M:tG – A Designer Essay

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A little while ago, I participated in Wizards of the Coasts’ third Great Designer Search.

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Unfortunately, I didn’t do well enough on the multiple-choice test to make it to the third trial, but I thought I’d share my essay, as well as some of my thoughts on Magic. And who knows? Maybe I’ll get another chance to apply for a job there someday.

 


  1. Introduce yourself and explain why you are a good fit for this internship.

You only get one first impression. On the whole, I’m a positive person. Acquaintances know that I try to see the good in everything, but this is only half of the story. Those who know me recognize that my mantra is always, “This is good, but how can we make it better?”

From a young age, I’ve always been tweaking board games. I was inventing house rules before I knew what house rules were. In middle and high school, you never saw me without a pocket notepad, ready to write down a new idea for a game, a fanfic or an original Magic card.

This carried over into college too, when I earned my BFA in Music Theatre. I loved working in the established shows and, but I still felt to the urge to write my own plays, perpetually asking myself “How can I make this better?”

This is one of the reasons I was drawn to working on roleplaying games, which are inherently malleable. In 2015, I had the pleasure of working with the professional company Evil Hat to create an RPG setting for the Fate system.

 

Given carte blanche to create whatever I wanted, I drew inspiration from the cartoons of my youth, and created the planetary romance “Masters of Umdaar.” Later, I approached the company with an idea for a second setting; I had been inspired by a small series of filler art from one of their rulebooks. I fleshed out those five pictures into an RPG about a culinary game show in space, “Uranium Chef.” In addition, I have just sold a carnival themed board game to another company.

In my quest to perfect my craft, I have not always been alone. I have extensive experience collaborating with creative teams. For the past ten years, I have worked with the group Tangent Artists, coauthoring three comics: the supernatural adventure “Skeleton Crew,” the comedic fantasy “CRIT!”, and the gag-a-day strip “Donuts for Looking.” Over time, I have learned when to take the lead on a project and when to follow. I know that sometimes you must campaign for your ideas. I also know that you sometimes have to step back, take a deep breath, and set your ideas aside for the good of the project.

In the past, I have worked as a professional actor and a drama teacher. I currently work as a team coach at a call center.

 

 

  1. An evergreen mechanic is a keyword mechanic that shows up in (almost) every set. If you had to make an existing keyword mechanic evergreen, which one would you choose and why?

 

Given the chance, I would remake the mechanic known as flanking into an evergreen keyword for black and blue. If so, I would remove the “blockers with (keyword) are unaffected” clause. I would also change the name to a term, perhaps to “corrupt” or “dominate.” Here is why I think flanking would be a good fit:

  1. Missing Hole – Blue and black is currently lacking a unique keyword ability.
  2. Color Pie Theory – Divorced from the name “flanking,” the flanking mechanic is about making opposing creatures weaker. Thematically, this fits perfectly with black (which is about punishing the weak and sapping the strength of your enemies), and very well with blue (which is happy to transmogrify an opponent into a weaker form).
  3. Enemy Color Pie: Green is the color of brute force. Green creatures overcome obstacles by increasing their own strength (ex. rampage and “new rampage.”) It is appropriate that the blue/black ability have the opposite effect. Similarly, Naya (green, white, and red) are the colors that focus most heavily on small creature tokens, (ex. green elves, white soldiers, and red goblins). Black and blue need a keyword that overcomes tokens without necessarily evading them.
  4. Balance – Flanking can be placed on low-mana creatures without fear of speeding up the format, as the ability only increases the relative power of the creature without dealing additional damage to the defending player.
  5. Record Keeping – Unlike wither and infect, two keywords that also weaken an opposing creature, flanking’s negative modifier only lasts until end of turn; this makes record keeping easier, without Wizards having to make -1/-1 counters evergreen in every set.
  6. Design Space – Like most evergreen keywords, design space for flanking is limited. However, because multiple instances of flanking stack, it is possible to create rarer cards that use flanking in complex ways. For example, imagine a rare demon with an activated ability: “2B: Target creature gains flanking.” Similar, flanking interacts very well with black’s new keyword menace, increasing flanking’s effect across multiple blockers.

 

  1. If you had to remove evergreen status from a keyword mechanic that is currently evergreen, which one would you remove and why?

