Posted by: frozenroy | September 24, 2013

The Ice Box: Top Down Design and Make Your Move

The DDOS downtime of Smashboards made keeping up Recaps impossible and given how behind I was, I have decided that I will simply begin recapping everything from Friday and beyond. Recaps will be on Fridays or Saturdays because they are easiest for me.

But to make up for this, I’ve decided to bring an article to everyone! Today, I decided to tackle something that I have read in the wonderful Mark Rosewater columns of Magic: The Gathering design, Making Magic. These columns are not only very good reading for anyone who wants to know the underlying bits of trading card games, but for anyone who wishes to design games or even just in general, as Rosewater is an accomplished individual with pretty good advice.

While I hope to bring multiple things it has brought to my attention into future articles, today I want to begin with a point that I feel has been particularly noteworthy to me, which is how what is known as “Top-Down Design” relates to Make Your Move, along with “Mechanical Design”.

What do these terms mean?

Utiziling how the terms are meant in Magic terms, Top Down Design and Mechanical design mean, roughly:

Top Down Design: Starting with the flavor of a block and building the mechanics from that.
Mechanical Design: Starting with the mechanics of a block and building the flavor from that.

Essentially opposites, as you can see. While I imagine most all of you understand that, save for people who do not know MtG and thus are confused what a “block” is (It is a grouping of 3 card sets), I’m going to utilize two examples from Magic itself: Zendikar, a mechanically designed block, and Innistrad, a Top Down designed block.

Zendikar was designed with a simple mechanical idea in mind: “Lands matter”. For those unfamiliar with Magic, Lands are baiscally the things you play that let you play other things. Because of this, everything in the block was designed with this in mind, starting with the mechanics (The mechanic was “Landfall”: Cards that gain effects if you play a Land that turn), but then going on to the flavor. Because the set’s theme was “Land matters”, the flavor of the world was enriched as an adventure world, marked by large structures and exquisite land, even releasing special Land cards that eshewed the normal card skeleton for a large and flavorful look at the land. This led to things like lands that come to life to attack and, ultimately, the last set, Rise of the Eldrazi, which explained why mana worked differently with weird lands and how things were sealed there. While Rise of the Eldrazi did abandon the land theme, it was only because the company was worried pre-production that Lands might not sell sets. Zendikar was a big success and shows something I want important throughout this article: both ideas of design are good! They are just…different.

Innistrad, by contrast, was designed with a sharp flavor idea in mind: “Magic does gothic horror”. In turn, everything about the block stemmed from this idea (Though Avacyn Restored, the final set, slightly steps away from it). They started by writing out ideas of what made gothic horror what it was, brainstormed ideas on how to turn iconic Gothic Horror tropes and ideas into cards (Leading to cards that, as Rosewater put it, they would have never thought to make otherwise, like an ominous cellar door) and even the choice of races and how to work them stems from this, the foundation of the world they built being to set up a gothic horror land. In short, the gameplay followed the ideas of the flavor. Innistrad was a smash hit and one of the most liked Magic sets of all time, so yeah, it worked out!

I hope that these examples help you understand what is meant by top down design in comparison to mechanical design. For further reading of the two in Magic: The Gathering, go mosey up to Making Magic, as there is more on it than what I have.

But how does it relate to Make Your Move?

Ah, yes, the key question here: All this talk is well and good, but how does it relate to MYM, given that is kind of important for these kind of articles!

Make Your Move already has both top down design and mechanical design, though I imagine that some people hardly know or notice it and that it has yet to be fully tapped into as a resource. I know that I did not realize I did it until I began reading about it and then, about two or three weeks ago, began thinking about my own movesets while thinking of what kind of skeleton this article would use. On that note, I am a very top down moveset designer.

But I’m sure that most MYMers have thought, at some point or another, “I think this guy has a cool power, I’m going to make a set for them!” or “I really like this character, I wonder how I could make a moveset for them”. As you may have guessed, the first is a lead-in to a mechanically designed set, and the second is a common lead-in to a top down designed set (You’re designing the set’s mechanics and feel around the character and not what they do, after all!). So these already exist.

