The Great Designer Search 2 Finalists: Scott Van Essen

Posted in Feature on January 12, 2011

By Staff

Scott Van Essen

Malgareth, the UnderPrison

In an underground prison, death is the only escape.

MR: The logline conveys the setting but doesn't really establish the conflict of the block. I feel like the idea of an underground prison is compelling but I want to know what is happening. I feel like getting the word "riot" into the logline would really help establish the conflict with an evocative word.

Common Card #1
Fungoid Harvester
Creature - Fungus
Sacrifice CARDNAME: Add one mana of any color to your mana pool.

Art: A mass of moving mushrooms and lichens consumes itself releasing multicolored streams of light.

KEN: The return of persist, and an exceptional creature to boot! I know lead developer of Shadowmoor Aaron Forsythe put some rather insane monsters with persist in that set during development (Woodfall Primus??), and we probably didn't get equal appeal points to the power points we spent there. Still, persist is well worth considering in any -1/-1 counter block.

As for Fungoid Harvester, you're never really tapped out with this walking Pentad Prism creature on the battlefield. Also, two death triggers, can untap into a 1/1, and other tricks await this creature. This seems rather loudly to be uncommon with tricks approaching Scryb Ranger levels, but maybe this fungus enables so much it's glue that holds the set together at common. A nice card to start the booster, to say the least.

MJG: While the ability is elegant with persist, I don't know what deck I'd put this in. Perhaps a five-color deck with a sacrifice theme?

MP: Cool. I get it! I can abuse persist to make mana with this fungus. This is a card that looks pretty good, but is probably even better than it looks.

MR: I'm interested in your choice of bringing back persist. I think it's a very good mechanic so I'm intrigued by its use. It does require you to use -1/-1 counters rather than +1/+1 counters and with a set like yours that is very counter conscious-I'm not sure of all the ramifications.

I like this card. I think I would have put it in uncommon for the reasons Nagle states.

Common Card #2
Black Market Smuggler
[Black Market Smuggler -
Creature - Human Rogue
Whenever CARDNAME deals combat damage to a player, draw a card, then discard a card.

Art: A human carries contraband in a cable car suspended from the cavern's ceiling.

KEN: The en-vogue thing to do is put looting on red cards, but OK. I played Looter il-Kor in my Standard deck as really bad Dark Confidants 5-8, so I like this card more than most players would.

MJG: I like this take on filtering. Most of the time filtering is less interactive, just tapping a Merfolk Looter. Now it is active as there is game play that more directly affects the opponent. I can see trying this as a Merfolk Looter replacement.

MP: Simple little flying creature that reads pretty powerful.

MR: A nice twist on a looter. Blue wants small flyers and wants small utility creatures so combining them onto one card feels like a nice design.

Common Card #3
Decay into Rot
[Fungoid Birth -
Destroy target non-black creature. Put a 1/1 black fungus creature token with "Sacrifice this creature, target player loses one life and you gain 1 life" onto the battlefield

Art: An ogre is halfway rotted away. His consumed flesh begins to take a new form.

KEN: Eldrazi Spawn have game text, so we should make more? I'm dubious. The card is crazy strong—everyone already splashes Doom Blade, so why not 1/1 ETB Doom Blade and later drain 1? This is doing a lot. Many players do not understand that tokens do actually go to the graveyard momentarily. Look at Pawn of Ulamog and Firecat Blitz—we write nontoken and exile clauses on them to avoid the confusion. This set seems built around that confusion.

MJG: I liked this card until I read the token ability—this felt tacked on. Now instead of simply considering swapping it in for a Doom Blade, I am trying to take advantage of the sacrifice effect, too.

MP: A little wordy for a common, but still pretty flavorful and appealing.

MR: I like what this card is trying to do. It's very flavorful. I have a couple of issues with it. First, we occasionally make the "my spell turns your creature into a token that I now get control of" and it is almost always uncommon or higher in rarity. Second, making a creature that comes with a built-in sacrifice effect is tricky. Yes, Rise of the Eldrazi did it, but it did two key things. One, it put the ability on a 0/1 so you were less inclined to attack with it and two, the sac ability was mana which is more used at a very specific time.

You did make the effect something that is hard to fizzle (technically I'm supposed to say "counter" but that would not, I believe, be as clear). And the effect is something that is relevant just about any time it happens. It's not that I don't like the fungus tokens or don't appreciate why you chose to make them. I just want to point out that they bring with them a lot of complexity and I want you to be sure this is where you want to spend your complexity points.

