The Great Designer Search 2 Finalists

Posted in Feature on November 10, 2010

By Staff

Daniel Williams

Part I - The World

A. Plane Name: Deadsands

B. Description: Magic meets the Wild West

MR: Try to avoid using the word Magic in the logline. Explain what is interesting within the context of Magic.

C. Story and Flavor: Deadsands is an unforgiving plane of desert and scrub, where rain is scarce and death is everywhere. Still, there is hope for those who call it home, for amidst the burning sands, great riches have been discovered. The land is littered with deposits of mysterious and previously unknown crystals. Rife with strange, arcane energy, this material is sought after by wizards and artificers, prospectors and businessmen. Great multitudes of settlers strike out to look for new veins of crystals, hoping to find wealth and escape the daily struggle for survival. But the new frontier opened by the crystal rush is a perilous place, for the crystals have made deadly and dangerous magic more available than ever. The arm of the law is slow to follow the migration, and lethal spellfire can break out at any time.

Deadsands features outlaws, lawmen, settlers, criminals, mining barons, gamblers, and snake oil salesmen. The fierce viashino and territorial elves are fighting to keep their lands and preserve their way of life. The wandering Kor are looking for a place to call home while the curious Vedalken seek to learn everything about the crystals. The mining baron Mordecai Sloan controls the ruthless vampire gangs and is setting into motion a plan that will grant him dominion of not only the crystal frontier, but the very plane itself. In his way stands a man known as the Outlaw, a living legend whose quest for vengeance will not end until Mordecai is dead.

MR: There was a lot of repetition in the 101 design tests so I was quite happy when I read your world. While mixing westerns with fantasy seems obvious once you hear it, you are the only one I've ever heard pitch it as the basis of a Magic set.

Magic has been on a resonance kick lately and this world plays right into it. My advice to you as you are playing with a well known archetype is to make sure to hit all the expected beats.

D. Mechanics:

Showdown (Starting with you, each player in the showdown may reveal a card from his or her hand. Repeat this process until neither of you reveals a card. A player wins if his or her revealed cards had a higher total converted mana cost.)

- Represents the classic western shootout. Revealing multiple cards adds variance to each showdown and tests the skills of its participants. Showdown also enables Hold-Out and Revelation (see below).

Hold-Out [Cost] (When this card is revealed from your hand by a spell or ability you control, you may cast it for [cost])

Revelation- includes abilities that trigger whenever the card itself is revealed from your hand by a spell or ability you control and abilities that trigger when the card is in play and another card is revealed from your hand by a spell or ability you control (Hold-Out excepted)

-The existence of Hold-Out and Revelation create suspense whenever a card is about to be revealed. They can also lead to turns where lots of spell and abilities resolve and gameplay that resembles magical firefights. Like a gun up your sleeve or a knife in your boot, these mechanics represent secret weapons at your disposal.

Spellslingers- cards (mostly creatures) with extra abilities that trigger if you reveal a card with certain specified properties

Retaliate- cards that are more powerful if a creature you control was destroyed this turn

Deadsands also features Provoke, revealing cards as a cost, and more Flash than normal.

MR: Your mechanics definitely convey your flavor. As with most of the finalists, you have too many. Also in your case, you have ones that are too close to one another, but I'll get to all of that in the card by card commentary.

Part II - The Cards

1. Feature Article
Harland Ford, Outlaw (Mythic Rare)
Planeswalker- Harland
+1: Reveal a card from your hand. If that card is red, Harland Ford, Outlaw deals 1 damage to target creature or player.
-2: Until the beginning of your next upkeep, the next time you cast an instant or sorcery spell, add X R to your mana pool, where X is that spell's converted mana cost.
-5: Exile your graveyard. Harland Ford, Outlaw deals X damage divided as you choose among any number of target creatures or players, where X is equal to the total converted mana cost of the cards exiled this way.
-The Outlaw is Deadsands pivotal character. Most of the block's story revolves around his quest for vengeance and retribution, thus giving Doug a great opportunity to unveil this story. His abilities are designed to mirror and work well with Deadsands' major mechanics.

