The Great Designer Search 2 Finalists: Jonathon Loucks

Posted in Feature on December 22, 2010

By Staff

Jonathon Loucks


It's evolution or extinction when hours pass in the blink of an eye.

MR: All in all pretty good. I particularly like "evolution or extinction." My only worry is that "when hours pass in the blink of an eye" can be read figuratively rather than literally making it sound as if it feels like time goes faster rather than it actually going faster (as compared to other planes). We're in fantasy, so hopefully players latch onto it being literal.

Common Cycle:

CW01 – Omeisaurus
Creature – Lizard

CU01 – Baryonyx
Creature – Lizard

CB01 – Marshosaurus
Creature – Lizard

CR01 – Afrovenator
[Allosaur -
Creature – Lizard

CG01 – Hadrosaurus
Creature – Lizard

KEN: This is an unexpected cycle. Magic does need vanillas for simplicity. These are quite the groundpounders for a Dinosaur setting. It has me wondering if playing 6/5s and Doom Blades is better than playing 6/6s and Rampant Growths. My guess is Marshosaurus is the best of these.

However, I think Limited game play will lose variance because of these. It'll be sixth land-drop-matters Limited for every color. It was a little different fighting against, say, Harbor Serpent or Yavimaya Wurm in Magic 2011 Limited.

This cycle reminds me of a cycle of "Snidds" in a generic recent core set:

Siege Mastodon, Sea Snidd, Zombie Goliath, Fomori Nomad, Spined Wurm or something.

Based on that evidence, I give this 4CC Craw Wurm for every color very low survival odds. Vanillas are valuable design tools, yes, but they are most often a clever P/T combination or a curve filler.

BT: Great playtest names. I noticed they are names of real dinosaurs that seem to belong to their colors. The fish-eating dinosaur is in blue, the bulky herbivore in white. Smart detail.

If it were my set I'm not sure I could stand to make them all huge vanillas. I might try giving a couple of them keyword abilities with the idea that a common huge 4CC creature in each color is enough to establish the cycle. Maybe their unusual size does the same thing as a keyword would.

Making such a basic cycle seems a bit petulant after all those critical remarks about your cards being too complex. It's a sassy choice. However, I agree that these cards make sense both flavorfully and mechanically at these mana costs in this set so I don't think the sassiness charge holds water as a legitimate criticism. Thumbs up.

CBD: A vanilla cycle. A bold choice, and one whose justification I can guess at (beyond what Jonathon has stated). But for me it's a misfire. Why? Because one purpose of a cycle is to express each color differently within a shared context. In this cycle, all the colors are homogenized; the only thing different from card to card is the mana cost, more or less. This cycle squashes the colors' identities, and because the differences between the colors are at the game's heart, I can't endorse the choice. More minor considerations are putting Lizards into colors that don't get them—a question any prehistoric setting would have to answer—and real-world, taxonomical placeholder names that are unappealing and unmemorable. There's a reason why we named a card Killer Whale and not Orcinus Orca.

MR: There's a phenomenon in design where we do something and get a strong negative response and then overcompensate in the other direction. When I first read this cycle, the message I got was "I'm listening! I'm listening!" Congratulations Jonathon, this cycle was not too complicated. The question is was it complicated enough?

I'll admit I was taken aback when I read your vanilla common cycle. In general, we don't do all that many vanilla cycles. (Okay, Future Sight had one.) You recognized that numerous mechanics in the set wanted larger creatures. You saw the need for dinosaurs in the prehistoric set. You, in fact, made a vanilla cycle of creatures that made sense in the set assigned to you. I'll give you kudos for that. I'll even give you extra praise for taking the time to find dinosaurs that actually fit in each of the colors.

There are two different issues I have with this cycle. One is a meta-design decision and the other has to do with the actual designs. First is the message behind the creation of this cycle (specifically by you Jonathon). I feel what you were trying to say with creating a vanilla cycle was ambiguous. Some in R&D thought it was you trying to demonstrate that you don't need complexity to design. Others thought you were being a bit of a smartass. I'm honestly not sure what the message of the vanilla cycle was, but I urge you to try designing in the middle next time around rather than at one of the extremes.

