Archive for October, 2010

My Answers to the Great Designer Search 2 Essays

Monday, October 11th, 2010

As many of you know, I am currently taking part in the Great Designer Search 2 with the intentions of going all the way. I am extremely excited about this and have wanted to talk about these essays all week, but until now I could not. Since I now can, I figured the best way to discuss them was to post my answers in full. I look forward to everyone’s comments, and to reading all your essays as well!

1. Introduce yourself and explain why you are a good fit for this internship.
Fifteen years ago I experienced one of the most exciting moments of my life, though it was also one of the briefest. I came home from school one day to discover an envelope in the mailbox addressed to a twelve year old Dr. Jeebus. This letter was from Wizards of the Coast, and I knew exactly why I had received it. As I opened the envelope, a few cards fell into my lap. Ignoring them, I went immediately for the letter inside. It was on that day I learned that, for legal reasons, companies do not accept unsolicited submissions. I was heartbroken, but I never stopped designing cards. Occasionally, I would check the Wizards page for job postings in any capacity at all hoping that it would lead to great things, but there were rarely jobs in New England, and, at least at the times I checked, they were not interested in applicants who would need to relocate. Four years ago, I discovered the Great Designer Search. Unfortunately, due do school, work, and a long distance relationship, I had been too preoccupied to discover it until after it had already started. After it concluded, I held on hope that there would be another. For fifteen years I have played casually and competitively. I see cards from numerous perspectives, and also understand the desires of different types of players. I would be a great fit for this internship because of my longstanding love of Magic design, my understanding of the different types of players and their design needs, and my near photographic recollection of the entire Oracle which lets me draw upon Magic’s entire design history for ideas and frames of reference.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about those cards that I designed fifteen years ago? While I have forgotten most of them over the years of brainstorming cards, I at least had the incredible pleasure of seeing my favorite one from back then, Staff of Urza, go on to see print almost exactly as I had designed in Staff of Domination.

2. You are instructed to move an ability from one color to another. This ability must be something used in every set (i.e. discard, direct damage, card drawing etc.). You may not choose an ability that has already been color shifted by R&D. What ability do you shift and to what color do you shift it? Explain why you would make that shift.
Given the opportunity to color shift an ability, I would move counter magic. While every color has had at least some counter magic over the years, if you asked any player what the color of permission spells was, be it 2010, 1993, or any year in between, there would have been no hesitation before they answered “blue.” While this shows that the original designers did a spectacular job of carving blue’s piece of the color pie, it also shows that there has been a certain amount of stagnation in the exploration of what blue and others can do. For this reason, counter magic is most deserving to be color shifted.
Where to color shift counter magic seems a simple choice, and one that recent sets have experimented with. The seemingly obvious choice is white, using the rationale of white being able to protect itself and its permanents. However, this choice seems obvious because it is redundant. Spells like Brave the Elements, Emerge Unscathed, and Gilded Light, while having other uses, act as de facto counterspells to protect one’s self and permanents. Instead, I would like to move permission to black. (Note that I do not feel permission and hand denial should both be strong themes of the same color. A separate issue, but I need to voice that I do see it would be a concern.)
Black touched on a possible means of counter magic in Planar Chaos with Dash Hopes by giving the caster the choice of having their spell countered or being punished. I disagree with this card because the caster was still allowed to cast their spell if they chose. Black has given the opponent choices with Choice of Damnations and various edicts, however the choice is never “do you want to die?” as Dash Hopes asks; the choice is always “how do you want to die?” A better black counterspell would be akin to Withering Boon demonstrating that black can and will do as it pleases, no matter what the cost. Life, permanents, or library: black will sacrifice it all to exert its will.

