The Great Designer Search 2 Finalists

Posted in Feature on November 3, 2010

By Staff

NAME: Shawn Main


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

1. The Shawn Main Story by Shawn Main

On the first day of a directing class, if you ask the students (who are always seasoned theatre veterans) why they want to direct, there's one answer you're guaranteed to hear: "I'm kind of a control freak." I've heard it so often that I have a practiced retort: "That's a dangerous attitude for anyone leading a team to hold, especially in a creative endeavor. There are two phrases you want to learn immediately and use often: 'That's good! Give me more of that!' and 'Try something new'."

The illusion that you must rule your art with an iron fist originates, I believe, from a fear that good ideas are a scarce commodity. The inexperienced director, concerned that innovative material won't be generated naturally through work with actors and designers, latches onto a singular vision for the completed show as if there could be no other and tries to force it by telling everyone what to do.

The reality, though, is that a vision is not a map and ideas aren't precious. It's much better to take that strong, central vision and use it as a guide, suggesting possibilities. If you trust your team and give them space to explore many directions (even experiment with outlandish ones), they'll generate vast amounts of material that play to their individual strengths. Your job then becomes a pleasure, corralling and selecting only the strongest work that contributes to the most cohesive whole.

I suspect leading a Magic design team isn't so different and requires many of these same skills.

My name is Shawn Main. I'm a blue-red-green Timmy/Spike with a passion for multiplayer cubes and high variance games of all kinds. I've been playing Magic and doing theatre since 1994. I've held a variety of jobs (emergency medicine, education, writing, inventory in the country's biggest comic book warehouse), but it's my experience in the theatre and my years as a director in particular that will best serve Wizards of the Coast in creating exciting Magic sets.

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.

2. Goblin Looter

Your hand's empty, your graveyard's full of Lighting Bolts and you're facing an assault of puny elves. You untap your lone Goblin Looter and draw. Shivan Dragon. If you cast it, you'll win next turn provided your opponent doesn't Overrun. You tap Goblin Looter, just in case, and draw Pyroclasm. You've got to discard one. Pyroclasm will eliminate the threats, but the dragon could win you the game. Which do you want more RIGHT NOW? Which will you gamble on.?

Red suffers a strange fate. While there are cries of "Red's misunderstood! It's the color of passion, of emotion, of immediacy!" the red aspects most likely to appear on spells revolve around blowing things up. And that's a fine focus- it's fun to kill things with fire and red should always be having fun. However, red's live-in-the-present attitude is a rich vein that deserves to be plumbed further.

Conversely, card selection has traditionally been seen as an aspect of blue's supremacy in card draw. Merfolk Looter gets viewed as just a smaller Archivist, but drawing a card only to discard another (or itself) is something distinct. Drawing is the accumulation of knowledge, metaphorically, and potential, practically. Drawing says, "Here's more" while looting asks, "What do you want most? What will you give up?"

Shifting card selection to red seems like a natural move, fitting into red's desire for immediate gratification, casting aside one possibility for another.

There's already precedent in cards like Wheel of Fortune and Goblin Lore, but so far red looting has either used a mallet, striking everyone and every card, or random chance, eliminating choice from the action.

Of course, all things come with a price and there's a practical consideration here. Putting easy looting into Sligh decks means you're letting lands cycle for more offense. While this is primarily development's concern, this shift might necessitate pulling back the reins on cheap red kill. But there's always a choice and something's got to go. right?

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?

3. Bright Lights, Big City

There are many individual sets that leave me in awe of how well the mechanics weave together to create a sense of place or tell a story, but one block stands above the rest for successfully ringing the bell ten times: Ravnica.

If I could improve one thing about Ravnica, it would be to loosen its 4-3-3 structure around the edges, not to step outside its themes (like with the nephilim or hunted creatures), but to create some cross-set guild space. As someone who liked drafting Selesyna, I wished I could create more coherent decks in RGD drafts. As someone who enjoyed Izzet, I felt a little disappointed that I wouldn't see any more after Guildpact. And, as someone who loved Simic, I would have been more excited about Dissension if I'd had hints about what was coming.

What I'm getting at is this: I think the block would have been served well if there had been a small number of slots in each set for cards from the other guilds. It would have created anticipation if we'd gotten Ragamuffyn or Avatar of Discord in a Ravnica pack (much like how Eye of Ugin created anticipation and curiosity about RoE). In some cases we could have gotten a hint at a theme, in others a taste of a mechanic or an introduction to the guild's character.

