to accommodate a strong tactical stroke based on what I see out of him. This sort of interactivity is based on the strategic level but obviously influences other things, as well. Let’s look at another example from a different game.
League of Legends and other Duels of the Ancients–style games showcase similar strategic interactivity. Each hero-plus-item build combination in these types of games has specific strengths and weaknesses. Each team, therefore, is going to have a small number of specific styles that it plays and specific battle strategies that it uses. If you have counterbuilds, you can come up with heroes with item sets that are strategically well positioned against your opponent.
An archetypical example of this sort of thing is the “spiker.” A “spiker” is a hero (usually a caster) who has relatively low HP, but a very focused skill set designed to do a single thing: deal a lot of damage in a very short period of time. Their skill sets frequently include attack-speed buffs or spells with very short cast times but that deal a lot of damage. A well-played spiker is an asset to a team because of his or her ability to eliminate single targets (especially soft-support casters) from the battle quickly.
You can interact strategically with this sort of thing by having a “counterhero” or a “counterbuild.” In the example above, a counterbuild would be something I call a “super-tank.” A “super-tank” is a hero with very high HP and abilities that help him survive—spell immunities, armor buffs, and/or passive life-steal attacks, for example. This sort of hero is very difficult for a spiker to kill and provides an effective counterpoint.
Ascension is an example of a game that does not feature any strategic interaction. There are three basic strategies in Ascension: the buy deck, the fight deck, and the hybrid deck. There is really nothing you can do, on a strategic level, to interact with your opponent once you both have determined your strategy. If you decide to be the buy deck and your opponent decides to be the fight deck, at that point, it is simply about the execution of your appropriate strategy. Whoever executes his or her strategy better will be the winner. There is some interactivity on a tactical level (mainly through banishing things in the center row), but as a whole, execution of your own strategy is far more important. The reason there is no strategic interactions is that everyone has a very linear strategy that doesn’t intersect with his or her opponent’s strategy in any real way (e.g., one person deals with “gold”; the other deals with fight power).
Note that strategic interactivity is based on being able to play to the strengths of your own strategies and exploit the weaknesses of your opponent’s strategy. Greater strategic interactivity comes from two places. The first is the number of available strategies; having more available strategies means that players have more strategies to interact with. The second is the number of ways you can interact with any given strategy. The more ways you have of interacting with any given strategy, the greater the interactivity.
Magic, as a whole, is a game that has a huge number of available strategies and interactions. This is among the greatest strengths of the game. Magic strategies can be categorized into broader terms, but frequently, interacting with the specific elements of a strategy is just as important. For example, Solar Flare and U/B control are both control decks, but cards that are effective against one are not always effective against the other. Any individual Magic format (Cube included) can be considered a new “game” of sorts. Even though all Magic formats use the same rules (the rules of Magic), the format itself develops its own identity because the cards create new constraints (Jace and Dismember are two prime examples of this property in action). Effectively, the cards available serve as the “rules” to the format’s “game.” Because of this, it is important to have a wide variety of options available in any given Magic format.
“Tactical interactivity” refers to the ability of players to interact on a tactical front. Most games revolve around this sort of interactivity. The individual interactions you see on a tactical front tend not to be game-altering (although they do have that capability), but in general, tactical interaction is important to the execution of any individual strategy, and thus, superior tactical execution will usually enable a player to win the game.
The simplest form of tactical interactivity is the material trade. This happens in chess when people trade pieces, in StarCraft when people trade armies, and in Magic when people trade cards (spells or creatures) inside a game. But this isn’t the only form of tactical interactivity. In general, most decisions you make during the course of the game are going to be tactical decisions. Here’s an example:
Board state (Innistrad Limited):
You (10 life):
Opponent (15 life):
Hand: 3 unknown cards
(Opponent’s deck is G/W aggro with a minor Human subtheme.)
What do you do?