The Great Designer Search 2 Finalists

Posted in Feature on November 3, 2010

By Staff

NAME: Ethan Fleischer


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

I'm Ethan Fleischer. Currently I'm a bookseller (specializing in Philosophy, Archaeology, and Anthropology books), a web designer (specializing in Flash design and development), a comic writer/artist (specializing in comedic space operas with heavy themes) and an animator (currently working on an abstract short film about Magic's colors' philosophies). I'm also married and have three sons.

I've been a hobby gamer since I discovered D&D back around 1987 or so. I've been playing Magic since shortly after Beta was released, so I have a good appreciation of how the game has evolved over time. I had most of the cool old cards, but sold them at some point (around the time Black Lotus was $75, if I recall correctly) at a hefty profit, leaving me with no rare cards from the old days. I introduced some of my co-workers at the bookstore to Magic, and organized a booster draft league which has been going for a few years now. We've sampled a variety of formats, both two-player and multiplayer over the years. Recently, I've been slowly acquiring Vintage staples in the hope of eventually competing in that format when my life slows down a bit.

I think that I would be a good fit in a design internship because I have a lot of experience working with teams on creative projects such as films, video games, music, and comics, both in a leadership role and as a mere cog in the machine (I suspect that the latter is more relevant in this particularly instance). I have designed several miniatures combat games over the years, with mixed success. I've read a lot of MaRo's and Tom LaPille's articles since then, and I believe that many of the lessons have sunk in. I've watched Magic R&D's transition from card design to set design to block design to "five year plans" and found it to be quite a revelation.

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.

I tend to view things through the lens of Vintage, so when faced with the task of color-shifting an ability to a new location on the color pie, my first question is, "Which color needs a little help?" The answer: white. While red and green have received quite a few highly-relevant printings in recent years, white has lagged behind. I know that Vintage is probably the last thing a designer needs to worry about, but it's my favorite format, and this is my essay, so I guess I'll worry about what I please.

I thought to myself, "What if Control Magic was white?" White has a predilection for control already. Cards like Pacifism, Guard Duty, and even Swords to Plowshares imply not only white's peaceful nature, but its ability and willingness to bend others to its will. What if I just extended that line of thought a bit? White wants everyone working together, and values conformity. "Isn't it nice that we're all on the same team now, attacking that red mage over there?" White Control Magic (representing conscription, perhaps) can be extended to White Steal Artifact (representing commandeering), and so on.

White Control Magic fits in well with white's usual strategy. It's basically a more powerful version of Pacifism or Swords to Plowshares, functioning to eliminate a dangerous aggressive creature or clearing a path for an alpha strike of Soldiers or Knights. Control Magic functions as a two-for-one, and something like White Sower of Temptation can be a three-for-one! White sometimes has trouble generating card advantage, in my experience, so this could be a good way to give that color a bit of a boost in that department.

What about the hoards of irate Magic players who will no doubt be baying for my blood "because white has never done this before?" I can simply point to the humble Preacher, one of my favorite cards from The Dark, and know that I am fully justified by prior precedent.

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?

I think that Zendikar Block did the best job of marrying design with creative. Evocative designs of individual cards, mechanical themes that help to describe a strange and interesting world, and familiar elements that help to put the players into that world, combined to make a pretty well-integrated block, with some exceptions.

The trend that began in Magic 2010 of top-down designs continued into Zendikar block, with good results. The Allies really felt like a D&D adventuring party, and I immediately wanted to make a deck with them. The various Equipment cards felt all the more real for their relative mundanity: here are grappling hooks, strong boots, torches and telescopes. The Traps and nonbasic lands presented a hostile environment, and the cards that interacted with those lands gave the impression of an exploratory journey through that environment over the course of a game.

The giant colorless non-artifact Eldrazi simply broke so many of the game's conventions that they successfully depicted something completely otherworldly, something that should not be, the kind of Lovecraftian cosmic horror that belongs in a universe with very different physical laws than ours.

Unfortunately, Rise of the Eldrazi contained too large of a mechanical break from Zendikar and Worldwake. All of the sudden the D&D characters aren't Allies anymore, they're levelers? And what's up with the defender theme? I've been playing a Wall deck in my Eldrazi draft league, and my motto has become "The Wall-folk are a peaceful people, but very dangerous when riled." Don't get me wrong; it's a terrific set to draft, but the design-creative integration fell apart in places.

