The Great Designer Search 2 Finalists

Posted in Feature on November 10, 2010

By Staff

Jonathan Woodward

Part I - The World

A. The plane of Golamo.

B. Geysers of pure mana have grown small creatures large, and suffuse the world with enchantment.

MR: Let's just say you are not accentuating the positive as much as you can in your logline. I want marketing ad speak and I'm getting science text book.

C. Golamo was once a plane much like any other, destined to be ruled by humans, goblins, and elves. However, in prehistoric times, vast currents of mana, built up beneath the surface of the plane, began erupting as geysers of concentrated mana. These geysers had the greatest influence upon the smallest creatures, and those creatures grew large, and some became intelligent. Golamo is now ruled by the sentient ants of the Graforman Empire, who war with the Vax barbarian rat tribes and the mysterious and deadly Kohmorr bat people. The secretive Thamarach spiders remain aloof, spinning webs of enchantment from the mystical energy the geysers still spew into the air.

The fate that Golamo might have had is not entirely lost, however. In pools of water, reflective surfaces, and the shimmering spray of the geysers, one can sometimes see beings who look much like the elves and goblins, demons and angels of other planes. Both Graforman and Kohmorr researchers believe that these are the creatures that might have been, and seek ways to give them form and gain their aid in this conflict. (This will happen in the second set.)

MR: I like that your world feels like a big change from a normal Magic world. (You might also want to borrow the Underland books from Jonathon after he reads them – if you—haven't read them already.) I'm not quite sure where you're going with the block but I'm intrigued.

D. The flavor of Golamo is represented by its mechanics in two main ways.

First, the most striking aspect of Golamo is the flows of magic that circulate and cling to living things. This mana that the geysers spray into the air gives Golamo and its residents a particular affinity for enchantments. This is represented by a large quantity of auras in the set, many of which include the Incarnate keyword, which allows creature enchantments to be cast as stand-alone creatures. The Thamarach and their Graforman pupils interact with auras as well through the Favored ability, which can give them auras when they enter the battlefield. Some Kohmorr wizards have the ability to move auras around, as well.

On the other hand, the rapacious nature of rats, ants, and other (formerly) small creatures is represented by the Swarm and Hunger abilities. Swarm is a creature ability that functions much like Banding on offense, and makes it difficult to stop small creatures with the ability from eventually overwhelming the defenders. Hunger, on the other hand, is a keyword that exists on Instants and Sorceries, and consumes a creature you control in order to copy the spell. The Vax often have abilities which trigger upon a creature being sacrificed to Hunger, while some Kohmorr benefit from dealing combat damage to an opponent.

MR: Not to sound like a broken record, but perhaps you don't need this many mechanics. I'll hit them in the card-by-card. It is clear you were thinking of how to sell flavor with your mechanics. As you'll see there is some room for improvement here.

Part II - The Cards

1. Arathori, the Spellspinner (mythic rare)
Legendary Creature - Spider Wizard
Favored, Favored (When Arathori enters the battlefield, look at the top three cards of your library. You may attach an Aura card from among them to Arathori. Put the rest on the bottom of your library in any order. Then do it again.)
Other creatures you control have Favored.

KEN: With favored, favored, is it possible just one favored doesn't do enough? Three cards is awfully shallow to dig for prizes. This creature definitely needs square-stats (5-drop 5/5). We often square-stat our mythic creatures to make them more appealing—it's harder to find fault in square-stat creatures.

During development, we changed Mossbridge Troll from indestructible to super-regeneration because Magic trolls regenerate. I mention this because ... Magic Spiders have reach.

AJ: This would definitely get me to put some Auras in my deck; I'm not sure "three" is good enough to get me to continue playing them, but that's what playtesting and development is for. I like the reasonable variance the mechanic brings. Nice showcase card.

KD: I'm torn here. This is clearly a storyline character, and potentially an interesting card. However, having this unfamiliar keyword appear no fewer than three times on a single day one preview card is maybe a little much.

