The Great Designer Search 2 Finalists

Posted in Feature on November 3, 2010

By Staff

NAME: Scott Van Essen


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

My name is Scott Van Essen. I was within a hair's breadth of the brass ring in GDS1 (tied for 6th). You might ask what I bring to the table this time that I did not have last time. Upon asking myself that question, I realized that in GDS1, I simply didn't have enough restrictions. As MaRo is so fond of saying, restrictions breed creativity, and there I was, single, carefree, and with loads of free time. Now I'm married, with two kids and two mortgages. With all these restrictions on my time and energy, victory is all but assured.

What do I have to offer besides a host of challenges?

I bring a focused dedication to this process and the eventual internship. Since GDS2 was announced, I have read between 2 and 2.5 million words on Magic design and development, and designed well over 100 practice cards.

I am in sync with the state of design at Wizards. My work on GDS1 speaks for itself, and during my practice design in September, I concurrently designed at least 3 Scars of Mirrodin cards.

I have worked as an engineer at a small (fewer than 10 people) company for almost 10 years. This means that I have to work well with a small team, wear multiple hats and switch between them effortlessly, jump into unfamiliar tasks and learn them on the job, and that often the future of the company rests on me completing my tasks successfully and on time.

I have a very logical mind, and love solving puzzles, particularly finding a new puzzle type and deducing the rules and tricks that you need to use to solve it.

I have a very creative mind. Among many other things, I have 4 years of improv experience, which has taught me to make creative leaps, think on my feet, embrace mistakes, and to give a presentation for which I have never seen the powerpoint slides.

All of these are critically useful skills for members of a design team, and I have much more to offer.

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.

The ability that I choose to move is "Capping", or searching through a library and removing cards from the game. This ability currently resides in Black (and artifact). Capping in black is flavored as attacking the mind of the opponent to leech out their memories. Though there are subtle differences, this is very similar to the flavor of discard (I bash your head and you forgot your spell). Mechanically, capping provides black with a method to deal with problem cards before they ever hit the board (or the stack). Similarly, discard also provides Black a method to handle problem cards before they are ever played. There are differences, of course. Discard furthers card advantage and capping furthers milling. Nonetheless, there is a significant overlap both mechanically and flavor-wise between discard and capping in Black.

I believe that design space could be opened up and flavor could be better served by separating capping from discard and moving it into white.

In Black, capping is generally flavored as some form of brain trauma. In White it would be more along the lines of the Meddling Mage ability, i.e. "These spells are off limits". One of the mechanical themes of white in recent times has been that White can deal with any problem, but only temporarily, e.g. Oblivion Ring. Imagine an enchantment called Oblivion Cap which lets you exile N cards from opponents library, and then shuffle them back in when it leaves the game. This would give White the ability to answer instants and sorceries in a manner different from countering them, but one which is still reversible.

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?

Zendikar block, particularly Rise of the Eldrazi was the best integration of design and creative. As I'll mention below in question 8, I believe that Annihilator was a home run mechanic in representing the titanic power of the Eldrazi. Level Up did a fantastic job of functioning both in the adventure world of Zendikar and the "People Rise to Fight" world of RoE. Allies worked very well creating the feeling of a party who get stronger together.

On a higher level, the (admittedly too fast) speed of Zendikar and Worldwake formats gave voice to the rough and tumble world of Zendikar, while setting up a sharp right turn into the slower and much much larger epic conflicts of Rise.

The layers of forshadowing both on a creative and mechanical level, from the obvious (like Eldrazi Monument and Eye of Ugin) to the obscure (the genealogy of the various races gods tracing back to the three legendary Eldrazi) tied the two mini-blocks together very well. There's also a very subtle but beautiful symmetry that may not have been intentional. The Eldrazi were imprisoned in the land itself. When they escaped, the most common permanent type that they destroy is the land. Coincidence? Perhaps.

The single biggest thing missing in my opinion was the presence of Allies in RoE. That one change would provide a significant mechanical and flavor boost to the block. Since RoE was all about the massive Eldrazi and the local denizens who had to swell in size to meet them, Allies would have been a perfect match, providing another growth mechanism for smaller creatures, while simultaneously providing a flavor and mechanical tie to the first two blocks.

