The Great Designer Search 2 Finalists: Ethan Fleischer

Posted in Feature on December 22, 2010

By Staff

Ethan Fleischer


In the deep places of the earth, you can spread the light or embrace the darkness.

MR: I like "you can spread the light or embrace the darkness" but the set-up is a bit unclear and kind of clunky. The beginning parts needs to sexily sell that the set is underground. "Deep places of the earth" could read as a place like the Grand Canyon or a deep valley. As I will say a lot about loglines today, be more blunt and less subtle.

Common Cycle:

CW01 –
Bore Lightshaft
Tap up to three target creatures.
Dig 2 (2, Discard this card: Reveal cards from the top of your library until you reveal a land card. Put that card into your hand and the rest on the bottom of your library in a random order.)

CU01 –
Strike Water
Return up to two target permanents to their owners' hands.
Dig 2 (2, Discard this card: Reveal cards from the top of your library until you reveal a land card. Put that card into your hand and the rest on the bottom of your library in a random order.)

CB01 –
Exhume Corpses
[Unearth Corpses -
Return up to two target creature cards from your graveyard to your hand.
Dig 2 (2, Discard this card: Reveal cards from the top of your library until you reveal a land card. Put that card into your hand and the rest on the bottom of your library in a random order.)

CR01 –
Blast Bunker
[Dynamite -
CARDNAME deals 5 damage to target player.
Dig 2 (2, Discard this card: Reveal cards from the top of your library until you reveal a land card. Put that card into your hand and the rest on the bottom of your library in a random order.)

CG01 –
Bury Nuisance
[Dig into the Past -
Destroy target noncreature permanent.
Dig 2 (2, Discard this card: Reveal cards from the top of your library until you reveal a land card. Put that card into your hand and the rest on the bottom of your library in a random order.)

KEN: There's both flavor and function in this cycle. My first impression of Loucks's 4/4 Mountainwalk Dig 2 was Chartooth Cougar, who was part of a common cycle with Noble Templar, Shoreline Ranger, Twisted Abomination, and Wirewood Guardian. It formed strong glue for Scourge, complementing both a twist on cycling and some huge common dudes for Dragon Fangs / Dragon Breath / Dragon Shadow / Dragon Scales / Dragon Wings.

This Dig cycle isn't accomplishing 3 things at once like Scourge's Chartooth Cougars, but it's definitely a worthy cycle to print.

BT: I like several aspects of this cycle. The effects are relatively clean and generally simple enough for commons, with the exception of the strange instant-speed land destruction in green. I like seeing some higher priced common instants, something we don't do all that often, so I'll give some praise for novelty. They feel fresh and flavorful, not tired. We normally don't do instant-speed Raise Dead effects either, but I think it's okay to occasionally give players a way to keep their mana open until the end of the opponent's turn for a simple effect like this.

On the other hand, the fact that the various cards have one target, two targets, or three targets is a signal that you decided to force them into the 5C mana cost. I'm not sure this helps the cycle. The cycle would read looser to have them at different mana costs, but I think they would likely play better as " instant, return a creature to owner's hand. Dig."

CBD: This cycle is a good effort at flavor. I know dig is Jonathon's mechanic, not yours, but because this is my only chance to say so, I feel obligated to point out that in Magic your hand and library are thoughts, knowledge, memories, etc., not dirt, so the digging metaphor is a stretch at best. That said, we bend the basic game metaphors ourselves when we believe the payoff will make it worthwhile. The individual cards here all work, and their placeholder names are reasonable. The exception is Bury Nuisance. "Noncreature permanent" hurts the card's chances of being flavorful, because its concept must work for too many different kinds of targets: lands, artifacts, enchantments, and planeswalkers. Narrowing its function by allowing it to target only artifacts and lands, for example, would make it more flavorful. (I also don't want green to have common planeswalker removal, although that's beyond my purview.) Another way to increase its flavor is to have it return the target to the top of its owner's library rather than destroying it, which would enable more burying imagery.

MR: I'm mixed on this cycle. I like that you recognized that the most likely way we would use a smoothing mechanic like dig is as a common cycle. On the downside, Penumbria is a factioned set so having one mechanic cross both sides tends to lessen the set's ability to play up the difference between those sides.

You chose to sync up the mana costs at 5C. ("C" is R&D-speak for a colored mana, used in situations like this where the C is not talking about a particular card but a subset that use different colored mana symbols.) This makes sense as dig wants to be on more expensive cards so making this cycle a tight one (R&D defines a "tight cycle" as one where the mana costs all line up) seems at first blush like a good idea.

There are a number of problems that come with tight cycles. One problem is that it draws attention to itself and makes players even more on the look out for connections. As such, it reads a little weird that a number of these affect multiple targets. After reading, the first three cards, I assumed you had mistyped CW01 [Bore Lightshaft] and meant that you tapped "up to two creatures".