On the other side, if certain cards had been held back from a guild, a champion or a guildmage, there would have been just as much expectation for that card to be revealed in a later set. It would have teased (in a good way) players who were particularly attached to one guild. And, finally, it would have allowed the potential for drafting a mono or bi-guild strategy, which would have highlighted individual guilds better in block limited.

Of course, I'm saying all this as an outsider to R&D. I don't know if the themes for the Dissension guilds were understood enough by the time Ravnica needed to be finalized.

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?

4. Force of Nature

I play Magic mostly at kitchen tables, at prereleases and, when I have extra time and money for drafting, on Magic Online. Once, during Odyssey block, I attended a PTQ where I saw my squirrel army crushed under Psychatog's heel, but that's my sole experience with high level competitive play. In the past month, I decided, if I was serious about making it to Renton, I needed to begin to familiarize myself with the world of professional Magic. Reading tournament reports and hearing pro players talk about the game has been an interesting education.

But there was a quirk from this past year, where pros were stymied by something simple and procedural. Living Tsunamis kept dying, crashing from the skies, because their controllers would draw before returning a land. There was a similar, but more problematic phenomenon during my Odyssey tournament, where people would forget to sacrifice to Braids and then be left awkwardly needing to ask a judge how to proceed at all.

In those troubled days before the stack, triggered abilities, and sacrifice-unless-you-pay wordings, the upkeep phase was a quirky necessity. I suspect Dr. Garfield's intention in placing it before the draw was to demand players make choices: do you pay for your Force of Nature or hope you'll draw something better to do with that mana?

Today the upkeep step is a relic and a nuisance. It forces more terminology onto new players. It prompts "wait, go back" moments at kitchen tables and profanity at tournaments. It could be folded into other steps and rearranged to retain functionality by giving priority after untapping during the untap step (so pre-draw actions could still be taken) and after drawing during the draw step. Then if the upkeep were eliminated entirely, upkeep triggers could read "at the end of your draw step" or, where necessary, "at the end of your untap step." It wouldn't eliminate all the original problems, but would stop punishing people who automatically start each turn by untapping and drawing.

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?

5. Hoops and Cookies

When Magic offers a player a hoop to jump through, the player should expect a cookie. Drum Hunter asks you to get a big creature and rewards you with an extra card each turn. There's a hoop (the big creature) and a cookie (the extra card).

I recall reading that Demon's Jester began its life with a +1/+1 hellbent bonus, but such a small bonus often felt insignificant, as the card played basically the same with or without the bonus, and thus it was increased. This is an important lesson: the reward needs to feel like a reward. The cookie can't just be crumbs.

Most metalcraft cards do this just fine: collect three artifacts: get +2/+2, tap for any color mana, come back from the dead. But there's one card that offers a reward so small, it can only be seen by the spikiest of spikes: Stoic Rebuttal.

Counterspells are tricky, of course, to cost and the one mana distinction between Counterspell and Cancel is the difference between being a constructed powerhouse and something sometimes playable. But that's no excuse for Stoic Rebuttal, a card that straddles that cost line and says, "You can jump through this hoop, but, really, why bother?" Many people won't go on its artifact scavenger hunt at all since it's perfectly functional as Cancel and can double as one in an artifactless deck. The issue, though, isn't its power level as compared to Cancel, but that it can be played in decks where most of its text serves no function.

As a Melvin, it's annoying to see a card that so easily could have been 2UU (UU with metalcraft) that would give a significant choice to permission players: Cancel or Stoic Rebuttal? Better yet, the aesthete in me would love Stoic Rebuttal at 3UU so three artifacts could fittingly discount you 3 mana. Instead it was beefed up, becoming like a 4/2 Demon's Jester that gets +0/+1 if you've emptied your hand.

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

6. The Invisible Teacher

Magic 2010 made some dramatic strides towards creating a set that welcomed new players with its traditional fantasy trappings. Magic 2011 did something else, though, that I suspect will inadvertently help those new players even more. The vertical planeswalker cycles were created to showcase Magic's primary cast outside of mythic rares, but they also linked the cards mechanically. Many new players have looked at Garruk's Companion alongside Garruk's Packleader and had something click inside their heads, realizing for the first time the potential to combine cards into something greater than the sum of their parts.

I think this is an excellent method for leading newer players towards a more advanced understanding of the game without subjecting them to lectures on utility and card advantage. Sets, particularly the base set, could contain groupings of two or three commons and uncommons that, taken together, teach a small lesson about how to play the game or that point to simple strategies that beginners might otherwise miss. Those cards could then be tied together with shared flavor to increase the likelihood that they will be considered side-by-side.

