Interview with JC Frenette, designer of Magic: The Gathering Puzzle Quest

JC Frenette magic the gathering
To celebrate the latest release of the Amonkhet set in both MTG and MTG – Puzzle Quest, Nerd Reactor got a chance to speak with MTG – Puzzle Quest Designer JC Frenette about his experience in creating this mobile game.

The original Puzzle Quest was a surprise hit for portable devices back in 2007. It combined the well-worn Match-3 mechanic of Bejeweled with the light RPG and story elements of games like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. So it comes as no surprise that over the next decade, many companies sought to recapture this lightning in a bottle by layering their brand or characters on top of a vanilla match 3 game.

But for every pretender to the crown, there are only a few titles that actually take the time to do something beyond simply saying, “It’s like Bejeweled but with (Insert Random IP here). Magic: The Gathering – Puzzle Quest is one such game. It combines some of the best parts of Magic: The Gathering (opening packs and building decks) with the best parts of Match 3 Games (big combos and chains). What it produces is a unique hybrid that somehow scratches the gameplay itch for fans of both categories.

As a longtime fan of MTG, I jumped into MTG – Puzzle Quest, with some trepidation. (The first pack I ever opened was Fallen Empires, and yes, I’m that old.) After all, how can you combine the deep strategic depth of a card game that has been around for over two decades, and somehow make it work within the construct of a basic match 3 game. And the answer is, it doesn’t try to. And by not trying to shoehorn all of MTG into a mobile game, MTG – Puzzle Quest succeeds in making a game that’s fun and approachable for newcomers while containing enough strategy to satisfy the min/maxers.

Check out the JC Frenette interview below.

What is your experience with Magic the Gathering? First set you played, etc.?

JC Frenette: My first experience with MTG was quite a while ago! I started playing MTG in 1994 with Revised! I couldn’t afford a lot of cards at the time, so a friend of mine and I just played with our starter decks for a while in high school until we hit college, where we ended up playing with Ice Age and Fallen Empires. I stopped playing MTG back then but dabbled in a lot of different card games. (Most of them weren’t very good, especially Netrunner, which is still today one of my favorite card games.)

I picked MTG back up a few years ago on a whim, playing with Magic 2012 and Innistrad. (A friend of mine managed to pull a foil Liliana of the Veil back then, which was amazing to all of us!) I’ve been playing off and on for the past few years. But sadly my schedule does not permit me a ton of time to play these days.

What is the general process for translating cards from Magic the Gathering to MTGPQ?

We have a set process when designing cards. Typically we have a breakdown of how many cards we want in each color and rarity for a given set. And our numbers are different than what Wizards does. We usually want more Mythics (we aim for at least 3 or 4 per color) and Rares but less Commons and Uncommons. We also choose which cards to adapt. Sometimes some cards do not fit at all with our game, intent-wise, for example. Normally what I will do is look at our target numbers and “promote” certain Rare cards to Mythic and certain Uncommons to Rares, making sure to adapt their power level to fit with their new rarity.

Then I design the cards themselves. First, I take the time to read and understand the card and its intent. (We also have some hardcore paper Magic players in the team who often times give me a sanity check about how I believe a card’s intent is.) Once we have figured out the intent, I set out to integrate the card. Sometimes it’s rather easy and I can just copy the card’s abilities 1:1, and we’re good. But often times I have to adapt things a bit.

One big area that often changes is creature Power and Toughness. I have set a pretty hard limit to creature stats depending on rarity, which is a big difference from paper Magic. The logic behind that is that since in our game card rarity is not only a sign of how rare a card is but also an indicator of how strong the card is. A card’s mana cost changes depending on its rarity.

For example, a Common card might cost 1 mana per Power and 1 mana per Toughness. While a Mythic card might cost 0.25 mana per Power and 0.25 mana per Toughness. We do this because initially we had all these costs flat and we had several major problems, one of which was that Mythics ended up costing a ton compared to Commons. And you could easily make much better decks without Mythics by just loading up on Commons and card drawing abilities.

It was really problematic, so I switched to a system where mana costs scale per rarity. For Power and Toughness, I set a rather hard limit to how much stats the creature can have: 4 for Common, 8 for Uncommon, 12 for Rare and 16 for Mythic. The limit can always be broken, depending on the situation or the intent behind the card, but it’s a good rule of thumb to keep in mind.

Once cards are designed and integrated, I run them through a rather exhaustive spreadsheet. The spreadsheet helps me determine the mana cost of each card – depending on their abilities, how they are triggered, how much Power/Toughness they have, etc. Mana costs are different between each color. This is to keep in line with the color’s goals and theme, but also to help make them feel different. As mentioned before, they also scale differently with each rarity. In Red, for example, Power becomes MUCH cheaper than Blue.

Once the spreadsheet determined the numbers, I run through them for a sanity check. Sometimes things feel off, or too expensive, or not expensive enough. I then tweak the card so that it fits with what I have in mind for the card, its color and its rarity in relation to the set. The cards are then ready to be written and translated into the many languages we support. That’s the process, in a nutshell! (Albeit a rather large nutshell…)

How long does it take to design a MTGPQ card from start to finish?