The bigger problem though is that you painted yourself into a corner where you had to create six mana common instants and your designs suffer from that restriction. Obviously, in a real set where you could design what you needed rather than meeting set guidelines, some of this cycle could have been creatures. (In fact, there's an interesting argument that this cycle wanted to be creatures as it's much easier to make expensive common creatures than expansive common spells,)

Here are my card-by-card notes:

CW01 [Bore Lightshaft]. This card would just read better as "Tap all creatures controlled by target player." There is very little difference between three and all, and all is cleaner and reads better.

CU01 [Strike Water]. We tend to do Undo effects at uncommon these days but if you had to push it maybe this could be common.

CB01 [Exhume Corpses]. I don't talk about mana cost much because it's more of a development issue but this card has the problem of doing way less than the mana cost allows. As it has dig, it's allowed to be over by a little but twice the price seems kind of steep. I guess it is an instant so maybe you could rationalize that this is worth all the extra cost. This is an offshoot of locking in at six mana.

CR01 [Blast Bunker].This is my favorite of the bunch. I don't think this has to be limited to players though. I'd have it also able to hit creatures.

CG01 [Bury Nuisance].This is another effect that we traditionally do at uncommon, but I could see pushing it down. Also, as Brian pointed out, we tend to avoid doing land destruction at instant speed both because we don't like how it plays and some less experienced players strongly feel they can use it as a pseudo-counterspell. We're much more willing to let the Raise Dead bleed to instant than a Stone Rain.

I like what this cycle is trying to do, but the execution wasn't up to the concept leaving you with a cycle of cards that, for me, underwhelm.

Uncommon Cycle:

UW01 –
Shining Knight
Creature - Human Knight
First strike
Reflect - When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, you may pay 2W. If you do, put a 3/2 white Human Knight creature token with first strike onto the battlefield.

UU01 –
Mirror-wing Drake
Creature - Drake
Reflect - When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, you may pay 3U. If you do, put a 3/2 blue Drake creature token with flying onto the battlefield.

UB01 –
Double Agent
Creature - Human Rogue
Morph 2B (You may cast this face down as a 2/2 creature for 3. Turn it face up any time for its morph cost.)
When CARDNAME is turned face up, put a 2/2 black Human Rogue creature token onto the battlefield.

UR01 –
Giltshield Grudgebearer
Creature - Dwarf Berserker
Double strike
Reflect - When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, you may pay 1RR. If you do, put a 2/1 red Dwarf Berserker creature token with double strike onto the battlefield.

UG01 –
Silverscale Wurm
Creature - Wurm
Reflect - When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, you may pay 3GG. If you do, put a 6/4 green Wurm creature token with trample onto the battlefield.

KEN: Living reflection is back! (Wow, am I happy to not see an illuminate cycle!) This time, reflect has a kicker-like implementation.

  • There's an extra layer of cleverness with the "reflected" power/toughness of the tokens. Why not reflect the mana costs, too? and , and ?
  • This is a significant number of unique token records to add to a set, and each token is an art commission. That means this set's art budget is higher than normal. A solution might be to just not produce these token cards, which could be bad.
  • The "better" version of the creature is the reflect token, rather obviously. Will players like or dislike that? Would they prefer to get the 6/4 trample up front and the 4/6 trample token when they hit ten mana?

Overall, a cycle worthy of more exploration. The black member shows that even more cleverness could complete the cycle and leave out "lame ducks," though having no black card at all here is fine for a Light-based mechanic.

BT: If I saw this in a file I don't think I would get the idea that the black one is part of the cycle. Maybe I would get it if the token's power/toughness were clearly reversed like the other ones are. The reversed stats are what makes them seem like reflections. It's a bold choice to have one card in the cycle unlike the others.

Reflect is a nice application of a kicker effect used in a somewhat flavorful way here. It's an unfortunate restriction that the flavor wants the kicker cost to be the same as the card's mana cost. It's a slightly risky position when some of your flavor rests in the mana cost. Development teams seem to love attacking designers' mana costs like a kitten tearing the wings off a butterfly.

Kicker-type effects are some of our most reliable mechanics for giving a nice power curve to games. They create cards with small effects early and bigger unbalancing effects later when the game state needs unbalancing so it can end. These cards do a good job in this regard.