MR: I'll start by saying that I don't think the doubling up of favored is worth the confusion it's going to cause. If you really want the flexibility, you might consider putting a number after it. This mechanic does feel a lot like the kind of mechanic that we would put a number on as it seems like it has interesting design space at different numbers. (Like scry or cycling, you might want to start off by mainly using the same number save for a rare like this card.)

My biggest issue with favored is I'm not quite sure why it's in the set. I understand you have an "enchantment matters" theme but the use of enchantments have to have a larger purpose than "there's a lot of them." Your set is all about a world that's been warped by its magic. Use the enchantment theme to highlight this. Your theme shouldn't be "enchantment matters" but "enchantments reflect a warped world".

This card, by the way, feels pretty ho-hum to me for a mythic rare. If it wants to stay at mythic rare it needs something more to give it splash.

2. Graforman Commander (rare)
Creature - Insect Soldier
Trample, Swarm (Whenever a creature is declared to block Graforman Commander, it also blocks all other attacking creatures with Swarm. You choose the order in which the blocking creature deals damage to them.)
Whenever Graforman Commander attacks, put a 1/1 green Insect creature token with Trample and Swarm onto the battlefield tapped and attacking.

KEN: Swarm is doing something nifty. There's still wonkiness that needs ironed out. Is swarm an upside or downside mechanic? If the bizarre blocking creature damage order matters it's the upside portion, perhaps the mechanic should move into slightly different space. But there's probably something here if swarm becomes more straightforward.

AJ: I understand how trample and swarm interact, but I bet you most players would be confused, and a 1/1 with trample looks strange. My first read was "wow, my opponent is screwed if they block", but my second read was "but he can block all my creatures with a single creature!" So you're playing in good space, but this specific implementation might not be the best version.

KD: This is a hit—it shows off the swarm mechanic to good advantage by (in essence) showing me three creatures with it at once. Good Making Magic preview, good poster child for your mechanic.

MR: I admire the courage it takes to venture into the world of banding. I'm far from a rules expert but I am dubious that swarm works, at least the way you think it does. I'm pretty sure the timing is all wrong (things are blocked before this triggers so all blocking assignments have already happened) and it's messing with an area of the game that most players don't actually know how it works.

If you want to keep the essence of what you're trying to do, you're going to have to start over. Changing blocking after the fact is a no-no. If you're going to do it you have to force it when attacking occurs before blocking is declared.

Assuming swarm works, I like the general sense of this design in that it keeps feeding the swarm. I'm not sure if you want to add trample to a card (and tokens) that are going to cause confusing blocking scenarios.

3. Hamaliss, Watcher of the Winds (mythic rare)
Creature - Bat Wizard
1UB: Gain control of target Aura, and attach it to target permanent. (The new target must be legal.)

KEN: This looks like a card Aaron Forsythe is trying to sneak into a design file so his Ramses Overdark EDH deck can mess around with Confiscates. I don't know any other good reason for this card to be here because moving enchantments around is usually something we do as a surprise instant from the hand. Again with the random gold card—are boxes being checked for the design challenge?

AJ: This card doesn't feel mythic to me—Aura moving has appeared on uncommons, is fairly niche, and gaining control doesn't usually matter. More broadly, this means you haven't shown me anything unique here to sell the set or your designs, even though the card in a vacuum is perfectly printable.

KD: This is a potent multiplayer card with a big dream, and just enough griefing to make things interesting.

MR: Repeatable stealing just isn't all that fun. If you're going to let the card do it, you need to build in some restriction to keep it from just becoming a game of "don't play any Auras" for your opponent.

I also find it weird that this ability is on a 5/5 flyer that's just going to end the game in a few turns. This ability feels like it wants to go on a smaller creature that doesn't want to attack. This will also allow you to put a tap symbol in the activation which this card really wants.

I do like the 5/5 bat. I would like to get more a sense of giant things from your design.

