The Great Designer Search 2 Finalists

Posted in Feature on November 3, 2010

By Staff

NAME: Jonathon Loucks


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

My name is Jonathon Loucks, I live in Seattle, and I have a degree in economics from the University of Washington.

I'm a game designer and I love it. I've had jobs working on all kinds of games from TCGs and collectible miniature games (CMG) to board and family games. Working on a TCG for kids, I experience first hand the importance of audience in design. I know the technical aspects of games and have created the technical rules document of a CMG. Having worked at multiple start-ups, I've experienced every aspect of a game company: creating a game from the ground up, writing newsletters for 8 year olds, working a convention booth, pitching to store owners, customer service, community management, etc. My wide array of skills and experience make me a great designer.

I'm a writer and I love it. I've been a feature writer for both tcgplayer and channelfireball. Through this I've become part of a community much larger than Seattle. I've gained a reputation as a designer of rogue decks, which I delight in creating and playing. I enjoy getting better at Magic and sharing what I've learned with others. My creativity and ability to clearly express my ideas makes me a great designer and coworker.

I've been an MTG player for 8+ years and I love it. I've played in multiple Pro Tours, have a Grand Prix top 8 to my name, and am currently qualified for Pro Tour Paris. I play a lot of Magic, both online and off. I'm active in the local Magic community and local events: from PTQs and Regionals to the Draft Extravaganza and Vintage Rotisserie drafts. I've even been a major player in multiple local BOO drafts, where we create our own Magic sets to be drafted. When I couldn't play in an event I've shown up anyway to do coverage or volunteer as a judge. My knowledge and love of the game make me a great Magic designer and the perfect coworker.

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 would shift the shade ability (c: +1/+1 until end of turn) from black to green.

Traditionally black has been the shade color, but there's not really anything black about it. It makes sense for black to increase the size of its creatures by paying life, discarding cards, or sacrificing creatures. Black is willing to pay whatever cost necessary to get the job done. However, paying mana doesn't really feel like "whatever cost necessary" as all colors are constantly spending mana. Bloodthrone Vampire isn't black because it can get big - it's black because you have to make sacrifices.

Green, however, is the perfect home for the shade ability. If any color is about spending mana for size, it's green. Green like to make a lot of mana and likes to spend a lot of mana. Green is also the color of large creatures, and that's exactly what shades tend to be. Green is the color of growth, especially growth from nature. Green is even all for temporary growth with cards like Giant Growth. Where black wins combat with abilities like Deathtouch, green wins combat through sheer size. Green would be gaining a valuable mechanic, giving it an outlet for the mana it generates. Meanwhile, black wouldn't be losing much as it already has the ability to grow its creatures, just through different costs.

Moving the shade ability to green would also open up design space for shade creatures. Since green creatures tend to be larger you can make more powerful shades. Instead of one-to-one mana-to-power pumps, green could play around with bigger and better ratios, such as GG: +3/+3 until EOT. The one way black's shades tend to feel black is that they care very much about black mana. Even though Nightwing Shade has colorless in its activation cost, you can still only gain one power for each black mana you have. With green shades you could remove that restriction, allowing some pumping with colorless mana such as 1G: +2/+2 until EOT.

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?

The design and creative were beautifully tied together in Ravnica block.

The idea of the guilds was so easily expressed to the players. Moroii doesn't have the word Dimir anywhere on it, yet players know just by looking at Moroii which guild it's a part of. Each guild felt very much like it's own unique section of the block. Not only was this expressed in the costs of the cards, but in the mechanics as well. You know Greater Mossdog is from Golgari with the card having to tell you directly. Even players that never pay attention to flavor couldn't help but know what Ravnica was all about. Each guild has its own goals and methods, both in flavor an mechanics, and that idea comes across so easily. That's what makes Ravnica the best integration.

