The Great Designer Search 2 Finalists: Daniel Williams

Posted in Feature on December 8, 2010

By Staff

Daniel Williams


On the lawless frontier, death can come in a flash.

ZH: I really, really hope this doesn't mean we're in Flash World.

Oh wait.

I just read the submissions. It does.

I can't go card-by-card on this set because I think to do so would miss the point. There are serious, serious structural flaws here. I'll go over those at the end of your submissions, but I'll be honest with you, mate: It really feels like you phoned this one in.

MR: I like "lawless frontier" as that screams Western genre pretty loudly. "Death comes in a flash" seems to not say much of anything and is a little too cutesy in its Magic lingo.

Diamondback Rattler
Creature- Snake

KEN: Hiss! A fun creature. Very defensive and particularly good against green's Craw Wurm.

MG: I like it. It's green removal, and it's perfectly flavored all around (mechanic to card, card to setting).

MR: Good flavor, simple card, fits perfectly in your world. Thumbs up.

Najash Battle Priest
Creature- Snake Shaman
Whenever you cast an instant or a spell with flash, you may put a +1/+1 counter on Najash Battle Priest.

KEN: This is a large error. Flash is not a glimmeringly beautiful mechanic that needs saturation at common like this card implies. There can be some, but not what this card seems to imply.

If Flash were implemented as "instant creature" or "instant enchantment" then we could talk.

MG: And we've gone off the rails. Building a set around "instants and flash matter" is a terrible idea. Right off the bat, it's an ugly, overly mechanical line of text. This is not cool, this is not flavorful, this does not capture the imagination.

Secondly, there's a weird timing disconnect. If I cast an instant (or a spell with flash) during my main phase, it's still an instant (or a spell with flash), so I'll still get the bonus. That feels like it's violating the spirit of the mechanic, though, which wants to give me credit for casting spells at other times. It's awkward.

The main point, though, is that this engenders a bad play environment. Attacking is a miserable prospect when everyone's hands are filled with the abundant flash creatures that the set encourages you to play. The optimal play pattern is to do nothing during your own turn, wait until your opponent's end step, then cast the best spell given the options available to you just before you untap. It's spell hoarding, it's draw-go, it's end-step decision trees, it's dubious attacking prospects. Lorwyn-block Faeries were miserable. Players hated that deck. Expanding that play style across an entire block is a simply awful proposal.

MR: My biggest problem with this mechanic is that it just isn't going to happen a lot. Sure you can up the number of instants and creatures with flash but there's a reason we limit them in the first place. I find the connecting of instant and flash to be cute. (In Time Spiral design, I pitched a proposal where we could use instant creature. We ended up with flash instead.)

Intrepid Pioneer
[Veteran Frontierman
Creature-Human Settler
When Intrepid Pioneer enters the battlefield, you may put a basic land card from your hand onto the battlefield tapped.

KEN: Exploring the frontier with the Elvish Pioneer. I like it well enough, though I hope this isn't taking up the mana-fixing slot in green.

MG: Sure. It's a slightly beefier Elvish Pioneer. The callback to that Pioneer is a nice flavor tie-in to the setting.

MR: I'm not sure the land has to come into play tapped, but that's more of a development comment. I like the card and the flavor is cute.

Najash Medicine Man
Creature-Snake Shaman
When Najash Medicine Man enters the battlefield, regenerate target creature.

KEN: I'm scared of the oncoming parade of flash creatures. This is a fun enough creature, though. A nice one-time blocker, even.

MG: I love this creature. Great top-down design: "Quick! Call a doctor!" That being said, this would feel better to me in white, which is traditionally the color of medics.

MR: This card is a lot more complicated in its interactions than it looks. During playtesting, for instance, we called over Matt Tabak twice (yes, in R&D playtesting you get to call over the Rules Manager). I'm not sure I would keep this card but at bare minimum I'd move it up to uncommon.

Elusive Najash
Creature- Snake Warrior
Whenever you cast an instant or a spell with flash, Elusive Najash gains shroud until end of turn.

KEN: Eep! Double color AND flash-matters. I dislike both of those things. Taking both those off the cards, I could like it.

MG: You can target it with your own beneficial Auras and sorceries (but not instants), and your opponent can try to target it but probably won't (unless you're tapped out) because any instant or creature with flash you're holding doubles as a Mage's Guile. But they probably don't need to target it because a 2/1 just trades with it in combat. This is more likely an uncommon just based on the interaction complexity. There are easier ways to handle this (just say that it can't be the target of spells or abilities your opponents control, a la Sacred Wolf), but then it wouldn't play into the new set theme.