3. What block do you feel did the best job of integrating design with creative? What is one more thing that could have been done to make it even better?
It should come as no surprise that one of the most popular blocks was the one that did the best job of integrating design with creative. Ravnica’s design blended beautifully with the story created for the plane. Even though each color was a part of four different guilds, design was able to make all ten guilds feel like completely separate entities, even within the monocolored cards. The introduction of hybrid was also huge in creating the feeling that the individual colors were parts of the guild, rather than having the guild specific cards restricted to cards using the guild keywords or traditional multicolor cards. However, because the world that had been created was so complex, it would have been nearly impossible to introduce all ten guilds in a single set. As a result, each set was used to introduce only a portion of the guilds so that the world being created would be fully fleshed out.
While design did a great job of making each guild feel separate, the one thing that was missing was the feeling that the guilds interacted. As Ravnica’s story unraveled, we saw characters from guilds working together as well as trying to thwart other guild’s nefarious intentions. The four guilds introduced in Ravnica were not revisited at all in Guildpact or Dissension, and the same was true for the guilds introduced in Guildpact. Admittedly, this would be a huge design challenge to fit all in a single block, but it would also be well worth it.

4. R&D has recently been looking at rules in the game that aren’t pulling their weight. If you had to remove an existing rule from the game for not being worth its inclusion, what would it be?
Combat is an important part of Magic, especially to newer players. As such, the combat phase should be as elegant as possible. The combat phase is currently encumbered by two rules, one of which should be removed and another which should be restructured.
The rule that needs restructuring is rule 500.4 stating that “When a step or phase ends, any unused mana left in a player’s mana pool empties.” While uncommon, this leads to odd interactions where mana added during part of combat can’t be used during later parts of combat; this is very counterintuitive, particularly to newer players who are unaware the parts of combat are official steps. This could easily be revised so that mana pools only empty when a phase ends and by reverting upkeep back to a phase, as combat is the only phase that really needs to have multiple steps (whether end and cleanup are phases or steps is inconsequential). I feel this is the more important of the two rules changes and deserved discussion, however I didn’t propose to remove a rule, only modify one, so I technically haven’t answered the question yet.
This brings us to rule 509.2: the ordering of blockers. When people complained about the introduction of this rule, the popular defense was “you won’t even notice the change.” For the most part, this is true (A good indication it’s unnecessary). The only time ordering of blockers matters is with combat tricks, which are made significantly more powerful, and with post combat mass damage spells, which are made significantly weaker. The need to order blockers and the inability to split damage without assigning lethal to each creature in order is very unintuitive. Experienced players managed to understand this with relative ease, after the requisite amount of complaining, but newer players are forced to learn a combat system weighted down by clunky rules that they will discover are very rarely relevant. Removing the ordering of blockers will simplify the rules with minimal impact on gameplay. And if anyone complains, they’ll simply be told “you won’t even notice it’s gone.”

5. Name a card currently in Standard that, from a design standpoint, should not have been printed. What is the card and why shouldn’t we have printed it?
As it currently reads, Luminarch Ascension should not have seen print. This probably seems like a very odd choice, because Luminarch Ascension is a good card. It is powerful without being unbalanced or format warping, and its abilities fit perfectly into white’s color pie. From a design standpoint, however, the card does not make sense.
Luminarch Ascension is part of a cycle of cards that reward the player for certain behavior. If a player is successful at drawing extra cards, Archmage Ascension lets them draw better cards. If a player is hurting their opponent, Bloodchief Ascension helps to further hurt the opponent. If a player is casting duplicates of their spells, Pyromancer Ascension duplicates their spells. If a player keeps attacking, Beastmaster Ascension makes their attacks more powerful. These four parts of the cycle have rewards that are symmetrical with the requirements. Luminarch Ascension breaks this cycle.
Luminarch Ascension’s requirement is to defend one’s self, but the reward is the means to kill the opponent. This asymmetry makes the card play very differently than the other ascensions. With the ascension cycle, the goal is for the player to have a plan that will be further enhanced by the ascension. Unfortunately, Luminarch Ascension requires a very specific plan A and plan B for before and after the requirements are filled. Theoretically, the player using Luminarch Ascension could just use the tokens for defensive purposes, but the card never plays out that way.
To fix this card so that it completes the cycle, the tokens created should have defender. This would make the card far less powerful and exciting from a competitive standpoint, but from a design standpoint this change is necessary to correct the incongruity of the Ascension cycle.