For example, giving white a series of soldiers with connected names and mana costs of 2, 3, 4 and 5 could help to demonstrate the idea of a mana curve. Depicting the same creature being stolen on Threaten and tossed on Fling could emphasize the utility of combining these cards. The flavor text on Craw Wurm could describe a gathering of Llanowar Elves that summons the wurm, introducing the idea of mana ramping as a reward for reading.

I think this style of invisible teaching has great potential, particularly as it exists on the cards themselves, leading players towards discovery without handing it to them.

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

7. The Same Game

When Wizards first introduced the notion of psychographics, the understanding of player motivations was crude and lumped people into narrow stereotypes. Timmy was defined primarily by his love of large creatures and generally assumed to be unskilled and probably inexperienced. The notion at that time was that big creatures, while fun, had little place in the advanced game. In fact, for much of the game's tenure creature-based strategies and expensive cards of all kinds were viewed with suspicion by tournament players. I remember one commentator stating anything in your deck that costs four or more should win you the game outright.

In those early days, if an amateur were interested in moving towards more competitive play, the first thing to do would be to throw away all of his old decks and start from scratch with a different set of cards. Similarly, if a competitive drafter wanted to start playing constructed, none of her skills in attacking and blocking were transferable. In these ways, the game discouraged people from trying new formats.

Thankfully, the game has come a long way and there exists a more nuanced understanding of Timmy. Tournament decks from this past year are likely to include six mana behemoths. I view this as a positive development for everyone. Today, there's a lure for players to move between formats and up the skill ladder. The young player who wants to be competitive is told to focus on his mana base rather than to abandon his favorite cards. The drafter, looking at constructed, sees a format where she'll get to play four copies of her limited bombs.

Design needs to foster cards and experiences that bring us together. Each format and skill level should remain distinct, but there should be enough overlap that it feels like we're all playing the same game rather than being pushed into separate corners. Not only does this promote positive sentiment, it encourages players to try new formats and broaden their skills, which, ultimately, keeps players playing.

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

8. Grok Star

The rules of Magic are a powerful engine. They're capable of handling nearly an infinite array of possible card permutations. The human brain, however, is capable of tracking only so much information at a time. Consider an enchantment with the ability "3GGR: Two target creatures with converted mana cost 5 or more each get +7/-4 until end of turn." Within the rules, the effect is quite simple, but it's a challenge to read and even harder understand enough to use in the midst of a game. There are too many elements and the numbers are unconnected from each other. Whatever play value such a card might have in a set, it shouldn't be printed due to how poorly it reads.

Designers and templaters must stand vigilant against cards that aren't grokkable. Cards with disparate numbers are especially challenging. That's why I consider levelers to be such a victory. They're covered with game values: a mana cost, a leveling cost, two level ranges (with a third implied), three different sets of power and toughness, and two sets of abilities. Despite being covered in data, they're easy to understand. In fact, after one reading of the level up reminder text, you can skim a leveler and make sense of it. This is victory both for the templaters who arranged this information so well and for the designers who made progressions that feel natural, even logical.

Not only do the levelers read well, but they create interesting game play. I design a lot of multiplayer cubes and I'm always looking for cheap creatures that will remain relevant in the late game. The levelers do just that, transforming from early drops to mid-game creatures to (in many cases) finishers. And their mechanism for advancement forces challenging decisions along the way, keeping a longer game from devolving into a topdecking match. In the context of a slow environment like RoE (or my cubes), they're perfect.

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

9. Old Chum

Whenever someone mentions Kamigawa block, I turn up my nose like the word itself is a bad odor. I'm not alone in this gut-level negative reaction. I realize it has its fans, but amid a sea of beloved sets, Kamigawa has a reputation as a low point for the game.

I contemplated this the other day, wondering why I have such a visceral reaction. The set included clever innovations like the flip creatures and ninjutsu. The cross-color tribal aspects of spirits made drafting tense and Dampen Thought allowed for one of the most unique draft archetypes ever. It oozed flavor and contained some beloved favorite like the ninjas, spirit dragons and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker.

So why all the hate? The usual answer is that it was too parasitic, too insular. Its major themes didn't play well with cards outside the block. I think that's a big part of it, but the problem runs deeper.

