The Great Designer Search 2 Finalists

Posted in Feature on November 3, 2010

By Staff

NAME: Jonathan Woodward


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

My name is Jonathan Woodward, and I have a lifelong interest in designing and improving games. In 8th grade, I invented stats for new races in my favorite role-playing game for my friends to play. I continued through high school, where I wrote fantasy games for our TI-85 Calculators. In college, I created areas and wrote code for GizmoMUD, an online game. Since I learned to play Magic in 1994, I have designed over 80 cards, often based on the fantasy worlds of my favorite authors, and could create far more.

I have a B.S. degree in Mathematics, and a Master's in Applied Economics. Within a year, I will have completed a Ph.D. in Economics at UNC-Greensboro. Magic is a game with deep mathematical underpinnings, and my strong analytic skills have helped me anticipate possible consequences as rules have changed and cards have been added.

In my 16 years as a Magic player, I have participated in hundreds of drafts, and I play multiplayer every week. I played on the Pro Tour in Kuala Lumpur in 2008, and at one point I was ranked second in the world at Two-Headed Giant (Limited). However, perhaps the most rewarding aspect of Magic for me has been the over two dozen tournaments I ran while working at a hobby shop. At those tournaments, averaging 15-20 participants, I had the opportunity to interact with a variety of players, including many just learning to understand the game. Fostering their development as players formed an inherently rewarding process of contributing to the survival of the game itself.

I believe these experiences combine to provide an excellent preparation for the design of Magic cards. I greatly enjoy the fantasy traditions behind Magic, and I am comfortable with the probabilities and numerical interactions that underlie the game. My extended duration as a Magic player has given me familiarity with a great many cards and formats. Finally, my experiences in creating games have supplied a ready intuition for the factors that make a game interesting and fun.

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.

In Magic, each of the five colors has abilities, or at least combinations of abilities, that are unique. Only Black can efficiently eliminate large creatures (Doom Blade), only Green can easily wipe out both artifacts and enchantments (Naturalize), and only Blue can stop all types of permanent spells (Into the Roil and Cancel). But wait... White can do all of these, with Journey to Nowhere, Revoke Existence, and Oblivion Ring, among many other powerful and efficient cards. For as long as Magic has existed, White has a history of treading on other colors' toes and doing almost everything. This can be corrected.

The ability to destroy enchantments should be moved from White to Black. This is logical from both a flavor and gameplay perspective. From a flavor perspective, Black is the color of death and endings, among other things. Enchantments are an ongoing flow of magical energy, almost alive - and Black kills things that are alive. Black also hates White and Green, the colors that have historically benefitted from enchantments. White, on the other hand, values and supports enchantments. In the current Extended format, there are four White cards that reward playing non-aura enchantments, including the powerful Idyllic Tutor; no other color has even a single card. The great majority of the cards benefitting from auras are also White. Does it really make sense for the color that most values enchantments to be destroying them?

Mechanically, White's ability to destroy enchantments simply adds to the list of aspects that make it difficult to distinguish White from Green, the other enchantment-destroying color. In Black, however, enchantment destruction would look very different than in Green. Instead of the perennial "Destroy Target Artifact or Enchantment," Black would have "Destroy Target Enchantment or Creature," or perhaps, "Destroy Target Non-Artifact Permanent," adding another answer to Planeswalkers to the environment, without needing to refer to then by name. This also creates pleasant symmetry between Green, Red, and Black, as each is then unable to handle exactly one type of permanent.

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?

Kamigawa block described the invasion of the spirit world into the mortal plane of Kamigawa, and the mechanics of this block represented that effect very well. First, a complete mortal world was described; human samurai and fox clerics in White, wizards and flying moonfolk in Blue, rat rogues and ninjas in Black, goblins and ogre shamen in Red, and monks and snake warriors in Green. That could have been the entire plane; each had their own mechanics. However, to this mix was added the spirits. The spirits were united in their theme and mechanics; soulshift, arcane, spiritcraft, and splice all announced how alien the spirits were, and how their magic did not work like that of the mortal plane. Even as the spirits and mortals battled for control of Kamigawa, in a Limited card pool, the spirit and mortal cards battled for control of which way the deck would go.