The revolutions in design-creative integration in Ravnica Block and in Magic 2010 are important steps that lead to Zendikar Block. It's clear that there are still a few lessons to be learned, but things have improved tremendously from how they were nine years ago.

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?

Rule 513.2 is potentially detrimental to the gameplay experience of Magic. This rule allows players to cast spells and activate abilities during the end step. I believe that this rule breeds uninteresting play and encourages people to play decks that simply sit there with a counterspell until the coast is clear, then cast spells during their opponent's end step.

Imagine the following scenario. I am playing a blue deck. I have Cancel and Thirst for Knowledge in my hand, and three Islands untapped. I am ready for anything my opponent may cast, but he just plays a land and moves to the end phase. Perhaps he suspected that I had countermagic and didn't want to risk wasting his important spell. I can now cast Thirst for Knowledge, secure in the fact that he cannot cast any Sorceries, Artifacts, Creatures, Enchantments, or Planeswalkers until his next turn, and secure in the fact that I will be untapping my Islands very, very soon.

Now imagine the same situation, but with rule 513.2 removed. My opponent plays a land and passes priority to me. It's still his main phase. This is my last chance to cast anything before my own turn. Now there are no easy choices! I could simply do nothing, or I could take the risk and cast Thirst for Knowledge. I really want to draw some cards, so I cast Thirst for Knowledge and it resolves. Now my opponent can cast anything he wants, because I no longer have sufficient mana to cast Cancel, and it's still the main phase.

Just as I used to feel a bit guilty sacrificing creatures and such while combat damage was on the stack, pre-M10, so do I feel a twinge of remorse when I cast a spell or activate an ability during my opponent's end step. I have maximum information and all of the advantages at that time. Eliminating this possibility will help to discourage the "draw-go" style of gameplay that has fallen out of favor with the majority of Magic players.

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?

I believe that Scalding Tarn, and by extension that entire cycle of "fetch lands" going all the way back to Onslaught, should not have been printed. These cards have done considerable damage to the Eternal formats and were at least partly responsible for the excessive speed and aggressiveness in Zendikar.

Basic lands are supposed to be the foundation of Magic's mana, but in the Eternal formats, they have been supplanted by dual lands combined with fetch lands. Fetch lands have made basic lands nearly obsolete; basic lands are merely "Wasteland insurance" now. The original dual lands from Alpha, combined with fetch lands from Onslaught and Zendikar, allow for flexible, stable mana bases for decks using as many as four colors! Having the majority of decks in a format depending upon expensive cards which cannot be reprinted means that there is an upper limit to the growth of these formats. While future printings may encourage the use of basic lands in Eternal, the immediate future looks bleak to me.

Scalding Tarn and its ilk also contributed in their way to the unprecedented speed and aggressiveness of the Zendikar set. The Landfall mechanic is inherently aggressive and was made all the more powerful by the cheap ability printed on fetch lands.

I think that adding the word "basic" to the fetch lands would have eliminated many of the problems caused in the Eternal formats from the get-go. Fetchlands, as printed, are simply too cheap, powerful, and aggressive in any format. There is really no positive reason to continue to play basic lands in Eternal formats; only the negative reason that non-basic lands are easier to disrupt or destroy.

6. What do you think design can do to best make the game accessible to newer players?

There are several important design elements that help the make the game accessible to new players. Some that spring to mind are randomness, top-down designs, differing power levels, and simple mechanics.

Randomness is built into the game's basic structure. The most important random factor is the shuffled library. Not only does randomness make the game more exciting for everyone by occasionally rewarding risky plays or bringing a losing player back from the brink of defeat, it also help new players. Nobody really likes to lose, right? A new player is generally going to lose a lot. Random factors can bring down even the most experienced player, giving the inexperienced player the opportunity to feel the flush of victory.

My favorite design elements that appeals to new players are top-down designs. One of my favorite cards back when I first started playing was Rock Hydra. "Put X +1/+1 counters (heads) on Hydra." The new Hydra from M10 was even better, as cutting off one head caused two to grow in its place, just like in the old myths. Cards like Fireball, Awakener Druid, and Polymorph are fairly complicated, but because their mechanics are so evocative, new players experience a very rewarding frisson of recognition as they associate the mechanics with something they already understand.

