The Great Designer Search 2 Finalists

Posted in Feature on November 24, 2010

By Staff

Ethan Fleischer


Planeswalkers exploit the evolutionary potential of a primitive plane where centuries pass in hours.

MR: I see that you've solved the planeswalker problem by making a world that moves at a different time rate than the worlds around it. I'm not quite sure what that means to someone on the world—Do the inhabitants of this world sense time any differently or is it only apparent when one travels to and from Epolith? Nonetheless, a very clever answer to a tricky problem.

My bigger issue though is that I feel you're scratching the surface of what's interesting without really presenting to us what is captivating about your world. You're hitting the idea of time passing but you don't give any sense to why it matters. Also, your logline is more focused on the planeswalkers than the world itself.

You're getting closer and the "where centuries pass in hours" is intriguing, but I want to understand why it matters to this set. What does your logline tell me about the set you're trying to excite me about?

Creature - Horse
Evolve - Whenever a creature with a power greater than CARDNAME's power enters the battlefield under your control, put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME.

KEN: Creatures that grow with +1/+1 counters should be N/N if at all possible. However, making this a 1/1 somewhat impedes its ability to grow. It should be 1/1 in any case, whatever rarity that implies. The keyword here should be in parentheses. As is, it makes me think evolve is the just the first trigger and the bonus is different on other cards (like landfall).

MT: Evolves existence as an ability word seems a little backwards to me, although this is not strictly a rules issue. I believe the common thread should be what causes the bonus (like with landfall and metalcraft), not with what the bonus is. This way is less visible, especially to opponents.

MR: I told you this set was about evolution and you listened. One of the biggest additions is the evolve mechanic. (You learned an important design trick: if you want something to be clear, just use the word in your design. How do I know this set is about evolution? The mechanic is called "evolve.")

My first impression is that you should pick a single trigger, possibly one per color if you really need to have different triggers. Having different triggers made playing with the evolve cards way more mentally taxing than you want them to be. Multiple times I falsely thought it evolved differently than it did.

If I was going to hook evolve or even just green evolve into one trigger, I would choose the version on this card. It's flavorful and actually played well. It mattered in a way that affected how the games played out.

The other neat thing about this version of evolve is that while it has some linearity built into it (especially if your set cares about +1/+1 counters), you can also just toss one of them into your deck and it should work just fine. My biggest concern with this trigger is how much space does it have built into it. I believe there is enough, but you also have to conserve your design space. More on this in a bit. Evolve creatures really want to start small to allow them room to grow so the available space is kind of tight.

This design space becomes an important issue especially if you plan to use the mechanic throughout the block. I do admit that if the block is about evolution, my assumption is that evolve weaves its way throughout the block. I also assume it evolves along the way. I'm not sure if you have any idea how to evolve evolve but as we're only asking you to show stuff for this set it's not going to be something you're going to have to show.

I also like that the first card is about as basic as you could get. I see what Ken is saying as 1/1 is easier to track. I could see the argument though to start at 0/1 to give it more room to grow.

Wandering Elf
[Sylvan Ranger - Magic 2011]
Creature — Elf Nomad
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, you may search your library for a basic land card, reveal it, put it into your hand, then shuffle your library.

KEN: Nice for a reprint.

MR: Here's your repeat. While the card is fine and I'm sure is plenty useful in the set, I'm a little disappointed that the repeat isn't more ingrained into your set. One of the great things about reprints is when the designer can find a card from the past that takes on a different meaning when put into the new environment. This really helps the players get a sense of the game changing.

I feel like you chose a utility card that does a basic function. Essentially, you had a chance to stretch and you chose something safe. Not a horrible act, but a missed opportunity for someone trying to show off their design skills.

Cave Bear
[Growing Bear -
Creature - Bear
Evolve - Whenever a creature with a power greater than CARDNAME's power enters the battlefield under your control, put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME.

KEN: I found this mechanic fun, but I would template it so an instant like Giant Growth can get in there and affect the outcome.

