Essay What You Will

Posted in Making Magic on February 5, 2018

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

Hello, everyone. Next month the Great Designer Search 3 (GDS3) will be starting up, but before that can happen we have to find our eight finalists. To do that, we're putting entrants through three trials and then doing a lengthy and thorough cut to a Top 8. As that's going to take about a month to do, I've decided to use the next month of my column to walk you through each of the challenges. (Today will focus on the first trial, the next two columns will cover the second trial, then we have a preview week, before coming back the following week to talk about the third and final trial.) For each trial, I will walk you through what we asked of the applicants, talk about what we were looking for, and then give my answer.

Trial 1 was the essay test. We gave all the applicants ten essay questions and then asked for responses to each of between 250 and 350 words. That means the first trial required, on average, 3,000 words in response. The questions aren't easy, by the way. They're designed to test how the applicant thinks about Magic and its design. This is the same first trial we did for both GDS1 and GDS2, the only difference being the questions asked (except for question 1, which was the same for all three).

I guess I should start by showing you the ten questions. I will then go through them one at a time.

  1. Introduce yourself and explain why you are a good fit for this internship.
  2. An evergreen mechanic is a keyword mechanic that shows up in (almost) every set. If you had to make an existing keyword mechanic evergreen, which one would you choose and why?
  3. If you had to remove evergreen status from a keyword mechanic that is currently evergreen, which one would you remove and why?
  4. You're going to teach Magic to a stranger. What's your strategy to have the best possible outcome?
  5. What is Magic's greatest strength and why?
  6. What is Magic's greatest weakness and why?
  7. What Magic mechanic most deserves a second chance (aka which had the worst first introduction compared to its potential)?
  8. Of all the Magic expansions that you've played, pick your favorite and then explain the biggest problem with it.
  9. Of all the Magic expansions that you've played, pick your least favorite and then explain the best part about it.
  10. You have the ability to change any one thing about Magic. What do you change?

A few notes before I start talking about the questions. The reason behind having essay questions is that we need a way to gain insight into how the applicants think about the game. The questions were designed to push into different areas and test the applicant's working knowledge of various aspects of Magic. We care more about the applicants having answers that they properly defend than necessarily getting the "correct" answers.

Also, because I'm trying to get to all ten questions without going over my word count, my answers will be a bit more succinct than they would have been if I were officially applying.

1. Introduce yourself and explain why you are a good fit for this internship.

I like to start by giving the applicant a chance to introduce themselves to us. Magic is a collaborative endeavor, so it's important to get a sense of who the person is that might be working with us. The goal of this question is to explain what you have to offer us, not explain why you want to work in R&D. A common mistake people make when applying to R&D is spending all their time explaining what working here would mean to them. We want people who are excited by Magic and who have a personal stake in what the game means to them, but that's really just a prerequisite for walking through the door. The applicants needed to explain to us why we need them. What do they have to offer that would allow us to do things we aren't currently doing? How would their addition to R&D make Magic better? This question was a chance for them to sell themselves to us.

For most of the questions today, I'm going to give my own answer. As I've done over 800 columns, recorded 500 podcasts, and answered nearly 100,000 questions on my blog, I'm going to assume you've heard me talk plenty about what I have to offer the game.

2. An evergreen mechanic is a keyword mechanic that shows up in (almost) every set. If you had to make an existing keyword mechanic evergreen, which one would you choose and why?

The point of this question was for the applicants to both demonstrate their understanding of what evergreen mechanics do for the game and show off their wider knowledge of Magic mechanics. The key was trying to find something that the game regularly needs but that isn't met through the current roster of evergreen mechanics.

The lowest-hanging fruit was finding a good blue-black mechanic. Every other color combination has an evergreen mechanic we can use on things like hybrid and traditional multicolor cards when we're trying to do simple French vanilla (aka no rules text other than keywords) creatures. R&D, interestingly, has recently allowed black to get flash secondarily to help solve this problem, but most of the audience wouldn't know this. This low-hanging fruit is a bit of a trap, as R&D has spent years trying to solve this problem, so there's no easy answer.

The more interesting space to explore is what functionality would just help make sets play better. My answer to this question would be to make cycling evergreen. The mechanic has huge amounts of design space, can go on any card type, has great gameplay, and helps us give sets more synergy by helping players get to the cards they need faster. Cycling's biggest strike is its lack of flavor, but that might be beneficial for an evergreen mechanic, as it would allow it to fit into most worlds.

3. If you had to remove evergreen status from a keyword mechanic that is currently evergreen, which one would you remove and why?

