In 2005, I wrote an article called “A Few Words with R&D” where I talked about many of the slang and vocabulary words R&D uses. In 2016, I wrote a follow-up called “A Few More Words with R&D.” Today’s article is my third in this installment.
I’m not going to redefine words from old articles that I’ve already defined, so here’s a list of words R&D still uses from each article:
“A Few Words with R&D“
- FFL (Future Future League)
- Johnny, Johnny card (Jenny is an equivalent name)
- Looter ability
- The Pit
- Rootwalla ability
- Spike, Spike card
- Timmy, Timmy card (Tammy is an equivalent name)
- Vanilla creature
“A Few More Words with R&D“
- Backwards Compatible
- The Bridge
- Enemy Colors
- ETB, ETBT
- Free Table
- French Vanilla
- Grand Central Station
- Gray Ogre
- Hard counter
- Hate card
- High flying
- Hill Giant
- Impulsive Draw
- M, N
- Mana Smoothing
- Meditation Realm
- New World Order (NWO)
- Soft counter
- Storm Scale
- Threshold 1
- Tuesday Magic Meeting
- Virtual Vanilla
With that out of the way, let’s get to a bunch of new vocabulary. I should note that some of the following terms are not new; some are things I’ve used in my column for years but never officially defined, so I’ve included them here.
Ability Word – This is a mechanic that doesn’t have an official keyword but has an informal name to help players identify and talk about the mechanic. The name appears in italics before the rules text. The text doesn’t have to be exact as with a keyword, just share a general sense of doing something similar. You can remove an ability word, and the card would work identically. Note that this is slightly different than a flavor word, which I define below. From a design standpoint, the important thing to note about an ability word is that you can’t refer to it mechanically.
Agency – The player’s feeling that they have some control over what’s happening in their game. It’s important that the players feel as if their decisions matter, so in design, we often talk about whether a mechanic or theme or the overall structure of the set gives the players enough agency.
Art ID – Each piece of art has a number assigned to it that’s unique for that piece of art. Once the art is in and you change cards in the database, you have to be aware of the art ID.
Art Swap – This is when you exchange the art on two cards. We used to do this a lot back in the day, but very infrequently nowadays. This mostly happens because a card changes in a way that contradicts its current art. For example, we want to add flying to a creature, but the art doesn’t show it flying. We might add flying to one creature, remove it from another, and then do an art swap.
Art Wave – Card art gets assigned in clumps. Each of these clumps is called an art wave. Most sets have multiple art waves. Set Design works with the art director to determine which cards go in which art wave. Usually, the cards the lead set designer has the most confidence in or which have a clear visual identity (such as legendary creatures we know are in the set) regardless of mechanics go in the earlier waves.
As-played – This term is related to as-fan (which cares about how often a particular quality shows up in a booster pack). As-played refers to how often a particular quality will show up in a particular format, usually Limited, counting only the cards that we competitively expect to be played. For example, let’s say a new mechanic has ten commons, eight uncommons, six rares, and a mythic rare. As-fan calculates its percentages (weighing each card by its rarity) counting all 25 cards. As-played, in contrast, might only count the cards we expect to be played in high-level competitive play in a particular format, which let’s say are only 13 of the 25. As-played gives us a better sense of whether the subset we’re looking at will show up in enough quantity to impact the format competitively the way we’d like.
Bend – This is an ability in a color that’s not part of its natural slice of the color pie but isn’t undermining that color’s weakness (that’s called a break—see below). An example of a bend would be a white card paying life for a cost, as that’s not something white normally does.
Bleed – This is when we purposely use effects normally in one color in another color to help a set play up its themes. Bleeding uses bends. I have an entire article called “Bleeding Cool” that explains how and when we bleed cards.
Block Monster – This is a deck made up of cards all from the same Magic “year,” usually connected to a single mechanic. We try hard to make sure that all competitive Standard decks have cards from multiple years such that they will change when rotation happens. If a deck all within one year becomes broken, it will take an extra year before rotation can impact it. In general, we try to avoid block monsters.