There's still one area Ravnica block could have done even better. Guilds weren't the only interesting part of this world - it all took place in a giant city. While that idea comes across flavorfully through art and names, it's not very well represented mechanically. So much of the design space was taken up by the guilds it's hard to have room for any other mechanic, but I think the block could have benefited from a city mechanic. Since the setting is the one consistent factor between the sets, this mechanic could also help to tie the three sets together. Maybe the space used by the aura sub-theme could have gotten the idea of buildings across. Or a commerce mechanic that trades the cards from your hand with the ones on top of your deck. I'm not certain of the exact method to get the city idea across, but it's one of the interesting pieces of the Ravnica world that never really came across in the mechanics.

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?

Removing the maximum hand size of 7 is an easy cut.

The rule's role is to keep a player's choices manageable. If a player's hand gets too full then the amount of information they need to track can get out of hand. The rule promotes action. Some new players are hesitant to act, so they may sit back and do nothing unless the game is pushing them towards action. The rule also opens up some design space, like Gnat Miser, and provides a discard outlet to some decks, such as Dredge. So, does the hand size rule pull its weight? Hardly.

While the above scenarios are the rule's intended purpose, the impact it most often has on the game is much different. The most common impact of the rule is when a player is mana-screwed and can't cast spells early. Their hand fills up through the draw step, and eventually they have to start discarding until they find a land. Here the rule is limiting available choices, though it is also giving the player a hard and not-at-all-satisfying choice very early in the game at a point when they're probably already frustrated.

The rule is often hard to remember. New players might not pay attention to it at all (and they don't really need to in order to play Magic) and even in tournaments players often don't notice (or don't say anything) when they have 8 or more cards. It's not natural or intuitive. There are times when you cast Sign in Blood or play a Dimir Aqueduct on turn two, and your opponent points out that you have 8 cards and have to discard. The rule gets you seemingly at random. When a player purposefully uses the rule to discard, it feels strange. It feels too much like they're gaming the system.

As for the design space, it's rarely used and not very well received. I'm of the opinion that just as much, if not more, design space is created by the elimination of the rule as there is by its existence.

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.

First off, the card is complicated. It has three different abilities that do three very different things for very different costs. It's not that that is inherently bad, but the bar is being set pretty high. Complicated cards need to pull their weight - I don't think this one is.

Look at the three abilities. Are any of them doing something that Scars of Mirrodin cares about? 1) It makes blue creatures bigger, which is the opposite of what Scars of Mirrodin cares about - artifacts. Only one other card promotes playing with colored creatures: Bellowing Tanglewurm. 2) It makes artifact creatures into blue artifact creatures. There's no other way to get colored artifacts in Scars, except for Nim Deathmantle which turns everything it equips, not just artifacts, black. This ability is clearly a tool to help the other two abilities, yet it's a tool that helps nothing else in the set! 3) It allows your blue creatures to make "artifact mana". Again, not only does the rest of Scars not care about color, but nothing else makes artifact mana. This card is simply out of place in Scars.

Some cards can get away with odd abilities as long as the whole makes sense. (Life gain and damage are weird in black, yet Corrupt works.) However, Grand Architect still fails. The first ability makes your blue creatures bigger, promoting attacking and blocking. At the same time, the card really wants your blue creatures to cast artifacts, which they can't do if they're attacking or blocking. The abilities are at odds - the card lacks focus. Ask me what this card is doing, and I'll tell you it makes artifact mana. Well, it gets your blue creatures to make artifact mana. And you can spend mana to make your artifact creatures blue so that they can make artifact mana. Oh, and your blue creatures are bigger.


As I said, the bar was set high for this card from the beginning. It's a complicated card that is not only un-grokkable, but out of place.

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

The biggest hurdle to new players is the complexity. Magic isn't a simple game, but once you get past that initial hurdle the payoffs are enormous. When thinking about the accessibility of Magic to new players, initial complexity should be the top concern. Step one is to make simple, straightforward cards like Moriok Reaver. Every set needs cards like this, but a set full of them and you'll run into issues of boredom. The real answer to accessibility is to hide complexity.

The simplest way to hide complexity is through rarity, but rarity can't do all the work by itself. There are other ways to hide complexity. Landfall is one of the best examples. Grazing Gladehart is easy enough for a new player to use while still providing interesting and complex interactions with cards like Harrow. It's also satisfying for a new player to discover more complicated interactions with cards they've already grown to understand. Like I said, it's crossing that initial hurdle that's difficult.

