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How to Hate Magic: The Gathering III: Things That Aren't the Previous Two Things

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Over the last couple of articles on the rot of Magic: The Gathering, we've chomped on big topics that we can sink our teeth into. Imbalances and randomisation are complicated enough that they each needed an essay by themselves. But there are many more issues with the game we've not gotten to, issues that can summarised faster but that don't have a uniting theme apart from invoking a feeling of helplessness. So, like an excitable flea, we're going to jump around a lot here. We'll sap the sweet blood of subjects like running out of options, stalemates, leaden pacing, and fractured player matching. But before all that, we're going to start with:

No Dodging, No Predicting

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There's a general rule in game design that if the player is at significant risk of some hazard, they should be able to foresee it and nullify or reduce its effects. In Satelite Reign, I can see when forces surround my soldiers, and retreat, retaliate, or reposition my troops for better defence. In Splatoon, if there is a player who has clocked me in their sights and can eliminate me, I can view them and their incoming fire. I can then take cover, dodge, or counterfire. One reason a boatload of video games take place over a space is that spaces allow us to recognise dangerous entities approaching, give us a clear idea of their relative position to us, and let us move from their path or prepare to engage. It's the same whether we're playing a shooter, fighting game, turn-based strategy game, or RTS. And even if a game isn't spatial, there are other ways of sounding the alarm for the player, like falling revenue in a business management sim or an environmental puzzle game where you can work out whether a solution will fail just by looking at the room in front of you. In these examples, we could rebalance our books, or plan a different solution, respectively.

The instrumentality of visible, avoidable failure comes into sharp focus when we imagine the alternative. What if there was an enemy in Ikaruga that shot invisible bullets? What if there was a weapon in Unreal Tournament that made you drop dead regardless of your health or your position relative to it? The presence of even one of these bad apples might be enough to spoil these games entirely. Magic: The Gathering is loaded to the gills with invisible bullets and drop-dead guns. You can almost never see the contents of your opponent's deck or hand and usually can't guard against cards' effects. These debilitations stack with the power (sometimes excessive power) of cards and the random drawing to make many of the opponent's actions feel like cheating.

Sometimes, there are tells that players might be about to whip out a card that could ruin your day, either via their behaviour or your knowledge of their deck. For example, if they have some extra mana on tap, and they're attacking you with a creature that would be demolished if you blocked it, chances are they have a card that will buff their creature (e.g. Giant Growth or Battle-Rage Blessing) or debuff one of yours (e.g. Cruel Finality or Unholy Heat). So, if you block their charger, your defender will go down in flames. Or, imagine that the opponent has a couple of untapped land, it's your turn, and they've been repeatedly playing instants that stun your creatures. There's a good chance that if you summon another fighter, they'll stun that newcomer too.

But without red flags like mana count or weak creatures attacking, there's no way to predict if your enemy will play a card that knocks seven bells out of you. Magic has the cowardice to punch you in the back of the head and the arrogance to ask why you didn't dodge out of the way. And if you think your opponent is gearing up for such a swipe, unless you have a deck that counterspells or instantly reinforces creatures, there's probably nothing you can do about their offences anyway. You can also catch their fist in mid-air only to have them kick you in the stomach. Unleash a creature strong enough to stand up to theirs? It might be stolen and put under your opponent's control. Cast a curse that might take out their prize fighter? Counterspelled. Attack from a strong position? One of their defenders gets buffed until the end of the turn. Got a great army lined up on the field? All destroyed with one card.

We could say that Magic is balanced because you have the opportunity to trigger surprise traps, too, but this is the fallacy of trying to grade gameplay purely on "balance". Just because you can give as good as you get doesn't make it feel any less unfair when you're targeted with a devastating spell with no recourse. In fact, when your creatures are trivially wiped from the play area or the damage you try to cause is nullified, you can start to wonder what the point is of playing creatures or damage spells in the first place.

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A helpful takeaway from Magic's blindsiding is that, from a player perspective, being met with unforeseeable events created through other players' actions and being met with random events is effectively the same thing. The changes in the game state are unpredictable in either circumstance, no matter who or what they were initiated by. And so, our lack of foreknowledge about player behaviour in Magic leads to many of the pluses and minuses that the randomness did. Yes, it introduces variety and twists, but it also creates a strategy system where you can plan for one scenario and end up with another through no fault of your own. And if you do have the cards to quench an enemy fire, you don't know whether you'll draw them.

To be fair, Magic provides some respite from unpredictability in its best-of-three matches. In this format, you have more time to scan the contents of your opponent's library. Players are also often permitted a "sideboard": a biscuit tin of cards that they can swap into their deck between matches. Combatants can modify their loadouts in response to the spells the opponent is playing. But this match structure is not that popular outside of tournaments and leaves you competing against the same type of player and deck for a long time.

Extended competition against the same player is especially frustrating if it turns out the opponent is better than you or better equipped than you. And while the sideboard is small enough that it doesn't allow a player to cycle out most of their deck, it's still another pocket in which an opponent can store mystery cards to surprise you with. Consider that one technique an opponent can use is to predict how you will change your deck to combat the cards you just played against and modify their deck to fight the kind of armoury they think you'll construct. You could play best-of-X without the sideboard, but that approach is even less popular because the sideboard exists to prevent repetition and increase agency in matches.

Running Out of Options Isn't Fun

It's not, and it's pretty easy for it to happen. We've already studied how you can be paralysed by unlucky draws, but there are plenty of other ropes with which the game can bind your hands. In most formats, players start with a maximum of seven cards. Magic is designed so that if you're drawing cards you can play, then, without intervention, you'll be holding few to no cards by the mid-game. By default, you draw one card a turn, but you're allowed to play one land a turn and, on almost all turns, can play one or more nonlands. So, on the average turn, you see one spell enter your hand and at least two leave. You're operating at a loss.

By themselves, those economics aren't troublesome. I think it engages the player's ingenuity to give them a deficit of agents and then a lot of ways to keep new tools coming in or options so that they don't have to rely as much on drawing. The player may, for example, have permanents that can effectively activate a sorcery each turn so they don't have to draw sorceries from the deck (e.g. Hall of Oracles or Satsuki, the Living Lore), or they may be able to resurrect the dead from the graveyard (e.g. Phyrexian Reclamation or Lukka, Wayward Bonder). Some cards declare that you can draw more cards outright (e.g. Accelerate or Thirst for Discovery), while others spawn more beasts (e.g. Myrel, Shield of Argive or Imperial Oath). But your opponent can suddenly blast your army or support cards apart or otherwise render them inert, meaning you have to replace them. They can also play cards that force you to discard cards (e.g. Bladecoil Serpent or Invasion of Eldraine). Or you may not draw the support cards you need to keep useful staples on the field and in your hand.

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Any of these crises can lead you to dead ends where you can't act on your turn or are just making the single correct move every time. It causes your participation in the game to feel perfunctory. You stop confronting interesting strategic decisions because, for a decision to be difficult, you need multiple options, some of which are advantageous and some of which put you at a loss. Some amount of inaccessibility to standard powers is normal for a game. You might wait to respawn in a multiplayer skirmish or have some scouts ambushed in an RTS, requiring you to train up new ones. However, in that RTS scenario, you usually have other units you can switch to, or at least, the power to construct more. In a shooter, you will often respawn in a few seconds, and with all the implements you might need.

In a decent game, complete immobilisation is momentary at worst, and during regular play, the fundamental suite of actions persists. It has to, because each mechanic of a game is carefully chosen to perform some essential job, so to lop off those mechanics is to break the game. Magic can be tremendously disempowering because it will leave you without fundamental abilities for an extended period, abilities like attacking, blocking, or being able to reload your hand. It's as if you could have your power to erect buildings removed in Frostpunk or have all your bats snapped in World Series Baseball.

The Pacing Graveyard

A limitation of all turn-based PvP play is that you're going to spend a certain amount of time out of control while your opponent makes their moves. In some games, rounds are short, meaning that even with turn-based competition, you've not got too much time before your next action. However, the shorter the turns, the less complex the system manipulation a player can perform per turn, making the game simple. That simplicity is fine for some titles, but other games want more substance per turn, which is why you have a TCG like Magic, where every turn has an upkeep phase, a draw phase, a pre-combat main phase, a combat phase, a post-combat main phase, and an end phase. Each allows for different modes of engagement with the systems and poses challenging questions about how to time moves. The trade-off is that each match has extensive stretches of downtime just by virtue of giving opponents such long turns, so it can't afford to do anything that would add extra seconds to each turn.

Magic does mitigate the periodic lack of player agency with a couple of controls. Firstly, there are actions you can take during an opponent's turn. You can play Flash or Instant cards, and if your opponent attacks, you get to assign your blockers. Note that the moment at which you administer blocks comes about halfway through the opponent's turn, minimising the time between periods in which you're making choices. If your opponent does not attack on their turn, you won't assign blockers. However, if they choose not to, their turn is shorter, and control returns to you faster anyway.

The other bone the game throws us is its parsimoniousness with the mechanics per card. The more time that players spend checking and executing the rules on each surface, the longer each turn takes, and the lower the density of average meaningful player choices per minute. Because Magic spreads powers over lots of different cards as opposed to putting many powers on each, we spend less time reading and interpreting each spell. But turns can be stretched out if we have a glut of cards to process rules for or if there are exceptionally complex cards on the table. For example, this is the text from Agatha's Soul Cauldron:

"You may spend mana as though it were mana of any color to activate abilities of creatures you control.

Creatures you control with +1/+1 counters on them have all activated abilities of all creature cards exiled with Agatha's Soul Cauldron.

Exile target card from a graveyard. When a creature card is exiled this way, put a +1/+1 counter on target creature you control."

And this is the text from Quintorius, Loremaster:


At the beginning of your end step, exile target noncreature, nonland card from your graveyard. Create a 3/2 red and white Spirit creature token.

(1)(R)(W), Sacrifice a Spirit: Choose target card exiled with Quintorius. You may cast that card this turn without paying its mana cost. If that spell would be put into a graveyard, put it on the bottom of its owner's library instead."

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It can also take a long time to process your cards if they have rules that affect a lot of entities, especially if those effects repeat each turn. Supports that rely on creating and powering up a lot of low-end creature tokens can be subject to this, including rat decks, goblin decks, and many white and white/green decks. With a certain type of library, you could easily get yourself into a bind where you have twelve creatures on the field that you must calculate combat damage for every time they attack or are attacked. You could then have generators that create one more creature token each turn and put a +1/+1 counter on all your creatures. All that admin eats up the clock.

But isn't this a problem that computers could solve? The premise of a video game is that it runs on a processor that can carry out operations millions of times faster than a person. But no, Magic bungles this too. The TCG's main online counterpart, Magic: The Gathering Arena, is lousy with players who take every opportunity to hesitate, rethink, and wander away from the keyboard. It's a really common complaint that with many users, getting them to click through even the simplest interactions is like pulling teeth. They will have one card in their hand and still take an eternity to mull over their options. You'll just need them to click "Okay" on some effect you've triggered, and they'll sit and stew for half a minute.

I'm not angry at newbies who need time to read and digest. There's a lot to learn if you've just stepped onto the scene, but I've been around the block a few times; the reason my opponents are slow is not because MTG: Arena is matching me against other rookies. I also understand that some disabilities affect the speed with which players can parse information and input actions. But the number of slow players on Arena is multitudes more than that tiny sliver of the population could ever account for. I'm also sympathetic that sometimes something happens in the offline world that you need to get up and take care of: you have to use the bathroom, or your cat got ahold of your debit card again. But this isn't a sometimes problem. By and large, the hesitating players aren't people who have language processing disorders or have spilt a whole burrito on their laptop; they're players who are wasting your time because they don't care about it.

I know that when reviewing games, it's usual to evaluate only the boxed product and not the community, but in any PvP environment, the people you interact with have a monumental effect on the experience. And in Magic, too many people let you waste away in long queues as they fiddle with the forms. MTG: Arena is a fantasy DMV.

A few different factors motivate sluggishness in keyboard jockeys:

  • With the anonymity of the internet and the lack of face-to-face communication that comes with a public setting, there's not the social pressure to be courteous towards other players.
  • A lot of opponents focus on an activity outside of the game; this is the price of living in a world with second monitors.
  • Some players turn on "Full Control": a mode where you must manually "accept" every move because, for esoteric reasons, this helps disguise whether you have certain spells in your hand and lets you micromanage your mana. But if a player is distracted from the game and has all these extra prompts to click through, they naturally arrest its pacing.
  • The game has crossplay between PC and mobile, and the mobile client doesn't have as responsive an interface.
  • Some trolls are aware that they can take advantage of the lenient turn timers to try and bore an opponent into submission. You are rewarded for making the game unenjoyable to play, and it happens so frequently that it has a name: "roping".
  • You can get into a habit of taking your attention off of the game because you're used to killing time while opponents take their turns, especially when they prevaricate.
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You might think that given that you and your opponent have the same phases to work through, you'll go 50% of a match out of action, but you can spend a lot more time than that inactive because you could be taking your turns much faster than the opponent. So, again, you can languish for long periods of play, even the majority of the match, knowing that you might as well not be playing at all. The thought creeps in: "If I'm not playing for 70% of this match, I wouldn't have to go that much further to not play for 100% of it".

You could say that Wizards of the Coast must stop permitting players to drag out games like this. Every platform holder has a responsibility to moderate their users. The problem is, if you did reduce the turn times in MTG: A, you would be excluding those players with limited mobility and slower visual or language parsing who are already shut out of countless other leisures. But Wizards could at least let players opt into being given longer turn timers with the statement that it is intended to be an accessibility feature.

Even when players move with some alacrity, matches can fail to evolve not because turns are taking a long time but because they're not meaningfully changing the game state. Back in my first MTG article, I said that its games tend to resolve firmly and quickly because one player can enter a feedback loop of power. I stand by that, but there are matches that don't wrap up curtly. Long playtimes don't hamper your enjoyment if you and your opponent are trading lots of different punches to counter each other, but if you each remain unable to attack and are just passing your turn or only making baby steps towards victory each time, the game stagnates.

Cold wars can arise in the following circumstances:

  • If you and your enemy are growing your offensive and defensive power on the field a roughly equal amount each turn.
  • If neither of you draw playable cards for a while.
  • If one player doesn't have the power to fend off an opposing army but does have one problem creature, like a Deathtouch monster, that the opponent can't risk attacking. In this scenario, the attacking player may end up only able to care about the draw step on their turn, as it's the only phase that may give them the tweezers that pulls their opponent's splinter from their finger.


Speaking of Wizards' responsibility for players, moderation is an afterthought in Magic: Arena. The company can post all the bromides about inclusion they like; the Arena client doesn't let you block or report players. You can't even flag them from the "Report a Player" page on the Magic: Arena support site. If you want to hold other community members accountable, the unintuitive technique you need to learn is selecting "Submit a Request" on that site, logging in on your browser (even if you're already logged into Arena), and then filling out a form. While the form asks for visual evidence of misconduct, the game has no native screenshot feature. Every time a platform operator adds another step between users and reporting features, they're reducing the number of players who are going to do anything about the assholes.


In my experience, appropriate matchmaking is one more core competency Magic: Arena has no conception of. I don't have anything insightful to say about that, but it is frustrating to go whole sessions where I only find players above my skill level, even if I have other runs where I'm cleaning house.


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One big omission I've made up until now is the deck construction techniques that can shield you from some of Magic's most irritating flaws. I wasn't aiming to be harsh on the game; it's just less confusing for you, the reader, if I can talk about all these mitigation functions at once instead of dipping in and out of this concept. There's no incantation to make your opponent act promptly or to improve MTG: A's matchmaking, and we've already learned how you might armour against the most extreme of overpowered cards, but there are other life preservers we can deploy.

If you're driven up the wall by the randomness of the deck, there are brokers we can use to seek specific assets from it, like Evolving Wilds or Altar of Bone. We can also view and rearrange cards on the top of the deck by scrying and surveilling, say through Consider or Alibou, Ancient Witness. There's a plethora of spells that let us draw bumper crops of cards, like Silver Scrutiny or Big Score; they increase our chances of finding some magic bullet. There is a hand limit of seven, but there are cards that remove that limit, such as Triskaidekaphile or Anvil of Bogardan. You could also untap snoozing creatures or remove disabling enchantments. If we want to dodge enemy spells, there are counters, e.g. Ice Out or Remand. If we want to be able to predict what the enemy will play, we can view their hands via spyglasses like Duress or Agonizing Remorse. You can also try to speed up the game with fewer rules-heavy cards and by playing nimble strikers, such as Rabbit Battery or Mournwillow.

But your reliance on any type of card to unboring the game means that whether you're engaged is somewhat down to our old enemy, randomness. Some of these mechanisms, like scrying, also still have you drawing from a shuffled deck. And you can't build a deck that accounts for everything at once. In isolation, the point that you can sometimes view your opponent's hand or search your library for a card is correct. Still, there's no way to fashion a deck that consistently exiles creatures and sees the enemy hand and counterspells and removes auras and draws plenty of cards and counteracts every ability an enemy could possibly have.

In other words, all decks solve some problems, but no deck solves all problems. This concept applies as much to outplaying opponents as it does to avoiding Magic's pits of despair. A healing deck may perform well against an opponent who aims to directly damage you with spells, but not one who uses poison counters because you can't remove poison counters like you can remove damage. A deck that gives you a lot of options by allowing you to draw multiple cards per turn could hold its own against an opponent using a multi-pronged strategy. Yet, if your opponent has a rush deck and you're building a hand when you should be mounting a defence, your prospects aren't nearly as sunny. Remember my earlier observation that unpredictable players have the same effect on a game as randomness? It means that because you don't know what kind of library your opponent will be playing, the game is further down to rolls of the dice.


Let me tell you, 11,500 words criticising Magic: The Gathering is a lot to write. You want to feel like you've done something at least nominally worthwhile with it; gotten all the bile off of your chest, or adequately explored all the problems with this TCG. But do you know how I feel after 11,500 words on Magic? I feel like I've only scaled the tip of the iceberg because Magic is a compendium of tens of thousands of cards, and a thorough account of everywhere the game devolves into a mess would involve looking at every card that has something wrong with it.

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The theme back at the start of this series was that different kinds of flaws compromise the overall quality of a game to different extents. In that blog, I noted that certain negatives are worse than others because some exist in addition to a game's positives, and some cancel out the positives. MTG can be fantastic at setting up interesting strategic problems for its players because of elements like mana costs, the interchangeability of powers, and the impracticality of brute-forcing past blockers. But the game's weaknesses, such as the randomness of the deck, the excessive power of some cards, and your inability to counteract devastating attacks, are not just some issues with Magic. They exist in contention to the pluses that can make it worth playing.

As we round this series out, I want to develop that idea by stating that some problems in games are not equal to others because some problems stack with others rather than drifting alongside them. Magic's mistakes line up like prisms, amplifying a beam of badness. If a match had gross imbalances or hopelessly distracted players, it would merely be abysmal. Seeking a more sewer-like depth, Magic has it so that you have significant odds of not drawing cards you can play, and if you do, chance is a mammoth factor in deciding how applicable those cards are to the current battle. Meanwhile, you're often left in the dark as to whether your deck will counter your opponent's or not, and the cards they draw are also randomised. If you're playing Arena, the player-matching system further leaves difficulty up to the universe's slot machine.

When your opponent plays cards against you, they can devastate just because Magic has failed to keep a clamp on the equity between spells. If they manage to wreck you with their spellcrafting, you may well not be able to see it coming or counteract it. Acting in the first place can be hard to impossible because you can burn through your whole hand without replenishing it or have your cards on the field immobilised, again, without recourse. And even losing can take a lifetime when fields can become crowded, and some Arena players couldn't care less about leeching your free time.

Having told you how to hate Magic: The Gathering, I now want to give you a reason to still love Magic: while all these fractures might appear in any match, there's a fair chance they might not. You have better odds of ending up out of a mana drought than in one. If your opponent plays a healing deck that could leave you on a damage treadmill, maybe you'll happen to have the poison deck that will wreck them. Many opponents will concentrate on the game and want it to move as briskly as you do. We talk a lot about "good games" and "bad games", but a lot of games are engrossing in some moments but not others. The game you're playing is one determinant of the quality of your experience, but another is what you're doing in that game. Magic: The Gathering has perhaps the widest swing I've ever seen between brilliant and atrocious play. Yet, for all its pretensions to being a strategy title, whether you get the fantastic or the awful Magic is up to the luck of the draw. Thanks for reading.

