The Great Designer Search 2 Finalists

Posted in Feature on November 10, 2010

By Staff

Jay Treat

Part I - The World

A. Muraganda
The name of the first set is Escape to Muraganda.

MR: For those that might not be aware Muraganda is a world we previewed on a future-shifted card in Future Sight (called Muraganda Petroglyphs). It was then previewed on a plane in Planechase. As we've never actually been there, I thought it was a nice touch by Jay to set his world there.

B. Venser gates refugees from totalitarian Empiria to primitive Muragunda where mystery, war and decimation follow.

MR: This seems more synopsis than logline. Also, you seem to focus more on plot than world. Sell me more on the world and less on what Venser is up to.

C. Muraganda is a tropical plane as beautiful as it is deadly. Fierce natives inhabit its islands and tricky predators prowl relentlessly. When Venser's planeship, Eternity, crash lands during their daring escape from the mad dictators of Empiria, the refugees are stranded and forced to make a home for themselves in this most uncivilized of places. Their advanced culture, determination and adaptability help to even the odds against the blind hunger of the indigenous species and the xenophobic fear of the local 'savages.' Savages who would object to being called that if they could speak any of the Empirian dialects.

It is this very lack of common ground that allows the conflict to become so bloody. The Muragundans are defending their home and their families against an unfathomed invasion while the Empirians are fighting for survival in a brutal, sweltering world they know nothing about. Just when a betting 'walker might place odds on the rebels because of their advanced, practical understanding of arcane life and warfare, the natives crash back with unexpected force and precision, empowered by a mysterious force. Muragundan mystics have long worshiped and led their people under the thrumming power of sacred lands, the power of which will not remain a secret for much longer.

Can Grand Elder Olanti hold the five tribes together through the blood-shed? Can the new leader of the rebels, Captain Faulk find an olive branch to extend before this world eats his people alive?

MR: I like the set-up although if you could make it sound a little less science fiction-y (Venser has a planeship? I'll assume it's another Weatherlight.) There seems to be a neat conflict. I like how you can understand each side so that this conflict is less good guys and bad guys.

D. There are five Muragundan tribes, each mono-colored and each sporting the new ability word, Mystic. Mystic makes creatures and spells larger or gives them access to unique abilities as long as you control enough sacred Murgandan lands. Any land with charge counters is sacred, so there is a nod to backwards compatibility in this, the set?s main linear mechanic. The native Muragundan beasts sport the set?s secondary linear mechanic in Morph, representing their unknown nature and unpredictable hunting behavior. New twists include Spell Morph, Trap Morph and morph creatures with no mana cost.

On the rebel side of things, we have the modular mechanics championed by five allied-colored hybrid races. The sentient rebels sport Versatile, an ability word that allows them to use a comes-into-play ability if desired or to hit the battlefield a little harder when not. The animals they brought are domesticated and trained, introducing a new equipment-like mechanic for creatures: Bind Familiar. These mounts, companions and familiars lend their strength to a bound creature and sometimes share helpful abilities. The rebels will need all the help they can get to go toe-to-toe with the ravenous beasties out there. Approaching is a new keyword that rewards players' adaptability: when you draw a card with Approaching, you get one chance to take advantage of a cheap bonus effect.

All in all, the Natives are about focusing on gathering Mystic power while the rebels are about adapting and improvising to keep your opponents on their toes.

MR: I'll talk about each mechanic as we get to it. My overall impression though is whew, that's a lot of mechanics. You are biting off more than your set can chew. One of the big tasks for you this week is going to be figuring out which mechanics are helping meet your vision best.

Part II - The Cards

1. Week 1 Feature

Olanti, Nateen Elder (mythic)
Legendary Creature - Insect Druid
Mystic Olanti, Nateen Elder enters the battlefield with a +1/+1 counter on it for each land you control with charge counters on it.
Spells targeting creatures you control costs 1 more to cast for each +1/+1 counter on Olanti, Nateen Elder.

KEN: Where to begin?

