The Great Designer Search 2 Finalists

Posted in Feature on November 24, 2010

By Staff

Jonathon Loucks

(My new world name.)

MR: I'm glad you changed the name. Once you realize an element can't be used, it's best to change it to keep the issue from pulling focus.

In an underground world, will you help spread the light, or embrace total darkness?

MR: Don't ask in your logline—tell! I do like that you are setting up a conflict but I'd rather you do so less passively.

CR01 – Refracted Runner (common)
[Bolt Elemental -
Creature – Dwarf Berserker
Trample, haste
Living Reflection (When Refracted Runner enters the battlefield, put a token that's a copy of it onto the battlefield except without its Living Reflection ability.) At the beginning of the end step, sacrifice Refracted Runner.

KEN: Yikes. We made Hellspark Elemental at uncommon. Hot uncommons do help sell sets, so I'd position this card to be "Hot uncommon that makes players like Living Reflection because it's on a powerful card." I'm not sure you get all of this here (no trample?), but maybe, depending on the state of aggro red in formats.

MR: I'm sure there was a group of people that told you not to put copy effects at common because they're too complex. I'm in that group. I do like what you're trying to do here and living reflection is definitely an intriguing mechanic. Perhaps if you just allocated a big chunk of your complexity points at common towards it we can make it work out. It's what we did back in Onslaught when we decided to put morph at common. Oh that's right, you also have morph at common. And illuminate. And dig. Whew!

Let's just take each mechanic one at a time. I think living reflection is cool. I definitely see some neat design space for it. If you're going to do it at common (a big if, but let's run with it) you're going to want to have the absolute simplest version of it. A 2/1 creature with trample and haste that sacrifices itself at the end of the turn is not it.

I would start with vanilla creatures. If you have to go beyond that, stick with the kind of French vanillas you see us make as tokens (flying and haste being the most used creature keywords).

The biggest issue I have with living reflection is that it makes a wide variety of tokens that can coexist without the card that tells you what they are. If living reflection moved up to uncommon, perhaps then you might want to toy around with the copy only staying around as long as the creature with living reflection. (That makes flavor sense, I think.)

CR02 – Sharpchucker (common)
Creature – Orc Rogue
Morph 1R (You may cast this face down as a 2/2 creature for 3. Turn it face up any time for its morph cost.) When Sharpchucker is turned face up, target creature gains first strike until end of turn.

KEN: This is pretty cute. It's the Battering Craghorn. The other creatures are the Skirk Commandos.

MR: I'll say the same thing about morph I just said about living reflection. Common should be the simplest version of the card. I just want to see vanilla and French vanilla creatures with morph. You're already overloading commons with complex mechanics. At the bare minimum, drop those mechanics to their simplest forms. And if you just have to have a morph reveal effect, please choose something that's not going to complicate the board, especially during combat.

CR03 – Eager Cleaver (common)
[Orc Warmonger –
Creature-Dwarf Soldier
Whenever another creature enters the battlefield under your control, Eager Cleaver gets +1/+0 until end of turn.

KEN: This is a pretty paltry bonus despite it being easy to trigger. Originally, landfall was just +1/+1 and Steppe Lynx was a 1/1, etc. We found there weren't enough highs and lows in the game play for players to appreciate that they jumped through the hoop. I see living reflection next to this, but I'm thinking different stats with a bigger bonus is in order.

MR: I'm not quite sure what this card's role is in this set, but it's simple enough so I like it.

CR04 – Orc Tunneler (common)
[Goblin Tunneler – Magic 2011]
Creature – Orc Miner
T: Target creature with power 2 or less is unblockable this turn.

KEN: Cute in morph world. Good choice.

MR: Dwarves and goblins have done this job, so why not orcs? My biggest complaint with this card is that we just recently used it as a high-profile repeat that was an MVP in Limited play (in Rise of the Eldrazi). I would rather have seen you find some undiscovered gem of the past rather than a very much discovered one. That said, it does play very nicely in your set.

CR05 – Stout Guard
Creature - Dwarf Soldier

KEN: I do like Hurloon Minotaur. I handed off the Worldwake file with this instead of Goblin Roughrider trying to influence Zendikar Limited. The 2/3 stats are especially cute in morph world.

