GDS2 Finals Coverage

Posted in Feature on March 7, 2011

By Kelly Digges

Kelly Digges has had many roles at Wizards over the years, including creative text writer, R&D editor, website copyeditor, lead website editor, Serious Fun column author, and design/development team member on multiple sets.

Welcome to the final day of the Great Designer Search 2! After three rounds of initial selection, 1,120 original submissionists were winnowed down to eight contestants. After five rounds of grueling design competition—and something like 100,000 words of meaty design discussion here on—those eight were reduced to just three finalists: Ethan Fleischer, Shawn Main, and Scott Van Essen.

Now, the finalists are here at Wizards of the Coast headquarters in Renton for an intensive rotation of interviews, lunch with the contestants from the original GDS currently working at Wizards, and a live design challenge. On the line is the Holy Grail for armchair Magic designers everywhere: a six-month design internship in Magic R&D.

To read more about the GDS2 so far, check out the new GDS2 landing page.


Monday, 10:30 a.m. – The Tour

by Kelly Digges

The final day of the Great Designer Search 2 has begun! But before the competition gets underway, it's time to give the three finalists a taste of the working life here at Wizards—the life one of them will be leading when the dust settles.

Scott Van Essen, left, and Ethan Fleischer, right, tower over Mark Rosewater and Shawn Main.

Mark lays out the schedule for the finalists.

A justifiably proud Mark Rosewater shows off some of the industry awards Magic and Wizards of the Coast have won over the years.

Checking out the hallway murals, which feature art from Magic, Dungeons & Dragons, Axis & Allies, RoboRally, and other Wizards games.

Elaine Chase, Magic brand director, chats with the Great Designers.

Why hello, Magic Pro Tour Hall of Famer Mike Turian! Fancy meeting you here!

The present GDS meets the past: shaking hands with Graeme Hopkins, who took third place in the original Great Designer Search and now works in the Technology department.

The Goblin King statue on the third floor. As Shawn points out, with the glasses he bears an uncanny resemblance to Hunter S. Thompson.

Where the Magic happens: The finalists check out some uncut Duel Masters sheets in the proofing room—after Mark checks to make sure it's clear of Magic spoilers. After that, it's on to the famous Art Wall near the creative team, where…

…naturally, the art from upcoming sets has been taken down, probably in preparation for this very tour. Mark does his best to pantomime how awesome this usually looks.

Checking out the uncut Beta sheets.

Eyes on the prize: When all is said and done, one of the three finalists will sit in this room, at this desk, in Magic R&D. "What, we don't get a chair with wheels?" Scott Van Essen laughs. "You have to earn those," explains Mark, grinning. He's probably joking. Probably.

Magic rules manager Matt Tabak in his natural habitat, with senior editor Del Laugel in the background.

Director of Magic R&D Aaron Forsythe, future grandboss of one of the three finalists.

The Pit, in all its messy glory. After a brief Pit tour, it's time to head over to the creative team's concept art wall, where…

…naturally, the concept art from upcoming sets has been taken down, again probably in preparation for this very tour. Scott Van Essen works up some enthusiasm anyway.

Checking out some of R&D's fan mail with Aaron Forsythe.

Now, at last, it's off to the interviews, which the three finalists will rotate through over the next three hours.

The management interview panel: From left to right, senior editor Del Laugel, Magic producer and original GDS contestant Mark Globus, Magic R&D director Aaron Forsythe, and Magic digital R&D's Ken Troop.

Shawn Main with the development interview panel: Hall of Famer Mike Turian (currently working in Organized Play), Hall of Famer and development manager Dave Humpherys, and developer Erik Lauer.

Ethan Fleischer talks with the design interview panel: Creative director Brady Dommermuth, head designer Mark Rosewater, and designer and GDS1 finalist Ken Nagle.

Monday, 2:15 p.m. – You Guess the Card

by Kelly Digges

The GDS2 interview gauntlet is over! Among many other tough questions, each finalist faced a rather unconventional test from GDS1 finalist Ken Nagle: Guess the Card.

Ken described it as a "rite of passage" for GDS finalists, and explained that director of Magic R&D Aaron Forsythe had given the same test to the finalists in the original Great Designer Search. The goal is to test depth and breadth of Magic card knowledge—far from the only important criterion at work, but not entirely trivial either.

