The Great Designer Search 2 Finalists

Posted in Feature on November 3, 2010

By Staff

NAME: Devon Rule


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

Hi. I'm Devon Rule.

I am a good fit for this internship because in addition to having a deep understanding of Magic's mechanics and aesthetics, I have spent years observing and analyzing what makes Magic *fun*. If I am to be memorable, I would like to be remembered as "that guy who talked about fun a lot."

I have played with the spikiest tournament veterans, kitchen table players with 100-card collections, and hardcore casual gamers with suitcases full of decks. I've introduced dozens of players to the game, and seen what sparks their interest and what scares them away. I created a Magic club at my university and ran it for three years, gathering players of all stripes and experience levels.

Game design has been my career of choice since high school, where my senior project was designing a complete roleplaying system. I've spent years devouring every game and system I could get my hands on, dissecting each mechanic to determine what players enjoy and what they find frustrating. I've been writing a blog in which I review games from a design perspective, discussing not just what games and mechanics are fun, but why.

I will be graduating from Willamette University this fall with a B.A. in Film Studies. I chose the major because it allows me to explore a variety of areas including writing, the arts, technology, and media studies. I'm more interested in how films affect their audience than in pure theory. I like to say that if other students are asking, "What made Shakespeare the greatest writer of all time?" I'm asking, "Why do people like reading the Harry Potter books so dang much?" I am obsessed with figuring out what makes media enjoyable.

I've considered variety of career paths, and think there are many in which I could be happy and successful. But game design is the field where I look at it and think, "This is where I excel. This is where I could be one of the best in the world." I hope the GDS will give me the opportunity to prove it.

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.

Blue has always had more than its share of the color pie. Most colors have only one or two mechanics they can really call their own, but blue has counterspells and bounce almost exclusively and a solid majority holding on many others including mill, card draw, stealing creatures, and taking extra turns. White has occasionally gotten some of blue's effects when they fit flavorfully, but it has been very scattered and without any clear color pie shifts.

"Counter target creatures spell" and its variants should be moved into white. Blue can keep Cancel and Negate, but white takes over the creature-specific counters. To compensate, white's capability for spot removal should be drastically reduced.

There are two major reasons for this change: First, the prevalence of white spot removal has drastically reduced black's unique space as a color. Swords to Plowshares set this precedent, but lately cards like Condemn, Path to Exile, and Oblivion Ring have completely usurped the place of Doom Blade and Smother. By forcing white to use preemptive answers to creatures rather than reactive ones, we give black more reason to be played in constructed.

The other reason is that countering spells is too broad a mechanic to be exclusive to one color. It's like if only one color had the ability to destroy permanents, or creatures that ccould block. By spreading countering into other colors, we can reduce blue's stranglehold on the stack. Players should have to go into multiple colors if they want to answer different types of spells with equal efficiency.

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?

Alara block was by far the best integration of design and creative to date. The concept of the five shards was brilliant because it took something that is naturally a part of Magic (the color wheel) and chopped it up in a new and thought-provoking manner. The world-building was a strong setting for a Magic set because it was fundamentally related to the core themes of the game.

Magic settings normally have to stretch to accommodate the varied needs of the game. Every setting has to have fire magic, big creatures, flying creatures, goblins, etc. There are valid reasons for this, but it often makes the worlds feel stretched or repetitive. Alara sidestepped this problem by creative five completely different settings to meet their needs. Goblins feel too silly for Grixis or Naya? Put them in Jund and make them dragon food. White removal doesn't fit in a world where behemoths are invulnerable and revered? Put it in Bant and Esper.

Most of all, the cards themselves gave anyone who played with them a clear image of the five shards. Each shard had an easily-recognized mechanic that gave flavorful impression of the world. (Having a design team for each shard probably helped with this a lot.) Read one card with Exalted and you get a very neat impression of what warfare is like in Bant.

One thing that could have improved the set's design/flavor integration would have been making more of an effort to represent the conflux mechanically. There's a lot of flavor text talking about the worlds violently merging, but the players didn't get to experience it. Conflux wandered off with its five-color theme instead of representing the complex struggle between the shards in gameplay.

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?

The rule that you don't lose the game to an empty library until you attempt to draw a card should be removed. It's an archaic holdover from the days when going into negative life didn't lose you the game until end of turn. It's random, unintuitive, and carries little or no actual benefit to the game.

It's unintuitive because it is different from your life total, poison counters, creatures' toughness, and almost any other comparable mechanic in the game. It's something new players would literally never expect to be the case.