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?

I would choose to remove the portion of rule 305.7 that states that lands which are changed to a basic land type lose their abilities generated from rules text. This rule has been a long-standing pet peeve of mine. It makes sense that a changed land would lose the mana ability from the lost land type, but the remainder of the rule seems like a clunky add-on to achieve a specific desired effect, or a holdover from the original rules.

The rule fails four tests of what makes a good rule. First, it doesn't work the same way as other type changing effects. Changing the color of a permanent or the subtype of a creature never removes abilities from that permanent. Second, it doesn't do what you expect it to do.

I believe that most players (myself included) who aren't a pro, a judge, or a rules guru are surprised the first time they find out that their Mutavault can't animate anymore because there's a Blood Moon out. Third, the card text which switches the application of the rule doesn't seem like it would have the effect that it does. The relevant line on Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth is"...they keep their other land types". If I don't already know 305.7, it's not obvious that that ability fragment distinguishes the function from a Blood Moon. Fourth, every rule should try to do as little as possible and let the cards themselves cover special cases. Magic already includes cards that rely on this rule (like Spreading Seas or Blood Moon) and those that exempt it indirectly (like Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth), better to have cards work from the simpler version of the rule and add to it when necessary, rather than the other way around. In this world, Blood Moon would read "Nonbasic lands are mountains. They lose their other abilities" and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth would remain unchanged.

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 Leyline of Anticipation is a design mistake that should never been printed (for what it's worth, I also believe that Vedalken Orrery was a mistake). While the card increases the interactivity of other individual cards, on a larger scale it decreases the interactivity between players.

Having the Leyline out gives its owner too many options, and means that they generally do not have to make meaningful choices.

This Leyline is particularly egregious because it is in blue, the color that needs it the least. Blue already has close to the most flash permanents, making it partially redundant, but that is the least of its offences. A classic Draw-Go deck running the Leyline would be able to run a much more powerful sorcery and permanent suite to support its control lock. Instant speed card drawing sorceries alone could push a deck like this over the top.

There are also challenges to balancing the card. Because it will more often than not be played for free, it's harder to tune the card using its mana cost.

Eternal formats are less of a concern for R&D, but I believe that with this card, we may begin seeing turn 0 kills in Vintage. I've played enough with it in four card blind to know how bad it can be in a degenerate format.

Giving an out to sorcery speed restrictions also cuts down on design space (by potentially preventing the design of a whole bevy of cards which would be too powerful or broken as instants), and has the lurking specter of rules issues whenever something gets played as an instant that never should be.

Finally, one of the ways to prevent abuse of a free mechanic like the Leylines is to make them answer cards rather than threats or combo pieces. This Leyline is certainly not an answer card (though it would be in green, were I would be more comfortable putting it), it is much more of an enabler for combo or a truly oppressive draw-go control deck.

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

The key to making the game accessible to new players is to find the answers to two questions: How do you make them want to play? How do you turn them into experienced players? The first brings them in, the second keeps them around.

To answer the first, the simple answer is to make the game fun. Because that's both too simple and far too complex a topic to answer here, I will highlight something specific. Create exciting moments. Excellent examples of this are Cascade and in particular Ripple. Every unknown flip off the top of the deck is a mini-adrenaline rush that feeds into the gambling centers of our monkey brains. Sometimes you get something like Cascade which is awesome at first but ends up being a little too powerful and gets old and annoying quickly. Other times you get something brilliant like Ripple. I'm a Spike/Timmy, and when I was playing the Coldsnap prerelease, the Spike part of my brain HATED ripple, but the Timmy part LOVED it. It created moment after exciting moment, even as I was hating it.

Turning new players into experienced players itself comes in two parts. The first is to create learning or A-Ha! moments. Many of these are inherent to the structure of the game, such as a player learning about instants by saving a creature from burn with a Giant Growth. You can add more of these moments by creating cards that seem bad, but become quite good when you understand a key facet of the game and realize what the card is for.