An important thing to teach new players is that all cards are not created equal. Serra Angel and Baneslayer Angel. Runeclaw Bear and Carapace Forger. These cards have the same mana costs, but are obviously of different power levels. Seeing these for the first time is an important learning experience.

Finally, the most obvious design element is cards with simple mechanics. It's important to avoid putting cards with complicated timing effects into intro packs and cards with bizarre and complicated mechanics like threshold are a no-no. Simplicity is the direction that Portal and Starter went in to the hilt. It's a useful design tool, but is fundamentally uninteresting, so it cannot be used to the exclusion of other tools in trying to attract new players.

7. What do you think design can do to best make the game attractive to experienced players?

Making the game attractive to experienced players is, I think, a deeper challenge than attracting new players. There's probably a Platonic ideal of the perfect beginner's set, but the ideal set for experienced players is a moving target. Still, I think that there are some basic ingredients that I can describe in general.

To attract experienced players, a set must innovate. If there is nothing new in a set, experienced players might as well just play with their old cards. Players crave new frontiers to explore... within the comfortable confines of their favorite card game, of course. Which brings me to...

To attract experienced players, a set must have more of the same. Too much innovation can lead to the game changing in too fundamental a fashion. Players don't want new sets to radically alter Magic to the point where it is unrecognizable. They are experienced players because they like playing Magic the Gathering. Don't take that away from them by changing it into something else.

Related to "more of the same" are call-backs. Just as the beginner gets a pleasant little jolt when he perceives the hydra or the fireball behind the cards with those names, so does the experienced player feel that frisson of recognition when a card contains an allusion to an older card that the player experienced in the days of yore. Time Spiral played on this psychological trait, and Scars of Mirrodin is doing something similar.

But above all, I think that the most important, and the most difficult, way that the game attracts experienced players is by improving. If I think that a set is a step backward, I won't buy much of it. Constantly striving for ever greater excellence is the most important "design trick" in the book.

8. Of all the mechanics currently in Extended, which one is the best designed? Explain why.

Of all of the mechanics currently legal in Extended, I believe that Kicker is the best designed. Kicker is flexible, intuitive, and makes deckbuilding easier.

Kicker is flexible: Someone once said, "almost every new keyword is just kicker in disguise," or words to that effect. That's because kicker can do so much! Kicker makes creatures enter the battlefield bigger, kicker can cause spells to have additional effects, kicker can give creatures "enters the battlefield" triggered abilities, and much much more. Even the kicker costs are flexible. Paying extra mana is common, but there are many alternative costs that can be paid. Kicker opens up a tremendous amount of design space.

Kicker is intuitive: I think that most players can quickly grasp that paying extra nets you an additional effect or effects. I've never encountered a player with a basic grasp of the Magic rules who was confused by kicker when they encountered it. My brother (who hasn't bought a booster pack since Fallen Empires) and I played with the Phyrexia vs. the Coalition duel decks this summer, and kicker was not a problem.

Kicker makes deckbuilding easier: Mana curves are much less of a concern with kicker cards in your deck. You can simply play the spell un-kicked earlier in the game, or kick it later in the game. There's just something satisfying when you look at your hand and see that it curves out perfectly, and kicker makes that happen more often. Also, kicker spells with off-color kicker costs can encourage players to think of new deck types that they otherwise might not have considered.

Because of kicker's value, I'm not surprised that it has already appeared in three blocks. I have no doubt that kicker will be making a reappearance within the next few years. You can't keep a good mechanic down.

9. Of all the mechanics currently in Extended, which one is the worst designed? Explain why.

Of all of the mechanics currently legal in Extended, I believe that Clash is the worst designed. Clash is fiddly, time-consuming, random, and usually of marginal utility. On the other hand, it's relatively flexible and it's possible for a skillful player to manipulate the results.

So let me get this straight. I have to pick up a card from the top of my library. My opponent has to pick up a card from his library. I have to look at my card, then I have to look at my opponent's card. I have to compare their respective converted mana costs. My opponent also has to do these things. Then, while I'm at it, I might as well read my opponent's entire card, as there's a chance that he's going to put it on top of his library, so I'll need to be ready for it. Then we both have to think about things. "Do I want this card at the beginning of next turn, or not?" Then we put our cards on the top of our libraries or pick up our libraries and put the card underneath. Then we have to straighten out our askew libraries. Oh yes, having compared our cards' converted mana costs, there's an approximately 25% chance that some sort of triggered ability will go onto the stack. Oh, by the way, that ability is usually going to be pretty weak, so weak that it appears that R&D had to put a band-aid on Clash by making a few "Clash matters" cards that do nothing but try to make your Clash cards worth playing, in an attempt to make players like an unlikable mechanic.

