GDS2, Episode 2: Common Ground

Posted in Feature on November 24, 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.

Welcome to Episode #2 of the Great Designer Search 2. Last episode the judges reviewed the design tests of the Final 8 and we gave them the first Design Challenge. Today we're going to be judging the submissions for that Challenge. After that, I will eliminate the first applicant, and then I'll give the remaining seven candidates the second Design Challenge. There's a lot to do, so let's get started.

I'll begin by introducing the judges for this week. I will then let the judges introduce themselves. Note that the color box the judge appears in will be the color that they will be using throughout today's show. I, for example, am in a green box.

MR: I'm not sure I need much introduction so I wanted to use my green box today to explain the vantage point that I am planning to use as a judge. There are many facets to design so I've made sure that each judge is looking at the designs with a slightly different viewpoint. The thing I am looking for is vision. As I've explained, the GDS2 is much less about card construction skills and much more about the ability to create a cohesive whole in a design. As such, I am very much monitoring how the designers are incorporating their world into their design. I'll point out other things along the way but my major focus is monitoring their vision.

Our next judge is the one other regular judge, Ken Nagle. Ken was on the other side of the judging table in the first GDS so he has his own take on GDS2.

KEN: Greetings and salutations! I'm Ken Nagle, a game designer who's been working on Magic products for the past four years. I'll be taking a more card-by-card view of the submissions. Cool cards will be praised. Bizarre cards will be critiqued! Fasten your seat belts and put on your 3D goggles—we've got eight sets and 144 new cards ahead!

Each week we're going to have two guest judges. The first guest judge will always be a designer, someone who has either led a design team or has been on a substantial amount of design teams. Tonight's design guest judge is my boss, the Director of Magic R&D, Aaron Forsythe. I'll let Aaron introduce himself and explain how he's planning to judge. Also note that due to Aaron's busy schedule, he was unable to judge each card individually but will instead judge each overall entry. Aaron was able to participate in our playtesting of the decks (more on this below).

AF: I'm Aaron Forsythe, Director of Magic R&D. I'm the guy in charge of all the designers, developers, editors, and creative team members in R&D. Over the years I have worn many hats here in the company, from Content Manager of this very website, to Designer, to Head Developer. I've done technical writing, I've written flavor text, I've written art descriptions. I played on the Pro Tour for several years, and now spend my free time building EDH decks or hanging out in the Casual Room on Magic Online. In short, I've touched just about every aspect of Magic in one way or another.

I didn't come to Wizards as a card designer and I've had to learn a ton to get where I am today. My journey began as a member of the Fifth Dawn design team, then the Ravinca and Guildpact teams. I then was lead for Dissension, later the lead for Lorwyn, and later still the lead for Alara Reborn. Ultimately I was the lead for the Magic 2010 and 2011 Core Sets. During this journey I have made every mistake in the book. I've made overly chessy mechanics that appeal only to the Spikiest of Limited players. I've made wordy, parasitic messes in misguided attempts to be flavorful. I've designed "biodome" mechanics that make little sense outside of a very controlled environment. I've ignored years of conventional wisdom at my own peril. So I definitely feel where most of you guys are coming from.

My best advice is to look at what we've done recently. Magic is currently riding a high for a variety of reasons, but they all have to do with making the game more accessible, including us recently finding a happy medium for level of complexity in sets. We aren't making mind-melting overloaded sets like Time Spiral these days. We aren't making incredibly board-complicated sets like Lorwyn. One metric that we use as part of our current arsenal is "common word count" per card. I'll pick on Jon Loucks's submission because it seemed the most egregious in this area. For recent comparison, Shards of Alara had just over seventeen words per common, Zendikar just under twenty, and Scars of Mirrodin just under seventeen (Magic 2011 had about twelve and a half, and that's including reminder text). Jon's cards average over thirty words per card, which is higher than even Future Sight —the wordiest set in at least the last five years, if not ever, and a set I consider a bit of a train wreck. Putting that many words on your cards says to me you just aren't paying attention to what's going on in Magic right now. There are things beyond word count that should stand out if your set doesn't seem quite like what you've seen from us recently, and you should really question any such deviations.

When it comes to reviewing your submissions, I'm attempting to take on the role of "average player." I haven't read your world-building summaries, as the average player wouldn't do that. Fact: I've had coworkers tell me the following things in recent years: "I didn't know Invasion was about an invasion," "I didn't know Mirage had an African-themed setting," "I couldn't tell Lorwyn and Shadowmoor were connected," and "I had no idea Odyssey and Onslaught were part of the same story." If your mechanics don't explicitly bring your story to life, many people will miss it. I consider the five shards from Alara, the "adventure world" feel of Zendikar, and the Mirran-Phyrexian War great recent examples of flavor brought to game play, and so I went into this process hoping that your sets would do similar things.

I explored your submissions by playing with the cards—two copies of each card plus 24 basic lands made for neat little 60-card decks. After playing a handful of games with and against each deck, I wrote my comments holistically as opposed to card-by-card.

In order for you to see the many different facets that designers have to care about, I'm using the second guest judge slot to include people who interact with Magic design that aren't designers. Last episode Kelly Digges talked about previews. This week, we have Matt Tabak, the Rules Manager. I'll let Matt introduce himself.

MT: Hi, I'm Matt Tabak, and I'm a Magic editor and the current Magic rules manager. I'm rarely a member of an official design or development team (although I am on the "Rattle" design team), but I work closely with each set as it makes its way through design, development, and eventually editing.

I'll be judging your cards on the basis of how likely they are to work within the current rules structure. By looking at your commons, I'll get an idea of where the set is going, and I'll hopefully be able to pinpoint specific problems or areas that will require attention. I won't be commenting on every card, and really, the less I feel I have to say to you, the better. Heck, maybe your cards will all just work. Yeah, I'm not counting on that either. But that's okay! It's my job to enable creative designs, and I'm willing to break some eggs if it means tasty omelets at the end. But I won't let the rules be pancaked by needless complexity, or bacon made of the sacred pigs of ... well, hopefully your cards go over better than my breakfast metaphor.

The Play's the Thing

The first Design Challenge asked the designers to choose a color and design all eighteen cards in common of the chosen color. (You can see the first Design Challenge here.) To get a better sense of the worlds the applicants were creating, the judges took each submission and made a deck, which consisted of two of each card plus twenty-four land. We then played the decks against one another. Winning was not the point, but rather we were trying to see how these cards played. It's one thing to look good on paper; it's another to make something people are going to want to play. Throughout tonight's judging you'll see references to these playtests.

My last caveat before jumping into the judging is I want to remind all of you that the tasks we are asking of the candidates are very hard. It's very easy to pick on the submissions when comparing them to a real set but please remember this wasn't a team of professionals working for two years, these were individual people (with some help from designers on the Wiki) doing it in five days. I feel all eight candidates did a great job with the constraints given them.

The judges, though, are holding them up to our normal high standards, as one of the reasons to do GDS2 is to let the outside world have a better sense of how we design, so be aware that we're going to come across a little harsh. Note that this isn't about the designers but about the designs themselves.

Below are the eight applicants each with their Design Challenge submission along with the judges' comments. Click on each name or avatar to see that candidate's material.

Contestants' responses appear as submitted.

After you've read what the judges have to say, click here for the first GDS2 elimination.

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