But I think a key part that could help moveset making is to focus more about it as a core idea, rather than an incidental thing. We all talk about how a moveset’s “character” is, but I think that thinking how to show the character is a critical part of getting the feel of it across and, while not all sets fall into top down vs. mechanical, leaning one way or another is a key part. I think that the introduction of more top down designed MYM sets could greatly improve overall quality, though I am biased for top down designed sets, and would help crack open how to make “Simple but good” style sets.

I’m going to use an example of how I feel this kind of design can subtly influence a set to be better. Please note, before I utilize this example, that this is just my opinion of a moveset, which means that it will not necessarily resonate with all of you, and that you might all disagree with me. But personally, I feel a way that top down design (Either by total incidence, because for all I know SirKibble designed it as a mechanical set, or by design) can help a set is SirKibble’s Make Your Move 11 masterpiece, Sayaka Miki.

Sayaka, as a moveset, does not do things that are particularly “unique”, but it utilizes great character and flavor to help elevate them beyond simple “This is a sword, it slashes”. Even the most basic of sword moves are helped by keeping them within Sayaka’s perview and to give a better feel of how she’d really fight, while the writing style helps the moveset resonate with the audience, enriching the moveset by making the reading experience pleasant. And, finally, it takes a mechanic that isn’t super unique (Though, as another article I want to discuss, being unique is not necessarily good, and being unique for the sake of being unique can be actively harmful), but slots it all in by making it very much get across the feel of Sayaka, a fragile girl who needs to be carefully handled or she’ll break and who has a fast fighting style, along with even a bit of the show, the darker elements mixed with the lighter ones.

Because of this, Sayaka takes something that is not mechanically unique to Sayaka and creates a moveset that is unique to Sayaka. Everything is tinged with the character from the mechanic to some basic sword moves…and things you would not necessarily think of when thinking of the mechanic become relevant when you think of the character. Most of my examples are my own movesets, due to me intimately knowing how and why I did what I did, but I’ll use a few examples from other people.

If you’re wondering for a single condensed conclusion, don’t expect one: this article wasn’t written with one in mind! This is more just a discussion of movesetting technique. I imagine you have a good idea of top down design at this point, but the point of why it is good, or why I like it, can be condensed to this:

1. It “resonates” well with people, which is to say that people feel connected to it and whatnot, when it is done well.
2. Top down design can very often lead people down a path that they would never take otherwise.
3. It can very much enrich characterization, especially in playstyle, in movesetting.

Now then…


Let us now throw out some tips for top down design and mechanical design and, I suppose, design in general to an extent.

1. Top Down Design is about getting the flavor of the character, not what he does.

Think about it this way: You can look at a character, want to represent him and thus include every move that he uses in your set…but that isn’t top down design, because you aren’t really designing for the character’s flavor, you’re designing more of a tribute. For example, Sayaka isn’t necessarily trying to use everything Sayaka does (I think! Problem with using other peoples sets for this: You could be totally off-base with your assumptions and look like a dork), but instead gets the flavor of Sayaka down. Sayaka is a quick girl who is more fragile and weak than she first appears. Am I talking about the character or the set?

Lets bring the examples out once more with my own sets: Rattata and Sho Minamimoto. If you’ve seen both these sets, what you are probably thinking right now is “Rattata and Sho? Those sets don’t have anything in common!”. And in terms of gameplay, they ARE about as far as you can get from one another: Rattata is a small set that is weak and a bit basic, Sho is a large set that is flashy looking and a bit complicated. But in terms of how they were made, they are actually extremely similiar.

Rattata I made with what I now realize is the philosophy I have been exposing this article, but at the time, my response to how I suddenly improved with it was “I dunno”. I was looking for a quick and easy set that I could churn out at the time, because my internet was messed up and slow, so it had to be image-light and not too large. I looked to Pokemon for the fact you only need one image and basic organization to make a Pokemon set, even if more is appreciated. Rattata came to my mind when I saw no Rattata set had been made: It seemed so simple! And Rattata was so…iconic, in its own way. I knew I had to make a Rattata set.