Now, on the plus side, Clash is flexible in that you can make it do many things, and unlike Kicker, it can be used with activated and triggered abilities. Also, if one wanted to build a deck around it, one could use cards like Sensei's Divining Top, affinity spells, scry, etc. to manipulate the odds of winning a clash in your favor, if you thought it was worth doing.

10. Choose a plane to revisit other than Dominaria or Mirrodin. What is a mechanical twist we could add if we revisit this plane?

Returning to Rabiah could allow a twist on the "stealing" mechanic which was popular in Arabian Nights. I don't know why this keeps coming up; Control Magic is a fun card, but it's hardly my favorite! I'm not some sort of kleptomancer, seriously!

I'm no storyline expert, but I seem to recall that there isn't just one Rabiah. "Rabiah the Infinite" is a whole bunch of (perhaps slightly over one thousand) nearly-identical parallel dimensions. What if, instead of stealing your Aladdin I tapped into your bond with him to find another Aladdin in one of the nearby planes, and summoned him? Perhaps my proximity to Aladdin, coupled with the appropriate spell of course, allowed me to establish a bond with other nearby Aladdins?

But we're designers, right? What does this mean mechanically? It means tokens. Tokens which are copies of creatures that my opponent controls. Players love tokens. I know, because I am a player. Also, one of the hottest cards that nobody uses in tournaments is Doubling Season, the ultimate token card. With the new practice of putting token cards in booster packs, the design space available to tokens has increased. Tokens can have abilities and you can have a greater variety of tokens in a set now that they aren't all just glass beads, or pennies, or pieces of popcorn.

To keep it under control, let's say that only certain creatures will be eligible. Let's say that the sorts of guys that would normally be legendary creatures will instead be potential targets for our token-generators. We could give them a special creature type. No, that's no good. It's "splice onto Arcane" all over again. Maybe make only creature above a certain converted mana cost eligible for duplication. Anyway, limit the token shenanigans in such a way that it will be feasible to include the appropriate tokens in the boosters, so you can get your Aladdin token, your Ali Baba token, your Shahrazad token, etc. Obviously we'd need to come up with new cards for some of these people, but that's okay, because there are 1,001 parallel Rabiahs.


Part I - Show Us Your World

A. What is the name of your world?


B. Describe your world in one sentence or one sentence fragment. (15 word maximum.) For example: An adventure world where the land itself attacks all visitors.

A primitive world where players actively participate in society's early progress.

C. Describe the flavor of your world. (250 word maximum)

The block has an archaeological and anthropological theme. The basic concept for the block is that thousands of years separate each of the sets. Each set represents one of the "three ages" of European and Mediterranean prehistory: the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. Also depicted is primitive magic as described by various anthropologists.

A hundred generations or more, as mortals reckon them, go by, and technological innovation, changes in how people live, and changes in how people view magic and the supernatural occur. However planeswalkers, with the abilities to live unnaturally long lives, bend time and space, or cast their consciousness adrift from linear time, can see the big picture. Primitive stone tools are replaced with weapons of bronze, and finally the secrets of iron technology are mastered. Tribes of hunter-gatherers following herds give way to communities of farmers, and finally cities arise. Communities go from being self-sufficient, to linking in a network of trade, and finally a great empire arises and threatens to cover the plane with its armies. And the nature of magic itself changes as time passes. The veneration of animal spirits evolves into the deification of a pantheon of planeswalkers who would be gods. Finally, one planeswalker expels the others, overcome with a jealous possessiveness for the plane of Epolith and its people, and becomes remote and vindictive.

D. Describe your world through the lens of its mechanics. (250 word maximum)

Primal: Epolith, in the first set, is an unspoiled land. There are no furrows from the plow; no cities rise from the plain. The Planeswalkers who come from Epolith are accustomed to drawing their mana from such natural surroundings, and struggle to achieve full potency if the land has been altered by man's activities.