KEN: I like this world design more than the other judges. Maybe I've played too much Red Dead Redemption. This planeswalker card is doing semi-normal stuff in semi-weird ways. Why is the second ability so bizarre to grok? It makes me think the designer just wants Koth's minus which can cast eight- (or more) drops with relative ease. The current minus can bizarrely chain a five-mana instant into another five-mana instant. Weird. For an ultimate, why not get a card or many from your graveyard back into your hand? Spreadable Vengeful Rebirth perhaps?

AJ: The first ability feels like a bit of a hoop to get a measly 1 damage. This card does a lot of interesting things; it's biggest flaw is the number of things competing for my attention. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do with this card.

KD: A prominent storyline character and an intriguing card. Looks good.

MR: I like having your planeswalker be a gunslinger. I get the flavor of the first and third abilities but I don't quite understand why a gunslinger does the middle one. Another problem you have is that this text most likely will not fit on a card.

I like the idea of reveal triggers (it's something we messed around with in Lorwyn design) but they are ripe with infrastructure concerns. If you can make a robust world where you want to reveal cards for other reasons (which you have), it might work. It might also be a muddled mess. I think this is a neat area to explore, but beware that it's a tightrope you walk between being relevant and being unnecessarily busy.

2. Making Magic
Answered Prayers (Rare)
Put two 4/4 white Angel creature tokens with flying onto the battlefield.
Holdout- 3ww (When this card is revealed from your hand by a spell or ability you control, you may cast it for 3ww)
-a splashy card that leads to nasty surprises for your opponents, especially if it's played for its Hold-Out cost. Introduces Hold-Out and allows Mark to talk about the process of creating a block that cares about what's in your hand.

KEN: The accompanying comment is weird—Magic always cares about "what's in your hand." Cards usually pass from the dead library zone to your hand before going to the live battlefield zone. The player gets to exercise choice deciding in what sequence cards in hand affect cards on the battlefield. Without that basic mechanism, why don't we just flip the top card of our decks every turn and "see what happens?" That game is called "War."

This particular rare is nice in the all-upside camp and has its trick attached. The early Morningtide file had the holdout mechanic called "showoff" due to the relatively high amount of reveal effects (clash, kinship).

AJ: This card is a nice simple but awesome introduction to hold-out, and it gives me an exciting baseline to measure hold-out cards by. My only gripe with hold-out is that I have to jump through a non-trivial hoop (revealing cards isn't a natural thing to build into my deck) and my reward will always be cost reduction, which feels a little narrow and anti-climactic to me for my efforts.

KD: This is a splashy card that shows off a major set mechanic and related theme. Excellent Making Magic material.

MR: Hold-out seems to be a cross between a reveal trigger and madness. The big issue I have with hold-out is twofold. First, in order for it to work as a mechanic, you have to make sure that there are plenty of ways to reveal cards that don't require mana. If you keep getting to reveal hold-out cards but don't have the mana to cast them it can get frustrating very quickly.

My other worry is that hold-out and revelation seem to be playing in space too close to one another. I strongly urge you to pick one reveal mechanic and run with it. Maybe a second one is introduced later in the block but when you are teaching players to care about something for the first time make what they have to do consistent so they get what to focus on.

3. Serious Fun
Ace of Ants (Rare)
Creature - Insect
Revelation-Whenever Ace of Ants is revealed from your hand by a spell or ability you control, you may pay 1G. If you do, put X 1/1 green Insect creature tokens onto the battlefield, where X is equal to the converted mana cost of the last spell you cast this turn.
-a fun Timmy/Johnny card that pumps out lots of tokens and serves as a powerful offense threat before and after it hits the battlefield

KEN: What a killjoy. This card almost made it to cool, but it fell off the guiderail and crashed at the "last spell you cast this turn" part. How about one Insect? Possibly two Insects? Why not the ceiling of the median of converted mana costs of spells cast this game? I'd try for one Insect token.