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How to Hate Magic: The Gathering II: Randomisation

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There's a common misunderstanding in the gaming community that adding more randomisation to a game makes it less luck-based, and pulling back from random elements increases its basis in skill. However, if you use RNG right, you can get a game that tests players' skills more scrupulously. In many action games like Ghosts 'n' Goblins or Destiny, some enemies will use random number generation to decide what attack they execute when or which direction they might try to dodge in. Because the player can't memorise an enemy attack pattern and play back a scripted strategy, they must respond to these randomised moves in the moment, allowing the game to test their response time and improvisation. Pitting a player against a human opponent can also achieve the same effects, as we can't entirely predict other people's behaviour either. For another example of RNG improving tests of talent, imagine you and your opponent play multiple rounds of a fighting game in which you each pick random characters. In this hypothetical fighting game, all characters are well-balanced. While the tools you and your opponent would be given would be random, your average success would depend on the breadth of your skills and your mastery of all modes of fighting, making it a test of skill.

Bar fringe circumstances, your hand in Magic: The Gathering is a random selection of cards from your deck. Although, I'll elaborate on the exceptions to this rule in the next blog. If you could craft your ideal hand at any one time, you could employ one set of actions that could be formidable in battle, but you would mindlessly churn through them like a robot. Because you don't always get the cards you want and because your opponent will draw different counterfire each time, you must show your prowess in a variety of situations and master a wide set of mechanics instead of just a few cards. You can see the parallels with our fighting and action game thought experiments. In Magic, the randomisation of hands also makes each match far more varied than if you did not have it. We can apply the same thinking to deck building. If you can't guarantee that you're going to draw one small handful of useful cards from the deck, you have to construct a set of cards that works in a range of scenarios. This randomness further allows us to make consequential decisions about how much we want our decks to be specialised towards a specific play style or play styles, and how much we want them to be flexible.

But it doesn't stop there! Almost all media, including games, rely on tension. "Can she hang onto this cliff for a second longer?", "Will I be able to apprehend these terrorists in time?", etc. You can see from those examples that tension always arises from uncertainty about a conclusion. If a positive outcome is consistently assured, instead of tension, we become numb to victory and rewards. If a negative outcome is consistently assured, we get defeatism. Many game systems are deterministic because, in many cases, if we can't guarantee that a particular action will lead to certain results, we have no authority over the play, and the draw of almost every video game is that you are controlling the events on screen. However, if all mechanics in a game are deterministic and we always take the same actions, we always get the same results. And as we just recounted, always getting the same output means undesirable emotional responses. But if the designer stirs randomness into the mix, there can be uncertainty about whether we'll get a favourable or unfavourable conclusion from an interaction, generating tension.

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In Magic, tension arises from randomness in that we might wait with tingling expectation to see whether we draw that land card we'd need to summon a more powerful creature or that enchantment that could exile a problem character in the opponent's party. And where you have randomness, you have hope. Just like someone might keep putting coins into a slot machine because the next spin could be the one that pays out, even if you're on the ropes in Magic, there is often the chance that the next card you draw could wipe the enemy army from the battlefield. There are cards that are that explosive.

Although, arguably, like a slot machine, Magic's system can create false hope, stringing players along well past the point of no return. Randomness does not occupy the same seat in Magic as it does in Ghosts 'n' Goblins or our hypothetical fighting game. In those examples, the problems players encountered were chosen by dice roll, but they were fair because the player always had a viable set of abilities to solve those problems. In the Ghosts 'n' Goblins example, we always have the same powers, even though the challenge is randomised. In the fighting game, our abilities and enemy powers are randomised, but are all of equivalent power levels. In Magic, the deck means that our abilities and the challenges we must overcome are randomised. Yet, not all cards in our library are of equal sharpness. Therefore, because the deck is randomised, so is our potency in the play.

There are a few different reasons that some cards in the deck are more powerful than others. As covered in the previous article in this series, certain spells have a generally outsized ferocity compared to others of the same mana cost. But more often, the efficaciousness of cards depends on the current context. Context such as the other cards available on the field or in your hand. Haunting Figment is a creature that can't be blocked on a turn as long as you've cast an instant or sorcery spell that turn. But whether you keep pulling instant or sorcery cards from your deck to play is, to a great extent, down to fortune. Arlinn, The Pack's Hope, is a red/green planeswalker with a power that lets all creatures enter the field with one more attack and defence. You could pair it with a red sorcery like Song of Totentanz, which lets you summon as many 1/1 rats as you have mana minus 1. All those rodents would enter the arena with double the power and toughness. But you're appealing to luck if you want to draw Arlinn and a mass-spawning card like Totentanz together.

Sometimes, the wrong draws don't just mean a card cannot fulfil its potential but render it impotent. If I draw an aura that can enchant a creature, like Take Flight or Hyena Umbra, but I have no creatures on the field, it's currently useless. If I'm holding Locthwain Scorn, which does 3 damage to an enemy creature, but I have no way to reduce that creature's life to 0, what's the point of the damage spell? All creatures heal up to max at the end of the turn.

Another source of random potential in Magic, a more notorious one, is your chances of drawing land cards. Land is your main source of mana on each turn, and you spend mana to play nonland cards like creatures, enchantments, and instant spells. To simplify a little, if you have five land cards on the field, you can cast a card with mana cost five during a turn. Or, with the same land, you could set down a two-mana card and a three-mana card, or a one-mana and a four-mana. You get the idea. So, it doesn't matter how many creatures and other spells you're drawing; if you don't draw land, you're not playing anything, and unless you have a special workaround, how much land you draw and when you draw it is random.

A sensible Magic deck will usually be comprised of about one-third lands. Although, a player may include a few more or less based on other factors like the costs of the cards in their deck. The availability of new lands will also reduce as a player picks them out of the deck. Generally speaking, you can go for a couple of turns without having land to play, but usually only deep into the game, while you need land at the match's outset to lay the foundation of your strategy. You draw seven cards before your first turn and, by default, 1 card on every turn, so it sounds like your chances of entering a "mana drought" aren't that bad. But we don't need to fall back on intuition; we can calculate the odds. Here are our chances of failing to draw land over multiple consecutive turns, assuming our deck is one-third land cards:

Table 1

Number of Subsequent Turns ElapsedChance of Not Drawing Land
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As you can see, it's not uncommon to end up in a situation where you don't see an increase in your ability to cast cards for, say, 4 turns in a row. Hell, everyone who played X-COM seems to have taken a 99% ensured shot that still missed. Imagine what a 6% chance of not drawing land for 7 turns does to a game. This is why Blizzard's trading card game, Hearthstone, increases players' mana cap at a fixed rate per turn. Sure, it decreases tension, but it eliminates mana famines. In Magic, the problem is not just that there might be nothing you can play on a turn because your nonland cards have a mana cost greater than your number of lands. The other issue is that one player or another might be able to play more nonlands just based on how lucky they were at drawing land. For example, at the start of a turn, I could have five lands on the battlefield, and two creatures in my hand that each cost three mana to summon. If I draw a land this turn, I can play both those creatures, but if I don't, I have to pick only one. And all that time you're not expanding your land, your opponent may be building up their mana pool. If they are, what will likely happen is that they are able to cast enough spells that they amass a power you can't overcome, even if the mana does start trickling in again eventually.

While I've described mana as a generic resource so far, so as not to confuse, the majority of cards don't ask you to pay just any mana to summon them. Mana comes in colours, and different cards require different colours. Some cards also cost more than one colour of mana. Many decks also include more than one colour of card in order to broaden their strategic horizons because colours roughly conform to playstyles. Needing more than one colour of mana means needing more than one colour of land card in your deck or including multicoloured lands. You can only have four of each type of multicoloured land in your deck, and some of them come with disadvantages, like not kicking in for a turn. If you're not a Magic player, that's probably stupidly confusing, but the upshot is that many players are taking that rough one-third of their deck that is land cards and then dividing it further, meaning that for every nonland in a multicoloured deck, they have even less chance of drawing the colour/s of land they need.

Let's look at this pattern in the white-blue deck from Wizards' latest starter kit. This is a fair target of analysis because Wizards is going to make starter decks not too punishing to play; they won't contain the most fickle randomness in the game. This white-blue pocket stuffer is 60 cards, with 14 cards that require blue mana to summon and 15 lands that exhale blue mana. So, let's say I need to draw a blue land on a turn. There's a 75% chance that won't happen. As before, we can explore the odds of drawing that land over subsequent turns:

Table 2

Number of Subsequent Turns ElapsedChance of Not Drawing Blue Land

That's a high chance of not gaining a vital resource. Then there's the other side of the coin: you need to draw things that aren't lands. It doesn't matter how much mana you've hoarded if you don't hold any spells; it's spells that put that mana to use. If your typical deck is about 33.33% lands, then it's approximately 66.66% nonlands, so your chances of drawing something that's not land are much better than drawing a land. Again, we can crunch the numbers:

Table 3

Number of Subsequent Turns ElapsedChance of Not Drawing Nonland

As before, it's important to remember that a 4% chance of something happening doesn't mean it won't happen. I've had floods of lands in matches before. But it's nowhere near as common as lacking land. No, the real problem with drawing nonlands is that, like with lands, not any nonland will do. Some cards have better synergy with others, and some cards you draw, you won't be able to play any time soon. Either because the mana costs of those spells are too high or because they don't apply in the current game state. If you didn't know it before you read this article, you know now that context determines a card's usefulness. A commonplace deck structure involves 33% lands, 33% creatures, and 33% "other". So, you can use Table 1 to calculate your chances of not drawing any of these categories of cards.

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MTG is a strategy game, so you'd hope that as players progress on their journey with it, their understanding and cunning would count for more over time. However, this randomness in the power you wield means that as you gain more expertise, luck plays a larger role. There is an optimal set of moves that you could make in any Magic match, given your hands: the chain of actions that has the best chance of killing your opponent and protecting yourself. As your skill increases, you can reduce the gap between the games you play and those hypothetical ideal games, but the amount of randomness has a hard floor. So, proportionally, as your skill improves, that randomness is a bigger factor in your success.

We can also integrate what we learned about imbalances from the last article with what we know about randomisation from this one. If all cards in the deck were of roughly the same strength, then even if they're shuffled, on any turn, we're going to draw a card that's not too much more or less powerful than any other. However, because there are a few cards that loom larger than all the others (some decks are even built around one or two elite cards), randomness plays a much bigger role in deciding the game. And the more random the power of your tools, the less weight intelligent play has on the match's outcome.

We can offer some further defences of Magic's implementation of randomness. However, these excuses wither under scrutiny. We could forward that you can thwart fate by rebalancing the amount of each card available in your deck. You can add more lands so you're less likely to draw nonlands, or more creatures so you're not just drawing lands and non-creature spells. You can also add plenty of cards that are likely to synergise with the majority of other cards in your deck. However, that's still no guarantee that you'll pull useable cards when you need them, let alone your preferred agents. And constructing your deck is zero-sum: to increase your odds of drawing one flavour of tool, you have to reduce your odds of drawing another. The deck functions as a self-righting system, which ensures that whatever set of cards you select, getting fucked over will be in your future.

We can observe that even if you do get unlucky in a match, over time, the odds will reassert themselves, and all values will regress to the mean. You could have 33% of your deck be creatures, but have a match where you're drawing creatures far less often: only 17% of the time. We can say that if you play enough games of Magic, then in your matches as a whole, you'll still see a 33% draw rate for creatures. This idea applies to any probabilistic event in a game where the probability stays consistent.

But sometimes, Magic can be unfair when the odds do even out. If 35% of my deck is lands, but only 15% of the cards I draw in a match are lands, for my land draw rate to return to an average of 35%, I have to pull far higher than 35% lands in my coming games, and will do so. That means that rather than being undersupplied with this card type in a few games and then having the right share of it in future matches, what I get is starved of land in a few games, then force-fed it going ahead. Another pain is that we don't just experience matches as a set of averages over a whole day or whole career. Competitive games thrive on the idea that each battle matters, so making your best deck preparations for a match and having the odds skew wildly far from the average is still frustrating. Equally, we can say that even if an opponent gets lucky in a match, their average performance over time will still be a product of their deck's quality, but we don't face them over their whole career. Many players will only meet another player once, and if their opponent got lucky or unlucky during that meeting, that will be all their enemy knows of them.

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MTG does allow you to water down the randomness at the start of a game with "mulligans". Since July 2019, the official rules say that at the opening of a match, each player draws seven cards and gets a choice of whether to accept them as their starting hand. Alternatively, they may return that hand to the deck, shuffle, and draw a new hand. If they opt for a fresh hand, they must choose a card they hold and place it on the bottom of the deck. A player may reroll their starting hand up to 7 times, with each reroll demanding they return one more card to the deck before they begin play. So, if I'd decided to redraw my opening hand three times, I'd have to place three cards from my final hand on the bottom of my library.

The mulligan mechanic accounts for the reality that you have to be more selective about cards at the start of a game due to their costs. If you are in the mid-late game, you're likely to have enough land to summon most cards in your deck, but in the first few turns, only the smaller sliver of cards that cost 1-3 mana will do. The restriction of playing one land card per turn means that most players will only be able to play a card that costs one mana on their first turn, one that costs two mana on their second turn, and assuming relatively safe luck, three on their third turn. To refresh your memory, getting the right cards on the field in the early game is instrumental for letting you play powerful cards in the mid and then end game.

The theme of interesting choices for the player persists: Do you accept a hand that's less than brilliant because the redraw could be worse, or do you roll again, pursuing perfection? Is it worth starting with six cards if the spells you get have a better chance of being applicable to the early game, or do you relish the number of options you get with the full seven? It's a fantastic mechanic that more games should be stealing. Yet, even with the mulligans included, players get ahead or fall behind based on chance. It's random whether or not you'll get an ideal hand at the outset, and you can keep refreshing your opening cards to no avail. You may be able to draw new spells, but doing so is a statement that your first procurement wasn't satisfactory due to pure luck. There is no world in which the designers implement the mulligans expecting them to cancel out the randomness, because if they wanted draws not to be random, they wouldn't have made a randomised deck game, in the first place.

Keep in mind that not only are you drawing randomly, but so is your opponent. The game multiplies chance by chance, only increasing the influence of the shuffle. The simplest consequence of the game's random equipping of the players is that it feels unfair when you don't draw the cards you want or when your opponent happens to stumble across the right combo of cards for their current situation. But to take this idea a little deeper, Magic, and other strategy games that make chance a major factor have you take actions as if you can expect your wits and analytical ability to put you ahead, and then do not return that effort in the form of compensation.

The moments in which you cannot defend yourself due to a mana flood or because your opponent draws that one lynchpin card from their library make the deck building and in-match strategising look like a farce. The game seems to say, "Oh, you didn't really waste your time acting like this was anything other than a casino, did you?". And there's no meaningful work that a player can do on the back of a loss due to pure probability. If you lose because you put the wrong quantities of certain breeds of card in your deck or because you didn't fully tap an ability your creatures have, you get the consolation of learning something. There are modifications you can make to your loadout or modus operandi to improve your chances next time. Play does not feel futile, and you're given an activity to complete with probable rewards for their completion. If you poured yourself into a game and lost just because of the order of your deck, you learn zilch. You're left with the sting of an unjust defeat and know that there's not a thing you can do to make losing any less likely in the future.

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While the poison that is Magic's overpowered cards could theoretically be extracted in the future, this curse of randomisation is here to stay because, unlike the imbalances, it's not about implementation. It's about the foundational concepts that are Magic: The Gathering. Like most card games, Magic uses the phenomenon that some draws are more desirable than others to make its randomising element (in this case, the deck) mean more. Imagine a slot machine where any pattern of reels made it pay out five chips. All randomisation in the system would be redundant, and the ultimate result would not be randomised at all. If every chance-based output produces the same result, why bother mixing them up? If the result can't be good or bad each time, where's the tension?

But random draws don't have to leave successes to flukes. As discussed in the examples at the start of this article, randomness can be a way to vary competition and test player adaptability. Cards drawn could be not better or worse but different. However, Magic makes some draws absurdly more generous than others, and this isn't the way to create tension if you want your game to be a test of systemic understanding and manipulation. Imagine a World Series final where one team tastes defeat because they drew a bunch of rotten, tiny bats, and the other team drew hardy, full-size ones. Imagine a chess where Magnus Carlsen loses his championship because he didn't draw a Queen in time. You can't take these seriously as competitive sports, so you can't take Magic seriously as one, either. Thanks for reading.

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How to Hate Magic: The Gathering I: Intro/Imbalances

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When assessing a piece of media, a lot of audiences like to use a scale-based approach, where they list its achievements on one side and its failures on the other, and they see which weighs more. It's also a technique I've seen hobbyists use to try and determine whether a game review's score is justified by its text. There are circumstances under which this Column A/Column B approach to media can be revealing. Yet, it's far from universally applicable because it ignores that some flaws in art don't just exist alongside the positives but can also ruin those positives.

To get an idea of what it looks like when the disappointing and impressive cohabit, imagine an action-adventure game where the puzzles feel like an afterthought, but the platforming is invigorating. Or we could sketch out a song where the verse puts you to sleep, but the chorus makes you want to get up and dance. You can never entirely uncouple the bad from the good, as the verses lead into choruses, platforming leads out to puzzles, and so on. Every element of art contextualises all others to an extent, but they don't have to cancel each other out. Still, we regularly experience media in which they do. Maybe a game has an innovative crafting system, but the resource gathering in it is so broken, you rarely get to glue materials together into anything practical. Or there could be a film where actors' facial expressions are naked and humanising, but we're rarely hit with their full effect because the camera keeps a distance from its subjects, treating them as strangers.

This second class of defects is more damaging than the first because the flaws are not just undesirable; they sap what is desirable about the piece of media. It's this vampiric class of problems that skitters throughout Magic: The Gathering like mites. The base templates of Magic's cards don't assume too much about how people might use them. Therefore, designers and players can paint what feel like infinite strategic options over that base coat. Magic, in its core rules and mechanics, sets the stage for inventive solutions to stalemates rather than just asking you to brute force your way to victory. So, think about how immense MTG's faults would have to be to nullify those shining accomplishments. Got it in your head? Okay. Magic gets so much worse than that.


When someone tells me a system is "imbalanced", I immediately start imagining that some numbers in its files might be too high or low compared to others. However, in games, imbalances can also involve the raw capabilities of entities in play. In true Magic fashion, when the game confers excessive might to one creature card, it's not usually because the power and toughness (attack and health) of those cards are overinflated, given the mana cost to play them. It's almost always because they introduce a rule that makes life hell for their opponent. Here are just a few of the ridiculous spells that you can hurl from your fingers in Magic: The Gathering:

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There's Phyrexian Obliterator, a 5/5 creature (5 power and 5 toughness) that places a cruel curse on whoever attacks it. For every point of damage it takes, the opponent has to sacrifice 1 card on the field. It has 5 toughness, so you might have to kill off five of your creatures to get rid of this one. But it gets direr because the effect counts damage in excess of the Obliterator's HP. If you hit it with 7 damage, you have to destroy seven permanents. There are plenty of ways to increase Obliterator's toughness too. I've seen players have to sacrifice most of their lands, the cards that allow them to play other cards, attempting to scrub this mould off the field.

If you're wondering what could be more mean-spirited than Phyrexian Obliterator, there's Phyrexian Vindicator. The Vindicator is a 5/5 creature that can fly over opposing entities, cannot be damaged, and allows its controller to reassign any damage inflicted to it to another target, player or monster. So, if you try to levy 6 damage against it, Vindicator's wrangler can subtract 6 of your HP. Or there's the queen of the Phyrexians: Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines.

As I discussed last time, your success in a lot of Magic matches is contingent on you triggering beneficial combos of powers between the cards on the field. For example, you could have Devilish Valet, a 1/3 humanoid which doubles its power until the end of the turn when another creature enters the field. Then, you might throw down Redcap Gutter-Dweller, a goblin which spawns two rats when it enters. Three new creatures on the field would mean the Valet doubles its power three times for a total of 8 attack. Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines, has all on-field effects trigger twice for its owner and never for their opponents. In this example, if Elesh Norn was on the opposing side of the field from Valet and Dweller, Valet would still have 1 power. If that devil was on the same side of the ring as the Mother of Machines, it would have 1024. Keep in mind that, in a standard match, a player starts with 20 HP.

Or how about Unnatural Growth, which makes it so that during combat, the power and toughness of its controller's creatures double. There are also cards that get "protection", preventing them from being targeted by the attacks, blocks, or spells of a certain colour of card. So, if your opponent has a blue deck, and you have a creature that is protected from blue, there's nothing they can do to defend themselves against it. Thrun, Breaker of Silence is protected from all non-green cards, can't be countered, and is invincible as long as it's your turn.

If none of these options floats your boat, you could settle for the spells that destroy all creatures on the field, e.g. Depopulate or Path of Peril. Mutual destruction might sound fair, but a player is likely going to invoke these spells when their opponent has more formidable creatures on the table than them, so one player loses more than the other in the trade. It's also the caster of the spell that has control over when it's used, and they are the only one who knows it's coming, meaning that they can prepare for the purge.