 

If I were to remove evergreen status from a keyword mechanic, I would choose hexproof. Here are my reasons:

  1. With most keywords, a large creature can be dealt with by removal or with creatures. Only two keywords are immune to one of those options: hexproof and indestructible. If you are a player on the receiving end of an immensely powerful creature with either ability, you will likely be frustrated and will be hard-pressed to comeback. Cards with indestructible are rare and have expensive costs, while hexproof is cheaper and more common.
  2. Hexproof is based on the older “shroud,” which affected all players equally. Hexproof is entirely one-sided, which makes the fun one-sided as well.
  3. Whenever hexproof is placed on a card with evasion, such as a creature that is unblockable, it effectively makes the creature irremovable without some time of board wipe or edict effect.

Given the chance, I would replace hexproof with the following: An ability or keyword that reads, “Spells your opponents cast that target [cardname] cost 2 more,” as demonstrated on the cards Elderwood Scion and Icefall Regent. This ability discourages removal without eliminating it completely.

Alternatively, if hexproof were to continue, I’d recommend limiting it in several ways:

  1. Situational hexproof, such as Dragonord Ojutai, which has “has hexproof when untapped,” or Tromokratis with “has hexproof when not attacking or blocking.”
  2. Keep it temporary, such as spells that grant “hexproof until end of turn.”
  3. Make hexproof only apply to permanents of another kind. For example, an equipment that says “equipped creature has hexproof,” or a creature with “non-creature enchantments you control have hexproof.” However, a non-legendary card that grants others hexproof but effects its own creature type, for example an elf that grants other elves hexproof, is too easily abused, as your deck will likely have more than one in the deck.

 

  1. You’re going to teach Magic to a stranger. What’s your strategy to have the best possible outcome?

The first thing I focus on when teaching a new player is to find a familiar frame of reference. Ideally, I start with a familiar mechanic that the player would recognize. For example, if the player is familiar with Pokemon or Final Fantasy video games, they will understand damage and health. A player that is familiar with the deck builder game Dominion will more readily understand building decks and card costs. I would even draw connections to games that are not board games, such as how the objective of Magic correlates with the dodgeball variant bombardment.

If none of the mechanics seem familiar, I would draw up the flavor to help craft a story. Magic has a strong fantasy theme, which resonates well with any fans of the genre. Most importantly, stories also weave a sequence of cause and effect, and can help cement turn sequence in a way that a grocery list of rules cannot. I would craft a story about how each player is a wizard, pulling upon the raw magic of the wilderness; they use this raw mana to summon loyal minions (which stick around), and fickle sorceries (which are potent but fleeting).

Once the foundation is laid out, I would play several rounds with the opponent with our hands revealed. I would explain what steps I’m taking and why, and make sure that the player is aware of what options are available. I would mostly lead by example, making smart choices; however, to facilitate the learning experience, I will sometimes “accidentally” make a strategically poor move and immediately point out my own mistake, so the player will learn from my errors.

As you can tell, I’m not afraid to let the opponent have a chance of winning. In my experience, if a player’s first exposure to a game is crushing defeat, they are less inclined to try it again.

 

  1. What is Magic’s greatest strength and why?

I think Magic’s greatest strength is how it lets a player express themself. Because players have a pool of over 15,000 cards to draw upon, it is possible for a player to create a deck that is utterly unique to them.

Personally, I relate most with the expressive Johnny/Jenny psychographic. I build fun and quirky decks that combine unusual creatures and forgotten cards in a way that my opponents don’t expect (and once in a blue moon, I actually win with them). This is the message I choose to express, and the face I want to show the world when I play.

There are other psychographics, such as Timmy/Tammy and Spike, but I theorize that they also want to express themselves. When a Timmy/Tammy plays a Darksteel Colossus, they are expressing “I am a force to be reckoned with”; that is a message they want to share with their friends. When a Spike creates a tournament deck, they are expressing, “I am a winner.” Even a competitive, no-nonsense Spikes express themselves in which competitive deck format they prefer; a pro-player that builds an aggro deck expresses “I am a daredevil,” while a control player expresses, “I am in control.”