MR: This is such a tiny effect for what is a pretty hard to meet condition. Do you really want to throw away (or at least ineffectively use) your instant, which in Limited is most likely a kill spell, to save your 3/2?

Spidermount Brave
Creature- Snake Warrior

KEN: Feels like I'm seeing more 2/3s than ever in the contestants submissions these days. 2/3 hold off up to three 2/2s at a time, and two 2/3s are very good at holding off a 3/3 or two. Most common creatures are in the 1/1 to 3/3 range, and Spidermount Brave has Reach to chomp on the Wind Drakes even.

MG: OK. This is a strictly worse Ember Weaver or Pincer Spider, each of which was a common 2/3 with reach and another positive ability, but for simplicity's sake, I can certainly see printing this creature. A 2/3 creature with reach is entirely reasonable, and is what it'd cost.

MR: Snake people riding giant spiders is pretty cool. A fine French vanilla.

Hunted Aurochs
[Hunted Aurochs-
Creature- Aurochs
Whenever Hunted Aurochs attacks, it gets +1/+0 until end of turn for each other attacking Aurochs.
When Hunted Aurochs is put into a graveryard from the battlefield, you gain 2 life.

KEN: Why does it count Aurochs, then not count Aurochs? I thought for sure it'd have some Elvish Eulogist text there or something.

MG: Mmm, aurochburgers. The flavor of the second ability is cute. Note that your bovines don't have to be Aurochs (which carry the baggage of the "Aurochs stampede" ability); Ox is a legit creature type most recently seen on Pillarfield Ox and Arc Runner. In fact, bovines are supposed to have creature type Ox. Aurochs still exist only due to the original one's self-referencing, ambiguously tribal ability (it's ambiguous because Ice Age templating was loose and because there were no other Aurochs), and due to in-jokey Coldsnap shenanigans.

MR: Is there supposed to be an Auroch deck much like Tempest had a sliver deck or Zendikar had an ally deck? While I appreciate the flavor you're going for I don't feel the game play is at a high enough level yet to keep them in the file.

Najash Guerrillas
Creature- Snake Warrior Druid
When Najash Guerillas enters the battlefield, destroy target artifact or enchantment.

KEN: What a crushing of an Indrik Stomphowler. If this is supposed to be marquee then ok, but it doesn't have set theme on it. In design, it helps to put power into the set themed cards because it best communicates to development what you feel is important.

MG: This is a powerful card, quite possibly netting you a 3-for-1 (blow up an artifact or enchantment, block an attacking 2/3 or smaller creature, then still have a 3/3 on the board). It seems crazy at common. I can't believe that after switching your theme to "instants and creatures with flash matter," you didn't even put a French vanilla flash creature into green, like Ashcoat Bear. You immediately ramped up to giving both of the common green flash creatures ETB abilities.

MR: Your set needed flash creatures and a Naturalize effect. Voila! I agree with Mark that this probably wants to be uncommon.

Wild Horses

KEN: Sure.

MG: Previously known as Golden Bear and Order of the Sacred Bell. A fine, powerful vanilla.

MR: Golden Bear as a bunch of wild horses. Cute. A fine vanilla.

Sandtiller Wurm
Creature- Wurm
Whenever you cast an instant or a spell with flash, Sandtiller Wurm gets +2/+2 until end of turn.

KEN: This is my favorite of these cards. "It could get bigger!" is a nice dare and puts more drama into combat.

MG: So weird. "Trample" clearly messages that this is meant to attack. Am I supposed to attack with my Wurm, see how you block, then cast a creature in the middle of my own combat phase so the Wurm gets bigger? That just doesn't feel right.

MR: As this effect is harder to do than I think you realize, I would have the effect be bigger.

Counting Coup
[Coup Counting-
Enchant Creature
Whenever enchanted creature deals combat damage to a creature, put a +1/+1 counter on it.

KEN: This isn't going to trigger very often. Your opponent can just avoid triggering this. The only time it does something is during chump-block mode, and then it doesn't actually add damage. A creature being chumped is probably a lethal creature anyway.

All that said, "You're going to regret blocking my creature!" has significant fans, and this card is giving an appealing reward for those players.

MG: First of all, this is ambiguous. Which creature does "it" refer to? I'm guessing your intent is for the first creature (the one that dealt damage) to get the counter. That's how it was written up on the wiki. But the closest antecedent to the "it"—and therefore the one it refers to—is the second creature (the one that was dealt damage); that's the one that actually gets the counter. You need to be clear when writing up your cards.

The timing on this is tricky, since the counter won't come in time to save the creature if it's been dealt lethal damage in combat. (For example, if a Runeclaw Bear blocks a Cylian Elf enchanted with Counting Coup.) Cards like Rite of Passage have reminder text on them for that reason; the same text might be applicable here, even though the conditions are a little different.

As for the card itself, it feels self-defeating. A creature enchanted with this Aura will almost never find itself involved in combat and surviving. It won't be blocked, won't get a chance to block, or will get killed in combat, because your opponent has much more control over whether this ability ever triggers than you do. That means that it'll nearly never trigger, which makes this a disappointing card.

MR: I think I might have the enchantment put the counters on at the end of combat to cut down on the confusion on what dies and what doesn't. I agree with what Ken and Mark are saying. Perhaps this Aura also wants a limited Lure (it must be blocked if able) added to it. This would avoid the "no one blocks it" problem. This change would necessitate moving the card to uncommon.

[Reprint- Time Spiral]
Put a 1/1 green Saproling creature token onto the battlefield.

KEN: I guess it is kind of both an instant and a creature with flash? This is a bad choice for a reprint because ... what are Saprolings doing in the Wild West? And there are also token 1/1 green Snakes on other commons later.

MG: This is a set in which creatures with flash are accepted and abundant. Why isn't this a 1/1 creature with flash? Why make instant-speed creatures two different ways?

In addition, Saprolings don't make sense in this world; they tend to show up in numbers, and this is the only one here. In fact, Saprolings aren't even the 1/1 green token creature of record for this set; according to CG18, Snakes are. This feels like a choice made by someone who's not paying attention to his own set.

MR: During Time Spiral playtest this card was called Saprise. I like how you found different ways to get instant creatures without making them all have flash. Ken and Mark are correct that you have to commit to one token type for the green 1/1. I'll leave it to you to figure out what feels more like it belongs in a Western—a snake or a saproling.

Smoke Signals
Prevent all combat damage that would be dealt by creatures with flying this turn.

KEN: This seems pretty narrow, but I actually got it to work multiple times in playtesting killing little bats in other player's submissions. Seems like a high variance card, and it rolled high for me.

MG: This flavor is terrible. Smoke signals are a means of communication, not something that would cause flyers to lose their way. You just want smoke, or maybe some kind of dust storm.

Mechanically, the card is fine. Green has Fog, green hates flyers, so voila! Tanglesap did a similar trick.

MR: This card seems narrow and oddly flavored. If you keep this card in the file, I'd move it up to uncommon, but I'd advise booting it as I just don't think it's rarely ever going to matter. (Apparently Ken's playtesting said otherwise.)

Wild Fury
Until end of turn, target creature gets +2/+2 for each instant you cast this turn.

KEN: This might be workable. It doesn't have the "invincible to countermagic" problem that storm has. It can lead to big turns. I like it.

MG: This is confusing. It's the fault of the word "cast," since its present-tense form is the same as its past-tense form. It's hard to tell if this card counts the instants you've already cast during the turn, or if this card counts all of those and will also continue to count instants you subsequently cast for the remainder of the turn. I'm pretty sure it's the former, but it's easily misread as the latter. I assume this wants to say "for each instant spell you've cast this turn."

Another point of confusion is whether this spell counts itself. It does, and I believe it was intended to do so, but this question was asked by R&D members, so it will certainly be asked by others. A different wording can specify the matter.

Finally, this card cares about only instants, but not creatures with flash. Huh? Does this intentionally stray from your theme? If so, what's the value in introducing this kind of nitpicky variance? If not, why are you not paying close enough attention to synch up your cards?

MR: For starters, this card is confusing. What is your intent with this card? Do the instants boost this card or does each instant create this effect? I'll assume this looks at everything done up to this point including itself as that is most likely what you mean. My suggestion is that instead of seeing what instants got played this turn, you see what instants have ever been played. How do you do this? Look at the graveyard. Imagine that this card got a boost for each instant (and maybe creature with flash) in your graveyard. Now at least there's a chance of this card doing something impressive.

Track Down
[Sunrise Duel-
Choose target creature you control and target creature an opponent controls. Each of those creatures deals damage equal to its power to the other.

KEN: Fight! How about just ? I think there's tons of fun in this card so let's get players to cast it more.

MG: I love this card. I've actually been advocating printing it for a while (I tried pretty hard in Conflux), as I think this is appropriate creature removal for green—the kind that relies on green having fatties! I've always viewed the flavor as a "law of the jungle"-style fight, but it fits in perfectly here as a duel.

MR: The R&D slang for this ability is "fight." It's a nice way to give green creature removal in a way allowable in green's color pie.

Rain Dance
You gain 2 life for each tapped creature you control.

KEN: This reads like it belongs in a different player's submission.

MG: This seems like an appropriate level of life-gain in green, it encourages attacking, and this is the kind of instant I'd like to cast during my own combat phase (as opposed to a creature, which just feels weird). Good.

MR: I don't understand why this only counts tapped creatures. I assume it's to encourage aggression. All in all, this cards a bit of a miss for me.

Stake a Claim
Search your library for a basic land card and put that card onto the battlefield tapped. Then shuffle your library.
Draw a card and then discard a card.

KEN: This has too many operations problems. In casual play, you can Rampant Growth and pass the turn, letting your opponent take a turn during your loading screen. This card requires the shuffle to complete, then your opponent probably cuts your deck, then you perform a loot action that might give you additional gas to do something that turn. I would just do this powerful Cultivate variant:

Cantrip then Rampant Growth
Draw a card.
Search your library for a basic land card and put that card onto the battlefield tapped. Then shuffle your library.

MG: This is a train wreck. It's zone-change-a-palooza, which is jarring enough in its own right. To make it worse, the two parts of the card have nothing to do with each other, and milling has nothing to do with green.

MR: The Rampant Growth seems fine but the loot is an odd rider. For starters, we tend to do looting in blue (and we've been discussing moving it to red) not green. Second, the effect doesn't feel like it has anything to do with the Rampant Growth. Cantrips get away with it because the draw a card feels so basic that people just see it as a costing mechanism. Very hot glue gun.

Summon Avengers
[Serpents in the Soil-
Put two 1/1 green snake creature tokens onto the battlefield.
Retaliate- If a creature under your control was destroyed this turn, put four 1/1 green snake creature tokens onto the battlefield instead.

KEN: Retaliate ... on a sorcery? That's some very slow retaliation. If the designer is set on keeping this card, perhaps add Retaliation for an extra Snake on the Sprout slot.

MG: Do you want the retaliate effect to happen if a creature you controlled was destroyed this turn (which happens only due to lethal damage or an effect that specifically says "destroy"), or do you want it to happen if a creature you controlled was put into a graveyard from the battlefield for any reason? I think the limitation will be unintuitive to players, who will likely think that they'll get to retaliate if you give one of their creatures -5/-5. (The "retaliate" flavor breaks down regardless. Under the current wording, you'll get the "retaliate" bonus even if you Lightning Bolt one of your own creatures. Under the alternate wording, you'll get the "retaliate" bonus even if you sacrifice a creature. There's no way to limit this to working only as a result of your opponent's actions.)

MR: Let me start that I agree with Mark that this mechanic wants to just care about creatures going to the graveyard rather than care about the destruction, which I agree is not well understood. Assuming that change is made, I like retaliate, so let me start by saying that this effect seems to work well with it. On the minus side, this is the twelfth creature card (For counting creatures, R&D counts spells that make token creatures.) Also, I'm not sure exactly what role this card is playing in the design. I like it in a vacuum, but it doesn't really feel like it fits.


I made a major change to my theme this week by choosing to focus on instants and spells with flash. My old mechanics started as an attempt to convey surprise and speed, but it has become clear to me that they were no fulfilling that role adequately. I think the new theme should be more fun to play and will truly do this setting justice.

Green is represented on Deadsands by settlers, hunters, trappers, and frontiersman. Green is also represented by the Najash, a reclusive tribe of snake people that is focused on stopping the technological and industrial expansion of the frontier.

Showdown was left out of this submission because it still needs more work and I'm not sure if it belongs at common. My last attempt at the mechanic was "Showdown- If you cast the most spells this turn, GREATER EFFECT". This version was designed to go with the new theme.

KEN: In summary, this submission left me very disappointed. Flash-matters should be lifted from the set, the raw number of flash cards should be toned down, and the 1/1 tokens should be lined up. What's worse, I feel like this designer has the biggest gap between his world idea and his ability to execute. We can't pay an intern who has an idea but can't execute. In the end, an idea is only as good as its execution, because that's what the world sees.