It works like this: There's a laptop set up in the room. With neither Ken nor the finalist being interviewed able to see the screen, somebody hits the "random card" button on Gatherer—the very same random card button Aaron uses to generate Aaron's Random Card Comment of the Day—and reads the name of this randomly generated card.

The finalist is then asked to give the card's mana cost, rules text, card type, and power/toughness (if applicable). If the finalist doesn't know or gets it wrong, Ken gets to take a crack at it.

Test your Magic knowledge against Ken and the GDS2 finalists—can you remember each card's vital statistics before mousing over to see it?

Ethan Fleischer

Ethan: Norwood Ranger, Mahamoti Djinn
Ken: Centaur Veteran, Shallow Grave

Ethan 2, Ken 2

Shawn Main

Shawn: Sacred Mesa, Barbed Sliver, Clockwork Beast, Dimir Aqueduct
Ken: Never got a chance to answer!

Shawn 4, Ken 0

Scott Van Essen

Scott: Bloodghast, ~Brushland (described Savannah)
Ken: Jeweled Amulet, Earth Elemental, Voidmage Apprentice

Scott 1.5, Ken 3

While discussing this exercise at lunch, Ken mentioned that neither he nor Scott had been able to get Pavel Maliki. Aaron Forsythe held up a hand and thought for a second.

"That's a 4BR 5/3, isn't it? With ... BR: +1/+0."

Pavel Maliki

That's why he's the boss!

Monday, 3 p.m. – Lunch with the Great Designers

by Kelly Digges

After the battery of interviews, the three GDS2 finalists settled in for lunch with the four original GDS competitors who now work at Wizards and a few other members of Magic R&D. They chatted with one another and with the original Great Designers about the interviews, their worlds, and the differences between the two Great Designer searches.

As director of Magic R&D, Aaron Forsythe gets first pick of the sandwiches, obviously.

When the topic of the first GDS's judging came up, Scott—who was also a competitor in the original GDS—said that he was sad not to see the mysterious "Gleemax" (the snarky, anonymous voice of R&D) as a judge this time around.

Mark Rosewater explained that he'd talked to a lot of people about it and made the call not to bring Gleemax back. At the time, he said, "a lot of people felt like it was at the expense of the designers." When he interviewed the Wizards employees who were in the first GDS, "in general the people who were involved in it liked Gleemax," because it cut through the niceties and told the participants, "Do this! Just ... do this!" But outside the building, Mark said, he got a lot more feedback that "Gleemax just seemed mean."

All three finalists had good things to say about the judging they'd been given this time around: specific, critical, useful feedback that let them improve their designs.

Clockwise from bottom left: Mark Globus, Shawn Main, Graeme Hopkins, Ken Nagle, Alexis Janson, and Scott Van Essen.

One of the major differences between the first and second GDS was that this time around, each contestant chose one set concept to design in. All of the challenges referenced that original set idea. When asked whether they ever felt trapped by the choices they'd already made, Ethan and Shawn answered strongly in the affirmative.

"Yeah," said Ethan, laughing, "when I got the critique for my design test and Mark told me I should completely start over making my world."

"I had the same sort of thing," Shawn piped in. "It was such a sense of panic that first day, like—'Oh, you liked that thing in the background so much more. What can I take with me?' "

Scott, however, said that he never felt too constrained, having worked on the basic concept of his set design on his own time during the original GDS.

Clockwise from bottom left: Aaron Forsythe, Ethan Fleischer, Mark Globus, Shawn Main, and Mark Rosewater.

During lunch, a steady stream of other Magic R&D members trickled into the room to say hi, so the finalists got a chance to meet developer Tom LaPille, designer Brian Tinsman, and Mark Gottlieb, among others.

Lunch was winding down, but there was one more thing to do before splitting up again. With everybody here, a natural photo op presented itself: Two generations of GDS competitors in one place.

After lunch, it's on to the final Design Challenge!

Monday, 5:45 p.m. – The Final Design Challenge

by Kelly Digges

The tour is long done. The interviews are over. The sandwiches are eaten. The small talk has petered out. Now it's time for the last—and maybe toughest—thing standing between these three finalists and the end of the Great Designer Search 2: the final Design Challenge.

For this Design Challenge, the finalists left behind the world concepts they worked with throughout the rest of the competition in favor of a Challenge where their work could be more directly compared. Instead, they went back to the future—Future Sight, that is.