Related to A-Ha! moments, are yardsticks. Getting better at a game will make a player more invested in the game, but it's not enough to get better, a player needs to realize that they are getting better. They will get some sense of this by playing and judging their performance against others, but they will gain even more of a sense of it by understanding the game itself. To do this, you need to create cards that seem straightforward but have unexplored depths.

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

To make experienced players happy, you have to get to the core of what each psychographic profile wants.

Experienced Timmies want to experience something that they've never experienced before. They've been there and done that, so you need to go somewhere new and do it bigger than it's been done before. Pleasing the experienced Timmy is all about pushing the boundaries. Abilities and effects that have never been seen before, each one different (or failing that, bigger) than the last.

Experienced Johnnies want to be finding the gems that no one else can find. To a Johnny, each card is a puzzle, and the most satisfying puzzle is the hardest one that you can still solve. To please experienced Johnnies, you need to have puzzle cards at all different difficulty levels, from blatantly obvious to mind-numbingly obtuse. Each new level of cards that they unlock is a new layer of discovery and excitement, and as a Jonny becomes more experienced, they will be able to go back and explore the deeper veins of older sets that they missed the first time around.

Experienced Spikes want their experience to matter, and by matter, I mean help them win. There are several avenues to this goal. The first is cards that have simple choices with hidden depth. The more opportunities there are to make a good decision (or for the opponent to make a bad one), the better. Spells like Fact or Fiction are classic examples of this category. The second is to change what matters rapidly. The more experienced players will always be faster to adapt to the changing metagame. The third is to make cards that are different from but have a core commonality with old classic cards. People who have experience with the old cards and recognize the connection will be able to shortcut the learning curve on the new cards. The last I have here is to make the best individual cards be weaker than the best synergistic combinations. It is easier to recognize an individual good card than the subtler power of powerful interlinked cards.

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

The best designed mechanic in Extended is Annihilator.

It is simple and easily Grokkable. You don't need to read it twice to understand what it does.

It is mechanically flavorful. Playing with Eldrazi, you feel like they are giant gods of walking collateral damage.

It promotes attacking. Even if you're chump blocked, even if you get Condemned on the way in, you always get something out of the attack. People who would be otherwise reticent to attack with their fatty will be willing to swing in for a 4 for 1 trade, helping to open up the board.

As a corollary to this, it promotes gang blocks. Gang blocks are too rare in my opinion, because the risk is too high if your opponent has a trick, and if you don't have a trick, you're not going to attack into it. With annihilator, it's usually worth it to attack into a gang block even without a trick.

It has a good effectiveness curve. That is, the first annihilator attack will usually just hit excess land. It's the second or third hit that really hurts. That means that it can be powerful and even potentially deadly without being overly swingy, and it gives your opponent some window to react or build a defense.

It creates interesting board states and forces the game in non-typical directions. Annihilator attacks create odd states like a player might have creature advantage but almost no land. Mechanics which increase diversity of play are important.

Because it is a high end ability, a small number of cards (10 in ROE, less than 5%) have a huge impact on the feel and play of the set.

Finally, Annihilator is fun and just feels epic. You're doing something that seems more powerful than what you typically get to do in a game of magic, and even when you're getting beat back into the Stone Age with it, you go there with a smile on your face. That is a golden ticket mechanic.

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

My pick for the worst mechanic is Extended is Q, or the untap ability. While there are definitely some interesting aspects about it - for instance, I liked the implication that you often need to attack and put a card at risk to "turn on" its untap ability - there are several massive flaws that move it to the bottom of the pile. First of all, the mechanic is almost completely flavorless. A lot of effort has been expended by design and creative over the past decade and a half to make tapping and being tapped mean something. Q doesn't feel like a creature "waking up" or "becoming re-energized", it just feels like another kind of tapping with weird restrictions. This leads me to my second point, which is that Q is too obviously a Melvin mechanic designed by someone who likes pushing the boundaries of what the rules can do, and I say that as a Melvin myself, so that's pretty bad. That leads me to my third issue which is that the mechanic doesn't solve anything. It feels lik
e it's out of the box for the sake of being out of the box.