Why are revelation and hold-out different keywords? I seriously doubt we'd make two different "when you reveal this from your hand"-matters keyword mechanics.

Here's the deal—mana cost reduction mechanics aren't as compelling for design as additional upside mechanics. Mana reduction is notoriously powerful. However, when you have the extra mana lying around anyway, mana cost reduction gives you zero bonus. Additional upside will always be a reward. Mana cost reduction is harder to develop and leans Spike, additional upside is easier to develop and leans Timmy. Sets normally require much more Timmy-leaning content than Spike-leaning content coming out of design.

So ... my advice with revelation and hold-out is: Go with revelation and cut holdout.

AJ: This card looks like a ton of fun, and hints at a large amount of design space for revelation that I wouldn't have guessed at, and that I'm eager to see. A minor flaw is that revelation can trigger on an ability, and it would be a sad day for X to be zero because I only had abilities to use and no other spells in hand.

KD: This card has Timmy appeal, but I'm not sure it holds together well enough on its own—in the absence of the other cards in the set—to really get my gears turning.

MR: Here's a general design tip. The more compex the set-up the simpler the effect. In other words, if you're going to make a player figure out how to do something, don't make them also have to figure out what is being done.

Revelation is complex enough. You have to have an effect that reveals a card (be aware of the fact that this card can't reveal itself will confuse people), then choose to reveal this card, then pay the mana cost and then you get the effect.

This card then says wait, now that you've done all that let's think back to the last spell you played. Got it? Now take this number that you might not even remember and then use it to generate an effect. I understand an advanced player could do all this in his sleep but you are asking a lot of most players.

I mentioned above that I feel hold-out and revelation are duking it out for one slot. Holdout has the advantage that you only have to write one effect on the card. Revelation has a little more design space. I would figure out by next week which one stays and which one goes.

4. Limited Information:
Darkfire Desperado (Uncommon)
Creature- Vampire Rogue
Spellslinger- When Darkfire Desperado enters the battlefield, you may reveal a card from your hand. If that card is red, Darkfire Desperado deals 2 damage to target creature or player.
-a powerful creature/removal spell for limited and constructed that will shape deck construction decisions in both format types

KEN: I thought it was a cool Fire Imp sort of creature. But no, he's black. Perhaps an ally color cycle? We do those sometimes like Slavering Nulls in Worldwake. Defines some Limited archetypes and draft guiderails.

Then, I notcied it has deathtouch. Er ... ?? Why is a creature with deathtouch sometimes doing 2 direct damage? That makes no sense.

I do wonder what the red one does so I can reveal my Ace of Ants and pay to get three Insects for double upside. That's the nature of cycles—they create anticapation, juxtaposition for contrast, saturation of a mechanic, and sometimes even a scapegoat (Frost Titan is the crappy Titan! Wow those others are so great by comparison!).

The further I noticed this card was from Fire Imp, the less I liked it. This card would make a cool Fire Imp, though.

AJ: I almost missed the two-color nature of this card. Communicating that on a real card is much easier when mana symbols are involved; I wish this ability was able to get around that somehow, as I prefer cards to clearly advertise what colors they "are." That's minor though—this card is awesome. I do like how this will play differently from gold cards but works well alongside them. My biggest concern for spellslinger is that, on mono-color cards, it's much less interesting unless you check a different characteristic, and then you're muddying the waters for how spellslinger works. It's a balance decision that I'll leave up to you, as I don't know what's better without seeing designs.

KD: This is a great Limited Information choice, with interesting implications both for deck building and in-game strategy.

MR: In general, I like the "enter the battlefield" effects with a required reveal. It does reveal one of the downsides of hold-out/revelation—that they make every reveal spell have to add extra words (they now let you reveal a card other than the subset you need to set off reveal triggers).

I'm not sure why you're making an essentially off color activation, but if it fits into some larger part of your design, I'm fine with it. I'd just like to understand what it is.

