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Verb Directions in Game Design

A deep dive into how Magic The Gathering expresses character through game mechanics, and how those same concepts can be applied to video game characters without breaking the design budget.

 A few months ago I looked at verb design in other media and as part of that blog post I briefly dipped into Magic: The Gathering, but ever since then I’ve wanted to revisit this part of the discussion and dive in deep on how Magic deals with expressing player and character personality.

 

So first, let me explain why. Magic: The Gathering is a combat-focused experience that expresses character personality through action verbs at a level of nuance and complexity I have never seen in a video game. Production demands of video games are more intense, so it’s harder for them to really explore the depths of this type of design. Unfortunately, even narrative juggernauts like Hades will have the complexity of personality only available in their main character. Even MMOs, games which are built with the same desire for expressivity as Magic, don’t ever give players the open expression space to really act in a way that’s unique to them or their character. I’m sure you can immediately think of many very compelling reasons why all of this is true, but I want to take this post to discuss how to push the envelope a little further while still remaining on a budget! So let’s dive in!

 

Magic cards exist on a game board. Any given card will belong to you, the player, or to an opponent. Your cards can be used to affect that opponent in some way, and in doing so, this card is acting outwards, which looks a bit like this:

 

 

All this graphic means is that the card is acting towards something. This is the most common expression of action a character in a video game can be given. Usually, this outward action just takes the form of damage. A character acts outwardly and damages something within its range. This is a standard attack design. Usually this attack will affect a target’s health and there’s no other target for your outward action, except to target some other object’s health bar.

 

Magic, however, offers multiple targets within an object. You may choose to attack an enemy creature card, an enemy planeswalker card, or the enemy player themself. Only attacking the player themself will cause damage to their health bar. However, despite only one option changing the health bar, all of these choices are valid in different circumstances. 

 

 

In the graphic, the green card can attack any of these three valid targets. Please note that the third target is left empty as a way of showing that the enemy player is what’s being attacked. This representation reflects how in Magic The Gathering, a player can only be attacked if nothing blocks that attack. Regardless of where the attack lands, though, the card will deal its damage to some other object and that will be the end of this attack action. 

 

This is not, however, the only interaction option available. Much like how Magic offers multiple targets, Magic also offers multiple interaction styles. Some cards can cause your opponent to discard. Discarding cards can happen from your hand, or from your deck, and this serves as a sort of alternative health bar. If for any reason there is no card in your deck when you have to draw a card, you lose the game, and so players may choose to build a deck which focuses on discarding instead of dealing health damage. 

 

 

I denoted this discard-based attack in blue because it’s describing an attack which is dealing damage to the deck, rather than dealing more traditional health point damage. It’s worth at least mentioning that there are other mechanics that could be included here, such as dealing poison instead of health damage. I don’t really need to be comprehensive to make my point here today, so feel free to fill in the blanks there with all the other ways a player might choose to win in MTG.

 

Now. So far we’ve been talking about combat damage being dealt in a standard means, but deck damage, also known as “milling” is usually done in other ways. Generally, this type of “damage” is done via abilities and effects. This could be “Pay X Cost and remove a card from the enemy deck” or “when this card comes into play, remove a card from the enemy deck” or any number of similar situations. Magic has learned to trigger its abilities in many different ways. Some cards may ask you to pay a direct fee, others may only happen once during a specific scenario, others may happen repeatedly on a timer. All of these are happening to the side of combat, outside of that order of operations.

 

So now we have two methods of interaction represented here. You can interact with Health, or you can interact with the Deck. You can interact Directly, or you can interact Indirectly. And these are just the options for a creature card. This same set of actions is also represented in the skillset available to the player themself. They can simply cast fireballs to do damage without the need of a creature, and the targets they may choose from are identical, though they of course will interact slightly differently, and player spells like this happen at a slightly different time in the turn hierarchy.

 

Now. We got super complicated. I apologize, and I’ll stop there with this part of the breakdown. 

 

Next, let’s strip things down again and go look into two cards and how they may interact with one another in a void.

