The Great Designer Search 2 Finalists

Posted in Feature on November 10, 2010

By Staff

Devon Rule

Part I - The World

A. Utopia

B. "Weaponized Paradise"

MR: Normally I like designers being frugal, but I think giving up access to thirteen extra words kept this logline from teasing much of anything. The phrase is evocative but it really doesn't do much to excite me about the set.

C. Utopia is a world where each color has perfected its ideal society. White is a peaceful communist democracy, black is an atheistic merchant-state. The green tribes have returned completely to nature, red is an anarchic group of artists, and the blue is more like an academy than a nation.

A group of interplanar raiders find Utopia and consider it ripe for invasion. Their initial attack is devastating, but the Utopian nations militarize with alarming speed, turning peaceful magics into terrifying weapons. Flameweavers turn their performance art into deadly assaults, and the vampire aristocrats use contract magic to force lethal bargains. Even if the invaders are repelled, Utopia will never be the same.

Each color has aspects that are rarely seen in Magic. Magic is a game about conflict and combat between powerful wizards, so we rarely see the creative side of red or the mercantile side of black. Utopia explores these aspects by asking what would happen if they were used as weapons. What does it look like to throw fire with inspiration rather than rage, or counter spells with wisdom instead of arrogance?

MR: The color pie guru in me is fascinated by the potential of what you're talking about here. The real challenge is: can you meet the promise of what you are offering? I hope so.

D. Utopia started with a very high-concept theme, so I wanted a simple mechanical focus. I chose enchantments because they fit the flavor of pre-existing magic modified for war. While "enchantments" is a very general theme, I've used it as a touchstone to create synergy between my individual mechanics.

Flip cards are one good way of representing the flavor of peaceful enchantments being weaponized. White is getting the largest share of these (including enchantments that flip into enchantment creatures) but they exist across all colors. There is an uncommon cycle that shows how each color can turn beneficial effects into offensive ones.

Flameweavers represent fiery attacks as temporary hasty tokens instead of direct damage. The mechanic depicts fire magic as a creative force while still feeling very red. The tokens are enchantment creatures to reinforce their nature as magical constructs and provide synergy with any "enchantments matter" cards.

I've adapted the "manifest" keyword for use as a subtheme in Utopia. Manifest gives the option to play creature enchantments without a target, creating 2/2 tokens to enchant. The mechanic will be dominant in green but appears in other colors.

The invaders will be represented by a relatively small subset of cards, mostly across Jund colors. To represent their wasteful and destructive nature, they have a strong "sacrifice" theme. One of the main ways this is expressed is through the ability word Ransack, which means, "whenever a player sacrifices a permanent, do N."

MR: I am a big fan of your over-arching theme. I am a little more skeptical about the execution of that theme. I'm not saying that "enchantments matter" can't communicate what you want, but I'm not sure that it's a perfect fit.

The thing I'm very eager to see with your design is the idea of each color weaponinzing itself and doing things with its philosophy that aren't normally shown on cards. For example, the idea of using endless swarms of tokens to attack rather than direct damager seems very red, yet feels different than most sets. I want more of that.

You and Jonathan Woodward both have an "enchantment matters" theme, but I think that your idea at its core really isn't about enchantments. I think it's important that you use your mechanics to tweak what I think is the most compelling part of your design—the reimagining of the colors. How can each color be the most of what it is yet do so in ways we haven't seen?

You have a cool concept that requires careful execution. Just using enchantments, to me, is the easy way out. I don't mind if enchantments are a part of what you need to do mechanically for what you've set out to do—but remember to let your theme guide you, not an "enchantment matters" theme.

You have a lot of mechanics listed above. Not all of them are going to work. I'll talk about each one as I come across it.

Part II - The Cards

1. Jacelyn Nalaar (Mythic Rare)
Planeswalker - Jacelyn
(+2): You may tap or untap target permanent.
(-X): Search your library for a red or blue instant card with converted mana cost X or less and cast it without paying its mana cost. Then shuffle your library.
(-7): Take an extra turn after this one.

KEN: OK, it's a serviceable planeswalker. It also correctly over-plusses its ultimate number so its survives into the new turn. However, I'm sure we'd still have open hole-submissions to try to find something cooler.

AJ: I wish I had something better to say here, but mainly this card just doesn't "get there" for me. None of the individual pieces fail, but they don't mesh together as a complete card for me.