Mechanically, I share Brady's concern that cycles are usually meant to show differences where you used it to show similarity. A set only gets so many vanilla cards. In a large set we probably would use around five. You've now used them all up on giant creatures. That's not a good use of managing your resources. (Future Sight did the vanilla cycle because we were overrunning with complexity and were desperately trying to get more simple things in the set—and we felt the frame treatment really enhanced the cycle.)

Also, as Brian talks about, you probably want to add something to some of these to make sure they can break through a ground stalemate. That's an important role of giant common creatures.

I do see much design talent in you. I wish the conversations about you in the Pit were more about your designs and less about you.

Uncommon Cycle:

UW01 – Avant-garde Guard
[Sparkling Shield -
Target creature you control gains protection from the color of your choice until end of turn.
If you control two or more colors of permanents, draw a card.

UU01 – Far Out
[Brain Drain -
All creatures target player controls get -2/-0 until end of turn.
If you control two or more colors of permanents, draw a card.

UB01 – Torturous Breakthrough
Destroy target nonblack creature.
If you control two or more colors of permanents, draw a card.

UR01 – Cutting-edge Combustion
Cutting-edge Combustion deals 2 damage to target creature or player.
If you control two or more colors of permanents, draw a card.

UG01 – Ground Breaking
Target creature gets +3/+3 until end of turn.
If you control two or more colors of permanents, draw a card.

KEN: A cycle of "maybe cantrips" that reward two-color play. Here's a card I've put in a design file more than once:

Colortrip Giant Growth
Target creature gets +3/+3 until end of turn. If that creature is green, draw a card.

I was expecting something more like that. A simple hoop with a simple reward.

The cycle presented seems like an achievement system engineered by a robot trying to funnel players into pathways that optimize a bucket sort. In other words, it's more function than fun.

The cycle hinted at in the comments sounds more promising than the one presented:

Countertrip Giant Growth
Target creature gets +3/+3 until end of turn. If that creature is red or white, put a +1/+1 counter on it.

As is, cycle survival probability is 24%.

BT: Reading the cycle, I was a bit nonplussed. After reading the comments I understand the role it's playing in establishing contrast between the sets, but it's unfortunate that I don't think the cycle stands on its own all that well. It seems to be sending a message that this set is about playing two colors. Fortunately, that's a pretty natural thing for most decks to be doing, and I like the simple "all upside" feel of these cards. It's good that they aren't trying to be too clever. Unfortunately, the evolution theme didn't really come through here for me so they don't seem like strong choices for this set. Names, flavor, and art would have to do some hard work to make these cards fit in.

Again, excellent playtest names that convey a sense of theme.

CBD: Not a lot to say about flavor here. The main effect of each spell belongs at common, not uncommon. The cards are pushed up to uncommon complexity by a conditional cantrip rider. Doesn't that just drip with flavor? "Conditional cantrip rider." Mmm, delicious. Okay, okay, it's not that bad. But positioning "if you control two or more colors of permanents" as primitive innovation is way too oblique to register with players. For purposes of communicating Epolithian flavor, "Destroy target nonblack creature / If you control two or more colors of permanents, draw a card" is indistinguishable from "Destroy target nonblack creature."

MR: IF the common cycle was a hit (and I'm being generous calling it "a hit"), the uncommon cycle is a miss, and a pretty big one at that. For starters, you're using a lot of words for very little gain. You make the spell's caster have to jump through a hoop for little value. On top of that, I don't understand why Ethan's set cares about having multiple colors in play. The set is about evolution. I really don't see how your multicolor throughline ties into that theme. I like that you were trying to help Ethan out by fleshing out his block evolution, but I think you didn't create something that would prove effective.

The biggest nail in the coffin of this cycle is that it just isn't very exciting. I'm not even all that sure it plays well. Even if you're playing two colors, having two permanents in play of each color is a lot harder than one might assume. And then for all your trouble, you're getting something that you're just supposed to be able to get if you were only playing one color. Players don't expect to have to jump through hoops to get a cantrip.