Focusing specifically on design constraints for a moment. Tapping makes an excellent cost because you can do something once, and then you have to expend a resource (either time or cards and mana) to do it again. Untapping acts less as a cost and more as a constraint on when you can activate the ability. Because of this, and to prevent the myriad of too easy two card infinite combos that would result, a mana cost had to be added to every activation. This makes every activation cost a little clunkier.

Finally, due to the hoops required to activate the ability, and the combos possible when you have a reusable tap effect, the ability is either underpowered when you don't have an enabler, or overpowered when you do, making it frustrating to one player or the other in both situations.

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

I believe that Ravnica is a plane ripe for revisitation. Because each guild was showcased in only one set, there are huge swaths of untapped design space in the evolutions of all the guild mechanics.

The core of our first visit to the plane of Ravnica was less about the specific mechanics themselves and was more about the structure that generate those mechanics (the guild structure). Therefore, my tweak on the plane will be to change the guild structure and examine the consequences from there.

As we revisit Ravnica, dissension has shattered the Guildpact. What was an uneasy pretense peace broke into open guild war. For their own reasons growing weary of the slaughter, the Nephilim rose and shattered the guilds. Having lost their structure and unable to reconvene, the denizens of the guilds scattered and eventually coalesced into communities based around single colors, bringing the knowledge of their guilds with them.

In Ravnica 2.0, the Nephilim Strike Back, we see a return towards monocolor. What each color brought to the guilds they brought back to themselves and recombined the remnants into new abilities. For example, in Green you could have a convoke like ability that brought cards back out of the graveyard, or perhaps a bloodthirst like ability that generated +1/+1 counters when damage is dealt and then shares them with other creatures.

While the "tribes" would be strictly mono-color, we would also see the presence of the Nephilim through their disciples, the only remaining multi-color cards in the world. Over the course of the block, the Nephilim (and of course, the Greater Nephilim) will be revealed and we will push from monocolor to two color to four color tribes following the Nephilim.


Part I - Show Us Your World

A. What is the name of your world?

Malgareth, the UnderPrison

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 subterranian prison that was abandoned by the world above.

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

The people of Yttria solved all their social problems by sending criminals and undesirables to a continent-sized cavern miles beneath the surface, with no method or possibility of return. Knowing that leaving evil super-geniuses to their own designs is asking for trouble, they also sent a small cadre of watchers (who volunteered for the one-way trip) to keep the prisoners from ever returning to the surface. They built mana conduits from the surface to give the watchers near limitless power and invulnerability as they wandered through the criminals. This worked for thousands of years, but a century ago, the mana conduits went dim and prisoners and replacement watchers stopped arriving. Now, the watchers have retreated to well defended enclaves. Driven by a zealous devotion to duty, they still muster sorties to break up organization among the prisoners, but where before they could wander out singly, now they send massive sorties.

The prisoners have devolved into madness, bestiality, and bloodshed. But, a few of the strongest and oldest (the last who even remember the surface), emboldened by the dimming of the mana conduits and fading of the wards, plot their return and revenge upon those who exiled them.

Meanwhile, the natives, displaced for thousands of years, have begun to crawl out of their cracks and seek to drive out their longtime invaders.

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

The denizens of Malgareth fall into three factions.

Natives are Green, Red, and to a lesser extent, Black. Green and Black natives are primarily oozes and fungi with the occasional predator and night elf farmer. They use graveyard recursion and the cycle of life and death to grind out advantage. The reclaim mechanic allows them to use graveyard resources to reuse spells. The compost mechanic uses the death of creatures as a resource, which can be harnessed for mana, strength, or reanimation.

Red natives are the goblin tribes and subterranean dragons. They use the Rage mechanic to go out in a blaze of glory trying to drive out their enemies.

Prisoners are strongest in Black, but have representatives from all colors. They operate through stealth, thievery, murder, and deception. Their primary mechanic, Grift, allows them to gain strength by stealing from others, friend or foe. Their deceptive abilities include auras that are more than what they initially appear. The strongest are focused entirely on increasing their personal power to the point that they can escape.

The watchers are White and Blue, with a small contingent of corrupted ones who fall into Black. They are vastly outnumbered soldiers, wizards, and thought police who therefore use the strengths of their enemies against them. They are all fanatics to their cause, and some have gone beyond soldiers to become missionaries and inquisitors, devoted to bringing all of the prisoners (and the natives as well) into their fold.