Complexity can be hidden through flavor. Fling is a pretty complicated card, but it's easy for a new player to understand because you can tell exactly what's happening: I'm throwing one of my creatures at something. The execution of this idea may be a little complicated (requiring an additional cost, checking a creature's power) but a new player understands what is going on from the start.

You can also hide complexity through repetition. Take metalcraft. A new player will read Carapace Forger and wonder what an artifact is. Eventually they'll understand, but if Carapace Forger is in M11, the payoff for understanding is very low. They'll just understand one card, Carapace Forger. A set full of different abilities is going to be very hard to process. In Scars of Mirrodin, however, once a player understands one metalcraft card they'll understand all the other metalcraft cards. While the first metalcraft card looks complicated, once the concept is understood all the metalcraft cards become simple. Each metalcraft card's complexity is hidden in every other metalcraft card.

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

First, when I talk about experienced players, I'm not just talking about spikes and tournament experience. I'm talking about players that understand the game and have experience playing, be it at the kitchen table, local shop, or Pro Tour. The best way to make Magic attractive to experienced players is to keep the game fresh, while still giving players the tools to do what they want to do. That's a bit too general, so I'll explain.

A good set theme is the best way to keep Magic fresh. Pulling the player's attention to different aspects of the game with each set release keeps Magic interesting. Creature types might be the hot thing one year, but Magic would loses its appeal if it was always about creature types. Experienced players get restless if Magic appears to stay the same for too long, such as the quick succession of Ravnica, Shadowmoor, and Shards of Alara.

Still, it's important to give players to tools to do what they want to do. Some players like playing the mill deck, so if a set doesn't have a new way for them to mill they'll be disappointed. Cards like Goblin Guide are perfect. It gave spike fans of the red deck a powerful tool they've never had before with a drawback on a completely new axis. You can play "white weenie" with Scars of Mirrodin, but you may need to play artifacts to make Tempered Steel work. The same is true for limited as it is for constructed. Some players like being aggressive, but Blade-Tribe Berserkers is going to encourage them to play with artifacts to get what they want. Horizon Spellbomb gives players the tools to draft four or five colors.

There's a hard balance to maintain. On one hand Magic needs to look like it is constantly changing, staying fresh and new. On the other hand, players need the ability to do what they want to do.

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

The best mechanic has to be Landfall. I know Mark has written much on the greatness of landfall, but he's right. It really is the best mechanic.

Its most common praise is that it works so well with what the players already want to do. Playing lands is already on my agenda, so landfall cards seamlessly slip into my play style. There's so little friction between my goals and landfall.

While there's little friction, that doesn't mean Landfall is boring - it's still changing the way I look at Magic. Landfall makes what is usually the least interesting part of my deck into something special. During gameplay I'm happy no matter what I draw, land or spell. Even before the game I'm given interesting choices when I look at my Plated Geopede and have to decide how many Terramorphic Expanses I want to play. In limited it encourages me to play more lands in my deck, reducing the number of mana-screwed draws I can get. It also reduces the number of hands that feel mana-flooded.

What's great about landfall is that a player can decide how much they want to care about it. Some players can use Steppe Lynx with just one land a turn. Somebody else can do a bit more work and add in fetch lands. Somebody else can decide they want a very threatening Steppe Lynx and play with Harrow. Then the last guy decides he's going to make the best Steppe Lynx ever and play with Scapeshift. It's a mechanic that can be bent to meet different desires.

The above factors make Landfall a great mechanic. What makes Landfall the best mechanic is how it single-handedly supported an entire block. Zendikar was the "land matters" block, and land mattered because of Landfall. The world of Zendikar was expressed perfectly through the mechanic of Landfall.

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

Champion is the worst designed mechanic in Extended.

Essentially Champion is upgrading one of your creatures into a better creature. Players like that, right? That's essentially what auras are doing, and players like auras. (Well, some players, but I'll get to that.) So where's the problem?

First, players like auras because they make a creature they already like better. Champion, however, doesn't necessary make your creature better, it just makes it different. Even if the different creature is better, losing any creature at all still feels bad. Where an Aura feels like an upgrade, champion feels like a big drawback. Even though you're not permanently losing the creature, it still feels gone.