  • Mystic is way, WAY too close to the game-defined term Mythic to be a usable keyword even in design. We talk about "Mythics" all the time and company time and resources will be wasted in the Mystic / Mythic miscommunication. MaRo has an anecdote of misbuilding "Control" decks in the "Control" / "Alt" / "Delete" block.
  • This block is about controlling many different lands with charge counters on them? So, I can expect common Tendo Ice Bridge and the full cycle of Vivid lands? Having random counters on your lands is not intrinsically fun—you have to separate your lands miles apart from each other. Lands get all the tap/untap action in a game, which is cumbered by pennies resting on them. It's more fun to control creatures with +1/+1 counters on them.
  • This guy might be a 3/3 for on turn three if I'm doing it right? I should skip the Llanowar Elves, then?
  • He impairs my ability to target my own creatures. I've cast many a green card, and many of them do beneficial things targeting my own guys. Granted, the powerful cards that target your own guys are few and far between, but by raw mechanical count this card isn't delivering.

AJ: This might be more interesting, easier to read, and/or more backwards compatible if it just counted charge counters, possibly across all permanents you control. It's a different flavor, but not a worse one. Otherwise, I'm not convinced you have enough backwards compatibility to justify generic counters rather than a flavorful supertype. The "ease of counting" advantage doesn't balance out the "I have beads all over my lands" problem. The second ability shouldn't affect your own spells—there's little upside to that sort of tension. I do applaud the "make something matter that hasn't mattered before" instinct, especially when it's backwards compatible.

KD: This is an important storyline figure and also serves to highlight a set theme, but I really wouldn't want it to be the first card from the set somebody sees. We encountered this problem when we previewed Timber Protector. Fair or not, people evaluate cards based on what they've seen before, and that places a heavy burden on linear build-arounds. This is not a good day one preview, and it's an illustration of the difficulties linear mechanics face in general.

MR: Not only are your mechanics in danger of overrunning you, so too are your counters. I'm a huge fan of counters, as my sets can attest to. Just make sure that you are keeping the counters in check. I actually like what this card is doing and if you design your lands correctly, maybe you can make this work but I want you to know that you are walking a fine line.

2. Making Magic

Riding Wumpus (rare)
Creature - Beast
Trample. Bound creature has trample.
Bind Familiar 3G (3G, tap Riding Wumpus: Attach it to target creature without Bind Familiar. The bound creature gains Riding Wumpus's power and toughness. Bind only as a sorcery. You may choose not to untap Riding Wumpus during your untap step. When it becomes untapped, unattach it.)

KEN: A "mount" is a noble pursuit for a keyword—we've tried some and rejected them all due to their unweildy rules. I've playtested a version like this. In all, I feel it's better coded as Everglove Courier. Or Awakener Druid. How about this way from Shawn Main's essay:

Dragonrider Shaman
Creature – Human Shaman
CARDNAME enters the battlefield with a mount counter on it.
CARDNAME gets +5/+5 and has flying as long as it has a mount counter on it.
Remove a mount counter from CARDNAME: Put a 5/5 red Dragon creature token onto the battlefield.

AJ: Once I understand what's going on here, I find this exciting, although not as much as if Equipment didn't already exist. The problem is understanding—I'm hoping there's a way to execute this with less words. I'm very happy you chose to limit it to sorcery speed.

KD: This is a simple execution of an intriguing mechanic—a good Making Magic preview.

MR: I think there's a neat mechanic buried in all those words but you're going to have to chip it free. The question you have to answer is what pieces are the most important. For example:

  1. Is it important to tap the creature with bind familiar?
  2. Is it important that the target creature not have bind familiar?
  3. Is it important for the bound creature to gain the ability riding?
  4. Is it important that the creature gains the Wumpus' power and toughness?
  5. Is it important that you can only bind as a sorcery?
  6. Is it important that you can choose not to untap it?
  7. Is it important that it become unattached if it becomes untapped?

The answer to all these questions cannot be yes.

3. Serious Fun

Anuk, Death Priest (mythic)
[Anuk, Death Tyrant -
Planeswalker- Anuk
+2: For each creature put into a graveyard this turn, put a 2/2 black Zombie creature token into play.
-3: Target creature's controller sacrifices it.
-6: Target player loses X life and you gain X life, where X is the number of creature cards in all graveyards.