MR: I'm always happy to see vanilla creatures in a file, especially in a common set as complex as yours.

CR06 – Trail Blazer (common)
Creature – Dwarf Scout
When Trail Blazer enters the battlefield, illuminate the top card of your library. If you own an illuminated land card, add RRR to your mana pool. (To illuminate a card, exile it with a light counter on it.
For as long as it has a light counter, it has "If you would draw a card, you may instead put this card into your hand.")

KEN: Why does this have another rider? Having your Priest of Gix misfire can mess up your turn. Also, Priest of Gix is kind of dangerous to print.

MT: Although scaring me at first, illuminate looks like it mostly works. There's surely some templating work to be done: I don't believe you have to grant an ability to the exiled card and it's debatable whether the decorative light counter is really necessary. But it's not out-of-bounds for what I'd expect out of an early design.

When you illuminate a card from the top of your library, the card will be face up. I wonder how many players will get that wrong.

MR: Time to talk about illuminate, the third complex mechanic at common. There are elements I like about it, but it is a mechanic with a lot of design baggage. You've jam-packed an awful lot of design into such a tiny space. I feel like you wanted to do a bunch of things so you created one mechanic that can do them all. If you want to keep illuminate, you're going to have to ask yourself what it's trying to do. Mechanics work best when they are focused on one goal. Illuminate seems to have at least three. I often ask my designers when they present a mechanic "What's the point?" You need to dig down deep and figure out what the most important element is because if the mechanic stays you're going to have to slim it down.

Once again, why do you insist on not starting with the absolute easiest version of your mechanic? Illuminate is tough to wrap your brain around. You need to hand-hold your audience, especially in the first set at common. Common illuminate cards (assuming they're supposed to be there, which I personally am not sure they are) want to be on instants and sorceries. Just convey the basics before you start grafting it onto creatures and start caring about what you're currently exiling or have previously exiled.

I do feel like you are progressing on illuminate from the design test, but this mechanics' journey is far from over (well, unless you abandon it by the side of the road). This version definitely got me more excited as a player and as a designer. Once again, your flavor is spot on.

My big question is: What exactly do you want to do with illuminate? I feel like you're doing parlor tricks with it rather than using it as a tool to build something. Ask yourself what role each of your mechanics is playing in setting up your world. Then make sure that each mechanic is doing the thing assigned to it.

CR07 – Orc Bully (common)
[Orcish Bully -
Creature - Orc Warrior
If Orc Bully is blocked by more than one creature, prevent all combat damage it would deal.
Orc Bully can't block if more than one creature is attacking.

KEN: This guy has a lot of text and this set needs less of it. I don't feel this game play is worth it.

MT: The first ability could be a triggered ability and its effect should have a duration. "Whenever Orc Bully becomes blocked by one or more creatures, prevent all combat damage it would deal this turn." It took me a while to parse all this and capture the "this guy likes fighting one-on-one" vibe.

MR: Your commons are chock-full of complex cards. You finally get a chance to give the players a mental break and this is what you give them? Here's a good test you can do. Read the card to an average Magic player who has never heard it before. Then have them repeat back to you what the card does. If they can't do it, your card is too complex for common. I guarantee you this card has that problem. I just read it multiple times and I can't remember what it does.

You desperately need simple cards. Don't waste "simple" slots on cards like this.

CR08 – Flashbomber (common)
Creature – Dwarf Wizard
Living Reflection (When Flashbomber enters the battlefield, put a token that's a copy of it onto the battlefield except without its Living Reflection ability.) When Flashbomber enters the battlefield, target creature can't block this turn.

KEN: Would've preferred maybe a Dragon Fodder or Mogg War Marshal card here.

MR: Here's a tip. Don't use Magic words in a title when that card doesn't have the Magic word you're using. If you're going to name a card Flashbomber you're going to have to give it flash. If you don't want the creature to have flash (and this one doesn't want it) don't call it Flashbomber. Obviously creative will change the name but problem design names like this just cause confusion in playtests.

I'll repeat the note that I'd rather see the common living reflections limit itself to vanillas and light French vanillas.

