Monday, May 12, 2014

the case for full-art lands

Today I will happily write about something I know nothing about: graphic design. What I lack in traditional graphic design schooling I hope to make up with my knowledge of Sweet Basic Lands.

Wizards has released full-art lands with three different sets: Unglued, Unhinged, and Zendikar. All of them were received extremely well, and both the Unglued and Unhinged lands started selling for more individually than the packs retailed for, which was quite the accomplishment as there was one in every pack. Zendikar’s basic lands got more attention than almost anything else in the set, save for maybe the return of fetchlands and the rarity of Lotus Cobra. Even when the set was being opened en masse and the full-art lands were everywhere, people were constantly haggling over them and trading for the ones with the art they liked the most. It’s one of the very few times that Magic players seemed to care about the aesthetics of their cards, rather than just using the shiniest/rarest/most expensive versions whenever they could.

Wizards was understandably pleased with the warm reception, and made sure to make clear that the full-art lands were a special thing for Zendikar, and would not be in every set, but that they would come back at some point. That was five years ago, and every set since then has had normal, boring, same-old normal-frame lands.

Full-art lands should not be a once-every-five-or-six-years thing. They should be on every basic land, every time.

There are good reasons for this.

They make learning the game easier.

I’ve taught the game to a bunch of people. One of the standard steps is explaining what lands are, why they are important, and that, after they untap and draw, they should check to see if they have a land to play. In these early games, the only lands in the decks are basics. Full-art lands make it very easy to tell the difference between lands and spells, because they really stand out.

Say that you’re a brand-new player, and this first game will teach you the rules of Magic. You’ve heard the thirty-second summary before launching in. This is your first hand:

Could you pick out what the land is, without assistance from the person teaching you? Maybe. You could look at the name of the card. The shading is slightly different. There are some subtle aesthetic differences that distinguish the basic land from the spells.

Now, say you’re in the exact same spot, but this is your hand instead:

Which would be easier?

Let’s not play around, here. I was making those images, and even I wasn’t prepared for the night-and-day difference in how much clearer it is to use Zendikar basics.

The benefits to new players would be enormous if all basic lands were full-art: they would instantly be able to recognize which of their cards were basics. This might be a small thing, but it’s a very, very important one. Acquisition is every bit as important as Wizards keeps telling us it is, and acquisition doesn’t just mean changing marketing strategies. It means changing the game visually to make it look better and cleaner.

Way back when, Portal came out, introducing the “big mana symbol in text box” look to make the lands stand out more to new players. They then realized that the same concepts applied to the lands in every set, so they made it the default. Now it’s time for the next logical step.

They make looking at the board state easier.

This works exactly the same as above, except this time, it’s with experienced players.

You’re moseying along against some awful mono-red deck playing terrible cards, and you are paying attention to the creatures in play and the cards in hand and what each person might draw and the life totals and the time left in the round and how his Mutavault affects the race, and you’re fine with him blocking with Mutavault, so you attack, and… oh, hell.

Now, instead, imagine that everyone instead uses exclusively full-art basics.

A lot clearer, isn’t it?

People like them.

Here’s the last one, and it’s a big one. People absolutely love full-art lands. People like looking at Magic art, and the cool art featured on cards can even be a reason that people decide to take a closer look at the game. If every basic land had that amazing full-art frame, that would be a lot more cards devoted to showing off the high quality of modern Magic art to people that don’t play.

There’s a reason that, five years since Zendikar was printed, people are still trading for, buying, and playing with non-foil versions of them every chance they can get. The set sold a lot, and there was a full-art basic land in every single pack, and still people pay $1-$2 per land to use in every deck they have, or hundreds of lands for their Cubes. People want to use the full-art lands all the time, and Wizards disagrees.