MR: Evolve card number two. Another simple card which I appreciate. You also managed to make a strictly better than Grizzly Bear, a passage for any young designers. I am humored that as the creator of evolve this wasn't attributed to you, but I'll chalk it up to you trying to toss credit to your team, an admirable quality.

Fertility Shaman
[Totally Subtle Elf Design -
Creature - Elf Shaman
Whenever you cast an Enchantment spell, put a 1/1 green Elf creature token onto the battlefield.

KEN: This is very loud. It's so generous, but maybe not in a bad way.

MR: I have a couple issues with this card but I'll start with what I predict will be the most common response I'll make today: this isn't a common. This card is a repeatable token maker. It mostly happens at sorcery speed so it isn't a board complexity issue, but token making is something we tend to limit at common. Make one or possibly two tokens—we'll do that at common. Much more than that and you're moved up to at least uncommon. Add to that that this is a repeatable effect and you just aren't going to see this at common in a modern day set. (Ravnica did do it as token creation was a major component of Selesnya, but I'm not sure we'd do repeatable token making at common now.)

The rarity though is the lesser issue. What I'm most interested in is what is this card doing here? Why does your set want an "enchantment matters", at common, no less? Its existence at common says that it's a significant sized theme but I don't understand what exactly you're doing with it. Your write-up says that this is here not for an enchantment theme but a token theme.

I can respect tokens representing the indigenous people exploding in population, but I don't think this card is really helping that cause. Just take green common. There are two enchantments. How many tokens are you planning on making in Limited?

Anyway, I respect the idea that you're trying to branch out your theme, but I'm not sure this is the right theme to branch out and even if it is, I'm quite sure this isn't the card that's going to get the job done.

Mischievous Monkey
[Curious Ape -
Creature - Ape
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, put target artifact into its owner's library third from the top.

KEN: A nice card with a purpose. I'll mention it's mean to your own things, which is OK.

MR: You talk about how you have more artifact removal than normal because you're planning to have a higher amount of artifacts than average. My question then is why? What about artifacts helps play up your prehistoric theme? In fact, we tend to make our artifacts items that have been crafted by someone. To me that reads as technology, something that I would think would be lower than normal not higher.

As for this card in particular, I'm not sure what it's up to. Green has artifact removal in its share of the color pie, but you've chosen instead to do a super bounce spell. I know that green has some history of putting cards on top of the library, but I don't understand what about this set wants to tap into that. If you want more artifact removal then you should print more artifact removal. This really isn't it.

Leaping Ornitholestes
[CG06 (unnamed) -
Creature - Lizard
G, Sacrifice CARDNAME: CARDNAME deals 3 damage to target creature with flying.

KEN: "Leaf Arrow Lizard" is something I like. I like green cards too much in general.

MR: There is a big debate in R&D where green "flying hate" is supposed to go. I'm a traditionalist who likes to see it at uncommon, but as Leaf Arrow was just in Rise of the Eldrazi obviously this is the kind of effect we're willing to do at common. I generally like this card. You got the aesthetic by matching the damage to the power of the creature. I also like the mana in the activation to allow moments where your opponent can sneak in a flyer and boost it. Plus I feel like having a little bit of mana forces the controller to have to think about when and how to use it.

Wing-grabber Tree Spirit
[Arduous Arachnid -
Creature - Plant Spirit
Evolve - Whenever a creature with flying enters the battlefield under an opponent's control, put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME.

KEN: Here's more flyer hate. I guess two is fine. The evolve mechanic is super-weird now, it doesn't mean the same thing on cards. It is much harder to pay attention to different triggers than figure out the results of that trigger. Landfall made that trigger "when a land enters the battlefield under your control."

MR: Normally green will have one anti-flying card at common. I prefer reach, but it's up to each designer how he wants to do it. Is a second anti-flying card a sign of some larger issue in the set? Does green's enemy have a bunch of flyers?