CBD: These uncommons are a little sketchier than the commons but still solid. The creative limitations of an underground world start becoming apparent. Is there a place for a knight in a setting like this? Are the underground caverns large enough to justify the existence of larger flying creatures like drakes? Wurm and Dwarf make enough sense, and "Double Agent" is cute. Beware of designing cards around a placeholder name, though. If the card depends totally on the name to justify its existence, it's worth second-guessing the card. The black creature could be a Vampire rather than a Human, given Jonathon's world spec. I'm fine with the power/toughness-switching twist on reflect, but it's worth noting that although this serves game play, it makes a little less sense creatively than a straight duplication, and because the card can't show you the reflection you'll get, there's no way to visually "pay off" the difference between, for example, the 2/3 first striker and the 3/2 first striker. You might get a little flak for the black card deviating from the cycle a bit, but it doesn't bother me. I like generating a little friction with Magic players' compulsive and unrelenting pattern completion tendency.

MR: While I was disappointed with your last cycle, the uncommon cycle had the opposite effect on me. I like what you've done quite a bit. For starters, you did the thing I was hoping Jonathon was going to do which was take his living reflection cycle (which I've stated that I like) and simplify it. Then you added a small twist (swapping the power and toughness of the tokens) that added a lot of flavor and pizzazz.

While I like what you've done, I do have a few notes:

UW01 [Shining Knight]. When we fill out a cycle with creature keywords we tend not to use first strike and double strike in the same cycle as double strike just feels like a superior mechanic to first strike making the cycle feel unbalanced. White has other mechanics available and I like what the double strike is doing in red.

UU01 [Mirror-wing Knight]. This is my favorite of this cycle.

UB01 [Double Agent]. You asked permission to make this cycle and I asked you to make the black card feel connected. I wish you had found some way to turn reflect on its ear such that the dark side did their own twisted version of it. This card doesn't do much for me.

UR01 [Giltshield Grudgebearer]. I would strongly try to keep double mana out of the mana cost of this cycle. For example, if I want to get the full use out of this card, I have to have four available red mana. That's too high of a barrier. I'd much rather this cost 3R than 1RR.

UG01 [Silverscale Wurm]. I talk a lot about aesthetics when it comes to design. An important part of aesthetics is balance. Right now you have three creatures in this cycle that have a higher toughness than power to start. I would have set it up so you had two and two. This is the obvious suggestion for the card to change to make it half and half.

Despite my quibbles, good work on this cycle.

Mythic Rare Cycle:

RZ01 –
Left Side:
Destroy all creatures.

Right Side:
Each player returns all creature cards from his or her graveyard to the battlefield.

RZ02 –
Left Side:
Target player gains control of target permanent you control.

Right Side:
Gain control of target permanent.

RZ03 –
Left Side:
Put an X/X green Beast creature token into play. Gain X life.

Right Side:
Target creature gets -X/-X until end of turn. Its controller loses X life.

RZ04 –
Left Side:
Gain 2 life for each creature you and target opponent control.

Right Side:
CARDNAME deals damage to target player equal to twice the number of creatures you control.

RZ05 –
Left Side:
Look at the top 10 cards of your library. Put two of them into your hand and the rest on the bottom of your library in any order.

Right Side:
Put up to two target nonland, noncreature permanents on the bottom of their owners' libraries in any order.

KEN: There's a lot going on with this cycle, but the thing that's working for me is splash. Splash or "sexiness" is something every set needs, rares need to carry lots of splash. Splashy cards make great preview cards, and new designers are notoriously poor at executing splash. There's likely a frame treatment here that mere words aren't doing justice.

My favorite of these is Give // Take. I don't like the operations of Now // Then. Also, I'm not sure we would be so spend-happy with these card names. I'm sure MaRo would spend Love, War, Flesh, and Blood on two cards total without blinking, but seventeen years into a game and considering we print the card "Demystify" instead of "Wane", I wouldn't call that namespace well-spent.

BT: I love your interpretation of the light/dark theme leading to split cards. This brings up all sorts of interesting issues about the player's position in the light/dark world. Is the player supposed to play both sides at once or pick a side and stick to it? Or maybe both? Split cards are best when you have a deck that can play both sides, so each of these implies an entire deck that might be eager and able to play both effects. These really help pull you into the "play both" scenario. Now I'm interested to see cards that let you pick a side too.

I'm glad you're not trying too hard to match up the mana costs. It's not needed since these will be loud and clear cycles anyway.

CBD: Split-card flavor is, well, dicey. There's so little space for name and art that a little cleverness is all you can typically manage. "Hell // Back" is rough creatively; the others less so. And I'm not crazy about more pinpoint removal in green—first Bury Nuisance, now Then. But my real quibble is with theme. You made valiant attempt to justify a cycle of cards built around a constructive-destructive duality, but the cycle is just one or two steps too far removed from anything to do with an underground world—and it's rare cards that usually bear the burden of communicating a world's flavor most strongly. To get from Penumbria to here, you had to go from underground to literal light and darkness to figurative/moral light and darkness to light being constructive/creative and darkness being destructive. That's just a bit too far to go. Lastly, go ahead and try to imagine the illustrations on these cards. Yeah ... .