Their reasoning is pretty bad to now print them more often, usually along the lines of how they want them to be special and a big deal when they appear. But things don’t have to come every six years for people to enjoy them: people like Dragons, and Angels, and fun draft environments, and Terese Nielsen art, and they make sure those happen more often than once every six years. Sure, they wouldn’t be unique if every set had full-art lands, but is a lack of uniqueness really so bad? They would replace a mediocre-looking thing with a cool-looking one, therefore making Magic an overall more aesthetically pleasing, easier-to-learn, and overall more attractive game.

Isn’t that what we all want?

Print full-art basic lands. Every basic, every set.

If people don’t like them, there have been two dozen years of non-full-art lands to choose from. I’ll probably stick with Portal Three Kingdoms basics, myself.


Anonymous said...

While I totally agree with you, you've already laid out the specific reason why this won't happen.

It makes money. Period.

foolie said...

Lands are wasted content space. Full art is the obvious solution, but not the only one. What about flavor text about the current plane? Dedicated players eat up all of the flavor that is available, and there's a lot of potential information that could be displayed on basic lands. I think it'd be intriguing to new players as well: a pretty picture is cool, but a picture with even a brief caption transforms it into a piece of a story, hopefully one that they'll want to explore further.

Jason Kenney said...

@The JZO - "It makes money" doesn't apply to Wizards, though. WotC doesn't make anything on the second hand market so they have no financial stake in whether or not the full art lands are reprinted. Sure, they risk a minor spat with folks invested in them, but that comes whenever they reprint anything.

Maybe they'll pop out in Modern Masters 2?

Ɓukasz said...

Player see full art lands as premium cards. Full art nonland cards are also more popular - why not make all nonlands full arts as well and leave the basics as they are? Or make all cards full art, so much less wasted space.

Yes, people want them. Yes people like them, because they look nice. But stripping them of their premium collector status would be disloyal to the community. After all Magic is a collectible trading card game. Desire for expanding your collection drives much of the sales and you have to have a way to distinguish more valuable pieces that players will desire.

Honestly, I don't think they will print more full art lands. Maybe on a very special occasion.

Unknown said...

The teaching point is really interesting and one I hadn't heard before, as well as the board-state thing. (Who *hasn't* felt dumb losing to a land? One of the things that continually turns me off about EDH is the plethora of nonbasics waaay across the table that probably aren't important to me...except when they are.) Heck, the arguments about frames, borders, and fonts never had such a strong argument going for them, but Wizards made aesthetic improvements anyway. Sigh.

@Jason Kenney: The point is that they can sell buttloads more Return to Zendikar because players anticipate $1+ of value in the lands from each pack. If full-art lands were the norm, there might be a small initial surge in sales upon the announcement of that change, but that's not the same as having a toggle switch at the ready anytime you think your set might otherwise sell only so-so.

Drinne said...

As an instructional designer and someone who teaches mtg a lot Full Art lands are not a good teaching tool for the whole game because they do not have the mana symbol on them prominently. They're slightly better for teaching "this is land" but the don't teach the skill of identifying cards in the same frame quickly, full arts make them excluded from that cognitive action. Also the mana symbol ties back to CMC, and activation costs - without having the prominent mana symbol on the land cards full arts use more visual and recall action fir new players - they're sweet but almost all of their shortcuts benefit decision trees at higher levels of play not entry level. I agree there should be a mix and certainly more full art but they are a a limited teaching advantage for one concept not a holistic one for the full games design. Once manna concepts have been fully internalized then they offer advantages by REMOVING themselves from more advanced decision trees because players making those decisions don't pay attention to manna symbols as cognitive shortcuts any more. The visuals are almost elided into cues for decision as opposed to art. full art is a huge benefit to advanced players at that level.

jjmane said...

^^^ What are you goin on about? The mana symbol is in the exact same spot as the non-full art basic. It's right at the bottom center of the card!

FreeYourMind said...

The dumbest of the dumbest people can learn Magic with a simplified deck that doesn't add too many special rules. That "any idiot can do it" mechanic with special rule add-ons is part of the reason why Magic hooks people and gets them deeper and deeper into discovering new abilities. If they can't understand what a normal basic land is or how it works after 1-2 games, they likely don't have a future in Magic anyway.

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