Common Card #4
Shackled Rabblerouser
[Shackled Mediant -
Creature - Elf Warrior
CARDNAME enters the battlefield with two -1/-1 counters on it.
Whenever you cast a creature spell, remove a -1/-1 counter from CARDNAME.

Art: A muscular elf stands in a crowd, the last remnants of energy bonds still visible.

KEN: I like these guys. It's a lot of words, though, and Titania's Chosen is far more lovable, but the set can stand to have a few of these levelers, similar to how Zendikar is flooded with landfall creatures.

MJG: I don't like this card. Quirion Dryad is quite similar, but with the Dryad I can dream of getting huge. Here, my dream is simply to get a 3/3, which isn't much of a dream. Bummer. I don't think that I'd play with this card.

MP: This card reads a little weak. I know it's probably swinging for 3 on turn three in many games, but a newer player isn't going to see that and probably won't be too excited about this creature.

MR: I see you've embraced your -1/-1 counter restriction. This card actually plays into one of the strengths of -1/-1 versus +1/+1 in that it allows you to cap your growth. I like it.

Common Card #5
Enraged Goblin
Creature - Goblin Berserker
R: Rage 3 - CARDNAME gets +3/+0 until end of turn. Sacrifice it at the beginning of the next end step. Play this ability only once per turn.

Art: A goblin has impaled himself on a Sentinel's spear, but still landed a killing blow.

KEN: Part Wild Colos, part Lava Axe, the Enraged Goblin represents the first red card a player should see from Malgareth. If your opponent is at 8 life, feel free to rage 3 during their end step, then rage 3 again during your turn for an 8/2. We don't print "end-step-loophole-matters" cards, so something needs to change here.

MJG: Cool. This would fit right into a red aggro deck: I can beat down for 2 until I need to do 5.

MP: I like this mechanic for its simplicity and flavor. He gets so mad that he pops! Or just fights clumsily, as in the illustration. But again, you're asking players to do something they usually don't like to do: Kill their own creatures. So this card might be really powerful, but it's not going to be exciting to a lot of newer players.

MR: My issue with this mechanic remains the same. I generally like it, but I wish it was crafted such that it had more interplay with power-pumping effects. Locking into a number, especially when it doesn't tie directly into the power can be a little hard to mentally lock in. Imagine you had this card along with a 1/1 rage 1 and a 4/2 rage 2. Processing that math would be hard for most players. At bare minimum, you need to consolidate your rage numbers. For example, all rage at common is the same.

To solve Nagle's issue, you might make this an attack trigger that causes the sacrifice "at end of combat." It only allows the ability to be used offensively, but that matches the flavor so well that I think the restriction would be fine.

Common Card #6
Fist of Chains
[Iron Knuckles -
Artifact - Equipment
Equip 1
Equipped creature has intimidate.

Art: Glowing magical chains, the remnants of shackles, are wrapped around a pair of hands.

KEN: A nice common Equipment I'm sure we'll do someday. We've been meaning to put intimidate cards in every color (since we couldn't do it with fear), and this card manages to do it all at once.

MJG: Nice and simple. Some fatties of mine would love to equip this ...

MP: When we rate cards for names, flavor text, and art, things that are "bad ass" usually rate pretty high. "Fist of Chains" is pretty badass, and it's a simple, flavorful card to boot.

MR: Nice and simple. A good common Equipment.

Common Card #7
Fury Unleashed
[Makeshift Blade -
Target creature gets +3/+0 and gains first strike until end of turn.
Discharge R - You may cast CARDNAME for its discharge cost by removing a counter from a permanent you control.
Art: A restrained ogre snaps apart his magical bonds, stunning and wounding his guard.

KEN: I saved three mana and probably made my creature bigger. That might even be a double-combat trick.

MJG: While this doesn't stand on its own, it goes nicely with persist and -1/-1 counters. I might try this out in a persist deck.

MP: Ah ... a way to "spend" my -1/-1 counters. It took me a second to figure that out, and at first read it doesn't seem that sexy of a card. This thing is going to wreck all kinds of combat math if you use its discharge cost.

MR: Another interesting side effect of adding persist and moving to -1/-1 counters: discharge became more powerful and now much more of an all upside mechanic. While I like discharge, my gut is that it wants to be in a similar space as proliferate meaning it probably wants to be in uncommon and higher rarities. Proliferate has scored very well in our god book studies and I feel like discharge hits similar space.