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Sunfall is a mid-game sorcery that destroys all beings on the field and then lets you pay only 2 mana to unleash a creature that has the same power and toughness as the number of monsters vanquished. That new abomination you summoned can also attack immediately, whereas most creatures have to wait until their controller's next turn to lunge. So, if you use Sunfall to kill 14 creatures, you get a 14/14 monster that can strike without pause. A card that does its job too well can also severely exaggerate the powers of others. In isolation, Quirion Beastcaller, which gets one more power and toughness when another creature enters the field, might just about be reasonable. But pair it with Ozolith, the Shattered Spire, so it gets +2/+2 with each new summon, and it's a runaway freight train.

At the time of writing, Wizards of the Coast has printed about 27,300 unique Magic cards. As of publication, about 2,700 of these cards are legal in the game's Standard format, and roughly 18,300 are permitted in the Modern mode. Tens of flubs or even a hundred might sound insignificant in that ocean of cards, but overpowered tools in a game devalue all tools in the same category. It's not just that Wizards have mangled one card in a thousand. It's that all 27,000 are thrown off balance because of it. It's the erosion of thousands of perfectly fine gameplay elements that is Magic's most egregious crime.

I praised MTG for creating situations in which players have to carefully consider their next move based on the current state of play. I said that many cards can find a use because, rather than just being good or bad, their efficacy rises or falls based on whether they are appropriate for the context in which you could currently play them. But the overpowered cards counteract this transformative character of the game and reduce the need for their controllers to analyse the playfield carefully before they act. This is because what makes the imbalanced cards too dangerous is that they perform in a wider range of contexts than other cards.

If my opponent played an aid that was letting them gain a lot of life, like Titania, Voice of Gaea, I might respond with my Giant Cindermaw and stop them from increasing their HP. If they summoned a flying creature, I could send out a beast with reach, which can block it. In these examples, I am selecting a solution specific to the problem the enemy has created for me, and the enemy is creating problems for me by looking for the areas my previous solutions don't account for. Many times, I must also be selective in what I target. Network Disruptor can prevent an enemy creature from blocking my attacks this turn, but I can only select one victim to use it on. I can cast Prizefight to will one of my folk attack an individual enemy, but only one, and then Prizefight falls into the graveyard.

But look at what happens when I throw those overpowered cards in. If I see my opponent keeps playing medics that heal them upon entering the battlefield, like Mossbeard Ancient, and I want to scupper their healing, I could just play Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines, which stops all their on-field effects. There are some gladiators like Protocol Knight that stun enemy combatants when they enter the field. If my opponent was playing them and I just wanted to halt their effects, I could also play Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines. There are permanents that force an opponent to discard a card when they arrive at the party, like Hopeless Nightmare or Nezumi Informant. I could also belay their unique powers through Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines. Here, I haven't had to make a deliberate, and therefore, strategic decision that pertains closely to the current set of obstacles in front of me. I can lazily rely on Elesh Norn to nullify all trigger effects.

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You can see the same generality compromising Phyrexian Vindicator's design: its handler doesn't have to work out how to block one particular type of creature, like those flying or those with more attack than defence. The Vindicator is invulnerable to all sources of damage. Or we could compare Prizefight and Network Disruptor to Depopulate and Path of Peril. There may be criticisms we could level against the former two cards, but at least they give the player an interesting and often difficult choice by having to work out the best creature to disable or destroy out of all the enemy creatures. Because Depopulate and Path of Peril completely sweep the board, the user doesn't have to be so surgical.

These wild cards feel unfair to play against both because the game has given your opponent a sharper sword than you and because the person you're playing against gets more reward for thinking less. Sitting across from these colossi, you can come up with elaborate plans that involve exiling your cards from play and returning them to avoid damage and re-trigger effects. You can sacrifice creatures to simultaneously proc enchantment powers and effects on the sacrificed creature. But the opponent can respond with a far more braindead and obvious strategy, like just murdering your card with an instant spell and win out. Sometimes, playing Magic, it feels like your adversary is always on the verge of revealing a slate of text which says, "Your deck catches fire". These imbalances are all the more embittering in ranked matches, paid events (even if the pay is in-app currency), or tournaments, where you have some significant resource investment.

Additionally, overpowered entities disrupt the joy of deck building. Opening a new Magic booster feels a bit like Christmas because you can imagine all the different kinds of decks you could construct with the cards you've collected. But if you're playing at a high enough level, a lot of those cards lose their lustre because you know they'll be outplayed by the fan favourites. The player wielding the overpowered cards doesn't get away unscathed, either. These wide context cards turn down the difficulty of the average match and let fighters approach the table with lackadaisical strategies that have them applying themselves less. Therefore, there's less of that intrinsic enjoyment we get from problem-solving.

And all players experience reduced variety in matches. Magic may have thousands of cards, but you keep seeing the same ones coming around the carousel because those are the ideals for their certain cultivar of deck. Urabrask's Forge for a red aggro deck, Make Disappear for a counter deck, and so on. And the wider the applicable uses of a card, the more kinds of decks you see it in. Spells that remove a single creature from play, like Borrowed Time or Go For the Throat, are ubiquitous in black and white decks, almost regardless of the overall strategy of those decks, because being able to erase a single problematic creature from existence is incredibly advantageous, no matter what other mechanics you want to incorporate into your repertoire.

You can reduce your exposure to these ubiquitous cards by not playing them, but it's a catch-22. You're potentially facing humiliating and frequent defeats unless you adopt them, which is why everyone has them in their holster. Introducing cards, especially rare cards, that stand head and shoulders above others also has the unsavoury effect of letting players pay their way to power. Every time you see someone flash their Mythic Rares like Luxior, Giada's Gift or Jaya, Fiery Negotiator, if you don't have those cards, you know they've bought entry to a club you're not in, and they're getting a leg up because of it.

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In video games, paid items that allow competitors greater odds of success provoke outrage. Gamers also tend to bristle at lootboxes that contain non-cosmetic items. Put them together, and you'd have a powder keg. But trading card games have never been subject to the same expectations. Probably because, since video games first emerged from the primordial soup, we have been used to getting every tool we'd want in the same box, or these days, maybe with an expansion pack added on. But Magic: The Gathering was the first modern trading card game, so the precedent that you'd be able to buy the power to suplex opponents was there from TCGs' birth.

Wizards do ban some imbalanced cards from some formats. Yet, every card I referenced above is legal in Standard, the most restrictive, commonly-played gametype. I know that when you are writing a whole library of spells for players to amass, you're not going to sniff out every mischievous scheme players could concoct. Particularly because there are so many potential dynamics you could create between the tools. Therefore, some problematic cards are going to slip through the filter. But in Magic, it doesn't take much examination to tell how cards like Phyrexian Obliterator or Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines, can bias the game in one player's favour. They are popular in part because their advantages are not nuanced; they are plain for everyone to see.

All the cards I've discussed have been around for months or years, the data and community opinion on them is in, and Wizards still haven't removed them. They've allowed them rule of the roost, even while banning cards that didn't have half the teeth of these. It's hard to conclude anything but that Wizards can be ruthlessly efficient at finding and clipping out the imbalances in their game, but they're choosing not to be. Thanks for reading.


The Becoming: Dehumanisation in Scorn

Note: This article contains major spoilers for Scorn, Die Hard, Get Out, and I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.

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When horror has terrified audiences, it's traditionally done it by exploiting the viewer, reader, or listener's relation to the main characters. If the work is knowingly fashioned, the person interacting with it can put themselves in the shoes of the protagonist, so when that character is confronted with mortal danger and extreme pain, mental or physical, the observer feels some measure of it, too. We also receive the suggestion that whatever is happening to the victim on screen could happen to us. In telling a story about Laurie Strode being hunted by Michael Myers, Halloween insinuates that we could be stalked by a serial killer. Get Out shows us a family controlling Chris Washington's mind, and through that, wants to convince us we could be subject to the same arrest of our free will.

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Compare the lowest points of these horrors to scenes in other stories where villains get their comeuppance; there is satisfaction rather than disturbance in those moments because we are not meant to empathise with the bad guy. They represent an amorality that we cannot relate to. Think also about how shlocky horror with stupid or vapid protagonists tends to be less about panic and more about schadenfreude. We're unlikely to identify ourselves as dumb or empty people like that meat for the culling.

But the free-spirited young adults of Midsommar or the exhausted single mother of Babadook act as better conduits for suffering because they are rounded, and audiences can see parts of themselves in them. This is not to say that they aren't flawed. It's normal for horror characters to have defects because we all do. Up to a point, it makes them more relatable. But the secret ingredient is humanisation; that's what takes us from a blockbuster spectacle to a nightmare.

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Fans of video games have often remarked that this medium lets us inhabit characters better than any other because we see through the eyes of the protagonist and control their movements. We are supposedly not just onlookers but a consciousness transplanted into them. That's only half-true because, typically, video games have been better at communicating physical information about a person rather than mental impressions. And as a medium, have prioritised forms of physical puppeteering over psychological autonomy. Games that let us move characters or have them pick up and operate equipment are a dime a dozen, but you have to go to some lengths to find video game dialogue that offers a rich representation of characters' mind or games with stats that reveal as much of a person's mental state as their physical state. There are lots of systems for governing a character's physical interactions with the world, but far fewer for organising their internal life.

Modelling madness, fear, and stress, the horror genre of games has had a unique reason to jump the medium's somatic fence and describe psychological demons. That motivation led to Silent Hill, Haunting Ground, and Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, among others. But a grounding in the body is not necessarily a bad thing. Action games (that's action in the sense of action films) use it to thrill through physical threat and empower through triumphs of durability, coordination, and raw force. Horror games have also found a rich deposit of scares in realising bodies and then lighting fires under their seats, having us run from the monsters, tip-toe around killers, and hold onto light sources for dear life. One of the most enduring fears of people, in general, is the fear of the body being destroyed. Many great corporeal horror games leave us one wrong turn from it for the better part of their duration.

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As it is our intellect and emotional complexity that separates us from other animals, to be recognised only as a body is to be dehumanised, and no game represents that better than Ebb's 2022 horror, Scorn. Scorn is a first-person action-adventure which models our frame and increases our awareness of it through two means: Regular animation of that body and a world saturated in interfaces we must physically manipulate. It also uses the same body horror palette from which legends like the Cenobites and Pyramid Head were painted. Doughy, quadrupedal lumps of flesh, and birds that open up right down the middle skulk Scorn's gantries and hallways. Like other Cronenburgesque creations, they are menacing because they're predators but also because they are animated gore. They trip our innate sensor for injury and take what should be internal and make it external. We can then imagine what it's like to be that monster, and being skewed and kneeded so far from the human shape provokes anxieties over bodily violation. I feel on an ancient, instinctual level that these things should not exist.

In the fallen kingdom of Scorn, there is nothing sacred about the body. To us, the skin is a border that strangers are forbidden to cross without our permission. To the interlopers of this death-kissed landscape, there's no such taboo. We conceive of our skin as a point of delineation between the self and the other. Scorn does not recognise this distinction.

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Unsurprisingly, some of this breaching of our shell and confusion between inside and outside is perpetrated by the aggressors that intrude on our bodies with acids and blunt force trauma. But it also arises from our towering parasite that eagerly claws away at the viscera within us. Much of the game is a swim against the current towards an extractor that would let us remove it. That swim takes us through mausoleums and machinery that are knitted from fabrics that appear or are certainly biological: Spine archways, veins matted across floors, fences like gills. We may remove an organ from our body to place it into a refilling station and have it returned to us. To revisit our earlier explanation of horror as suggestion, these ossified factories suggest that we might be cut up and have our guts strewn about or our bones turned into beams.

The gaming community immediately clocked that Scorn borrowed architecture from the Swiss artist H.R. Giger, but a lesser-known presence in this charnel house is the Polish Zdzisław Beksiński. Beksiński's paintings are no more optimistic than Giger's, but are less grey, and where Giger's pictures looked like reliefs, Beksiński's can stand as witness to sublime expanses, as can Scorn. Some more of Beksiński's possessions sitting in Scorn's trunk: Scorn's four-legged mammal is a cousin to Beksiński's Night Creeper, the humanoid servants in the final area have something of the artist's sapient corpses about them, and the flaking crimson decomposition from Beksiński's work also grows on some of this world's metal faces.

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But Beksiński's children still take a back seat to Giger's because of Scorn's subsistence on that compound that Giger named: the "biomechanical". It's an ingredient in Scorn's art style and in its interactivity. The bridge to future levels only lowers when we pay some toll of labour to spur a dead assemblage of parts back to life. The biomechanical was always going to exist in Scorn because, without a recognition of the line between a person and their environment, this world cannot filter the organic from the technological. So, not only do organic parts appear in the mechanical, but the industrial washes back towards us. There are metal rods where the phalanges of fingers should be, armour worn below the skin, and a man melded with a metal trolley.

You reading this are familiar with the dynamic where you use machines, and a machine is what gets used, but if people can be part-machine and machines can be part-people, you can get used back. In the game, we free and then enslave a man so we have a second person to open a door working on the two-person rule, we crush a tiny humanoid (maybe a foetus) for its juice, we rip away at the sides of a giant to make new entrances through it, etc. I hate these beings because I pity them, and my abuse of them makes me feel guilty. Just look at the accusatory glances of the immobile creature we butcher.

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Scorn is doing what biomechanical art has always done: weighing on our mind by suggesting that, for all our beliefs that we are distinguished from the purely material by our emotions and identity, maybe we're nothing more than parts. A pipe carries water, and likewise, vessels transport blood. Pistons can push masses, but so can muscles. Rebar holds up concrete, and bones hold up meat. Scorn has no speaking parts and offers little by the way of player choice. It's without language or self-expression. There is only the arteries and the intestines and the bones and the metal. And if you or anyone else is just an object, what respect do you owe them? What rights do you have?

And Scorn, like the most dismal biomechanical art, then paints the idea one shade darker. It says that not only are people utilities in this place, but that the utilities are breaking down. As in Giger and Beksiński's pictures, we find subjects long after expiration. The life-giving water and blood have dried up; this is a castle of fossils. You're begging for a world where everyone and everything can be exploited. Instead, your parasite gets hours to wreak havoc on your body, as the time you could be using to reach the cure is instead spent repairing what's broken. The wreck you inhabit is undergoing a slow death, and so are you.

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Scorn makes sure you know you don't matter here and how decayed its physiology is by being as user-unfriendly as possible. There are too many things that the game does "wrong" by conventional review standards to register without boring you to tears, but I feel this list gives you a legitimate picture of its arguments with the player:

  • The game is full of dead ends without clear signalling to distinguish between them and the desirable paths. A part 2 to this point: Where you've come from often looks like where you're going.
  • Reloading weapons takes an eternity.
  • The meter that shows your ammo often doesn't pop up until you try to reload.
  • There's no map.
  • The checkpointing is cruel and will take place before cutscenes and important milestones.
  • Combat starts and ends abruptly.
  • The melee gun is unresponsive.
  • There are enemies who will suddenly appear and one-hit you.
  • The design fails to tell you how systems work and then punishes you for not knowing.
  • Near its end, the game introduces a mechanic where you can control more than one body at a time, only to use it for a single puzzle and then immediately abandon it.

If I didn't know any better, I'd say Scorn was mistakenly unkempt, but the game is so competent in other areas (graphically, for example), and it hits the wrong notes with such a high success rate, you know it must have vandalised itself deliberately. In the same way that anti-comedy requires a steadfast understanding of how to make people laugh, Scorn's anti-satisfaction draws from a resolute knowledge of what players want to feel. Scorn is so consumed by spite that it would rather be received as hideous in its play than give you the false impression that it respects you.

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If you can persevere through your deterioration and that of the production line you rely on, you can limp into a citadel lined with crass sculptures of enormous phalluses and fucking couples. The architecture is procreation. There is also a puzzle in which we place an organism into a humanoid's abdomen: impregnation. It's the promise of new life represented the only way Scorn knows how: through the purely biological. Here, you are able to remove the squatter occupying you, which then scuttles off, but the damage is done. Death is imminent. It's likely that you were so much parasite by this point that the surgery carved away a good amount of yourself. We use proxies to carry our dying body towards a light between two swirling columns of liquid; an unspecified salvation. This is, of course, the game getting your hopes up only to dash them. It's a convincing feint because the game just introduced a new mechanic, and designers never implement new rules in the minutes before an ending.

Horror fiction loves to fake that it's heading to a positive resolution, only to plunge you into the icy waters of the bad ending. These meanders put a point on the futility of fighting against its macabre forces. With an end to Scorn's tortures in sight, we find that the parasite has been lurking in the shadows, biding its time. Like any intelligent predator, it pounces when we are at our weakest. Reunited with it, we assume our final form: awake but eternally paralysed, a living flesh statue, exposed internals waving in the wind. It's quite like the ending of Harlan Ellison's I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. Given our domineering approach to other life across the course of the game, this is one parasite joining with another.

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By shunting us back into the physical, Scorn left us, like all machines, bound to break down eventually. If we were a spiritual being, we might have a soul that would live on. If we had personhood, we might have a legacy. But who buries a mechanism? Why mourn something that only existed to be used? For a machine, there is no heaven, and in a world without preservation, the obsoleted can only sit forgotten among the other detritus, oxidising into oblivion. Thanks for reading.


Altered Items: Revisiting The Ashtray Maze

Note: The following article contains major spoilers for Control.

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"I gotta tell you, the life of the mind, there's no roadmap for that territory, and exploring it can be painful".

-Barton Fink, Barton Fink.

About ten to fifteen years ago, the best-selling AAA games contained more tightly scripted setpiece moments: sequences which all players encountered at the same point in the games, and which kept a firm control on the triggering of gameplay and visual events as well as the sightlines to spectacles. By comparison, play in today's big hitters tilts further towards being open and player-directed, which represents an overall improvement. Experiences in games feel more organic, and audiences can better tailor media to their preferences and own their path through entertainment software. When more rigidly prescriptive scenes do emerge in the medium, they draw less attention than they used to, with a greater volume of affection reserved for personal and emergent interactions. There's also going to be less focus on any one level section when each executable contains more raw "content" than it did a decade ago.

But for all the good brought about by developers taking campaigns off the rails, those meticulous setpieces did have a dark ride kitsch that's been somewhat lost. These level sections were not eminently replayable, and their contrivance was a barrier to suspending disbelief. Yet, there is an art to constructing a thrilling scripted sequence in the same sense that there's an art to constructing a theme park attraction, deftly measuring timing and expertly sculpting your props. And with game development having grown a lot in the last ten to fifteen years, studios may even be able to help scripted sequences overcome some of their old foibles. I don't want to go back to every other popular title trying to have its No Russian moment, but in moderation, play that makes us an actor on a set, rather than a person in a natural world, can be welcome.

The Ashtray Maze from 2019's Control was an exception to both the contemporary developer's tendency to forgo rigid setpieces and the modern audience's reduced interest in them. Thoughtfully paced and constantly subverting expectations, The Ashtray Maze formed a shared experience that gamers enthusiastically clustered around. Now that we've had some time to digest it, it's worth returning to The Ashtray Maze to talk about how well it all holds up and where I might get a cool jacket like Jesse Faden.

Left: Barton Fink's Hotel Earle, Right: Control's Ashtray Maze.
Left: Barton Fink's Hotel Earle, Right: Control's Ashtray Maze.

As a static setting, The Ashtray Maze was inspired by the Hotel Earle from the Coen Brothers' 1991 film, Barton Fink. Remedy Entertainment's environment appropriates the Earle's long corridors with regular wooden dividers, uplights, and patterned wallpaper. It even has pairs of formal shoes outside each door, as we saw in the Coens' hotel. "Inspiration" doesn't cover it. Remedy has made the Barton Fink video game right here. And keep in mind, this hotel is situated in The Oldest House, a brutalist research facility. So, The Ashtray Maze, like the Ordinary AWE or the Oceanview Hotel & Casino, is another building uprooted from its original home and concatenated onto a wholly dissimilar structure.

The story mode lets you visit the entrance to the maze long before you can complete it. Beckoning you on through its corridors are these apertures where the walls peel back as though they were made of layers of flat tiles. I could watch them all day. They're like a waterwheel or someone's neck skin flapping in the wind. They remind me of Daniel Rozin's interactive sculptures, the angled slats of which react to viewers' movements. Like a video game, Rozin's art also involves viewers in the piece instead of leaving them on the other side of the fourth wall.

But pass through all The Ashtray Maze's doorways, and you'll end up back at the start of the sector. Before you can venture any deeper, you need to make progress elsewhere in the campaign, but this is a maze, and there's no indication you cannot solve it when you first find it. So, and you're not allowed to laugh at this, I kept running in circles through the area, looking for alternative routes or at least some trigger to unlock them. Again, you're not allowed to laugh at that. It doesn't help that being a looping passage that turns on right angles, the maze resembles P.T.: a game which also has a corridor that, at first, appears to spiral back into itself infinitely, but that transforms when you discover hidden buttons in the environment. I kept looking for those same switches in Remedy's labyrinth.