4. Essence of Fear (common)
Enchantment - Aura
Enchant Creature
Enchanted creature gets +1/+1 and has Intimidate.
Incarnate: 1B (Pay 1B and exile this card from your hand to put a 0/0 colorless Weird creature token onto the battlefield, then put this card onto the battlefield attached to that token. Activate this ability only any time you could cast a sorcery.)

KEN: This designer nailed the implementation I'm most excited to try for Living Auras. Keyword, check. 0/0 token for least possible math, check. Matching mana cost and incarncate cost, check. Excellent. Why can't every card design submission be just as perfect?

AJ: We've seen this space several times in these submissions, and I'll repeat that I do like it, conceptually. Your choice of a 0/0 creature is the weakest, mechanically—your designs will be restricted by this. They will also have to compensate, power-wise, to be appealing, and I don't think this gets there. I don't see myself ever choosing to cast a 1/1 unblockable over making my other creatures unblockable.

KD: Limited Information is an excellent place to show off incarnate.

MR: This is an awesome mechanic. I like manifest, but I like incarnate even better. This is the kind of enchantment that gives some flavor to your world. If you're going to put this card at common, be aware that this is stealing a bunch of your common complexity points.

5. Blantoor, the Unpredictable Geyser (mythic rare)
[Unpredictable Geyser -
Legendary Land
T: Reveal the top card of your library. If that card is a land, add 3 to your mana pool, otherwise add 1 to your mana pool. Put the revealed card on the bottom of your library.

KEN: Woah. A land that taps for three sometimes. This is not design space we should mine. Development will return with a hole. Lands that sometimes explode are cool, though. Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle is the best card design in Zendikar. Perhaps an exploding land more in that vein?

AJ: You're making me think "lands matter" when you've told me "enchantments matter". This card is scary exciting—my spike-y senses tingle at the same time as I fear a format with broken turn one plays. I appreciate variance, but here the difference is so profound and the potential so scary that we wouldn't want to print this and make Magic games revolve around this card and a roll of the dice.

KD: This legendary land with a weirdo ability could certainly be the centerpiece of a Savor the Flavor article—what is this crazy place?

MR: Development gets nervous when design hands over cards that tap for two mana so I'm pretty sure three mana will produce a spit take. (Hmm, I should try that right after Tom takes a drink.)

Assuming a land can tap for three mana, this card seems fine. My only other complaint is it doesn't feel like a mythic rare to me. I might—gasp—call it a "utility card."

It's almost a certainty that development will kill this card (not necessarily a reason to cut it from design as often cards morph before they get to development) but I do like its flavor.

6. Favored Selection (uncommon)
[Favored Selection -
Search your library for an Aura card and reveal it, then shuffle your library and put the card third from the top. Draw a card.

KEN: I would appreciate just search your library for an Aura and put it on top of your library. Less weirdness and still allows favored + whatever the set's Eldrazi Conscription shenanigans might be. A fine card for this set.

AJ: I understand the "third from the top" clause and truly appreciate your goals here. It's just a little too fiddly and mechanical when followed by "draw a card," and hard to correct when a player inevitably mixes the steps up.

KD: This is a fine potential build-around, with the caveat that there would need to be some search-worthy Auras in the preceding sets.

MR: For a card that seems like it should be very simple, this card is far from simple. I understand that it's trying to play nicely with favored, but it has a lot more moving parts than it needs.

For starters, I'm not a fan of a card that puts a card some number from the top and then draws you a card. Odds are if this was in one of my sets it would, as Ken suggests, turn into Enlightened Tutor for Auras (Enlightened Tutor is considered over the curve in R&D).

7. Patarvali, the Uprooted (mythic rare)
[Treehugger -
Planeswalker - Patarvali
+2: Search your library for a Forest card, and put it onto the battlefield.
-3: Add G to your mana pool for each land you control.
-7: Forests you control are 4/4 Green Treefolk creatures, in addition to their other types.