The scenario is this: These three designers are the Future Sight design team. It's very late in development, and they've been informed that the card Steamflogger Boss is being cut from the set. This is similar to the final Design Challenge of the previous GDS, which asked the contestants to take on the role of the Urza's Destiny design team and find a replacement for the card Opposition, but in some ways this design has even more constraints.

Whip the Xs! Pinch the Os! What they're building, no one knows!—but they've got an hour to figure it out.

When a card is cut late in development, the replacement card has to fit exactly the same slot: same art, same color, same rarity, and even the same collector number—meaning that it has to fall in the same place when the set is sorted by color and then alphabetically by name. The additional constraint here is that Steamflogger Boss was a "timeshifted" card. The replacement card needs to be timeshifted as well, which puts two big restrictions on it. First, it has to fit in the right spot alphabetically among the red timeshifted cards (after Skizzik Surger but before Shah of Naar Isle, in case you were wondering). Second, it has to fit the Future Sight definition of a timeshifted card: a card that shows off a mechanic or idea that hasn't been printed in Magic yet, but could be.

Steamflogger Boss

Combine all that with the fact that Mark placed the real future of Magic since Future Sight off limits, and you've got a very tight set of design restrictions. As Mark is fond of reminding his readers—say it with me now!—restrictions breed creativity. The three Great Designer Search 2 finalists were given one hour to prove that maxim. Each one was given his own room with a Future Sight player's guide, a dictionary, a printout of Steamflogger Boss's art, and plenty of scratch paper.

Scott Van Essen

Shawn Main

Ethan Fleischer

When that hour was up, it was time for the hard part. What, you thought designing three cards to extremely tight restrictions in an hour was the hard part? Oh no. It gets harder.

For the second and final hour of the Challenge, Mark asked the three finalists to sit down in one room, along with himself and Magic developers Erik Lauer, Dave Humpherys, and Mark Globus. Each wrote his three designs on the whiteboard, and this faux design/development team had one hour to go from nine designs to one by picking one, mixing and matching, or even designing a new card—the important thing was that they have a single card design to give to development when all was said and done.

I chatted with GDS1 winner Alexis Janson about the collaborative/competitive nature of this final Challenge, and she said that the final Design Challenge of the first GDS had been much the same—with one crucial difference: the GDS1 finalists had been working entirely on their own up to that point, in direct competition. They made the transition to working as a team awkwardly and tentatively, unsure how much they were being judged on their cooperation. Should they vote for their own cards? Should they not vote for their own cards? They didn't know, and Alexis said that the effect was palpable.

By contrast, the second GDS has involved collaboration with members of the GDS2 Wiki community from the very beginning, and even, in the third Design Challenge, cooperation between pairs of Top 8 competitors working on one another's designs. Having already been selected for an ability to collaborate and to choose the best cards for the set regardless of who designed them, this crop of GDS finalists should be better prepared to work together—at least in theory!

Here's what they had to work with, as written on the whiteboard.

Scott's Designs

Slave Driver
Creature – Goblin Overlord
2R, T: Target player reveals their hand. You may choose a card in it and put it into play under your control. It gains haste. Return it to its owner's hand at the beginning of the next end step. Play this ability only when you could play a sorcery.

Spherebot Champion
Creature – Goblin Mechanic
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, put an 8/8 artifact creature into play encasing CARDNAME.
As long as CARDNAME is encased, it is indestructible and has shroud.

Steam-Driven Warrior
Artifact Creature – Goblin Warrior
When CARDNAME attacks, tap target untapped creature defending player controls. It is attacking its owner. (Its owner can block it.)

Shawn's Designs

Steamsphere Oppressor
Creature – Goblin
Whenever an artifact enters the battlefield under your control, creatures you control get +1/+0 until end of turn.

Snapwhip Machine
T, Tap an untapped creature you control: CARDNAME deals X damage to each creature, where X is the tapped creature's power.

Squee, Mecha Boss
Legendary Creature – Goblin
Whenever another creature enters the battlefield under your control, sacrifice it and Squee deals 1 damage to target creature or player.

Ethan's Designs

As an addition cost to cast ~, tap four untapped cards in your graveyard.
~ deals 5 damage to target creature or player.

Starhead Transcendant
Creature – Elemental
If damage from a source your opponent controls would reduce you to zero or less life, you win the game instead.