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What Control wants you to do is complete the mission Finnish Tango, at which point Ahti, the House's janitor, gives you a tape player that serves as a backdoor to the true maze. Control's director, Mikael Kasurinen, identifies the janitor's cart outside the zone's entrance as a clue that you need to seek out Ahti to receive your invitation. However, I don't think this piece of scenery communicates anything apart from the enigmatic caretaker having been here, especially not when the game is full of other props that don't convey any information about how to advance.

You eventually traverse this architectural web in the mission Polaris. The level is all false floors and walls that slide into and out of place. Holes open up in what appear to be dead ends, and in one area, security forces phase in, and just as you've realised you're about to enter combat, they disappear behind a barrier, never to be seen again. Nothing stays in one place for long, as the amorphic architecture misleads you into believing in one exit to a room only to pull the rug out from under you. The section has to take place in the game's anterior as the player must be versed in its shooting and platforming mechanics to react with the speed the volatile environment demands. As Kasurinen has said, the layout of the setpiece is simple, but players perceive it as complex because surfaces retreat and advance like a rippling waterbed, and we are frequently asked to remap the path we'll take.

The sequence is able to astonish by capitalising on Control's theme of little being as it first seems. In fact, where the maze works, it's because it's able to pick up and run with Control's concepts better than most other sections of the game. Two of the game's abiding themes are the subjective power of the mind and objects that cause surreal interruptions to our reality. When AAA games try to broach unconventional topics and aesthetics, it's common to see them devise suitable audiovisual representations for them, but struggle to find matching play. So, instead of a game about being a writer or a game that makes you feel like you're inside a Tronesque computer, you just get a shooter but with a writer or a shooter but in Tron.

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Control incorporates a lot of ideas from the horror and magical realist fiction website The SCP Foundation. Like the Foundation, Control is full of reality-bending or otherwise bizarre items that have to be contained by a dedicated secret organisation. In both cases, the anomalous entities are described by heavily redacted reports. Remedy's action-adventure goes so far as to include the Foundation's [DATA EXPUNGED]. But The SCP Foundation finds a form that matches its subjects: technical documentation. Its formality, even in the face of human suffering, is chilling. And upfront, each database entry presents the containment measures for the SCP, but no description, creating apprehension. Stories of items and monsters breaking containment, even under a regime of stringent safeguarding, suggest horrific tragedies are not entirely preventable.

Control cannot capture that lightning because it commits the same blunder as plenty of blockbuster games before it. Rather than developing a format that might let us get up close and personal with a wide range of supernatural objects or emulate the phantasms of the psyche, we just get action-adventure mechanics but in a mental landscape. It's why, when Control does reasonably simulate Altered Items/Objects of Power, it's usually the ones that deal with movement:

  • The TV that freezes enemies in place.
  • The traffic light that you can only walk in front of when it's green.
  • The floppy disk that throws objects into you.
  • The camera you have to chase.
  • The teleporting letters you have to chase.
  • The teleporting rubber duck you have to chase.

The game's challenges are largely based in movement mechanics, so while The SCP Foundation can accommodate any type of reality-warping item you can think of, and go to scarcely imaginable new places with it, Control is largely confined to letting you interact with things themed around running or jumping. Another issue arises: The game tries to take special care to match the supernatural properties of objects to their common associations. E.g. The horseshoe that alters luck or the slide projector that opens a window to another universe. However, the need to find challenges that engage the player's levitation, dash, and jump means that sometimes the Altered Items'/OoPs' effects come out of left field. Rubber ducks and envelopes don't have much to do with teleportation. In some cases, the developers can't work out how to activate the subtext of the items at all. The Hand Chair and the Flamingo don't have individualised mechanics; they're just bait to get you into a combat arena.

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Yet, in the Polaris mission, a maze gets to be a maze. The Bureau owns an ashtray that can fold the space around it, and the play doesn't so much provide a metaphor for interacting with the object as a literal realisation. And while the ashtray is another OoP grounded in kineticism, Remedy comes at it from a different angle than they do with many of their other extranatural items. While objects like the camera or duck give us a moving goal, The Ashtray Maze has a fixed exit, but moving trails towards it. As in other hazardous areas, bullets and enemies are dynamic entities that we must react to, but in this setpiece, so is every surface. The reaction times necessary to outwit this living level mean that it's also a showcase of the responsiveness of the game's traversal and projectile mechanics, and they pass with flying colours. Control's methods for killing off its apparitions will not be remembered for their longevity, but damn if that combo of psychically pulling some debris towards you and hurling it into one of "The Hiss" isn't snappy.

While the moving parts are the star of the sequence, the still architecture and interior design of this domain also do their part to disorient. The striped wallpaper dazzles like running zebras, and the repeating identical units that make up the thinking hotel are flagrantly unusual. No forest or lake bed would be this uniform; most streets and homes wouldn't either. By the end, huge gulfs of negative space make the chambers very lonely. The Ashtray Maze is a microcosm of Control as a whole. The game challenges the omnipresent belief that we live in a stable and material world. It explores the idea we perceive our surroundings through the lens of our mind, so if our mind is plastic, our universe is, too. Therefore, The Oldest House and, most perceptibly, The Ashtray Maze are, like the mind, ever-changing hallways with infinite doors. The frequent use of symmetry in this space is an afterimage of the dual worlds that Control is obsessed with: our physical reality, on the one hand, and the collective subconscious of associations and stigmas that underlies it, on the other.

Although, the game fails to coalesce a singular vibe around the maze. The diegetic soundtrack for the scene is Take Control, a prog metal song from the Helsinkian Poets of the Fall. In this game, as in Alan Wake, the group plays the fictional band Old Gods of Asgard. It's an odd choice because the Old Gods of Asgard was invented to be a stoner Dad rock outfit, but in its level design and interaction, The Ashtray Maze vies to be taken seriously. The airy verses and thrashing choruses of Take Control are fine in isolation but struggle to find common ground with a Jungian thriller about a woman's childhood trauma. Also, the song's lyrics spell out the background and plot events of Control, and so, end up at odds with the rest of the game's implicit rhetoric. A moment with this much dramatic intensity doesn't call for camp. The same goes when talking about "Dynamite", the novelty pop song that plays when trying to claw back Casper Darling from the nadir of mental oblivion.

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The setpiece also bumps its cool factor down a couple of points with a self-congratulatory comment from the protagonist, Jesse, at the end. She heads back into the firebreak, takes out her earbuds and says, "That was awesome". If it's awesome, you don't need to tell the audience. Also, dying in the maze really kills the momentum. This was often the case for these tightly scripted sequences. When pacing is derived from the direction of an episode rather than the inherent loops of play, a reset interferes with it.

The Ashtray Maze is likely shorter than you remember. You can clear it in under ten minutes without much bother, but that an encounter this brief lodged itself in players' memories is evidence of its enrapturing hold. Finding the entrance to the zone can be easier said than done, and I'm not sure that the house musician understood what Remedy was trying to do with it, but there are few to no other areas in video games as alive as The Ashtray Maze. While it would be infeasible to make the whole game out of this sequence for the same reason you're not going to make a whole ring out of diamond, it is a testament to what's capable when you concentrate extraordinary development efforts into one tiny region. Thanks for reading.


Any time I reference the development of Control, I am pulling from the following source:

  1. How Control's Most Ambitious Level Was Created | Audio Logs by Gamespot, Mikael Kasurinen (January 5, 2020), YouTube.

Wake up the President: Nuclear War in COLDLINE

Note: The following article contains major spoilers for COLDLINE. The game is "name your own price" on and only lasts about ten minutes, so consider working through it and coming back.

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Ten. The moment that COLDLINE's gameplay starts so does the countdown. You have six hundred seconds to defuse a metaphorical bomb without knowing anything about the environment you're entering or the mechanics you'll be manipulating. Games with time limits don't always justify the inclusion of those limitations. A classic mistake in games with explicit narratives is to introduce a timer to a level to impart urgency but fail to have the narrative explain why the timer is there. In other words, the text can tell you that you need to complete a timed objective but can't tell you why it's timed. In COLDLINE, the case for the ticking clock is regrettably well made: You are the Chairman of the USSR in 1962, and your country has accidentally launched a fifty-megaton warhead on a direct course to New York City. Your only hope is to call the US President and have them intercept the missile. All you need to do to save the world is to make a perfect phone call.

Nine. COLDLINE's lean ten minutes of warning is the short fuse of nuclear warfare: a whip crack from launch to landing that kept people up at night. In a war, the rules of your life become the rules of your enemy's weapons and tactics. The siege blocks the entrances to a settlement, so the occupants have to live isolated and ration goods. The aeroplane could travel the distance of a few countries in a matter of hours, so when the bomber plane was put into production, a lot of Western Europeans had to hide in shelters and endured destruction and death even well outside of the warzone proper: the blitz.

The nuclear ICBM also disrupts lifestyles and communities. We might think of the invention of this munition and the move to "launch on warning" stances, as they were called, as enabling a hyper-blitz. You're talking about going from bombs that would yield under a ton to warheads that were rated in the megatons. A "megaton" is a measure of explosive power that is equal to one million tons of dynamite. COLDLINE's fifty-megaton missile is not fictional in that its entropic potential probably matches that of the most divine nuke ever tested: the tsar bomb. Detonated by the Soviets in 1961, the year before the game is set, tsar bomba, like the COLDLINE missile, is widely believed to have rated at fifty megatons. That's 3,800 times as powerful as the warhead the US dropped on Hiroshima.[1]

And nukes weren't just an upgrade in power, but also distance. A plane in WWII was fast, but nowhere near fast enough to reach from the Russian mainland to the US in around 25 minutes, which an ICBM could. During the Cold War, the citizens of the USA, the Soviet Union, and their allies lived at the speed of the nuke's flight. The knowledge that cities could be wiped off of the map with mere minutes' notice made it impossible to exhale, motivated paranoid irrationality about where enemies were and the acceptable recourse to stop them, and moved militaries to enter states of hair-trigger readiness. The President began carrying around a satchel of launch codes, for god's sake. One of the most enduring images of the Cold War was that of the Doomsday Clock: a yardstick for humanity's existential precarity created by Einstein and key figures from the Manhattan Project. Its metric "minutes to midnight" implies that even on a good day, you are a short commute from some black finality.

Eight. I think living in that state of morbid anticipation for years on end warped some boomers' brains. Dwelling in the constant expectation of violence tends to leave expectants unable to leave that anxiety behind. If middle-aged or elderly Westerners or Russians seem overly susceptible to red scare or unfounded hints of incoming nuclear flocks, that's no doubt down to years of nationalist and military propaganda. However, it's also what happens when you live years of your life knowing that any ten minutes could be the ten minutes of COLDLINE. It leaves our culture reflexively returning to the adrenaline fear of the Cold War, even long after we've left the event itself behind, creating media like this game.

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This has gotten pitch dark, so maybe we could use some levity because this is also a comedy game. That might sound outside the realms of possibility; the problem the game presents is as bleak as it gets. The solution to this problem is also disturbing, but it is ridiculous. When your call is connected to the White House, it's answered by one of those automated customer service systems. You must climb a phone tree to prevent the apocalypse, and as we all know, those menus are insultingly slow and barely navigable. The gag that developer papercookies pulls here is partly in the pleasant roboticism of the prerecorded voice that accompanies you through the worst scenario imaginable. It's partly that papercookies made the whole game out of the settings screen. But it's also the mismatch between the tool and the work. COLDLINE is trying to eat your soup with a fork or wrap a present with the lights off. The game gets across the turtle crawl these telephonic systems move at by having you call one at the moment you most need someone to respond with haste.

Seven. You've no doubt experienced media that is grim at some points and funny at others, but COLDLINE is both at the same time. And it wouldn't get across dread or comedy if it didn't have a realistic grasp of just how disastrously designed phone menus are. One reason designers present users with written text instead of the spoken word is that the former accounts for different users processing language at different speeds. Of the people who can read, some do it faster than others, and if you've already visited a piece of written text, you can skip over parts you've memorised to get at the information or options you need. That's not the case in an auditory medium that forces you to parse at its rhythm. And naturally, the faster the tempo of speech, the more people you exclude from being able to interface with your systems. Therefore, the creators of phone menus sedate their speed.

Not only does this sluggish pacing test callers' blood pressure, it also encourages them to leapfrog over menu nodes without hearing all the options because they want to get where they're going now, not in half a minute's time. This behaviour increases the chance they'll barge into the wrong room of the menus and have to backtrack, wasting more time. We can imagine a system that finds the right pace for each user, allowing them to save their preferred speech speed, and maybe also, which menu options they've heard recently, but per COLDLINE, that's rarely the system we get. To save and retrieve your user data, you need a unique login, and that's probably a tattered scrap of paper hidden at the bottom of a drawer.

Even without saves, designers can limit a caller's exposure to the same soul-draining speeches by designing an efficient menu that stops the caller from visiting one node more times than they need to, but how often do you encounter one of those? I called these menus "labyrinths" up top because they are composed of nodes that each have points of entry and exit that can only be reached via other specific nodes. Replace the word "nodes" in that previous sentence with "rooms", and you have a description of a building. Really, any space is a series of points where each point has access to adjacent points but not non-adjacent points. So, I say menus are spatial, and I've not argued with me yet.

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Six. Like many spaces that are frustrating to navigate, phone menus are understocked with direct routes between points the user is likely to want to move between. In their place, we get extra stops blocking the path from node A to node B, each with its own little speech and protocols like you're being processed by port authority. Here are a few familiar examples of direct navigation being impossible, as presented in COLDLINE:

  • Being able to move down a level in the menu hierarchy but not up. If you think of the phone menu like a Windows directory tree, you could progress from C:/Program Files/ to C:/Program Files/WinRAR/, but you couldn't backtrack from C:/Program Files/WinRAR/ to C:/Program Files/.
  • Being unable to cancel out of "hold". The user cannot predict how long they will be on hold before getting into this configuration, and so, cannot tell whether it will be faster to try and talk to a person or continue menu navigation. Once they've found out that hold is a time sink, they have no ejector seat from it.
  • Being unable to jump "sideways" through the menu tree. For example, in COLDLINE, there is a menu from which you can order a nuclear interception, but the codes you'd need to request the correct interception method are hidden in another menu, both of which branch down from the main menu. There is no door between the interception menu and the codes menu.

The prying stick to clear any of these logjams is to admit defeat and go back to square one: the main menu, often the farthest point from your destination. Automated phone systems are a bit like Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy. COLDLINE and the trees it depicts are also like other poorly designed spaces in that they're often poorly signposted. For instance, any number of services we need to access might hide in the inscrutable raffle of "More options". Or clicking the auditory link to learn more about offensive nuclear weapons may not actually help you find the code for your offensive nuclear weapon.

A bad tool makes us work harder to compensate for its weakness. A blunt knife forces us to cut with a firmer hand; if a cable frays, we must replace it; if phone menus can't clearly tell us where an option will go, we're forced to do the labelling for them. One of the jobs of a UI is to remember for us: store our points count, the item in our left hand, or the paths ahead from our current location so we don't have to memorise this data. When UIs don't remember, we have to write all that overwhelming information to our grey matter. With the White House's automated receptionist being so lazy, we must build the menu tree in our heads to get anywhere, and it makes me feel like my skull's about to burst.

Five. The existence of any phone menu in COLDLINE is, of course, an anachronism, one blatant enough that it reads as symbolic. The red phone piercing through the centre of the screen sticks out like a bloody injury of the timeline. Like most symbols, the automated system can stand for a few different things. For one, it uses the incompetence and miscommunication of customer service systems to discuss where the same themes may arise in the management of atomic arms.

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The ubiquitous image of nuclear threat in the West has been one of a commissar foaming at the mouth with his finger on a big red launch button. But as I touched on when talking about the RTS, DEFCON, the reality of nuclear close calls has not been one of malicious volition. It's been a cavalcade of improperly issued orders, misunderstandings, and computer glitches. The speed at which the nuke can sprint towards your door motivates militaries to ready retaliations that place response time over the lengthy process of verification. And while the premonitions of psychologically brittle Soviet generals were used to manufacture consent for permanent nuclear readiness, I also think those images have been used to comfort. There's a humanity in being killed by the commander of a nuclear stockpile; at least someone got to exercise their ambitions. The alternative: being vaporised in your chair by a domino chain of protocol failures is more like sketch comedy. One is Hannibal pointing his sword towards the mountains and letting loose a cry to slaughter. The other is the world ending because your cat knocked your Pepsi onto your laptop.

COLDLINE is also comparing disorganisations of East and West. In the West's review of the Soviet Union, the country's sin was as much inefficiency as it was human rights violations. According to the capitalists, the free market is overclocked to give you what you want when you want; in the USSR, it was all formal requests for formal requests and psychosis-inducing wait times for bread. But in COLDLINE, we make a telephone call westward and find the same frictional bureaucracy awaiting us in the capitalist system. In gentle tones, a gremlin in the wires tells us that our call is "very important" to them, but how important can it be when we are stuck in this mirror maze of menu prompts? If we must spend an eternity on hold to book doctor's appointments or get our electricity turned back on, is Western capitalism really the efficient alternative that we were promised?

Also represented in our phone call: the speed of international relations lags well behind the pace at which global crises proliferate. Genocides are waged faster than assemblies can agree on a plan of action to condemn them, let alone stop them. Arming yourself with unimaginably cruel weapons takes a few weeks, but ratifying peace treaties seems to take a lifetime. This order in which violence comes first and peace comes second is the wrong way around, just as, for Westerners, everything in COLDINE is backwards. We don't see the Cold War from the perspective of the North Americans or Europeans; we see it from the perspective of a Soviet. The Chairman of the USSR doesn't make the call to launch the arsenal but to stop it. It's not a hotline; it's a COLDLINE. We expect frenzied celebration from a Soviet Union launching a nuclear payload but are reminded that the country didn't want to launch anything at all.

Four. Societies can benefit from wars, but not global thermonuclear war. Wars abroad can be useful for extracting resources or reordering the world so that you come out on top. Any direct damage happens to someone else's country. War in your nation incurs more collateral, but to some, civil war or revolution has been desirable because your country could be in an improved state post-war or post-revolution. The hellfire of the ICBM changed the whole game. Nuclear war would take place in your country, no matter which side you were on or where you were. The theatre of war had been expanded so that the same battle could be happening in Washington, DC, and Moscow. And it would render your whole country, even the planet, scarcely inhabitable in the aftermath. A 2020 study found that even a nuclear exchange between the relatively modestly armed India and Pakistan could cause a famine that would kill 2 billion. Even as world leaders set up the scaffolding for nuclear armageddon, they knew they could never cut the ribbon. Yet, that didn't mean they had a solid plan that would avert the war either.

Three. COLDLINE, set in 1962, is an echo of the '62 communications between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Kruschev to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis.[2] The Cuban Revolution took place in 1959, axing the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Shattered by Batista's authoritarianism and the long rule of colonialism before it, Cuba stood with few pennies to its name. It reconstructed itself with communist principles and aimed to revatlise its economy by forming a financial relationship with the major, ostensibly socialist world power at the time: the Soviet Union.

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In the 50s, the US placed nuclear warheads in Europe aimed at the USSR, including a deployment of nukes in Turkey in 1959. The western border of the Soviet Union felt the hot breath of Uncle Sam. Back west, the United States would oppose socialist uprisings all over Latin America but was particularly alarmed by islands so close to them financially allying with an enemy and embracing anti-capitalism. Their response was repeated assassination attempts on Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, acts of terrorism inside Cuba, and in 1961, a bungled invasion of the country. So, now Cuba was motivated to defend itself against the Americans, and the USSR wanted to station bombs close to a United States that had done the same thing to them. The mutually agreeable arrangement was for the Soviet Union to ship the parts for weapons of mass destruction to Cuba. So they did, and the Cubans began assembling their nukes 90 miles south of Florida.[2]

Two. You might think the US would treat this atomic mousetrap with some care, but Kennedy's military chiefs wanted to shove their hands right in, pushing for an air attack on Cuba, and, if necessary, a second invasion. Fearing that directly engaging a country with nukes could lead to a launch, President Kennedy opted for a blockade of Cuba instead, although he publicly threatened a second invasion.[2][3] Kruschev declared the blockade an act of aggression and emphasised the potential for a nuclear skirmish to break out. The US's strategic air forces prepared for war, for the first and only time in history moving to DEFCON 2. It's also around here that we get the close-miss launch of nuclear armaments from Soviet sub B-59, granted by two military officers but averted by another.

