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Louck Sac – The Great Designer Search *5th* Part 1

This is a great series of articles if you A) want to know about me, the man, the legend; B) want to see behind the scenes of the Great Designer Search; C) didn’t catch the Designer Search and want a neat summary; or D) want to know more about game design. For me, this is a hard series to write. It’s difficult enough to talk about losing a PTQ – not winning the Great Designer Search cut so much deeper – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Flash back to 2006. I’m a senior in high school about to head to Seattle for college. My “plan” was to study math and science things, and eventually I would do some math and science job. Meanwhile, I’m playing a lot of Magic and joining the ranks of the PTQ grinders. Enter: the Great Designer Search numero uno.

Game design is one of those things a lot of Magic nerds want to do, and I was (am) no different. Unfortunately, back then I was pretty awful at it. It’s not like I was bad at game design really, I just hadn’t seriously done it before. I submitted my 10 essay questions (which I’m sure were stone terrible) and was out in the first elimination round – the multiple choice test. For a while I moped about getting just one question too many incorrect, but there was no way I would have made it past the next stage – I had no idea what I was doing.

The time between GDS1 and GDS2 perfectly marked my journey to become a real game designer from start to finish.

Here’s A Summary

After missing out on the first Great Designer Search, I went to the University of Washington. Lucky for me – and I mean really lucky for me – Richard Garfield and Skaff Elias were teaching a class about the characteristics of games. Score! At the end of the quarter Skaff hooked me up with Tyler Bielman (a previous WOTC guy) and I started working on the Xeko collectible card game. That’s when I knew that game design was for me. After a year Xeko ran into trouble, so Tyler and I moved to work for Jordan Weisman on Arcane Legions, a miniatures game.

I also took every game-related class I could get my hands on. While my jobs were teaching me about game design, I found Wanda Gregory teaching classes about the gaming industry. There I learned a lot about game marketing, gaming demographics, and how different companies approach games. I wrote a lot for Wanda about games and the gaming world.

Parallel to this, I was playing a lot of Magic. I started writing for Brainburst and travelling the City Championship circuit, where I met a ton of people in the Seattle area. (Hi Zaiem!) From there I started drafting with the good players and learning their lessons, and I started building decks and doing well with them. One year I built a deck that Top 8ed a Grand Prix, the next year Zaiem Beg and I built a deck that I took to day two of a Grand Prix, the next year I qualified for the Pro Tour with my own deck, and the next year I Top 8ed a Limited Grand Prix!

I guess I went to actual school, too. I got a degree in economics because I love the way economists think. While the math of economics is somewhat directly usable in game design (especially for large-scale games with actual economies), I found the thought process incredibly useful. Economics gave me a way to express ideas about game design I couldn’t find words for. I mean, opportunity cost alone!

So there I was. I knew game design, I knew the gaming industry, I knew Magic, and I had just graduated from college: Enter the Great Designer Search 2. A four-year montage later, and I honestly felt like this contest was made for me to win.

Step 1: The Essays

I’m going to walk you through each step of the contest, what I did, and why I did that – starting with the essays. I encourage you to check out my full essay answers here. I’ll give you the tl;dr version below, along with my thoughts on the questions looking back.

1) Introduce yourself and explain why you are a good fit for this internship.
I’m a game designer, I’m a writer, and I’m an MTG player. I’m a great designer and the perfect co-worker.
I am pretty awesome.

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.
Make Shades green. It’s not a black ability, and if any color is about spending mana and making creatures bigger, it’s green. Giving Shades to green also opens up the design space on shades, since green is allowed to make bigger creatures for cheaper.
I should have mentioned that black Shades were likely grandfathered in to the color pie, though I kind of implied it. I also gave an answer that I’m not 100% in favor of (a pattern you’ll see) but these questions were meant to be hard. While I think green could have some Shade action, I would by no means remove it from black if given the choice.

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?
Ravnica. It’s incredible how easy it is to identify which guild a card is from with very little information. However, a great part of Ravnica’s flavor that didn’t come across in the mechanics was the city setting.
I loved my overall answer, but was disappointed that I couldn’t come up with a suitable example for a mechanic that represents a city world. Given infinite time, sure, I would have come up with something, but the deadlines were pretty rough.

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?
Remove the maximum hand size rule. While it has a role (pushes players towards action and keeping their choices manageable) it isn’t pulling its weight. The downside is that it presents an unnatural discard outlet, feels awful, prolongs the game by adding another choice, and is often forgotten.
I should have likened the unnatural discard outlet to the unnatural self-damage outlet of mana burn. Still, this was my most confident answer. If given the choice to actually implement this change, I would seriously consider it.