KEN: Again, planeswalker design is more defined by development. There's enough here to work with. The targeted sacrifice effect is a little bizarre—reminds me of when Darksteel Myr cost just and we were inventing solutions to it rather than fixing the problem.

AJ: It makes me a little sad that the only +loyalty ability never does anything "by itself," but at least combat can trigger it, so it's not that bad. It would definitely be fine if it set up the rest of the card well, but the ultimate on this is extremely underwhelming to me.

KD: Planeswalkers serve many functions, and Serious Fun is way down the list of outlets that would get one. This particular planeswalker scales in multiplayer, but not quite enough to get me excited about it for multiplayer in particular. Serious Fun isn't where I'd put this card.

MR: Here's a planeswalker card where all the pieces connect and come together to create an overall flavor. I like it. I agree with Alexis that the ultimate could be more splashy.

4. Limited Information

Bladetooth Totem (uncommon)
[Beastheart Totem -
Tribal Artifact - Beast
T: Add G to your mana pool.
G, T: Target creature you control becomes a 3/3 green Beast until end of turn.

KEN: I do like mana stones that help green decks more than blue decks. This cycle (it's a cycle?) could work. Weird that you need another creature, and that creature needs to be smaller than 3/3 for this to help. Is a +1/+1 counter or a Giant Growth just too normal?

AJ: I'm personally a huge fan of well-applied tribal, and I love mana stones with alternate uses. The secondary ability is more confusing than many established players realize, and I don't like it showing up at lower rarities. (yes, I think Diminish was a mistake at common.)

KD: This preview will be at the disadvantage of readers and author not knowing the number or quality of Beast tribal cards in the set, but there's probably enough going on here as a mana artifact and combat trick to get an article out of it anyway.

MR: I like this card as well. I agree with Alexis that I wouldn't make it common. Things that overlay creature stats on other creatures is a lot more complex than people realize. My other concern is a meta one. How does this fit into the larger picture? As I go through your cards, I am not seeing the grand plan you laid out up above.

5. Savor the Flavor

Captain Faulk (mythic)
3 (w/u) (w/u)
Legendary Creature - Bird Rebel
Versatile - When Captain Faulk enters the battlefield, choose one: Return each creature with one or zero creature types to its owner's hand; or put three +1/+1 counters on Captain Faulk.

KEN: Weird. Hybrid? Why is hybrid semi-haphazardly implemented in this set? Is there some kind of hybrid/normal/gold evolution in the block? In meetings with the Vice President regarding our products, you need particularly clear, concise, strong arguments when you plan to put hybrid cards in your block. Bill Rose has strong opinions on the subject. In theory, it could sell a block's worth of content (we sort of did this with Shadowmoor/Eventide). Are you correctly selling your core mechanic here when you're confronted by your boss's boss's boss? I hope so. Don't toss Filet Mignon into your hearty beef stew then charge a dime a bowl when you could better appropriate your ingredients as a $20 steak dinner, Gordon Ramsay might say.

I actually like the "one or fewer creature types" weirdness here. We make build-around-me rares in every set—Lorwyn has a particularly admirable spread of them including Rings of Brighthearth, Thousand-Year Elixir, Ashling's Prerogative, Galepowder Mage, and Colfenor's Plans.

I imagine the versatile word means something, I'm guessing it labels cards that are "ETB choice." We do ETB, we do choice. We do ETB choice. Players will like it.

AJ: I love versatile—choosing between a fatty and a utility creature seems like a fun decision to make. I never expected to see the phrase "sentience-matters sub-theme" in relation to Magic—finally a block where Floral Spuzzem can shine! In all seriousness, I think this theme is a bit too subtle. I was completely baffled by the creature types reference until I read your notes. It might be fine for a weird one-of, but I wouldn't try to anchor it as a sub-theme.

KD: Even though Captain Faulk is an important storyline character, the actual mechanical execution doesn't read as very flavorful to me. I probably wouldn't choose this card for Savor the Flavor.

MR: There are a couple things going on with this card. Let's start with versatile. I can imagine this being a keyword if it's always spell or get bigger, but be aware that the space you're creating is more limiting than you realize. I like the flavor of versatile and feel it has some potential to say something about your world more so than most of your other mechanics.

A little tiny tidbit. We no longer make creatures, even creature tokens, without a creature type so you don't need to say "or zero."