MR: This cycle alone shows me that you've put a lot of time into this challenge. I was quite impressed with how you tied all the mechanics into the card names, which is exactly how we make split cards as the names are far more restrictive than the mechanics. The one thing for you to be aware of is that in order for the light side to always appear on the same side of the card (which is how you've named them) you're going to have to override the normal process of determining color order. (Split cards have messed in this space in the past but not as bluntly as you do here.) Not undoable but I just wanted you aware that there are many logistics that have to be taken into account.

Let's talk about these cards one by one:

RZ01 [Hell & Back]. Interestingly, the Hell ability is more in white's color pie (while black is able to do it) while Back is more in black's color pie (once again, white has done things in this area). I understand that you're trying to make the light do good things and the dark side do bad things so I can let this slide, but I wanted to point out that it reads a little weird color pie-wise.

RZ02 [Give & Take]. I like the reflection of these two cards. Interestingly like with Hell & Back, these two abilities can be swapped. (Red steals temporarily rather than permanently.) I don't mind bleeding the donate ability to red as it does have a trickster feel to it but this is now the second card where you have to stretch the color pie.

RZ03 [Flesh & Blood]. I think this is my favorite of the cycle. Both abilities are clearly in their color and they mirror each other so nicely.

RZ04 [Love & War]. You've done such a good job of mirroring your effects on the other cards that this one stands out for not being quite mirrored. The first counts the creatures of your opponent and you while the second one only counts your creatures.

RZ05 [Now & Then]. I feel like the first four cards shine and that this one feels like, "I had to finish out the cycle." You have to squint to see these two abilities as being mirrored and the connection to the names is weak. If this card could have met the standard of the last four this would have been the most amazing cycle.

All in all, this is very impressive work. The final card keeps it from being a solid A but consider yourself in B+ range.


Each card in my common cycle has to do with tunneling or excavating, making the addition of the Dig keyword natural.

Light needed a counterpart to Dark's sneaky Morph mechanic. Why would Dark resort to sneaky guerrilla tactics? Because it's outnumbered! I simplified Jon's Living Reflection mechanic, then introduced the twist of switching the token's power and toughness. My focus-group testing indicates that the power and toughness switch appeals to some players, but not to others. It serves a useful game function, however, giving a control deck a defensive creature early in the game, and a bonus aggressive creature later in the game, once the control player has stabilized the battlefield. The Light faction is comprised of four colors, which makes a cycle of such cards difficult. Black's member of the cycle is a morph creature with a similar ability, flavored as spy.

The rare cycle gets to the heart of the set, at least as I perceive it. A battle between Light and Darkness suggests dualism, Manichaeism, dichotomy. This theme implies split cards, with one half Dark-themed and one half Light-themed. White always represents Light and black always represent Darkness. This time, the math worked out in my favor, and each of the three other colors got to be Dark on one card and Light on another. We tried to make the Light effects positive and the Dark effects negative. Some of these cards are still a bit rough, but the structure of the cycle is sound, I think.

KEN: In summary, when you sic a strong designer on a strong set theme, you get strong design work. The common cycle is pulling lots of mechanical weight, the uncommon cycle instills Penumbria with an upside layer of cleverness, and the rare cycle has significant splash. I don't have much to say because it's hard to find fault here.

BT: Overall, this submission shows some thoughtful interpretations of the set's theme despite having a few problems. The commons have good, if subtle, novelty but lackluster play value. The uncommons have good play value but seem like they barely justify the reflect keyword instead of just calling it kicker. The rares pose some interesting new questions about how the colors relate to each other. I like cards that pose big questions because they catalyze discussions about the structure of the set. Infrequently a set will have a structure and theme that makes it all the way through design and development intact but more often a set goes through several iterations and rebuilds before the teams find the structure they are happy with. Cards like these rares would help the set move toward its next big structural iteration.

CBD: Successful overall, especially the commons. I felt Ethan made a good-faith effort to try to communicate Jonathon's setting, even though he veered off course a bit with the rares. Split cards are fun and splashy, but creatively they're very limited. Hoping that two halves of a split card could communicate figurative light and darkness, especially on a card that's blue on one side and green on the other, for example, is overreaching a bit.

MR: A major part of this Challenge was giving you the ability to see how you would fare helping out a world by another designer. Most design is done on teams you aren't leading so these skills are very valuable. I feel you did an excellent job this week. You have significantly aided Jonathon with his world helping him find a few answers that he hadn't been able to find particularly with reflect, which I think has potential to be his major light mechanic.

Not only was your vision good, but your card construction was particularly strong especially on the uncommon and rare cycles. (Your common cycle, in my opinion, was by far your weakest.) I'm quite happy with your work and wonder if there was anything you played with in Jonathon's world that might have some relevance in Epolith.

Overall, excellent work.

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