I do appreciate that you're giving the evolve creatures low power to allow them room to grow. But wait, this evolve card doesn't evolve like the first two. I'm disappointed for two reasons. One I liked the trigger from your first two designs and two, you've gone from a relatively simple to follow mechanic to one that can quickly become mind blowing. If each evolve creature has to look for a different trigger, it quickly becomes a lot harder to process for several reasons.

One, you have to now process every evolve creature that comes into play and figure out what it is doing. Then as the game progresses you have to remember all the evolve triggers and what creature each one is tied to. This might sound simple on the surface, but it's not. I would recommend seeing if you can get away with a single trigger (and I like the one for CG01 and CG03). If not, you need to at least restrict all the common evolve creatures to a single trigger. Note that it might be possible to have each color with evolve have its own trigger by color. This helps delineate them to make them easy to remember.

With that said, I have a different issue. This is the third evolve creature you have in common green. Usually, we tend to stop at two. The only reason to go to three is if the mechanic is fundamental in playing up some key aspect of the set and this isn't something we do in most sets. (Scars of Mirrodin did do this with infect, though.) I can see evolve being your main mechanic so maybe you can get away with it, but I'll admit that I would want to see more before signing off on a third creature in common with the mechanic.

Elven Memory Keeper
[Elvish Totem-Scroungers -
Creature - Elf Shaman
When CARDNAME comes into play, you may return an enchantment card from your graveyard to your hand.

KEN: We've got more enchantments-matter loudness. I like that this curves higher than say Auramancer—it's more often you'll have a dead enchantment when you hit four lands than when you hit three.

MT: "enters the battlefield"

MR: Below you say that your subtheme in green is tokens, but this is the second card that's "enchantment matters." I don't know what you're doing with it, so if it's going to stay you had better define what it's doing in the set.

Also, returning enchantments is white's slice of the color pie. Green returns any card or sometimes permanents as a whole class. On top of that, we tend to do most regrowing at uncommon in green unless it's playing into a major theme of the set, which I don't think this is.

The one last problem is that you have a minor theme that you're putting in to allow some variety in Limited play. But then you put it on a body that's going to get grabbed up before the player who really needs it is able. Usually, creatures supporting secondary themes are given a bodies that are merely okay, allowing the drafter who values that theme to have a better chance of nabbing them.

Sluggish Sauropod
[Lumbering Maiasaur -
Creature - Lizard
Whenever CARDNAME attacks, it doesn't untap during its controller's next untap step.

KEN: WOW. So big! There's too much generosity in these commons somewhere.

MR: I like the dinosaurs. They do a good job of helping to sell prehistoric. I wish there was a little more cohesion among the dinosaurs whose only link seems to be their size. This card does have nice flavor and is simple enough for common. Finally, while this is a little more development than design, you have to remember that a creature with an attack disadvantage still gets to block without any problem. Would we make a 6/4 creature with defender? Maybe. With additional upside, like, it's able to attack? Probably not.

Velociraptor Pack
Creature - Lizard

KEN: Slash! Is the dinosaur mechanical theme "huge and undercosted?"

MR: In modern day design, green is number two for the most creatures (white's now #1; green was #1 for many, many years). With eighteen cards, green is going to be close to 50% creature cards. That means this CG10 should be the start of the noncreature cards. I'll give you that maybe prehistoric world might want a slightly higher creature percentage than average so maybe this card's okay.

I do like the flavor of flash with a pack of tiny, aggressive dinosaurs. Flash will also let it interact with evolve. As long as you keep this to a minimum for board complexity, I think it will make for some fun plays.

Creature - Lizard
Evolve - Whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control, put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME.
CARDNAME has trample as long as it has a +1/+1 counter on it.

KEN: This trample ability has extra words for no real reason. Trample only matters when it attacks. You get to drop a land just before you attack with this for the first time. One land drop turns it on for the rest of the game. Is that really worth the "CARDNAME has as long as it has a +1/+1 counter on it" words when you could just write "trample" there? I think not. I don't think trample is necessary. Five-drop 4/4 commons with the Vinelasher Kudzu ability don't need more upside.