The first deck I ever made (in 1995) had Lords of Atlantis, Clones, and every Merfolk I could get my hands on. Today I still have a Merfolk deck. Besides Lord of Atlantis and Seasinger, I don't think there's another matching card. During Kamigawa, I made several Spirit and Arcane decks. Today I still have those decks. unchanged. They sit in a box and every time I flip past them I grumble, knowing that the game isn't going to offer me new tools to reexplore those cards, and my negative feelings towards Kamigawa grow.

But why do I bring up Kamigawa in answering a question about mechanics in Extended? Well, MaRo's 2010 state of design article made me consider this past year. Zendikar and Worldwake had lots of things that I loved like landfall and traps, but what do I think of first? What overshadows everything else and threatens to spoil those positive memories with the smell of old fish chunks? Allies, the spiritcraft of 2010.

Magic is a game built on evolution. Creating a set of cards that will necessarily stagnate tends to stink up anything associated with them.

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

10. Z2 Wishes

Zendikar is a setting rife with possibilities to further explore. Its narrative left us on a cliffhanger of sorts with the Eldrazi reawakened and the world dominated anew. The first time round, the mechanical themes of Z/W were deliberately separated from those of RoE, but in Zendikar 2, I think there's a lot of design potential in the intersection of those themes. All three sets ask you to care about land more than usual- Z/W by focusing strongly on lands entering the battlefield as a trigger and RoE by encouraging expensive creatures.

What if, in Z2, putting lands onto the battlefield were a small reward attached to spells? Just as cantrips help to smooth out your draw by replacing themselves, land grabbing spells would help smooth out your mana base, possibly giving you bonus landfall effects or setting you up for expensive cards.

The tricky part, of course, is that getting lands from your library necessitates shuffling, which can slow the game down. One possible solution for the problem would be to have cards that let you get lands from outside the game. Imagine this Giant Growth variant:

Natural Growth
Target creature gets +3/+3 until end of turn.
Forest Wish (You may choose a forest card you own from outside the game and put that card onto the battlefield.)

This solution, though, adds new elements, which could be complications themselves. It might require tournament players to use up sideboard slots (probably around 2-5) for basic lands and it would require everyone to carefully count their decks after games to correctly remove the added land cards. It would need a lot of playtesting to determine if the cumulative effect would be worth the trouble, but, if it worked, it would give Z2 a whole new dimension to expand on Z1's themes.


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 crumbling world in a state of total war.

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

In the Imperial Hall, children as young as nine are handed swords. There will be a rudimentary lesson in striking and parrying, but there is little time-- the eastern skies grow dark and crack with lightning: the Horde approaches. Worse than the Horde, their approach signals that the eastern mountains have succumbed. Even if the hall can withstand the Horde, the blight will follow and they'll be driven into battle with the elves to the north.

It was merfolk, cloistered in their libraries, who first noticed the blight. The vast seas seemed suddenly not so vast. Birds were dispatched to scour Wodotha for an answer. They discovered it: the edges of the world were tattered and crumbling fast. The merfolk recognized immediately what it would mean: their big world wasn't going to be big enough for everyone for much longer. If the merfolk civilization was to survive, they needed to mobilize and seize whatever piece of Wodotha they could.

What Wodotha doesn't know yet is why. And when they discover the cause of the blight, there will only be more war.

Liliana never intended to destroy the world. She came to Wodotha to dispose of the Godorb. She thought that, in a world so isolated, it would simply be lost. But the Godorb was discovered by a sadistic demon prince, Chernabog. He used it to ignite his spark and all of Wodotha is paying the price as their world slowly crumbles from without while blood is shed within.

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

The set is designed to give players the sense that they're raising armies. This means that having large numbers of creatures, tokens especially, is the mechanical focus. Each color gets two token types, a 1/1 (soldiers, merfolk, zombies, goblins, and elves) and something unique (2/2 white flying griffins, 1/1 blue flying birds, 2/2 black Vampires, 3/1 red hasty trampling Elementals that die at end of turn, and 3/3 green Elephants). To alleviate the problem of having more common token producers, I propose including two tokens in each pack, some as double sided tokens (perhaps even some foil tokens).

Too many creatures tends to clog up the battlefield and discourage attacking, so many mechanics encourage attacking, even when you expect to lose troops. Other mechanics utilize lots of creatures without attacking.