Luckily the team at Wizards does much of the early skilled work in designing the card itself for the card game. For Puzzle Quest, it depends (mostly on the rarity and complexity of each card), but normally it takes me around half an hour to design a card, start to finish. That includes the initial design intent, integration, initial testing to ensure the card works and card text writing. Some cards take me literally 5 minutes to do start to finish (especially commons with no card text!) and some cards take over an hour (for complex Mythics that require a lot of tweaking).

MTG is always concerned about a problem known as Power Creep. Is this something that you worry about in MTGPQ?

Power creep is always a problem in any sort of card game, and MTGPQ isn’t an exception. We have printed some very powerful cards, and until now every new set was constantly compared to the older cards in terms of power. Starting with Kaladesh I’ve been a lot more conscious about power creep because we were starting to have a problem on our hands, and it was necessary to slow it down as much as possible.

In a lot of mobile games, power creep is a built-in mechanic which is necessary for the long-term evolution of the game. But we’re addressing it in a different way. Starting with the Amonkhet release and version 2.1.0, all our current competitive events are restricted to the current block, the previous block and Origins. This means that for Amonkhet events, you can only build decks with Origins, Kaladesh, Aether Revolt and Amonkhet cards. This lets us avoid the pitfalls of power creep while giving players who jump into the game later a chance at being competitive and also makes balancing simpler. (I don’t have to balance every new card against Deploy the Gatewatch, Olivia, Decimator of the Provinces, etc.)

What do you think are the biggest challenges in turning a MTG card into an MTGPQ card?

Often times, the biggest challenge is translating some cards’ intent into our game. There are cards in MTG that are either complex or just completely incompatible with what we have in our game – things with tokens on them, or interesting but ultimately impossible to cleanly translate cards. A great example of that is one of the new Mythics in Amonkhet, Glorious End. In MTG, there’s a lot of things you can do with the card to bypass its “you lose the game” mechanic, and giving players a full extra turn in our game is very, very strong. (Not to mention we don’t really have a “you lose the game” type of mechanic.)

The intent of the card is to give one last hurrah in order to win a game. And so for us, this translated into “Give all your creatures a huge buff, then kill them at the end of your turn.” This way the card is still playable, and scales with your power then drastically reduces your power but isn’t an instant-lose card. Not to mention that in MTG, there are ways to bypass the “At the beginning of your next end step,” which is something we can’t quite do.

What are the top 3 cards from any Magic set, Alpha to today, that you’d like to bring into Puzzle Quest?

There are a few older cards I’d love to see make an appearance in MTGPQ! Besides the classics like Black Lotus and the Mox suite, which would all be interesting but would make for a really boring response, here are some of the cards I’d love to see make an appearance:

Maze of Ith: I might be a bit nostalgic as I played against it a TON when I was younger and played MTG when The Dark had just ended. But I feel it would be interesting to have this sort of interaction in the game. We have cards that provide a similar benefit right now. But they disable cards instead of just straight up stopping them, which would be a bit more balanced on our side, if we could do it.

Shivan Dragon: Another thing I would love to see at some point is to have cards with proper X card costs. It’s a huge challenge for us due to the way gaining mana works in our game. But lots of older cards with X costs are very interesting in how they scale. In particular, an oldie but goodie (again, nostalgia ruins me with this!) is the classic Shivan Dragon. I would love to see a way for us to pump up creatures on the battlefield with mana like this.

Shahrazad: A final card I have soft spot for (even though I know a lot of classic MTG fans will hate me for this!) is the classic strange outlier from Arabian Nights: Shahrazad. Playing a side game for half your life in the current game is the ultimate version of MTG inception. And I remember the tales of friends going 3 Shahrazad deep back in the day and coming out all confused! I’m sure there’s something I could do with the card that could be interesting and actually be competitive.

What has been particularly fun about translating Amonkhet cards relative to other sets?

I absolutely loved translating the Amonkhet gods. They are particularly interesting because they are very low-cost creatures with high power ceilings that enable themselves and let us do interesting things in terms of playstyles. Oketra forces you to play for creatures, for example, and Bontu needs to destroy some of his own creatures to gain a massive advantage. Those cards were very fun to design and look into so that they would keep the original intent while being fun to play.

What card from Amonkhet do you particularly like or do you think players will particularly like?

I particularly like Approach of the Second Sun. While we couldn’t exactly reproduce the behavior the MTG card has, the increasing damage and life gain our version provides, based on how many copies of it are in your graveyard, is really an interesting mechanic that we haven’t really done before. I also believe that a lot of the Commons and Uncommons that give other creatures -X/-X are interesting for our game. Because it has let us print creatures with extra stats that come with a huge benefit if they are played on an empty board, giving a bit more value to some commons and uncommons.

Cards like Soulstinger, which is a 4/5 for 5 mana (!!) but gives -3/-3 to each of your other creatures, are incredibly strong when cast on an empty board. One final card which I think will be a staple of this set in Red is Consuming Fervor, which gives +5/+5 to one of your creatures, but that creatures loses -1/-1 at the beginning of your turn. Costing 6, this cheap spell can help pump out your creatures like no other!

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