Part II – Show Us Your Week One Preview Cards

1. Feature Article
Initial Half
Drothar Deftblade (Mythic Rare)
Creature - Human Assassin
When CARDNAME deals combat damage to an opponent, that opponent sacrifices a creature. If they do, put a loyalty counter on CARDNAME.
When CARDNAME has two loyalty counters on it, flip it.
Flipped Half
Planeswalker - Drothar
+1: Target creature gets -2/-2
-2: You may play target creature in any graveyard as though it were in your hand.

2. Making Magic
Thought Watcher (Rare)
[Thought Watcher -
Creature - Human Wizard
Your opponents play with their hands revealed.
At the beginning of each turn, name a non-land card.
Whenever an opponent casts a spell that you named this turn, draw three cards.

3. Serious Fun
Swarm of Urchins (Rare)
[Big Dude -
Creature - Human Rogue
Grift 5 - When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, remove a counter from up to 5 permanents and put that many +1/+1 counters on CARDNAME.
1G, remove a +1/+1 counter from CARDNAME: put a 1/1 human rogue creature with Grift 1 onto the battlefield.

4. Limited Information
Turmoil in the Ranks (Uncommon)
Remove two target attacking creatures from combat. They each do damage equal to their power to the other.

5. Savor the Flavor
Faltering Mana Channel (Mythic Rare)
[Mana Channel -
(w/u), tap an untapped creature you control: Put a charge counter on CARDNAME. Play this ability only as a sorcery.
As long as there are 8 or more charge counters on CARDNAME, creatures you control get +2/+2 and have vigilance, and whenever you tap a land for mana, it adds one additional mana to your mana pool of any type that land produced.

6. Building on a Budget
Rageful End (Uncommon)
[Rageful End -
Creatures you control have Rage (whenever a creature with Rage attacks or blocks, you may give it +3/+0. If you do, sacrifice it at the end of the turn).

7. Top Decks
Re-education Camp (Rare)
CARDNAME comes into play tapped.
T: Add U to your mana pool.
U,T: Put a conversion counter on CARDNAME
U,T, remove X conversion counters from CARDNAME: Gain control of target creature with power less than or equal to X.

8. From the Lab
Fungal Rejuvinatorium (Rare)
Whenever a creature is put into a graveyard from the battlefield, put a compost counter on CARDNAME.
BG, Remove X compost counters from CARDNAME: return target creature with converted mana cost X from your graveyard to the battlefield.

9. The Week that Was
Life from the Cracks (Uncommon)
Put a 1/1 ooze creature into play for each card in your graveyard.
Reclaim 2 - Exile two cards in your graveyard to return this card from your graveyard to your hand.

10. Latest Developments
Cloak of Invulnerability (common)
Enchantment - Aura
Enchant Creature.
Enchanted creature has shroud.
Ward G - You may play CARDNAME face down as a colorless aura that gives enchanted creature +1/+1. At any time, you may pay G to turn CARDNAME face up.

Card comments
Drothar Deftblade is one of several powerful rare criminals who can dramatically increase their power over the course of the game.
Thought watcher is an example of the blue and white watchers who use their enemies abilities and hands against them. The ability is a triggered ability so that there is a window at least for instant responses.
Swarm of urchins gains significant power in a multiplayer game. And the creature creation ability enables more counter stealing and feeds into the native's sacrifice and graveyard themes. Grift's original design (which I slightly tweaked) is here
It is important to note that the Rage ability on Rageful End stacks with itself or the rage abilities on individual creatures.
Re-education camp is very slow, but potentially very powerful in a long game.
Most reclaim spells will be general utility or straightforward, but I wanted to show something a little more interesting and with some tension.
The ward ability was obviously modeled after morph. There will need to be some rules support to define a face-down card attached to a creature as a +1/+1 aura, and not a 2/2 creature. With three ward cards (granting a large P/T bonus, shroud, and a saboteur ability) it becomes an interesting mind game where your opponent doesn't know when to block or not, and whether to try to kill it with a spell or not.

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