Unfortunately, this superb depiction of Kamigawa's Asian flavor in Magic had some flaws in terms of integration into Magic as a whole. As far as tribes go, foxes and moonfolk are supported nowhere else in Magic, and at the time, snakes and spirits had very little support either. Similarly, spells with Splice onto Arcane were stranded - other Arcane spells from Kamigawa were the only cards they could ever expect to be combined with. Samurai and ninjas, bushido and ninjitsu are also largely unconnected to anything else in Magic.

Although each block has insular mechanics, Kamigawa was full of them. The implementation could have been improved by reducing this number, while maintaining the Asian flavor as well as possible. It has been suggested that splice could have worked with all instants and sorceries, not just arcane (or perhaps an artifact to make them all arcane). Moonfolk could have been aven or vedalken without significantly altering the story. Finally, bushido and ninjitsu on soldiers, knights, rogues, and assassins with appropriate names might adequately convey samurai and ninja flavor.

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 suggest eliminating the end of turn step, which lends itself to counterintuitive tactics that often prove frustrating to new players. At the beginning of the end step, many effects, intended to last exactly one turn, trigger. Some of these, such as the creatures created by Mimic Vat, are meant to represent effects or creatures that last exactly one turn. Others, such as Bloodchief Ascension, keep a tally as to whether or not a particular event has happened during a turn. However, since at the beginning of the end step triggers happen at only one time, players can put off such a trigger for a turn, or even forever, by waiting until later in the end step to play spells and abilities. For example, activating Mimic Vat after the beginning of an opponent's end step, then again on your own turn, gives two tokens at the same time. Taking damage after the beginning of the end step will never add counters to Bloodchief Ascension. These maneuvers can blindside and frustrate newer players, and often prove annoying to more experienced players as well.

Instead of the end of turn step, I propose that any end of turn abilities would trigger when all players pass priority in the second main phase, putting the active player back into his second main phase. If this happens, then when priority is passed again, new end of turn abilities will trigger, but abilities that have already triggered will not trigger again. This ensures that there is no longer an ambiguous time in the turn that is somehow "safe" from end of turn effects. It also eliminates the "at the end of your turn, I cast X" maneuver, since the active player will now have the option of playing sorcery speed effects in his second main phase after any spell an opponent casts. This should increase interactivity, and add strategic depth when deciding the optimal time to play an instant spell or ability.

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?

Emrakul, the Aeons Torn is a card that should not have been printed. At a glance, it is the most powerful and the most expensive creature ever seen. Emrakul, the Aeons Torn is very splashy and exciting, and that is good; however, it also has a few important flaws. The largest one is this: when someone's trying to play a big, powerful creature, what do they play? Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, of course - it's the biggest and the nastiest. This reduces deck variety, especially because Emrakul, the Aeons Torn is a colorless creature and can go into any deck. This problem is particularly acute in a slower, casual format, such as Elder Dragon Highlander. When playing casually with new people, a significant fraction of games come down to this same creature annihilating everything and winning the game, and that just gets repetitive.

In addition to the prevalence of Emrakul, the Aeons Torn being a problem, it also has a few abilities that reduce interactivity. The most obvious, of course, is protection from colored spells; of course that makes Emrakul, the Aeons Torn harder to deal with. Even more troublesome, however, are Emrakul, the Aeons Torn's other two unique abilities: taking an extra turn, and annihilator 6. Taking an extra turn frequently means that there is no opportunity to play an answer to Emrakul, the Aeons Torn; it attacks and annihilates before sorceries or enchantments can be cast. Annihilator 6, meanwhile, is a problem in casual multiplayer games - exactly the place where Emrakul, the Aeons Torn is already excessively prevalent! Because annihilator triggers when attackers are declared, there is no opportunity to defend against it, other than killing Emrakul, the Aeons Torn as soon as it is cast. However, killing creatures as soon as they are cast is exactly what a player cannot do in multiplayer, due to insufficient resources. This makes Emrakul, the Aeons Torn even harder to stop than it would be otherwise.

