The Great Designer Search 2: Hang On, This Might Get Crazy – 01

So, further proof that I am, as advertised, a Big, Big Geek:

I play Magic: The Gathering. I would like to think that, despite taking a break from it every once in a while, losing EVERY SINGLE DCI card I’ve ever gotten my hands on (what was it, four or five now? At least I have the number for my active one memorized now), and generally never going to anything bigger than a Regionals tournament, I’m pretty good at it. Certainly, I have a decent win/loss ratio. Certainly, I’m actually intelligent enough to deconstruct and understand the fundamental design concepts that go into it.

So maybe I can design for it.

Oh, hey, Wizards of the Coast is running a contest to look for a design intern! Oh, isn’t that something.

And, hey! They have the first essay questions up! Let’s see… sure.  I know how to answer all of them. I even know how to answer most of them competently and come off as if I actually know what I’m talking about!

I won’t touch the wiki, though.

Seriously, Wizards. A wiki. Why? What possible function could a completely unmoderated and unstructured wiki have as a general filter? Do you have ANY idea how much sheer noise is going to come out of that thing, and how much signal’s going to be buried? If you’re thinking about using an internal wiki to act as a software solution to your internal design process, I can assure you that letting the general public organically evolve one for your needs is exactly the wrong way to go. A wiki that’s being concurrently designed and redesigned by hundreds, if not thousands, of eager candidates, all whose primary objective is to show of their own personal capabilities, is exactly what you don’t want in an intern. You don’t want somebody that’s fighting you every step of the way to hog the limelight.

Or, at the very least, you’re not looking for somebody that’s stupid enough to try to wrest the limelight from a crowd of individuals as equally desperate as him or her. That’s… terribly inefficient. Not to mention even more stupid on their part to freely give you intellectual property without even the barest amount of compensation or recognition. But I doubt that was your plan, even if it’s the end result – it does, however, highlight the general fallacy on both ends to adopt a public wiki platform for the contest.

I think what Wizards’ Magic design team is trying to do with the Wiki project, to treat it more seriously, is to treat it as a design process testbed – see how their general audience would utilize it from a design angle, and see if the lessons gained therein can’t be properly utilized internally. And the answer, actually, is yes – if they haven’t already, they should really consider establishing an internal Wiki database for design work. It Saves On Trees, you can set an RSA lock on it so that only people you want to give access to can see through it, and it really is just generally a far more elegant and flexible platform than the alternative.

People familiar with the actual ugliness of Wiki’s uderlying code are now snickering, probably (hi TheWatcher), but let’s face it. Even if the code’s ugly, a digital design platform’s still less ugly and less inefficient than something you have to print a fresh copy of every damn time.

So long, of course, as you can access the servers. BACKUP IS YOUR GOD NOW.

But you don’t need to release it to the general public for that! Hire a wiki engineer, for the gods’ sake. Figure out what works best internally – the public phase-state of priorities and conveniences is not the internal phase-state of Magic’s design team.  There’s something dangerously naive about how the wiki’s being handled, even if there are a few sociologically interesting emergent properties that are developing.

I dunno. Given the sheer quantity of people currently participating in it, it seems more like an excellent way to get lost, rather than make my name. Let’s hope my essay questions make up for it.

Oh, yes. Speaking of the essay questions, they are as follows:

  1. Introduce yourself and explain why you are a good fit for this internship.
  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.
  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?
  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?
  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?
  6. What do you think design can do to best make the game accessible to newer players?
  7. What do you think design can do to best make the game attractive to experienced players?
  8. Of all the mechanics currently in Extended, which one is the best designed? Explain why.
  9. Of all the mechanics currently in Extended, which one is the worst designed? Explain why.
  10. Choose a plane to revisit other than Dominaria or Mirrodin. What is a mechanical twist we could add if we revisit this plane?

And my answers are below the cut:

1. Design collaboration’s something I’ve been doing for years now, on an amateur basis via roleplaying communities. Balancing out the flavor of rival interstellar empires, the actual (if somewhat loosely agreed upon) mechanics of conflict, and convincing the occasional newbie that, yes, terraforming devices are, in fact, considered unbalanced weapons… well, suffice to say that I’ve plenty of experience with world design. Mark Rosewater has said that designers are hard to come by – in that case, why not hire an intern with experience /doing actual design?/

Actually, why not hire an intern with both experience doing actual design and has a proven track record with meeting deadlines and writing well? My work as a student newspaper editor necessarily involves a wide range of collaborations, to say the very least. Not to mention a willingness to work long hours (often past midnight and then some), for little pay (if any), and all of the satisfaction of a job well done (and free burritos – hey, student editors get hungry too).