The fact that you had the card deal 2 damage means to me you probably didn't get its combination with deathtouch.

My one last comment is that you only get so much busy space and you are using a lot of yours on reveal effects. Make sure that's where you want to allocate these extra words.

5. Savor the Flavor
Sand Tribe Raiders (Rare)
[Sandwild Raiders-
Creature - Viashino Warrior
Whenever Sand Tribe Raiders deals combat damage to a player, have a showdown with that player. If you win, that player sacrifices two permanents. (Starting with you, each player in the showdown may reveal a card from his or her hand. Repeat this process until neither of you reveals a card. A player wins if his or her revealed cards had a higher total converted mana cost.)
-a solid rare that introduces Showdown and allows Doug to elaborate on the roles of the native Viashino and Elf tribes in the story while describing the flavor behind Showdown

KEN: Showdown isn't sitting well with me. We just flop our hands on the table and see who wins? Once we know the winner, we write down each other's hand, and that player is quite likely to win further showdowns. That's less drama per game, not more—like I'm sure showdown is trying to instill. Perhaps your opponent reveals one card, and you reveal one card to try to match its CMC or card type or something? Whatever it happens to be, showdown can't stay this way. It favors hording your cards in your hand, but Magic games flow much better with "cast a spell or control enough things, get a cookie" designs.

AJ: The flavor of showdown is awesome, and this card is a fine, if somewhat generic, example of it. Unfortunately, the actual mechanics of showdown bother me—you've got a complex process for an end result that differs little from simply "reveal your hands."

KD: I'd rather see something legendary here for the first week of previews, but this is a decent angle for talking about the flavor of the setting.

MR: I love the viashino in this setting. I wish you'd do a little more to find Magic creatures that feel like they naturally fit in a western. The elves, by the way, are an odd fit for me.

Design-wise, my biggest issue with this card is that the effect generated isn't partiuclarly red. Also the fact that the opponent chooses what gets sacrificed makes it feel less like the Raiders are doing the destroying.

Now let's get to the real issue—showdown. I really do like the gunslinging feel of it. The current implementation seems too busy and reveals more hidden information than I like. My other concern is that the mechanic this feels closest to, clash from Lorwyn block, is considered a failure by R&D.

I do believe there is something here, but if you're going to keep it, it needs to have some changes:

  1. Keep it simple. This wants to feel like a quickdraw—something one and done.
  2. Keep it flavorful. The mechanics major saving grace is its resonance. Don't lose that.
  3. Keep it not random. The best chance to stay clear of clash is to keep it from feeling random. You're current version isn't random but as you address other issues don't lose that.

6. Building on a Budget
Ghost Town (Uncommon)
Tap: Add 1 to your mana pool.
2w, Tap: Put a 1/1 white Spirit creature token with flying onto the battlefield. Play this ability only if a creature was put into a graveyard from the battlefield this turn.
a readily available card that could easily be the centerpiece of multiple budget decks

KEN: This is a pretty nice token generator. There's fun here for many players. Has some flavor, too.

AJ: I don't have much to say about this card. It looks eminently printable, and sets off neither alarms nor "wow" sensors in my head.

KD: I'm not sure what a budget deck built around this card would look like, as this seems like a difficult condition for a budget deck to consistently fulfill. There might be an article here, but I would be a little nervous sending this one out to a Building on a Budget author.

MR: I like it. Is this ability something you're going to play around with or is this just on this one card? My only question is whether or not this should work off of any creature dying or just your creatures.

7. Top Decks
Deadly Recriminations (Rare)
Destroy all creatures.
Retaliate- If a creature you control was destroyed this turn, you many cast Deadly Recriminations as though it had flash.
a format-defining rare with serious constructed applications and a heritage that can be traced back to Rout

KEN: The retaliate mechanic is somehow different from the mechanic sitting on Ghost Town? Also, retaliate would play nicer on some kind of Caller of the Claw or Twilight Shepherd—cards that recuperate loss. Leveling the playing field when you're behind is compelling enough at sorcery speed.