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?
Grand Architect. It’s complicated, has three very different abilities that don’t do anything the set around it does, and it’s completely un-grokkable.
By far this was my favorite question – do you know the difference between design and development? I was actually a bit of a traitor here, as I love playing with Grand Architect – but I’m a Johnny who has been playing the game for 8 years. I’m sure there is a great card somewhere here, but Grand Architect needs another round or two of designing. Imagine submitting this for the Great Designer Search!

6) What do you think design can do to best make the game accessible to newer players?
Magic is an incredibly complex game, so the best thing you can do is manage the initial complexity by making simple cards and by hiding the complexity through rarity, mechanics, flavor, or repetition.
I was worried that my answer was too broad, but I really believed the BEST thing to do for new players is to manage the complexity, which is a broad subject. Sometimes for an essay you choose not the best answer, but the answer you can best write about. This time, I just went with the best answer and made myself write about it.

7) What do you think design can do to best make the game attractive to experienced players?
Experienced players to me doesn’t just mean Spike or tournament players, but players that understand the game. Answer: keep pushing Magic to new places, but continue to give players the tools to do what they want to do, just in a new context.
Again, a very broad answer, and probably my softest answer overall. The best I could do was give specific examples, such as Tempered Steel or Goblin Guide. Hedron Crab would also have been a great example, but I wanted to stay as current as possible.

8 ) Of all the mechanics currently in Extended, which one is the best designed? Explain why.
Landfall, not close. It runs so smoothly along the player’s natural path, provides good tension, and is very scalable to a player’s personal preference.
Srsly. I knew this would be a popular answer, but that doesn’t make it any less correct.

9) Of all the mechanics currently in Extended, which one is the worst designed? Explain why.
Champion. It’s a decent design goal that fails miserably at creating something players actually want to do. It feels worse than it should, it’s awkward to play, and it’s hard to process.
Another awesome question. There are many viable answers to this question, champion was just the answer I felt most comfortable writing. I considered the gimmick of using clash as the answer to both question 8 and question 9, since clash has both awesome bits and terrible bits, but I held back. I had enough confidence in my normal essays that I didn’t think I needed to do anything gimmicky.

10) Choose a plane to revisit other than Dominaria or Mirrodin. What is a mechanical twist we could add if we revisit this plane?
“Revisit Lorwyn, except this time you have two-race creatures.” Elf Goblins! Merfolk Kithkin! This solves a problem of tribal blocks by creating a ‘critical mass’ of each tribe, and does a much better job than changeling for playing double-race Constructed decks for the fans of tribal.
I totally forgot about this answer! I still like it. I mean, I can’t tell if it’s actually good enough to hang a whole block on (probably not) but I really think there are players out there that would enjoy building the Elf/Goblin deck, if given the sweet tools to do so. My goal with this answer, from the very beginning, was to be able to say my concept as quickly and simply as possible. “It’s , except this time <twist!>” I knew Mark would appreciate an opening line like that, especially after reading through piles of essays. I finally came up with a concept that fit the template I was holding myself to, but also had the legs to carry my full 250 words.

I really tried to structure my answers as kindly as possibly for poor overworked Mark Rosewater, knowing he had a lot of reading to do. You’ll see I often stated my answer simply in the first line, presented each point in a paragraph, and summarized at the end. That’s not exactly an essay writing revelation, but it’s easy to forget about when you’re crunching a word count. I was blown away when I read essays that had an answer hidden deep down in the third paragraph. I’ll be honest, I was disappointed when our essays weren’t individually critiqued. I really wanted to see what the guys at Wizards thought about them. While I had a few soft answers, I’m proud of how I approached each question and how my essays as a whole turned out.

Multiple Choice

The essays were just a filter for people that were willing to put in the work. Next, it was time for the automated thinning process. 44 out of 50 correct answers were needed to pass, and I skimmed by at exactly 44 correct. The fact that I missed so many blew my mind, but I was thankful that I made it. You can check out the whole test here, with a link to the answers, but I’ll just provide my responses to the questions I missed below.

6) Design often makes creatures that have flash and “enters the battlefield” triggered abilities like Deflecting Mage. Which of the following abilities would we least likely pair with flash?
a) Counter target spell.
b) The next time target instant or sorcery spell would deal damage, it deals double that damage instead. (MY ANSWER)
c) CARDNAME deals 2 damage to target attacking or blocking creature.
d) Prevent all combat damage that would be dealt this turn.
e) Target creature gets +3/+3 until end of turn. (CORRECT ANSWER)

The most missed question, since it was poorly worded (maybe on purpose). There’s not much to say here – I misread the question and picked what I thought was the worst ability for a flash creature since casting a spell and holding priority to cast this creature is pretty awful. However, e) is technically the “least likely to be paired with flash”, since all the other abilities need to be paired with flash to function. Had I not passed this test I would be more upset at a question like this, but the test was graded on a curve so I like to think it worked itself out.