Most importantly, you’ll be hiring an intern with a fair amount of proven intelligence and dedication to the wellbeing of the game and brand. I’m not just looking to get a cushy job in order to get paid to play the game I like – I’m looking to extend my not inconsiderable amateur experience in world and gameplay design into the betterment of something I feel is worth improving. Magic and Magic’s subculture isn’t just some random off-the shelf card game, and its production ought to reflect that.

2. I have no idea why Red doesn’t have more Flash mechanics. It plays into its flavor wonderfully, especially if backed with an end-of-turn sacrificial cost to reflect its hit-now-pay-later recklessness.

In fact, “recklessness” is the defining quality in Red. The Shock of surprise, the bolt of inspiration, the gamble of a coin toss: Red lives on that knife’s edge of Now, Now, Now. Though Time Spiral gave Blue Flash, it really should’ve been Red’s. Red is the color of hasted creatures – it isn’t the color of great strength, it definitely isn’t the color of particular subtlety or cunning, but it’s a great counter-puncher. You can’t tap out against an empty field on Red’s side and safely assume that you’re free from damage for a few turns – Red can and will topdeck a Goblin Guide and smack you in the face for a painful two damage.

So why not give it Flash? Why not accentuate its infamous counterpunching potential? Blue’s sleight-of-hand technique’s better represented by Morph and other underhanded mechanics – but Flash? Flash is in-your-face, right-at-this-moment action. It is doing at instant-speed what others do after slow and careful deliberation – sure, it might not be the best-crafted spell of its kind, and you might have to expend more resources getting it out than a more carefully deliberated upon alternative, but victory goes to the one that acts first, right?

The very, fundamental principle of Flash has Red’s philosophy written all over it – that desperate, bruising cross-counter that might not have all that much strength on its own, but is all the more devastating for its shock value. What color could possibly be more deserving to have it amongst its arsenal than Red?

3. I likely won’t be the first to say this: Ravnica. Of the time I’ve played Magic – which has, hilariously, been from Mirrodin (original flavor) to Mirrodin (Scars) – Ravnica has always been my personal favorite. Each Guild felt specialized; each mechanic felt fitting and well-designed to reflect both gameplay and flavor. Be it the hippie-commune flavor of Selesnya, where everything is more cost-effective the more people (or shrubs) you toss at it, to the desperate, ravaging and self-cannibalizing brutality of Rakdos, it would be immensely difficult to present a counter-argument to the assertion that Ravnica was really, really well-polished.

I also highly suspect that somebody on its design team was a huge Pratchett fan, but idle speculation aside…

While the mechanics of Ravnica as a plane dominated by its guilds was well-executed, somewhere lost in its mechanical execution was its nature as a planar-wide cityscape. That Ravnica was built mainly upon Ravnica, and with the sort of population density you’d expect from a sprawling metropolis as far as the eyes/feelers/sensors of choice can see. The little nooks, crannies and byways all but forgotten but by those that live – or prey – within their treacherous shadows, the constant tearing apart and rebuilding of entire city blocks, or the heated crush of a marketplace’s crowds – there’s an endless well of inspiration for just what you could do with the set’s lands, much less the interactions of those that live within.

The ultimate fate of Mirrodin is all well and fine – and given that I started playing Magic with its first iteration, there is a massive well of nostalgia with the latest set for me. But the story of Ravnica, I feel, is far, far from complete.

4. Token permanents going into the graveyard before being exiled from play: not all that relevant, 99% of the time. There is a trick I used to do with that rule and its interaction with Disciple of the Vault and Pentavus, but its relevance is seriously questionable for the gross majority of situations. While it makes a causal sense that things that die on the battlefield end up in the graveyard first, whatever they are, the actual mechanics of token creatures succumbing to combat or other things seem written more as a means of opening up possible exploits, than as an actual rule.

How relevant, really, is it to the game to have token permanents trigger graveyard effects? An honest question – being an outsider, I would hardly know the full weight of the design decisions that have gone into it. But from an outsider’s perspective, I can list only a handful of decks that actually exploits this mechanic, and none that affects the tournament scene in any significant way. More elegant, I think, would to simply design cards to have “leaves the battlefield” effects, utilizing a preexisting rules set that affects all types of permanents with few if any special clauses for clarity. In fact, unlike with the tokens-to-graveyard issue, it is in itself quite clear – if a permanent leaves the battlefield, it triggers the effect.

