The Magic Great Designer Search 3

The Great Designer Search is a once-a-decade or so event run by Wizards of the Coast, makers of Magic: the Gathering, to recruit new designers from the general public. It started because Mark “Maro” Rosewater, head designer of Magic, was told he could hire an intern and could use whatever process he wanted. He said “Can I do a game show?”, and then did. It’s now on its third iteration, which I attempted but did not make the cut in. The basic structure for the preliminaries is

First, a set of 10 essay questions, 250-350 words per answer. This is first to limit the number of entrants, since it’s the most labor-intensive and aversive piece. 3000 people, about half of those who expressed costless interest, submitted this.

Second, everyone who submitted valid entries for the essay takes a multiple choice test. The first test had 35 question, the second 50, and the most recent one 75. The passing score is picked to have about 100 entrants advance (It was 73; I got 70.)

Third, a design challenge, which has had the details change substantially over the three iterations. This one is not public knowledge yet (though will be sometime today). 8 people advance from this, and are the contestants on the ‘game show’ portion.

I’m fairly proud of my essay responses, so I’m reproducing them here, excepting only the first question, which was a personal statement.

2. 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?

Priority consideration goes to conceptually simple abilities without unintuitive gotchas in their implementation, to avoid large mindspace requirements. Most evergreens are combat-based or suitable for spells; that should continue. It would be aesthetically off to have exactly one evergreen keyword with a built-in cost, which adds a bias away from those. Evergreening scry violated a similar aesthetic rule, though, so that obviously shouldn’t be decisive. (While aesthetics are not incredibly important in themselves, consistent aesthetics aid in internalizing rules like resonance, and so should be maintained if practical.)

The core problem here is that most potentially-evergreen keywords overlap heavily with existing ones. For example, Exalted is resonant and simple, but works best in the colors that least need more evergreens. Shadow has strictly worse gameplay than flying in most ways. Detain duplicates flickering for no great benefit. For combat mechanics, the best that come to mind are Flanking and Bushido. They’re simple and fairly versatile, but both have flaws and neither stands far apart from existing keywords. Something like Prowl is tempting for a spell evergreen that encourages combat, but the actual implementation would have to change so much that it would hardly be the same ability.

Ultimately, my choice would be Exert. As “super-tapping”, it is nearly as versatile as tapping itself. It is not inherently combat-focused, but as Amonkhet showed goes well with attacking. It would enable a wider middle ground between repeatable abilities and one-time sacrifice abilities. It does have its problems; memory issues are potentially a factor, possibly more so when it is more scarce. But it is simple and versatile, usable across all permanent types and for many effects, so it would be a good choice for frequent reuse.

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

My answer is a bit of a cheat, but: defender. Removing any of the evergreen creature keywords entirely, no longer printing anything functionally equivalent, would be a fairly significant handicap. It’s a pretty parsimonious set, and while some the game could live without (Trample could be sidelined in favor of green menace), design would feel the pinch. Defender, however, could be removed without much impact on design space.

Examine the types of cards with defender in Standard today. They come in two kinds: Creatures with zero power (ex. Guardians of Meletis), and creatures which have defender with a conditional way to circumvent it (ex. Hightide Hermit). For the former, they would play the same without defender in >90% of cases. Yes, they could represent a combat trick or trigger Raid, but on their own they would sit and block anyway. For the latter, most could easily be reworded to reverse the restriction. (ex. “Hightide Hermit can’t attack unless you pay EE,” or, for an older example, “Colossus of Akros can’t attack unless it’s monstrous.”)

Going somewhat further back, we do see cards like Archers of Qarsi or Clinging Anemones which would be difficult to replicate without defender. But these are rare, showing up only once or twice per block, on average. Replacing them with “CARDNAME can’t attack.” would take up a little more space in the textbox and a little more mindspace in player’s heads, but it would be a pretty cheap cost.

It’s actually a cheap enough cost that it’s a little strange it hasn’t happened already. Conceptual space in player’s heads is valuable, and as a vocabulary word defender is not earning its keep. While it’s almost as intuitive a term as flying, it is not effortless, and while I’m not sure it should be gone, I think it should be fighting for its life.

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

One part of teaching is easy; I would grab a set of welcome decks. One of each color, because talking about the philosophies and styles of the colors is a good way to get someone invested, especially since it gives them a real choice early on. I’ll flip through the contents of the decks beforehand to see what effects they include, and particularly the flashy bombs like Shivan Dragon. For example, it would just be confusing to explain counterspells to a new blue player if they aren’t in the deck at all.

Different people like learning different ways, so it might or might not be a good idea to jump straight into playing. My personal preference is to have a good handle on most of the rules before I start playing a game, so I’d start there, but be willing to jump ahead to turn one if my student was impatient.

