In the 1004th episode of his Drive To Work podcast, Magic: the Gathering’s chief designer Mark Rosewater discussed the concept of logistics in Magic: the Gathering’s design. This opened up a discussion with the community about the game’s increasing complexity. Rosewater ended up inviting players to share their thoughts on the game’s complexity on his blog.
By logistics, Rosewater is not referring to the geographical complexities of packaging and shipping cards across the globe. Instead, to quote his description of the episode, Rosewater defines logistics as: “all the physicalness of using a card”. He provides several examples of things that make the game logistically complex as a definition.
Card manipulation: Needing to physically interact with a card in an atypical way, for example needing to play morph cards upside-down.
Shuffling: Cards that make players shuffle their decks cause logistical issues, as they require players to pause the game while the shuffling occurs. There have been many attempts to find ways to avoid shuffling in relatively recent sets. This can be seen with cards like Elvish Rejuvinator when compared to older cards like Wood Elves.
Extra components: Needing to use additional game pieces alongside the cards in your deck. Tokens and counters are the most common additional game components that many decks use. Stickers are a more recent, and more contentious, example.
Tracking: Needing to remember information about cards that can exist in multiple states. For example, cards with the prototype mechanic from The Brothers’ War like Phyrexian Flesh Gorger need some means of indicating whether they currently have their prototype stats or their alternative stats.
Memory issues: Cards that require you to retain information across multiple turns. For example cards like Pact of Negation where the mana cost is paid after the card has been played.
Monitoring zones: Cards that require players to pay attention to zones other than their hand and the battlefield. Rosewater mentions flashback cards as an example of this. Cards with flashback require both the player using them and their opponent to remember that they can still impact the game despite being in the graveyard.
Monitoring other states: Some cards introduce unique new elements to the game, which players must then track. Daybound/nightbound from Innistrad: Midnight Hunt is a prime example of this. Once a card with daybound has been played, whether it is day or night needs to be tracked for the rest of the game. Dungeons and the initiative from the Dungeons and Dragons sets are also examples of this sort of logistical complexity.
Rosewater is careful to emphasize that having some logistical complexity is essential for the game to function, it’s difficult to imagine Magic existing with no cards that create tokens or generate +1/+1 counters.
Logistically Complex Mechanics
Rosewater describes a “logistical bar” that cards and mechanics need to cross in order to get printed. In other words, a card must provide a really fun gameplay experience in order to justify being complicated.
Rosewater provides two examples of logistically complex mechanics one of which passed this bar, while the other did not. Double-faced cards and suspend.
Double-faced cards are certainly very complex. They require players to either use opaque sleeves or checklist cards in order to even slot into a deck. If they’re put in a sleeve, then they need to be taken out and flipped over, possibly multiple times, during gameplay. Double-faced cards also make drafting more difficult, as they often have a lot of text and can be identified by other players. Despite all of this, Rosewater argues that double-faced cards are fun enough to justify all of this. Innistrad, the set where double-faced cards debuted, remains one of the game’s most popular sets.
Suspend is a mechanic that Rosewater feels is not able to provide a fun enough experience to justify its complexity. He describes the mechanic as: “the poster child of how logistics can take a really cool mechanic and make it something players struggle with”.
Suspend debuted in Time Spiral in 2006 and has been used again occasionally in the years since. A card with suspend can be cast for a low cost but gets set aside outside of play with a certain number of time counters on it. One of these counters must be removed during each of its controller’s upkeep phases. Once the last counter has been removed the suspended card enters play, gaining haste if it is a creature. Rosewater describes how though suspend opens up the interesting design possibility of getting a lower cost in exchange for a delay, logistical issues cause it to play out poorly in practice. Players constantly forget to remove time counters, which is a mandatory effect, and tracking suspend can become frustrating.
On the same day as the podcast episode went up, the Tumblr user honor-basquiat approached Rosewater with several questions arising from it.
The thrust of their argument was that they felt, logistical and complexity issues have been getting worse in the game in recent years. They used mechanics like stickers, daybound/nightbound, and keyword counters as examples of logistically complex gameplay. They wanted to know whether this would be magic’s “new normal” or whether this is something that will get dialed back in future.
Rosewater responded by saying that previous data indicated that the complexity of the game was less than players could handle so it had been dialled up in recent years. Whether this will be the new normal or the pendulum will swing back depends on how the player base responds. He then invited players to share their views.
Many MTG fans took Rosewater up on his offer, providing feedback both in the comments section beneath his blog post and on Reddit.
Many of the comments followed a similar pattern, with players agreeing with honor-basquiatthat about mechanics like initiative and day/night being too logistically complex.
““Take the initiative” are three words that are secretly seventy and a bunch of decisions split between all players because one played a card. I’d prefer new things not follow the same route.” –RWBadger
“Day/night too. One person plays a day/night card and now suddenly we have that going on too.” –SnowflakeSorcerer
“I liked Magic more when the cards said what they did. The issue with things like initiative is that you can’t just read the card and imagine what effect it will have on the game.” –Mr_WZRD
The player base seems to be in agreement that Magic: the Gathering has gotten more logistically complex in recent years. Fortunately, this is something that Magic’s designers are aware of and are open to discussing. Voicing concerns constructively on a platforms like Blogatog is a valuable way of providing feedback to the game’s chief designer, and hopefully changing MTG for the better.