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

New players have three main obstacles to entering Magic. The game is tremendously complex, many of the best cards are very expensive, and it can be difficult to find people with whom to play. Tips and Tricks cards not withstanding, helping people to find opponents is outside the scope of Magic design. Complexity and cost, however, are two factors that design can influence. Complexity can be reduced in many ways, including reminder text, and keeping cards with complicated abilities at rare and mythic rare. The cost for newer players, on the other hand, can be reduced by making sure that viable deck archetypes exist which use primarily commons, uncommons, and narrow rares unlikely to reach high prices.

An example of an archetype which has classically been inexpensive is mono-Red burn. Before the creation of mythic rares, the most expensive cards in Standard were multi-colored lands, and before the advent of landfall, mono-Red didn't need anything besides Mountains. Burn spells and cheap creatures are typically common and uncommon, and the few rare finishers, such as Ball Lightning, that go into mono-Red typically fit into no other deck. Similarly, tribal decks, such as Elves and Merfolk, have often been inexpensive, because most of the creatures are common and uncommon, and tribal rares are narrow. Placing simple but powerful engine cards at uncommon can also facilitate an inexpensive deck; Lightning Rift is an example of such a card in the past, and apart from fetch lands, Furnace Celebration may lead to relatively inexpensive decks in the present.

In general, there is no particular reason that burn decks need to be cheap; planeswalkers like Koth of the Hammer are both appropriate at mythic rarity and fit well into a mono-Red deck. However, the existence of archetypes which rely upon commons and uncommons, as well as powerful but narrow rares, make the game more accessible to new players, and so design should make an effort to ensure that such archetypes can exist.

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

Experienced players are looking for two main things when they play Magic: a fun game, and the opportunity to show their skills. There are many things that design can do to make the game fun. In order for a player to be able to use his or her skills, however, one thing is critical: the ability to make meaningful choices, whether in card selection and deck building, or in while playing the game. A typical game of Magic already has many choices built in, so the area where design has the most control over a player's options is when that player selects cards for his or her deck.

In order for a player to have a variety of options when choosing and building a deck, the format needs to be filled with "tier two" cards and decks, rather than "tier one". This means that instead of one card being clearly better than others at a role, there should instead be several choices, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. For example, Jund is a recent deck filled with mostly tier two cards. People playing Jund might select Broodmate Dragon as the finisher for power, Siege-Gang Commander for versatility, or Sarhkan the Mad because of the difficulty involved in answering both him and his dragons at the same time.

The important issue in this situation is that there be possible substitutes for a card. Broodmate Dragon is a good example, because as a big creature, there are other possible big creatures. Five-color control sometimes played Broodmate Dragon and sometimes Baneslayer Angel, because, although different, they filled essentially the same role. On the other hand, Primeval Titan, Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, Cryptic Command, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor are all poor cards for a tier two environment, because there are no viable substitutes. No other creatures can find as many lands as Primeval Titan, Emrakul, the Aeons Torn the Aeons Torn is far larger and more deadly than other creatures, and Cryptic Command and Jace, the Mind Sculptor are both more versatile and on a higher power level than any other similar spells.

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

Of all of the mechanics currently in Extended, the changeling mechanic has the best design. The ability itself is very simple and elegant; a creature or tribal spell has all creature types. However, the existence of cards with this ability allows for many, many extra interactions and deck-building approaches. That can be as simple as adding more creatures to an otherwise neglected tribe. Unicorn decks have long been in need of the assistance. Changelings can also fill holes in a more substantial but lopsided tribe; for example, Fire-belly Changeling is important support in a dragon deck running Crucible of Fire. This hole-filling role is particularly relevant in the case of tribal instants, such as Nameless Inversion and Crib Swap.

In a more sophisticated usage, changeling can facilitate decks that would otherwise be almost impossible. For example, decks that support multiple tribes can be built, such as archer druids, or cleric knights. Finally, this can be taken a step further, into changeling tribal decks, running assorted lords, and special spells and lands like Griffin Canyon. These uses also all apply to decks built for Limited tournaments. In Lorwyn Limited, changelings helped ensure that there will be enough creatures available of any given type. Beyond that, they could do double duty as kithkin-giants, or goblin-elementals. That made Limited deckbuilding much more interesting and less linear than it might otherwise have been.