I’d start by grabbing another deck that plays differently. Then I’d deal a hand off the top, face-up, and explain what they’d see. Start with the mana cost, and then point out lands as how you pay them. I’d make sure to walk through the full card of at least a couple creatures and a spell, including something that targets. Explain the basics of attacking and blocking, and that you bring someone from 20 life to zero through attacking, and we’d have enough to shuffle and start.

Ideally the first game would be _two_ new players, not just one, with me helping both of them along. If that’s not possible, I’d suggest we play our first game open-handed, so that I can walk through why I’m doing things, and what options they have. In either case it’s possible to turn “giving advice” into “making their choices for them”, ruining the fun, so I wouldn’t want to dictate that. Most other game concepts are straightforward to mention as they come up in game, so as long as I could answer questions as we played it would be a good start.

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

Magic’s greatest strength is its depth. The largest piece of that is its ability to be many games in one, but that’s not enough by itself (though it does make Magic breed game designers like rabbits). It also is the reason why it can sustain the “crispy hash brown” feeling indefinitely, and why its rules can handle any situation that players (or even, usually, designers) throw at it.

The depth starts with the foundation in the mana system, color wheel, and the TCG itself. But that isn’t enough by itself; science marches on, so younger games have surpassed it, though usually not in large ways. The solidification of the rules and wording, in 6th Edition and later, built a strong frame that made experimenting with strange effects possible without the game becoming incomprehensible for players. But the real key is two decades of full-time design work.

It’s not just that this makes the subtleties and crannies of Magic better-understood than any other game. It also leaves a trail of many different views of how the game ought to be, set by set and block by block. If Magic production stopped today, there would still be crispy hash browns available, because going through its history uncovers many different ways the game can be.

Not all players will be interested in exploring this depth. If you stick to Standard, you will have a good experience, but only age’s benefits for design quality will show. But the unmatchable strength of Magic is that for anyone who wants to go looking for something new and different, there is an archive of progress and visions emphasizing every piece they might find fascinating. You can make your own game within it, but it’s deep enough that often past designers already did.

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

Magic’s greatest weakness is, of course, its complexity. The flipside of the long history that makes it unusually robust and deep is that to fully understand it is a bigger undertaking than any other game, excepting some of the larger simulationist wargames. If not compensated for, it’s likely to discourage most people introduced to Magic from ever really picking up the game, and without some adaptations Magic made to formats, could easily lose many active players over time.

People choose to play strategy games because they want to think during their fun, but that doesn’t mean that they want to think as hard as they would during a college exam. Complexity is a problem because, unchecked, it can easily make trying to win a game at least that difficult. It’s a hard problem because the core nature of Magic as the game that breaks its own rules, and its two-decade history of experimenting, mean that it’s too complicated to function simply.

This problem became obvious long ago, so there are a lot of standard tools the game has to deal with it. One is Standard (also Limited, Block, and Modern); formats where the card pool is smaller and the history is shorter. There are fewer kinds of interactions to learn about and so the game has less necessary complexity. Another is temporarily hiding the complexity. As a player gets used to the game, things that initially felt extremely complex become second nature, and so if the complexities of cards and interactions become visible slowly the players can handle more of it in total. I’d say more, but you asked for whys, not hows.

The important point is that, as long-time players of Magic and other games, designers and veterans are almost always going to underrate how out of their depth a comparatively new player will feel if confronted with a large chunk of Magic’s possibilities out of the gate. Complexity is Magic’s greatest weakness in part because it’s the one that the people who play it are worst equipped to fight or fix.

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

The mechanic I think most deserves a second chance is Prowl. I’ll add the caveat that I know Prowl the keyword is probably not coming back; it needs Tribal to go on noncreatures, and is pretty narrow without that. However, I think the basic structure of the mechanic is very solid, and it deserved better than it got. Strip it of the tribal trappings and have it trigger on any creature (or any creature of a specific characteristic, depending), and it could be a much bigger player; probably not the marquee mechanic of a set like energy, but a second focused mechanic or a solid faction mechanic.

Prowl has many of the virtues that make Raid a versatile mechanic. Encouraging attacking: check. Goes on many effects: check. Works for creatures and spells: check. It also shares the drawback of not working on effects that help you get attackers, and somewhat more severely since it doesn’t synergize with effects that help an attacked get through for damage. But any non-instant spell with Raid could work with Prowl.

Having space for both cost reduction and bonus effects is usually a recipe for players finding something very attractive. They didn’t, for prowl. I would attribute that to a couple factors. First, for competitive players, it coexisted with Fairies, which was in its colors and was far more rewarding. When the best enabler you have available is the marquee card in an oppressively powerful deck, you will be outshined. Second, prowl didn’t fit well with its set. The tribal component felt tacked-on, and the dependence on creatures kept it from having much contrasting appeal for those who didn’t care for tribal. Third, Morningtide was incredibly crowded. It got only nine cards, not even as much as a limited-scope faction mechanic like cipher.