Common Card #8
Stalwart Gatekeeper
Creature - Human Knight
Stalwart - If an opponent controls more creatures than you, CARDNAME gets +1/+1 and has vigilance.
Art: A knight stands alone against a horde of murderers, slaying two as others stream by.

KEN: This mechanic must have changed. Now it's a catch-up mechanic. Quite clever giving it vigilance knowing the opponent is more than able to attack back and win the race.

MJG: Nice and simple. While I generally plan on having more creatures than my opponent when playing white weenie, I'd try it out. (As a designer, I am a bit nervous about this mechanic as it rewards playing fewer creatures, and that is generally less fun. This is probably fine in small doses, but I see that two of your nine commons use this.)

MP: This is interesting, and seems good, but it's only going to be "turned on" if you're behind on creature count. I'm not sure that's fun, and neither is counting everyone's stuff every turn in an 8-player game of Commander to see if my spells and dudes are working at full strength.

MR: Two other sets have messed around with the reverse of this mechanic, cards that get better when you have more creatures. I think I enjoy that version more as it encourages you to do what players want to do, which is play more creatures. This mechanic reminds me a bit of Oath of Druids, which is one of the most unfun cards we've ever printed (in that the proper response to it is to not do anything). I get the flavor reasoning for stalwart, but not a big fan.

Common Card #9
Disperse the Mob
Return target creature to its owner's hand.
Stalwart - If an opponent controls more creatures than you, return up to two target creatures to their owner's hands instead.
Art: A mob scatters as two creatures in front are swept up in vortexes of magic.

KEN: This will really turn the tide! Eat it, token creatures! A rather uncommon-looking card, but often blue is so bad in Limited we give it up to two uncommon-level cards at common to make up for its poor creatures.

MJG: This would work well in a creatureless deck. I'd try it out in one, but my note on Stalwart Gatekeeper definitely applies here as well.

MP: Again, in many cases (especially in Limited), this card is only "turned on" if you're behind. I think there's definitely a place for that kind of card in Magic, but if I've got the upper hand on an opponent, how sad am I going to be when all of my cool creatures and spells "turn off?" I do have to compliment both stalwart cards on their clean designs.

MR: While I'm lukewarm on stalwart, I do think this card's design plays into the mechanic nicely. My gut says we'd print this at uncommon rather than common as Undos (even conditional ones) can be a bit of a wrecking ball in Limited.

Premium Card (Mythic Rare)
Mylormyx, Arisen
[Mylormyx, Arisen -
Planeswalker - Mylormyx
+2: Creatures you control have persist until end of turn.
-1: Put two 1/1 black fungus creature tokens with "Sacrifice this creature, target player loses one life and you gain 1 life" onto the battlefield.
-9: You gain an emblem that says: "Whenever a creature you control goes to the graveyard from the battlefield, each opponent sacrifices a permanent"

Art: A giant creature of fungus and rot. Small fungoids spawn from his torso.

KEN: I'm sure a black-green planeswalker that generates tokens and ultimates a Grave Pact emblem would have tons of fans. However, you can't persist his tokens, and some players don't know tokens do touch the graveyard. If tokens trigger his emblem, wouldn't his persist ability work on tokens, too?

Other than the confusing rules issues this card relies on, OK.

MJG: Fun build-around card and I like how the abilities weave together nicely. I love the dream of getting the ultimate off and then using the +2 ability. Any of my creatures that die take something with them but then come back. Well done!

MP: Planeswalkers are tough to design! It takes guts to take a crack at them, so hats off for trying. Mechanically, I don't have too much to say other than his abilities fit the set (if not each other), and I wish his ultimate was a bit flashier than permanent Grave Pact.

From a Brand perspective though, I have a lot to say: Planeswalkers are our marquis characters. They're the "Jedi" or "Superheroes" of our brand, and their images do a lot of the heavy lifting when marketing a set. This guy is a walking mushroom carpet? That's our villain? I have a hard time imagining an 80-foot banner representing "a giant creature of fungus and rot" hanging off the coliseum at Pro Tour–Paris. We still want people to care about and even love our Planeswalkers, and I think it would be really tough for the majority of Magic players to become emotionally invested in a sentient slime mold.

MR: We tend to like to make our planeswalkers a little more humanoid than this. I like the ultimate and both smaller abilities seem to play nicely with it. The first ability, while functional, feels less flavorfully connected to the card for me.