I believe this is also the reason why, in the casual format, Commander has been such a strong hit. Players aren’t just picking a high-value creature to base a deck around; they are picking a named character with a strong identity. When a card is successfully built with the color pie in mind, it carries with it a philosophy that the player can adapt. Do I want to build a Phelddagrif group hug deck and be everyone’s friend, or do I want to play Saskia the Unyielding and openly declare war on a single player? It’s almost akin to roleplaying in that the accomplishments of this commander reflect on the player itself, and in turn the player will build future decks using commanders that they will relate with.

 

  1. What is Magic’s greatest weakness and why?

I believe that Magic’s greatest weakness is that the required amount of knowledge a new player needs to understand before they can play is staggeringly high. As an experience player, it is easy to forget how much information is not clearly displayed on a card, and how many rules are buried in the rulebook.

For example, take the type line. At Magic’s debut, this line used the phrase “Summon [creature].” While this correctly communicates that this is a spell, I know of confused beginners that assumed they had to pay the casting cost to keep the creature in play, or assumed they could use a counterspell to destroy a summoned creature that has been on the battlefield for several turns. When Wizards changed the type line to “Creature – [type]” with Sixth Edition, it made the permanence a little easier to remember; however, I know of beginners who had trouble realizing that “Creature” was a spell that could be countered.

If the type line for Llanowar Elves accurately reflect everything a new player needs to know, it would have to say, “Spell Permanent Creature – Elf Druid.” As it stands, there are no indicators in cards to define which are permanents and which are spells. Similarly, there are no indicators on sorceries or instants that once they resolve, they do not stay in play- the player must simply memorize that fact, which increases the comprehension complexity.

I personally feel that adding the words “Spell” and “Permanent” to every artifact, enchantment and creature would be a bit unnecessary. However, I can imagine implementing it in other ways, such as a collapsible bar on the type line for beginning Magic Online players. Similarly, I can imagine adding a permanent and a non-permanent symbol to the side of cards; such icons proved very useful in Portal, and similar type icons were used in Future Sight.

  1. What Magic mechanic most deserves a second chance (aka which had the worst first introduction compared to its potential)?

As a fan of both Ravnica and Orzhov, I feel like Haunt has the potential to be a better mechanic. By my analysis, I see the following flaws:

  1. Asymmetrical – Haunt is confusing in that it has two separate triggers: first when the creature or spell enters the battlefield, and again when the creature it haunts dies. A potential solution would be to make both effects triggered at the same time (i.e. when the creature dies).
  2. Flavor – When Haunt is only a creature, the flavor of it dying and haunting another creature is clear. However, haunt also appeared on several sorceries, which is unusual flavor – how can a sorcery haunt you?
  3. Exile – White and black are two colors that deal well with resurrecting creatures from the graveyard, making exiling cards a disadvantage.
  4. Too Symmetrical – By insisting that haunt effects be identical when it triggers both times, you are limiting the place space; the effect must be weak enough as to not be broken, yet strong enough that a player would want it twice. I would recommend that the initial effect and and haunting effect have correlation, but are not slavishly identical.

Solution – Double Faced Cards – The flaws mentioned above can all be solved with double-faced cards; the front side of the card is a creature, which transforms upon death, coming back as an aura. A perfect example of an existing card that does this well is Accursed Witch.

For example, if I were to rewrite Cry of Contrition as a creature, it might be:
Front:
Shriekfang Bat – 2B –Bat – 1/1 – When Shriekfang Bat enters the battlefield, target player discards a card. Haunt – When Shriekfang Bat dies, you may return it to the battlefield transformed attached to target creature.
Back:
Shrieking Agony – Enchantment –Aura – Enchant Creature. When enchanted creature dies, target player discards a card.

Better still, the flipped auras can be extended past “when creature dies” effects. For example, I can easily see a white/black creature with flying and lifelink transform into an aura that grants an enchanted creature flying and lifelink.

 

  1. Of all the Magic expansions that you’ve played with, pick your favorite and then explain the biggest problem with it.

 

My favorite expansion I’ve played with is the Ravnica block. It successfully established ten unique factions, each with their own motivations, flavor, tribe, and societal niche. It also marked one of the first times when ally color pairings and enemy color pairings were treated as equals, which added new depths to color pie philosophy.