KD: Aside from the name, which I take as either a placeholder or a reference to a very strange storyline twist, this is a great planeswalker design I'd be happy to show on day one.

MR: I like your middle ability but the first and third abilities don't seem to have a lot to do with it. Also, all the abilities feel very blue and not very red. Finally, I feel like this planeswalker is supposed to play some role in your story, but these mechanics don't really convey much to me. A big part of that is probably that they don't seem to come together to build a bigger picture.

2. Spirit Guide (Rare)
Creature - Human Shaman
Aura cards in your hand have manifest. Their manifest cost is equal to their mana cost. (You may play those cards without a target for their manifest cost. If you do, they enter the battlefield enchanting a 2/2 colorless Spirit enchantment creature token.)

KEN: An enchantment-based block is sure to have a significant number of Auras, so an Aura-based mechanic would serve such a set/block/world well. There's multiple implementations submitted for "Living Auras" I've seen. I prefer an implementation with less math—one that makes the Shiv's Embrace // Furnace Whelp split card using 0/0 tokens. Not this implementation. The Living Aura mechanic in general should go over very well, and dates back all the way to Unholy Strength/Holy Strength being the only way to make your favorite creature better.

AJ: Manifest is "obvious" but good design space that I'd be surprised to not print some day. It's a good fit for "weaponized magic." To clarify, I have no problem with obvious design space—I just wouldn't rely on it alone to showcase your creativity and innovation.

KD: Often I don't have a problem with showing the inevitable (and enjoyable) "Everything gets the new mechanic!" card as a preview. This time, though, the effect of the mechanic is dependent on what the Aura in question actually is, and I think that leaves too many questions in my head to be a really effective preview. I'd rather lead with the biggest baddest manifest Aura here.

MR: Manifest is an interesting mechanic. So interesting actually that it was used more by any design test than any other mechanic. My issue with it isn't whether it is a good mechanic—because it is. My question is does it help further your set and your theme? As I said above, stop thinking of your set as "enchantment matters" and start thinking about "weaponized utopia."

3. Invasion Dragon (Rare)
Creature - Dragon
Whenever Invasion Dragon attacks, each player sacrifices a land.
Ransack - Whenever a player sacrifices a permanent, you may put a +1/+1 counter on Invasion Dragon.

KEN: Downside! But wait, I'll be glad I sacrificed a land when I get a +1/+1 counter. Why should I ever want to cast the eight-mana Dragon in my hand? We manage to design an all-upside Timmy dragon in every set, sometimes two. Seeing this card, I'll be looking for the real Dragon in the set. This is some kind of fissure maw elemental thing on the ground. This is also not really how I like to scale multiplayer cards—the ransack is fine, but "multiplayer-scaling land destruction" aren't words the EDH crowd upstairs likes to hear come out of my mouth when I talk about new cards.

In StarCraft, I never used the Devour ability of my Defilers because it killed my own Zerglings. Watching Korean Pro StarCraft, it turns out that the Defiler is the best energy unit thanks to the Devour ability—if you do the cost/benefit analysis. We don't really design our Dragon cards in this vein. We design Dragons to be Magic's red Battlecruisers—slow, expensive, yet beefy devastating units that rain damage and destruction on your opponent from above.

Ransack has the weird tension where having two ransack cards will outrace your opponent's one ransack card.

AJ: Why does the invading dragon raze its homeland? More importantly, I'm not sure about the ransack keyword here. The word "ransack" is only representing about 25% of the text that makes this card truly work—you need the first ability to make the second do anything—and I feel like the part that makes it a "ransack" card is easily lost in the shuffle. All that said, this card's abilities are a fine package—my issues are mostly with the trimmings.

KD: This gets points for "multiplayer goodness" and "being a Dragon," but repeatable land destruction is something I try not to help associate with casual Magic (despite Tom LaPille's eloquent argument in The Yang of Timmy that it often is). I wouldn't feel terrible running this in Serious Fun, but it wouldn't be my first choice.

MR: Ransack is another mechanic that makes me go: What exactly are your mechanics up to? I can imagine a design where ransack is an integral part of the design. I'm not yet sure your design is such a design.

My issue with your mechanics is that you chose things that made sense in your world rather than select ones that defined your world. You have neat ideas but I need to see how these ideas click together to create something larger than the sum of their parts.

