GDS2, Episode 1: "Let's Start at the Very Beginning"

Posted in Feature on November 10, 2010

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

We began with over one thousand applicants all vying for the chance to become Magic's next design intern. When the dust settled, eight remained. We introduced them to you last week. This week we'll begin putting them through their paces. We are going to start by having the judges take a look at all the finalist's design tests. Then we will tell them (as well as all of you) what the first Design Challenge is going to be.


Before we do that though, I'd like to start by introducing you to our judges:


As with the first Great Designer Search, this is first and foremost a job application. The intern position reports to me so it will be my ultimate call who gets the job. If we use an Apprentice metaphor for our reality show, I'm Donald Trump. For those who somehow have no idea who I am (if so, you're really not trying; I strongly urge you to read my Making Magic column), my name is Mark Rosewater and I am the Head Designer for Magic. I've worked on Magic for fifteen years and am currently leading my fifteenth design ("Rattle," the winter set of 2012). Recent sets I've done include Scars of Mirrodin and Zendikar. My judging comments will be on a green background.

That said, I like having a lot of input from other designers and various Wizards folk. As such, I will have a panel of judges help me each week to review the work of the remaining applicants. The one constant judge will be Ken Nagle who was one of the finalists in the first Great Designer Search. Other than myself, Ken does more Magic design than anyone else in R&D. (Brian Tinsman does give him a run for his money though.) Here's Ken in his own words: (Ken's comments will be on a red background; note that KEN is actually Ken's initials.)

KEN: Hi, I'm Ken Nagle. After participating in the Great Designer Search, I was eventually hired full-time and for the past four years I've worked on these TCG products:

  • Lead Design: Worldwake, Archenemy, "Action," "Bedlam," and "Hook" (Magic); "Moe," "Earth," and "Shoulders" (Duel Masters)
  • Design: Morningtide, Eventide, Shards of Alara, Conflux, Zendikar, Mirrodin Besieged, Magic 2012
  • Development: Eventide, Magic 2011, "Shake"

Some of my favorite Magic cards I've designed include:

In Magic R&D culture, we respect each other. You can sell your babies in an open forum and everyone, even our Vice President, will listen. We bash ideas, not their creators. I have bad ideas. Mark Rosewater has MANY bad ideas and no one sees them. Why? We kill the ugly babies before they leave the assembly line through ruthless quality control. You must be prepared to defend your babies from scathing critique and crushing banhammers. Magic R&D is an ugly baby-killing factory.

I pour my passion into our products. I hope you return in kind.

My critiques will come from a slightly different perspective than MaRo's—I'll be pretending the cards are being submitted to me as though I'm the lead designer of their set/block/world. I've had experience recently with first time designers on Magic products I've lead designed, and it's the easiest method for me to give feedback.

Each week I will also have one or two guest judges that will join us. I am trying to involve as many of the people who work on Magic design as I can. Our first guest judge for this week is Alexis Janson, the winner of the first Great Designer Search. Her internship led her to a full-time position at Wizards just not one in R&D. Alexis is a Senior Lead Developer of Magic Online and, among other things, she is responsible for overseeing the team that codes all the online cards. In addition to that full workload, Alexis still finds time to be on numerous design teams including Eventide, Shards of Alara, Alara Reborn, and Scars of Mirrodin. Alexis is also going to be leading the spring set of 2013 codenamed "Sinker." (You'll never guess what the middle set is called.) Here's Alexis in her own words: (Alexis's comments will be on a blue background.)

AJ: Hi, I'm Alexis Janson, winner of the first GDS, and I'll be one of your guest judges today. Now seems as good an opportunity as any to say that participating in the last GDS was a blast, all the way from writing the first essay to The Finish Line. I sincerely hope everyone participating has as much fun as I did, and I wish the best of luck to our eight remaining contestants as well as all the hard-working wiki gnomes out there. I look forward to working with our eventual winner.

Magic may be an intellectual game, and Magic development is certainly very analytically oriented, but in my experience—Magic design is all about emotion. How will I feel when I open this card in a pack? How will I feel when I play it? How will I feel when my opponent plays it? How likely am I to mess up with this card, and how will that feel? Our goal is to make sure that every stage of the Magic experience is as emotionally satisfying as possible—from opening up boosters to winning and especially losing.