30) Who is most likely to build a deck themed around The Wizard of Oz? (The description of the five answers are here and here.)
a) Timmy
b) Johnny – (CORRECT ANSWER)
c) Spike
d) Vorthos – (MY ANSWER)
e) Melvin

I chose this answer quite confidently, and did little research to verify my answer. Again, in an ideal world given infinite time I would have dug through Mark’s articles more, but I spent my energy checking my answers to other questions instead. Why did I choose Vorthos? Because I know why Mark uses psychographics and why they are so important to his design: because they tell him whom he is designing cards for. You don’t design cards directly for Vorthos, in the same way that you don’t design cards to fit in The Wizard of Oz theme deck. While writing this article I’ve since gone back and looked for Mark’s article that taught me this lesson and found the perfect quote to make my point:

“The Vorthos-ness works on a completely different level. I can sharpen the name, I can hone the card concept, I can ask for more dynamic art, I can even fiddle around the edges of the mechanic. And it doesn’t have to affect the dial on the Timmy meter. I can’t make the card more Johnny with any such assurance.”

Well, according to question 30 and its answer, you totally can! The reason I chose my answer is because I associated the flavor stuff that is unimportant to design (such as making a card for the Wizard of Oz Theme Deck) with Vorthos. Knowing that the psychographics were created to facilitate card design hurt me here, but I’m not saying Mark is wrong. He even went on to explain how his view of the psychographics and their role in Magic changed thanks to Vorthos – a piece I totally forgot about. (Really, you should go read the article.) Ultimately I wouldn’t call this question unfair, but my opinion is that this is a much more complicated issue than a simple multiple choice question can handle.

38) Which of the following abilities is R&D least likely to put onto a green creature in an upcoming set?
a) All creatures able to block CARDNAME do so.
b) CARDNAME can’t be blocked except by two or more creatures. – (CORRECT ANSWER)
c) [Mana]: CARDNAME gets +2/+2 until end of turn. Activate this ability only once each turn.
d) Vigilance
e) You may have CARDNAME assign its combat damage as though it weren’t blocked. – (MY ANSWER)

I’ll be honest, I’m still upset about this one. Mark said it himself, we’ve “only” seen b) on a green creature three times, but they are relatively recent: Kamigawa, Guildpact, Zendikar. While I agree that usually this ability is paired with red, if I saw it on a green creature in an upcoming set I wouldn’t be too surprised because it’s a fine ability – nothing bad would happen. The color pie is supposed to bleed a little, and this isn’t unbelievable for green.

So what’s wrong with e)? It’s been seen on just as many cards recently: Tornado Elemental, Rhox, Lone Wolf, and Thorn Elemental. Notice, though, that three of those are reprints in a core set. Why don’t we see much of e ) anymore? Because it’s a bad ability! I can’t find the article, but I remember reading somewhere that this ability was put into core sets as an alternative to trample. However, eventually the trample code was cracked and it has been in core sets ever since, happily replacing the Rhox ability because it’s just better.

So, if you were lead designing a set and were given the choice between the ability that’s not seen on a green creature very often, or the ability that R&D has kicked out of modern Magic because it isn’t fun, which one do you choose? Sure, I’m being a little dramatic here, but I really do still believe in my answer. Again we hit an issue that is much more complicated than a simple multiple choice question.

41) According to current design standards, which of the following is least likely to be a common card?
a) A white instant that gives protection to target creature.
b) A blue aura that stops enchanted creature from untapping.
c) A black sorcery that causes you to pay life to draw cards.
d) A red instant that states target creature can’t block this turn. – (MY ANSWER)
e) A green sorcery that destroys all enchantments. – (CORRECT ANSWER)

Oh boy. If you thought the last question upset me…

First, I’m going to quote the relevant parts of Mark’s response: “Almost every block has b), c), and d) in common… e), on the other hand, while it started in common, was long ago moved off to uncommon. Global destruction (destroying all of something) is an ability we’ve chosen to move out of common.”

I was really disappointed in the answer Mark gave because it’s just false. What I wish I knew was whether or not Mark realized it when he wrote the question, because he certainly didn’t when he wrote the answer. (Mark, if you’re listening, I’d really like to know.) There are only five instants of any rarity that state “target creature can’t block this turn”: Glyph of Reincarnation, Off Balance, Panic, Stun, and Winters Chill – only two of which are red, and most of which are ancient. There may be spells with similar effects out there, but let’s start with what the question is actually asking about.

So why does Mark say “almost every block” has a “red instant that states target creature can’t block this turn”? It’s almost true, but the effect is almost always on a sorcery. Putting that ability on an instant is bad design, especially for new players. I attack you, you block, then I cast Stun to cancel your block. You and I know this doesn’t work, but it’s very natural that new players think it does (and they do this all the time). That’s not good. The effect works great on sorceries, though, so that’s where it lives. Did Mark think he was talking about sorceries here?