MT: This card touches upon another ability word: landfall. With ability words, this is fine, but we avoid spelling out abilities that would otherwise be a keyword. R&D debates whether we should print a creature with bushido rules text but not bushido, for example.

MR: Now I'd say you're just getting greedy. The reason newer designers tend to make more creatures than we traditionally do is twofold. First, people falsely perceive the game as having a higher percentage of creatures (plus R&D has pulled the percentage down a bit over the last few years). Second, green common creatures are just a lot easier to design than green common spells.

My other issue with this card has to do with its evolve mechanic. Let's begin with the fact that this is the fourth creature with evolve in green common. It's too much. Like I said above, normally you'd have one or two. If the set really needs it, maybe three. But four is right out. You already have too many creatures, so at least it's an easier decision about what to pull.

My other issue has to do with the trigger. As I explained above, I am not a fan of evolve changing triggers from creature to creature especially in the same color in common. For what it's worth, this trigger is less flavorful for me as "evolution." I also agree with Ken that the trample ability is unnecessary.

Creature - Lizard

KEN: RAWR! Though, 7 power is a ton of power for any common creature at any cost. I like it here enough for theme. One could argue a dinosaur being large is quite a common occurrence. For what it's worth, I feel these dinosaurs would do the Muraganda plane some justice.

MR: Other than this being the twelfth common creature, I like this card. We try to put a vanilla creature in most colors at common, so I'm happy you found a way to do it that's very flavorful for the set.

Nature's Sacrifice
[CG14 (unnamed) -
Destroy target artifact or enchantment. Its controller may put a +1/+1 counter on a creature he or she controls.

KEN: This looks like it was designed to be an option in Vintage over Nature's Claim. Beats up on those lame creatureless decks. A tension card, but you haven't used up all your tension points yet.

MT: It's interesting that this card doesn't target the creature getting the +1/+1 counter. Was this intentional? Some players may mistakenly believe you can respond to the selection of the creature in the middle of this spell's resolution.

MR: I like to refer to this as "hot glue gun design." I have some effect that ties into my set. I have a basic effect I have to squeeze in. Pull out the glue gun. The reason this design feels extra glue gun to me is that the two abilities don't feel connected. Why does a creature grow bigger when an artifact of its controller's is destroyed?

Secondly, we tend to be careful doing negative drawbacks on basic effects. Most players cannot see the value of saving one mana versus the downside of making their opponent's best creature better. In short, it becomes a card that no one wants to play. If you really have to combine these two effects (and hint: you don't) it would work much better as a slightly more expensive Naturalize where you get to boost your own creature.

Selection Pressure
Put two +1/+1 counters on target creature.

KEN: This is a total smashing of a combat trick. Would people still draft it at ? I argue yes.

MR: This is a much better use of getting your +1/+1 counters into a base effect that green wants.

Heavy Shell
Enchantment - Aura
Enchant creature
You may remove a +1/+1 counter from CARDNAME's target rather than pay CARDNAME's mana cost.
Enchanted creature can't be the target of spells and abilities your opponents control.
1G: Regenerate enchanted creature.

KEN: I don't get the cost reduction here. You can make your guy worse first, then make it better. Maybe something more like: "CARDNAME costs less to cast for each counter on the creature it targets."

While I love a Canopy Cover in my sets, Troll Ascetic's embrace isn't common.

MT: And we have our first card that doesn't work. Congrats! Choosing to pay an alternative cost for a spell happens before you select a target. The game won't know whether the target has a +1/+1 counter on it by the time it needs to. You could have the +1/+1 counter be removed from a creature you control, just not the target. You may or may not take a flavor hit by doing this. I wouldn't know. (Wink.)