Bonus Sheet – This is a full printing sheet, usually of reprints, that’s added to a set in one or more specific slots in the booster pack. Bonus sheets most often have some theme connected to the set and add variety in that set’s Limited formats. The first set to have a bonus sheet, called a “timeshifted sheet,” was Time Spiral. A recent example was the Mystical Archive in Strixhaven.
Booster Fun – The various alternate arts and frames that appear at a lower frequency in sets. Here’s my article all about Booster Fun. I should note that booster fun keeps evolving, so while the article does a good job of explaining the basics, certain elements have shifted since it was written.
Bottom Up – A design that starts from a mechanical premise and then builds flavor on top of it.
Box Topper – This is a card included inside a booster box as a bonus card for the person purchasing the box. Box toppers are sometimes not from the set they’re included with and usually have an alternate art, frame, and/or premium treatment.
Break – This is an ability in a color that’s not part of its natural slice of the color pie that undermines that color’s weakness. An example would be a red card that can destroy enchantments, as that’s supposed to be a weakness for red.
Bucket Pointing – Competitive play design process where the team sorts commons and uncommons into “buckets” of cards of similar strength to analyze format balance. This is a more granular version of quick pointing (see below).
Build-around – A card that encourages a player to build a deck around it. The term is most often used in R&D when talking about cards in draft. Sets like to have build-around uncommons (and to a lesser extent rares or mythic rares) that encourage experienced drafters to try drafting something different than the set’s normal archetypes when they pick that card early. Build-around cards are an important tool in extending the life of a draft environment.
Card Set Review – Meetings where R&D members who are not on a specific product’s Set Design team look at that product to give feedback on individual card designs. These meetings traditionally happen well into set design.
Casual – This term means numerous things, so much so that I wrote a whole article about it, “Casual Play.” In short, it refers to players who are in various ways either less experienced, enfranchised, or competitive.
Casual Constructed – Magic play where the decks tend to be lower in power level, synergy, and polish. These decks tend not to be “net-decks” (i.e., decks people copied from other people, usually on the internet) and are more influenced by what cards individually appealed to the deck builders. They are sometimes labeled with a format name (usually whatever format happens to include all the cards in the deck) but nowhere close to the potency of competitive decks.
Collation – This is the name for the process that determines which cards go on which sheet for purposes of printing and filling booster packs. Design has to be very aware of the limitations of collation because it affects many elements of how the set is made, determining things like set size and as-fan of mechanics.
Color Pie – This is the name for the five colors of Magic, including their relationship with one another. It is sometimes referred to as the color wheel. My article from two weeks ago, “Let’s Talk Color Pie,” provides links to numerous articles and podcasts I’ve made on the topic.
Concepting – The act of figuring out what the card represents creatively. For example, a direct-damage spell could be represented as a mage hurling flames at his target. The concepting will influence the art, name, and flavor text of the card.
CQI – A notation that a card in a file is going to be completely redesigned. It stands for Continual Quality Improvement (although I doubt the majority of R&D knows that). The term originated from a company-wide educational seminar we did at Wizards back in the mid-’90s.
Curve Swap – When we take two cards, usually creatures, and swap their mana costs, keeping the mana curve intact but changing when the individual effects see play.
Cycle, Horizontal – This is a grouping of five cards, one in each color, most often at the same rarity, and usually of the same card type. Horizontal cycles sometimes will include a sixth card which is a colorless artifact. There can also be ten-card cycles if they are two-color or three-color multicolor cards, or lands that produce two or three colors of mana. Cycles most often are all in the same set, but, on rare occasion, can be in different sets. Ten-card cycles are the most likely cycles to be spread across different sets.
Cycle, Vertical – This is a grouping of three cards, one common, one uncommon, and one rare/mythic rare, usually all in the same color and card type. There are sometimes four cards in a vertical cycle if there are both a rare and a mythic rare.