6. What do you think design can do to best make the game accessible to newer players?
This should be a simple question for anyone to answer, whether they are interested in design or not. Design should do what made the game feel accessible to them early on and avoid things that made them wary of continuing their experiences with Magic. While people will express these ideas differently, the vast majority of answers should boil down to one word: elegance.
I have very detailed memories of my early days of Magic, especially my reactions to certain cards. When cracking one of my first packs of 4th edition, I saw a card with only three words on it, and I knew that I had to call my friends immediately to play. Those three words were “Bury all creatures.” Splashy, competitive rares are exciting to everyone of course, but those simple words signified so much possibility. Even commons like Lightning Bolt and War Mammoth were exciting because, while they were simple, they did their jobs well. Conversely, when I had opened my first Fork, I had to read the card through multiple times to understand what it did; even then I was left with questions. Vesuvan Doppelganger was a nightmare as a new player. Card templating was unrefined back then, but I was unable to understand the card until I went online and discovered what I remember to be four pages of errata and rules clarifications. I had known that my Fork and Doppelganger were good cards because of the prices listed in my current issue of Scrye, and having cards that I knew were good but were potentially too complicated for me to use was frustrating.
Elegant design does not have to be simple, however. The devil is in the details, but the details don’t have to be in the rules text. Time Stop just says “end the turn”, which is extremely elegant despite being a complex idea. Fortunately, the italicized rules text confirms that yes, this does exactly what you think it does. Not every card can be simplified to three words, but the less rules text necessary, the more accessible the game becomes.

7. What do you think design can do to best make the game attractive to experienced players?
There are several things required to attract experienced players to new sets. The first is to print good cards that are fun to play with. As has been discussed at great length, there are three main psychographic profiles, and every set should have good cards for each of them. Not every card needs to be a tier 1 competitive card, but there needs to be enough in each set aimed at each of the psychographic profiles that will excite them. Lorywn did a great job of this by introducing planeswalkers and exciting tribal cards. However, Morningtide fell short, and the result was a lot of disgruntled players and the worst drop in Magic sales I ever saw as a retailer. Of course, fitting cards that appeal to Spike, Johnny, Timmy, and EDH/casual players in a single set while still balancing limited to make it exciting is a challenge, but that’ll always be the dream.
The second thing to do is to not print Necropotence. Powerful cards are good, but warping a format is not. I saw people quit Magic during the Black Summer, before the banning of Ravager Affinity, and even during Jund’s recent dominance. Catching these may technically be a development issue, but power level is still important to keep in mind while designing. Oh, and don’t print a better version of Necropotence and assume that it will be fine because it costs twice as much, especially in a set with a card that allows you to cheat it into play; that would probably be a mistake too.
Finally, fulfill your promises. Mark Rosewater recently discussed memory in an article, and made the comment that the constant cry that merfolk weren’t receiving support that lasted until Lorywn was due to their false memories of early Magic. This isn’t true. There was one merfolk, one zombie, and two goblins in Alpha, but Goblin King, Zombie Master, and Lord of Atlantis represented three promises, one of them broken. This sort of design needs to be avoided, or else we get three years and counting of “Where are our contraptions?”