CR09 – Bloodthirsty Orc (common)
[Orcish Torchbearer –
Creature – Orc Warrior
Morph 4R (You may cast this face down as a 2/2 creature for 3. Turn it face up any time for its morph cost.) Bloodthirsty Orc's morph cost is 1R while blocked.

KEN: Besides the fact that this doesn't work, I still question if the Trap cost is doing its job. Instead of a 3/3, you could have a then 3/3 that got through. While I'm sure the designer can appreciate the game play there, some of my coworkers only play Magic once a week at most, and I know Hill Giant would bring more joy to their lives than Bloodthirsty Orc.

MT: The "alternative morph cost" design is an attractive one, but unfortunately it doesn't work. The morph ability allows you to cast a spell face down, but it's actually the rules of the game that provide a way for you to turn a face-down permanent face up. So, when you take the special action to turn it face up, you reveal what the morph cost will be, but at this time it's still face down, so it doesn't have the static ability that gives it the cheaper morph cost.

MR: Other than my obligatory "make the cards with your mechanics simpler" feedback, I'd ask if this is a can of worms with morph that you want to open. Do you want to make the opponent have to start factoring in what activities the morph creature is participating in or not participating in? There's an old design adage: Just because you can go there doesn't mean you should.

CR10 – Lavaskin Thragg (common)
[Mirror Thragg–
Creature - Beast
Living Reflection (When Lavaskin Thragg enters the battlefield, put a token that's a copy of it onto the battlefield except without its Living Reflection ability.)

KEN: Wow. What's at uncommon? Mono-red Broodmate Dragon? Living reflection is so powerful, there's two more rarities and two more sets after this common; save something for later.

MR: What is this? A vanilla with living reflection? More of this please. My one issue is that you have to remember to think of your cards as the combined creatures. Would red common have a creature capable of dealing 8 damage? No, it would not.

CR11 – Cloaked Predator (common)
Creature – Beast
Morph 3RR (You may cast this face down as a 2/2 creature for 3. Turn it face up any time for its morph cost.) Cloaked Predator's morph cost is 1R while it is an unblocked attacker.

KEN: I was hoping to see a vanilla morph. Instead, here's the second morph you really should have blocked.

MT: See CR09's comments.

MR: As with Matt, see my notes from CR09.

CR12 – Steamdriller (common)
[Goblin Rappeller –
Creature – Dwarf Miner
Dig 2 (Discard this card. Reveal cards from the top of your library until you reveal a land card. Put that card into your hand and the rest on the bottom of your library in a random order.)

KEN: This set apparently has a cycle of Chartooth Cougars. While I like that card, I'll note the inherent tension in the mechanic—do you get your fifth or sixth land, or sit on Steamdriller because it's your big 6-drop?

MT: Dig would be an activated ability, and I'm assuming the modifier is a mana payment. So I believe it should be like this: Dig 2 (2, Discard this card: Reveal cards from the top of your library until you reveal a land card. Put that card into your hand and the rest on the bottom of your library in a random order.)

MR: Dig is your least complicated mechanic and it would barely pass the "Repeat Back" test. It is helped, though, by the awesomeness of its flavor. My biggest issue with dig is that I keep reading it as cycling lite. I don't know why, but it just doesn't excite me. My fear is that it looks flavorful but just doesn't quite get the necessary job done.

Another issue I'll bring up with this card is that red has the fourth most number of creatures at common beating out only blue. Its percentages are usually around 45-50%. That means you were supposed to have eight, maybe nine creatures. You have twelve.

CR13 – Aggressive Tactics (common)
Creatures you control get +1/+0 until end of turn.

KEN: The one clean new card amidst the unclean rest.

MR: Another nice simple spell. I like it.

CR14 – Piercing Beam 1R (common)
Illuminate the top card of your library. (To illuminate a card, exile it with a light counter on it. For as long as it has a light counter, it has "If you would draw a card, you may instead put this card into your hand.") Piercing Beam deals 2 damage to target creature or player. If you own an illuminated red card, Piercing Beam deals 4 damage to that creature or player instead.

KEN: This has some dice-rolling to it that wins or loses games. Clash cards tried pretty hard for the main effect to not just fail upon losing the clash. I'm disliking illuminate more and more as I play with it.