Strip it of that baggage and give it more space to shine, and I think it could be a very popular, successful mechanic.

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

My favorite set is Planar Chaos, and the problems with it are obvious. It is the set with the highest barrier to entry, in the block with the highest barrier to entry, of anything in Magic. To appreciate Time Spiral Block, you needed a high tolerance for complexity, familiarity with old mechanics and their subtleties, and, for full appreciation, a curator’s approach to all of Magic’s history, down to the individual cards. This was wonderful for the people who had it — it’s my favorite block, and that’s shared by most of my friends —but terrible for the bulk of the players who were left out.

Planar Chaos adds to that by requiring knowledge of and fascination with the color pie. Even someone who has followed the Magic story since before Weatherlight and digs through Gatherer searches of old cards just for fun, won’t appreciate Healing Leaves if they don’t care about the color pie. And while much of the set is great just for feeling slightly off but still Magic, it is even more confusing if you don’t care enough about the color pie to understand the difference between the mechanical expression present in normal Magic and the Platonic philosophical version; otherwise the different mechanical instantiation will feel random and disconnected. So the aspects that made me love it are also the direct cause of its crippling flaws.

It’s no coincidence or surprise that it divided the broad player base from the competitive scene; tournament players are not just Spikes but heavily-invested Spikes, and that investment gives the most reason and ability to get the context needed. We see something similar with Masters and Conspiracy sets; strong appeal to a narrow audience that can get past the barrier to entry, with the product scoped to them in advance. That gives me some hope that there could be a supplemental set like Planar Chaos in the future, but I know that even for a Masters set it would be inaccessible.

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

My least favorite set is Innistrad. (My objections, in brief, are that it was designed too much for the present and too little for the future, and that it was excessively one-note.) It has many good qualities. I never played Limited at the time, so while I hear that its draft format was one of the best ever made, I can’t really comment on why. What I can talk about is its other very strong quality, which is its embedding of flavor throughout the set.

Innistrad has a lot of really vivid designs. More than any set except maybe Unglued, the cardfile is full of the environment it is portraying and it shows in every pack. Graveyard themes, particularly morbid, was excellent at making everything all about death and the threat and consequences of death. Transform sold werewolves very well, and did some neat one-off effects to add a little flesh to the set. The creative treatment was very good at portraying a world where everyone was desperate and under siege (The symbology of the Church of Avacyn was particularly good at conveying something with Catholicism’s role in gothic horror without treading on its toes too closely for player’s comfort.) Almost anything you can point to in Innistrad is very clearly some horror element or other. That has set an example for all future sets, defining how much it is possible to suffuse a design with a particular theme and aesthetic. And while I have mixed feelings about following that lead, I can’t deny that it’s an achievement that’s responsible for a lot of Innistrad’s fans.

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

“Make one change to Magic.” Well, what’s my goal? To make it more fun for me specifically? Then amp the complexity back up. But no, I should do the best for the game. However, that means nothing big should be changed. Magic is doing well, and that’s not a time for drastic change. I’d do something with a contained potential impact that seemed positive in expectation. As I mentioned in an earlier question, unkeywording Defender seems about right.

But I wouldn’t even do that, right now. I don’t like refusing the premise of the question, but the best action in expectation is the status quo. To make a better decision, it is necessary to have better priorities, better information, or better reasoning ability.  Presumably I have a different perspective about how Magic ought to be, but any differences in goals are subtle or nonexistent. I certainly have less information than R&D. And R&D’s reasoning is many more people spending significantly more time on the question. So I have the same goals, less information, and worse reasoning. It would be surprising if I could find something better.

That being said: If I had to propose an impactful change instead of a harmless one, it would be to impose my ideas about set concepting. It is my considered opinion that every set should have at least two significant themes, one mechanical and one flavorful. There should also be a significant back-and-forth, where the mechanics inform the flavor, which push back and change the mechanical emphasis, and vice versa. A process like this would enforce tighter connection of flavor and mechanics, and create richer, more lifelike settings. Ravnica and Zendikar, two of Magic’s best worlds, were created like this, and I think it would be a good policy.

So if I was going to argue for a change on my first day in the Pit, that would be my position. But as it is, I don’t know enough, so my preferred change is “no-op.”

Reflection

Since I formed the plan to post these, Maro has posted an article about the questions and his answers. For several, I like my answers better. Removing defender is better than removing prowess, cycling is fairly redundant with scry and exert is not, and meld seems like a weak choice of mechanic to return. I also think that he’s wrong about Magic’s strength and weakness. The final question, on a change to magic, I think his answer is better, though I still like both my out-there proposal and “no-op”.

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