Even to those with a solid understanding of the rules, it's problematic. Losing the game to failed card draw is state-based action that uniquely looks into the past, finding if something has happened since the last time STA's were checked. It feels like an awkward workaround for a rule that has outlived its questionable usefulness. It resembles mana burn in that it adds complexity to the game while very rarely mattering in practice. Since your draw step happens before you can play most spells or attack, waiting around until your next turn to lose after you've lost your library rarely matters.

Finally, there's the nebulous concept of how milling someone feels. I think erasing someone's brain with Oona or Jace should remove them instantly, not put them in a position where they will lose at a fixed point in the future.

Mill would get slightly better. Dredge combos would get slightly worse. The game would change very little and the rules would be a little bit better.

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?

The worst-designed card in Standard in Dawnglare Invoker. It may seem odd to choose a powerful limited common with little or no constructed application, but I think the card fails the most basic test of Magic design: It isn't fun. It is in fact the opposite of fun, a problem that is exacerbated by its relatively high power level in limited.

Rise of the Eldrazi is supposed to be about "battlecruiser Magic" - huge creatures of various stripes (Eldrazi, levelers, totem-armor-wearers) duking it out in the late game. At first glance, Dawnglare Invoker seems to fit this - it's got a very expensive ability and can wrap up board stalls in the late game.

The problem is that it does so in a non-interactive and horribly frustrating manner. One player cannot attack or block because the invoker is tapping down their creatures every single turn, and the other can't play any spells because they have to keep paying 8 mana into their Dawnglare Invoker. Both players just sit there as the invoker attacks for two every turn, waiting to see whether the victim draws a removal spell before they die. This is something of a worst-case scenario, but there really aren't any circumstances under which a Dawnglare Invoker will make a game more fun. It either delays the inevitable for a few turns or wins the game by locking your opponent out of the combat phase entirely.

I'm only really criticizing Dawnglare Invoker in one context (ROE limited), but the card simply doesn't get played in other formats. It's not good enough for competitive play or interesting enough for casual play. It is only played in one place, and it fails to be fun or interesting there. There is no other card in standard which fails to be fun so completely.

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

One of the biggest barriers to entry in Magic is the sheer number of skills involved in the game. A new player is going up against opponents with more powerful cards, better deck synergy, more consistent mana bases, better mulligan decisions, superior combat choices, and a host of knowledge about playing around removal, board sweepers, counterspells, and direct damage. This is all pretty daunting to someone still figuring out the rules of the game.

It's enjoyable to watch oneself improve at a game, but it is frustrating to lose over and over to strategic mistakes you don't understand. Magic's element of luck can help with this, but the amazing strategic depth combines with the collecting aspect to make it very hard for new players to beat experienced ones. (This is one of the reasons I prefer multiplayer - it's much more fun for groups with varied skill levels.)

One of the ways this can be mitigated is by making sure that linear, creature-based strategies remain viable. Most new players gravitate towards decks like Allies, Elves, infect creatures, and other obviously-synergistic strategies. This is often stereotyped as "bad players like dumb creature decks," but I think something more important is going on: When first experimenting with deckbuilding, players want tight themes that will make card selection that much easier. "White Weenie" is a fine concept for experienced players who know hundreds or thousands of cards, but "Soldiers" is a much more accessible category for people who have to evaluate each card on a case-by-case basis.

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

Experienced players are attracted to a wide variety of different card types, so the best thing design can do is try to make sure each set appeals to a wide variety of players. The "Timmy/Johnny/Spike" model is a good starting point, but doesn't come close to covering all the different reasons that people get excited by cards. A set should have some obviously powerful cards, some subtly powerful cards, exciting casual build-around-me cards, cards that fit into existing archetypes, and all the other different things players look for.

It is also important to take rarity into account. If all of the most exciting cards are common/uncommon, acquiring the cards becomes too easy for people to get excited. You don't buy a box when all the cards you want will cost under a dollar. On the other end of the spectrum, if all the most exciting cards are mythic rare, people don't feel that they have a fair chance of getting the cards they want. While it had other issues, Conflux is an example of a set that used rarity very effectively. It had high-profile uncommons which excited people but needed to be accessible (Path to Exile and Volcanic Fallout) powerful rares that affected multiple casual and tournament formats (Noble Heirarch and Knight of the Reliquary) and a truly awesome mythic who needed to feel rare and special but didn't feel like a tournament must-have (Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker).

Noltalgia is another powerful tool in making the game attractive to experience players who may have drifted away from the game. I hadn't been involved in Magic for a while when Time Spiral came out, and was immediately drawn back into regular Standard play when I saw all the cool old mechanics that had suddenly returned. I know plenty of people with similar stories for Time Spiral and Scars of Mirrodin, their interest piqued by rules and settings they had fond memories of.

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

Of all the mechanics in extended, persist is the best-designed. It was built on a solid core concept, elegantly executed, and beautifully woven into the other mechanics and themes of Shadowmoor.