So I sat down to make Rattata, I had two things in mind: One, that I wanted to include Super Fang (Aaah, a bit of mechanical seeps in, but it ends up going back to top down, but it does show why not everything is 100% one or the other!). Two, it had to feel like Rattata. I sat down, especially since I was having trouble with Super Fang, and thought about what makes Rattata, well, Rattata. It’s small, it’s annoying, it’s speedy and you see a lot of it, but no matter how much you faint them, another always pops up three steps later. If you read Rattata, you’ll notice this all forms the very core essence of Rattata: The set is for a small character who annoys the foe with speedy attacks that move Rattata and make it hard to kill, it needles at you and so on. It is a small, annoying set for a small, annoying character. Super Fang fell to place in my head almost instantly after: A powerful tool Rattata can pull out to turn it’s needling into something much more deadly, serving both a good gameplay part and, in a way, flavor-wise as well (Not only in the sense of fitting the set’s playstyle, but on a meta level: Super Fang makes Raticate almost OU in RBY, for example!). To me, all of this (along with the fact that it all resonates well with the audience…ah, but that is more for another article!) is why, despite the moveset being “basic” or “bland”, the moveset is uniquely Rattata.

So, how is this similiar to Sho? Because Sho’s design period was very much similiar! When I started Sho, I had two things in mind. Can you guess what they were? First off, I wanted to include his “Level i Flare” attack, because it felt very symbolic of Sho to me. Secondly, I wanted to get across Sho’s character, because he is very popular and memetic. All the good stuff about how the set does tethers and minions and walls and so on? That came a lot later!

So, what I did was look up Sho, utilizing TV Tropes, TWEWY’s wiki and directly looking up quotes via Google (Wikiquote, IIRC), in addition to watching his battles. What I surmised is that a Sho set needs two important things. First off, it needs to be arrogant, because Sho is extremely arrogant: The kind of guy who inscribes things that Joshua, a character in the game, describes as meaning, essentially, “He thinks he is better than gravity”. Secondly, it needs to be eclectic and give the player numerous options, because Sho’s other defining trait is a high level of imagination and, well, creativity! FInally, the set needed to include numerous math references or other mathematical quirks, because Sho loves inserting math quirks at any point in any conversation.

Sho’s set, at it’s core, is all about the eclectic creativity that was driven at the start of the set: The player is given numerous options that offer a large amount of possibilities that are useful in a variety of situations, meaning they will likely use them all, and some of them give the option to be quite insane in how you use them. I also made his arrogance shine through by doing things like making his minion interactions restrictive and often harmful or “controlling” of the minion: Tethering them in place, filling them with power to pump them up and have them explode later, killing them for health, even giving the foe the ability to control his minions! (Which, personally, I feel is one of the best character moves in the set.) I also showed his arrogance in little ways, like animation quirks or the fact Level i Flare has no hitstun. And, of course, I included numerous math references in the set and made his attack names almost all reference the game and quotes he made. Personally, I feel this is why Sho is such a successful set, and not so much the gameplay: While I, personally, feel the gameplay is very good, amazing even, the component parts are a lot of things we have seen before, but putting them together the way I did makes them uniquely Sho.

Both of these movesets show how this tip works by examining their creation process: I focused on what the character is or represents and build what the set did off of that, not off of what they do and did not try to force in things that were not fitting the set’s characterization for the sake of the moveset (For example, you would think Taboo Sho would be Sho’s final smash, but that feels very at-odds with the way Sho is characterized, so I instead took something very character-related to make it his FS. Though Taboo Sho deserves his own set anyway). The basis of a set made with top down design is the character, who they are, what they represent and putting that into the moveset. This also, by the way, serves as the example for TIp 2…

2. Top Down Design works for both what we call “In Smash” and what we call “Out of Smash” sets!

I think that the above examples show this neatly: Rattata and Sho’s ultimate end products are about as far from each other as you can get, but their processes are very similiar. Take the flavor from the top, figure out what you want to do with the character and translate it into a moveset, then you can paint a picture that is either minimalistic or very stuffed. I do feel, however, that some characters are very much pulled in one direction towards one or the other: For example, Rattata does not work with a very complex moveset, because that goes against the core of Rattata’s character and flavor (This is a large part of why I hate the grab, even aside from throwless grab). Likewise, Sho’s character and flavor really wants a set with a lot of options and will lend itself more to complexity. Don’t try to fit a square peg in a round hole: If a set calls for one or the other, go with that!