The Danger Room – The Danger Room (a reference to the X-Men) started as a meeting room that was technically Richard Garfield’s office but used mainly for playtesting. When we moved to our current building, we named one of the meeting rooms The Danger Room. That room later got turned into Aaron Forsythe’s office. The current Danger Room is a small meeting room with glass walls.
Decision Paralysis – This refers to when a player can’t decide because there are either too many options or too much tension in the decision. Design is very careful about not creating cards, mechanics, or sets that create decision paralysis.
Dev Comments – There is a field in our database where R&D members can leave notes about the mechanical implications of a card’s design. The term is short for “Developer’s Comments,” but we no longer refer to anyone as a developer, and the field for notes was always used by all of R&D and not just the developers.
Digital Review – The meeting where we sit down with representatives from both MTG Arena and Magic Online to talk through ramifications of a particular set on its adaptation to the digital formats.
Enabler – A card that helps a certain mechanic or strategy. Design will use the term to signify if a set is high or low on cards to help an aspect of the set.
FIRE – This is an overall R&D philosophy about what are important characteristics for each Magic product to capture. The term stands for Fun, Inviting, Replayable, and Exciting. Here’s an article, “Fire It Up,” by Andrew Brown, play design lead, about FIRE philosophy.
Flavor Word – These are words that convey the flavor of a mechanic. They appear in italics before the rules text. They were first introduced in Dungeon & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms. They look very similar to ability words but aren’t traditionally used on multiple cards.
Functional Reprint – This is a card which is a reprint except it has new flavor, including a new name. The one other change we allow on a functional reprint is that the creature type(s) can change as long as it’s not mechanically relevant to the card.
Helper Cards/Player Aids – These are cards that don’t go into a deck but are used by players as a tool to help them with gameplay. Examples of a helper card or player aid would be tokens, emblems, the daybound/nightbound double-faced card, or the monarch.
KSP (Key Selling Point) – A term used internally to explain what we feel are the most compelling elements of a set that we expect to use when marketing it. This is a business term not unique to Wizards.
Keyword – A named mechanic that represents the same text on every card. (In contrast, ability words can change a little from card to card.) Unlike ability words, keywords can be referred to mechanically.
Keyword Action – A keyword that’s a verb and represents a specific effect. Examples of keyword actions are create, fight, and die.
Knobs – These are elements of a card, usually involving numbers (things like mana cost or activation costs), that give the play designers the ability to adjust a card for balance purposes. The more knobs, the better for play design. We will often refer to mechanics with a lot of knobs as “knobby.”
Limited Archetypes – Strategies built into a product to give some number of colors and/or color combinations (it varies set to set) mechanical definition. For example, red-white might be an aggro strategy that plays cheap creatures and attacks quickly. Most Magic products designed for Limited have a minimum of ten deck archetypes, most often the two-color pairs.
Mana Sink – An element of a card or mechanic that allows players to spend excess mana. A set needs some amount of mana sinks in it to make sure that there’s adequate strategic play in the mid- to late game. An example of mana sinks would be activated abilities (especially expensive or repeatable ones) or a mechanic with an alternate higher mana cost.
Mechanic – Any element repeatable on multiple cards. Named mechanics are either keywords or ability words. Not all mechanics are named though.
Moti/A+/A/B/C – This is a grading system for how good a card is in Limited. Moti is short for Mahamoti Djinn, a card that was very good in Limited when it first appeared.
Mythic Wall – When a set is close to being done, we will print up large copies of all the mythic rare cards and put them on a wall near the Pit. All members of Studio X are encouraged to leave notes on the cards. This is the last check to make sure our mythic rares are as exciting as possible.
Offline – Time outside of a meeting. When you’re on a design team, there’s often homework done in between meetings. This is often referred as work that has to be done “offline.”
Payoff – An element of a card that rewards the player for jumping through whatever hoops the card is making the player jump through. This term usually gets used when you want to communicate that a card doesn’t have a big enough reward.