I'm rather ho hum on ransack as a mechanic but you could sell me on it if it is integral to your design. Too bad I can't tell if it is or isn't.

4. Postmortem Contract (Uncommon)
Return target creature card from your graveyard to the battlefield unless target opponent pays 4 life. If they do, return that card to your hand instead.

KEN: This card does a good job putting a cap on the amount of REAL fun you can have with it. Were you about to midcombat a Myr Battlesphere and tell all your friends about it? Luckily, your opponent had 4 spare life to deflate that dream.

Is this card representing the set in a meaningful way to be a week 1 preview card? I would be very fearful for the set if there were no better candidates.

AJ: I've never found Rhystic or punisher cards to be particularly fun to play with or against, but I accept that other players disagree with me. The key to a good punisher card is to make both outcomes exciting; I believe this succeeds on that level. I don't believe, however, that this mechanic represents "contracts" very well.

KD: This is a bit of a toughie for Limited Information. What is the article actually about? My guess is that it would have to dodge in a more abstract direction, like using life as a resource—and I'd prefer the preview article be able to talk in-depth about the card itself and its implications for the new Limited environment.

MR: When Ken talks about GDS1 he often talks about "land mines." These were things that Design has learned over the years that we don't like and thus have made informal rules not to do. Some unsuspecting designer accidentally steps on one and BOOM! I would call this a land mine except that it was already detailed several times in GDS1. (Tip to the Top 8: If you haven't read the first GDS, I strongly urge you to do so.)

Here's the land mine that you stepped on. We've learned that "I can have fun unless my opponent says I can't" cards don't go over well. Novice designers tend to overvalue the decision tree of such a card and miss that it just isn't fun. The opponent pays 4 life most of the time because he feels he has to, meaning that he doesn't enjoy the card and the caster who didn't get what he wanted also doesn't enjoy the card.

5. Gareth, Flameweaver Prodigy
Legendary Creature - Human Shaman
Enchantment creatures you control get +1/+1.
XRR, T: Put X 1/1 red Elemental enchantment creature tokens with haste onto the battlefield. Exile them at the beginning of your next end step. Play this ability only when you could play a sorcery.

KEN: The weirdness never ceases. If you really had to, enchantment creatures are servicable. Enchantment token creatures? I'm a little scared what this card implies about the rest of the set—the other places 1/1 red Elemental enchantment creature tokens with haste are used. I am a fan of the card Firecat Blitz, so a legendary creature that does that has the underpinings of coolness.

AJ: In a vacuum, the first line surprises me on a red card. Whether it holds up in your set depends on whether you've done enchantment creatures in multiple colors, or solely red. I'm surprised at how unique flameweaving feels to me, given the parts that compose it, but credit given where due—I think you've found something here.

KD: Neat card, cool flavor. This also serves as a jumping-off point for Creative to talk about what it means for red to be constructive as well as destructive, and how the red-aligned shamans of this plane relate to fire. An excellent, well-placed preview card.

MR: This card encapsulates my feeling of your design. I love what red is doing on this card. I see the potential of how you can twist color archetypes on their ear. I have no idea what the word "enchantment" is doing here.

I think you have two different ideas that you have squashed together into a set. Pick one and run with it, and stop trying to force the other one in. (If you haven't picked up on which idea I want you to use, you haven't been paying attention.)

This competition is about vision. You have a neat idea buried under a lot of unnecessary ones. Dig it out.

6. Muse's Mirror (Rare)
[Muse's Echo - Labs:Gds/gds2/Utopia/Cards]
Whenever a creature you control becomes enchanted, you may put a 2/2 colorless Spirit enchantment creature token onto the battlefield.

KEN: The battlefield will be flooded with my colorless enchantment creature tokens! A fine reward for a fine task. Why isn't this an enchantment artifact? Just kidding.

AJ: This has a strange counter-flavor when put next to manifest. The action and reward feel very unconnected—when I enchant this creature over here, another unrelated creature pops out over there! Keep the hoop, but change the cookie.

KD: This is a neat rare build-around, but it's pretty limited in what it can do—especially without access to all of this set's (presumably) saucy new Auras. This one could go either way, but ultimately I don't think Building on a Budget is where I'd preview this.

MR: While this card is fine in a vacuum, it seems a little odd in a set with manifest. If enchantments are going to create 2/2 creature tokens I prefer the ones that the enchantment then attaches to.