However, it is important to keep in mind the danger of the changeling mechanic as well as its benefits. Although it is awesome when used judiciously, both the quantity and the power level of changeling spells must be kept in check. If they are not, then changelings risk forcing out most of the legitimate members of a given tribe.

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

Of all of the mechanics currently in Extended, kinship is one of the worst. If the top card of the controller's library matches a creature type with the kinship creature, the controller gets a beneficial effect. In theory, this is exciting! In practice, however, there are two problems. The first problem is that the mechanic is very linear; instead of playing cards because they're fun, or good, a player needs to play them because they share a creature type with his or her kinship cards.

The second problem with kinship is that the card checked is the same card the controller is about to draw. Assuming that the controller has accepted the linear nature of the mechanic, most of the cards in his or her deck that don't share the kinship creature type are likely to be lands. Therefore, once the player has enough lands, failing to have kinship trigger is likely to be followed by failing to draw a useful spell. This leads to players feeling bad; they see the lands they are about to draw, but can't do anything about it.

The kinship mechanic could have been strengthened if it included a way not to draw the card if it did not trigger kinship. For example, the mechanic could have read, "At the beginning of your upkeep, you may look at the top card of your library. You may then reveal it. If it shares a creature type with [this], do [that], otherwise, put it on the bottom of your library." Although this mechanic would have competed to some degree with clash, it would make kinship more interesting and more fun.

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

An interesting plane to return to would be Mercadia. In the past, only a single set, Mercadian Masques, was set on this plane, so there is plenty of room to explore places and flavor. In particular, many of the tribes, including merfolk and goblins, are ones that design is encouraging, and dryads could be an interesting tribe to add support for, as Green otherwise has a relative shortage of sentient races. However, as a mechanical twist, I think that spellshaping has potential as a mechanic to modify.

The spellshaper mechanic involves each spellshaper possessing a single spell, which is copied by paying the mana cost and discarding a card. I think that spellshaping could be expanded into a more versatile mechanic, spellbearing. Spellbearing would function much like imprint; when a spellbearer enters the battlefield, its controller would exile an instant or sorcery card in his or her hand, and attach it to that spellbearer. The legal characteristics of such a card would depend upon the spellbearer. For example, there could be a 2/2 spellbearer for 2G, who removes a Green instant with converted mana cost 2 or less. That creature would then have the ability to tap, discard a card, and pay the mana cost of the exiled spell in order to play a copy of it.

Although that is the vanilla spellbearer ability, there could be more sophisticated tweaks. For example, a spellbearer might get +1/+1 for each White mana symbol on the exiled card. Other spellbearers might give you the opportunity to cast their exiled cards when the spellbearer is put into the graveyard. Although this ability might lead to repetitive game states, the cost of discarding a card and relative fragility of creatures should keep that risk in check.


Part I - Show Us Your World

A. What is the name of your world?

The plane of Golamo.

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.

Geysers of pure mana have grown small creatures large, and suffuse the world with enchantment.

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

Golamo was once a plane much like any other, destined to be ruled by humans, goblins, and elves. However, in prehistoric times, vast currents of mana, built up beneath the surface of the plane, began erupting as geysers of concentrated mana. These geysers had the greatest influence upon the smallest creatures, and those creatures grew large, and some became intelligent. Golamo is now ruled by the sentient ants of the Graforman Empire, who war with the Vax barbarian rat tribes and the mysterious and deadly Kohmorr bat people. The secretive Thamarach spiders remain aloof, spinning webs of enchantment from the mystical energy the geysers still spew into the air.

The fate that Golamo might have had is not entirely lost, however. In pools of water, reflective surfaces, and the shimmering spray of the geysers, one can sometimes see beings who look much like the elves and goblins, demons and angels of other planes. Both Graforman and Kohmorr researchers believe that these are the creatures that might have been, and seek ways to give them form and gain their aid in this conflict. (This will happen in the second set.)

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

The flavor of Golamo is represented by its mechanics in two main ways.

First, the most striking aspect of Golamo is the flows of magic that circulate and cling to living things. This mana that the geysers spray into the air gives Golamo and its residents a particular affinity for enchantments. This is represented by a large quantity of auras in the set, many of which include the Incarnate keyword, which allows creature enchantments to be cast as stand-alone creatures. The Thamarach and their Graforman pupils interact with auras as well through the Favored ability, which can give them auras when they enter the battlefield. Some Kohmorr wizards have the ability to move auras around, as well.