 

We have two cards here. Let’s say one is attacking the other, or otherwise causing some effect to be applied to that other card. Regardless of what form the interaction takes, one of these cards is acting on the other. What does this defending card do in response? Well, what can we do with an arrow? I mean. It’s just a graphical metaphor, but… what could we do with this arrow in this graphic to say it’s not going to hit this other card? Well…. I could put a line in between these two cards, right? A line would say “There is something between these two, so the attack isn’t happening” and that would be pretty effective. In fact, Magic has a mechanic for this. It’s called Blocking. If I want to prevent a card from attacking me, I block the attack with a creature. 

 

So here’s my graphical representation of that. The top half of the arrow is blocked by the wall. I left a ghostly impression of it to show that it would have passed through, if not for the obstruction. I have now blocked the attack! Maybe I blocked the attack with a creature card, or maybe I blocked it with a spell or ability. It doesn’t matter. I blocked the attack. People who play Magic may be screaming “But you can’t target an attack like this!” because technically you can’t choose to attack a creature directly in Magic, but I’m not really concerned with the specifics of the rules here. The idea is just “my creature was going to do something to your creature, but you put something in the way, so I can’t”, and I only care about this abstract concept for now. 

What else can I do with an arrow? Well, I could bend it! Or point it at something else, if I didn’t want to visually bend it, but the result is the same: I can put the pointy end somewhere else. I don’t want it pointing at me, I want it pointed at you. Or your ally at least. 

 

 

What else could we do with an arrow? Could we make it longer? What does THAT mean? Well, I guess it means the attack went through the defender. In other words, the defender dodged. The defender just isn’t where the attack is happening any more. Now that pointy end is somewhere behind the target. In the visual language I’ve set up for these, I suppose that means the damage went to the player, but whatever. It’s somewhere else now, and sometimes that’s the most important thing.

 

We could also turn the arrow back on itself. Send it back where it came from. Or delete the arrow, and make it so it never happened. I could also make the arrow bigger or smaller, simulating changing its effect to be more or less powerful.

 

 

This graphic shows every way to alter an action. I may have missed a few, of course, feel free to leave a comment if you think you have another. Now. All of these graphical representations show a single action. Magic also allows you to respond to the response. In other words, I may attack, and you may redirect my attack back at my face, but I can then prevent the attack from happening, thus stopping myself from taking damage. Or I could redirect the damage back to you again. Or decrease the amount of damage. You can see where this is going. The above graphic applies to any single action, and each action can be responded to by another action, and the chain continues on until someone runs out of things they can do. This also applies to indirect effects, of course. My earlier graphic with arrows coming from the sides of a card could have all of these same effects applied.

 

Just for the sake of clarity, let’s make this a bullet list instead of a graphic. These are the ways to interact with an action:

 

  • Ignore it

  • Redirect it

  • Block it

  • Reflect it

  • Empower it

  • Weaken it

  • Dodge it

  • Prevent it

 

A reminder: These are methods for interacting with an attack. If you try to deal damage to me, I may use any of the above to try to stop that attack from affecting me. If you try and cast a spell on me, I may do the same. If you try and deal damage to an object which is important to me, I may use these same abilities to prevent that damage as well, I don’t necessarily have to be the target myself. That said, though, obviously it may change my ability to interact with your attack, if the target is someone or something other than myself. I may or may not be good at extending my protection to others. By the same token, I may or may not be good at responding to outside actions. Perhaps I’m only good at setting up actions myself. Aggressive types will focus on hitting big swings, right? They’re probably less good at responding to someone else’s action, but a more manipulative person might excel at only responding to actions initiated by others.

 

That brings us to our next discussion. What does it say about a person if they choose to interact in only one particular way? What does it say about them if they’re only good at initiating that first action? How about if they’re only good at responding to actions? What does it say if they can only apply these effects to themselves? What does it say if they can only apply these effects to others? To go to the earlier graphics, what does it say if a card is only good at dealing “Damage” to a deck? How about if they’re only good against planeswalkers? Or creatures?