Standard of Chaos
Enchantment – Aura
Enchant creature
Enchanted creature has, "When this attacks, exchange control of this with target creature defending player controls."

(Sockdolager, by the way, is a real, if archaic, word.)

The deliberation begins.

Right away, the combined design/development team started hashing things out, crossing things off, and making amendments and additions. I've sat in on design meetings before, sometimes with very similar issues in play, and I was struck by how similar this felt to the real deal.

Scott's Steam-Driven Warrior and Shawn's Snapwhip Machine were both artifacts, and Sarcomite Myr, also in Future Sight, suggested quite firmly that this would require an additional frame design—and therefore wasn't an option. Steam-Driven Warrior could survive the transition to plain old creature, but the art really wouldn't work as an enchantment, so Snapwhip Machine hit the cutting room floor first.

Scott and Shawn discuss the possibilities.

Aaron Forsythe ducked in at one point as the team was discussing Scott's Slave Driver design. "Let's talk about this 'Threaten from hand' idea—" Mark was saying, but Aaron cut him off.

"That's a Planar Chaos card," said Aaron, drawing on his encyclopedic knowledge of Magic.

"Oh, is it?" Scott replied. "Crap."

"Ohhhh yeahhhh," Shawn said, recognition dawning. "Treacherous Urge."

Mark drew a big green X over Slave Driver.

"Well," said Aaron gleefully, "my work here is done!" And with that, he departed, cackling and rubbing his hands together—a spot-on demonstration of the role of directors in Magic design meetings.

More changes were in store. Rules manager Matt Tabak was called in to discuss what exactly tapping cards in your graveyard (from Ethan's Sockdolager) might mean, and while he was there he asked if "encasing" (from Scott's Spherebot Champion) had any rules implications, or if it was just a flag showing that the two cards were connected.

Matt also pointed out that they should probably decide between modern templating ("enters the battlefield") and modern-as-of-Future Sight templating ("comes into play"), just for sanity's sake. They eventually went with the templating as of Future Sight.

Matt Tabak looks on quizzically while Mark discusses Spherebot Champion.

The flurry of questions and discussions continued. Was Steamsphere Oppressor "futureshifted" enough? No, although it would be if it said "artifactfall"—but that would be doing some violence to the space/time continuum, as landfall hadn't yet been designed at the end of Future Sight development. What about Standard of Chaos? Maybe, but Mark mentioned that they'd tried similar designs in the past, and the actual game play wasn't much fun. Did "encasing" mean anything after all? Not ... really, but the team arrived at a similar sort of effect using an Equipment token—still new enough to seem timeshifted from the future, but without any rules baggage to weigh it down.

Mark reminded the designers periodically how much time they had remaining. When all was said and done, they had combined one of Shawn's card names (and an echo of its sacrifice-centered design) with their communal evolution of Scott's Spherebot Champion:

Squee, Mecha Boss
Legendary Creature – Goblin Artificer
When Squee, Mecha Boss comes into play, put a colorless Equipment artifact token named Battlesphere with "Equipped creature gets +4/+4" and "Equip—Sacrifice two Goblins" into play attached to Squee.

The final Design Challenge ended, then, with no clear "winner"—other than Squee, of course. But that was always the plan; the point of the exercise was to let Mark see how each of the candidates performed in the hectic collaborative environment of a live-fire design team. What were the results? We'll have to wait and see!

Monday, 6:04 p.m. – It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over

by Kelly Digges

The day is coming swiftly to an end here at Wizards of the Coast headquarters in Renton, and one question looms: Who is the winner of the Great Designer Search 2?

I asked Mark Rosewater this question as he walked out of what was clearly an intense meeting with Magic R&D director Aaron Forsythe and Magic producer Mark Globus, and his response was honest and straightforward: "I don't know yet."

While Mark Rosewater had hoped to reach a decision by the end of the day, he was upfront with the Great Designers from the beginning about the fact that he might not be able to.

"It's a very hard decision," Mark explained—and judging by Aaron's gentle ribbing, the decision was no easier during the previous Great Designer Search.

And so the three finalists settle down for an evening of dinner and drafting with Magic R&D with the winner of the GDS2 still undetermined—but it won't stay that way for long. Stay tuned to, and we'll reveal the winner in a feature article later this week!

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