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This week I am going to talk about the power of a single word. A single word that is typically printed boldly on a card and holds a lot of information. The words I am talking about are keywords. I think it is no exaggeration to say that keywords are an indispensable element in strategy card games. Almost every modern card game since the 90s has been using keywords. On both digital and analog cards you can find a lot of words like “flying”, “deathrattle”, “ranged” or “poison”. Those keywords are not only useful for players during the game but are also an incredibly powerful tool for game designers to structure cards, rules, and skills. In order to use this great tool, it is helpful to understand what keywords are and what they add to a game. Therefore, I would like to take a closer look at the topic of keywords today and also explore the question when it makes sense to use a keyword and when not. Just as a side note, Explore is also a keyword in magic the gathering 🙂

Questions that will be answered in this episode are:

  • What is a Keyword?
  • What do Keywords do?
  • When should they be used?
  • When shouldn’t they be used?

What is a Keyword?

Let’s start with the question: What is a keyword? A keyword is a word or set of words that acts as a substitute for rules text that explains what the card does. They are typically bolded words that have a special meaning in the context of the game. One of the most prominent examples is the keyword “Flying” from Magic the Gathering. Printed on the card is only the word “Flying”, typically very prominent positioned so everyone can see it immediately. But what flying actually means from a rules perspective is: “This creature can’t be blocked except by creatures with flying and/or reach”. But on almost all cards that entire sentence is simply replaced with the keyword “flying”. The goal is that players remember the rules text and associate it with the keyword.

What are the benefits of Keywords in Strategy Card Games?

They take up less space

What Keywords do is they condense card text. That has, of course, a positive effect on the layout of a card. The result is not only physically more space on the card that can be utilized in other ways, but also more mental space for the players that can be filled with even more non-sense of us designers. In general, the cards with Keywords are easier to read, easier to digest and most of the time easier to understand. At least as soon as you internalized the Keyword. Space is always a limiting factor when you layout a card and Keywords are a great way to use the limited space most efficiently.

They make cards look simpler

As a consequence of simply taking up less space, Keywords also have the psychological effect that the cards look much simpler than they actually are. Fewer words just look cleaner and better on cards. They make the cards less intimidating (which by the way is another Magic Keyword). I know a lot of people (me included) that during a draft do not read all the cards that contain a lot of text. In Games and during a draft in particular, you typically have to make a decision under time pressure. Therefore, keywords can help to reduce the perceived complexity. Even if the players actually have to process the same amount of information. It is psychologically very important to have less text on cards because this reduces the perceived complexity and that is something that you should always try to reduce in your game. And the good thing is with Keywords you can reduce the perceived complexity without actually reducing the strategic depth of your game. The result is additional design space for you as a game designer.

They Make Learning Easier

Keywords help players to learn cards easier. But why is that the case? Isn’t it more complicated and time-consuming to look up the description for a keyword in the beginning? Yes, that may be true. But in doing so you can save yourself a lot of time in the long run. Once you have internalized a keyword, you will learn a new card with the same keywords way faster. When I see a magic card with flying, trample or reach today I do not even think about what those keywords mean. Because my brain made the right connections and remembers the effect based on experience and a lot of repetitions during the gameplay. Therefore, I do not even need to remember the correct rules text of a keyword in order to learn new cards. This reduces the workload of my brain compared to the process of reading new rules text. Even if we take the reading time out of the equation. I am convinced that processing of the information would take longer for an entire sentence because I do not think about the meaning of a keyword. I just know how it affects the game.

Make it easier to see that cards act in the same way

OK, now we have learned that Keywords make learning cards easier by reducing the mental load. But the Keyword is not only a shortcut to what the card does, but it is also a simple way to group cards with the same Keyword together. Ah, this air elemental has flying. That works the same way this Shivan Dragon worked in the last set.

They are easier to be referenced

And that brings us to perhaps the most important aspect of Keywords. They can be referenced. That means you can easily refer to a card with let’s say “Flying”. A card that refers to Flying could give all creatures with Flying +1/+1. Or something like: Whenever a creature with “Flying” enters the battlefield, something happens. That means Keywords are like hooks that we can use to make cards that interact with each other. Instead of referencing cards directly by name we can easily reference entire groups of cards with the same keyword. That means we do not need n-to-n connections but only n-to-1 connections because Keywords are precise. In general, we can conclude that Keywords make it easier to create synergies because of that. 

One good example of that is a comparison between Magic the Gathering and The Elder Scrolls Legends. To be more precise a comparison between the “on death” effect of those games.

In Magic, some creatures have a trigger when they die. But there is no specific keyword for it. On the card is written something like: “When this creature dies, effect x happens.”

In contrast, Elder Scrolls: Legends uses the keyword Last Gasp. Hearthstone also uses the keyword Deathrattle. Elder Scroll Legends also uses cards that refer to the “Last Grasp” Keyword. For example, there is a card called Necrom Mastermind that Triggers all the Last Grasp effects on other cards when it is summoned. To create the same simple card in Magic would be very clunky because it is much more complicated to find a common denominator for all the cards that you want to target. That is probably why in Magic there are cards that trigger whenever a creature dies or whenever a creature of a certain type dies but no cards that specifically refer to creatures with on death effects.

They create a shared vocabulary for players

Keywords are great in giving players a shared vocabulary for common mechanics of the game. This promotes communication about the game and certain archetypes. A player may ask another player what kind of deck he played at the last event and the answer could be. I played a lifegain deck. And the other player would immediately have an idea of the cards that could fit into that deck and what the deck might want to achieve.

When should you avoid Keywords in Strategy Card Games?

So far we have actually only praised the positive aspects of keywords. But of course, there are also reasons against the use of keywords.

Let’s take a look at some reasons why you shouldn’t use keywords for each and every rule. 

  • The effect is too generic
  • Effect is too specific
  • You already have too many Keywords
  • They don’t add a benefit


Magic Keywords per Color: 

Magic major Keywords Changes
Magic major Keywords Changes
Magic major Keywords Changes

Keyword Actions in Magic:

Keyword Abilities:

Ability Words:

Abilities und Keywords in Hearthstone: