The Great Designer Search 2 Finalists

Posted in Feature on November 24, 2010

By Staff

Scott Van Essen

Set Name:
Malgareth, the UnderPrison

Log Line:
Natives drive out prisoners as they overwhelm the guards in a forsaken subterranean prison.

MR: I think "drive out" reads wrong. The set is about a conflict, not a retreat. Also you seem to be more explaining what is happening rather than selling it. The logline is your chance to grab the player's attention: "A prison riot in a forsaken subterranean prison has turned into a war." Think of the logline as the tag on a movie poster. People have to read it and get excited for the set.

Rookie Escape Artist
[Jailbreaker Apprentice -
Creature - Human Scout
Sacrifice CARDNAME: Target creature gains Intimidate until end of turn.
Watermark: Prisoner

KEN: I appreciate cute one-drops.

MR: I like this card. Simple and has a function early and late game.

Scintilla Farmer
[Unnamed Scintilla Collector Variant -
Creature - Elf Shaman
CARDNAME enters the battlefield with one +1/+1 counter on it.
Remove a counter from CARDNAME: add B to your mana pool.
Watermark: Native

KEN: Is it possible this set should be using -1/-1 counters instead? All these payments of counters could be double-plus upside if the set had -1/-1 counters. I find Wickerbough Elder more fun than Stingmoggie.

Blood Pet is a lot less text than this, while balancing one less penny on the battlefield. We like doing this card in red now moreso than black, but that might be negotiable.

MR: I always wondered who made the candles. You can get away with a little of this at common but be careful not to overdo it. Also, creatures made up of +1/+1 counters that use them tend to be a little better if they are at least 2/2. Otherwise, the card just feels like it wants to say "Sacrifice CARDNAME."

Neophyte Assassin
Creature - Human Assassin
When CARDNAME is put into a graveyard from the battlefield, target player sacrifices a creature.
Watermark: Prisoner

KEN: I like the aggressive costing here.

MR: Hmm, death triggers seem popular this design challenge. Once again, simple and functional.

Scintilla Collector
Creature - Elf Druid
CARDNAME enters the battlefield with two +1/+1 counters on it.
CARDNAME can't block.
Watermark: Native

KEN: This is a very Mark Rosewater card; he loves counter-based sets that kinda justify a card like this. Black elves will have fans.

MR: During Shadowmoor design I tried to make a 4/4 flyer that came into play with two -1/-1 counters. The idea was that it was essentially a 2/2 flyer, but interacted with the set. I met with a lot of resistance in R&D. The concern is that these kinds of cards are confusing because without context they don't make sense. Players want to assume the counters do something. My note is an odd one because I appreciate these kinds of cards, but I think I agree that we have to be careful doing them in the first set. For these reasons, I absolutely wouldn't do the card at common. This could be solved by giving it a little sac ability.

Cavern Bats
Creature - Bat
Watermark: Native

KEN: I like Feral Shadow.

MR: It feels like common. I like it.

Essence Thief
Creature - Vampire Rogue
Swampwalk, Lifelink
Watermark: Prisoner

KEN: So, Prisoners know how to swampwalk but the Natives fly.

MR: I'm not sure why this doesn't just want to be Child of Night. I'm not a giant fan of evasion plus lifelink at common.

Watcher Informant
Creature - Human Rogue
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, target player discards a card. Gain life equal to the converted mana cost of the discarded card.
Watermark: Watcher

KEN: A nice Rat variant.

MR: As a general rule, we tend to avoid putting the phrase "converted mana cost" at common because research shows it is one of the most confusing terms we use. If the set really needs it, we occasionally make an exception, but this card could easily be tweaked to get rid of it.

Mold Creeper
[Mold Creeper -
Creature - Fungus
Compost - Whenever a non-token creature you control is put in a graveyard from the battlefield, put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME.
B, Remove a counter from CARDNAME: Regenerate CARDNAME.
Watermark: Native

KEN: Okay. The nontoken clause here is like the Fun Police, though. It says, "No fun allowed."

MR: You've keyworded what we call the "Khabál Ghoul" ability (you tweaked it by removing the deaths of token creatures—I'm not sure why, though). I don't mind keywording it, but I don't think it wants to be a common ability. In general, if a card can get to be huge, especially if it can do so pretty easily, we tend not to put it in common.