Migrate: When your food supply is on the hoof, your hunger can take you to some strange places. Hunter-gatherers move around a lot, following herds of animals. A "basic lands matter" theme means that mana fixing is going to be tricky if multicolor decks are to be accommodated. The migrate mechanic accomplishes just that. As you see from my example, it can accomplish subtler tasks, as well.

Provoke: The Provoke mechanic seems to be a good one to simulate hunting, and to provide some "low key" removal in lieu of the flashy spells that more advanced mages prefer.

Knap: In a stone-age environment, most people probably make their own tools.

Artifacts: Much of what we know of prehistoric people comes from our study of ancient artifacts. These have become iconic representations of prehistory, and need to be featured prominently if the set is to evoke the proper mood.

Homeopathic Magic: Homeopathy is a concept much-used in primitive magic. "Like cures like" is the jist of what homeopathy means. What kind of spells would primitive planeswalkers come up with, given that type of mindset? Instants to counter instants, sorceries to prevent the use of sorceries, etc.

Part II – Show Us Your Week One Preview Cards

Irix, the Wanderer (mythic rare)
Planeswalker - Irix
+2: Put the cards in your hand on the bottom of your library in any order, then draw that many cards.
-2: Return target instant or sorcery card from your graveyard to your hand.
-10: Until end of turn, you may cast spells from your hand without paying their mana costs.

Sul of the Bow (mythic rare)
Legendary Creature - Human Archer
Primal - If you spent only mana produced by basic lands to cast CARDNAME, when it enters the battlefield, put two 1/1 Archer creature tokens with First Strike onto the battlefield.
1W, T: Search your library for a white instant card with a converted mana cost of 2 or less. Cast that spell without paying its mana cost. Shuffle your library afterwards.

Thunder Lizard (rare)
Creature - Lizard
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield or attacks, tap all creatures with power 4 or less.
"It rocks your world. Literally."

Busy Beavers (uncommon)
Creature - Beast
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, each player migrates to an Island. (Each player sacrifices a land, then searches their library for a basic Island card, puts it onto the battlefield tapped, then shuffles their library.)

Spear of Extinction (mythic rare)
Legendary Artifact - Equipment
Equipped creature gets +3/+3.
When equipped creature deals lethal damage to a creature, destroy all creatures that share a creature type with that creature.
Equip 4

Flint Mine (rare)
T: Add 1 to your mana pool.
3, T: Knap 1. (Put an Equipment artifact token named Hand-Axe with ?Equipped creature gets +1/+1. Equip 1? onto the battlefield.)

Painful Choice (rare)
[Diabolic Ruse -
Reveal your hand. Target opponent chooses a nonland card from it. Exile that card, then search your library for a card that shares a type with the exiled card, reveal it, and put it on top of your library.

Symbolic Target (rare)
Whenever you cast an instant or sorcery spell that targets only a single permanent, copy that spell for each other permanent which shares a subtype with the targeted permanent which that spell could target. Each copy targets one of those permanents.

Merciless Hunter (uncommon)
[Vastal Silencer -
Creature - Human Warrior
Whenever CARDNAME attacks, target creature loses all abilities until end of turn.

Homeopathic Purge (common)
Target player reveals his or her hand. That player discards all sorcery cards from his or her hand. You lose 2 life for each card discarded in this way.


Sul of the Bow is a demigod in the mold of Hercules or Gilgamesh. He is aligned with the sun. The plan is to have a planeswalker version of him in each of the following sets, one an Apollo analogue, and one based on YHWH from the Old Testament, but with imperialist ambitions.

Busy Beavers does NOT represent a typical implementation of the "migrate" mechanic. Normally it's a utility ability that fetches allied colors' basic lands, but I thought that something a little more nuanced was called for when choosing a card for Limited Information. The beavers' pond can flood the territory of a non-blue opponent, cutting him off from resources.

Spear of Extinction sure seems like it belongs in SOME kind of climactic scene!

Painful Choice really gets my gears turning because it tests the skill of your opponent. They have to try to figure out what deck you're playing, and then decide how to deny you advantage.

Symbolic Target shares design space with Spear of Extinction. The idea is that your original target is the ideal or ur-version of something, and by effecting it, you effect all things of that type. Or perhaps your original target is like a voodoo doll.

Homeopathic Purge is a member of one of two cycles of cards that counter-act other cards of their type, in colorpie-appropriate fashions. A reprint of Dispel would sit right next to Homeopathic Purge, and perhaps Frostling or something similar would sit on the other side.

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