Designer’s Den is a game design blog by Derek Conrad covering a wide spectrum of gaming including mechanics, art and graphic design, world building, and more!
When implemented well, the names of elements within a game can bridge the gap between theme and mechanics. Ideally, a name should not only describe what something is in a game, but also what it does. What may appear as mundane or subtle on the surface can actually carry a tremendous amount of weight during game play by avoiding ambiguity and explaining what the game element is supposed to achieve. Sometimes, players refer to this type of design as being “easy to grok.”
Take the tap mechanic in Magic. As simple as it sounds, the word “tap” has layers of depth to it that, for over twenty-five years, has managed to simultaneously explain what Magic is and what it does. To draw power from your cards (usually mana), you need to tap into them, and to do so, you need to physically tap, or turn, them.
A good name is crucial not only because it infers important information to new players, but also because it reinforces legacy information to established ones. In today’s post, I’ll talk about card names in particular and provide examples from some of the biggest games on the market that have achieved success with flavorful names.
I See What You Did There
Bake into a Pie, Magic: the Gathering
Fresh from the newest expansion, Throne of Eldraine, Bake into a Pie has some of the strongest flavor out of all the hundreds of cards introduced. Eldraine’s theme is centered around fairy tales, which themselves are stories that often involve food in the plot (think gingerbread houses, poison apples, pumpkin carriages, etc).
Bake into a Pie immediately conjures up the food theme and also manages to describe the grisly fate that awaits its intended target: “Destroy target creature. Create a Food token.” The players all know what’s going to happen when the spell is cast. Other than the mana cost, everything is packaged neatly right there in the title.
Sure, the name couldn’t be any more on the nose, but in an expansion that cares a lot about food, is that really such a bad thing?
Dragon Breeder, Hearthstone
Where Magic has taken a turn for fairy tales, Hearthstone has dived into dragons with its newest expansion, Descent of Dragons. A lot (and I mean A LOT) of the set’s cards are either dragons themselves or care about dragons in some way. This cheap neutral minion is in the cares-about category with its effect “Battlecry: Choose a friendly Dragon. Add a copy of it to your hand.” (Battlecries are on-play effects.)
Even people who have never touched a game of Hearthstone could probably get close to guessing what this card does by name alone. While it may not be 100% clear that the copy is added to your hand, the Breeder in the name indicates that a dragon is being replicated somehow, and most likely from another dragon already present.
Lightning Bolt, Magic: the Gathering
Lightning Bolt has existed since the first Magic set. It was introduced as part of a five-card cycle of one-mana spells intended to highlight each of the colors’ core archetypes. For red, this was burn, or direct damage: “Lightning Bolt deals 3 damage to any target.” Lightning Bolt was and has remained the most efficient burn spell to date. So naturally, it has spawned a number of imitators.
A near clone of the card is Lighting Strike, which bears all the same parts except for its mana cost of 1R (as opposed to the single R). But even when not evaluating the cost, Lightning Strike does a good job of explaining itself simply by the proximity of its name to Lightning Bolt. An established player of Magic would have been hyper-aware of Bolt’s capabilities when Strike was printed in Theros. All he or she had to do was hear the name to understand what sort of spell it was.
Nearly every red instant and sorcery printed with Lightning in its name deals direct damage. Often the damage is dealt to any target, but not always. Still, the burn aspect remains intact thanks to reinforcing the archetype across multiple sets over the years.
Professor Oak, Pokemon Trading Card Game
Like Lightning Bolt, Professor Oak has been around since the beginning of the Pokemon TCG. Also like Lightning Bolt, the name is ubiquitous with power. “Discard your hand, then draw 7 cards,” may appear like a wash at first blush, except not when you’re holding fewer than seven cards when you play it. The fewer the cards in your hand, the better it gets.
Not only that, but being able to reset your hand and draw seven cards is incredibly potent in a game like Pokemon, where there are no true costs to play cards (not counting evolution and attacks). Also, since there was no limit to how many trainer cards you could play in a turn, you could play multiple Professor Oaks to dig through your deck until you found the right card. Pokemon quickly recognized the strength of the effect and the next Professor card to be printed, Professor Elm, had the same effect but with “You can’t play any more Trainer cards this turn,” stapled on at the end.
Now, the Supporter subtype has been added to Trainer cards to limit their use to once per turn in an effort to curb these high-power effects. Carrying on the legacy of Oak’s ability to refill your hand are the Supporters Professor Juniper and Professor Sycamore, who both do what Elm was trying to accomplish but without the clunky second line. Likewise, the remaining Professors have some sort of hand refill or draw effect attached to them, so when a new set comes out with one, established players know what role to expect from them and how they’ll fit into the current metagame.
Names and artwork are usually the first elements players see when looking at cards, and both play an important part in explaining what the card is and what it does. But whereas artwork can leave itself open to other interpretations (and sometimes is commissioned before a card’s design has been finalized and thus may lose relevance), a name has the power to cut through ambiguity and explain a card’s overall intent immediately. Names also describe cards where images don’t exist, such as in conversation and plain text.
Because so much is riding on just a few words, creating good names can be incredibly difficult to master. I know I’ve spent many combined hours inventing names for cards in Rise of the Gods, and revising them multiple times until they feel like a strong fit. And while not every name will come out perfectly, it’s still important to grant them the consideration they deserve. They have the ability to change the context of card games entirely because when you break cards down to their core, they really are just elements of a story being written by the players.
So, what are some of your favorite flavorful card names and how have they helped to reinforce the themes and mechanics of the games they appear in? Let me know in the comments below!
Thank you for reading, and until next time!