I have had the privilege—or maybe the pain (depends on the person)—to work with creative designers for most of my professional career, as well as having many friends that are in various design fields. This has led me to expand my own creativity and helped me understand their workflow and how the creative process works for many of them. This has also increased my understanding of a debate that I think most designers have constantly as they work on projects: Form versus Function. Basically, it boils down to a question of, when you create something, whether it doesn’t need to look good, it just needs to work, or is it about the aesthetic the project yields? Apple has tried to create products that capture both of these elements, with devices that look beautiful and perform flawlessly. Magic could be the same way but does Wizards hi the mark?
From The Beginning.
Now that I have you thinking, let me start from the beginning. In my last article, I spoke about the C16 generals and how in my opinion Wizards missed the mark on the partner mechanic when it comes to theme. It appeared to me they focused mostly on the Function of creating great toolbox commanders and not so much on the Form or theme of the commanders. This generated a lot of great discussion (people I love comments), both on thewebsite and in my twitter mailbox, which I thought was awesome. It has also led me here to an article I think is important to write. For the rest of this article we will replace Form with theme as I feel like this is still the same discussion, but theme fits it a little better in the Magic world. Before I hop into each area, know that there is no right or wrong answers here, just a balance that you need to find to maximize your enjoyment of the game. Once you find that, use the social contract to find a group that values the same thing (or as close as you can get. Honestly it’s a lot like hand grenades, close is good enough).
Players have often pushed against theme, saying it isn’t important. In fact, some players go so far as to speak against the story of Magic and how it gets in the way of just playing the game. Theme doesn’t have to be a part of the game you enjoy, but it is a major motivation for a large percent of people that play. Why else are the most popular tribes in magic dragons and angels if most dragon and angel cards never see competitive play? Theme.
Wizards is committed to the story of magic, and they do push themes and metagames to fit their vision of a set. Every set’s design starts with world development, when they determine their key characters and start build cards around the characters and interactions. For instance, look at the Eldrazi sets. There was no way of getting around playing with them and the eldrazi cards, which makes sense since the characters were the flagship images their sets. Wizards built the story around the Eldrazi (Theme) and made sure their cards were pushed to be very efficient and powerful (Function). The Magic Story that goes up every Wednesday also proves this point, as they even interrupted the standard story to give a little background story on the four-color commanders from the C16 set. If Wizards throws that much money at the story, then it should be clear that they believe theme/story/world building is extremely important to a good many people.
Function is a core reason why most of us play the game. We strive to create decks whose functions meets our goals and gives us the experience we desire. In some cases we take it so far that we feel like the only thing important in a deck is how it functions. In fact, some people take no interest in art and story; for them the key is only how fast and efficient can I make my deck. Some EDH groups enjoy this. One group I played with felt if an EDH game went more than four turns it wasn’t worth it (it cut into the amount of games you could have after all). If that is your group’s goal this is fine, just as long as everyone is on the same page.
However, restricting a deck to only focus on function limits your card pool. I call this the “25 best” syndrome. You just acquire the 25 best cards of each color and that is in effect all you play with, because if your focus is only on function why play cards that aren’t the strongest at all times. When people get focused on this style of play, decks tend to get very linear and very similar, which can lead to games feeling the same. It does have the effect keeping a collection smaller and probably cheaper in the long term, however.
All Together Now.
So why try to balance the two together? Why not just focus on that of function? Those are questions we chat about all the time at GDC and honestly the answer generally comes back as, “It’s all been done before.” Now some believe that every deck has been done before, but I can say without a doubt that the closer you get to having that perfectly functioning deck, or the deck that is the most optimized, the closer your deck is to everyone else’s. With a smaller card pool, even different decks start to look alike. When different generals leading “different” decks start to lose their ability to stand out, they become more a toolbox type of general and not something you use to build a story or play out the lore.
The toolbox approach is why I was critical of Wizards in my last article. Partners can be a very rich and fun mechanic, but at least the first iteration focused mainly on good-stuff generals. They are good, but they lack thematic definition. Instead of theme, they become defined by function: combat, or group hug, or card draw. They lack a theme or identity to really build around. Without this build-around theme, they lost the people who want to add a story or theme to their deck. Like in life, the key to making the game fire on all cylinders is balance, like if the Partner Commanders still maintained their functionality but also nailed Theme. You can’t have just theme or just function. Leave one out and you are leaving out a whole subset of players not interested in what you are creating. The story boards and world building are already there so why not make sure you use them.
Wrap It up.
Give it a try. See what adding more balance (via Theme) to your decks does for you play experience, no matter which side you find yourself on. If you already do, great! I hope to sit across from the table from you and see cards played that make me stop and need to read them as you smile along. There’s nothing better than seeing something hit the table I have yet to see and to see it do work!
Until next time, focus on balance, this is EDH.Ghost out!
On a personal note, I feel somewhat conflicted running regular EDH content today, when there’s so much heavy stuff happening in the United States. After discussing it with the team, I was convinced of the value people get from having a place where they can stop thinking about serious issues to recharge. I am not a fan of separating one’s political & moral/social stances from their professional or personal lives, but I respect that others find a break for the political barrage useful. If you want to talk about what’s going on, or have any questions (fair warning, I’m relatively liberal), I’m on twitter: @MdaveCS. Thanks for reading and understanding.