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Through Another's Eyes - How Different Players Perceive the Same Card Game

Though we view our games as a single item, no two people see the same game. In this article I explain how players can perceive the same game in different ways and provide some insight on how to account for variations in perception.

Different players, specifically players of different skill levels, will value certain things differently. The way they value different things affects how they perceive and play your card game. Let me give you an example. Of the two cards below, which is more beginner-friendly?

Studying Scholar (2 Mana)

When Studying Scholar enters the battlefield, draw a card.

1/2

-or-

Exorcist (4 Mana)

When Exorcist enters the battlefield, destroy another creature.

3/1

 

The answer is Studying Scholar. You pretty much always want to have cards in hand. Beginners likely don’t fully understand the concept of card advantage, but they at least know that you want to have lots of cards. As a result, they’re pretty likely to play it early on. Experienced players are likely to play it too because they understand card advantage. Exorcist, on the other hand, is not as good for beginners. They are likely to overvalue the destruction effect, resulting in them holding the card in their hand until they find the perfect target to destroy. In the meantime the card sits in their hand unused, whereas a more experienced player recognizes that playing it earlier to get the creature on the battlefield is likely the better move.

Ultimately this comes down to differences in comprehension based on skill level. So, let’s start there: what are the different forms of comprehension?

Function Comprehension

This refers to one’s ability to understand what a card does. Designs that stress this are those with overly complicated or poorly explained designs. Take a look at this card:

                     

So, what does this card do? You put this aura on a dead creature, take that creature out of your graveyard, and give it -1 power. If the aura is destroyed, the creature is too. But the way it’s worded on the card makes it seem more complicated than it really is - I even had to make the image huge just so you could read its crazy-long rules text! More experienced players will be better at understanding complex effects and be more familiar with the game’s phrasing and terminology, but newer players might be completely lost. In some cases, even experienced players might not understand the card. I personally subscribe to a three strike rule: If players need to read your card at least three times before they understand it, you’ve got a problem.

Boardstate Comprehension

This refers to one’s ability to see how the elements currently in play affect the game. For example, let’s say your opponent has this creature in play:

Firespear Giant (5 Mana)

At the start of your turn, Firespear Giant deals 1 damage to another creature.

3/2

This effect is very easy to understand, but newer players may struggle to fully comprehend the extent of its impact on the boardstate. For example, if you’ve got a 2/2 creature in play and your opponent has a 1/1, they can use Firespear Giant’s ability to knock your creature down to a 2/1 and kill it with their 1/1. Designs that stress this are ones that have recurring effects and/or effects that directly alter other elements on the game board.

Strategy Comprehension

This refers to one’s ability to see the best lines of play and make the best decisions. Designs that stress this form of comprehension are the ones that provide players with important and often open-ended choices. A good example would be the “tutor” effects in Magic: the Gathering. Tutor is used to describe effects that allow you to search your deck for a card and put it into your hand.

                                              

This can lead to choice paralysis because the player has so many options available to them. With so many choices it can be incredibly difficult, especially for newer players, to comprehend which of those options is the best one.

Futurity Comprehension

This refers to one’s ability to see the fuutuuure. A large part of strategizing is planning ahead and predicting how your actions and your opponent’s action will affect the game. To do this, you have to be a bit prognostic. In my card game experience there is a very consistent correlation between one’s skill level and one’s ability to plan ahead, with new players focused on immediate decision making and experienced players thinking multiple turns ahead.

A Different Lens

One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed is that players of different skill levels are blind to certain forms of complexity. Experienced players, thanks to their familiarity with the game, can be blind to function comprehension because they’re so used to interpreting complex concepts. So if your play testers are all experienced players, they may struggle to pick up on problems with function comprehension and you could end up with cards that newer players don’t understand. On the other hand, new players tend to struggle with boardstate and strategy comprehension because they aren’t familiar enough with the ins and outs of the game, which can lead to them getting “exploited” by effects that are difficult to perceive or to them simply not enjoying the game.

Sight Near and Far

As I stated earlier, less experienced players focus on the short term and more experienced players think far ahead. So to appeal to newer players, some of your designs need to not only have immediate effects, but also have effects that can be immediately understood. Here’s an example.

Wound Healer (2 Mana)

When Wound Healer enters the battlefield, you gain 3 life.

1/2

This card’s function is very surface-level: it’s a creature that gives you some life when you play it. The function also happens to be immediate: you get the life as soon as it enters play. Those qualities make this a great card for beginners. It also has some amount of value for more experienced players, as they can hold onto it until later in the game and use it to mess with their opponent by suddenly gaining some life, which could throw off their opponent’s plan.

Another positive mark in the above design’s favor is that it doesn’t have any other effects that compete for attention. If you have a bunch of disparate effects on your card it can be hard to understand what it is meant to do, even if the individual effects are easy to understand.

Skin Peeler (3 Mana)

When Skin Peeler enters the battlefield, you gain 2 life and Skin Peeler deals 1 damage to another creature.

2/1

Do you play it when you need to gain life, or do you play it when you need to damage a creature? Or do you wait until you need to do both at the same time? It’s also worth mentioning that Skin Peeler must deal damage to another creature, so if your opponent doesn’t have any creatures, you’ll have to hit one of your own. I can easily see that catching new players off guard if they play the card just to gain some life from it. The different effects here create a card that is both aesthetically unappealing and difficult to understand, which makes it a bad card overall and a particularly bad card for new players.

But does this mean that you need to shun experienced players in order to appeal to the new ones? Not at all!

Wheeler Dealer (6 Mana)

Whenever Wheeler Dealer attacks, you gain 5 life.

Whenever you gain life, draw a card.

5/5

This is the kind of card that you can build a deck around to really maximize its impact. But at the same time, its effects are simple and related, so even newer players can comprehend its function.

Another Perspective

It’s important to appeal to both new and experienced players, so it’s important to understand how fundamentally different their perspectives are. This has been but a brief introduction to a very deep and complex subject that is wrapped up in many layers of psychology, but I hope it’s been helpful to you. In your future projects, try to think about how different players view the same design. Better yet, actually get different players to play with them!

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