The other big talking point is the hybrid mana. I like the idea that the "invaders" are made of hybrid mana and the natives are mono-colored. Just make sure that the gimmick doesn't get in the way of making the set play correctly.

If the two factions are of equal size, for instance, the amount of hybrid mana is going to start raising some of the issues we had with Shadowmoor block: having a lot of hybrid mana will warp how the set gets put together partially because there is a finite amount of effects that overlap the colors and partially because it changes how the mana works.

6. Building on a Budget

Living Storm (common)
[Living Flame -
Tribal Instant - Elemental
Living Storm deals 4 damage to target creature or player.
Spell Morph 1R (You may play this face down as a 2/2 creature for 3. Turn it face up any time for its morph cost.)
As you turn Living Storm face-up, cast it from the battlefield without paying its mana cost.

KEN: I like it. Burn spell for 4 damage commons can kill Spined Wurms—perhaps consider an upside Shock here? That would be more common. If there's anything a tribal elemental morph card that becomes an instant on the battlefield needs, it's help being more common.

AJ: While obvious, I feel "spell morphs" are a fine place to go someday. I really appreciate your simple execution, especially how you tie the flavor together with tribal. I'd prefer that casting the spell was part of the rules, to give it broader applications.

KD: This is a good choice for Building on a Budget, because it can slot into any existing red deck and probably be worth including. That won't shine the spotlight on the new card as well as it could, but showing back-compatibility is important too—especially with some strongly linear mechanics lurking elsewhere in the set.

MR: Both you and Jonathon (Loucks, that is—Jonathan Woodward ends in "an") are using morph, so I would make sure that if you choose to keep it that you are maximizing its use in your set. As I said to Jonathon, there is a lot that can be done with morph. It has plenty of design space. You need to figure out which pieces you want and have the restraint to leave the rest out of your set.

One of the big questions I'd like you to answer is what role is morph playing in your set? Spell morphs are cool but how does it advance your world? What is the reason for it being here in this set?

It's very easy to want to put something in your set because it's cool. Design has a higher bar than that: things have to be in your set because they advance your set. Make sure morph and spell morphs pass that bar.

7. Top Decks

Stonehead (rare)
Stonehead enters the battlefield tapped with a charge counter on it.
T: Add 1 mana to your mana pool.
Mystic 2: Stonehead becomes a creature until end of turn with power and toughness equal to the number of lands you control with charge counters on them.

KEN: I'm guessing this is supposed to be the payoff for running the Tendo Ice Bridge + Vivid land base for two years in Standard. This is a well-positioned preview card since creature lands are frequently the most played cards in Constructed formats because they are so powerful. We (generally) only make fun cards that powerful. Creature land design is something we don't do often, but in general we push them as fun cards to help aggro and beat up Day of Judgment-based control decks. I can't tell if this land helps slow decks more than fast decks. That could harm its chances of being pushed to Mutavault power level.

Currently, activating Stonehead then dropping Tendo Ice Bridge would not grow my Stonehead bigger. Needs to be templated like Chimeric Mass.

AJ: Do you plan on all of these lands "using" the charge counter in some way? If so, I'm worried about a bunch of common and uncommon lands running around with activated abilities (people mentally tune out lands); if not, I'm bothered by a bunch of meaningless beads.

KD: This is another one where linearity makes it a tough sell, but in this case it's easier to imagine what this could do with just one or two other charge counter lands on the battlefield.

MR: My concern with this card is that it clearly wants more counters. How is it going to get them? The answer could be that there are cards in the set that are going to add them, but that answer worries me a little because it sounds very parasitic. My note on this whole counter theme is to be careful not to overdo it.

Also, if the counter theme stays, I want to have a better understanding of what it represents.

Finally, I would make it uncommon as it just doesn't feel rare.

8. From the Lab

Venser, Planar Guide (mythic)
[Venser Awakened -
Planeswalker - Venser
+2: Search your library for a permanent card with converted mana cost 1 or less and put that card onto the battlefield.
-4: Sacrifice all lands you control, then search your library for that many land cards and put them onto the battlefield tapped.
-10: Search your library for any number of permanent cards and put them onto the battlefield.