jace amnesia2The biggest problem with Ravnica was the inconsistency of mechanics across the block. Many of the mechanics, like Convoke, Bloodthirst and Dredge, fit both the theme of the guild and the colors it represented beautifully. However, other mechanics were forgettable or poorly matched. Azorious’s mechanic, Forecast, had little connection to their flavor as lawmakers, and was mechanically awkward – it was the only mechanic that required the player use it use during their upkeep; as a player who has instinctively reached for my library after untapping, I’ve missed my window many times. Boros’s keyword Radiance makes slightly more sense thematically, in that it represents how courage can ripple through a militaristic force; however this theme starts breaking down when the mechanic is used on cards that smite your enemies or, because they share a color with your enemy, accidentally punish your own troops. Radiance always focuses on colors, which can be very swingy. The keyword Transmute ties in well with the colors of blue and black, but the mechanic does not tie into the theme of spies and assassins; even the name suggests alchemy, which is associated with the Izzet guild.

As a minor note, many of the above problems were rectified in the Return to Ravnica block. Dimir, Orzhov, Azorious, and Boros, all gained new keyword mechanics that functioned within their color pie and within their theme. However, I always felt it a shame that the new mechanics for Gruul and Rakdos weren’t switched. If Gruul had the ability Unleash, it would have combined well with Bloodthirst, as they both utilize +1/+1 counters. Similarly, Bloodrush synergizes well with Hellbent; an attacking player can use a bloodrush card at instant speed, emptying their hand and making them Hellbent.

 

  1. Of all the Magic expansions that you’ve played with, pick your least favorite and then explain the best part about it.

Of all the blocks that I’ve played, Mirrodin is my least favorite. With the addition of powerful artifacts, equipment, affinity, and indestructible, the power level of the game skyrocketed. At the time, as a casual player who didn’t use sideboards, I was forced to add extra Disenchants and Shatters into all my decks.

However, the block does include the wonderfully crafted mechanic Sunburst. When I was younger, I purchased a Sunburst deck and was entertained by it, but didn’t realize how brilliant it was until years later. Creating strong yet balanced colorless creatures can be difficult, but Sunburst solves this by giving the players a more difficult, multicolored hoop to jump through. However, the mechanic also gives the player strategic flexibility; if they are in a bind, they can still cast the sunburst card at less than optimal value. Case in point, should I cast my Etched Oracle now for three colors to give myself a 3/3 blocker, or hold out until I have my fourth color to get it’s full worth? This is an example of an elegant mechanic design that is easy to comprehend, but carries great strategic depth.

Sunburst requires players to build balanced multicolored decks with balanced land bases, but doesn’t dictate what colors they must use, making the Sunburst cards a happy addition to most any deck. In my Commander Cube, cards with Sunburst and Converge are a perfect fit, encouraging players to play multicolor decks without dictating their color choices.

I also enjoy the fact that the art team added five suns to each of the cards. This is both a flavorful nod to the storyline, and a subtle reminder to new players on how best to utilize the mechanic.

  1. You have the ability to change any one thing about Magic. What do you change and why?

If could pick one thing I would change about Magic, I would remove all references to a player’s gender from the cards; for example, I would replace all uses of “he or she” or “his or her” with more inclusive phrasing. I have friends of mine who identify as genderless or as non-binary genders, and I feel that it is important that they feel included in the hobby as well. Of course, that is not to say that we should remove all gender from characters; it is perfectly fine for the creative team to create new legendary creatures and planeswalkers that identify as male, female, agender, genderfluid or anything else that feel reflects the story and the community.

As for correcting rules text, there are several alternatives:

  1. Their – Use the term “their,” as in, “each opponent discards a card from their hand.” A decade ago, using the word “their” in the singular would have been confusing to many people, but in the past few years, the singular “their” has gained more usage in the common vernacular. For example, in 2016 the singular “they” was made Word of the Year and added to the AP Stylebook.

    B. Their own – If “their” by itself is not clear enough, adding the determiner “own,” as in, “each opponent discards a card from their own hand,” might clarify ownership further still.

  2. No Pronouns – In some cases, the pronoun can be removed entirely, such as, “Target player chooses a creature that player controls.”

I know this issue is more about word choice than about design mechanics, but one of R&D’s principals is, “We are inclusive and respectful.” In order to fully promote an inclusive community, I recommend Wizards phase out any language that dilutes their message.

It is also in keeping with the philosophy of Magic’s original design; Richard Garfield and the other progenitors could have saved space by referring to players solely as “he,” but they went the extra mile to use the phrase “he or she.” It is only fitting that we continue the trend further.

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