Pencils Down – The point at which no more changes are to be made to a design file. Pencils down happens partway through the set editing.
Play Pattern – The most common way a card or mechanic gets played. This term is used in design to talk about how a game element will affect gameplay over many games played by many different players. It’s looking at the gameplay in a big-picture view.
Quick Pointing – A quick rating system Play Design uses to roughly gauge how powerful each color is in Limited.
Rare Poll – This is an internal poll taken by any Wizards employee who is interested in participating where they’re asked to grade every rare and mythic rare card in a set. The rare poll is used to predict general public interest.
Rate – How strong a card is in relation to its effect and its mana cost. The term is used in design when we are gauging how strong we want a particular card to be. We sometimes also use the term efficiency.
Rate Monster – A card where the mana cost is very aggressive for what its effect is.
Scalable – An effect that can have different levels, most often tied to a number. Certain mechanics, such as party or domain, as well as all X spells, use scalable effects. Because we make scalable effects all the time, design has a good working knowledge of what effects are available.
Set Skeleton – A tool used by design to monitor the needs and/or contents of a set. I have a full article explaining how we use set skeletons in design.
Signpost Uncommon – This is an uncommon ten-card cycle, usually multicolor in each two-color combination, that helps communicate to the players what the Draft archetypes are for those color combinations.
Smoothing Mechanic – This is a mechanic that either helps a player draw cards or fiddles with the top of the library to increase the quality of the card draws. High synergy sets tend to require a smoothing mechanic to help ensure the various card combinations occur often enough.
Staple – These are basic effects that occur in most sets, things like direct damage, counterspell, or discard.
Strictly Better – Either a card that’s identical to another card but at a lower mana cost or a card at the same mana cost with all the rules text plus additional (positive) rules text. For example, Goblin Chariot (2R 2/2 with haste) is strictly better than Gray Ogre (a 2/2 with no rules text). With over 20,000 cards in existence, you can almost always find an example of how any one card is better than another. For instance, Gray Ogre doesn’t die to Tivadar’s Crusade (it destroys all Goblins), but R&D uses the term if, in almost all practical cases, it’s better.
Templating – The wording of rules text to properly function. It’s normally editing’s job to finalize templating.
Top Cards/Full Card/Half Card/0.1 Card/Not a Card – A grading system used by Play Design to express what chances they believe a particular card has in Standard.
Top Down – A design that starts from a flavor premise and then builds mechanics on top of it. Classic examples of a top-down set would be Innistrad, Amonkhet, and Throne of Eldraine. Here’s an article called “Top Down and Goal” that explains how we design top-down sets.
Toplining – A meeting run by the creative lead of a product where various people connected to it, usually including the set lead, talk through card-concepting ideas for each card.
Tribal – A keyword, ability word, theme, or set that’s mechanically connected to creature types. Examples are the party mechanic or the set of Ixalan.
Trinket Text – Rules text on a card that will have minimal mechanical relevance but adds significant flavor. An example of “trinket text” is “can’t be blocked by Saprolings” on Vindictive Mob.
Variance – How often the effect of a card, game, or deck will change between uses. Design cares about variance because games are more fun if they don’t always play out the same. Here’s a two-part article I wrote on variance (“Variance,” Part 1 and Part 2).
Wheel/Table – In Booster Draft, this is when a card that’s opened by you in a booster pack goes all the way around the table, allowing you to draft it when you see the booster pack for the second time.
That’s all the R&D vocabulary words I have for today. I hope you enjoyed hearing them all. Feel free to use them with your Magic friends. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts on today’s column. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week when we take a look at the bigger picture.
Until then, may you have the words to say what you want.
#895: Mirage with Bill Rose
#895: Mirage with Bill Rose
I sit down with Vice President Bill Rose to talk about the design of Mirage.
#896: Urza’s Cards
#896: Urza’s Cards
In this podcast, I talk about the design of every card with “Urza” in its name.