But then, something strange happened: Kruschev and Kennedy came to the negotiating table. The two agreed that if the Chairman withdrew the nukes from Cuba, the US would never invade the nation again and would remove its batteries from Turkey. On the record, the US would say it did not capitulate to demands to remove its missiles.[2], but each country upheld its end of the bargain. The following year, the so-called "red phone" was installed: a direct line from Moscow to Washington that could be used to diplomacise through future conflicts.[4]

The apocalypse was averted, but only just. The time scale of the Cuban Missile Crisis is shocking. The catastrophe took place over just thirteen days, but prior to the introduction of the red telephone, it could take hours for the US to send the USSR one message or vice-versa.[4] And when it came to trying to lull the global order back into a state of relative peace, both Kennedy and Kruschev were also racing military chiefs eager to enter the room bayonets-first and potentially provoke ICBM deployments. COLDLINE is the fear that formalised diplomacy might be too slow to save us from mass extinction. Even the Doomsday Clock could not always keep pace with contemporary threats. During the Missile Crisis, it did not move closer to midnight, a subject of common criticism. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists maintains that too little was known about the conflict at the time to make an accurate update.[5]

One. Since 2007, the clock's setters have expanded its mission. No longer simply a prediction of how close we tip-toe to a nuclear conclusion, it is now also a spittle-soaked thumb in the air of general existential risk.[5] During the Cold War, the closest the clock came to midnight was two minutes. It reached this setting in 1953, the year of the first hydrogen bomb test, but this is not the closest it flirted with midnight overall.

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In 2023, the Bulletin moved the Doomsday Clock to one minute and thirty seconds to midnight, citing the potential for nuclear ignition in the Russia-Ukraine war, as well as international failures in preventing the COVID-19 pandemic and human-made climate change. It's not the case that there haven't been global assemblies vowing to guard us from these restructuring events. The UN was founded in 1945, the World Health Organisation was set up three years later, and the first World Climate Conference was held in 1979. But wars and viruses travel faster than diplomacy, and while a response to the environmental collapse and a contingency for the next international epidemic are beyond urgent, navigation of these issues has been painfully slow. As it stands, we're still on hold. Thanks for reading.


  1. Tsar Bomba by Amy Tikkanen (August 10, 2017), Britannica.
  2. Cuban Missile Crisis by Editors (January 4, 2010), History.
  3. JFK vs. the Military by Robert Dallek (September 10, 2013), The Atlantic.
  4. Hotline established between Washington and Moscow by Editors (November 16, 2009), History.
  5. FAQ by Kennette Benedict (Date Unknown), The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

All other sources linked at relevant points in article.


Crispy Critters: Breaking Down the Awfulness of P-3

Note: The following article contains major spoilers for Atomic Heart, The Catcher in the Rye, Fight Club, and Goodfellas.

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If you want to criticise Atomic Heart, there's no shortage of unprotected flanks for you to stab at. There's an open world that is hemmed in and devoid of side tasks, there's its history of bugs so severe that you wonder how it ever launched in its initial state, and there's a plot that keeps spinning its wheels instead of making headway. But that's a lot to bite off, and I'd like to see more close reading of games. So, today, I want to put just one problem with Atomic Heart on the stand. His name is P-3, and don't worry, he is going to give us a lot of material.

Atomic Heart's stomping ground is an alternate techno-utopian Soviet Union in the year 1955. The country has traded the hammer and sickle for a syringe and a servo. When a robot uprising ravages their research colony of Facility 3826, politician-scientist Dmitry Sechenov dispatches a WWII vet to bring the automatons to heel. That soldier is Major Sergey "P-3" Nechaev. Based on looks and genre conventions, you might guess P-3 is one of the gruff, personalityless strongmen who has always found work in video game plots. Instead, developer Mundfish makes him a kind of Rick & Morty Chris Kyle.

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Sometimes, after engaging with a flawed piece of media, I'll suspect that I exaggerated the problems in my memory, but after my return to Atomic Heart, I can confirm that P-3 really is that annoying. He's everything players labelled him as: whiny, arrogant, and embarrassingly unfunny. He has a snide putdown for every person he meets and every task he's assigned, which could be darkly funny if he was witty about it, but P-3 is dumb as drywall. Here are just a few choices lines:

"[When his sidekick tells him he must pick locks himself] In other words, you're basically useless, as always!".

"[When a robot tells him that you can't ride a train if you have signs of pregnancy] I'll show you signs of pregnancy, you piece of shit!".

"Where's the shit-ass way out of here?".

"Rescue the bitch whose fault it is that I'm wading knee-deep in gore? What the fuck?".

"[To his sidekick] Are you friggin' deaf or something?".

"Cripsy critters, now I gotta deal with another crazy-ass lock! Fuck, I'm a magnet for annoying bullshit".

"Crispy critters" is literally his comedy catchphrase. P-3 sounds like he was written by a 13-year-old, and he comes off as a buzzkill in a game that's largely meant to be about the fun of demolishing frenzied robots. He has nothing to say, but he never shuts up, and the most irritating thing about the guy is how smug he is about his warmed-over, flavourless humour. Media audiences are more willing to accept a character's pride if they're entertaining or relatable; this is generally true of personal faults. We can forgive a character for some lies if they're an ingenious manipulator. We can become invested in their stealing if it's a product of pain that has a dramatic weight. We can also empathise with a character doing something we don't approve of if there's a recognisable emotional impetus behind it or if they have redeeming traits. Or we may feel a character's self-confidence is justified if they're acting in a moral interest.

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Think about Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul. He's a chancer and a cheater, and yet, most viewers can't help but root for him because his schemes are so elaborate, and we understand that he is driven in part by an inferiority complex. Firefly's Malcolm Reynolds smirks with self-congratulation, but he generally does the right thing, and he's a fine action hero. In the biopic Shirley, author Shirley Jackson uses her words to deeply wound the people around her, but we also understand that she is chronically depressed and appreciate her attempt to produce great literature even under a cloud of melancholy.

Atomic Heart, however, doesn't have a likeable personality feature to counterbalance P-3's smarm. His jokes also don't serve an important function to anyone and are more complaints than gags. His kvetching is never shown to derive from anything other than bone idleness. He also reserves the same rancour for electronic locks and safety announcements that he does for mass murderers, making him come over as extraordinarily petty.

Your main characters don't have to be endearing. While media that glamourises immoral individuals is fair game for criticism, there's also a shallow read of fiction that's been kicking around recently that says that you have to get on with a character for a story to be worthwhile. "Catcher in the Rye is bad because I couldn't be friends with Holden Caulfield". "Fight Club is poorly written because the narrator is a thuggish fuckboy". I get it. Sometimes, a person, even a fake person, can be so grating that all you're doing by exposing yourself to them is making yourself pointlessly frustrated. And I don't think people saying that they loathe a character by itself are calling for unlikeable characters to be banned or even saying that the writing they appear in is substandard.

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But some people are grading stories by the personability of the protagonist, and we can't default to assuming that the morality of a piece of fiction is the morality of its characters. Nor that the quality of a piece of fiction is determined by the moral scruples of its cast. Additionally, by divesting ourselves from media with characters we can't get on with, we block off art that makes valuable points or that could find a new way to engage us. Garth Marenghi in Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas, and Lily Reynolds in Thoroughbreds are just some characters who enrich their stories by being thoroughly unpleasant and allow writers to explore and discuss negative characteristics like selfishness, hubris, and a propensity for violence.

At first, I wondered if Atomic Heart was trying to take the Archer route of generating humour and indicating what kind of person you shouldn't be by forcing its characters to rely on someone conceited and thoughtless. Secret agent thrillers like James Bond say hyper-confident womanising men are the height of cool. Archer says they're manchildren, allowing us to laugh at the title character and the effect of his behaviour on his coworkers. But in these cases where a text succeeds in condemning an unscrupulous main character, it clarifies that it views that character as stupid or despicable through context. Audiences are unlikely to aspire to be Garth Marenghi because he's comically self-serving, and his work is hacky. When Tommy DeVito shoots a waiter in the food for getting the wrong order, the disproportion in this response and the vulnerability of his target mean that DeVito doesn't come off as an action hero but an unhinged sadist. And we know that most of the time, we're meant to laugh at, not with Archer, because the show surrounds him with colleagues who have more maturity and common sense than him, reflecting poorly on the agent.

A text may also ward against the imitation of its characters' malicious behaviours by having those characters get their just desserts. The fight club turns against the narrator, Holden Caulfield ends up estranged from his peers, Tommy DeVito gets whacked. Sometimes media employs both the technique of making the character look unpleasant and having them get their comeuppance at the same time, but Atomic Heart implements neither. P-3's grouchiness is constant enough to feel like gravel in my shoe, but it's also inconsequential enough in the grand scheme of things that it's not like he's evil or going to get into trouble over it. And the other characters in the game echo P-3's tryhard one-note comedy back at him. So, instead of excitable misanthropy being just the Major's way of speaking, a mode and tone of commentary that the game could upbraid with its own voice, it becomes the game's voice.

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Nechaev's only joke is that he's irritable and mean-spirited. Granny Zina's only joke is that she's an elderly woman with a filthy mouth. NORA's character is that she's obsessed with having sex with P-3. Keep in mind, these are not setups for getting the characters into farcical situations. You can imagine how P-3's temper might leave him between a rock and a hard place professionally or how NORA could end up embarrassing herself by awkwardly trying to engineer social situations in which she can sleep with P-3. But Atomic Heart can't do situational humour; it's an open mic for these characters to do their one bit endlessly.

Atomic Heart's style of humour has no setups, only punchlines. When a lot of comedy succeeds in leading you in one direction and then suddenly diverting you somewhere unexpected, Atomic Heart's humour leads you in one direction and considers that a destination. And besides its jokes falling flat in their construction, they don't work because the characters are hitting their "funny" button with the same fervour of a Skinner box rat requesting sugar water. The characters never hold back their humour, so they can't deploy it with a sense of comedic timing. Given that the non-P-3 humourous characters are made in his image but with less whining, my guess is that Atomic Heart was looking for P-3 to elicit a "he's such an asshole but you've got to love him" reaction. But the game only manages to get as far as "he's such an asshole".

P-3 reflexively deprecates the work he appears in, deriding many of the objectives he's given and the people he interacts with. Like a lot media that pokes fun at itself, Atomic Heart does it as a defence mechanism. About a month before Atomic Heart came out, Austin Walker wrote an apposite blog post on Square Enix's isekai RPG, Forspoken. Clips of Forspoken's cutscenes showed a protagonist who sarcastically mocked the treacherous mythological plane she'd been transported to, and it left online viewers cringing. In Walker's article, he interprets Forspoken's self-mockery as it getting out in front of the audience's criticisms. If a player thinks the whole story is ridiculous, Forspoken is saying that reaction is okay because it thinks it's silly too. But Walker also says that by taking all these opportunities to dress down its characters and setting, Forspoken reduces the player's belief in their quality and tells players who are genuinely excited to engage with its world that they're stupid.

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It's important to remember that the flashes of Forspoken's protagonist in these videos don't represent the whole game. But within those clips, it is clear that Frey's voice is intended to sync with the player's. While other characters in Forspoken's setting use dramatic pseudo-historical vocabulary, Frey speaks in 21st-century American idioms, much like the game's core audience. Similarly, in Atomic Heart, P-3 gripes with a casual tone and turns of phrase that are unmistakably modern. Like, "Get the hell out of here", "This place is bright, man", or "Why couldn't they just put regular, more reliable locks everywhere, like with codes and shit?".

Trying to lampshade problems in a text is often a hopeless endeavour, whether the problems are real or fictionalised for the sake of the joke. If an element of your media is unpalatable to your audience, then mocking it doesn't fix the fault, does draw attention to it, and makes the creators look like they aren't taking the quality of their work seriously. If the game complains about an element of itself that isn't actually that bad, however, then the joke can fall flat because it's inaccurate observational humour. The latter is mostly where Atomic Heart ends up.

Atomic Heart's brainteasers and mission structures are passable to enjoyable, but the game keeps reinforcing the idea that they're soulless busywork, particularly because, like Frey, P-3 is a player insert. So, when he complains about the meat of the game, the script imagines that the player's attitude towards the experience is a negative one. Like Frey's cynicism, P-3's comes off as an attempt to preempt poor reception to his game but ironically encourages it. In the examples of both P-3 and Frey, the games also end up insulting the player by presenting a unlikable protagonist and then telling the person in front of the monitor that that person represents them.

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You can have a scumbag audience surrogate that inspires constructive introspection. Kane & Lynch and Max Payne 3 did a fair job of it. But again, P-3's savagery towards his game misses the mark, and he doesn't have a meaningful point to make. Atomic Heart isn't correct that I hate getting all the balls into the receptacle or deciphering door codes, and if it was, so what? Worse, the game thinks that I'm not just a person that dislikes video games but that I'm a crotchety, smug asshole, lashing out at every target in sight like a bumper sticker Dad. That's a hell of an assumption that reveals that the game has an inexplicable disdain for its players. I mean, I am a smug asshole, but Atomic Heart shouldn't know that.

For as much as those Forspoken clips get on my nerves, Frey does have something going for her that P-3 doesn't: The distance between the content and delivery of Frey's speech and those of the figures around her is supported by the narrative. She is a contemporary trespasser in Athia. We can't say the same for P-3. He helped decide the outcome of a world war for his planet, and he is the trusted servant of a Soviet ruler, but in what he says and how he says it, he comes across as a stranger in this strange land. He speaks anachronistically, and it's hard to imagine someone who finds tiny requests a massive imposition to be one of his country's most adept soldiers.

Atomic Heart gets caught up in the allure of amusing and titillating the player and doesn't care what continuity or theming it might have to shed to get there. There's an offputting desperation every time the game drops its aesthetic goals to try and curry favour via the lowest-hanging comedic fruit. Its comedy exists extra to its world instead of within it, which serves neither its humour nor its setting. There's no joined-up explanation of how Facility 3826 engineered a clinically horny vending machine or how P-3 survived a war when he groans every time he's told to eat his vegetables.

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In the title of this article, I did say I'd assess P-3 and not just his whining. I understand if it might sound like I'm doing him dirty by spending so long scanning this one defect of his personality. But there's not much more to this protagonist beyond rolling his eyes at objectives. His only other consistent trait is his blinkered fealty to his boss. The game features dualogues between P-3 and his AI assistant, CHAR-LES, in which CHAR-LES encourages him to think critically about how his commander, Sechenov, might abuse his power. P-3's response is always zealous naivety. It's one more trait that makes him inappropriately childlike, but the bigger problem is that the game pulls from a bottomless bag of these conversations because it seems to think that we won't get a point unless it's made ad nauseum. See also: the bi-hourly lectures on how there's a backdoor into the Soviet computer network or that P-3 hates the mission objectives. Again, the assumption is that we're as thick as P-3, and it's not pleasant to be treated like that. It often feels like Atomic Heart is uninspired by its own premise and at a loss for topics to talk about, so it keeps flipping through the same three ideas.

It doesn't help that the shooter throws back to the old "protagonist with amnesia" trope. It sorely needs backstory to fill up the half-empty cup that is its main character, but that detail doesn't arrive until well into the second act when his past is dramatically revealed. Of course, the script needs to feed information to the player even when P-3 and CHAR-LES are on their lonesome, and it needs P-3 to eventually reach the revelation that he's a pawn in a conspiracy of backstabs and cover-ups. So, it takes some of the downtime to have P-3 ask CHAR-LES about the history and plans of the big players in his world. This always feels out of character because P-3 is otherwise as duteous and incurious as the robots he battles.

There are all sorts of lessons to draw from P3's writing, but the one that keeps cycling through my head is that any character is a statement not just in itself or about its world, but also constitutes a statement about their media's intended audience. As such, there's no one correct character to write because there's no one audience. However, if you execute on your characters correctly, you can make the people you're speaking to feel seen and sometimes even flattered. And if you don't, you get P-3. Where the entertainment of a sci-fi, open-world, item-looting game like Atomic Heart would seem to be in its exploration and experimentation, a shiftless, closed-minded protagonist like Nechaev is the last person we want to control. Thanks for reading.


Lo-Fi Plays VI: Five Tiny Indie Games

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Lo-Fi Plays is a series in which I look at a grab bag of ultra-low-budget independent titles you probably haven't played before. With any luck, we can find some new games and new ideas among them. Here are five wee, weird, and wonderful finds.

Baba Files Taxes

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In its difficulty, Arvi Teikari's Baba is You holds no punches. It's only thematically consistent that its sequel, Baba Files Taxes, puts the fluffy rabbit protagonist to another confounding exercise: reporting our finances to the government. And Baba Files Taxes isn't an unlicensed fan game; it's an official spin-off by Teikari. This comedy sends up the cryptic and strictly prescriptive language of tax documentation. Everyone knows what a tax form is, but no one knows what they're saying, leaving us feeling like we all have a tiny bunny brain. Putting its finger on that inscrutability, Baba Files Taxes does mark you on aptitude, but you won't find out what it's scoring until the end.

The game is short and simple, meaning it would be easy to spoil its surprises in a couple of clumsy sentences. But without giving too much away, this bitesize experience understands official papers as an exam on syntax and language comprehension. And it keeps you cycling through this activity of writing Baba's signature. Video games rarely grill our handwriting skills, but trying to scrawl out something approaching text with my slippery mouse, I end up doing a pretty good impression of the protagonist. The game jokes about how our signature is accepted as a proof of our usness even when no two signatures are identical. Plus, Baba Files Taxes is an excuse to look at more adorable pictures of Baba, and that's a win in my book.

Baba Files Taxes is "name your own price" on

A Date in the Park

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Last year, gothic folk adventure, The Excavation of Hob's Barrow, earned itself a tight-knight but fervently supportive fandom. And there's more where that came from. Developer, Cloak and Dagger, has a whole back catalogue of point-and-click adventures, including a few free appetisers. Of the freebies, A Date in the Park is probably the most lauded. Its protagonist is Lou, an optimistic lovebird who has spent a week in Lisbon without a lick of Portuguese. He is following up on a beautiful woman's invitation to a local wildlife spot. Hapless and tactless, Lou is the epitome of the oblivious adventure game lead. As is par for the course, the cluelessness of the player character means they need our help to decode the riddles around them. In this case, it also forcefully pushes the game away from straight horror into black comedy.

While most horror audiences find themselves screaming at the protagonist to escape an obvious trap, there's a sympathetic resignation in knowing that Lou isn't bright enough to do that. In comparison to the graphics of Cloak and Dagger's other fare, A Date in the Park is more realistic but is still distorted with a pixelating filter. Crawling up my spine throughout the game was the uncomfortable feeling of looking at real events through a cypher. The experience enters an uncanny valley in which a full comprehension of the world is as unattainable for you as it is for Lou, and that creates a wariness of the unknown.

Even players acclimatised to the fetch quests and hidden breadcrumbs of adventure games may find A Date in the Park meandering. Nerd culture communities can be hasty to declare "nothing is happening" in a work when really there's plenty happening on a personal and subtle level. However, in this one case, the game does stretch its exposition and character interactions until they're translucent. Yet, I can't imagine a version of it that doesn't put its whole ass into its slow pacing and tranquil atmosphere because the mundanity is part of the horror. The park is quiet; too quiet. It's also naturally ideal; too ideal. Its pathways and ponds are garlanded by locks of overgrown foliage that I feel could reach out and strangle me. The visual style makes full use of the human eye, which sees more shades of green than any other colour. Off the park's winding trails, there are statues referencing mythological deities and barely maintained buildings that contain... Well, I'll leave you to find that out for yourself.

A Date in the Park is free on Steam and "Name your own price" on


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Not to be confused with Amanita's Machinarium, Machinaria is a VHSpunk dystopian drama. Following in the footsteps of Papers, Please, it's a game pulling back the curtain on the full scope and skullduggery of authoritarian regimes. It does that by stationing you at the desk of one essential job in a repressive administration. In Papers, Please, your office was passport inspection; in Machinaria, it's news editing. Every day, orders clank down the chain of command, telling you what public opinions to launder. You then must then place video tapes into the proper slots to produce a programme that tugs hearts and minds in that direction.

Machinaria's CRTs are peepholes into anti-democratic coercion. We might call the game an analogue horror experiment, but that badge is usually reserved for titles that disturb through 90s-era polygon counts or tape artefacts. In Machinaria, the horror is an uncomfortable reminder of the propagandistic powers that arose with electronic media distribution. Here, you are detached from the targets of your psychological weaponry, and there's inhumanity in that distance. The lack of modern software tools that let you click and drag your way to political control also means that Machinaria is very hands-on. Papers, Please had us shuffling manuals and identification in a bid to organise our workspace, and Machinaria does the same thing with storage devices, likewise creating an air of busyness.