MR: Ah, "Deal 2 and conditionally 4," my old friend. While normally the small red common direct damage spell is an excellent place to show off the set mechanic, illuminate doesn't make it easy. I also question whether you want "if you own an illuminated red card" rather than "if this card is red". I understand your version allows the various illuminated cards to interact more, though I'm not sure the text is worth the confusion. I feel like you are circling around something that could be compelling but you're not quite there yet.

Also, as Ken has pointed out playtesting was not illuminate's friend. What seemed possibly cool got less and less so the more we played with it.

CR15 – Enkindle (common)
[Engulfing Flames –
Enchantment - Aura
Enchant Creature
Enchanted creature gets +2/-2 and has first strike.

KEN: It feels like there are more dual-purpose cards in this submission than the others. Is this for your creatures or your opponents? Who knows. If it were more straightforward, I postulate more players could enjoy the card.

MR: Assuming you put in the proper amount of noncreature spells, you'll find that your creature removal is going to get pinched the quickest. Usually using an Aura slot on it proves to be a waste of resources.

CR16 – Blackout (common)
[Stir the Earth –'Thea/Contributions]
Turn target land face down. (It is a 2/2 creature.)

KEN: This kind of reads like a Stone Rain variant, but then again kind of like a 2/2 haster. Again, creating known morphs isn't high on my list of things to do. A cool part of morph is not knowing what lurks beneath.

MT: Turning noncreature permanents face down is unusual, but I don't see a big issue with it. This card may want more helpful reminder text, as in "It's a 2/2 creature and not a land."

MR: I'm going to say not a common. Partly because we seldom do land destruction at common and partly because this spell is harder to grok for most players than you might realize.

CR17 – Scattered Inquiry (common)
[Luminous Inspiration –
Draw three cards, then illuminate three cards at random from your hand. (To illuminate a card, exile it with a light counter on it. For as long as it has a light counter, it has "If you would draw a card, you may instead put this card into your hand.")

KEN: The illuminate action is so bizarre, creating face up exiled cards that could affect the board, and this card does it en masse at common. Murdering the drama/randomness of the draw step is not a noble pursuit—both dredge and Sensei's Divining Top do this in spades and they just might be the most regrettable things ever in the game.

MR: I do like the idea of moving some card sifting into red. I'm not sure why this spell illuminates instead of discards. Common is not a great place to make cards that fit into the bigger picture but require the bigger picture to understand what they're doing.

CR18 – Blast Mining (common)
Destroy target land. Blast Mining deals 5 damage to that land's controller.
Dig 2 (Discard this card. Reveal cards from the top of your library until you reveal a land card. Put that card into your hand and the rest on the bottom of your library in a random order.)

KEN: BOOM! There's flavor here. It's a really powerful Lava Axe variant. Also, more tension and non-straightforwardness!

MR: We tend not to do land destruction at common these days (although when we do it's expensive spells like this) and we definitely would never do two. I do like that you're using dig in much the same way we've used cycling to try and get bigger more expensive effects into Limited decks.

I chose red because it's a color that's both light and dark. While red may look slightly mechanic-heavy, the mechanic as-fan is in balance – white and green don't get morphs or face-down cards and black doesn't get illuminate or living reflection.

Flavor update! Naturally occurring channels of highly reflective crystals conduit magic-infused surface light to the underground. The light-users harness the surface light's inherent magical qualities.

The major challenge with my theme: "Information is not as much fun as mystery." My answer is to make the light inherently powerful, causing creature's reflections on shiny cave walls to come to life. While Living Reflection does give the set many unique tokens, it's an extremely grokkable ability. Remembering the size and attributes of a token is very easy when a real copy is close by. Still, it's no accident that my common Living Reflection creatures are virtual vanilla.

Living reflection gave my set a direction. Players are going to control more and smaller creatures than normal, either through Living Reflection or face down cards (morph or otherwise). Knowing this allowed me to make simple commons that have meaning in the context of this set.

In order to make illuminate feel relevant, I've tied the card's effects to what a player has illuminated. To minimize the tension between wanting to draw a known card and wanting to power up your illuminate spells, I've made it an effect that's either on or off instead of scaling based on the number of infused cards.