3. Being true to the source material and being “resonat” or having a set be “resonating” are different things.

Okay, a small bit about what I mean with resonance: Resonance is the idea that certain things speak to the human nature, “resonating” with them, and thus help form a connection, along with the idea that if someone is familiar with the ideas or source material and such, it will “resonate” with them more. For example, when you see a zombie, there’s a few things you think of instantly: Being relentless, undead, being turned into a zombie, to an extent things like hopelessness and the like. Something with zombies in it that depicts or gives more feeling to those things will resonate with you more than something that, say, does the opposite.

To show what I mean with this tip, I will utilize an example from Mark Rosewater about this in Magic, then with one of my own sets:

“One of the big lessons of Kamigawa block was this: there’s a big difference with being accurate to a source material and being resonant. Put another way, the reason most players enjoy top-down design is because they get to recognize things they know. Now yes, they like a little education, but if the core of the set doesn’t meet their expectations, the top-down tends to fall flat.

In Kamigawa block, the creative team spent a lot of time understanding Shinto mythology. The problem was that most of the audience wasn’t familiar with it, so rather than feel resonant to them, the block felt alien. The takeaway lesson was that we needed to build the base of a set with familiarity and then use the accurate but lesser-known material as seasoning. The former should be used at common and uncommon while the latter should be used at rare and mythic rare.”

(As an aside, I feel this also applies to sets that do very wild or complex things: Starting with something not so wild and complex and easing someone into it can help them not feel overwhelmed!)

For an example of this with my own set, I’ll take a very top down designed set of mine that I feel flopped heavily and I am personally dissapointed in, Randy Johnson. Randy Johnson was all about translating the game of baseball, and the intimidating and flamethrowing nature of The Big Unit, to a game of Brawl. While it may have been successful in that regard, and even that is a bit iffy, I feel that Randy Johnson fails at a higher level because it fails to resonate with anyone without intimate knowledge of baseball.

Oh, sure, there’s references, and I explain them, but if you don’t care about baseball, it is just a slog and you will feel more like you just got lectured about baseball rather than just read a fun baseball set or just read a set that translates baseball! I think that, in retrospect, I should have toned down the baseball bits some, made the references more subtle and tried to make it easier to resonate with audiences outside of baseball fans by utilizing some more basic sport tropes that anyone will be familiar with. As it is, Randy Johnson is, to me at least, only really enjoyable as an experiment.

4. Just because I keep talking about Top Down Design does not mean Mechanical Design is bad!

This article is about top down design, so I haven’t talked much about Mechanical Design, though I might have some trouble doing so either way because I am not someone who does it often (Off the top of my head, Warlord probably does a lot of mechanical design), I want to again stress that mechanical design is not bad, just different, and has it’s places. I don’t have a lot of mechanical design examples, but I do have one: Valozarg!

Putting aside any comments on the quality of the set itself, it placed 19th so it was if nothing else considered good at the time, I feel Valozarg is an excellent example of how mechanical design can still create flavor, in it’s most distilled form: Valozarg was originally considered for a Mannoroth set, but because it seemed too OOC (and animating blood being OOC for Mannoroth, as I understand), Warlord created an entire original character around the idea of the blood reanimation powers (+ Pit Lord). This, to me, is the distilled essence of good mechanical design: Never disconnecting the mechanics from the flavor and making sure to work it into each other and not just using a character FOR the mechanic, but molding the character’s flavor around the mechanic, and still keeping it IC for pre-existing characters. Valozarg, an OC created this way, represents pure mechanical design to me. Given that I remain a fan of Valozarg, I certainly don’t mind calling it such either!

5. Don’t try to fight against the set’s nature.

This ties in to a point that I already made, that some sets tend to steer into one area or another, but I feel it is important enough to get it’s own section: Do not try to fight against the set’s nature and, perhaps most importantly, human nature!

Sometimes, a set just has a certain nature to it, and while you can tinker with it and even go against it, you shouldn’t do so unless that set needs to. If a set is something that demands a more flavorful approach, perhaps due to the character or whatnot, take that approach. If it is someone who has a clear mechanical theme that people will expect to see in the set, then you should try to follow that! And if you have to cut things, don’t be afraid too: A lot of times, less can be more, and you can always use ideas you think up in a future set.

