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Format Design Retrospective

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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:

  1. There is little to no interactivity in the format.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

Hand 2: Shock, 3/3 Vigilance, Llanowar Elves

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.

Strategic Interactivity

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

“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):

Lands: 2 Forest, 3 Mountain (have played your land for turn)

Permanents: Kessig Wolf, Skirsdag Cultist

Hand: Mountain, Somberwald Spider, Heretic’s Punishment, Village Ironsmith

(You are playing a deck where the main win condition is Heretic’s Punishment or Charmbreaker Devils recurring Into the Maw of Hell.)

Opponent (15 life):

Lands: 3 Plains, 3 Forest

Permanents: Sharpened Pitchfork, Silver-Inlaid Dagger, Voiceless Spirit, 2 Spirit token, Thraben Sentry

Hand: 3 unknown cards

(Opponent’s deck is G/W aggro with a minor Human subtheme.)

What do you do?

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You have three major options:

  1. Play Heretic's Punishment.
  2. Play Somberwald Spider.
  3. Play Village Ironsmith and leave up mana to activate Kessig Wolf.

This is a situation where you have distinct tactical options that all interact with your opponent’s board state in different ways. We could argue about which of the play lines is correct, but that is irrelevant for this discussion. What matters is that you have various play lines to choose among, and this showcases the concept of tactical interactivity in the form of tactical options.

Resource Interactivity

Every single game is based on a certain resource. Usually, it is either material or money, but sometimes, it includes other things as well. I talk more about this principle in Magic here, but I’m going to look at it from a different angle below. Let’s look at a few basic examples.

Coming back to StarCraft, we have two basic resources: minerals and gas. These are used to build a variety of units that have their own strategic and tactical functionalities. These units are then used to accomplish a player’s strategic and tactical goals, but in the end, everything comes back to those two basic resources. Attacking your opponent’s economy is a huge focus in StarCraft for exactly this reason. Resource denial is a fundamental aspect of the interactions within the game. This is also part of what makes the game so fast and exciting.

Another example of this would be chess pieces. Within the game of chess, the pieces are the primary resources. They can be used to generate various tactical and strategic advantages (space and time being the two primary ones), but in the end, everything comes down to the actual resources: the pieces. This is why material is such a big deal in chess. You have to have compensation for any material sacrifice, because in the end, chess, like all games, is a game about resources.

A hallmark of strong interactive games is the ability to interact directly with your opponent’s base resources by denying them. This is a fundamental element of many strategies and allows for far more interactive gameplay. So, why is resource denial so fundamental to interactivity?

This comes from the fundamental concept of guarantees. As far as games are concerned, something that is guaranteed becomes a property of the game. By having guaranteed resources, you remove a fundamental angle of attack from opposing players. By removing this angle of attack, you remove an entire front of interaction from the game, thus limiting its interactivity. If your opponent can’t interact with a given thing, there is absolutely no reason for you to worry about it, and thus no counter-interaction necessary.

The point is not that you have to be able to completely destroy an opponent’s resource base. You don’t. You only need the ability to sufficiently hinder it to the point where you can overwhelm your opponent with a resource advantage. Land counts in Magic are a great example of this. Winning the land-count war in a control mirror is huge because of the number of tactical and strategic options that a higher land count gives you. It’s not that you need your opponent to have a low land count; you just need to have a significant advantage.

Consider two control players who are in pretty much the same situation—except for land count. Player A has seven lands, while Player B has twelve. Player B is going to have a significant advantage because of his ability to deploy more threats (especially expensive threats) in a turn. He can also deploy a single threat and use his remaining mana to defend it. Beyond that, he is able to use lands that have activated abilities, such as man lands. These sorts of advantages all come into play and give Player B a much stronger position. Note that Player A has a decent amount of a primary resource (mana) at his disposal. However, Player B is advantaged because he has successfully secured more of that resource. This source of resource interactivity is crucial to many games.

Interacting with resources in both a positive and negative way is absolutely crucial to resource interactivity. You need to be able to both secure more of a resource for yourself and deny your opponent’s ability to secure more of a resource. This is where the interactivity on the resource front is the greatest. Lose one, and you effectively lose both, because if it can’t be denied, there is less of a point to actively securing more of a resource. You only need to secure as much as you need at any given moment. Surplus resources go to waste.

Cards in Magic are a great example of this. You can interact both positively and negatively with this resource (card-draw, discard, two-for-ones), and thus, there are many different tactical plays involving cards that are interesting, interactive, and fun. Card advantage is such a central pillar of Magic because of the ability to interact so completely with this resource. However, Magic has other resources (life and mana), and interacting with them on a positive and negative front is just as crucial.

Putting It All Together

When we take all of this and put it all together, we see a picture of a format emerge. A format is a subgame of Magic, with additional constraints created by the cards that you put in. Because interactivity is central to any game, interactivity is central to any given format. This means that options are central to any given format, because options equal interactivity.

So, how do we generate options for interactivity? The answer lies in our three axes of interaction: strategic, tactical, and resource. We need to enable players to interact with other players on each axis, in both a positive and negative manner. Maximizing the angles from which you can attack is a huge portion of this, and thus, having a wide variety of individual effects available to the player is crucial. This is why Cube is such a great format—it allows you to create so many different angles of pressure.

A very good example of this is Blue counterspells. I selected a lot of my Blue counterspells because they come from slightly different angles. Sure, there’s Counterspell as a baseline, but a lot of the other counterspells have different properties. The Scry on Condescend; the not-hard nature of Remand; and the restrictions on Exclude, Remove Soul, and Essence Scatter all play a very important nature in creating different tactical counterspells. In a good number of situations, these cards are very similar or the same, but there are crucial differences that show up from time to time. If you use Condescend instead of Remove Soul on a creature, you may well find that you need the Condescend later, because Remove Soul can’t counter a creature. Of course, the reverse might be true. You might use Remove Soul, then not be able to counter a creature because you only have 2 mana up.

My selection of cards like Smoke, Assault Strobe, and Brute Force is another example of this. Instead of including more typical Red cards (like burn), I chose to include a greater variety of tactical effects. The presence of a single card like Smoke can drastically alter what a deck is capable of accomplishing. Even drawing that card can alter the tactical landscape. Giving players the ability to attack a game from this angle opens up another front for interactivity through additional options.

When making a Cube, you are designing a format, and when designing a format, the number-one thing is pushing interactivity. As I have shown in this article, interactivity stems from one thing: the presence of options. Therefore, providing your players with the widest possible array of options is central to pushing interactivity. Remember that options equal interactivity, and better interactivity makes for better formats.

Chingsung Chang

Conelead most everywhere and on MTGO

Khan32k5 at gmail dot com

TAGS articles, theory, chingsung chang, cube, design, starcraft

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