8. Of all the mechanics currently in Extended, which one is the best designed? Explain why.
There is a single mechanic in extended that stands head and shoulders above all the others as the best designed. Cascade is the Kix of Magic mechanics: Johnny tested, Spike approved. (Timmy was too busy flipping cards over excitedly to see how many spells he’d cascade into at once to weigh in, but it looks like he’s having fun too.)
Cascade was a complete triumph because it was able to appeal to all types of players despite being based on the most difficult aspect of design: randomness. While there is a small segment of the Magic community, myself included, who love coin flip cards, most people abhor them. Timmy isn’t difficult to attract when it comes to effects based on chance, as the effects tend to be big. Cascade offered that same chance by letting a single spell potentially result in an enormous effect. Johnny enjoyed cascade because its structured randomness allowed decks to be designed around the ability to take advantage of cards like Hypergenesis and Living End. Even Spike, the player who actively works to remove all uncertainty and randomness from his decks enjoyed cascade because many of the cards were good on their own, and the cascade made their effects better in a manner that was directly proportionate to Spike’s deck design.
Naturally, an ability this popular among all the player types was not restricted to Bloodbraid Elves on the Pro Tour, either. Since Alara Reborn, I have not played a single multiplayer game where there was not at least one person running Maelstrom Nexus in their deck.
Simply put, cascade is the one effect in extended, and in all of Magic, that was able to appeal to all types of players and show them that there’s more to random effects than just getting hit in the face by errant quarters.

9. Of all the mechanics currently in Extended, which one is the worst designed? Explain why.
Keywords exist to make reading a card easier. We see a word and we know what the card does, because that word stands for something. Flying means it can only be blocked by creatures with flying. Haste means it is unaffected by summoning sickness. Cycling means you can pay a cost to discard it and draw a card. Chroma means…absolutely nothing. Chroma tells you to count mana symbols on a card or multiple cards in some hidden or public game zone for some effect that will affect one or more things. Needless to say, that sentence reads like a jumbled mess with far more variables than a keyword should have, which is exactly the problem with chroma as a mechanic.
While one could argue that the many variables of chroma were simply a means of exploring design space. However, with only nine total cards with chroma, there should really be at least two that act in similar ways. Otherwise, why bother creating a keyword? Light From Within only counts the mana symbols of one permanent for its effect, but it does it for all your creatures. Primalcrux counts all the mana symbols of all your creatures, but it only affects one creature. Umbra Stalker looks at your graveyard instead of in play, and it counts everything, not just creatures. Sanity Grinding looks at your library. Phospherescent Feast looks at your hand, and it essentially counts each twice.
People have argued that imprint is equally confusing, seeming to have little symmetry between abilities, but that it gets a pass because it was more popular. This is patently wrong. It is true that cards are imprinted from different zones with a wide range of abilities, but there is a single variable: what card is imprinted. Any other effect is rules text of the card, not the mechanic.
No matter how complex a mechanic seems, successful mechanics will never exceed a single variable. This complete lack of continuity makes chroma among the worst mechanics of all time.

10. Choose a plane to revisit other than Dominaria or Mirrodin. What is a mechanical twist we could add if we revisit this plane?
Given the opportunity to revisit a plane, I would want to revisit Ravnica. Ravnica used a cycle of vertical cycles to introduce us to hybrid mana. This design space was later explored in great detail in Shadowmoor and Eventide. The idea was then expanded upon again in Alara Reborn by introducing cards that, instead of requiring all hybrid and colorless mana, required mana of one specific color and a hybrid of that color’s allies. This is a design space that could be further explored on Ravnica and that adds a very exciting mechanical twist.
One of the most interesting aspects of Time Spiral’s reuse of nearly every keyword was seeing how keywords that had never been printed on the same card would interact with each other, such as Ichor Slick’s union of madness and cycling. This is a mechanical twist that would work perfectly on Ravnica. Each guild specific keyword was available on each color of the guild individually, not just on multicolor cards. This means that a card that required black mana and green/red hybrid mana would have access to both dredge and hellbent because the card is representative of both the Golgari and Rakdos guilds, and both keywords are available in black regardless of which other color mana was spent. This creates interesting design space by encouraging the player to empty their hand of cards that they can then return for more powerful effects.
Naturally, not all of the keyword combinations would have such interesting synergy, and some would need to be monitored to make sure they aren’t degenerate (Replicate costs on spells with Radiance would need to be considered very carefully, for example). Even so, this simple twist opens up a world of design space on Ravnica before even considering introducing new mechanics.