Finally, as Brady points out, this is a common cycle not an uncommon one.

That's not much positive I have to say about this cycle.

Rare Cycle:

RW01 – Overcome
[Starfall Omen
Preeminence – Destroy all creatures with power less than X, where X is the highest power among creatures you control.

RU01 – Overthink
Preeminence – Draw X cards and untap up to X lands, where X is the highest power among creatures you control.

RB01 – Overtime
[Haunting Omen –
Preeminence – Put all creature cards with power less than X from your graveyard onto the battlefield, where X is the highest power among creatures you control.

RR01 – Overthrow
[Devastation Omen
Preeminence – Each player sacrifices X permanents, where X is the highest power among creatures you control.

RG01 – Overwork
Preeminence – Put X +1/+1 counters on each creature you control, where X is the highest power among creatures you control.

KEN: Here's a bunch of cards like Soul's Majesty, but they are quite messed up. The white and black ones count "less than X" instead of "X or less" as the others do. The red one wasn't very appealing to me at first glance—I was looking for a Disaster Radius or Jaws of Stone or something. There's double CC and triple CCC, which is OK by the end of development but I think this designer needed to sync those because he's not long for this contest.

I'm not sure "controlling a high-power creature" is much of a "hefty additional cost" when we're happy to print fat like Baneslayer Angel, Primeval Titan, and Wurmcoil Engine. Sure, Grave Titan is no Necropotence, but everyone can understand why Grave Titan is a powerful black card—it's a 6/6 for 6 that craps out near-infinite Zombies! "Hiding" power level is not really something designers should strive to do—cards, mechanics, and sets are often far more appealing when power level is blatant (the best example is Lightning Bolt).

Overall, the cycle is on the bottom end of keepable. It needs considerable polish to get to five different Soul's Majesty / Disaster Radius.

BT: These are some fun designs. I really like how they tell you loud and clear to play giant creatures and reward you well for doing so. This strongly reinforces the theme of the set. Sometimes you will draw them and windmill slam them on the table, but they also seem like they could lead to some interesting decisions when your creature isn't the biggest one. You could look at that aspect as a feature or a bug. For me it's a feature, and these capture a little bit of clever and cool in the same package.

I'm not getting the value of preeminence. These cards don't gain much understandability from it and it's not carrying any strong flavor here.

CBD: I suspect if I were to ask Jonathon how he envisioned, in flavor terms, how a spell would scale with one's highest power creature, he would say, "Uh ... " These cards might be fun to play, and a couple of them are pretty splashy, but flavorful they are not. The placeholder names seem to know this; they're a flavorless force-fit, and if you try to replace them with flavorful names, the cards' creative limitations become clear. Now don't get me wrong, flavor is not the end-all, be-all criterion in Magic. Most cards in most sets have little to no flavor when they reach my team, and our job is to create some for them. But hey, I'm here to judge flavor, and these cards don't really help Epolith much, nor do they have flavor goals of their own.

MR: I'm more mixed on this cycle. You took a mechanic that Ethan had and made the pitch that he should turn it into an ability word and use it more. I'm not sure if he should do that, but it seems a fair enough idea to try out in playtest.

On the downside, you did something that was already on Ethan's radar meaning that this cycle was low on innovation. The big question here is did you make up for the simplicity of the design in your execution? Let's go through the cards one by one:

RW01 [Overcome]. So I destroy all my creatures and all but your biggest creatures? The preeminence mechanic seems poorly used on this card. In fact, it seems to be mostly a negative as it guarantees all your creatures' destruction. And as Ken points out, this and the black one are "less than X" making them not parallel with the rest of the cycle.

RU01 [Overthink]. While these two effects are not unrelated the card does feel a little messy. Also, traditionally untapping lands is something green does. Blue tends to untap all permanents when it untaps and more often than not it "taps or untaps" the subset at hand.

RB01 [Overtime]. This card at least uses the preeminence to a positive effect, unlike white. The bigger your creature the better the effect. This is my favorite of the cycle.