Uncommon Card #1
Enclave Aegis Field
Whenever a creature deals damage to you, put a -1/-1 counter on it.

Art: Several creatures charge through a ring of magical fire and are scarred by it.

KEN: This card is doing stuff—stackable, and it makes white's life-gain formidable. I've always felt No Mercy is better as a white card. It seems like a rare effect to me, but I'll assume the set has so many appealing white rare designs that this card squeaks in at uncommon.

MJG: I don't really like this card. I don't really feel safe with this on the table as the creatures still damage me and stay around. I see how this fits into your set themes, but I doubt I would play this card unless I was quite sure I was playing against persist creatures.

MP: I like this cool, simple "soft moat," but I think anything that discourages combat (like this does) should probably be at rare. Drafting four or five of these could mean that your opponent's team is mostly shut off every game (since you can pick and choose how and whether you block), leading to a pretty frustrating experience.

I like to turtle in Commander though, and I'd probably play this.

MR: Cute No Mercy variant. This is another good use of -1/-1 counters.

Uncommon Card #2
Shackled Tinkerer
Creature - Human Artificer
CARDNAME enters the battlefield with two -1/-1 counters on it.
1U, T, remove a -1/-1 counter from CARDNAME: Search your library for an artifact with converted mana cost 1 or less and put it into your hand, then shuffle your library.

Art: An artificer shapes his bonds of metal and energy into a magical trinket.

KEN: A little Trinket Mage impersonator. I speculate a set could contain many Morselhoarder cards and still be fun, and this one is even a build-around.

MJG: This is a sweet card. Not only does this go perfectly into existing blue artifact decks, but it encourages me to look for more -1/-1 counter manipulation from this set.

MP: I like the flavor aspect of him turning his shackles into trinkets. I'm going to turn these cuffs into FIST OF CHAINS.

MR: There are two ways to make restrictive use creatures with -1/-1 counters. The first is how you're doing this card (creature enters the battlefield and then loses them for effect). The second is to have the counters be put on as you use the ability. The creature's toughness then sets the limit. The second version works better with discharge and makes creatures that don't make you throw away the ability simple to grow the creature. This creature seems like he wants to use the other method.

Uncommon Card #3
Insatiable Rot
[Noxious Shroomguy -
Whenever a creature you control is put into a graveyard from the battlefield, target player loses 1 life and you gain 1 life.

Art: A puddle of rot on the floor engulfs a corpse and exudes noxious looking fumes.

KEN: Here's a combo kill card for your Thallid and Eldrazi Spawn pleasure. Johnny-esque cards are usually not costed CC. Otherwise, I like it.

MJG: I like how this works with your Fungus tokens as well as persist. Normally I'm not a fan of cards that only count my cards going to my graveyard, but this is improved by persist.

MP: Another fairly simple and straightforward card. I'm a little surprised we've never printed it before.

MR: I like that this is a fungus enabler that also plays nicely in a deck that doesn't have any fungus. I might have put this ability on a creature as it's pretty brutal and I'd like to give the opponent more ways to get rid of it.

Rare Card
Conduit of Power
At the beginning of your upkeep, put a charge counter on CARDNAME.
Whenever you cast an instant or sorcery spell with converted mana cost less than or equal to the number of charge counters on CARDNAME, you may pay U. If you do, copy that spell. You may choose new targets for the copy.

Art: A wizard channels energy from a giant overhead crystal into two beams from his hands.

KEN: Does it really need an extra in the middle? Is that fixing some infinite loop or something? Nowadays, I prefer red copying spells. Reverberate is more fun than Twincast simply from the kinds of spells they are most often aimed at.

MJG: While it tells me to build full of Lightning Bolts and Ponders, it does in almost the same way that Pyromancer Ascension does. Been there, done that.

MP: Neat. Reads as powerful, exciting, and straightforward. And although I'm not a Johnny myself, I can certainly see this card getting the creative juices of that crowd flowing. I think it takes guts to post a non-creature, non-Planeswalker as your packs' rare, but this one is a hit, I think.

MR: This card is rare so it gets to be a little wordy and complex. That said, my gut says there's a cleaner way to do this card that isn't so fiddly. I do like the general sense of it. Just remember that it's okay to have a slight functionality change if it creates a more elegant, more grokable card.

Basic Land Card

Art: A forest of giant mushrooms. Motes of energy rise from them like spores.