 

Well these are starting to sound like classes in D&D. Paladins are great at applying effects which prevent damage to their allies. Rogues are great at dodging, reflecting, and redirecting attacks, but only when those attacks affect themselves. Wizards and Mages have spells that could do that reflecting and dodging, but which can affect someone other than themself. These essential verb building blocks that we’ve broken down in this article are the pure distillation of character action. By understanding the personality you wish to convey, you can choose particular interaction styles that suit the character. Magic’s secret to conveying depth in their characters is that they offer a game with a wide range of possible options at every level. The multiple targets I mention early in this article serve as expressive grounds for conveying character. If you want a character in Magic to come across as thuggish, you have it deal a lot of damage, and focus only on damage to health. If you make a thuggish character that deals deck damage instead of health damage, then that character becomes someone who would flay another’s mind for personal gain, a very different type of thug. Having multiple targets for any given action means your characters have more ways to express themselves. Even without multiple targets, however, you can still express yourself through the type of interaction you choose, whether direct, indirect, or etc.

 

 

But you’re not working on Magic The Gathering, you’re making a roguelike, or a strategy game, or a fighting game, or a FPS. 

 

Well, what is a bullet, except a direct outwards action? I’m acting outwards towards my target by shooting a bullet at it. What can my target do to respond? Can they redirect the bullet? Can they make the bullet weaker? 

 

What is a sword strike? Can your opponents parry and shift the target of the blade to go somewhere less harmful? Can the sword be blocked?

 

What about an alternative health bar? Can I attack your stamina gauge instead of your health, rendering you unable to move? Can I attack your mech’s heat system and overload your battery instead of trying to cut through your armor? Could I use energy attacks to cause your battery to explode instead? Where are the other systems I can target when choosing how my character operates?

 

When I said that I’ve never seen a game as nuanced as the narrative verbs in Magic, this is what I mean. In a shooter game all you get are various forms of outwards action with next to nothing that can be done to alter the attack. Overwatch is one of the very few games of that ilk which manages to convey character in this way. Overwatch also has multiple targets in the form of pushing carts or capturing points or whatever, though they don’t ever have more than one active at the same time, which is a bit of a shame (and yes, allowing that would make it a very different game, so it’s fine if that’s not the game they wanted to make). Overwatch, also,  is only ever concerned with dealing health damage to your opponents. You never have a capture point that demands you disable the enemy base’s shields, or that type of thing. Your focus is always in one direction, which streamlines the game, but removes any expressivity from the verbs.

 

Magic finds this streamlining by simplifying its systems to stay on budget. Magic says all damage from any source will deal simple number values. Most creatures deal somewhere between 1 and 5 damage total. Some deal more than that, but the bulk of the game is in the 1-5 range because low numbers are easier to calculate and deal with for the player. There’s no “1d6 damage plus 2d4 fire damage” type of interactions, every source of damage deals a simple, set amount, and all damage is identical. In games we avoid this simplicity in order to bump up the variety. You WANT video game damage to be more complicated, otherwise it gets predictable and boring. But what if instead, you put the interest back in via alternative targets for that damage? By changing the places where damage can be dealt, you are putting the focus on responding to action directed inward, something you don’t often have to concern yourself with in video games (with some exception for those games which have shields that you can redirect to be in front or behind your space ship, but even those never go very far to make it interesting).

 

Most games focus only on outward action. You are the hero of legend, this is your power fantasy, so the only thing that matters is how you act outwardly upon the world, and how the world responds to this outward action (usually by giving you gold and exp). Even the modern wave of games which give players more interesting, fantastical abilities (like the aforementioned Overwatch, or other games like Destiny or Outriders) usually only require a direct outward action in order to win, and focus entirely on dealing health damage until your enemies retreat. Very very rare is the game which demands that you redirect your opponents in order to win. Rarer still is the game that allows victory by only using redirection.

 

Imagine a video game starring one of these characters. What does that game look like? What’s the primary verb the character uses to overcome its challenges? What’s the progression as the character develops and grows?

 

These characters absolutely star in the decks they are built into in a game of Magic, yet how could we make them star in a game? These characters can’t replace the protagonist in Call of Duty, no matter how bland white dude we try to make them, because their abilities are too different at too fundamental a level. Making any of these cards a video game protagonist would require a wildly different approach to game design. I, for one, would like to play these games.

 

And that’s all for this post for now. I hope that’s given you something to think about when designing the gameplay for your game’s main character, or for when writing the character’s backstory once you’ve decided on their core verbs.

 

Thanks for reading!

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