AJ: This card makes me go back to Ghost Town—why doesn't Ghost Town use retaliate? I think the ability provides some good mechanical space, but this is a strange reward to showcase. Most of the times that my creatures are dying, the flash ability won't help me much, or I won't be in a situation where I can and want to cast Day of Judgment.

KD: This has a potentially powerful effect, and it's not immediately clear to me where it fits—a fine choice for Top Decks.

MR: Retaliate is flavorful (if there's one thing to say about all your mechanics, it is they're flavorful). One of the problems of previewing the rare is I don't get to see the plain execution but the fancy one. I assume the effects aren't always the flash one.

I would prefer that retaliate hit harder rather than add flexibility to the spell. The flavor is you're mad, so I guess I'd like to see things where you get that sense of actual retaliation. Turn 2 damage into 4 damage, that kind of thing.

8. From the Lab
Cardsharp's Knack (Rare)
1u: Draw a card, discard a card, and then reveal a card from your hand.
a great Johnny card that, in addition to working well with Revelation, Hold-Out, and Showdown; works well in almost any combo deck

KEN: So random. Why does Mental Discipline need a useless reveal clause? "I kept this Island!" Next activation, "I still kept this Island!" Next turn, "It's still an Island." That would get very annoying.

Oh yes, hold-out. I would either make the reveal relevant or dangle the mechanical participle out there much further.

Internally, Matt Place proposed this card that contains a useless reveal:

You Don't Get To Play With Your Toys
1, T: Target opponent reveals the top card of his or her library, then puts it on the bottom of his or her library.
[/MV text]
You get to laugh every time your opponent puts a good card on the bottom of their deck. Still, such a card is open for debate.

AJ: I hope we wouldn't print a card that randomly had "reveal a card!" tacked on as an afterthought, with no mechanical relevance. This card looks really weird in a vacuum, and operates strangely in game play too unless you have a "reveal me" card.

KD: This would certainly see use in From the Lab as a general draw-smoothing agent and discard/draw outlet for things like dredge. The new and exciting thing here, though, is the reveal, and that's only really exciting with other cards from this block. So despite being able to slot into nearly any combo deck, this is one I wouldn't want From the Lab building around until after previews.

MR: How about, draw a card then reveal a card and discard it? Having the reveal at the end feels odd when essentially you just had to show a card two seconds earlier.

My big worry of this card is that you are trying to stick in reveals on cards that might not naturally want a reveal. I don't want the reveals feeling tacked on. You have to find places where the reveal feels natural. You shouldn't have cards, like above, that make the reveal feel out of place for someone that doesn't get the bigger picture of the set.

9. The Week that Was
Fury's Blade (Uncommon)
[Crystal Stave-
Artifact - Equipment
Equipped creature gets +2/+1 and has provoke.
Equip 3
Retaliate - 0: Attach Fury's Blade to a creature you control. Activate this ability only if a creature you control was destroyed this turn. (Lethal damage causes creatures to be destroyed.)
goes well in most any aggressive deck

KEN: This has a little bit of the mana reduction problem. If you had three mana lying around, you get nothing. The instant equip is nice. I don't like granting provoke—it's not the most fun ability ever printed combined with stat bonus. It's fun to assemble a Lure + Basilisk, this might do it all too easily. This card will lend itself to creating a large creature that can just Visara the Dreadful your opponent every turn.

AJ: I love this use of retaliate the most so far—if you destroy the equipped creature, I have every reason to use the ability. Of course, if you destroy an unrelated creature, it's a stretch at best as to why I should be able to activate this ability; I'd expect you to correct this if this was just a random Equipment card, but it's an acceptable flaw when it's a side-effect of a more generalized keyword.

KD: This is a strong and appealing card with interesting applications. A good choice.

MR: I'll make the same note from the last retaliate card. I'd like the reataliate mechanic to feel more like you're retaliating.