I do wish that the play of this game more closely resembled TV production or twiddling the knobs of political power. Rather than weaving national illusions, Machinaria is about getting to play with a Fischer-Price Consent Manufacturing Machine. It lets you hear the clunk of the tape as you push it into its recorder and the tinny whirr of a dot matrix printer, both of which sound brilliant here. Above all, by involving us in the editing of current events programming, Machinaria instils that news isn't something discovered, but constructed, and that even objective records of real events can be exploited in the name of disinformation.

Machinaria is "Name your own price" on

The Password Game

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The website is an animated science, history, and philosophy magazine. It's keeping the spirit of Flash alive with HTML 5 toys. There's an interactive scale diagram of the sky and a personalised stats screen that tells you, among other details, how many red blood cells your body has grown since you were born. It's a site for the XKCD-heads out there. Neal's latest creation is The Password Game, a comedy about trying to twist and squeeze a prospective password through all the security rules a site can come up with.

The requirements start off undemanding: Your passcode must be at least five characters in length and contain an uppercase letter, which sounds pretty reasonable, but before you know it, you're entering today's Wordle answer and doing sums with Roman numerals. Like Frog Fractions, The Password Game is pushing the boundaries of how silly one game can get, sending you on a scavenger hunt that keeps one-upping expectations for its absurdity. Even when it was frustrating, I found the temptation to keep playing irresistible because I had to know what dumbass surprise was next.

What makes The Password Game tricky is that all the rules for your string are in play at once. You can make a modification to your password to obey a new law and realise you just broke some article from five steps back. It's a structural departure from the other puzzle games out there. Storyteller or Manifold Garden might have you spinning multiple plates at once, but in those titles, you usually complete one level and move on to the next, able to put the systemic configurations from the last level behind you. In The Password Game, every puzzle is stacked atop the previous, soon leaving you at the top of a tower of conditions, suffering from linguistic vertigo.

The Password Game is free on


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KIDS's Steam blurb is only four mysterious words: "A game about crowds". That might sound too vague to rest a purchasing decision on, but you can find other products that describe themselves in whole paragraphs and don't come as close to complete summarisation. To add a little definition, KIDS is a game about how people organise themselves into, within, and away from crowds. Inside its minimalist packaging is a reel of interactive cartoons about featureless monochrome people. Clicking or dragging on one of them can cause any of these meeple to change their pose, the direction they're running in, or some other aspect of their character. These metaphorical stick figures gather into crowds to create superorganisms whose characteristics can't entirely be found in any one member. They move with a nerd instinct or applaud as an audience.

KIDS's scenes don't usually have a resolution; they each cut hard and without warning into the next because they're cross-sections rather than stories, all sating the developer's anthropological curiosity. When the game does teleport us between gatherings, it's often from raucous clamours to pregnant quiets and back again. The characters speaking in the voice of children is a commentary that learning how to relate to collectives is an essential part of childhood development, which child psychologists have been reporting for a long time. With individuals churned through bulging tubes and emerging from wet membranes, the game sees the organising and migration of crowds as something biological.

KIDS is an animators' animation. There's no scripting to speak of, no three-act narrative in sight; it's all people moving on a page, and they do so predictably once you learn the patterns. For most, the social groups are fate: a stream that delivers each pebble from spring to sea. But that's not to say that the game is indulgently cynical about crowds. Sometimes free will gets lost in the shuffle, sometimes people push each other into a hole, but the groups are also impressive examples of spontaneous organisation, and there are loners who swim against the tide.

KIDS is $2.49 on Steam and $2.99 on


That's us done for another week. Thanks for reading.

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Card Advantage: The Design of Magic: The Gathering

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When we deconstruct one type of game, we learn something about all types of games, but Magic: The Gathering is a particularly instructive candidate for analysis because it's easy to predict how the abilities of entities in this game will affect other entities. In MTG, when you cast a sorcery on a player or have one creature fight another, you don't have to worry about aiming or positioning as you do in map or grid-based battles, nor do you have to guess how dice rolls will randomise their effects. If a card says "Does 3 damage to target" and your opponent cannot block it, it does 3 damage. That makes Magic a lot simpler to talk about and allows us to deconstruct it as an exercise in strategy. We don't get too caught up in the action, spatial, or dice roll mechanics of most other competitive games.

Because of the certainty you have in the application of your Magic cards, quick fingers can't save you, and at least after you've drawn your cards, you're unlikely to get a reprieve from luck. Threats are immediate and real, meaning that you must take them seriously, and the game can turn on a dime. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. To understand Magic, or any game, we must ask why they give us the tools they do. Why can we pick up the ball in basketball when we can't in football? Why does Puyo Puyo allow us to rotate pieces? Why can we jump in Donkey Kong Country?

Abilities, Restrictions, Obstacles

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Many of our abilities are chosen by designers because they let us directly achieve our goals. In basketball, we need to be able to pick up the ball because we must be able to shoot it at a small raised target. In Puyo Puyo, if we can't rotate pieces, we often can't fit them into place to clear them. We can also turn these ideas on their heads and say that the objective flows from our basic tools. Why is the goal in basketball an elevated hoop? Because that matches our ability to pick up and throw the ball. Why is clearing the blobs the objective of Puyo Puyo? Because that's something you could do with the power to drop and rotate coloured pieces.

Games will also include restrictions on our abilities so that we can't complete the goal trivially. Sports inherently have restrictions in that you can't change the laws of physics, and there's a top end to what any human body will be capable of. In the video game space, Puyo Puyo imposes simple rules of bounding, so we can't phase pieces through each other to complete the board. Note that in both cases, it's the restrictions that cause us to stop and think about how to solve problems.

In basketball, you can't throw infinitely far or infinitely accurately, so you must make judgments every time you could shoot about whether you can score the point from your current position. In Puyo Puyo, whatever your ideal placement for your pieces, you must look at what space is available at the top of the pile and determine where the piece you currently control best fits. These principles are pretty straightforward, but they lead us to a more complex realisation about game rules: obstacles in games and many non-fundamental abilities and restrictions are reactions to these base abilities and restrictions. When I say obstacle, I mean anything that keeps us from reaching our goal.[1]

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In Donkey Kong Country, we have the ability to walk from the left side of a level to the right, which is logical from the perspective that the goal is always on the rightmost side of a stage. The game responds to that ability by placing obstacles in our way: crocodiles, mice, and other villains stand between us and the end of the level, thwarting our walking ability. The game's jump is then an ability that responds to these obstacles, allowing us to arc over these troublesome critters if used correctly. But so the jump doesn't drain all the challenge out of the game, we get the bee enemies. They're obstacles that move back and forth through the air on fixed paths, potentially preventing us from jumping past them if we're imprecise. For both the walk and the jump, there are boundings and limitations that prevent us, say, just leaping over the whole level or running through walls. These are restrictions.

For an example within the strategy arena, take Advance Wars. In this turn-based strategy title, we have the ability to create Infantry units and move those troops across the field. Infantry can also capture a facility on its current square or attack adjacent units. We can use these powers to reach the win conditions of either capturing the enemy HQ or defeating all units on the field. Restrictions such as limited funds with which to train the Infantry and a maximum movement distance for the units clamp them.

The game responds to the Infantry abilities with a new kind of unit that has a better movement ability (or a less restricted one, depending on how you want to see it) and a high effectiveness against Infantry: Recon. Recon is an obstacle. To counteract the Recon, the game gives you the ability to dispatch Light Tanks, which also have long range and are super effective against Recon. The Medium Tank is then an obstacle with which the game responds to your Light Tanks. Note from the Advance Wars example that if you have a multiplayer game, the abilities of one player appear as obstacles to their opponent, and vice-versa. In Advance Wars, your army is an obstacle, and mine are the products of abilities and have abilities in themselves. But for you, my army is the obstacle, and yours have the abilities.

The Loxodon Line Breaker creature card labelled.
The Loxodon Line Breaker creature card labelled.

In Magic, every creature card has three important numbers on it: their mana cost, their "power" or attack, and their "toughness" or health. Players also have health values, which, in most formats, start at 20. The goal of each match is to reduce your opponent's health points to 0 before they can do the same to you. Technically, mana cost usually includes a colour or colours in addition to numbers, and sometimes, there are ways to win that don't involve damaging an opponent. However, we can't get too bogged down in details for now. These are the basics. The core attributes of these cards: the power, toughness, and cost, were not chosen from as large a pool of possible mechanics as you might imagine. Instead, they are how each card implements abilities that let us reach our goal, obstacles that prevent us or our opponent from using abilities without restraint, and a restriction on using such abilities.

If our mission is to whittle down our opponent's life points, each creature's ability to do X amount of damage lets us pursue our goal. The role of the ability to block Y amount of damage is also obvious through this lens, as we need to preserve our own health to win. Our creatures and their abilities to cause and block X and Y amounts of damage are obstacles to our opponents, just as their creatures, with their offensive and defensive abilities, are obstacles to us. The mana costs on these cards are then restrictions to keep us from playing a legion of very high-stat abominations out of the gate. Again, restriction leads to constructive play as we must make calculated decisions about what to play, knowing we can't just conjure any creature we'd like to the field. As in other strategy games, the cost associated with playing cards also expands the play so that we're not just toying with military systems but also economic ones. In Magic, players can be rewarded or punished based on how well they cultivate mana.

Attacking and Blocking

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MTG can only squeeze the maximum potential from its power, toughness, and cost metrics by having the right rules to make them clash in complex but reliable patterns. In any self-respecting strategy game, the outcomes of our actions must be reasonably predictable. If you can't tell what will happen when you, say, attack an enemy unit or raise your theme park's budget, there's no tactical way to approach these actions, actions which allow you to reach your goals.

Recognise that how Magic implements "toughness" allows us to predict the outcome of battles over time. Other games have a unit's health value stay consistent between turns. Standing out from the crowd, Magic has each creature heal back to full toughness at the end of each turn. This means that when you summon a fighter onto the battlefield, you don't have to speculate about whether a player will be able to chip its health down over a few turns. You know that your Academy Wall with 5 toughness can only be destroyed by a creature with 5 or more power. Likewise, an attacking player knows exactly the capability and limits of your 2-power Deeproot Wayfinder. If players know where they stand, then they also know what they need to do to get ahead.

The game has another trick for making creature selection interesting: it advantages blocking players over attacking players. It does this through a few means:

  • As already mentioned, all cards heal up at the end of a combat phase. So, if an attacker doesn't have the power to overcome a blocker's cards, that blocker can defend indefinitely and not take a hit to their player health.
  • An attacking player can only choose to attack an opposing player; they can't target a specific enemy creature to lay into. The defending player picks which creatures block which attacks, and they may use any number of creatures to block a single attacking monster.
  • Attacking "taps" a card so it cannot block on the next turn, but blocking doesn't tap. In other words, if you attack with a creature on this turn, it can't block an attack on your opponent's next turn.
  • Creatures cannot attack until two turns after they are introduced to the battlefield, but they can block immediately after being played.
  • It doesn't matter how much power a creature has; a creature of any toughness can block it, even if it dies to protect its controller.

Again, if you're a dyed-in-the-wool Magic player, you'll be jumping up and down to mention the cards that can break these rules, but the systems I described in those bullet points are the default. As a beginner to the game, you might think that two creatures with 2 power and one creature with 4 power are equivalently destructive. You quickly discover this isn't the case. If an opponent had a fighter with 4 toughness on the field and you could pick which creatures your cards attack, you could direct both your 2-power soldiers to hit that 4-toughness card, and simple arithmetic says they'd destroy it. However, because the opponent decides how damage is distributed between their cards, in that scenario, they could block only one of your 2-power creatures with their 4-toughness creature, and your attacker would still be 2 power away from defeating it.

An opponent assigns two blockers to one of my attackers.
An opponent assigns two blockers to one of my attackers.

If two 2-power creatures and a 4-power creature are functionally different, then we must engage our brain to play. In our strategising, we must be conscious both of the total power and toughness of our army and how those stats are divided between each warrior. We can make smarter decisions or dumber decisions that will affect the outcome of the play, giving Magic strategic depth and rewarding bright minds.

Note that because even a weak monster can block a strong monster, MTG can veer away from being a game about who has the highest numbers. Generally speaking, each player gets more mana as matches progress, allowing them to play more damaging cards with higher mana costs. In other games, implements with low attack and defence may be discarded as higher stat ones become available, but in Magic, low-end cards can have a part to play, too. Because preventing all damage means assigning one blocker for each attacker, both players must also consider the quantity of creatures on the field as well as the quality. If you have more attackers than they have defenders, it doesn't matter how powerful their blockers are; some of your strikes are going to fly through. Shifting to the other side of the table, we can see that if your goal is to stop damage, it doesn't matter what power or toughness your blockers are; you just need as many as there are attackers.

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Because squishier creatures can still be useful, even as more powerful fighters become available, the number of potential tools you can use only increases as play progresses. With a broad array of tools at your fingertips, you have a wide gamut of strategic decisions open well into the game. Players are asked how they want to balance between quantity of creatures and strength of creatures. The game also queries combatants on how they might stop their opponents from reaching their desired balance of quantity and strength. This is players working within restrictions to develop abilities and place obstacles. Note that because a creature attacking taps it, players are discouraged from attacking on every turn, going into autopilot. Even letting yourself take damage can be the fitting move because the game is played across multiple turns, and cards have both defensive and offensive power. So, to sacrifice a creature to block an attack or to tap a creature to make an attack is not just a choice about preventing or causing injury. It's also a statement about which offensive and defensive abilities you want to have access to on future turns. Again, choices must be measured and relevant to the specific game state if you want to win.

In Magic, we find not just that games should include abilities, obstacles, and restrictions, but also what kinds of abilities, obstacles, and restrictions are interesting. Each ability, obstacle, and restriction should be able to affect others in a multitude of ways. Each of those effects should be significant enough to change how the player makes decisions.

What It Takes to Develop the Rules

Of course, while these three numbers (the power, toughness, and mana cost) can generate countless different topologies in the play, if they were all the gameplay attributes of a creature, Magic would be bland. Creatures would be mechanically identical and not vividly characterised. And when combat is just crunching a list of numbers, most audiences tend to feel it's just boring accountancy. So, Magic has cards that are not creatures but act on them: artifacts, enchantments, sorceries, and instants. But without expanding our conception of what attributes a card can have, all these spells can do is increase or decrease power, toughness, or mana cost, or remove the attacking or blocking ability. Else, they act directly on players, but players don't have many attributes beyond their health. There's no getting out of it: we need more stuff.

As Into the Breach revealed to us, strategy games are effectively series of puzzles strung together. They are daisy chains of logic problems in which we must work out the correct actions and the right order in which to take those actions so that we might hop a logical fence. For Magic to make more puzzles, it needs more pieces. I think a newbie designer would be inclined to fill out the game by adding additional stats to each unit. If a few numbers means some depth, it follows that several numbers would mean enormous depth. Long stat sheets are often the solution when we want a mechanically sizeable vehicle in a racing game or player character in an RPG. Yet, these walls of figures work in RPGs and racers because we control one car or often one person at a time in these genres, and we don't typically have to constantly reassess most of those numbers. Magic is different in a few ways:

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  • We can have platoons of soldiers on the field at once. If you control a single avatar in a game, it being a pack mule for abilities and stats isn't overwhelming. Even if you command four party members in an RPG, with the right concessions, it's manageable. If you control a lot of creatures and every one is a mechanics homunculus, that stops being true.
  • Cards must show any figures on their face because, outside of a video game, you can't hide stats away in a menu. Even in a simulation racing game, you don't have every fine detail of your vehicle thrust in your face. That means you can race without the screen becoming a swamp of statistics, but as Magic is a card game, it has to put everything up in your grill. If there is a lot of text on each card, that could make you pop a nerve, and designers risk having more text than they do space to print it.
  • We must constantly assess the figures on our cards as they relate to other cards. We'll cover this more in coming sections, but the stats and abilities of your cards have a different effect on the overall game state based on what other cards are on the field. This means that you always have to be conscious of the stats and abilities of each card, so you need to rescan the play space regularly, and if you can't do that quickly, you're undertaking these exhausting reading exercises multiple times per turn. Even opening a booster pack could turn into an afternoon of research, and a glut of information on each card would make the game inhospitable for newcomers.

It's a natural impulse to want to be maximalist in your design and cram in all the cool features you can think of. But effective design is often about pairing your creations back to only the parts they absolutely need. And "different" in game design is often better than "more". "More" similar abilities and restrictions to the ones you already have make your game harder for the player to learn and parse moment-to-moment. They also do not increase the play's variation or give the player more distinct options to choose from. When an element is individual, it is memorable and can provide a different choice from what's already available.

A note on stats before we go any further: We're going to be looking at stats and abilities, but as we do, it's important to understand stats as a component of abilities. That is, we could view being able to attack as an ability and a creature's power as being something separate, but I'm viewing the ability to cause 4 damage to a target as an ability: a singular concept. One reason vehicles and characters in games often end up so decorated with stats is that their stats and mechanics are reliant on the existence of other stats and mechanics internal to them. Or, seen in reverse, their stats and powers are designed for application through new abilities. Their core powers either do not make sense without these new abilities (they are one half of an idea), or they feel thin if they're not expanded on by other mechanics. I realise that explanation is a little heady, but the pattern is clear in games with talent trees.

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For example, the Necromancer in Diablo IV can learn an ability called Blood Surge, which damages multiple enemies. If the player character knows Blood Surge, they can then learn Enhanced Blood Surge, which allows them to heal when they damage enemies with Blood Surge. On the talent tree, Enhanced Blood Surge can then branch to Paranormal Blood Surge. Paranormal Blood Surge allows Necromancers to charge up a bonus damage ability if they hurt creatures with Blood Surge while they have 80% or more health. So, there's a system here that is made to pile abilities onto a character like plates onto a busy waiter. You can't have Paranormal Blood Surge without having Enhanced Blood Surge. You can't have Enhanced Blood Surge without having the basic Blood Surge, and even knowing Blood Surge is reliant on serving the Necromancer class.

And if this specific path to Paranormal Blood Surge wasn't enforced by the game's rules, the player would still be encouraged to take something like it because it's maximising the utility of the powers they have. You can only activate Paranormal Blood Surge's bonus if you are at 80% or higher health, and you are more likely to be at 80% or higher health if you use a life-drain spell that can hit a plurality of enemies, a spell like Enhanced Blood Surge. However, it's also not a coincidence that this Blood Surge ganglia exists on a talent tree. Developers design upgrade paths with the idea that they help coax players towards acquiring abilities that work well together and prevent them from easily branching into diverse powers that might not stack well or might give their character too broad a range of strengths. You don't want one hero who is effectively a Barbarian, Rogue, and Necromancer.

If the Diablo example doesn't float your boat, imagine if your MTG creatures had all the base stats of a Dungeons & Dragons character: STR, INT, DEX, CON, WIS, and LUK. The designer would have to come up with powers or sub-stats that all of those stats could feed into. E.g. Having STR increase carrying capacity or INT determine the number of starting languages a creature knows. Or there are the many games that give the entities we control equipment or upgrade slots, like Shining Force or The Crew. Those slots call for lines of items or powers we can insert into each. So, simply trying to deepen our MTG orc by giving it six base stats or space for a new set of brake pads is likely to overcomplicate the play. The abilities of other games are often designed to exist within large mechanical webs, which, for the reasons mentioned in the earlier bullet points, are beyond the scope of one Magic creature.

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You'll also notice that when we make the possession of an ability dependent on the ownership of a previous ability, we group the same abilities together, reducing the variation of the characters and objects we control. Again, Paranormal Blood Surge doesn't come without Enhanced Blood Surge, and abilities related to CHA are going to cluster together on high-CHA characters. In most games, that clumping is not a problem because there are so many abilities we could pick for one character to wield that diversity is possible anyway. But to reiterate, we can't jam a lot of abilities on one Magic card, meaning if abilities cluster together, you're going to end up with a lot of similar cards.

The upshot is that, for diverse and streamlined play, Magic needs abilities that could be applied to any number of creatures. I'm talking about abilities that are only dependent on the simple underlying stats of mana cost, power, toughness, and the fundamental mechanics of summoning, attacking, and blocking. To reorient this idea, if cards have few base attributes and mechanics, they are mostly blank slates for all sorts of combinations of abilities to be applied to them, assuming those abilities applied to them are not dependent on the existence of others we could apply to them.

As each turn in Magic is a puzzle, I'll also refer back to my brief introduction to puzzle design, in which I say these many possible interactions between parts create diversity, challenge, and mystery and ask for ingenuity from the player. If there are many different ways in which elements could be made to interface with each other, the player has a lot of options in finding the best or correct one, and must work hard to do so. There is a big haystack in which to find the needles. Widely applicable abilities also create flexibility. The fewer stats on any entity in a game, the less specific it is in its nature, so the less specific it can be in its function. If it's less specific in its function, then, by definition, it's highly adaptable to many different situations.