KEN: This is a nice planeswalker design any green mage can appreciate. It's not doing anything new, though. It reads like a core set planeswalker. Expansion sets are looking more for planeswalker designs one step off the beaten path. I appreciate getting a normal-looking card submission, but everyone in R&D can do planeswalkers like this. Why should Bill Rose sign an additional paycheck to a designer whose skills are a subset of other employees?

AJ: These abilities tell a great story; they work well together while giving you different avenues to explore. Well done. I just wish it didn't feel like a color-shifted Koth of the Hammer.

KD: A powerful and appealing planeswalker. It could easily go somewhere else, but it fits in Top Decks very well.

MR: A Treefolk planeswalker, I like. I'm also quite happy with this design. All the abilities make sense with each other and the overall flavor is wonderful. Ken is correct that this design feels like a core set design, but if having a Treefolk planeswalker is central to your set, I wouldn't mind this in an expert expansion.

8. Gift of the Geysers (rare)
Legendary Artifact
Whenever an Aura is put into your graveyard from the battlefield, you may return it to your hand.

KEN: Is it legendary to remove appeal from the card? Why not a enchantment? Oh yeah, design challenge contraints. It would be nice if a must-be-an-artifact card was sitting here. Other designers were more deft at hiding their obtuse design constraints. The card itself is fine enough, if a little too Treachery-matters for my tastes.

AJ: Why is this an artifact? Everything about this card's (and your set's) flavor says it should be an enchantment. I'm also not convinced it needs to be legendary. This does make me more interested in playing favored and incarnate.

KD: This is a very good From the Lab preview card that gets my Johnny wheels turning.

MR: This card seems fine although I agree with Ken and Alexis that this feels like it was made into an artifact to fulfill a quota as the card wants to be an enchantment from a set perspective. Development may put a cost to get the Aura back, but let development worry about that. This card is leading me to believe that you don't have an enchantment theme as much as you have an Aura theme.

9. Essence of Leadership (uncommon)
[Essence of Leadership -
Enchantment - Aura
Enchant Creature
Enchanted creature and all other creatures you control that share a creature type with it get +2/+2.
Incarnate: (Pay 1WW and exile this card from your hand to put a 0/0 colorless Weird creature token onto the battlefield, then put this card onto the battlefield attached to that token. Activate this ability only any time you could cast a sorcery.)

KEN: This card is trying to be a build-around-me ... kind of, except it costs double color and functions best in a ... Weird deck? The second white mana definitely shouldn't be there. It's possible this card should just be Alpha Status or something because it'll be impossible to divorce it from "it belongs in a Weird deck!" You want Soldier players and Cat players to consider the card, not give them a Weird excuse to pass on it.

AJ: A double-crusade with extra abilities doesn't feel uncommon to me, but this creative use of incarnate is great. In another set, this could be a neat card even without incarnate.

KD: I don't think this is a good choice for the first preview week, because there won't be a lot of other Weirds known yet to make the incarnate half of the card interesting.

MR: This card is cool. I like that incarnate allows you to build an incarnate deck with this as its lord. I'm not sure if this card is uncommon but if you're pushing an Aura theme possibly it is.

10. Devouring Flame (rare)
Devouring Flame deals damage to target player equal to the number of creatures you control.
Hunger (You may sacrifice a creature. If you do, copy this spell. You may choose a new target for the copy.)

KEN: This card feels like it is punishing the player for using the hunger ability. If you have three creatures but really need 5 damage, you'll wish you had Lava Axe. I wish it counted lands—something else except precisely the number of creatures I control. It also seems common-esque, definitely not rare. Downhill Charge always felt like a cruel designer's joke to me. Hunger might work as a mechanic in general, but it sure feels poorly implemented here.

AJ: The kind of tension on this card is usually bad; here it's fine as a simple math problem on a rather blunt object. Hunger feels a bit sideways to everything else in the set; granted, you usually want something in that vein, but this underwhelms me enough that my mind needs to make stuff up to justify it's place—stuff that you've hinted at in your commentary, but didn't show in cards.

KD: Simple, clean, powerful execution of an intriguing keyword mechanic. Latest Developments is a great spot for that sort of thing.