MG: I strongly disliked the "revealing cards matters" mechanical environment of your original set. I envisioned that as a very poor play environment filled with flavorless twitches, marginal upsides, and continually showing your opponent what you've got in your hand (possibly by showing the same card over and over). Add to that the confusion over what a "reveal" actually constitutes, and it was not an experience that would be enjoyable to players. To your credit, you were able to step away from your set and re-envision it. That takes strength. Unfortunately, you wound up with a play environment that might be even worse, for reasons I've commented on above. I'm forced to conclude that you lack a fundamental grasp of what makes a Magic environment work: what makes it flow, what gives the games a good feel, what makes it fun. There were certainly some individual high points within the cards presented here, but there were also some howlers, and a number of points which indicated that you either weren't paying attention to your own set or didn't understand it. The most recent incarnation of "showdown" is the capper—it checks to see if you've cast the most spells this turn, but (in most cases, I assume) it's on a spell itself. You're already up 1-0, and will win the showdown a vast majority of the time, usually in a shutout. Is it still a showdown if the other player doesn't show up? I appreciate that you recognized that it needs more work, but I regret to say that in my opinion, this is clearly the worst set of the bunch.

ZH: Alright, man, here's the deal. Your core mechanic, "flash matters," leads to fundamentally bad game play. The rest of your cards that don't deal with "flash matters" have nothing at all to do with one another, and feel like they've been culled from an old Chronicles-style set of unrelated cards that we just don't make anymore. The flavor of your world isn't bad, but as MaRo has said repeatedly, mechanics drive flavor. We have a Creative team for a reason. The Wild West-ness of the world isn't going to get anyone anywhere if the game play isn't appealing.

I'll start with why "flash matters" is loose. Richard Garfield didn't accidentally distinguish between instant and sorcery cards. Rather, he realized that while occasionally it was good to allow a player to interact with the opponent on their turn, it was still important for the concept of a "turn" to be meaningful. Flash makes game play worse because it increases options while decreasing choice, similar to why the concept of "damage-on-the-stack" was bad for Magic. It's good for game play when it falls into the pattern of commit and respond, commit and respond, etc. Occasionally a player will gain initiative by dealing with a threat and deploying one in the same turn, and the balance shifts a little bit.

What you don't want is to incentivize players to sit around until the last possible minute before they do anything. For one thing, it renders the concept of turn-order meaningless, which scales complexity up exponentially because you always have to play around everything at all times. For another, by allowing players to always deploy the optimal threat at the optimal time, you actually decrease the strategic interplay of the game because players don't have to react dynamically to the threats each of them has committed to the board.

Your set has further magnified this problem by including a bunch of creatures that get better when someone has cast an instant or a spell with flash. This renders game play miserable, because my opponent just keeps passing the turn with mana up, and I don't interact with the opposing board because I'm terrified of getting blown out by a flash spell. So I hole up and say "go", at which point the cycle continues. I'm just always terrified that I'm going to receive the business whenever I enter combat, so I never want to commit to anything.

At the same time, your set doesn't have much going on beyond the flash theme, either. Why is my Rampant Growth looting a card? What is retaliate, and how am I supposed to enable it? Do we really need to bring back storm? And why, for the love of something holy, am I allowed one and only one green Aurochs??

There are some good things going on here. Sprout is basically the perfect reprint, and as I said before I love the concept of Wild-West-World. But man, you need to figure out an identity, and you need to do it fast. What you just submitted is not part of a Magic: The Gathering set. It's a bunch of cards. That's not going to cut it, mate.

MR: Daniel, I understand why you punted your previous mechanics, because the judges were a bit sour on them. I don't feel, though, that the new mechanics you've introduced solve your problems. First, your previous mechanics, while having their faults, at least felt like you were trying to convey the Western genre. The new mechanics did not do this nearly as much. I do feel you did a decent job of creating some good card-by-card flavor, but I feel like you missed in conveying an overall sense of Western flavor. In other words, your cards said Western but your mechanics did not.

Second, you hinge your new mechanics on a card type that just doesn't show up all that much. Landfall works because many turns have a land come into play. Playtesting confirmed that your mechanics just don't trigger all that often.

My advice is for you to take a step backwards and figure out what the ethos of the Western is to you. (An ethos is the moral message of your story.) What kind of Western stories are you drawn to? Once you have your ethos, think about how you mechanically can capture it. Magic design works best when there is a bulls-eye for you to focus on. I think part of finding your mechanical identity is having an ethos to focus on.

As I've said all along, you have a very deep and meaty world idea. Tropes will get you good cards, but what I think you need right now is an underlying theme. The Western genre has several choices for you. Pick one.

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