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Arbitrary Abilities December 23, 2008

Posted by James in : all, random, theory, reviews, design , trackback

One of the best parts of Magic the Gathering is the feeling of endless possibilities. The feeling that you can be creative an create an entirely new deck idea. One part of the game that is disrespectful to this fact are “arbitrary abilities.” What exactly do I mean by “arbitrary abilities?” I mean abilities or any part of the game that is “meaningless.” Things that do nothing by themselves and only exist to be part of a “combo.” Probably the best example of an arbitrary ability is “Arcane.” I will come back to this soon.

Meaningful Abilities

Meaningful abilities on the other hand do something. Sometimes meaningful abilities can create combos because the cards work well together based on what they do. I like the idea of a card game to be “cards do stuff, and some cards end up working well together.” Consider various cards that work together:

Meaningful abilities tell me: There are many wonderful combinations of cards for you to discover! Feel free to be creative and find out a new kind of deck to play!

One of the first decks I made with meaningful abilities in mind was a “5-color green deck” that involved Quirion Ranger, Birds of Paradise, Undiscovered Paradise, and Winter Orb. The deck had almost no lands. The fact that I untapped one land a turn made Quirion Ranger (and Undiscovered Paradise) betterĀ  than usual because it assured that I always had another land to play every turn. That way I could untap a land and play another untapped land every turn.

Before I knew it everyone was playing a deck quite like the one I played. I’m not sure if they found out about it somehow, or if they figured it out on their own. The inspiration for the deck I made was quite specific. In particular, I knew someone who made a green weenie deck that only had 8 lands in it. I was quite impressed with this idea. It was unheard of to have a deck with fewer than 20 lands in it, but his deck worked pretty well anyway. The Winter Orb combos were a natural addition to the green weenie deck. Winter Orb was already a favorite of mine. I used Winter Orb in a black weenie deck that could trash the most popular deck of the time: Necropotence decks.

Arbitrary Abilities

Arbitrary abilities exist only for the sake of some combo. Wizards of the Coast made these abilities thinking, “Although this ability does nothing, it will do something cool if played with this other card!” I view arbitrary abilities as Wizards of the Coast’s way to control us. Instead of thinking “I can invent my own deck idea,” we instead are instead told exactly what deck to play. Although there is a small amount of freedom in deciding what decks look like, the “deck idea” already exists. That isn’t fun.

Examples of arbitrary abilities:

Ravager Affinity decks weren’t completely arbitrary because you could make an awesome Ravager deck with no Affinity. Ravager, Disciple of the Vault, Skullclamp, etc. could all work together based on what they do.

What bothers me is not necessarily when some random abilities are arbitrary, but that an entire theme is devoted to an arbitrary ability. That an entire deck can be devoted to that arbitrary ability. Disciple of the Vault pretty much does nothing without artifacts being destroyed, but it doesn’t seem so bad because it is just a random card thrown into an artifact deck. Arcane on the other hand is a purely arbitrary theme with entire decks devoted to it.

Strategies for the Design Process

Of course, even if abilities aren’t arbitrary, we might have the suspicion that Wizards of the Coast is developing deck ideas during the design process. (Ravager/Disciple of the Vault decks, for example.) This in itself can still make us feel powerless to develop a deck that feels truly creative or unique. This unfortunately has become a huge preoccupation of the Wizards of the Coast design team. Every new set that comes out tells us exactly what decks we should be expected to make. Elf decks, affinity decks, boros decks, naya decks, etc. There are a few decks that slip through the cracks, such as 5-color control and Dragonstorm. However, the message that we get from each new set is that we shouldn’t be expected to be very creative or imaginative when designing our own decks.

