MtG Design Space: Redesigning the Magic Card Template
I recently posted about a new philosophy for the design of Magic cards, “Full Art, Whenever Possible”. I believe that full-art cards make for a more wonderous play experience than cards bogged down by text – especially flavour text.
In that post I raised the prospect of the card design itself being updated and, crazily, that I might have a crack at doing so. Now, full disclosure: I Am Not A Graphic Designer, nor that great of a photoshopper. However, I wanted to get across some ideas, and so have mocked up some graphics and cards that I hope convey the spirit of my ideas, if not a perfect execution of them.
This post has taken a fair bit longer than I expected to put together. Clearly, when I started this mini-project, I bit off far more than I could chew. I leapt straight into redesign without giving due consideration about what I was attempting to do and the reasoning behind it.
As such this post has kind-of grown and grown and made me groan, but I hope you get something out of it.
Why Redesign At All?
Firstly, I believe that a picture truly does paint a thousand words, and that the art on Magic cards should be maximised wherever possible. Most players would recognise the picture of a Baneslayer Angel on sight. But can you recognise which card the following flavour text is from: “When the earth shudders, the sky overflows”? Flavour text currently steals valuable space from where the focus of a playing card should be – the art.
Secondly, Magic is moving in various ways away from a paper medium. Although the paper medium will never disappear (I hope – it’s my favourite way of playing, across the kitchen table) Wizards future certainly lies in embracing the digital. Unfortunately words & text are terrible ways to communicate visually. Can you imagine playing World of Warcraft if every icon was represented by text instead? it would be virtually unplayable. Magic card design must adapt to the digital medium in order to maximise it’s opportunities in that space.
Thirdly, Magic has been around for over fifteen years, and in that time proved itself to be adaptable to its environment – this is what has allowed it to persist through overwhelming competition and changing economic climates. When you inspect other CCGs and LCGs in the market, none are presented as beautifully as MtG. Yu-Gi-Oh looks like it’s drawn by fifteen year olds with manga hard-ons, and I continue in my inability to tell any Pokemon apart from any other. MtG is in the unique position of stamping it’s total authority over CCG art for years to come. However, this will not take place unless there is a willingness to bite the bullet and overhaul the base card template that Magic has been clinging to.
With these three points in mind, and the fundamental belief that in order to achieve a philosophy of “Full Art, Whenever Possible” a redesign is required, the next step is to inspect what needs to be redesigned.
So What Needs To Be Redesigned?”
A Magic Card is conveys a significant chunk of information in a tight package. Making that package even tighter is no easy task, and no doubt my first stab at this will be off the mark. Regardless, here’s all the information you can find on a Magic Card:
Certain elements of the above are already represented visually & numerically:
* Mana Cost
* Card No.
Certain elements can not be represented visually or numerically:
* Card Name
* Mechanics (Abilities, etc)
* Flavour Text
This leaves the following open for design exploration:
* Card Type
* Card Subtype
Then there is also the necessity of some sacrifices. I propose the following:
* Flavour Text
So this leaves me with some static information that is unlikely to change how it’s presented, some room for improvement, and a small amount of dataloss. Let’s get into redesigning.
How Might We Resign The Template
In maximising artwork and minimising waste, it’s important to knowledge that Card Space is premium. Anything that wastes it should go. When looking at the base, original template, it became clear that there was one, constant, misuse of card space; the Keyword/Mechanic/Flavour Text box. This was the one area of the card that existed regardless of whether it was used or not. For instance, if a card has no mana cost (eg. Hypergenesis) the casting cost simply disappears. The same is true for Power/Toughness on a instant or sorcery.
However, even on the most vanilla of creatures, the Text box generally takes up 40% of the card space. And it’s the ugliest 40% of the card.
Here are the major types of text found in the text box:
1. Short Keyword Text (eg. Flying, First Strike)
2. Long Keyword Text (eg. Morph, Kicker)
3. Short Mechanic Text (eg. Lightning Bolt)
4. Long Mechanic Text (eg. Hive Mind)
5. Flavour Text
I was (eagerly) prepared to kill off Flavour Text entirely, so (5) went immediately. (2), (3) & (4) were clearly too difficult to template into graphics (after all, what graphic on earth could quickly explain Warp World visually?) and therefore had to stay. But (1) was ripe for the picking.
I took my cues from WotC’s best exploration of the template, the Future Shifted cards from Future Sight. Here’s a reminder image:
Although the redesign didn’t nearly go far enough, it sensibly provided cues for future redesigns by bringing the icons from Magic Online across to the paper format.
As such I removed the Card Type and replaced it with the Future Sight icons. I then set forth and took a look at a number of keywords to see if I could make some moderately passable icons to represent them, based on the Future Sight style.
I then used the visual cues around the mana graphics to create a space for representing the icons on the card.
But what to do about that huge text box?
After thinking about it some time, I realised I really didn’t want it to be there if at all possible; taking from online and digital mediums, I really only wanted it to be there when I hovered over it, like a popup box. And out of that came the idea of a pop-up Text Box.
This model means that cards that require a small amount of text could use the “quarter text box” template, and cards that required the usual amount of text could use the “half text box” template. Either way, this maximises the amount of art real estate available.
In the end, here are three examples of cards under the new design:
Now, clearly I’m not the worlds best photoshopper or icon designer, but I hope they give the impression of what I’m trying to accomplish. All the necessary information to play the game has been communicated by the new template, but the cards have a much higher visual impact. The art, for which so much effort has been put into (well, not the 2nd photoshop effort for the lightning bolt), really shines, as well it should.
Pros and Cons
Any change brings both benefits and downsides. Here’s some I’ve considered and had twittered at me.
* Higher Visual Impact: The new design certainly has a higher visual impact than the old design with no loss of necessary data. Unlike the promotional textless cards that WotC produces, these cards retain all the necessary play information, simply in other forms than they originally appeared. This gives both the advantage of maximising the art, as well as providing the information used to play the game.
* Improved Digital Useability: By using icons and maximising pictures the cards are better suited for an online medium, where image recognition is much faster than text recognition. With multiple cards on the battlefield online there is a higher chance of recognising a card in the new template than the old. This provides the cards a better ability to transition from paper to online medium, while still retaining a great look in the real world.
* Steeper Learning Curve: All of a sudden there’s a bunch of new information for new (and old) player to process, which can be simply put as “what do these icons mean?”. Luckily those already familiar with Magic Online will be familiar with the Card Type icons. I think that the new icons would be able to be explained as quickly as text, and with a decent enough graphic artist (ie. not me) icons that clearly mean the keywords they represent could be developed. Yes, players will need to remember what the icons mean, which is another level of mental play over text; but people have an inherent ability to better remember images than text, so this should work to players’ advantage in the long run.
* Loss of Flavour Text: I’m sure this is going to frustrate the Vorthos’ of the community, and those others who like flavour text, but I’ll reiterate; a picture paints a thousand words – and you can’t fit a thousand words in that little text box.
There’s certainly room for massive improvement on what I’ve started. For instance, ideas that I didn’t attempt to develop include individual icons for card subtypes (eg. Angel, Goblin, etc), or icons for long keywords (eg a Morph Icon), but they are probably viable. And although I pretty much followed the basic card template, a complete overhaul is entirely possible.
I’d be interested to hear your feedback on this little experiment in the comments – yay or nay, either to the philosophy of “Full Art, Whenever Possible”, or to the use of icons instead of keywords, or anything in this article. If you wish you can email me or hit me up on twitter.