giovedì 4 agosto 2016

S2 #1 - "The Importance of Being Rarest"

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The Lion's Lair 2


"The Importance of Being Rarest"

Welcome to the second series of The Lion's Lair. Expect articles to be released without any periodicity. The Lion's Lair is my series of articles about Magic: the Gathering and custom card design in particular. You can find the index of the first series here.

Articles will only be published here. I tried to use my (MTGS) user blog as I always had before, but it didn't work anymore. I checked and those blogs seem to have stopped working last January, eight months ago. Because of that, I'll post articles here, but there will always be a link to them in my MTGS signature. As I'm quite active in the MTGS Custom Card Contests and Games subforum, it shouldn't be a problem to find it for MTGS users.

This article will explain why rarity is a fundamental part of a Magic card, and why you should totally include it in every custom card you'll ever design.

A short history

If you want to see how the use of rarity has evolved in the 23 years (as of this article's writing) of Magic history since 1993, a convenient source to start with is the MTGS wiki page on rarity. The big shift happened with Exodus, the first set to have the rarity of each card reflected by the color of the expansion symbol. Today we're used to that, and for many players (myself included) things have always been as they are today because they started playing later. In 1998, I personally didn't even know Magic existed (it would have been that way for seven more years, then it entered my life and it never left ever since), but that doesn't justify anything. Before then, to quote the wiki page, "up until that point, you had to learn rarity from card lists. One of the most important things about trading in the early days was being aware of what rarity each card was."

What I want to underline is that it's not that before Exodus rarity didn't exist and all cards were the same rarity. There were a lot of different rarities, even more than today if you count the different subsets of each rarity separately (C1, C2, etc...), there just wasn't any indication on a card about which rarity it belonged to, and you had to rely on external sources to learn it. I personally think that made trading fairly a lot harder, but again I have the mindset of a player who has always played with the differently colored expansion symbols. Those who were playing back in the day might confirm or deny my own impression. Anyway, the concept of rarity has existed since the very beginning of the game (Alpha). Never in the history of the game has rarity not existed at all as a concept.

Maro told us many times of what he calls the "golden trifecta", meaning the three things that Richard Garfield invented as he created Magic that are the backbone of the game. Those are the mana system, the color pie, and the trading card game genre. I'm mentioning this here because that last point, the trading card game genre, kind of requires cards of different rarities. Garfield probably expected players to want to trade not only for the most powerful cards, but also for the most rare ones. Those two aspects are what the two broad categories of people interested in Magic would have looked after: the former would have been what the players wanted, the latter the collectors. Now, I totally understand the people who think that collectors actually hurt the game by making the card prices in the secondary market raise too much, and I kind of agree with that, but I also understand the importance of the "collecting" part of Magic. That part would be certainly much weaker without rarity, and the increase of sales after the introduction of the mythic rarity in Shards of Alara could be an indicator of that (even if it also has other causes too). Anyway, we mainly-players must acknowledge the importance that the word "trading" in "trading card game" has, just like the mainly-collectors should recognize the "game" part and remember that Magic is NOT an economic investment, and I won't reiterate that enough in my life. A trading card game (here with emphasis on the "trading" part) probably wouldn't be that successful without chase rares, which in turn couldn't exist without rarity.

Points of Authority

(Yes, I'm a big Linkin Park fan for those that don't know...)

Among the references in that wiki page, an article by Maro is quoted. As the link there is dead, I'll put a working link to it here. In that article, Maro lists many reasons why a card can need to be rare. While the article is from 2002, the same reasons are still totally valid today, and even more since the introduction of New World Order (we'll talk about that later). So, quoting directly from that article, the reasons cards can need to be rare are:
  1. They’re too complex to be common or uncommon
  2. They have rules complications we don’t wish to put in common or uncommon
  3. They’re too wordy and require microtext (a smaller font) which requires them to be rare
  4. They’re big creatures or big spells that need to be rare to keep their specialness
  5. They’re cool, unique creatures or spells that need to be rare to keep their specialness
  6. They’re narrow cards created for constructed (and not limited)
  7. They’re cards that prove disruptive to sealed or draft and are made rare to minimize their appearance in limited formats
  8. They’re cards that could be uncommon or rare but there’s no room left in uncommon
  9. They’re part of a rare cycle
  10. We need to make the card rare to keep a balance of “good” cards throughout the three rarities

Please notice that he's not saying "if these are true, the card is more likely to be rare, but it can still exist at common or uncommon". No, he's saying that cards that meet those criteria must be rare or not exist at all. I know this can sound harsh and that it can be a bit of a generalization, but it's just like that. You can just read the article to know more about each single point, and I'm going to touch upon some of them myself in the rest of this article.