That's where we hit the other problem with champion: the logistics. How champion actually ends up working is pretty strange. In an effort to upgrade on of their creatures a player could lose both to a removal spell in response, even though the mechanic is clearly trying to save one of the creatures. That's where you lose the players that don't even like auras and upgrades in the first place - they want all their creatures to be good already.

Instead of feeling like an upgrade, champion is often used as a way to remove and then return a creature, such as an Elvish Harbinger, to play. Champion became more of a weird Momentary Blink. Once you start getting champion creatures to champion other champion creatures, who knows what's going on anymore. The mechanic works terribly in multiples.

The champion mechanic created a cycle of creatures that you weren't really sure you wanted to play. It comes across as a confusing and un-intuitive drawback instead of a fancy bonus. It's hard to justify an ability that you can't simply add to a creature to make it better.

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. I'm thinking mutants or cross-breeds. Imagine "Creature - Goblin Elf" or "Tribal Instant - Merfolk Kithkin". It's the gold block of tribal. Instead of exploring the overlaps in color philosophy, you're exploring the overlap in each tribe's philosophy.

For example, with goblins you've got a few connections to explore. Goblin elves are good at attacking with small creatures or at making mana. Goblins and faeries are both very tricky races. Goblins and giants enjoy smashing things. It's a lot like a gold block except the connection is in the type line, not the cost.

This would also solve one of the problems in creating a tribal block: creating a critical mass of cards that care about a certain type. Changeling and Tribal solved this problem in Lorwyn the first time around. Tribal would still be a very powerful tool that would work well with dual-race tribes. Changeling would largely be replaced by dual-types, though a smattering of changeling would still be helpful.

I think you would also see people that are a fans of multiple tribes embracing their combinations, much in the way that players embraced on guild or another. Tribal has traditionally been a very linear mechanic where you're all in on a single tribe. With dual-race cards, now players can mix and match different tribes to find the combination that they like most. Building the elf-goblin deck has never been very viable because the cards are so parasitic. Cards that work well with multiple tribes would open up exciting new possibilities for fans of tribal.


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.

The struggle of light against darkness in the blackest place there is ? deep, deep underground.

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

Eons ago an event caused the surface races to look underground for salvation. Now the surface is only a legend. Light became a precious resource, and many of the remaining races have survived by finding (or creating) a maintainable light source. However, not everyone took to the light -- some have embraced the darkness and its mysteries. The conflict between light and dark defines Underland.

The humans must protect their ancient and complex series of mirrors that transport light from the surface, miles away. They're experts in combat and have been known to use their skills with mirrors offensively.

The elves found a home in vast fungal caverns where words like "up" and "down" lose their meaning -- life thrives on every surface. The caverns glow from the natural light of bioluminescent species.

The dwarves are most at home in Underland, crafting extravagant stone halls. Fire was an easy answer for the dwarve's light problem, as it is to most of their problems. Their enemies, the orcs, live in the wild lava lands, waiting for their opportunity.

The vampires gravitated towards the evil places of the underground, where any light seems dimmer. They seek to make all of Underland like their home -- pitch black. Here creatures see through alternate means such as echolocation and thermal vision.

The merfolk are divided. Some took to the deepest and darkest parts of the underground lakes, while others worked to create a magical light with water-like properties.

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

I've worked to make light and dark have their own feel. Black, some of red, and some of blue is dark-aligned; the rest are light aligned. The mechanics don't go cross-faction.
The primary mechanic of the dark side is morph. Instead of Onslaught's morph-shells, these creatures are hidden in darkness. In order to give these morphs their own feel, I?m making many of them trap-like. Some morphs may be cheaper to flip up, or more devastating, in certain situations.

I want light and dark to feel opposite. Where darkness is manipulating face-down cards, light is manipulating face-up cards with Suffuse. When a card is suffused it is exiled, but may be drawn. Most of the time players will be suffusing the top cards of their library, making suffuse act like a faster-to-execute scry. Sometimes cards will find themselves suffused by other means. Some cards will use unwanted suffused cards as a resource. Care must be taken developing suffuse so games can't completely stall.

