Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Fixing Multiplayer in Magic: the Gathering

Today Max discusses the design flaws present in multiplayer Magic: the Gathering (and other deathmatch-style multiplayer games).  He investigates current ways to rectify them, and then proposes his own new variant: Vengeance.

The goal of reducing your opponent to zero hit points is a simplistic model of health that serves as a pretty decent mechanic is two player tabletop games.  Unfortunately, this mechanic begins to flounder when multiple players enter the game.  While many games use this model and thus start having issues, (for example Bang!, Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards, and Poo) I'm going to be using Magic: the Gathering as my example.  I'm going to briefly explain the three design flaws that emerge from this game model, go over the ways players and designers have attempted to rectify them in the past, and then propose my own solution.

Ganging Up
While not every player would agree that the social elements present in every high-interaction game are flaws, enough people think that ganging up and alliance-forming/breaking in multiplayer Magic is problematic to warrant several formats to alleviate these elements.  The first and simplest solution is "Predator/Prey" in which players attack only the opponent to their left, thus circumventing any possibility for serious alliances.  Many other formats that split the group into 2 teams (Emperor, 2-Headed Giant) seek to fix this problem by pre-forming the alliances.

Waiting for Your Turn
Multiplayer Magic almost always has a very high time waiting for your turn to time playing ratio.  In addition to being very boring, it can also lead to a sense of powerlessness as you watch your opponents play card after card and know you won't be able to do anything about them for turns and turns.  Formats in which players' turns are combined, like 2-Headed Giant, serve to shorten the wait as well as the entire span of the game.

In any health-based deathmatch style game, there is the problem of players being eliminated one-by-one, and sitting around bored until the game finishes.  Plenty of games have this problem, but other games tend to be short (or give players something to do after death) in order to minimize the issue.  Magic has it worse than most, however, because the games are so darned long.  The usual way to deal with this issue is to make the players win and lose as a team, as in 2-Headed Giant.  Thus, whenever one player is out, the game is over.

My solution to issues one and three is a format called Vengeance.  In Vengeance, players start out playing a free-for-all.  Things get interesting once a player dies, however.  When you die, four things happen:

1. You receive a death token.
2. Your killer receives 10 life and draws two cards (only if you didn't have a death token when you were killed)
3. You choose an opponent of the player that killed you.  That player cannot have any more allies than your killer's other opponents.
4. You come back as an ally of the chosen player with a regular starting hand and 20 life +5 per death token.

From then on you take turns in conjunction with your new allies, and you attack and block as a group (as in 2-Headed Giant).

Vengeance should succeed in solving ganging up issues, because if one player teams up with another to kill a third, the third will simply come back on the team of one of the other two, disincentivizing either of the other two to kill the third in the first place.  Turn waiting should be decreased in general as players eventually reform into two teams that share turns.  The main solution that Vengeance provides, however, is allowing players to keep playing after they are killed.  All players play until the game is over.

This variant also provides another bonus: that of balance.  Since players' decks and play abilities are often not balanced in casual play, this will allow structured ways for the players with the weaker decks to team up and try to take on those with the stronger decks.

Of course, the Vengeance format is not perfect, and has several flaws:

The game is going to take forever.  It just is.  The more players, the more board clear and game resets.  Since every player is always going to be in the game, they're always going to have turns.

Deck Customization
Good Magic variations will allow players to bring any of their usual decks to the fray, and not get owned by players who customized their decks for this particular variation.  While you can do some optimizing to make your deck better in Predator/Prey or 2-Headed Giant, your regular decks will usually do just fine.  This may not be the case in Vengeance, so that's one thing I'm going to look out for in testing--the possibility of building special decks to be ultra powerful in this format.

Death Dynamics
While this rules variation does mostly alleviate social dynamics and ganging up, it replaces them with strange incentives.  First, nobody really wants to be the one to finish an opponent.  If you do, she will just come back to get vengeance.  Instead, you want your opponent to be the one to kill another opponent.  Adding the benefit for killing an opponent is supposed to work to mitigate this problem, but it may not be enough.  In addition, as the dying player you really want to make sure you are killed by the player who is doing the worst, so you can come back and join the team of the player who is doing the best--which is a strange dynamic.  When I playtest this variation I'm going to be keeping my eyes open for these dynamics turning players off.

I'm excited to try out these new mechanics when I play Magic next and take notes on the flaws, but as I think more about this concept, I wonder if Magic shouldn't really be its home.  Perhaps this Vengeance system is destined to be part of the core of a new game, one that can use it to its full potential and not have some of the flaws Vengeance may have when applied to Magic.  This new game would be focused around the Vengeance mechanic, and would be designed to minimize the flaws, by allowing players to kill each other quickly and make it much easier to "accidentally" kill opponents as collateral damage.  Keep your eyes peeled for a post on a Vengeance-based game sketch in the future!