KEN: Quite clean and appealing for a planeswalker submission. Note that design does NOT choose colors of planeswalkers or even if individuals like Venser appear this year. Planeswalkers have agents, contracts, and appearance fees we must oblige. But given those assumptions, a design handoff with this in a planeswalker hole would give development a workable starting point.

AJ: This is an ultimate I can dream of activating! The abilities all do a different variation of the same thing; I normally expect to see a little bit more variation, but the overall feel is solid, which is important.

KD: Again, there are a limited number of planeswalkers serving many disparate needs in the set, and From the Lab is, if anything, even further down the list of columns that would likely have access to one than Serious Fun is. That aside, there are plenty of things the column can do with this.

MR: I like that you stayed with Venser's teleporting powers and I like that you tied all the abilities together. My big gripe is that I don't like the second ability. Venser should let you get something out of your library that doesn't force you sacrificing cards. Also, teleporting land is, for me, less flavorful than teleporting other types of cards. (Permanents are obviously the best flavor-wise.)

9. The Week That Was

Foreign Pox (rare)
Choose two- Either each player sacrifices a creature; each player discards a card; each player sacrifices a land; or each player loses 3 life.
Approaching- Choose one (When you draw Foreign Pox, you may reveal it. If you do, choose one.)

KEN: Why is Smallpox now a Choose two (like Profane Command)?

Nice try with the draw trigger. It's too far into cheating-matters territory for us as designers to claim ignorance. Players will just show a Smallpox Command from their opening hand during their first draw step and get away with it all the time, killing their opponent's first land drop for no mana, no cards, and one lie. Is that really what Constructed Magic games should be decided on? It's so powerful that it will certainly decide games as such.

It might be possible, if you were desperate, to do draw triggers that only work if your hand is empty as you draw the card. If that melts away all the cheating issues, it could be a workable mechanic.

AJ: I think "when you draw this" triggers are awesome space. Unfortunately, no one here has solved the rules or logistical problems yet. (hidden text can't trigger; easy to cheat by trying to trigger a card already in my hand) Ignoring that for now, (as a designer often should) I really like your design with a single tweak—the "3 life" bit flaunts it's asymmetry every time I read this card. The triggered effect being a smaller version of the spell effect was a good choice.

KD: There are a lot of ways to manipulate the symmetry on this card, and I think it would be a fine choice for The Week That Was.

MR: Aw, draw triggers. They are a rite of passage of new designers. During Tempest design I tried everything in my power to make them work. I even experimented with having different color backs. In the end, I learned what all new designers must learn: draw triggers don't work.

This article is long enough so I won't go into all the reasons. Suffice to say, when you work it through, the rules and logistics get in your way. (Hmm, maybe I'll write a column about it if enough people are interested.)

Once you take away the draw trigger, this is a spell structure we've seen before (a.k.a. the Commands from Lorwyn). For what's it's worth, I like the four "hurt us all" feel of the choices.

10. Latest Developments

Wind Boon (common)
Enchantment- Aura
Enchanted creature has shroud and is unblockable.
1U: Put a 1/1 blue Elemental creature token onto the battlefield with Wind Boon attached. Play this ability only from your hand and only when you could play a sorcery.

KEN: Where is the keyword?! This card is in dire need of a keyword to compartmentalize all that token text in player's heads. As stated before, Living Auras is a fine mechanic to hang one's hat on. This could be a cleaner common—it could "live" for the same cost as its mana cost.

AJ: I'm assuming by lack of ability word or keyword that this ability is not intended to show up a lot. Without a keyword, this card is too busy for a common. Granting shroud AND unblockable together might also be a bit much for common, but I'm less adamant on that one. I do like this implementation—doing just a cycle of Auras with this ability at uncommon and one or two at rare would add a nice bit of spice to a set without needing a keyword.

KD: Definitely plenty for the development column to talk about here.

MR: I liked manifest before and I still like it now. (I do recognize that you came up with this incarnation.) You seem to be doing it not as a keyword but as a one-of or part of a cycle. Regardless, if it's not a major component of your set, it shouldn't be at common.