7. City of Scholars (Uncommon)
[Observation Deck - Labs:Troacctid's_page]
T: Add 1 to your mana pool.
1U, T: Look at target player's hand.

KEN: This is an utter killjoy. I'm guessing this designer doesn't fully appreciate the miniscule cost of a colorless land. For the low price of nothing in a land slot, blue decks now gain the added utility of removing all drama from their opponent's hand. Continuing the StarCraft analogies, in StarCraft 1 Terran Scan (reveal big chunk of opponent's area of the map) was free. In StarCraft 2, Terran scan basically costs 300 minerals because you chose to Scan rather than summon a fast-mining M.U.L.E..

City of Scholars doesn't cost 300 minerals per use to preserve drama; it costs really close to zero. That's the problem.

AJ: This card may be "good," but it's boring and derivative. I'd hate to see a Constructed environment where this was rampant—hidden information is an important game mechanic that keeps Magic both fun and mentally managable.

KD: There's not much happening with this card, and I think an article about it would get thin pretty quickly. If I were considering previewing this card, I'd ask the developers to weigh in on whether it was more powerful than it looks to me—cards that generate marginal advantage often are—but by default I doubt I would assign it as a preview.

MR: We'll call this a little land mine. Magic is more fun when players don't know everything. In general we tried to avoid cards where players continually look at the opponent's hand. When we do do them, such as Telepathy, we tend to make them low enough power that they don't show up all that much in Limited let alone Constructed.

I do appreciate the flavor of this card.

8. Idealism (Rare)
Enchantments you control gain lifelink.

KEN: Huh? It helps my Lightning Rift and Seal of Fire? I got it—Pyrohemia! Oh yeah, now I remember—this set has enchantment creatures.

If this were in a rare poll, I'd rate it "flaccid." My reward for playing damage-dealing enchantments is ... lifelink? I remember there being enough fans of Tamanoa.

AJ: I like this card. It uses existing concepts to do something new. Lifelink has only appeared on creatures—I'm not convinced the average player understands what this does on first read, but reminder text should handle that.

KD: Okay, I can dig this. Its obvious application in the set is with enchantment creatures, but there are plenty of enchantments from the past that would be fun to combine this with.

MR: Man, somedays you can't help but step on a land mine. This card makes no sense in a vacuum. While we make cards that you might not understand at first glance, we tend not to make cards that don't make sense.

Imagine a player opens the first booster pack of your set and this is his rare. He hasn't seen any enchantment creatures yet so this enchantment is just mind numbingly confusing. Why would he want to give his enchantments lifelink? He would reread the card because he would assume he misunderstood something.

This isn't the kind of card we like to make. And even if we do, we definitely wouldn't preview it. The card takes context to understand which makes for a bad preview card.

Even when you understand the point of the card, it isn't that exciting and doesn't really feel rare, yet is too narrow to be uncommon. I chalk this one up as a whiff.

9. Twisted Vision (Common)
Choose a card type other than land. Target opponent reveals their hand. You choose a card of the chosen type from it. That player discards that card.

KEN: Finally, a normal-looking common that fulfills a need admirably. It even manages to give black some mild planeswalker hate that it sorely needs. There's a huge need for a designer to be able to design commons—most cards in a set are common and they get overhauled frequently during the design process.

AJ: I applaud this creative Duress variant, although it feels at least uncommon due to complexity and because it's less interesting in Limited.

KD: Spikey! This is a reasonable fit for The Week That Was. There might not be enough there for a whole article, but of all the columns, this one is the most likely to have a "grab bag" feel, so I don't really count that against you here.

MR: This is a cute discard card. My biggest issue really isn't with this card, which I like, but with the fact that you haven't used your previews to play up your theme. More on this in a moment.

10. Initial Half: Clear Thinking (Uncommon)
At the beginning of your upkeep, look at the top card of your library. You may exile it.
At the beginning of the end step, if you have been attacked by two or more creatures this turn, flip Clear Thinking.
Flipped Half: Thought Erasure
At the beginning of your upkeep, exile the top five cards of target opponent's library.

KEN: This card kind of reads at first glance like it will deck me unless my opponent cooperates. That bad first impression is all the majority of players will feel for the card as they set it aside and not put it in their deck. If the card shows up in tournament-winning decklists, it will get second impressions.

All in all, I wouldn't be thrilled to put this in a set's Erayo, Soratami Ascendant slot.