KEN: These cards are several clicks too complex. Almost irresponsibly so. I don't think this designer could hold his commons up to a normal set and with a straight face say it's printable. There are complexity and word count goals that must be fulfilled or we will break the attention span of huge portions of our audience. Editing is a powerful tool—Magic is a game for the players, not the designers.

On top of that, there's the controversial Dwarf/Orc love here that's an entirely different department's call (Creative). Dwarves are pervasive enough in culture that we should do more of them, I'd argue. But that's one large problem that's somehow smaller than the bigger design problems with this submission.

I'm afraid the underlying reason for such immense amount of complexity, words, and tension at common here is, "The players that can't handle large decision trees are worse than me, so they should lose."

Such unprofessional execution on an otherwise strong world concept leaves me wondering if this designer needs more of a reality check than "there's seven other designers trying to beat you."

Highlight: Stout Guard
Lowlight: Scattered Inquiry, Piercing Beam, Trail Blazer

AF: I already knocked you for your word count, but I'll bring it up again because it is a big problem. If I gave these commons to some of the newer, more casual players that have lunchtime leagues here at the office, I guarantee they'd be dumbfounded. In general, your design feels like it has an "I'm bored with normalcy, can we please make this game interesting?" vibe, which is not at all the way to go. People still like normal, I swear.

The biggest offender was illuminate. It felt to me like the bastard child of imprint, suspend, dredge, and clash shoehorned onto a bunch of commons. (Most of those mechanics are looked upon unfavorably by R&D, by the way.) The imprint part was that my cards needed to reference other cards outside of the game to see what they did. The suspend part was that there were all these exiled cards with counters on them that both players had to pay attention to because of their capability to impact the game at some future time. The dredge part was that each draw step became a many-pronged choice that either removed all suspense or made me weigh the value of each illuminated card versus the average card in my deck. And the clash part was the fact that sometimes you just had to run the illuminate card blind and hope it worked out. I'm not sure such a mechanic should exist anywhere, but I'm certain it shouldn't be common.

Your morph creatures were fine, although you should have just had something with plain old morph, no strings attached. Most of your audience will not have played either Onslaught or Time Spiral, so your set shouldn't assume that everyone is ready for the next level course. The face-down land card was jarring; I never knew what to do with it, and it got me wondering if I should try to "cast" a land face down and then try to explain at the end of the game that it was from that spell in my graveyard—you probably just don't remember me casting it ... no, that was the other game, I swear. I realize Ixidron kind of opened the door for those shenanigans, but that doesn't mean it's right to go through it.

The copying ability was pretty neat, but I don't know how common it is. There'd be a lot of different weird tokens in play, and we most likely wouldn't be producing physical versions of any of them (we don't create token cards for things that are copies of cards), which would probably be unsatisfying for some players. They played well, but I wonder if "When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, put a 4/1 red Beast creature token onto the battlefield" isn't just better to put on cards than "When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, put a token that's a copy of it onto the battlefield except without its living reflection ability."

I never used dig, but that's more of a function of the format we played than the design; it seemed fine. I really liked the card Eager Cleaver, and the Goblin Tunneler reprint did great work, but the bad far outweighed the good. Not in my top half.

MT: Jonathon, I'm sure the other judges will go over this in more detail, but your cards are quite complex. Copy effects and face down permanents are really complicated, and it looks like mixing the two in your set is inevitable at higher rarities. I'm confident we could work through most of the issues, but the prospect of taking on your uncommons, rares, and mythic rares is a little daunting.

MR: Jonathon, here's a metaphor to explain my biggest issue with your design. Imagine I hired you to plan a party. You put together the best plans with a Ferris wheel, and juggling clowns on unicycles, and a fun house, and every possible thing that money can buy. I say, "That's great. Now can you plan me a party on the budget I actually have?"
You've designed an amazing set with some very cool mechanics. The problem is you've used way more complexity points than the set gets. You started with morph, one of the most complex mechanics we've ever done and then you added two more mechanics of possibly equal complexity. You've impressed me with the size and scope of your ideas, but now I need to see if you can bring that same sensibility to things to a set we can actually print.

It's much easier to rein in a designer than make them stretch. Consider today's judging to be a request to show us what you can do reined in. You have vision. Can you execute on it with the tools at your disposal?

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