Commentary (on the card designs)

Most mystics are common or uncommon and not nearly as dramatic as Olanti. Each color uses Mythic in its own, unique way to keep it from feeling repetitive. It's a flavorful mechanic that doesn't require much headspace.

Riding Wumpus is a fun card that is a reasonable threat on its own and a huge step toward "building your own monster." Imagine binding it to an Ophidian, for instance. There's probably a shorter reminder template, but I had to convey almost all of the rules here.

Anuk was a great find on the Wiki. He fits the mayan/snake theme of the black tribe and is just fun.

Bladetooth Totem answered a request for tribal artifacts, but seeing Tribal Artifact was just too good to pass up.

Captain Faulk represents maybe a quarter of the cards in the set that are allied-colored hybrid cards and many of them have Versatile or some other simple choice to keep thinky players happy. He also hints at a sentience-matters sub-theme.

Living Storm was a freak coincidence. I'd made a cycle of spell morphs I couldn't use but I saw this on Chah's page and it was--wording apart--identical except for being double my version. Creature morphs are much more common.

Stonehead is the only creature-land, but it shows the charge counter template. I went with counters over card types or keywords because they're much easier to count during play.

The Approaching keyword usually has a cost, but I wanted to push Foreign Pox.

KEN: This designer presented many new mechanics that don't feel like they can coexist. I suggest looking at a real set (Worldwake is my favorite printed so far) and assign "weirdness points" or a reason for every card you see. Every card can't just be "It's here to be new!" Don't just flood your set with infinite weird mechanics for newness sake—there should be some (new) straightforward mechanics, too. I don't consider "controlling many different lands with one or more counters on them" straightforward.

Prioritize. If say spell morph is at the top of your mechanics list, something else will have to go, lose weird points, or become straightforward to coexist.

Highlight: Wind Boon
Lowlight: Olanti, Nateen Elder

AJ: I want to see your "sacred lands" flavor pan out, but charge counters are so generic that it's a hard sell. I appreciate a conflict where neither side is the "bad guy", but I'm not sure if you can get that across in mechanics. I'd be happy to be proven wrong on that one, though.

I see a lot of mechanics here that "build creatures"—I can turn auras into creatures, spells into creatures, or even combine creatures into bigger creatures! Versatile also pushes you towards creatures rather than spells. I'm a little concerned that your set might turn out to be too creature-heavy, but I'll let you solve that problem. Also, morph is not a "linear mechanic."

I think you have a lot of good instincts demonstrated here, at both the holistic and the polish levels. I really like where your designs came from—you're exploring a lot of neat design areas. Hone a few details, and I think you've got a great shot at the gold.

KD: The "mystic" cards fall short for me here, representing a serious challenge not only for the first preview week, but for selling the set in general. That aside, there's a lot going on here. These cards are a pretty good survey of all of it, but after this week of previews, if you asked me (as a reader) what the set was "about," I'd have to admit I didn't know.

MR: Jay, my note for you is a familiar note I'm making today. You got selected because we believed you had a world concept with a lot of potential. I love your conflict and I find the idea of two groups pitted against each other where each feels he's fighting for his own survival feels cool. I also enjoy a fight where neither side is the good or bad side.

You have definitely made some steps to mechanically define the two sides. While I want a little more reasoning behind the use of hybrid I do appreciate the clean divide it makes between the two sides. I am less clear what some of your other mechanics are doing to define your conflict or your world.

Here's some questions I'd like you to answer:

  1. What portion of your set is the vistors versus the "home team?" Note: The visitors should definitely be a minority, just one with some potent weapons.
  2. What feel are the visitors supposed to evoke? Who are they? What defines them?
  3. What feel are the creatures of Muraganda suppose to have? While I get some sense of the visitors, I don't really have any sense of the natives mechanically (other than not hybrid). You have mechanics assigned to the natives but they don't create any feel for me yet. For example, I don't really get why they have morph.
  4. Where is this block going? We're only going to see the first set, but I don't have any sense that anything is being set up.
  5. What is the contrast between your two sides? It's not enough to just have two sides, they have to exist in relation to one another. Each side has to represent something opposite of the other side.

The big task for you next week is to take the cool concepts you have of your world and start showing them on cards. Make it clear mechanically what each side represents and make sure those two sides have some contrast between them.

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