Persist is at heart a very simple idea: "This creatures comes back from the graveyard - once." It reminds me strongly of flashback, in my opinion one of the most elegant abilities of all time. Both abilities make something reusable a finite number of times without memory issues or rules complexity.

Persist makes creatures better in a really cool and fun way. Kitchen Finks has been a relevant card in standard and extended, Woodfall Primus is an awesome EDH creature, and I've had a blast playing against casual Heartmender decks. The mechanic has been widely played across casual, limited, and tournament constructed. I'm not sure any other block mechanic in recent history can make that claim.

Runners-up for the "Best Extended Mechanic" title are exalted and landfall. Both are fun because they reward you for playing the game differently than you usually would. Exalted changes how you think about your combat step entirely, and landfall gives you some cool decisions about whether to play excess lands or hold them back to activate landfall cards you might draw later.

What really sets persist apart, though, is how much it enhanced Shadowmoor's -1/-1 counter theme. Persist made every single ability that could add or remove -1/-1 counters significantly more powerful and relevant. Suddenly it mattered infinitely more that Midnight Banshee had wither, or that Chainbreaker could remove counters one at a time.

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

The most poorly-designed mechanic currently in extended is the untap symbol (known to some as "Q"). Unlike many historically problematic mechanics, it isn't an issue of power level or concept. The creatures with untap abilities were relatively balanced and "untap as a cost" is not a fundamentally flawed concept. The problem is that it had very little to do with the rest of the set and felt like it had been crammed in for its own sake rather than the good of the block.

If the untap symbol had been introduced in Future Sight and put on creatures with some sort of common flavor, it could have worked. But instead it got scattered haphazardly across Shadowmoor cards with no flavorful or mechanical connection. Several of the cards were cool designs in the abstract, but none of them really felt like a part of Shadowmoor.

I suspect that the untap symbol is an instance of designers getting too attached to a concept to let it go when the time comes. The mechanic was purportedly supposed to be a part of Shadowmoor's "dark mirror" theme, but never actually felt that way in gameplay. It was a finicky combo mechanic that empowered the tap symbol instead of showing its sinister side. If anything, the untap symbol is *more* positive that its counterpart.

It probably says good things about modern Magic design that the worst mechanic in extended is just out of place and not fundamentally flawed. Still, it was very poorly implemented and stands out as the worst mechanic in recent history.

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

Ulgrotha is not an obvious choice for a setting to return to. The block that introduced it, Homelands, is widely considered to be one of Magic's greatest failures. Fifteen years later, though, players consider the setting a punchline rather than a hideous disappointment. The plane is fondly remembered for its unusual flavor and characters, and the bad cards are laughable rather than rage-inducing. I don't think the plane should try to to hold up an entire block, but I definitely think it could take part in some sort of multiplanar conflict.

The most fondly-remembered aspect of the plane is the Baron Sengir. He is Magic's single most iconic vampire. Many players were excited by the fact that he was mentioned in M11 flavor text - this is simply astounding when you think about the fact that he was an underpowered creature card from an unpopular set published a decade-and-a-half ago. If Ulgrotha is to be used again, the Baron should be its key player.

The ideal mechanical twist is to use Ulgrotha as the Black-centered plane in a "wedge"-themed set. We get one plane focused on exploring each color, including conflict between that color and its two enemies. Ulgrotha would be focused primarily on the Baron and his servants (black) with a some use of the forces fighting against him (green and white).

Obviously, the "wedge" concept is somewhat similar to that of Alara block, but it could avoid retreading the same territory by focusing on intraplanar conflict instead of an internal merger. A more apt comparison might be Odyssey block, each wedge exploring a color and its opponents the way Torment and Judgment looked at black and its enemies.


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.

"Weaponized Paradise"

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

Utopia is a world where each color has perfected its ideal society. White is a peaceful communist democracy, black is an atheistic merchant-state. The green tribes have returned completely to nature, red is an anarchic group of artists, and the blue is more like an academy than a nation.

A group of interplanar raiders find Utopia and consider it ripe for invasion. Their initial attack is devastating, but the Utopian nations militarize with alarming speed, turning peaceful magics into terrifying weapons. Flameweavers turn their performance art into deadly assaults, and the vampire aristocrats use contract magic to force lethal bargains. Even if the invaders are repelled, Utopia will never be the same.

Each color has aspects that are rarely seen in Magic. Magic is a game about conflict and combat between powerful wizards, so we rarely see the creative side of red or the mercantile side of black. Utopia explores these aspects by asking what would happen if they were used as weapons. What does it look like to throw fire with inspiration rather than rage, or counter spells with wisdom instead of arrogance?