So what about e), the global enchantment destruction? Mark is totally right, this isn’t a common effect anymore. However, if we do the same gatherer search for “destroy all enchantments”, we get many more hits at common than the d) search yielded – the most recent examples being Spring Cleaning and Patricians Scorn. Still, the search clearly shows that the ability has been moved out of common, it’s not like Mark is wrong there. [card]Back to Nature[/card] is the new benchmark for “destroy all enchantments,” and is the most common response I hear as to why e) is the correct answer.

Well then, where’s the Back to Nature of d)? There’s no example of that card existing at all until you get to Tenth Edition. That’s because “target creature can’t block” isn’t printed on an instant anymore at all, let alone at common!

I came to this conclusion when answering the question, and I assumed Mark was trying to be a little tricky. The question, to me, became: which is the lesser of two evils? The answer was clear to me. While e) was unlikely to be a common card, d) is unlikely to be a card at all! Once again, if I assume the role of a lead designer being forced to put one of these common cards into his set, which do I choose? I would HATE to have d) be a common in my set. While I would also hate to have e) be a common in my set, it’s not like the world stops working. It’s not like the game breaks. It’s not like new players get frustrated by the rules changing under their noses.

Again, I’m being dramatic. Still, we find another issue that’s much more complicated than a simple multiple choice test. Was it an issue Mark intended to be a part of the question? I don’t know. I’ve talked with a few people about this question, and I’ve decided it’s not important which option is really “worse,” since if you’re a designer you’re not going to put either into your set. (The same is true for question 38, or any of these debatable questions.) You’re also going to run into exceptions, like Spring Cleaning or Panic Spellbomb – ultimately it’s up to what the set needs and not some design rule.

46) Which of the following cards is least a Johnny card?
a) Clone
b) Devastating Summons – (CORRECT ANSWER)
c) Fauna Shaman – (MY ANSWER)
d) Mortician Beetle
e) Near-Death Experience

I’m a little out of breath from the last response, but here goes: I thought Devastating Summons was a great Johnny card because I’ve seen it in action. I’ve seen the glee of Devastating Summons into Goblin Bushwhacker, or Devastating Summons with Countryside Crusher on the table. This was a very aggressive Johnny, but a Johnny nonetheless. I thought this card fit clearly the “ Up To The Challenge” category of Johnny cards.

I’ve also seen Fauna Shaman do some Johnny things, like Necrotic Ooze. I’ve also seen it do a lot of very Spikey things, grinding people out with value gained from Squadron Hawk and Vengevine. All the while the 2/2 body is getting in for value. Looking through Mark’s article on designing for Johnny, and nowhere did I see tutoring mentioned.

Ultimately, both cards can be used in a Johnny way. That’s more a testament to Johnnie’s flexibility then a possibly flimsy question. I also yield that I’m seeing a very biased selection of uses for these cards, and that R&D likely has a much more full (and correct) understanding of where these cards stand with players than I do. At first the question seemed very much “guess what I’m thinking”, but I think I just need to brush up on my psychographics. (See question 30.)

48) One of R&D’s ongoing concerns is board complexity. We’ve coined the term “virtual vanilla” to refer to a creature that, after the first turn it enters the battlefield, functions as a simple vanilla creature for purposes of evaluating the board state. (Avoid getting hung up on obscure combinations of cards that could make the card not function as a vanilla.)

Here are ten creatures:

 

How many of the ten creatures are virtual vanilla?

a) four
b) five
c) six
d) seven – (CORRECT ANSWER)
e) eight – (MY ANSWER)

Now for the embarrassing part: I just can’t count. Clearly Squadron Hawk isn’t a virtual vanilla creature, but apparently my brain just doesn’t understand that. I checked and re-checked every question so many times, and each time I failed to realize that Squadron Hawk had flying. Luckily I passed the test, or I would have been very upset with myself for missing this question.

As for the Canyon Minotaur debate on whether or not he’s virtual vanilla (since he’s actually straight vanilla), you’re not following directions. You cannot arbitrarily create more directions than you’re given in a situation like this, and as such I thought it was a neat test of whether or not you’re somebody they want to work with.

On a design note, the concept of virtual vanilla blew my mind, and I was amazed I hadn’t thought of it before myself. It’s such a powerful tool! This concept was on the back of my mind throughout the whole competition.

And Then There Were…

…104. My journey to the Top 8 is a longer one than I expected, so I’ll have to walk you through my first design submission in my next article! In the meantime, I’m curious what you think of my approach to the essay questions, or my beef with the multiple choice test. (Especially if your name is Mark.)

Join me next time when I create a whole new world in just ten cards.

Thanks for reading,

Jonathon Loucks
loucksj at gmail dot com
Zygonn on Magic Online
@JonLoucks on Twitter

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