Such a reorientation in design would have the advantage of simplicity and elegance, not only in function, but from the perspective of player understanding. It requires no special knowledge of the rules other than what’s written on the card itself, making play easier for novices and experienced players alike.

5. I, again, probably won’t be the first (or last) to say this: Jace, the Mind Sculptor. The fact that nearly every blue-oriented Tournament deck plays him is, despite first blush, NOT an argument in his favor. Simply put, the best overall design is one that gives players a wide range of build choices and strategic options, at least within the scope of the color he or she chooses to run. The best-designed cards therefore reflects this, being powerful in their own way, but not so much that they loom over their kin, to the point of delegitimizing alternatives.

Jace’s second card is guilty of this and more. If you’re playing a competitive blue deck, you’re playing Jace. And if you’re playing Jace, you’re playing some form of control. His four-ability arsenal and four-mana cost dominates and skews a deckbuilder’s priorities, forcing them to build around this one solitary card.

But that’s lamentable. Having decks orbit around the influences of a single card isn’t good design – it should really be the other way around. Players should have access to an arsenal of options in which to tailor towards their own ideas and strategies. Design ought to reward player creativity, than whether or not they can afford to splurge a few hundred bucks in the secondary market. Especially when you’re considering how to draw in newer players, a good designer should really consider whether or not a card has perhaps TOO much impact.

Unfortunately, Jace the “Wallet” Sculptor, as my friend calls it, does this in spades. Sure, he might not be fundamentally broken – but he’s still overbearing in design.

6. There are actually two answers I want to put here: from a design standpoint and a marketing standpoint. I’ll put the marketing standpoint succinctly: you guys are already doing outreach at Comic-Con and others. Why not have product demos at major conventions, and tournaments as well? Sure, Accounting won’t like the extra cost, but you’ll be able to lure more players out from a demographic that’s already established to be friendly or at least receptacle to your brand.

From a design standpoint: what’s keeping new players from coming in? Not the rules – gamers’ll commit plenty of time to learn the rules if the product is good, and Magic does NOT have a particularly large barrier to entry inherent in its rules – at least, not relative to plenty of its competitors. Familiarity, instead, is more of a barrier. The world of Dominaria, Mirrodin and Ravnica, and all that lay therein, come off easily from the lips of players long experienced in the set. The various philosophies of the colors are well-known – again, to its players. But what of an outsider to the game? With no memetic anchors to draw upon, the entire culture and world within is alien to them – and somewhat offputting because of its alien nature.

To draw in newer players, hew closer to established mythologies. Utilize the public property phase-state and draw out universal points of references. The legends of Cuchulainn, the Chinese Immortals, the courts of the original Fae… it is very well to establish Magic’s own flavor and mythology, but let’s not forget that it is ultimately drawing upon a much vaster, much deeper, and while familiar, nonetheless much more mysterious well of human history as well.

7. The difference between an experienced player and a new player is that the new player is only familiar with the general public material, and expects something along those lines when approaching a fantasy game. An experienced player, however, expects some actual Magic.

That doesn’t just mean old and familiar planes and flavor. It means old and familiar styles of play. Variants or even outright returns of old, long-unseen mechanics in sufficient quantity – not enough to detract from the newer stuff, but enough to warrant their serious consideration in play – would draw back those that have otherwise taken a break from Magic.

What is the biggest complaint amongst experienced players trying to get back in? That the game isn’t what they were playing all those years ago. That the new mechanics and additions – and, yes, even art style – has made it supposedly unrecognizable. This isn’t fully true – it’s the nature of such complaints to exaggerate slightly for impact – but there is something in what they say. The pace of change to Magic is actually fairly swift – and while its constant innovation is VERY much a selling point in its favor, it would not be a bad idea to do a callback to old mechanics, if only to improve upon them with what you’ve learned in the intervening years.

Experienced players are in a position to appreciate and reward polish, so give them plenty of it. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say to do a repeat of Time Spiral, with a pseudo-guided tour through the top mechanics of yesteryears, I would go over old design theory to see where something can be improved and refined. Even Affinity, as infamous as it is, can be fixed and given some elbow grease.