My other comment is that I would have the cost of the ability specifically require a "+1/+1 counter." The flexibility to remove any kind of counter shouldn't happen in Limited if you're doing your job right, and isn't worth the confusion for things that would happen very infrequently in Constructed.

Big Bully
Creature - Ogre Thug
Whenever CARDNAME attacks a player, remove a counter from target permanent that player controls and put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME.
Watermark: Prisoner

KEN: The THUG subtype! This guy is doing something nice with his counter-stealing ability. Weird that he doesn't trigger when he attacks a planeswalker.

MR: This card is very, as we say in R&D, "bio-dome." (In case you haven't read the other designer's comments, "bio-dome" means creating cards that play well in their own insulated Limited environment but don't translate well when taken out of it.) In playtesting, it either never mattered or destroyed the opponent. That kind of swing based on environment is bad. In general it is better for your deck to care about things in your deck that you can control than things in the opponent's deck that you can't.

On a related note, playtesting showed that the "I steal your +1/+1 counters" cards just weren't fun. Either they did nothing or they so totally wrecked the opponent that the person with this card felt bad.

Contaminated Puma
Creature - Cat
Countercast - Each counter you remove from a permanent you control while casting this spell reduces its cost by 2.
Watermark: Native

KEN: So weird to have countercast cards with odd colorless costs. I can remove 1 counter to save two mana, remove another to save another two mana, but that last counter will only save me one mana. Why be unbeautiful?

MT: Keep in mind that you can "overpay" with countercast by removing as many counters as you want. This may interact with -1/-1 counters in a way you don't want.

MR: I'm not a fan of countercast. Your set uses +1/+1 counters which means at least in Limited you have to shrink your guys in order to make your spell cheaper. Maybe a diehard Spike is okay with doing that, but for most players this isn't going to be a fun exchange. This creates a lose/lose moment. Either you do something you don't want to have to do or you overpay and feel like you didn't get any value out of the card. I like +1/+1 counters having some meaning beyond boosting creatures, but in my opinion this isn't it.

Final Haunting
[Weaken with Souls -
As an additional cost to play CARDNAME, exile a creature card in your graveyard.
Target creature gets -X/-X until end of turn where X is the exiled card's power.
Watermark: Native

KEN: I prefer shrink effects like this as an instant. We put lots of our complexity points into making combat the most interesting phase—I would spend some of that here.

MR: I sense a little "death" theme in your set. You have some death triggers and this card clearly cares about the graveyard. This is one of my major notes about your design. I get a lot of hints that there are things going on but I'd like to see everything a little clearer and less dipping its toes in many different pools. This card seems fine and you made the correct decision to reference power as players associate power with aggressive actions such as damage or -N/-N effects.

Bribe the Guards
Put a +1/+1 counter on up to two creatures, then tap those creatures.
Watermark: Prisoner

KEN: This concept is backwards. This will tap your own creatures most of the time.

MR: While I don't mind this spell, I'm not quite sure why it's black. My best guess is that +1/+1 counter granting is bleeding into all five colors and so black gets some. I wish there was more of a feeling on this card that there is some cost associated with strengthening your creatures. That expense could come at the cost of the opponent but somebody should suffer so your creature can improve.

Drain the Land
Enchantment - Aura
Enchant Land an opponent controls
Enchanted Land is a Swamp.
Whenever enchanted land is tapped, put a +1/+1 counter on a creature you control
Watermark: Native

KEN: I like Evil Presence enough. Kind of a strange rider to put here. I'm happy there's a swampwalker in black common for this.

MT: You probably want the last ability to target. Not doing so introduces timing and responding issues that are inconsistent with most other Magic cards.

MR: One of the best tests to see if you're integrating your theme seamlessly is to take a look at the card out of context. If this card was shown to someone, does it look like just a card or does it look like a card trying to fill a void. This card screams to me "I have a +1/+1 counter theme!" whereas a green instant that says "Put two +1/+1 counters on target creature" does not. This card feels like you needed to find more ways to use +1/+1 counters and does not feel like a natural extension.

The other awkward thing about this card is that it goes on your land yet it improves my creature, so I'm forced to pay attention to your tapping of mana. When it's your things you care about you can make it easier by choosing how you handle them. If this went on your land (not that I'm fond of that version either), you could place it such that it's easy to track. Your opponent is actually incentivized to not make it easy for you to pay attention to.

On top of it all, I don't even get the flavor of this card. You have a lot of hits in this file, but this is one of your misses.

Insatiable Rot
[Noxious Shroomguy -
Compost - Whenever a non-token creature you control is put into a graveyard from the battlefield, target player loses 1 life and you gain 1 life.
Watermark: Native

KEN: This is pretty fun, but repeating things like this feels more uncommonish. Again with the fun police "nontoken" clause. Where you planning to create token creatures on compost?

MR: I like this card. It's not a common card though. Not even close. In fact, I'm pretty sure that the entire mechanic doesn't want to be at common. We tend to avoid non-Aura enchantments at common (although as always there are exceptions). Enchantments with repeatable triggers especially ones that happen at unspecified times are almost always uncommon or higher in rarity.

Bonds of Reprisal
Enchantment - Aura
Enchant Creature
Whenever enchanted creature attacks or blocks, it deals damage equal to its power to its controller.
Watermark: Watcher

KEN: I like these "I made your thing suck" kind of cards more than most people.

MR: This is a cute Pacifism variant. I like the flavor and it makes sense in black.

Grand Larceny
Move up to two counters from target permanent to another permanent of the same type.
Watermark: Prisoner

KEN: This is an extremely swingy card. It's a huge blowout to get a permanent Consume Strength mid-combat. Maybe too much. But I like what the card is doing.

MT: There are a few minor issues with this card. I believe you want the second permanent to be targeted (like Fate Transfer), so players can respond with accurate information. But that introduces a bit of complication, namely that you'd have to compare targets to make sure they share a type when announcing the spell. You could remove this complication by dropping the "same type" requirement. Any way you go, we can work with the card.

MR: I know you want to steal the opponent's counters as it's a big part of the flavor. I worry though that it makes for a lot of unfun moments. At bare minimum, change this to a sorcery to lessen the "wreck you out of nowhere" moments that were fun the first time I did them in playtesting and then I started apologizing for each subsequent time. This brings up one of the meta issues you have to deal with. Manipulating counters causes problems when you need to interact with the opponent. It makes the cards very insular in Limited and makes them not matter much of the time in Constructed. I think you might want to explore some other means by which to get across the fighting over resources theme.

Strength Extraction
[Bash Through Guards -
Destroy target non-black creature.
Put a +1/+1 counter on target creature.
Watermark: Prisoner

KEN: Pretty nice creature removal. Maybe it can be weirder and synced as "Destroy target creature with no counters on it. +1/+1 bonus."?

MR: I prefer this black +1/+1 counter–granting card to the last because at least this one feels like a black card. Your pain is my gain.

Fungal Rebirth
Countercast - Each counter you remove from a permanent you control while casting this spell reduces its cost by 2.
Return up to two target creature cards from your graveyard to your hand.
Watermark: Native

KEN: Here is another countercast card without a 2/4/6 colorless cost.

MR: You claim this was a lot of fun in playtest. Our playtests, though, showed that this never came up because players were very reluctant to shrink their creatures to get cheaper spells. Perhaps it's a result of the cards the ability is on or perhaps it is an unfamiliarity with the format, but either way, it was not producing the effect you wanted outside of the group already invested in the mechanic. (A quick tip to all the designers: if you're able, having Magic players unfamiliar with your set play it will gain you invaluable information.)

If you choose to keep countercast (and by no means hear this as me telling you to keep it) you're going to have to make sure that players are going to want to make the trade.

Per the judge comments, I removed Grift and Recycle from the set. I re-concepted +1/+1 counters as concentrated mana crystals (scintillae) that Natives create through composting and other methods and then consume for mana or utility effects. Prisoners mainly steal and trade counters and use them for their pump effect. Watchers will interact with them in a different way. Rage seemed the most liked mechanic so I focused on Black, which will define much of the rest of the set.

I went with a little less stealing and a little more killing, but the stealing feel is important so I made it less parasitic. Most counter theft abilities always give you a counter and then let you remove one if available. The exception is Grand Larceny, which is a Fate Transfer variant (the proportion of relevant counter generating cards at Common Black is the same as in Shadowmoor)

I kept the number of compost cards low (~5 at common between green and black) and they only see your creatures to minimize board complexity and number of triggers.

Countercast was created as a limited smoothing mechanic, but became quite popular in playtest. There's a nice interaction where you countercast out a big creature, killing your scintilla creature and triggering compost.

Both watcher cards use your opponents cards against them or for you.

Big Bully was changed from a saboteur trigger to an attack trigger so you could get more uses out of it before your opponent dies.

KEN: Here we've got counters, ways for those counters to matter, and a bit too many Auras that sit on things rather than just killing them so the board is cleaner. While there are nice things going on, I don't feel like there's enough to sink my teeth into. Devouring your +1/+1 counters for cost reduction could be made powerful, but I'm not convinced there's enough fun buried in there. There were very few devour creatures in Jund, but I have made a 10/10 Thorn-Thrash Viashino in Limited and a 68/68 Mycoloth in EDH. With countercast, I can try hard making my creature -3/-3 to save five mana.

If Black is the most barren color, then this set might get there. I'm hoping to see much more from the other common colors.

Hightlight: Insatiable Rot
Lowlight: Fungal Rebirth

AF: Without knowing the details of your world, the cards' mechanics don't really tell me a story. The biggest help for figuring out what was going on was the so-called watermarks, as it conveyed to me that the set was essentially about prisoners, guards, and stuff that lived in the place naturally. Assume, though, that the average consumer will see shapes and not words in the text boxes of the cards, and it might not be as clear. We'd have to message it pretty hard.

Counters seem to matter a lot here, although unlike Fleischer's set, I can't really figure out what they're supposed to be representing. They're really important, though, as over half the cards mention them. Get your bag of beads ready! Without a firm grasp of what's supposed to be going on, I don't really enjoy all the random manipulation. The spell that moves two counters fluctuated between devastating and blank, depending on what deck my opponent had, and I don't know how fun that will be time and again.

Spineless Thug made out of counters is an awkward card in a vacuum (ask Rosewater how much I railed against Bloodied Ghost for the same reason, and that one at least had flavor going for it). I don't know that the level of parasitism necessary to make that card carry its weight is good for Magic, as the set ends up feeling so self-contained that people don't want to stick the cards in any of their existing decks.

All that said, your cards generally feel like Magic cards and you have a great grasp of what reasonable complexity levels are. Other people seem to be enjoying some of what you're doing, so I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. You make my top half, but only just barely, and that's more a condemnation of the field than an affirmation of this set of cards.

MT: Scott, I give you the same advice I gave Jay about giving watermarks rules significance. But I'm not typing it again, so go read his. All in all, this was a good submission from my seat as rules manager, although I don't mind some boundaries being pushed. Countercast is intuitive, and it has the benefit of strong precedent. Compost seems like a well-executed ability word, and one I believe we've considered for previous sets.

MR: Scott, I feel like you are circling around something that could be great but that the pieces haven't quite come together yet. There is a moment where a design jells, where everything just clicks together. I don't feel your design has jelled yet. There are many neat elements and there is definitely some synergy between them. I think your problem is that you built a world and then found mechanics that matched the elements of this world. The next step you need to do is figure out which pieces are working best and then be willing to change other things to create a mechanical identity. This might mean pulling something—that in a vacuum is a good mechanic, but that isn't playing nicely with everything else.

In addition, you have a big problem that a lot of what you want players to do might not be what they do with it. Your strong suit is your flavor. You've created a compelling world with a conflict that makes a lot of sense. The challenge you need to meet is to find a way to convey all this in mechanics that flow more easily. Another way to think of it is this: I feel like this set tells you "play like this" where what you want a set that says "just play me." You have to make your world extend out of a game play that players gravitate towards and want to play. I feel your current design is pushing them towards the game play you want. As the saying goes: you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink.

There is great potential here, but you still have a lot of work ahead of you getting everything to jell.

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