MR: With a few successes in a row, we get to a card that I don't like. Let's start with the hunger mechanic. Storm has proven to be problematic and while this is no storm it does have some of the "and I kill you" moments that makes storm unfun.

Copying spells usually wants to either have mana or have a restriction of how many copies you can make. Yes, I understand the limit is the number of creatures you have in play but when the end result is "you're dead," it's not that big a restriction. The fact that out of the blue, for no mana, you can copy a spell many, many times makes for an unfun mechanic. In addition, I'm not sure what this mechanic is supposed to show about your world. And on top of everything else, it doesn't seem to have any mechanical synergy with the rest of the set.

Even if hunger is fine, this particular spell seems a poor match for it. For starters, putting free copies on a card that can directly kill the opponent seems a poor choice. Also putting a mechanic that sacrifices creatures on a spell that counts creatures may sound clever but it is going to cause confusion.

All in all, this is a big miss in a field of hits.

Commentary: These cards begin with the wise spider Arathori, an important character in the story, who showcases both the unusual races of the set, and uses Favored to hint at the mechanical focus on auras and enchantment. Later cards demonstrate the other three keywords of the set (Swarm, Incarnate, and Hunger), as well as two more of the four main creature types (Insect and Bat, but not Rat). They also hint at the Graforman proclivity for producing creature tokens, and the Kohmorr desire to steal the auras which the Thamarach spin. Space concerns, and a desire to present cards in a logical order, mean that players have yet to be introduced to the rat-like Vax tribes and their connection with the Hunger ability. The Graforman tribal nature, as well as Kohmorr saboteur abilities, are also as-yet undisclosed.

KEN: Spiders and other offbeat races are appealing to the player in me. Categorically, there are the enchantment mechanics on the left side of the Raging River and insectoid hive army mechanics on the right side. I'm more interested in the right side. If there was a "breakable" variance mechanic for the tectonic instability aspect you've hinted it, I might like that too.

Highlight: Essence of Fear
Lowlight: Box Checking

AJ: I love the implications of establishing new sentient races from giant insects, and the beings that "might have been" could be very interesting, or very rote, depending on implementation. Your "geysers of concentrated mana" are skating dangerously close to the "MANA HAS GONE CRAZY!" trope, which brings with it a boatload of flavor problems that I'm skeptical can be solved in a Magic design. If you do go in that direction, be careful. I feel like the enchantments theme is somewhat hand-wavy—why does magic affinity imply enchantments rather than instants, sorceries, or artifacts? It feels a bit tacked-on from a flavor perspective, which sort of summarizes my biggest problem with your overall design—I'm having trouble putting all the pieces together in my head to create a world.

I think "enchantments" are a fine place for a set to go, but if you're going to run with an obvious mechanical theme, you have to work extra-hard to show your creativity and innovation. You've shown me some great designs here—make it work as a holistic whole.

KD: You did a great job matching cards up with columns. The cards also do a relatively good job getting me excited about the set. This lineup hits the Aura note hard, and I like that. However, the token theme is underrepresented, and—except subtly via incarnate—feels pretty disconnected from the rest of the set.

MR: Jonathan, your design has one of the best executions of all the finalists. Many of your cards could be printed as is (well, let development take a pass first). My biggest problem with your design is that I want more focus.

You have a neat world concept and your cards mostly play nicely with one another, but I don't see those two things blending as nicely as I would hope. I don't, for example, quite get what "Aura matters" (and note your set right now is "Aura matters" and not "enchantment matters") means in the context of your world.

Also, I was sold a bill of goods in your description that I want to see fleshed out. Your assignment for next week is to show me your world in your cards and your mechanics. Make me see why Auras do in fact mean something.

In addition, I want to see mechanically what the warping of the world has done to it. I feel like if this world isn't a normal world that the cards will reflect this difference. I'm seeing too much "business as normal" and not enough "strange new world." Your world concept intrigues me. Let me see that world in your cards.

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