RR01 [Overthrow]. So I have to pay six mana so that I get to sacrifice a whole bunch of things too? How about just your opponent sacrifices things? This card just reads horribly and is pretty unsexy.

RG01 [Overwork]. Now this effect is sexy. I wish more of this cycle had effects like this that seem big and exciting.

Having reviewed the five cards, I don't feel you used the preeminence ability word as well as you could. One of the biggest problems is that because you chose to make this rare that you had to find over the top effects. I think this cycle would have been happier at uncommon where you could have done more simple straightforward effects. The other advantage of uncommon is that I feel preeminence plays better in Limited as there tends to be more creatures in play and making the cycle uncommon would have gotten it to matter more in Limited.

All in all, a noble attempt but more failure than success.


Dinosaurs! Mechanically these beasts not only power up Evolve (whenever a creature with a larger power enters the battlefield, get a +1/+1 counter) but preeminence as well. While each color doesn't normally get a common this large, each color needs tools to interact with one of this set's main themes. In the primitive world, size matters. In set two and three, we'll see Epolith developing more sophisticated weapons.

The uncommon cycle hints to the overarching theme in the Epolith block. In set 1 players are rewarded for controlling at least two colors of permanents – a primitive form of innovation. Since the goal is somewhat easy, the reward is somewhat primitive as well – drawing a card, or maybe a +1/+1 counter. In set 2, players are rewarded for controlling at least three colors of permanents – a more advanced goal. The tools have advanced (gold cards) as have the rewards, such as increasing the effect of a spell (like a Galvanic Blast). In set 3, the goal of four or more colors comes with an even better tool – hybrid. The rewards are even still greater – like a Giant Growth that's conditionally an Overrun.

With the Preeminence cycle I wanted to create cards that let players do something that felt broken. Something that they are normally not allowed to do – like one-sided mass reanimation, or the Urza's block 'free' mechanic. The goal is that these cards look powerful yet are balanced by the hefty additional cost of needing a high-powered creature.

KEN: In summary, there's a functional and lame Craw Wurm cycle, an engineered cantrip cycle, and a sort of Soul's Majesty cycle. These are all noble pursuits for cards—vanillas, combat tricks, and G14NT-D00d5-matters. However, the vanillas will stagnate diversity, the combat tricks would serve Limited far better at common, and the rares could be sync'd better (and be even bigger?? X Stone Rains!!). However, I feel the cycles have broken a 50% survivability rate, and the cards will be reduced or plundered for gems.

BT: Two of these cycles support the idea of playing giant monsters. Awesome. The first time players eyeball cards like these they may be skeptical about their playability. We certainly saw that early in development with Rise of the Eldrazi. I would like to have seen you continue to hammer the giant monster theme with some support cards in uncommon, maybe something that helps mana ramping or sends a signal that fatties are playable. The uncommons took a left turn with a color-matters idea that left me scratching my head. Nevertheless, your design talent is showing despite some smudges.

CBD: These three cycles don't advance Epolith's world identity and don't have much flavor as individual cards, either, I'm afraid. I do believe that Ethan's world is more challenging to design cards for than Jonathon's, but even considering that, these cards are too dry and not novel enough. They seem like they're trying to serve a secondary or tertiary purpose rather than the one that really needs serving, which is describing what stone-age magic and monsters look and feel like.

MR: Jonathon, My best guess is that you were trying to use this submission to prove that you are, in fact, listening to the judges. While I feel that to be true, I'm worried that some of your choices were not as on target as I would have hoped. Your commons, while cute, did little to show Ethan what he could be doing at common. Ethan already had the giant common vanilla dinosaur meaning that he was already on it.

Your uncommon cycle is, in my mind, a big mess. Your rare cycle was pushing an interesting idea for Ethan but was not executed as tightly as it could have been. In addition, I believe you put it in the wrong rarity.

In many ways, this week's submission plays up my concern about you. You have neat ideas but your execution doesn't tend to live up to them. Ethan came in for one week and did several things that I wish you had already done with your world. I feel like every week I talk about the potential I see in you. I need to start seeing you realize this potential.

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