This point is a bit nebulous, so I am afraid I do not have any specific examples to cite for it. Probably because I was struggling with this tip and also probably because I don’t have anything in mind that fits it as a lesson! I hope my above explanation, and perhaps future expousing in other articles, is enough to gain an understanding of it.


I had a lot of various examples, stories, introspectives and whatnot that fit this article, but not any specific part above. This section contains no specific points but instead is full of me talking about examples of various top down design (And a bit of mechanically designed!) sets. I hope that this can help further your mind on design.

I’d like to begin with a set I have a soft spot for, and one of the only sets where I am sad about it’s placing (I wish it T10’d over Rattata), Alice Margatroid. Alice is another set that I only realize in retrospect was top down. As a note, I pretty much try to make all of my Touhou set designs top down now that I think about it, but more on that later. Alice actually began getting worked on before Rattata, but various things (Such as the internet troubles) prevented me from posting her and I only finished about half of her before, oh…I’d say about a month before the end of the contest, when my internet was fully working.

Alice is very much a top down design: Certainly, I could have given her more generic shmuppy attacks given that she has them, but the character calls for such a thing to not happen, because Alice’s battle characterization and characterization in general revolves around her dolls. Likewise, including her pre-Windows “Grimoire of Alice” Extra Stage as a Final Smash seems intuitive, but all it does is muddy the waters for little gain when you consider how that messes with the characterization for the same reason the canoncity of it is dubious. The entire playstyle evokes Alice’s character when put together: Sheltered, defensive, but with great hidden strength, playing at long range and with a level of focus that, to me, hits the sweet spot between intense and self-managing. The set is uniquely Alice, through and through. I also feel that Alice shows off a few more traits (Such as innovating on old sources and “less is more”), but those are for another article.

A few words about Patchouli Knowledge, my other released Touhou set, and one of the few sets I can honestly say I feel disappointed in. (It’s been knocked down to most likely 6-level on my own personal rankings.) Why is that? I feel it is because it is an example of when fusing top down and mechanical failed or that, at the least, Patchouli did not set out to do what I wanted or was expected. I feel like I was too focused on using what Patchouli had and, to an extent, with being “unique” to really grasp her character, despite knowing it quite well, and that the set ultimately does not feel like Patchouli by the end, even if it utilizes a lot of her moves. While it feels good from a playing standpoint to me, even if it’s not amazing, all you get at the end is soup when you try to look at it from the big picture, and I only feel the specials, and to an extent the Up Smash and Down Smash, accurately reflect Patchouli. It’s not quite mechanical design, it’s not quite top down design, and ultimately it failed at both.

Also from Make Your Move 13 is BeastMan.EXE, a rare mechanically designed FrozenRoy set. In fact, BeastMan.EXE is almost pure mechanical design, due to the fact I was both stuck on a laptop and thus could not find appropriate info on him such as videos and because I only even made him because of his mechanic. I feel like this is an example of why you need to mix the flavor of design with the playing of it, something that seems obvious but can be often missed, as I actually feel BeastMan gets across a very good feel with his mechanic, and that I did get the feel of this kind of mechanical, yet bestial hunter down…but I find very little to be excited about the gameplay. Controlling the limbs is awkward, the way he accomplishes his playstyle does not seem fun except for a few instances (Like the limb-platform, my favorite part of the set) and, overall, I feel that it accomplished only the flavor and not the move design elements.

To me, if Valozarg is the purest example of mechanical design gone right, Deathborn is one of the examples of it most going wrong. It does almost the opposite of Valozarg, starting with an OC for the mechanic and then switching to a character, and so I feel there is a severe disconnect between what the set wants to be and what the character wants to be. And thus I feel it is the worst kind of mechanical design, where a mechanic is used for the sake of the mechanic and the character is left almost totally away from it: Even if you think Deathborn IS well-characterized, it is difficult to honestly say that it was intentionally so, at least in my mind. And while the mechanical might inspire some people to like it, it DID top 10 after all and I can’t take that away from it, to me it feels like a poor set that really is only worthwhile as a mechanical curiousity. If BeastMan is “form without function”, then Deathborn is “function without form”.