MR: I talked about this lesson last time, but it's an important one so I'll repeat it. "The more complex the set-up the simpler the effect." This aura has an alternative cost, and a quirky one at that. That means that you want this aura to have as simple an effect as possible. You could choose either the "troll shroud" (R&D nickname) or regeneration but the card just doesn't need both. In fact, I'm underwhelmed by both options and would like to see something that might be worth shrinking the size of my creature to play for free. Also, only being worth makes the free alt cost less exciting.

This card uses up a bunch of the very valuable complexity points you get at common. Is it worth it? I'm concerned this card won't be played, let alone be one of the shining jewels of common. I get that you want to be able to spend your +1/+1 counters but this card is too muddled and not clean enough to be the one green common card to do this.

Primordial Fog
Prevent all combat damage that would be dealt this turn.
Gain 1 life for each +1/+1 counter on creatures you control.

KEN: Quite the overtly mechanical card making the set's theme matter. We do these.

MR: I see you got some more use out of the glue gun. While I can see connecting life gain to a Fog effect, the +1/+1 counters just feels so forced. I'd either cut the +1/+1 counter reference or cut the Fog.

[Food From the Foliage -
Search your library for a basic land and put it onto the battlefield tapped, then shuffle your library. You may put a +1/+1 counter on a creature you control.

KEN: Fine. Really rewards your turn-two Runeclaw Bear or Vinelasher Kudzu. However, using a +1/+1 counter clause here could preclude you from making a cooler Battlegrowth instant combat trick instead.

MT: Unlike Nature's Sacrifice, this card doesn't have a target at all, which causes some weirdness. The downside of targeting is that some players may not believe that you can destroy the creature in response to stop the land searching. Of course, as we saw before, some players will also think you can respond to choosing the creature to get the +1/+1 counter.

MR: Glue gun card #3. Note that in each case you're trying to add the same component—the +1/+1 counters. I understand that these are a key part of your theme, but you are forcing it way, way too much. For example, how many of your eighteen cards care about +1/+1 counters? Ten of your eighteen cards. Over 50%. That's just too much.

On top of that, to do it you have to make cards that feel forced and unnatural. CG14 is the one card where I felt you did it right. The +1/+1 counters feel natural and make sense. The other success is the evolve creatures (assuming you clean up evolve). Creatures growing feels right.

This is also the second land-fetching card you have in green common. While we sometimes will put two in a set usually we put them at different rarities.

Venom Glands
Enchantment - Aura
Enchant Creature
You may remove two +1/+1 counters from CARDNAME's target rather than pay CARDNAME's mana cost.
Enchanted creature has deathtouch.

KEN: Enchanting your creature with -2/-2 just to give it deathtouch looks like a bad deal to everyone. There are a couple other irksome things here: In game play, just evaluating what cards you can play is a game unto itself. I've seen players do nothing while a card like Walker of the Grove sits in their hand, despite downside text (evoke) buried in the card that allows it to be cast. The game identifies cards you can cast at any time as "Instant" on the type line, but this card has flash buried in the middle of it. Breaking these timing conventions all the time on commons forces players to understand every card in their hand fully instead of just parts of them at a time.

I see the desire to make +1/+1 counters matter (more than just giving +1/+1), the evolutionary themes, and making your monsters stronger, but I would look for a different way than a shrink-your-own-creatures-for-cost-reduction mechanic.

MT: See CG15's comments.

MR: This card is cleaner than CG15, but still I worry that it's just not worth the trouble. I do see the scenario where the trade off is worth it, but it requires the caster to be willing to do something bad to their creature to get a benefit. You need to be looking for more "all upside" cards.


The Evolve mechanic represents the inhabitants of Epolith improving over time in response to conditions in their environment. This improvement could be biological evolution, green's specialty, or other types of improvement such as the invention of new weapons or the adoption of better food production methods. Each color will have its own unique triggers to generate +1/+1 counters. Mechanically, the counters can be spent as a resource for specialized adaptations. In the second set of the block, the diffusion of innovation via trade routes could be represented by players giving their counters to their opponent's creatures for some beneficial effect, and in the last set the scarcity of resources will lead to a zero-sum game of imperialism and war, with players taking each others' +1/+1 counters.

