(Metagame Archive) Creating a Crisis, Part 4: Making Magic

Justin Gary

This is a design article that I have been waiting a long time to write. Magic is my favorite mechanic in this set, though it was by far the hardest to design and develop. We knew from the beginning that an important task for Infinite Crisis was to define how magic would work in the Vs. universe. This article will explore the process we went through and the many different ideas that we considered for how to bring some magic into our lives.

Magic is a very tricky thing to represent mechanically. Because magic can do pretty much anything, it is very hard to define by any one particular output. This meant that we had to define magic by its inputs. In other words, the Magic mechanic had to be related to costs and not effects.

The first and most obvious plan for magic was to use willpower. When willpower was originally conceived by the talented yet short Danny Mandel, it was thematically intended to encompass psychics, mystics, and magic users in addition to those with Green Lantern rings. Willpower was always considered a reasonable “fallback” position for magic, but several major issues made it somewhat undesirable. First of all, as I mentioned in my first design article, I was looking to design a set with primarily non-linear mechanics, and willpower is about as linear as it gets. A second concern with using willpower as the magic mechanic is that willpower has been explored very thoroughly in the context of the Green Lanterns. It would be difficult to create magic willpower effects that didn’t just feel like other kinds of willpower effects. Another major issue is that willpower decks are already very powerful in Silver Age. It would be challenging to design cards that were powerful enough to be interesting but not so powerful as to push the willpower decks over the top. Willpower will almost certainly be making a comeback to the Vs. System, but in the end, we decided that this was not the place for it.

A second and more radical plan for magic was to create a new resource system for it. In this system, your resources would be exhausted to pay the costs of magic effects. This system was designed in part to answer one of the limitations in Vs. System—that plot twists have no costs. Because there are no resources spent on plot twists, we are very restricted in how powerful we can make them. Plot twists already have an inherent advantage over characters because they are valuable on multiple turns of the game, whereas most characters are only at their best when they’re played on a specific turn. Add to this the fact that you can play multiple plot twists in a turn without it costing you anything extra, and you can begin to see how constrained we are.

But by adding an exhaust cost to magic plot twists, we could create a limited resource that players would have to ration out as they saw fit. This has a couple of really cool effects on gameplay. First, it encourages you to use plot twists earlier than usual. If I have two Savage Beatdowns in my hand, I will be much more inclined to use one on turn 4 and another on turn 6 if I have to exhaust resources to play them. The second cool thing about this mechanic is that it gives players more information about what their opponent can do. If you know that Cover Fire requires your opponent to exhaust two resources to play it, you can prepare for it or wait for an opening when your opponent has all of his or her resources exhausted.

I was a huge fan of this mechanic, but in the end, it failed because of one critical flaw—it wasn’t the way Vs. is played. By simply making Magic plot twists require an exhaustion of resources, you can’t really get the advantages described above. As long as players had access to all of the old plot twists, Magic plot twists would make at most a small impact on gameplay. In R&D, our playtesters would typically run a few powerful Magic plot twists along with their normal suite of blue. This meant that no real mechanical change occurred, and without changing the vast majority of powerful plot twists into Magic plot twists, we decided that this radical new system couldn’t work.

The exploration of the “exhaust resources” Magic system took a lot of time, and it was unfortunate that it didn’t work out, but this is a normal part of the design and development process. We regularly try out mechanics that seem cool at first but just don’t quite work in the end. Fortunately, we learn a lot from these experiments, and they often lead us to even better mechanics—in this case, paying endurance.

The problem with the “exhaust resources” Magic mechanic was that it used a resource that no one cared about. It was created solely for the purpose of using this mechanic, and thus, it didn’t mesh very well with the rest of Vs. System. But what if we used a resource that everybody cared about? By choosing endurance payments for the Magic mechanic, we were able to create a very interesting tension between powerful effects and prohibitive costs. We found that with proper incentives, players could use magic to hover on the brink of death for several turns before claiming victory. This was an exciting play pattern that achieved my initial goal of finding a cost that would allow us to make more powerful plot twist effects. Hopefully, you are all enjoying the result.

That’s the story of the origins of the Magic mechanic. This week, I am off to San Francisco to watch the Pro Circuit and the $10K. Since these events will be the major tournament debut for Infinite Crisis, I am very excited. Within days, we can find out which new strategies from Crisis are viable and which cards will become staples in the exciting new Silver Age. I’ll be back in two weeks with my report from the event and with more on the design and development of Infinite Crisis. As always, send questions, comments, or ideas for article topics to Justin_Gary@upperdeck.com. And don’t forget to check in with Metagame this weekend for up-to-the-minute coverage of Pro Circuit San Francisco!

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