AJ: I like the flavor of these—useful abilities for yourself that turn into attacks against your opponents. If this set was being released, I'd want to go look up how the other four colors handle this cycle—a good sign, for sure! My main qualm is the flip condition. It's completely under my opponent's control, and that would be frustrating. I'd prefer something that I can trigger, or that my opponent is "forced" to do eventually, or "tricked" into doing, such as "control three creatures."

KD: This card itself might end up having an interesting development story behind it, and if not, the discussion can broaden to encompass the set's flip cards in general. A fine choice.

MR: You have a similar problem with this card that you had with the planewalker. The pieces of the card have to connect to give the card a cohesive whole. I see the connection between the effect on each side but the trigger feels really random.

What I would expect is that you have the ability to exile the top card each turn and something you reveal would be the trigger. This connects the two and makes you only have to track one thing. It also gives you some sense of control of the trigger that the current card misses.

Also, to connect the two better, I would make both effects "target player." Yes, you're most likely to shift players when you swap (although you might just "mill" the opponent the whole time) but it would make the two sides read the same.


It was quite a challenge to integrate the key themes of Utopia, the needs of each column preview, and the various numeric requirements. I'm going to let the card designs speak for themselves, and instead address why I chose these 10 to represent myself and Utopia.

1) Planeswalkers don't tend to fit with the set's themes, so I decided to just go for the most appealing and fun-to-play design I could.
2) I didn't invent manifest, but as a designer I recognize it as one of the best mechanics on the wiki.
3) It's a big Timmy dragon, it scales powerfully in multiplayer, and it shows off the flavorful "Ransack" ability word.
4) This mechanic is more interesting in limited than constructed, and instants like this one can force difficult choices in combat.
5) Flameweaving is one of my favorite parts of the set, so I wanted to show it off in a flashy and appealing manner.
6) Unusual build-around-me artifact.
7) Knowledge is a subtly powerful resource in Magic, and this card allows control decks a Peek effect without very little opportunity cost.
8) To be a good Johnny rare, a card should have synergy with both its block's themes and with other cards from throughout Magic's history.
9) Duress effects are typically important constructed roleplayers, and this one works well with Utopia's enchantment theme without limiting itself.
10) If I were to pick a single cycle to represent Utopia mechanically, it would be this one.

KEN: This designer has the challenge of executing on an enchantment-matters world with the trappings of a Shards of Alara-style five-way color-theme split. I hope there's cleanliness when it all comes together—Urza's Saga managed to have 101 enchantments in that set alone and Shards of Alara managed five themes across three sets (with some mixing at the end). Perhaps this designer will be up to the task?

Highlight: Twisted Vision
Lowlight: City of Scholars

AJ: Your broad theme really intrigues me—I would love to see cards that capture democracy or artistry, for example. Flameweaving and contract magic sound very interesting. The colors of Magic represent so much in this world that doesn't naturally fit into a game about dueling planeswalkers.

I'm hoping that your mechanics can fulfill this lofty claim. Enchantments and flip cards can represent the mobilization of magic, but I was eager to see each color doing its version of interpretive dance. Flameweaving gets an avid thumbs-up from me, but you haven't hit this elusive vibe for the other four colors yet. I'm sincerely hoping you can deliver on this. Your theme is amazing and you've hinted at similar greatness in your designs—but you'll need to fire on all cylinders to win this race.

KD: These cards do an economical job of showing what your set is about, but you haven't quite gotten me excited about seeing more. Many of these cards feel like puzzles to be solved, and for a preview week I'd like a little less "Huh?" and a little more "Whoa!" Gareth is a notable exception, though—the right card in the right spot.

MR: Devon, let me start by stressing that I like you as a candidate. You had one of the better essays. I think the high concept for your world shows great promise. That said, you have been side-tracked by something that is not allowing you to create a mechanical design that matches your theme.

I want to see the colors weaponized. I want to see the colors focusing on values they normally don't. I feel like you have some neat ideas about what could be done with the color pie. Your assignment for next week: do it. Show it to me. Make it part of your design.

You have gotten way side-tracked by the "enchantment matters" theme which I don't think is helping you bring your vision to life. While I'm not saying it has to disappear completely it does have to take a back seat to the mechanics that illustrate your theme.

Don't use mechanics that can fit in your world. Use mechanics that illustrate your world. I want to see what the colors can do. Make me cards that sell me on your vision.

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