On the other hand, the rapacious nature of rats, ants, and other (formerly) small creatures is represented by the Swarm and Hunger abilities. Swarm is a creature ability that functions much like Banding on offense, and makes it difficult to stop small creatures with the ability from eventually overwhelming the defenders. Hunger, on the other hand, is a keyword that exists on Instants and Sorceries, and consumes a creature you control in order to copy the spell. The Vax often have abilities which trigger upon a creature being sacrificed to Hunger, while some Kohmorr benefit from dealing combat damage to an opponent.

Part II – Show Us Your Week One Preview Cards

1. Arathori, the Spellspinner (mythic rare)
Legendary Creature - Spider Wizard
Favored, Favored (When Arathori enters the battlefield, look at the top three cards of your library. You may attach an Aura card from among them to Arathori. Put the rest on the bottom of your library in any order. Then do it again.)
Other creatures you control have Favored.

2. Graforman Commander (rare)
Creature - Insect Soldier
Trample, Swarm (Whenever a creature is declared to block Graforman Commander, it also blocks all other attacking creatures with Swarm. You choose the order in which the blocking creature deals damage to them.)
Whenever Graforman Commander attacks, put a 1/1 green Insect creature token with Trample and Swarm onto the battlefield tapped and attacking.

3. Hamaliss, Watcher of the Winds (mythic rare)
Creature - Bat Wizard
1UB: Gain control of target Aura, and attach it to target permanent. (The new target must be legal.)

4. Essence of Fear (common)
Enchantment - Aura
Enchant Creature
Enchanted creature gets +1/+1 and has Intimidate.
Incarnate: 1B (Pay 1B and exile this card from your hand to put a 0/0 colorless Weird creature token onto the battlefield, then put this card onto the battlefield attached to that token. Activate this ability only any time you could cast a sorcery.)

5. Blantoor, the Unpredictable Geyser (mythic rare)
[Unpredictable Geyser -
Legendary Land
T: Reveal the top card of your library. If that card is a land, add 3 to your mana pool, otherwise add 1 to your mana pool. Put the revealed card on the bottom of your library.

6. Favored Selection (uncommon)
[Favored Selection -
Search your library for an Aura card and reveal it, then shuffle your library and put the card third from the top. Draw a card.

7. Patarvali, the Uprooted (mythic rare)
[Treehugger -
Planeswalker ? Patarvali
+2: Search your library for a Forest card, and put it onto the battlefield.
-3: Add G to your mana pool for each land you control.
-7: Forests you control are 4/4 Green Treefolk creatures, in addition to their other types.

8. Gift of the Geysers (rare)
Legendary Artifact
Whenever an Aura is put into your graveyard from the battlefield, you may return it to your hand.

9. Essence of Leadership (uncommon)
[Essence of Leadership -
Enchantment - Aura
Enchant Creature
Enchanted creature and all other creatures you control that share a creature type with it get +2/+2.
Incarnate: (Pay 1WW and exile this card from your hand to put a 0/0 colorless Weird creature token onto the battlefield, then put this card onto the battlefield attached to that token. Activate this ability only any time you could cast a sorcery.)

10. Devouring Flame (rare)
Devouring Flame deals damage to target player equal to the number of creatures you control.
Hunger (You may sacrifice a creature. If you do, copy this spell. You may choose a new target for the copy.)

Commentary: These cards begin with the wise spider Arathori, an important character in the story, who showcases both the unusual races of the set, and uses Favored to hint at the mechanical focus on auras and enchantment. Later cards demonstrate the other three keywords of the set (Swarm, Incarnate, and Hunger), as well as two more of the four main creature types (Insect and Bat, but not Rat). They also hint at the Graforman proclivity for producing creature tokens, and the Kohmorr desire to steal the auras which the Thamarach spin. Space concerns, and a desire to present cards in a logical order, mean that players have yet to be introduced to the rat-like Vax tribes and their connection with the Hunger ability. The Graforman tribal nature, as well as Kohmorr saboteur abilities, are also as-yet undisclosed.

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