Everyone knows that elves evolved before humans, but we never get to see the hard evidence, until now! The Elves of Epolith are pretty much as they are in other Magic sets, albeit with primitive stone tools. Their White human allies, however are quite primitive (Creature - Ape Human). The Evolve mechanic, at least in green, was turning into a one-note mana ramp deck, and I wanted to give deckbuilders some more archetypes to play with, hence a GW tokens deck, with tiny weak humanoids surviving the only way they can: through sheer numbers bolstered with magic.

The excess of artifact removal is because I plan to have more artifacts than usual in the set.

KEN: In summary, there are fun green themes of creatures that grow (and specifically look for larger creatures). There are Dinosaurs that are big. There are (hellacious!) combat tricks. If you didn't have to shrink your own guys to make them better again, this submission would be stronger. That said, this submission has my favorite card this round: Cave Bear.

Highlight: Cave Bear
Lowlight: Venom Glands

AF: A lot of what was going on here worked for me. Between the evolve mechanic and a couple of the very elegant Dinousaurs (7/4 vanilla, Sluggish Sauropod, Raptors as 4/3 flash), I got the flavor. The dream draw of Eohippus into Cave Bear into Leaping Whatever was very cool. The other executions of evolve took away from that fun, however. My brain kept wanting them all to work the same, even after I read them, and I had to be reminded by my opponent of when my own cards did or didn't trigger. I think evolve would ideally have one trigger per color, not multiples per color, that way as a player I can keep them straight in my head and I have more clear deck building paths.

A lot of the +1/+1 counter stuff felt too much like a resource management problem for me. I could feel where you were trying to go with the specialized adaptation, but it always felt way better to spend my renewable resource (mana) on the Auras rather than counters, even if that meant waiting a turn. I'd look for another, less fidgety way to show adaptation. Look to the Stronghold Spikes for inspiration.

Similarly, the spells that put counters on my creatures often felt too much like theme-hammering riders and not integral parts of the cards. The flavor might come through better if you went with something more like the card Urge to Feed, assuming you can come up with a clean way to do it. I think slightly fewer counter-granting cards each with slightly better flavor would go a long way to making the set better.

Overall, your green cards hit the same note a lot, but it was a fun, resonant note, and I kept imagining that other colors would be hitting different notes, giving the set the right amount of depth and texture. I hope to see that next time! All in all, a fine effort, definitely in my top half.

MT: Ethan, your cards are a pretty sensible lot: they don't push too many boundaries and don't foretell doom at higher rarities. The one rules issue you ran into was a subtle one and seemingly easily fixable. There are some templating decisions to be made here, but nothing insurmountable.

MR: Ethan, it's crystal clear that you listened to what the judges said last time and applied it. The evolution theme that was missing last time is here. It' a little heavy-handed and too large in volume (especially with the +1/+1 counters), but I see the beginning of some neat ideas. The thing I'm interested to see next is how the elements shown here are tied into the larger set. I have a glimpse of you using +1/+1 counters but I don't really have a clear picture yet of what the big picture is.

Also your theme has to be executed on several different levels. If you keep hitting your theme with the exact same mechanics it becomes rote and quickly uninteresting. Evolution is a pretty broad theme. You have to find different ways to play it up that blend together, but don't all feel like the same thing. At the same time, you have to make sure that your players can follow what's going on. In this file you make it hard to follow yet have the same effect keep happening. You need to simplify the front end but broaden the back.

Finally, there seems to be some disconnect between what you say you're doing and what we can see on the cards. For example, you claim to have a token subtheme but instead actually have an "enchantment matters" one. I want you to make a tighter connection between your vision and the execution of that vision. I want to see what you see, but through the vantage point of the cards. If you can make the leap for the next challenge that you did between your design test and the first design challenge, I'm excited to see what you come up with.

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