The simple light mechanic illuminate lets players look at a bit of hidden information. Morphs can be overwhleming to a new or casual player when they are a complete unknown. Illuminate is an easy way to add some feeling of control when playing against morphs you've never seen before.

Lastly, dig is a very flavorful mechanic that helps smooth limited. Players literally dig through their library to find what they need.

Part II – Show Us Your Week One Preview Cards

1. Feature Article
Liliana of Shadow (Mythic)
Planeswalker - Liliana
+1: Each player sacrifices a creature.
-2: Sacrifice a creature. If you do, return target creature card from your graveyard to the battlefield.
-7: You get an emblem with "Pay 1 life: Draw a card."

2. Making Magic
Wingbright Angel (Rare)
Creature – Angel
When Wingbright Angel enters the battlefield, illuminate. (To illuminate, look at the top card of a library, or look at a face-down creature, or choose an opponent and look at a card in their hand of their choice.)
Whenever you illuminate a card, you may put it on the bottom of its owner's library.

3. Serious Fun
Heart of Darkness (Mythic)
Legendary Creature – Demon
When Heart of Darkness enters the battlefield, put each card in your hand onto the battlefield face down. (They are 2/2 creatures.)

4. Limited Information
Boring Drill (Common)
Artifact – Equipment
Equipped creature gets +4/+0.
Equip 4
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.)

5. Savor the Flavor
Irongut, the Smelter (Rare)
Legendary Creature – Dwarf Miner
R, T, Sacrifice a Mountain: Put an Equipment artifact token onto the battlefield with "Equipped creature gets +1/+1" "and "Equip: 1."

6. Building on a Budget
Pit of Shadow (Rare)
[Quartz Caverns & Cavern of Shadows -
Pit of Shadow enters the battlefield tapped.
T: Add B to your mana pool.
T: Add BB to your mana pool. Spend this mana only to cast face down creature spells or to pay morph costs.

7. Top Decks
Obscure in Shadow (Rare)
Counter target spell. Instead of putting it into its owner's graveyard, put it onto the battlefield face down under that player's control. (It is a 2/2 creature.)

8. From the Lab
Life from Light (Rare)
Suffuse your graveyard, then put Life from Light on the bottom of your library. (To suffuse 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 from exile.")

9. The Week That Was
Twilight Zone (Rare)
Whenever a player casts a white spell, put a +1/+1 counter on Twilight Zone.
Whenever a player casts a black spell, put a -1/-1 counter on Twilight Zone.
(+1/+1 and a -1/-1 counters on the same permanent cancel each other out.)
Sacrifice Twilight Zone: Redistribute its counters among any number of target creatures.

10. Latest Developments
Bane of All (Uncommon)
[Plague Sporecap -
Creature – Insect
Morph 1BB
If two or more creatures have entered the battlefield under an opponent?s control this turn, Bane of All's morph cost is B.
When Bane of All enters the battlefield or is turned face up, all creatures get -2/-2 until end of turn.

2) Normally illuminate is attached to a simple card and isn't particularly sexy, but I needed a sexy way to show off the mechanic. Gavin delivered.
3&7) I'm willing to take risks with the face down card mechanic. I think the Magic populace is ready, and the flavor takes it home. These cards do require a small rules update (in 704.5) that any instant or sorcery that is flipped face up instantly goes to the graveyard. That said, Heart of Darkness and Obscure in Shadow are unique even in this set ? their actions are not the norm.
4) Boring Drill is part of a six-card cycle similar to the Absorb Vis cycle from Conflux.
5) Irongut worries me a little because attaching tokens to permanents may be a bit unwieldy, but the uniqueness of the effect makes me think it's manageable enough to work.
6) Creatures have come a long way, and a 2/2 for three is pretty far behind in constructed. I liked Pit of Shadow because it gives ambitious Johnnies the tools to keep up in constructed.
8) Life from Light needs to get rid of itself to prevent two copies from looping, but I'm trying to keep the exile zone clean since suffused cards will be there. Thus, bottom of library.
9) Probably the only hybrid card in the set. This card IS the set's conflict, so having it be special is a bonus.

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