8. Proliferate. Hands down. As a mechanic, it has two things going for it, and the first is a matter of simplicity. It Adds A Counter. Any counter. Of any kind. On anything that already has one. That’s ridiculously easy to understand. There’s no ambiguity there. Have it stick around long enough, and you won’t even need reminder texts outside of Core sets. Simplicity is a GOOD thing in design – the less the players fuss around with understanding the nuances of the rules, the more they’re playing. And the more they’re playing, the more fun they’re having. And players having fun are more likely to buy more cards…

But that’s not the only thing in Proliferate’s favor. It’s profound. It affects all forms of counters. Charge counters, suspend counters, loyalty counters… whatever it is, it affects. And it affects everything with a counter already on it. Backing its simplicity is the elegance of the mechanic – it imposes a heavy, but distributed, weight upon the interactions of the field, and upon the priorities of the player. Any individual thing it touches is only affected once and lightly, but Proliferate’s aggregated effect may prove to be extremely dangerous.

Of course, there’s a slight problem in judging its presence in the Extended format. There does not yet technically exist an Extended format. While I am very enthusiastic about Proliferate, it’ll take a trial by fire (and tournaments) to really prove its worth. I nonetheless have high expectations of its ultimate worth – if nothing else, it really beefs up the already potent Planeswalker cards.

9. Again, I probably won’t be a voice of dissent on this one: Cascade. No, it doesn’t matter that Jund took the tournament spotlight for “only” three (long) months. The very fundamental mechanic is severely flawed. Of the ways to generate card advantage, Cascade has got to be the least elegant and most brute-force solution that could’ve been released. I can understand it as a pseudo-tutor, putting the next spell in your library of cost X or less into your hand – that would’ve been rather elegant if you left it at just that. I can even understand it reducing the casting or activation cost by the revealed card’s CMC – that would’ve been less elegant, but certainly more fun (though I think it’d have been better called ‘Resonate’ if done as such).

But to give an absolutely free card on the stack? At NO cost other than the casting of the first card? At NO penalty to card advantage? This doesn’t seem troublesome to you folks? This didn’t seem perhaps ready for abuse, or restrictive to deck design, or at the very least a bit brute-force?

Didn’t we learn with Skullclamp the inherent cost of giving players a bit too much leeway with card advantage generation? Cascade was awful – powerful, yes. But awful from the perspective of interactivity and balance. And the absolute worst and most annoying of it was when one Cascade led to another. How the heck is the game supposed to balance itself out if the opponent managed to cast three spells for the price of one with no drawbacks or even the courtesy of having to telegraph the intent of doing so?

10. It was mentioned in Time Spiral that Kamigawa’s Myojin of Night’s Reach had her followers turned against her by the machinations of Nicol Bolas. Why not, then, a “Worship” mechanic similar to Rise of the Eldrazi’s Level mechanic? The number of X creatures and/or permanents unlocks or adds charge counters to a kami’s abilities? If the plane of Kamigawa is yet again embroiled in warfare by Nicol Bolas’s influence, a mechanic that encourages quasi-tribal play would make a lot of sense.

The Strife of Kamigawa, perhaps, and a better look at the interdependencies of kami and mortal. Power for those that live as mortals within the plane comes from the blessings of deities whose inclinations and motives are beyond their ken – but what of the other way around? What strength, if any, does a kami unworshipped have? Would the Great War ultimately have proven itself to be a suicide pact but for Umezawa’s interference? What sweeter revenge for Bolas, than to have the ancestral homeland of the first man to defeat him turned onto itself, rending it asunder in a twisted mirror of Alara?

And who else might profit from the outcome of such a violent tempest?

There’s yet another thing that can be covered, both flavorfully and from a mechanical standpoint. Other than its clear Japanese influence, Kamigawa is a land beset by the gods – in such a way and in such quantity that makes it unique in the Magic multiverse. And Japanese mythology’s made it clear that the gods are not beyond commingling with mortals. So reflect that mechanically – that mortals can too be touched with Divinity: the opposite of the Worship mechanic, where instead of kami becoming empowered by the presence of worshippers, mortal creatures become empowered by the presence of the kami.



~ by Gonzo Mehum on October 9, 2010.

One Response to “The Great Designer Search 2: Hang On, This Might Get Crazy – 01”

  1. If you’ll excuse me being a prick — or even if you won’t — there’s a word in the sentence about writing well which should be deleted.

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