How Magic Develops Itself

Magic's creature card template achieves the dream of being open for many different abilities to be painted on. And the abilities it embeds on those templates reach that goal of being non-reliant on others. Together, these design elements allow for cards that are easy to parse, diverse, flexible, and can be combined in many different permutations. Let's look at a few common Magic card abilities to which these criteria apply:

  • Deathtouch: This creature destroys any creature it blocks or that blocks it, regardless of the creatures' relative power and toughness values.
  • Lifelink: When this creature deals damage, the player that controls it gains health points equal to the amount of damage it dealt.
  • Flying: This creature can attack the opponent without being blocked.
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Note that the use of a name for each of these effects allows the creators to compress the rules. If a card said something like, "Any damage this creature does to a target is returned to the player as life points. In addition, it can attack opposing creatures without being blocked", that's an eyeful for the player. If, however, the card says "Lifelink, Flying" on it, the player can efficiently process its role and move onto the next. MTG: Arena, a video game counterpart to the card game, has a very neat layout of this data. Cards are stamped with the named abilities they carry and any rules that apply exclusively to them. The player may also hover their cursor over a card to see a popup explaining those abilities in full. The newbie player can glean all the information they need about a card without that text getting in the knowledgeable player's way. They each know where to look. Note that sprites, models, or UI icons are also shortcuts games use to signal complex abilities and restrictions through simple symbols.

Magic favours blocking creatures, and players generally only increase their mana cap by 1 each turn, so without unique abilities and non-creature spells in play, stalemates would be the norm. Each competitor looks out on a wall of their opponent's creatures, blocking them from afflicting damage. Magic becomes mostly a game of working out how to avoid or break those deadlocks through these more colourful abilities. You can have angels fly over enemy units, Lifelink keep you healthy long enough to play devastating endgame monsters, or Deathtouch destroy a living fortress. Non-creature spells also help resolve these stalemates: Lightning Strike can damage an enemy beyond their minimum health, Stasis Field can bind their ability to attack, etc.

Our opponent then uses the abilities of their creatures and non-creatures to overcome these obstacles and create obstacles for us. Abilities are designed with this countering principle in mind. Opponents can intercept our flying creatures with beasts that have Reach, they can use Negate to cancel our Lightning Strike, they can destroy our Stasis Field with Citizen's Crowbar, etc. We may then head off or overcome those impasses, sending up more powerful flying creatures, Negating their Negate, or exiling that Crowbar. And matches consist of these bouncing counters as, with each back and forth, one player tries to amass more power than the other.

Whereas other card games often lock you into operating within a ruleset, in Magic, you can rewrite the rules in your favour. Think one of your creatures should have Flying that doesn't? Think your opponent should lose 1 life every time they draw a card? Think they shouldn't be able to target one of your creatures with a spell? All these rules can be written into the book. But don't get cocky because your opponent will be trying to cross out your rules and scribble in their own.

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Often, matches resolve by one player being able to cast plenty of beneficial cards while preventing their opponent from doing the same, such that the winning player can reinvest their power to get more power. Think of it like a stock buyback but with merfolk or the colour red. Players might boost the power of their creatures, letting them easily mop up enemy fighters, which only increases the gap in brawn between one player and the other. They might stun opposing creatures, giving them time to draw more cards and increase their available options.

Note that a health points system with a relatively low number of starting points means that if either player does not properly defend themselves, the other can quickly eliminate them. A small store of HP can be a more expedient means of resolving a game than counting up to a distant target number. If you end up in an imbalanced deathmatch in a shooter, all you can do is keep dying until your opponent reaches X kills, which could take a while. If you're in a one-sided hockey game, you just have to keep playing for the full 60 minutes. In Magic, it's not always pleasant to be on the receiving end of accumulating power, but when you are, you lose quickly and can move on to the next game without any wasted time.


Building and playing a deck effectively frequently involves exploiting synergies between the cards. That is, being conscious of how abilities, restrictions, and obstacles relate to each other and might be matched for the best results. Let's look at an example turn: I use my limited mana to summon Hallowed Priest, a weak creature that gets extra power and toughness when I gain life. I also unleash Electrostatic Infantry, a slightly stronger creature that gets more power and toughness when I cast a sorcery or instant spell. So, I have two pretty wimpy creatures down and haven't taken advantage of their unique effects. That's not exactly fearsome.

Now, imagine I play Impassionated Orator, a low-level creature that gives me 1 life whenever I play another creature, and Hallowed Priest. When I play Hallowed Priest, that will trigger Impassioned Orator's effect, which will give me 1 life, and when I get that 1 life, that will trigger Hallowed Priest's effect, which increases its stats. Or I could play Electrostatic Infantry and then Abrade. Abrade is an instant spell which does 3 damage to a creature. I could destroy an enemy and, at the same time, have Abrade trigger Electrostatic Infantry's effect, buffing it.

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Where, in the first example, we got two creatures down in their feeblest forms. In the second example, we got one creature in the trenches in a so-so state, but managed to upgrade the other, and gained a point of life. In the third example, I managed to play and power up a creature on the same turn and destroy an enemy creature. That's the power of harmonics between abilities. It's the rough equivalent of having a character in The Sims use a chair and TV at the same time to increase their fun and comfort or using your jump and attack simultaneously in Duck Game for an aerial attack. Note that Magic's play is nuanced enough that it doesn't just matter what cards we throw down but in what order. If we don't have Electrostatic Infantry on the battlefield when we play Abrade, then we won't trigger its boost ability. If we play Hallowed Priest before Impassioned Orator, then we won't trigger either of their abilities.

We must also consider how our entities will interface with our opponent's. That consideration is by no means unique to Magic; it's how any strategy game works. Still, a great strategy game can create many different dynamics between abilities and obstacles, each with significant and varied implications, which is what Magic does. If your opponent has played Call in a Professional, which prevents you from gaining life this turn, you'll want to shy away from the Impassioned Orator/Hallowed Priest Strategy, if at all possible. If your opponent has summoned Electrostatic Infantry, that's an indicator they'll be looking to power it up in subsequent turns. You could hold back some mana and a Counterspell card to prevent them both being able to activate the effect of a card like Abrade and stop them boosting Electrostatic Infantry in one fell swoop.

If your opponent is using cards that insta-kill individual creatures like Annihilating Glare or Bone Splinters, you might want to refrain from casting a few high-power creatures and go for many low-power ones. They can't take them all out. If they are using many low-power creatures to block yours, maybe try one with Trample like Titan of Industry or Glacial Crasher. It will deal damage to any creature blocking it, and then any damage in excess of the total toughness of the blocking creatures to your opponent.

Dynamics don't just exist between cards but also within them because a lot of them have this IF/THEN construction to their abilities. We saw this with Electrostatic Infantry, where IF we cast an instant or sorcery spell, THEN it gets more power and toughness. I'd also point to cards like Mystic Skyfish, that says IF you draw your second card in a turn, THEN it temporarily gains Flying. Or there's Angel of Vitality, that says that IF you gain life, THEN it will give you 1 extra life on top of it. The "IF"s cause their abilities to only trigger within certain contexts, meaning that players must both consider whether an entity's abilities are appropriate to the current context and whether they can use other abilities to create a context in which those abilities would achieve success. Or, in the case of the opponent's cards, a context in which those abilities would fail. One reason that Magic can support so many expansions is down to the interchangeability of the IF rules and the THEN rules. You can pair different IFs with many different THENs and many different THENs with many different IFs.


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A constituent of strategy games with these many synergies between abilities and obstacles is that within each strategic approach, you can find sub-strategies and sub-sub-strategies, branching downwards. A tall tactical tree gives the player plenty to learn and explore. In MTG, one macro-level strategy is to pool mana faster than your opponent to let you get more or stronger cards out sooner. But how are you going to get that mana? Creatures that let you tap them in exchange for mana? Spells that allow you to play more than one land card each turn? Cards that let you reuse the same land to produce more than one mana? Treasure tokens that you can sacrifice for one more mana for that turn? You'd likely prime your deck for a combination of these sub-strategies, but which do you use, and how much do you bend your tactics towards each one? That's a decision you'll have to make both when deck building and on a per-hand basis because, during a match, you won't have access to every card in the deck. You'll only have access to the contents of your hand.

If we go down the road of recruiting creatures that can supply mana, which creatures do we pick? How about Ilysian Caryatid, a 1/1 (that's 1 power, 1 toughness) plant that gives up 1 mana unless we have a creature with 4 or more power on the field, in which case it gives up 2? How about Citanul Stalwart, which produces mana if you disable one of your artifacts or creatures until the next turn, but comes in at half the cost? Or there's Llanowar Loamspeaker, a 1/3 druid who can add mana or temporarily turn one of your land cards into a 3/3 monster.

Each of these creatures, or more to the point, their abilities, offers advantages and disadvantages, meaning that you have different choices in the play here, and you're not just picking the same choice reskinned. You might be better off putting down the Caryatid if defence is not a priority, but high mana gain in the long term is. Citanul Stalwart is faster to get out than Caryatid, but is not as high yield as Caryatid in the mid and late game. Llanowar Loamspeaker is not as fast as Stalwart, nor can he even give up 2 mana like the Caryatid, but he offers a lot of offensive and defensive power for a creature you can play early. As a bonus, he allows you to switch from a mana-gathering strategy to a more aggressive posture quickly. Some Magic cards are valuable not just because of their precision at one task but because they allow you to multi-task.

Or maybe you don't want to go down the mana-maxxing route at all. You'd favour a deck that destroys creatures on the field regardless of their stats. If that's your style, you've got terrors like Bilious Skulldweller or Battlefly Swarm that are charmed with Deathtouch. You have instant spells like Infernal Grasp or Hero's Downfall that can take out an enemy at any time, as long as you have the mana. There are nightmares like Sheoldred or Gravelighter that demand the opponent sacrifices a card when they enter the field.

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But again, none of these is the strictly correct choice because none of their abilities overcomes all obstacles and restrictions. Unlike the creatures we discussed, Infernal Grasp and Hero's Downfall let you pick which minion gets destroyed, and you can cast them even on an opponent's turn. Yet, contrary to the creatures, once instant spells are used, they're used, whereas creatures are persistent. Creatures also come with the advantage that they can damage and block the opposing player. But the creatures I've named are also non-fungible.

Skulldweller is so cheap you can play it on the first turn of a game. You can do the same with Battlefly Swarm, plus it can fly, but unlike with Skulldweller, you need to pay 1 mana on any turn you want to activate its Deathtouch. Gravelighter can also fly and is stronger than either of those animals, but not only is it a bit more expensive, if you activate its power to make an opponent sacrifice a creature, it forces you to cull one of yours too. Sheoldred is the strongest and most expensive of these creatures, and you can sacrifice her to unleash a flooring barrage of spells over the next few turns. But Skulldweller and Swarm kill creatures by blocking them, whereas Sheoldred and Gravelighter just ask an opponent to pick a fighter to mulch. Sheoldred and Gravelighter are the least precise in who they target.

And again, in deploying these strategies, we must consider the cards (the obstacles) the opponent is rolling with. If your opponent starts playing fast-acting high-power creatures, you might not want to play weak mana-yielding creatures and instead switch to soldiers with higher defence before your foe zeroes out your health. But if your opponent can't do any significant damage to you right now, low-cost, weak mana crops are highly practical.

If your opponent is playing a lot of modestly-powered tokens, creatures with Deathtouch aren't much use because they'll only kill one attacker among many, maybe dying in the process. You might want to fight quantity with quantity. If you have creatures you can't afford to expend in a skirmish, using instant spells to kill enemies is an excellent strategy, but won't work on monsters that have Hexproof. Gravelighter is at an advantage if none of the opposing creatures have Flying or Reach, but at less of an advantage if they do. That is, unless you can kill off those creatures. And Sheoldred's brilliant if your opponent lacks strong cards, but it's not impossible to overpower her.


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To look back over the key points of this article, designers carve play through abilities, restrictions on those abilities, and obstacles, all of which they create relative to goals, and other abilities, obstacles, and restrictions. We can also take from Magic that it's not just necessary to have abilities, restrictions, and obstacles in a game, but that each ability of significant power must be met with restrictions or obstacles that specifically address it. And where entities have abilities, those specific entities must have the right restrictions applied to them and obstacles complimenting them. Magic provides a teachable example in that, in its play, not only do general principles of mana cost or blocking exist, but each creature that can be attacked must be blocked to prevent them from inflicting damage, and each creature that could be played is bounded by a cost. This is specificity in ability and restrictions. To abandon these rules for any one card would be to create an imbalanced entity.

If a game is intelligently designed, its restrictions, abilities, obstacles, and goals can relate to each other in many significantly different configurations. With enough different synergies between the entities in play, we must consider our actions based on context. Many different strategies become possible, creating variation and challenge, and allowing us to come up with inventive solutions to problems. Designers can create a galaxy of synergies between these elements by giving play entities just a few inherent characteristics and designing abilities that are not dependent on many others. For a game with a lot of controllable entities or where entities must feature all elements on their face, this is essential for making the game parseable.

But here's where I have to burst the bubble. In these examples, the Magic I've described is the game when it runs ideally, and in many matches, it's not that game. It becomes argumentative and dysfunctional, waging war on its own best features. At least half of the Magic: The Gathering games I play, I find irritating or demoralising, some to an extreme. In the future, I'll publish some blogs on the self-defeating aspects of Magic's design. But despite those objectionable matches and moments in which it squanders its potential, I keep playing Magic because when it goes right, Magic offers not just a tree of possibilities but a grove. Thanks for reading.


  1. You could also consider restrictions to be built into abilities or restrictions and obstacles to be a singular category. I don't think there's one correct framework through which to view these components of games, but I believe the one I've laid out here is helpful for understanding them.
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Rebound: The Design of Pinball

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Pinball is a brilliant invention. It resonates presence, it's mechanically ingenious, it's got a captivating history, and yet, so many of its tables are incredibly similar. As video gamers, we are used to seeing mechanics recur frequently in our media. Identical weapons pop up in shooter after shooter, and countless grid-based RPGs assign characters the same stats, like STR, DEX, and CHA. But even taking into account how standardised the mechanics of popular game genres are, pinball tables of the last thirty to forty years still feel markedly predictable. It's not just that you see the same parts make it onto countless tables (bumpers, ramps, kickers, rebounds, scoops, etc.); it's that the tables tend to place these parts in the same layout.

Common Design Tropes

Picture a pinball table with these design features:

  • A playfield angled towards the player.
  • Two flippers in the bottom middle with a space slightly larger than the ball in between them.
  • Two triangular "rebounds" above the flippers that the ball can bounce off of.
  • Two lanes to the left of the left rebound and the right of the right rebound. If the ball falls into one of the "inlanes" closer to the rebounds, it's safe, but if it falls down the "outlanes" closer to the table's edge, it drops off the board. That is, unless you have a "kicker" activated at the bottom of the outlane, which springs the ball back onto the board.
  • A table centre that is mostly empty space.
  • A bevvy of targets to hit at the far end of the playfield.
  • A chute on the far right side of the machine with a plunger at the base from which we initially deploy the ball.
  • "Missions" which task us with hitting certain board components in a certain order, with a large score bonus on offer for their completion.

That's eleven different features, all with a specific implementation and most with a consistent placement on the board. You wouldn't see a level design this crystallised take over all computer games, or even one genre of them, but this is the environment of most modern pinball tables. The basket of tropes above is so ubiquitous that a lot of players just see it as "pinball".

There are also trends that aren't universal in the craft but are very common. For example, bumpers grouped into sets of three or more, or "orbits": long curved lanes that wrap around the back of the board. So, what gives? Are pinball designers spent on ideas and stuck in their ways? Well, maybe to an extent, but when mechanics or formats come to consume entire game archetypes, it's because they serve some function. That doesn't necessarily justify their widespread use. A design component and its implementation can target a need, and seeing them everywhere could still be tiresome. However, if a design pattern has a purpose, its pervasiveness isn't arbitrary.

Mechanics Accommodating Mechanics


We looked at a set of design currents in pinball, and must now ask what purpose each of them serves. Many of the lynchpins of game design are there to let you experience the full range of interactions possible using the game's "core mechanics". Or, at least, the range of interesting interactions possible. The bread and butter of a shooter is gun combat, and most shooters include a shotgun, a sniper rifle, and mid-range pistols or rifles. Developers embed those guns because they let us explore firing over the complete spectrum of distances possible. Sniper rifles for long range, shotguns for short range, and the mid-range rifles for, you know. You'll also find weapons running the gamut of firing speeds from the slow, methodical rocket launcher through semi-automatics up to machine guns that madly belch bullets.

In a grid-based RPG, you must set the equipment and stats of a character to overcome problems. The most fundamental interactions between you and entities in their worlds involve you positioning your avatar relative to other characters or clicking on menus. Menus include dialogue menus and combat menus. So, plenty of RPGs let you solve problems in the dialogue system or combat system and give you stats to do both. Common solutions include using CHA for dialogue interactions and STR or DEX for combat interactions. Within the combat, you can place your character adjacent to enemies or at a distance from them, so the games give you stats that support attacking an enemy when next to them (STR) and when at range (DEX). To reiterate that succinctly, these tools (STR, DEX, CHA) keep appearing in this genre because they're the ones that let us scour the genre's systems (dialogue menus, grid-based positioning, grid-based attacks). You can pick almost any game that lets you interact with its entities using a wide variety of tools, pick one variable in those interactions, and observe how the tools cover the full spectrum of that variable.

Properties of the Ball

The spine of pinball play is using the flippers to hit the ball and having that ball hit targets. It's very satisfying to be able to take such a rich medium and describe it in a single sentence like that. Remember those guns from our FPS example that let you experience all the properties a firearm could have? The ball in pinball has two properties that a component on the table could directly alter: speed and direction. Starting with speed, an element on the table could increase the speed of the ball, reduce it, or drain it entirely. Let's look at components and how they alter that variable.

The ball's speed can be increased by flippers, the launcher at the side of the table, "active" bumpers that push the ball when they hit it, or, in rarer circumstances, by magnets that accelerate the ball. The ball may also speed up through the simple process of descending an incline, either the overall slant of the table towards the player or a ramp. Ramps have an incline in addition to the table's existing gradient, making for a faster descent. The steeper the designer sets a surface, the faster the ball will accelerate down it. A smooth ball and table material ensure the ball isn't slowed by friction.

The ball's speed can be decreased by the opposite: forcing its way up the table or ramp against the slope. Here, steepness reduces speed. When the ball hits objects that don't actively push back against it, like "passive bumpers" or the machine walls, it will also lose some of its momentum to them. Losing enough velocity causes the ball to stop, but the angle of the table means that it starts speeding up again soon after, maintaining the game's fast pace and ensuring that the ball is returned to the flippers so the player can keep playing. There are, similarly, parts of tables that can stop a ball dead in its tracks, like a magnet or scoop, but you'll see that they quickly release the ball or dispense another ball in its place.

The ball's direction changes when it bounces off of anything. Its new direction is determined by the angle at which it impacted the other surface, the angle of the surface it touched, the ball's speed, and, in the rare case that the other object is moving, that object's velocity. Active bumpers may nudge the ball further in one direction, ramps can shift the ball along the Y-axis, and ramps, rails, and lanes channel it along the X and Z-axis. Tables often include "orbits", lanes that wrap around their back, partly because they allow the spectacle of the ball travelling down a curved lane and because they allow for a longer journey than would be possible with a straight lane. The ball's direction isn't just affected because it follows the paths of ramps, rails, and lanes but also because the shapes of those channels mean it will be moving in a certain direction when it exits them. And finally, there's that angle of the table again, hungry to return the ball to a downward velocity.

There are a couple more relevant properties of the ball: position and rotation. However, outside of software, there's no such thing as a teleporter, so no component can change the ball's position arbitrarily. That is, you can't suddenly write new X, Y, and Z coordinates for the ball to exist at and have it immediately appear at them. You can achieve the same effect by having a ball disappear from one spot on the table and dispensing another ball at another location, but mostly, the position of the ball is altered by changing its velocity, as velocity is how much something changes position over time and in what direction. This is why we have ramps or lanes that output the ball in a certain direction or bumpers and targets that deflect it along a specific vector. They allow the designer to influence the ball's position. As for rotation, because the ball is spherical, it is identical on all sides, so rotation does not change its appearance or how it behaves as a gameplay element.

Properties of Table Components

In these interactions between the ball and table elements, we've discussed how the ball might be affected. We've not yet discussed how the designer might explore the possible characteristics of components, either in themselves or in how they react to a hit from the ball. Like the ball, parts built into the table may also move position, either rotationally or by sliding along an axis. So, you have drop targets that fall downwards when hit. Conceivably, a target could move in any direction when punched, but it moving in many of those directions would block parts of the table or be difficult to implement technically, so they tend to drop down. Targets may also shift position without being hit, responding to changes in the table's mode or other gameplay events. Once in a blue moon, you will face a continuously moving target, but they can take up copious space and are a fair bit of work to implement. As for table components changing their rotation, that's what spinners and hanging targets do.