Convoke is brought back (in all colors) with the mechanical twist that you get a bonus if you pay for your spell only by tapping creatures. Swarm (in green and white) is a creature mechanic that makes an attacker bigger if it brings friends. The raid cycle rewards you for controlling tapped creatures, while many red and white cards get better if all your creatures are attacking. Black and red have bloodlust cards, which reward you if an opponent has been dealt damage. And blue, being the espionage color, gets a series of "untouchable" creatures that bounce blockers to their owners hands, functioning similar to deathtouch against tokens. The theme also allows better-than-usual spot removal.

Part II – Show Us Your Week One Preview Cards

1. Week 1 Feature

Chernabog (Mythic Rare)
Planeswalker - Chernabog
0: Until end of turn, whenever a creature is put into a graveyard from the battlefield, put a loyalty counter on Chernabog and gain 2 life.
-3: Put target creature card from an opponent's graveyard onto the battlefield under your control.
-13: Target player loses the game.

2. Making Magic

Boiling Ballad (Rare)
[Infernal Convokation (sic) -
Convoke (Each creature you tap while casting this spell reduces its cost by 1 or by one mana of that creature's color.)
Boiling Ballad deals 7 damage to each creature and each player.
If you paid no mana to cast Boiling Ballad, it deals 7 damage to each opponent and each creature an opponent controls instead.

3. Serious Fun

Mirror-Faced Colossus (Rare)
Artifact Creature - Golem
Whenever Mirror-Faced Colossus attacks, each other attacking creature becomes a copy of it until end of turn.

4. Limited Information

Valorous Charge (Common)
Creatures you control get +2/+0 until end of turn. If all creatures you control are attacking, creatures you control get +3/+1 until end of turn instead.

5. Savor the Flavor

Restless Haven (Rare)
[Heart of the Forest (1A) -
Legendary Land
Restless Haven enters the battlefield tapped.
When you play Restless Haven, put a 1/1 green Elf creature token onto the battlefield.

T: Add G to your mana pool.
G, Tap two untapped Elves you control: Return Restless Haven to its owner's hand.

6. Building on a Budget

Observation Point (Uncommon)
When Observation Point enters the battlefield, put three 1/1 blue Merfolk creature tokens onto the battlefield.
U, Tap an untapped Merfolk you control: Look at the top card of target player's library.
U, Sacrifice a Merfolk: Put the top card of target player's library into the graveyard.

7. Top Decks

Liliana, the Lost (Mythic Rare)
Planeswalker - Liliana
+1: Put any number of target cards from your graveyard onto the bottom of your library. Put that many cards from the top of your library into the graveyard.
-X: Put X 1/1 black Zombie creature tokens onto the battlefield.
0: Destroy each permanent with a converted mana cost equal to the number of loyalty counters on Liliana.

8. From the Lab

Sigurd the Second (Mythic Rare)
[Unnamed -
Legendary Creature - Human Soldier
At the beginning of your end step, if you control fewer than seven creatures, put a 1/1 white Soldier creature token onto the battlefield. Repeat this process until you control seven creatures.

9. The Week That Was

Library Raid (Uncommon)
Look at the top X cards of your library, put one into your hand and the rest on the bottom of your library in any order, where X is the number of tapped creatures you control.

10. Latest Developments

Aphid Trailblazer (Uncommon)
Creature - Insect
Swarm (Whenever this creature attacks, it gets +1/+1 until end of turn for each other attacking creature.)
Front Line (This creature must be blocked if able.)

I created super convoke (as Ive been calling it) mostly as: do A; if you paid nothing, do A twice. I love that Boiling Ballad (by NixorX) is a two-sided effect upgrades to one-sided and that the card has plenty of utility even if when it isnt upgraded.

I latched onto charleycs Valorous Charge for how uniquely it rewards attacking. I contemplated shifting it into red, but only ended up making one small tweak (so it would read better).

Sigurd the Second was designed by Skibo the First with "Other soldiers you control get +1/+1." It excited my inner Johnny, so I scrapped the power boosting part to allow the focus to be a creature that "brings his/her own army."

Restless Haven (by KhelArk) started with a tap ability that generated elves, but my favorite part was that it could bounce itself so I asked KhelArk if the generation could be triggered. The card evoked in me images of an Elven city that disappears when you look away, which I figured would make cool, showcaseable flavor.

Swarm and raid are both answers to the question, "How do you encourage attacking on a crowded board?"

Observation Point was created to highlight blue's espionage-style warfare.

Mirrorface was designed as a hole filler.

Liliana doubly fits the set theme because her Pernicious Deed ability can't destroy tokens. Her starting loyalty is deliberately matched to her converted mana cost so she self destructs if used immediately.

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