Next, let me ask you if you feel provoke is carrying its weight. Provoke is a great mechanic and the name clearly makes sense in the western genre. That said, what is it doing mechanically for you? I'm not saying there isn't an answer, but I haven't seen it yet.

A note specifically on this card—I do not like instant moving of Equipment. We tried it in Fifth Dawn and I wasn't happy with the result. Instant moving for no mana seems even worse to me. I would tweak this card by making the card move it for and restricting it to "sorcery" speed.

10. Latest Developments
Mortician's Glee (Common)
Exile target card in a graveyard. You gain life equal to that card's converted mana cost.
Hold-out B
surprises opponents by providing you with a needed life swing or by removing a key card from an opponent's graveyard. Allows Tom to tell Hold-Out's development story

KEN: Tom's development story for this card would be, "Nobody played with it. That's the story of Mortician's Glee." It's such weak sauce for a Latest Developments preview card—the 14th pick Shadowfeed is so much cleaner. The game needs narrow cards that perform a specific task, but perhaps it should hold-out 0 for extra tricks? Sometimes the game needs a Faerie Macabre because a Reveillark is too stupid.

AJ: Since you've already shown us hold-out, this card is sending me mixed signals. Graveyard spot removal doesn't appear to tie into your set themes in any way, and yet previewing this card (and the fact that it's a common) tells me it does. I wouldn't blink at this seeing print in a set with hold-out, but I do when it's a common preview card.

KD: This would be a reasonably good excuse to talk about the development of hold-out, but I'd rather see something splashier than a Cremate variant here.

MR: We only tend to do graveyard removal in common in sets that the graveyard is relevant enough that we want to make sure players have access to it. Also, I feel that if you're going to use hold-out you're going to want to have effects a little more relevant than this one.

KEN: I'm a fan of blunt, so I'll be blunt: I want this wild-west world to win. Unfortunately, these cards aren't going to get it there. I'm saddled up with food and ammo, but this designer's going to capsize the wagon in the river, the oxen dead from malaria. The design needs better execution. It would be very easy to win me over—just make a Verdant Force with revelation for a 1/1 and it'd be my favorite card this round. "Soon I'll have my Ace of Ants! But in the meantime its ant babies will gnaw on you ... !"

I feel compelled to push this designer out of the stagecoach into the river and take the reins. I'll get us down the Oregon Trail, cholera be damned!

Highlight: Ace of Ants
Lowlight: Sandwild Raiders

AJ: I love the "wild west" theme—a flavor Magic hasn't really touched upon yet. I feel you captured part of that space well with showdown, and I'll wave in spellslinger with a bye, but hold-out, revelation, and retaliate don't resonate with my flavor neurons.

I think hold-out and revelation overlap too much—since both cover a lot of similar design space, you should pick one and stick with it. I also don't understand why you have to control the spell or ability revealing a card—there's no reason this can't be a natural foil to discard effects.

I like where you've gone with a lot of these cards and abilities; my main concern is you seem to be having trouble syncing up and balancing your themes, abilities, and messaging. Find the sweet spot and you'll be in great shape.

KD: These previews generally match up well with the columns, and they do a great job in aggregate of illustrating the coherent theme of your world. The ones that make me nervous are the ones that reveal a card for reasons that aren't internal to the card—those are linear cards in disguise, and they make for tough previews.

MR: Daniel, your world and design is dripping with flavor. You also have by far the most resonant theme of any of the finalists. The problem for you to tackle is that your mechanics, while connected to your world, aren't as cohesive as they need to be from a game play standpoint.

Just as I suggested to Scott, I really think you should mock up and play your cards. The key to good design is to capture the flavor of your set while also making a set that's fun to play. You've done a lot of the former but you need to work on the latter.

Like most of the applicants, you have more than is going to fit comfortably in your set. On top of that, you have numerous mechanics that are playing too close to one another. Figure out what is working best and use that. A big part of design is editing. This next week is going to be a week of editing for you.

My challenge for you is to figure out the essence of what you want to do and then pick the best of your ideas, or find better ideas, that fill those roles.

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