When looking at a Magic card, ask yourself: In which situations will I enjoy this, and in which situations will I be miserable? Over time, R&D has identified myriad traits that lean one way or the other. When we talk about variance, hidden information, "stupid mistakes," on-board complexity, flavor in design, or elegance, we are summarizing a trait that we believe increases or decreases the overall enjoyment of Magic. If you want to succeed at Magic design, this should be your single, most important goalpost: "Is this fun?" This mindset is how I first approach any new card or mechanic, and will be the primary way I'll be approaching card evaluations today.

Our second guest judge of the week is Kelly Digges. Kelly is the editor-in-chief of and for a while was the writer of the Serious Fun column. He'll be examining the applicants' choices for which preview card they put into each column. Here's Kelly, in his own words: (Kelly's comments will be on a orange background.)

KD: Although I'm not a member of R&D, I spend a fair amount of time in the Pit, and I've been on multiple R&D teams: design for Worldwake and Archenemy, development for Magic 2012, templating for "Bedlam," and another design team currently in progress. I'm known around R&D for having strong opinions, and also (at least by some R&D members) for being overly negative about weird new designs that offend my sense of aesthetics.

For the purposes of this exercise, I stuffed both of those qualities in the trunk of my car and tossed them off a bridge. I'm not here as an occasional card designer, an opinionated member of R&D's extended family, or even a Magic player. I'm here as the editor of Daily MTG, to evaluate whether each card fits the column to which it was assigned, and whether the preview cards as a whole do a good job of communicating the implied Magic set and getting readers excited about it.

As such, you'll be reading a number of mild-mannered comments from me today, in the vein of "This is a good Building on a Budget preview" or "I like this card, but not for Making Magic." R&D designers don't necessarily think about preview cards directly, but the larger question of "How will we sell this set?" is as crucial to good design as "Will this be fun to play?" And, as Ken notes, the job of selling the set starts inside the building, way before the public ever sees it, and a designer needs to be conscious of that.

Design Up Ahead

Before we jump into the judging, there are a few things I'd like to say. First, while this event is structured like a reality show there is one huge difference. Our goal is to hire the best applicant for the job. Each week we'll be reviewing and cutting one of the applicants (although not today as today we're reviewing the design tests and not an actual design challenge). Rather than cut the person that makes the most sensational show, we'll be cutting the person who, through the conglomeration of all their work, has shown to be the weakest. This means that an applicant could have an off week, do the worst of the assigned challenge yet still not be the one cut.

Next, I want to stress that what we are asking of the applicants is hard—very, very, very hard. We are putting them through their paces as a means to test them. To do this we are asking things of them in a time frame that would never actually happen in real design. What they did for the design test is the kind of thing design spends a year on. So please remember that when you review their work. They are not the polished cards you are used to seeing because they did not have a team of designers and then a team of developers and editors and many others spend two years on them.

I talked last week about how the GDS2 is looking for a slightly different skill set than GDS1. The key trait we are looking for is vision. What this means is that we selected a Top 8 that created worlds that had great potential. The judging is to help them find that potential. The vast majority of what was turned in, as you will see, was not the best execution of the ideas.

This is typical of designing a new world. Many of the things you try first are not what you end up doing. While the applicants are tied to the world they submitted, they are not at all tied to the execution of the world. Another way to look at it is the theme must stay but the mechanics and cards can change. Note by theme I mean the theme of the world, not the mechanical theme. A lot of today's judging is going to be about how to start figuring out what worked and what didn't and what needs to change. No one hit the ball out of the park. Everyone is going to have to, in many ways, start over.

Enough of the generalities, let's get to the specifics. (Note that I'm going to be talking a little more than the rest of the judges as I'm making sure that each finalist gets notes not just on their cards but on their overall vision.)

Click on each designer's name or avatar to read the design tests and the judges' comments.

Are You Up To The Challenge?

Whew! This article is getting in at just under 45,000 words. (Congrats to all of you who read all of it.) That was a lot of judging, but we all felt strongly that we wanted to give the finalists as much ammo as we could to help them make a great set.

I'm curious on how all of you feel about the judging. Were we too harsh? Not harsh enough? What could the judges do in future weeks to improve the GDS2? Join us in the thread or drop me an email and let us know. Your feedback will affect future shows.

Now it's time to see the first Design Challenge. The finalists are getting it right now along with all of you. Remember that they are going to need your help. (The link to the Magic Wiki is right here.)

Join us a week from now when we'll reveal the Top 8's work on the first Design Challenge and then a week later when the judges give our feedback and the first applicant is eliminated.

With that out of the way, let's go see the first Design Challenge.

Click here.

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