Wizards of the Coast didn’t always develop pre-conceived decks during the design process. Pre-conceived deck ideas started with Onslaught, where we were expected to create “tribal decks” (based on a creature type.) This trend continued in every set ever since. I would say that creating pre-conceived decks is the current “design strategy.” This strategy might have some benefits, but has been shown to be flawed. Consider some other possible design strategies:

  1. One way that this could be avoided is to merely stop having pre-conceived deck ideas while designing new magic sets. Of course, we would still want several cards with unique abilities that we could find out “work well together.” Instead of making an “elf deck,” some creatures could have various abilities that work well together. (Faerie decks almost lived up to this ideal.)
  2. There could be a long chain of combo cards that all work together with specific cards. Card A and Card B work together. Card B and card C work together, and so on. We can imagine that each card works with at least one other card. A deck can then be created using any number of these “combo pieces.” Card A, B, and C could be made into a deck. Or card H, I, and J.
  3. There could be themes, but the themes could meld together. You could create a white life gain deck, a green token creature deck, or a white-green life gain/token creature deck. Both themes would have combo cards that assured that life gain and token creatures become powerful together.

My next article will be posted on Friday 12-26-2008.


1. michael - December 23, 2008

This is really the core argument in the linear vs non-linear mechanic guide. This is a highly devisive issue and I have heard arguments on both sides. Some poeple like linear mechanics like Affinity for various reasons (flavor, ease of deck building, “fun”) and some people hate linear mechanics (being told what to make, “not fun”, stale).

In order to keep the game profitable, the marketing team knows they need to get new players and keep current ones. In order to do this, they have to have development switch off from time to time between the linear and non-linear in an attempt to keep both sides happy.

Also, it wasn’t until Onslaught that tribal really became noticed. Before, people who brought a goblin deck would be mocked or the deck was just not thought of as good. After Onslaught, goblins became a force (and it made some older cards…Goblin Lackey and Goblin Matron…worth more).

2. James - December 23, 2008

Interesting point about linearity.

Wizards of the Coast talked about linear designat http://wizards.com/Magic/Magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtgcom/daily/mr92. “In a linear design, cards are designed to clump together in obvious groups. They have a very narrow but focused synergy.” (Mirrodin is used as an example of a non-linear set, but the “combos” didn’t make much of a difference in draft because they required rares. Also, “affinity” is used as an example of something less linear. However, Affinity had nothing but cards that “fell into obvious groups.” (How obvious does Wizards think they have to make their “deck ideas?”)

I am only concerned with linearity in the severe form that Wizards makes deck ideas for us. (Is it possible for them not to make deck ideas within a linear set?) I have no problem with cards that work well together, but I don’t consider that to be “creating deck ideas.” Also, I have less of a problem with linearity when it makes use of “meaningful” abilities. Ravager/disciple of the vault is preferred to affinity. If anyone strongly supports Wizards of the Coast to make “deck ideas” for us, I would like to know why.

I don’t see how flavor, ease of deck building, or “fun” relevantly support linearity. I would guess that it is mainly a subjective point of view from the group of people who like net decking. (But of course you can net deck no matter what.) Flavor in particular is more about “themes,” which can easily exist as actual meaningful abilities. Ravager/disciple of the vault decks are flavorful, but without the arbitrary ability problem. If Wizards of the Coast has to pander to lazy people who don’t want to think, then we are doomed.

As a new player I liked the game being open ended. If I was told that I had to make a deck based on a pre-conceived idea, I would have been a lot less excited with the game. I liked thinking of my own decks using play dough. In fact, the option to design your own deck is one of the reasons that I almost exclusively play draft along with 90% (or more) of the tournament players in San Jose. It is almost impossible to “design your own deck” in constructed formats.

I know that tribal wasn’t a big deal until onslaught and I mentioned that arbitrary abilities when taken in isolation aren’t as bad. Goblin King is an example of this. The fact that Goblin King was no good is actually a failure. Goblins could be good without a “tribal theme.” It’s just that Goblins tended not to be very powerful. My biggest criticism is that arbitrary abilities manifested as a theme. In other words, the arcane deck is the worst deck idea manifested into physical form.

3. Recoculous.com: Magic the Gathering Articles » The Meta-Game - December 30, 2008

[…] Of these ideals, the third possibility seems the best because it promotes the goal of being creative. Unfortunately it is also the most difficult ideal to achieve. There are a limited number of cards available for constructed play and some “combos” always seem better than others. There can be tons of various interlocking combos. I suggested before that the design team could try to have a “combo chain.” This might be a good way to have more good decks. […]

4. Alex - January 10, 2009

I would also like to point out that Prowl is a great example of a linear or arbitrary mechanic.. “Play rogues play rogues rawr”