There are even rollovers, parts on the table that the ball interacts with without undergoing any change in velocity. You will recognise them as those lights that turn on when the ball glides over them. Unlike the ball, environmental components may also be mechanically equipped to emit certain sounds or light up and may have different shapes. It is empowering for the player to see elements react to being hit. The spinner spins, and the drop target drops for the same reasons that enemies in shoot 'em ups might explode upon dying, or the ball in a golf video game might leave a trail behind it. It lets the participant know that their actions are affecting the environment, and it underscores the speed and force of the object they control.

Making Level Elements Accessible


In pinball, as in video games, it's not just the entities themselves but the relative positioning and orientation of entities that determines the player's experience with them. A ? block on the ground demands a different mode of interaction than one in the air. A trampoline in front of a pit facilitates a different experience than one sitting below a line of enemies. Designing a pinball table is designing a level, and two key concepts in level design are enabling applications of player powers and enabling interaction with target items.

A Sniper Rifle in an FPS is no use if the level doesn't include long sight lines. In an RPG, there's no point in an AoE spell that our INT might boost if enemies don't cluster together. So, pinball tables are designed in such a way as to make many of those interactions with ramps, spinners, bumpers, etc., that I described above possible when firing the ball from the flippers. The pinball community often describes tables and assesses their quality by looking at the "shots" possible on them. A shot is effectively made up of the path the ball travels from the flipper to a table component and potentially any routing a component like a ramp or a scoop. Note that the ball is usually shiny enough to catch your eye and looks the same whatever way it is rotated so you can immediately identify where it is in relation to table parts and act accordingly.

The Flippers

The need for ready access to components is why the flippers sit at the bottom of the table. Flippers propel the ball up the table instead of down it, so placing every target above the flippers is the only way the player can use the flippers to hit the targets. Try to imagine what would happen if you placed targets on the table below the flippers. You also get flippers positioned right above the out zone so that the player has the chance to save the ball before it tumbles out of play. Older pinball tables in the bagatelle style lacked this geography, and it makes it always feel unfair when the ball falls into the pit.

Unprotected out zones on the Fire Mountain remake in Zaccaria Pinball.
Unprotected out zones on the Fire Mountain remake in Zaccaria Pinball.

Flippers at the foot of the table usually come in multiples of two because each is angled down and to the left or down and to the right. These different angles not only mean the ball rolls into the out zone if it lands on the flipper and you don't hit it fast enough, but they also allow the flippers different trajectories at which they can shoot the ball. The conventional "left" flipper has more access to the right side of the table, while the conventional "right" flipper has more access to the left side. Put both the left and right flippers in a machine, and the player gets access to the full table and all the components and interactions possible across it. Note that the player only receives this reach as long as the flippers at the nadir of the table have their hinge closer to the outside of the table and slope towards the pit. If you vertically inverted the flippers so that the hinge was closer to the inside edge, they would mostly shoot the ball into the wall.

The rough trajectory range of the flippers on Gottlieb's Jet Spin.
The rough trajectory range of the flippers on Gottlieb's Jet Spin.

The designer can insert more left flippers than right or more right than left further up the table, and this may be appropriate. However, at the root of the table, doing this creates a heavy bias of access to one side of the table over the other. So, designers usually keep an equal number of left and right flippers at the table's base. If designers are after an equal number of left and right flippers, you might ask, why not go wild and include four or six? Some tables go that route, such as Red and Ted's Roadshow by Williams or Jungle Queen from Gottlieb. By making the player keep track of the ball in relation to more than two flippers, you extend one axis of difficulty. Large additional flippers will also provide the player with slightly wider access to the table, but there are drawbacks too.

The additional complication of more flippers may make the table too chaotic, or the increased access and safety net they provide could shear away at the machine's difficulty. You also have to consider that when designing the table, space is a precious commodity, and every component you add takes up more of it. As we'll discover, there are a lot of parts that are worth having in the bottom third of the table to enhance the experience, and more flippers drive them out of those spots they'd otherwise occupy. The flippers often steal those components' seats to add experiences to the table that are only slightly different from those the player can already tap into. You could reasonably argue that there's a subtlety between the trajectory of one left flipper and another right next to it. However, there are also a lot of players who are going to see that identical part in a very similar place doing a very similar job as redundant. The player knows there could be a different part doing a very different job in that spot.

To fit extra flippers into the bottom third of the table, the designer may have to make them smaller, which not only makes the window in which a ball will connect with a flipper frustratingly slim, it can also clip the utility of the flippers. The further a ball can travel up or down a flipper, the more distinct points along it the player can fire the ball from. The more distinct points along the flipper the player can fire the ball from, the more angles they can fire it away from the flippers at. The more angles they can fire it away from the flipper at, the more agency they have and the better their access to different targets on the table.

If the designer wants to add more flippers, they can install them further up the board and maybe even at eccentric angles. If they do that, the new flippers can facilitate interactions more distinct than extra flippers at the bottom of the table would allow. It's a means to increase the diversity of experiences on that table. This is especially true if the flippers are at different angles or are different sizes than those at the base of the machine, which is why you often see designers install them in that configuration. As flippers allow access to parts, new flippers call for new targets to aim for, enabling target layouts that would otherwise be questionable.

Pinball for the NES.
Pinball for the NES.

The Middle Third

The void between the bottom and top of the board means the ball is not blocked from hitting the components in the top third. You can see the importance of this negative space in Pinball for the NES. Pinball jams up the main thoroughfare of the table with bumpers and pegs, and as a result, you often feel like your ball barely has the chance to take flight before it comes crashing down again, that all the shots you take are truncated. The middle section becomes a bouncer to the party of targets in the upper third.

Returning the Ball to the Flippers

Another key idea in keeping the player in control and giving them entry to the full board is routing the ball back to the flippers regularly. The player's interactions with the table happen via the ball, and the player's interactions with the ball happen via the flippers. So, transitively, it's the flippers through which the player plays the game. Therefore, if the ball is not at the flipper at any one time, the player has little power over the game outcome, means to declare intentions, means to test their skill, or means to earn rewards or punishments. Going too long without letting the player shoot the ball in pinball is like having the player go too long without changing course in a flight sim, too long without directing a unit in an RTS, or too long without throwing the controller across the room in a bullet hell. It is a basic form of interaction, even if the ideal timings between course changes in a flight sim or commands in an RTS could differ from the optimal gaps between pinball flips.

How quickly the ball should return to the player is a matter of taste that starkly divides pinball fans. They often categorise tables into "flow" and "stop and go" variants. On flow tables, the path of the ball is continuous and unbroken. It gracefully completes the arcs you hurl it into and quickly returns to your hands, meaning that the pace of the game is relentless. This pattern is at work in Williams's The Getaway: High Speed II and Demolition Man. A stop and go table varies the pacing, halting or slowing the ball's movement with parts like magnets, scoops, and bushels of bumpers, giving a little more bite when the ball collides with something. Naturally, it takes longer for the ball to return to the flippers, leaving the player out of control more of the time, but giving them breathing room and creating peaks and valleys in intensity. Examples include Williams's Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure and Bally's Who Dunnit.

Williams's FishTales simulated in Pinball FX3. The arrows show paths that the ball can take out of lanes back towards the flippers.
Williams's FishTales simulated in Pinball FX3. The arrows show paths that the ball can take out of lanes back towards the flippers.

The simplest means by which the ball can return to the flippers is to follow the slant of the table, but many lanes or ramps also angle their exits so that when the ball flies out of them, it will do so on a path back to the flippers. It's further the job of the inlanes to neatly deliver the ball back to our tiny mechanical digits. For our purposes, we're taking the inlanes to consist of those little lanes above the flippers and the angled pieces of hard material under them that have the ball roll back towards the flippers.

The lower third of Chicago Gaming Company's Pulp Fiction.
The lower third of Chicago Gaming Company's Pulp Fiction.

The existence of the inlanes means that a ball landing at the bottom of the table has more chance of reaching the flippers. Note also that if the ball rolls towards the flipper from the inlane, it will travel the full length of the flipper if left alone. As the inlane couriers the ball to the flipper, the player gets the chance to shoot the ball away from it at any angle they want, giving them access to a wide set of targets on the board. And if the ball rolls towards the flipper from the inlane, an experienced player will know they can "catch" it, raising the flipper to slow the ball. When the ball is slower, it is easier to control. Thanks inlane.

A ball caught behind the left flipper on Pinball FX3's Jaws table.
A ball caught behind the left flipper on Pinball FX3's Jaws table.

Managing Tension

The Importance of Texture

I don't want to create the impression that the goal of the pinball designer is to make every component on the table as accessible as possible. There are "fan" tables, like Williams's Terminator 2: Judgment Day or Bally's Attack from Mars. They're so named because the potential elements are all accessed via shots that fan out from the flippers, but there is an argument that pinball should give substantial resistance to players trying to hit certain targets. Like any game, pinball can leave room for interactions that are easier to initiate and yield mild rewards and interactions that are harder to initiate and pay generously.

Desirable and Undesirable Positions

In pinball, as in any spatial game, there are positions for entities to exist at that are beneficial for us and positions that are detrimental for us. In a platformer, having your position intersect with an enemy's position results in failure, but having your position match the goal's position results in success. Positions take on relative desirabilities based on the goal. So, having your avatar near an enemy is bad, but getting it closer to the goal is good. This is actually true of all variables in gameplay: a higher fuel variable will be desirable in a vehicular simulator, more spell slots may be desirable in an RPG, etc. Because proximities to certain elements in spatial games can be positive or negative, the speed and direction of entities, which will alter the positions of entities on future frames, can also be positive or negative. If your jump arc in an action-adventure will propel you over a pit, that's good. Into the pit, that's bad.

Developers design levels with the knowledge that their stage design can lead players into or out of these desirable or undesirable positions. However, the game becomes dull if the player can always stay a long way from an undesirable position or any undesirable play state. If the player doesn't regularly run the risk of losing something or failing, the game lacks tension. So, the design needs to place the player in undesirable positions.

The problem is that the player will see themselves being forced into undesirable positions as unfair. This was the flaw of the pit design we mentioned that would deliver the ball off the table without giving the player a chance to intercept it. The designer can avoid forcing the player into undesirable states by having the player land in that position through failure to complete a reasonable task like catching an incoming ball in time or skiing through a gate. Designers can also achieve this effect by incentivising players to place themselves in harm's way. Perhaps they need to move into an enemy's attacking range to attack them back or have the opportunity to drive close to a wall to take the inside curve and outspeed other drivers. Positions that are undesirable in one sense thereby become desirable in another, and players will try to enter into them if they think the desirability of that position outweighs the undesirability.

Desirability and the Flippers

In pinball, we see this combination of the desirable and undesirable in the flippers existing just above the "out zone". To gain control over the ball and shoot it where we want it, we must also place it very close to the point of failure. We can't take a chunk of bait unless we swim right up to the hook. That sense of precarity is increased by uncertainty about which flipper we might need to use and when we might need to use it when the ball is in the top or middle third of the table.

Although, sometimes, the ball bounces so many times in a second or two, with such gusto, it doesn't feel reasonable for the table to expect me to predict where it will land. Aiding this chaos are the rebounds: the triangular bumpers that often feature on tables above the flippers. A rebound could ricochet the ball up into a target or away from the out zone, and the possibility of getting that bonus is exciting. It could deflect the ball downwards into the danger zone. It could also move the ball that hits it laterally, quickly changing what flipper you're expected to react with, keeping you on your toes. While we often talk about tests of skill and random outcomes in games as mutually exclusive, games frequently test our skill by giving us a random event to react to. In action games, this often happens at a moment's notice. This dynamic ensures tension and surprise without our success or failure being out of our control. In pinball, which flipper the ball lands on can be challenging to predict, but either way, we have the tools to deal with it.


We've covered most of the components that appear on the bottom third of the average pinball table: the energetic flippers, the helpful inlanes, and the wild cards: the rebounds. Now we have to check in on the crotchety old man that is the outlanes. Existing closer to the wall than the inlanes, these slots potentially deliver your ball straight into oblivion without any chance to hit it with the flippers. To me, that almost always feels like the table cheating. I get that same feeling when the ball falls directly down the gap between the flippers without touching either one.

You might wonder why the outlanes always exist closer to the wall than the inlanes, and the answer is just that the opposite would require that the inlanes somehow cut across the outlanes to return the ball to the flippers.

From a commercial perspective, outlanes can ensure that even a player who has mastered the use of the flippers might still lose the ball and need to cough up more change to keep playing. If I'm being polite, the outlanes encourage the player to seek a wider range of methods to keep the ball in play beyond hitting it with the flippers. The player may be able to nudge the ball away from the mouth of the outlane and can sometimes complete tasks on the table to temporarily activate a save at the bottom of an outlane, returning any stray balls. The same applies for the gap between the flippers.

The Launch Chute

This is a good time to mention that the chance to launch the ball via the chute can also encourage the player to face tension again after the sting of defeat. Even spawning in the ball is something the player takes an active part in rather than passively observing, and if the table has a mechanical plunger, they get to feel the spring snap of the launch pad and see the ball rocketing a path towards glory. Of course, if the player just lost their last ball, the chance to send another one up the chute is also a reason to insert another quarter.

Uncertainty and the Bottom Third

Because the ball has a good chance of hitting a number of different components at the bottom of the board, the degree of uncertainty is again high. The ball could land in an outlane, in an inlane, on a rebound, on a flipper, or in the gap between the flippers. Variety and tension persist here because of the differing implications for the play that each part creates:

  • The flipper gap or an outlane spend our ball if we don't have the requisitive savers on.
  • A guarded outlane or flipper gap save our ball but may spend their guard doing so.
  • A rebound semi-randomises the trajectory of the ball.
  • The ball hitting the flipper demands we react quickly, and if it hits somewhere we can't "catch" the ball from, we must strike with less chance to decide where on the flipper we take the shot from.
  • If the ball lands in the inlane, we get more power over the speed and trajectory of the ball and more time to consider our shot.

If all the parts at the bottom of the board had the same or similar functions in the play, there would be no tension in where the ball is going to land or reason for the player to care about where it lands. If the player doesn't care about where the ball lands, they also don't have any reason to modify its path. In pinball, as in all games, uncertainty is also a motivation to play again after the session is over. Skill at a game may improve imperceptibly slowly, but if the game is unpredictable, there's always the chance that the player will be more fortunate on the next play.

Table Structure

The Three-Section Model

This standard bottom third of the pinball table in which we have two flippers, two inlanes, and two outlanes is called, scandalously, "An Italian Bottom". That name goes back to a request for the European release of Bally's 1979 table Paragon to include this layout. It's also standard for the lower third to have two triangular rebounds above the flippers. In this article, we've cut pinball tables into three regions. The bottom third of the table is responsible for dropping the ball out of play, but we can also use it to shoot the ball up the table. The middle third of the table is mostly empty and is the open air our shots travel through. The top third is a canopy of juicy targets for us to swat at.

Alternative Layouts

Not all tables conform to this trifurcation, just like not all tables have an Italian Bottom. Older, bagatelle-style pinball machines tend to have targets all over the board as they're more about the ball falling down through the play space than being pushed upwards. This idea of the three-nation table is also complicated by "upper playfields". Some tables, like Bally's The Shadow or Flash Gordon, include a sort of mini pinball table, complete with its own walls and flippers in their top section. The separate playfield can't live in the bottom third because there are already flippers and other components there. It can't usually live in the middle third either because the designer often can't block the middle area of the table for reasons we've discussed.

The upper third of Bally's The Shadow. The upper playfield is visible in the top left. Photo by Christopher Wolf.
The upper third of Bally's The Shadow. The upper playfield is visible in the top left. Photo by Christopher Wolf.

Upper playfields are divisive in both senses of the word. Some players feel that they break the cohesion and consistency of the table. When their ball is locked in the pocket dimension of the upper playfield, the player also can't experience the full range of interactions that you get on a good table because they can't reach most of the parts. But it's not all bad news.

There's an increased variation and depth you get to your table by adding this second table inside it, and that second table has unique dynamics. Because the upper playfield is smaller than the environment overall, when the ball's inside it, it takes less time to reach its target and return to the flippers, quickening the tempo and demanding faster reaction times from the player. Arbitrarily increasing the requisite reaction time might seem unfair, but the game balances that increased difficulty against reduced punishment for failure. If you lose the ball in the upper playfield, you don't lose a life; you just leave that particular play area.

Regulating Rewards

Fixed and Increasing Rewards

Clusters of bumpers also allow for successes or failures through actions localised to one area of the table. If you have a lone bumper, the ball bounces off and flies somewhere else on the table. That's sometimes what the designer wants. It's an energetic and potentially stochastic interaction. However, if you have a copse of bumpers, you effectively get a new part because the ball can bounce between them continuously, racking up points or other rewards. Again, tension results from uncertainty because, with each bounce, there's a chance the ball will hit a bumper again, increasing the point count, or fly out, ending that score chain.

As the player can become numb to getting the same reward regularly, some tables, like Bally's aptly named Bumper, have the score increase with each successive bumper hit. The player stays engaged because the next hit is less likely than the last but also more valuable. The diminishing emotional reward of receiving the same points payouts repeatedly is also why many tables, like Stern's AC/DC and Williams's Fishtales, let the player increase their score multiplier or the bonus they get after losing a ball or completing missions.

Varying Rewards

In general, pinball tables, like any other game, keep the player engaged by varying the amount of reward across time. In an MMO, some loot sources will give more valuable items than others. In roulette, some spins will yield greater rewards than other spins. Pinball varies the amount of reward over time, not just through having different targets output different point amounts, but also through missions that require the player to hit certain targets in a prescribed order. A player will receive small points caches by hitting targets, then one large point drop at the end of the mission.


Accommodating Different Interest Levels

While pinball is a physical game, missions are an intangible design component that ties all the physical parts together. You can find the same dynamics in video games with the rules, visuals, and audio accompanying the circuitry and controllers. By allowing the player to pursue or ignore missions, modern pinball tables offer something for both the casual and experienced player.

Someone unwashed in the chaotic waters of pinball and looking for some quick fun can play the table in its default sandbox state, trying to generally hit targets and see how many points they can accrue doing so. But keep doing this, and the game can feel aimless. The player also gets better at hitting specific targets over time and will likely want to see that accuracy rewarded. That's where the missions come in. By asking the player to hit specific targets at specific times, designers ensure player shots are premeditated and a result of skill instead of flukes. That more focused mode can engross the experienced player.

Varying Types of Goal

The inclusion of missions also allows the designer to placate both players who like open-ended goals and closed-ended goals. The participant who wants an open-ended goal can see how high a score they can accumulate, and the one oriented towards closed-ended goals can focus on beating all the missions or the final mission of the table where applicable.

Game Feel

As Steve Swink notes in the invaluable textbook Game Feel, a designer can use goals and level design to give physical interactions in the game meaning.[1] Goals are also a protocol by which to direct players to the manoeuvres that have the best feel. On a pinball table, for example, we might decide that hitting a ball diagonally across the table into a springy pop bumper is satisfying. Therefore, the flipper and pop bumper may be placed to facilitate that shot, and one or more missions may ask the player to take it. Those interactions and that feel are a result of the base mechanics of the game, the level (or table) design, and the mission objectives.

Timed Missions

Most missions on pinball tables are timed. They are comparable to the timed missions in video games in that they ratchet up the tension as they progress. As your proximity to the goal is steadily increasing, your time with which to reach the goal steadily decreases. Having the clock hit that ultimate 0 in pinball is not as infuriating as it is in many video games, however, because it doesn't cause you to lose; it just ends the mission.


One of my favourite parts about video games is seeing how designers use physical components, rules, and play scenarios together to create metaphors for ideas external to the game. It's one of my favourite features of pinball as well. Zaccaria's Combat has long rails over the table to simulate the flight paths of planes. The same company's Circus exists in a constant multiball, giving you the experience of juggling the balls. Spooky's Total Nuclear Annihilation has an upper playfield in which your ball does an impression of a particle pinging around in a nuclear reactor. Pinball FX3's Sorcerer's Lair features a mission in which we must escape ghosts by running through the back passages of a haunted house. It has us roleplay that by shooting the ball through covered lanes where it temporarily disappears.


It never stops amazing me how complex and instructive deconstructing even a relatively simple game can be. In pinball, we find lessons that can teach us about the interactivity, player agency, accessibility, and sense of purpose in any video game, while pinball machines themselves are keen applications of all those concepts. I'll never launch a ball the same way again. Thanks for reading.


  1. Swink, S. (2009). Game Feel: A Game Designer's Guide to Virtual Sensation. Elsevier, Inc. (p. 18-20).