I talked about Sho Minamimoto earlier, but I also want to share a few words about Megumi Kitaniji, my personal choice to round out my top 3 FrozenRoy sets (With Sho 1st and Alice 2nd). Megumi is a mixture of top down and mechanical and, unlike Patchouli, does it much better, though I feel that it comes down moreso on the top down than mechanical side. What is Kitaniji? He’s a mastermind, he’s a planner, he’s the guy who has been running large plans in the background the whole game (Even if [SPOILER] was doing it moreso), he’s…well, exactly what his job description says: A conductor. Kitaniji’s moveset, ergo, reflects this succulently, being a moveset all about control and, perhaps even moreso upon inspection, TEMPO control. Megumi uses all his tools to quite literally conduct the flow of battle, a wonderful translation of character into moves…and at the same time, a lot of it started with the mechanics, given why I started a Kitaniji moveset (I liked the character, but I also thought I could do cool stuff with time stopping, a personal favorite of mine, and the red pins). But all of the mechanics tie into the character, and the character weaves into the mechanics.

If there is one thing about the set that brings it down for me, and keeps it out of my personal 9 star tier, it is the fact that I feel the second half of the moveset feels disconnected from the first in some ways. While it all comes together, I feel like I should have rewritten the first half when I came back to it, oh, 6 months after I started, and that while it integrates well on a macro, playstyle level , it could have connected a lot better on the smaller level. It is a sad scrumple on an otherwise marvelous character piece.



  1. You’re probably a lot closer to understanding characterisation than anyone else in MYM. And you’re persuing it in a different way than I am, which is impressive for a number of reasons. So keep up the hard work.

    You do need to spend more time with mechanic-design, in order to understand its utility and advantages. For example, it allows people to deconstruct the mechanic-design processes used to characterise a character in their original game, which would then help with top-down designing the moveset into Smash.

    • I won’t deny that I need to spend more time with mechanical design, for sure. It’s something that, since MYM12, I think I’ve been trying to do at least once or twice a contest (For example, Cold Enchanter is mechanical design, and funny enough, so is Croagunk). It’s not the kind of thing that comes naturally to me, so it’s a lot harder, but examining stuff from another perspective is pretty fun. It’ll probably never be something I do too much of, since I prefer top down, but yeah. (This is probably a case of restriction, in a way! I think I’ll tackle Restriction either after Counterplay or next…)

      Thanks for the compliment on characterization. πŸ™‚

  2. All of my sets begin top-down (I refuse to do a moveset for a character I don’t fundamentally like), though there a lot of times where I’ll come up with a particular move that I like so much that I end up designing more of the set to compliment that attack and make sure it becomes an integral part of playing them. Axel Gear is a good example of this. His lightning cage was just meant to be a unique move based on something he does in one of his fights, but then I realized there was potential for other attacks to play off it such as having moves to literally push enemies closer to it, or giving him worse vertical KOs so he can’t rely on it for the killing blow. So even though I start top-down, a lot of them end bottom-up. (vampire)

  3. A lot of my movesets come from the mechanical side, at least to start. Marin is an example of this, having been built with her bubble defense in mind and expanding from there both mechanically and in personality.

    You could argue I took the mechanical approach even in regards to developing her character. I started with the basic image of a somewhat childish ‘bubble witch’ based around that mechanic, and then thought of how I could play with that concept and the basic mechanic.

    Thus instead of a bubbly, perky, friendly child character who would be at home in a sickeningly sweet young children’s show, Marin’s a young adult who’s cowardly, sneaky, anti-social, and kind of bitter. She keeps people at arm’s length, using her bubbles both as a shield and a deterrent, and takes joy in successfully turning her seemingly pathetic ability into a genuinely dangerous weapon for a few brief seconds before fading back into her defensive and frightened nature. Her bubbles are her closest friends and greatest assets, as much as the mocking she gets for them drives her up the wall.

    Some parts of her design were even created by her moves. Besides the creation of ‘special’ bubbles that make her wall into a minefield, her wand is probably one of the things most unique to her. It came from noticing a lot of her moves involved frantic swings, which would result in some sort of bubble-related effect. ‘She waves her wand around to make bubbles, so let’s make it a bubble wand.’ ‘Why does it look like a bubble wand?’ ‘It’s actually a stylized sunflower her mother gave her- the resemblance is an unfortunate coincidence.’

    • I like this post/comment. It is a great example of mechanical design.

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