For starters, rarity hugely affects limited. Imagine a limited format where all cards are equally available, or where all cards have the same rarity, or where rarity doesn't exist (those different expressions are all synonyms). Bombs would be much more available, so you'd see them everywhere, in every match you play. No one would play anything else than bombs and direct answers to them. By the way, the bombs and the answers to them being the same rarity would already alter the dynamics in draft and the process of card selection: just take bombs and answers and ignore all the rest, you don't need it anymore. No room for creativity or offbeat strategies: try those and get stomped by the bombs being everywhere. No room for variance between drafts, all of them would look very similar, as would the games. I play a bomb, you remove it, you cast one of yours, I remove it, and so on until one of us runs out of answers. While I admit that's a play style I do personally like, it would get repetitive soon enough, and there are many players who wouldn't like it at all to start with. In the end, it doesn't look like fun gameplay for the majority of people.
Rarity goes a long way in distributing cards for limited such that oppressive, unfun, or too complex cards don't become dominating. Rarity is one of the most important and influencing tools by which each limited format is shaped. A common and a rare, let alone a mythic, behave very differently in limited. They serve very different purposes: commons (and uncommons) are the backbone of a limited format, rares (and mythics) where the bombs and the splashiness are. You just can't make a bomb common or a basic effect rare. This means that the different rarities are different categories that are not the same. If they're meant to be different, you can't mix them all together like if there were a single one. That's what you're doing when you're not including rarity in a custom card: you're treating those different categories as if they were all the same. But they are not!

Complexity and New World Order

Another thing that affects rarity is complexity. It can easily keep a card from being common or uncommon and require it to be rare, even if there are different kinds of complexity and some are fine at common, while others aren't. Without going too deep, as I have already written an article all about complexity in the first series and both Maro and other people much more qualified than me have written a lot of material on the subject, there are three main kinds of complexity:

Comprehension complexity: how hard a card's text is to understand. The question answered here is: if you read a card only once, do you immediately understand what that card does? If you need to read it more than once, or think a lot about it just to understand what its text means, than we have a problem in this area. This kind of complexity is both the most evident and painful for a new or less experienced player, because if they can't even understand what a card does, how can they play it at all, let alone play it correctly? This kind of complexity is definitely not allowed at common, while it is at higher rarities. This is another example where something is acceptable at a certain rarity and not at another. Again, rarities are different categories with different features and purposes, you can't say it doesn't matter and just mix them all together. A card like Warp World is fine at rare, but it just can't be common, and if you were to design it as a custom card without including rarity you would be implicitly saying it could be common as well as uncommon, rare, or mythic and it makes no difference. No, there is a difference! If you put it at rare it's fine, if you put it at common it can't even exist in the first place.

Board complexity: when you play the card, how much and in which ways does it affect the battlefield? Does it generate a hard-to-follow decision tree by just sitting there on the battlefield? Does it complicate combat by having abilities that can alter combat math out of nowhere if a player doesn't keep track of it? A little of this kind of complexity can be acceptable at common, but most of it is better left for higher rarities. A "lord" like Imperious Perfect (it's not by chance that I'm taking my example from Lorwyn block, the one where this particular kind of complexity was the highest in modern Magic design) could be printed at uncommon at the time even if today it would most likely be rare, but anyway you'll never see it at common. Again, differences between rarities that you're not acknowledging by making them all one and the same.

Strategic complexity: how easy is it to play the card properly, so that you get the most out of it? This kind of complexity is the most acceptable at common because new and less experienced players don't see it. This concept is at the core of what Maro calls "lenticular design", and the card that he mentions as an example is even a common: [card]Black Cat[/card]. For once, an area where being common or rare doesn't make a difference! Too bad it's going to be the only one...

All of this led to New World Order (NWO). NWO impacts rarity by dictating rules only commons are subject to. The MTGS user Doombringer wrote an excellent primer about it, and you can check both it and Maro's article I just linked to for further readings and insights. Those resources would be useless if there were no difference between common and higher rarities. The point I want to make here is that NWO is a set of rules that only applies at common. Rares have their own rules too (see before), and they're quite different. A card can't satisfy both set of rules at the same time. And those sets of rules have their own reasons to be there: NWO to keep complexity in check for newer players, the rare set of rules mainly for limited. Again, different rules because there is an intrinsic difference between rarities that you just can't ignore. Additional material can be found in some Latest Developments articles by Sam Stoddard:

There's probably more I didn't find at this moment. Anyway, notice how each of those articles is different. Just a single article would have sufficed if rarity didn't matter.

Mana cost and power level

While they don't really like to talk about this, rarity also clearly affects the mana costs. The same effect, or the same size of creatures, will usually cost less at high rarity, all other conditions being the same. That means that, in general, rares will be more powerful than commons, even if power level is relative to the format. A limited powerhouse might see no Standard play but still need to be rare for limited. At the contrary, a card that somehow is very powerful in constructed but creates no problem in limited could theoretically be a common if it still meets NWO. Here again we see there is a difference among rarities.

The thrill of the opening

As the last, and weakest in my opinion, point I'll mention this: rarity also allows you to live the excitement of wondering what your rare will be when opening a pack, a thrill that many players like (I expect most of those players to be Timmies). If all cards were equal in rarity, you'd certainly look for powerful cards when you open a pack, but you won't have the same thrill, the same hope to find something special in your rare slot, which I personally don't feel that much but many players do.

A counterpoint: reprints

In the discussion that originated this article, it was brought up to me as a counterpoint that cards can be reprinted at a different rarity. That's obviously true, and there are many actual examples of all kinds of shift upwards and downwards in rarity. The counterpoint was that a card that today would be common could be reprinted as an uncommon in the future, and that makes rarity an uncertain and not-determined-beforehand feature of a card. In a vacuum, a common card could be reprinted as a rare or vice versa. While obviously acknowledging that such shifts happen, I just ask: why do they happen? What has changed between the card's original common printing and the hypothetical uncommon or rare reprint? The answers can be essentially two, and one doesn't exclude the other. The first is that the design and development principles have changed. What was once acceptable at common, now no longer is. The other is that it depends on the limited environment: different blocks have different needs.

But do these reasons invalidate the point that rarity is a fundamental part of the card? No, they don't. It's just that that particular part of the card is the only one that's allowed to change between different printings of the same card. Usually, when one of us designs a custom card, whether it's for a custom set, a contest, or just for fun, we do so following today's standards and contemporary design principles. To say it in another way, we're using today's rules. If the rules change tomorrow, we'll change our behavior then, but until then we just know how things are supposed to be today. So this is not a problem about rarity, but about our obvious impossibility as human beings to know the future in advance. For example, say R&D tomorrow decides that NWO is a huge mistake and throws it out the window. Suddenly, a lot more things become acceptable at common, and that could turn a card that today is uncommon into a common if reprinted. If I were to design that card as a custom card, today the right rarity for it is uncommon, and tomorrow it will be common, but the card is never a common and an uncommon at the same time. At a determined point in time, the right rarity for a card will always be defined, and that's what matters. That doesn't contradict anything I've said until now in this article or elsewhere.


In the end, you can't just say "I don't put rarity on my cards because they could be at any rarity they need to be": a common is just fundamentally different than a rare, they serve different purposes and are different in design too. What is fine at rare most often isn't fine at all at common, when it isn't dangerous there. While it's true that R&D has different sections and development (not design) has the final word on rarity, we as custom card designers do not have that luxury. We are not only designers, but also developers, editors, creative, rules managers, and everything else at the same time. The cards we post for others to see are supposed to have passed through all stages of the process. You, as a custom card designer, can't say "I'm just a designer, I don't do development, so I won't decide on rarity". If that's true, than who develops your cards? Do you have a separate team? If you do, I envy you, but I'm ready to bet you don't (unless somehow you're reading this and you actually work at Wizards, in which case you probably shouldn't be reading this...).

With this certainly-not-exhaustive article, I hope I helped proving my point: that rarity is a fundamental part of a Magic card, to the point that a Magic card just can't exist without it and you must include it in every custom card you design, especially (but definitely not only) in contests. I was asked to make a case for this some time ago, and that's the main reason I wrote this article. Before that discussion, I didn't imagine one could even think about designing custom cards without rarity, it's like designing a Magic card without card types (you wouldn't even know if it's a permanent or a spell, so you wouldn't know whether to put it onto the battlefield or into your graveyard as it resolves), or without a name (which is a Magic card's ID). I feel very strongly about this and I explained my opinion, backed up by different sources. Yet, everyone is free to do what they want and I don't want to convince anyone, also because, speaking in general, you can't convince people who don't want to be convinced, and I'd have plenty of examples to make from real life too...