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

Utopia started with a very high-concept theme, so I wanted a simple mechanical focus. I chose enchantments because they fit the flavor of pre-existing magic modified for war. While "enchantments" is a very general theme, I've used it as a touchstone to create synergy between my individual mechanics.

Flip cards are one good way of representing the flavor of peaceful enchantments being weaponized. White is getting the largest share of these (including enchantments that flip into enchantment creatures) but they exist across all colors. There is an uncommon cycle that shows how each color can turn beneficial effects into offensive ones.

Flameweavers represent fiery attacks as temporary hasty tokens instead of direct damage. The mechanic depicts fire magic as a creative force while still feeling very red. The tokens are enchantment creatures to reinforce their nature as magical constructs and provide synergy with any "enchantments matter" cards.

I've adapted the "manifest" keyword for use as a subtheme in Utopia. Manifest gives the option to play creature enchantments without a target, creating 2/2 tokens to enchant. The mechanic will be dominant in green but appears in other colors.

The invaders will be represented by a relatively small subset of cards, mostly across Jund colors. To represent their wasteful and destructive nature, they have a strong "sacrifice" theme. One of the main ways this is expressed is through the ability word Ransack, which means, "whenever a player sacrifices a permanent, do N."

Part II – Show Us Your Week One Preview Cards

1. Jacelyn Nalaar (Mythic Rare)
Planeswalker ? Jacelyn
(+2): You may tap or untap target permanent.
(-X): Search your library for a red or blue instant card with converted mana cost X or less and cast it without paying its mana cost. Then shuffle your library.
(-7): Take an extra turn after this one.

2. Spirit Guide (Rare)
Creature - Human Shaman
Aura cards in your hand have manifest. Their manifest cost is equal to their mana cost. (You may play those cards without a target for their manifest cost. If you do, they enter the battlefield enchanting a 2/2 colorless Spirit enchantment creature token.)

3. Invasion Dragon (Rare)
Creature - Dragon
Whenever Invasion Dragon attacks, each player sacrifices a land.
Ransack - Whenever a player sacrifices a permanent, you may put a +1/+1 counter on Invasion Dragon.

4. Postmortem Contract (Uncommon)
Return target creature card from your graveyard to the battlefield unless target opponent pays 4 life. If they do, return that card to your hand instead.

5. Gareth, Flameweaver Prodigy
Legendary Creature - Human Shaman
Enchantment creatures you control get +1/+1.
XRR, T: Put X 1/1 red Elemental enchantment creature tokens with haste onto the battlefield. Exile them at the beginning of your next end step. Play this ability only when you could play a sorcery.

6. Muse's Mirror (Rare)
[Muse's Echo - Labs:Gds/gds2/Utopia/Cards]
Whenever a creature you control becomes enchanted, you may put a 2/2 colorless Spirit enchantment creature token onto the battlefield.

7. City of Scholars (Uncommon)
[Observation Deck - Labs:Troacctid's_page]
T: Add 1 to your mana pool.
1U, T: Look at target player's hand.

8. Idealism (Rare)
Enchantments you control gain lifelink.

9. Twisted Vision (Common)
Choose a card type other than land. Target opponent reveals their hand. You choose a card of the chosen type from it. That player discards that card.

10. Initial Half: Clear Thinking (Uncommon)
At the beginning of your upkeep, look at the top card of your library. You may exile it.
At the beginning of the end step, if you have been attacked by two or more creatures this turn, flip Clear Thinking.
Flipped Half: Thought Erasure
At the beginning of your upkeep, exile the top five cards of target opponent's library.


It was quite a challenge to integrate the key themes of Utopia, the needs of each column preview, and the various numeric requirements. I'm going to let the card designs speak for themselves, and instead address why I chose these 10 to represent myself and Utopia.

1) Planeswalkers don't tend to fit with the set's themes, so I decided to just go for the most appealing and fun-to-play design I could.
2) I didn't invent manifest, but as a designer I recognize it as one of the best mechanics on the wiki.
3) It's a big Timmy dragon, it scales powerfully in multiplayer, and it shows off the flavorful ?Ransack? ability word.
4) This mechanic is more interesting in limited than constructed, and instants like this one can force difficult choices in combat.
5) Flameweaving is one of my favorite parts of the set, so I wanted to show it off in a flashy and appealing manner.
6) Unusual build-around-me artifact.
7) Knowledge is a subtly powerful resource in Magic, and this card allows control decks a Peek effect without very little opportunity cost.
8) To be a good Johnny rare, a card should have synergy with both its block's themes and with other cards from throughout Magic's history.
9) Duress effects are typically important constructed roleplayers, and this one works well with Utopia's enchantment theme without limiting itself.
10) If I were to pick a single cycle to represent Utopia mechanically, it would be this one.

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