KEN: A mushroom forest. I think I played that level in Sonic & Knuckles.

MP: Nice twist on a Forest, and good use of your lands to help create a sense of uniqueness to your world.

MR: You don't particularly say this is underground. While I assume it is, knowing your world, I would have stressed it.

Token Card
Goblin (Red)
Creature - Goblin

Art: A crudely armed goblin erupting from a small cave.

MP: Nothin' particularly special here.

MR: I would have guessed your token would have been a fungus token. That seems more symbolic of your set than a goblin.


Watermarks are gone. The card concepts should be sufficient to indicate faction.

The pack shows the mechanical core for each faction.

Natives now have all the sacrifice effects and death triggers. I also brought back persist, as it plays well with their flavor, their style of grinding advantage, and both sacrifice effects and death triggers. Despite their complexity, the fungus tokens are important so players can assemble a critical mass of sacrifice effects that they can use without feeling bad. I show a goblin token also to indicate that the natives are small but overwhelming in numbers.

Prisoners have the primary -1/-1 counter interactions, entering the battlefield with them and removing them with triggers or for effects. Countercast (now Discharge) is now a cost reduction mechanic to create shields down moments, get rid of the colored permanent requirement, and because being free really restricted what effects I could use.

Sentinels (formerly Watchers) are perpetually outnumbered, reflected in their Stalwart ability. Additionally, I'm pushing the Sentinels towards playing more non-creature spells to create a pull towards building different decks (particularly in limited). The reward for having few (but not no) creatures is one mechanism. Conduit of Power is another.

Many people questioned why the Natives were important. Mylormyx is the answer to that. He is a native who achieved his planeswalker spark, and then is leading his people in revolt. He is the destabilizing force that sets the events of the block in motion

KEN: In conclusion, I'm very happy watermarks are gone from this set design. We talk internally how Shadowmoor was somehow a -1/-1 counter set that had both hybrid and color-matters stapled on top of it. I feel like Malgareth is what the -1/-1 counter could be when not plastered on top of a hybrid set like Shadowmoor or an artifact set like Scars of Mirrodin.

MJG: Good job with persist and discharge—these work together great. I am also quite impressed with your planeswalker design, and those are hard to do well. While there were some misses for me, you had many strong cards.

MP: We haven't explored the fungus-world trope type this heavily in a set since Fallen Empires (which is not necessarily a plus), but it's a fantasy staple, and certainly fits in Magic's Multiverse. But Yow! Mylormyx is our hero!? I spent most of the weekend scrubbing his cousins out of my bathtub with Tilex! I can see why sentient mold makes sense for an underground world, but people need to be able to relate to our key characters. I think that granting the planeswalker spark to something close on the evolutionary scale to yeast diminishes them all.

There are some cool cards in this pack. I like the idea of a prison world, and I like the concept of turning cuffs into trinkets, but overall I think the mechanics are a little fiddly and mathy for new and casual players. Also, the overall concepts need a little work in order to make it more appealing to casual and new players (like a hero with an endoskeleton).

There's some potential here, and it's definitely a unique feel to the world setting, but we'd need to rethink the planeswalker character and get a lot of polish from the creative team to make this a more successful set release.

MR: Scott, Your set is definitely starting to come together mechanically. There is plenty of things left to massage (such as adding -1/-1 counters rather than removing them on activations to play better with discharge), but all in all I like the cohesion. I have every faith that your set will play well.

My bigger issue is that I think your set's identity has not completely coalesced yet. My favorite summary of your set is "riot in underground prison." That gets you at least halfway there but I feel like I don't really have a good sense of who's fighting. I do recognize in the cards that there are factions, but I don't have a solid sense of who they are. Even more important than that I don't get who they are to each other. You've used all your mechanical space to define each faction and none to define the relationships between them.

I also feel like you're not making use of the tropes of your theme. Ethan, for example, has a prehistoric world, so he made sure to put a T-Rex in his set. That's a compelling image that can go on the boxes and tell people in a simple image what your set is about. Your center creature is some unfamiliar creature made out of garbage. Both prisons and underground have iconic images attached to them. Use them. Let me see the biggest, baddest prisoner who's leading the riot. Show me the beleaguered warden who's struggling to keep the riot contained.

Also, make use of your underground setting. I feel like you have this awesome resource that you aren't tapping. Very little of your set couldn't just happen above ground. Make your setting key to your set not secondary. All in all, though this submission shows a lot of progress.

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