This question helps us understand the applicant's knowledge of what the current evergreen mechanics are doing for us. This question is much less open-ended than the previous one, as there are only a handful of evergreen mechanics that are causing us problems. That said, any answer was okay as long as the applicant could defend it. The key to providing the best answer was identifying the problems the chosen evergreen keyword was creating.

The most obvious answer for this is hexproof, as I've talked many times about how we have to be careful when and how often we use it. My actual answer, though, is prowess. While I'm a huge fan of the mechanic, it's been causing us all sorts of headaches. The biggest issue is not an obvious problem: we've found that it meshes poorly with certain set themes. Numerous teams have chosen to leave it out of sets because of this. The mechanic also adds a lot to board complexity, forcing us to be more careful with how often we use it at common. (Having a common creature—one without square stats—that changes its own stats gets red-flagged, for example.) It's the only evergreen mechanic that stacks, which can cause problems with certain designs. It's also the only evergreen mechanic that's triggered, which causes a different set of problems. It's fun and flavorful, it plays well, and it gives us a blue-red overlap, but it comes with a real cost.

4. You're going to teach Magic to a stranger. What's your strategy to have the best possible outcome?

This question is testing a few things. First, it's looking to see how well the applicant understands issues for new players. Second, it's observing their ability to plan ahead. And third, it's watching their ability to structure things. All of these are important skills for a designer.

Here's my answer: The goal of any first-time playtest is to ensure that the player has a fun enough time that they want to play again. No other accomplishment matters if they aren't interested in playing a second time. That means you have to prioritize minimizing things that would frustrate them and maximize things that would excite them. As deck building is scary, I would pre-build decks. I want them invested in what they are playing, so I would make a few decks and allow them to pick. I don't want too many decks, as a lot of choices can be intimidating. I would build my decks around simple themes so that each deck has an instant identity. My first choice would be tribal decks, as those are flavorful and have a clean and simple identity. I would also make sure the decks were faster and led to shorter games. I also would want a mix of card types, but be careful not to use cards that would lead to confusion by themselves.

I would teach this new player the rules as we played and only teach them what they need to know in the moment. I would probably use a playmat that helps spell out how everything is laid out. To keep track of life totals, I would use an app that clearly spells out both players' life totals. I would choose a location to play that is bright and inviting. I would make sure to focus on keeping the play session light and fun and would not try to deliver any more information than is necessary. I would then give them their deck to keep after we played.

5. What is Magic's greatest strength and why?

The next two questions are about examining the applicant's understanding of Magic's structure as both a game and a larger entertainment entity. An important part of designing Magic is creating things that enhance what makes it great and being careful when creating things that reinforce the weaknesses of the game.

Interestingly, my answer for this question has changed over time. For many years, I believed Magic's greatest strength was its flexibility, that each person got a say in what kind of game they were playing. Each player had some ability to be a game designer. While that's still true and still a great strength of the game, my trip to the Game Developers Conference in 2015 made me realize that something important had happened to Magic. There was a list of the top 30 games. The list consisted of Magic and 29 video games.

It made me realize the importance of being a physical game in what's becoming more and more a video world. Magic forces a physicality. You actually have to interact with other humans in the same room as you. You have to physically touch objects and navigate space. Also, because it's designed to be a paper game, it has a quality to it that is just different from all the video games out there. I believe this distinct difference is a huge advantage for Magic.

6. What is Magic's greatest weakness and why?

If you pay attention to any of my writing/podcasts/blog posts, you know this is a topic I hit upon a lot. My normal answer to this question is the barrier to entry. Magic is a hard game to learn, and that keeps a lot of people who might actually enjoy it from ever playing. However, rather than give the same answer I always give, I thought it would be interesting to explore a different tack here. One of my truisms is "Your greatest weakness is your greatest strength pushed too far." As I've changed my answer about the game's greatest strength, I was curious to follow the logic of this truism.

If the game's human qualities give it its strength, what does it mean if that gets pushed too far? I think it means that sometimes the game suffers from some human frailties. It can be inconsistent as different elements that are each intuitive in a vacuum come in conflict with one another. It can be messy as years of additions start to force aspects of the game to get cluttered. It can be irrational as ideas mutate through different executions, leading to strange choices. I often talk about Magic as if it's a living, breathing entity. Its greatest weakness is that sometimes it acts a little too human.

7. What Magic mechanic most deserves a second chance (aka which had the worst first introduction compared to its potential)?

An important part of design is being able to look for the game's future through its past. Magic turns 25 this year. That means we've made a lot of mechanics. This question is testing both the applicant's knowledge of what we've done and their understanding of why things did and didn't work. A popular way to veer off on this question was to examine mechanics that R&D has already proved could be redone. Yes, devotion was a far better execution than chroma, but we already knew that.

My answer for this question is meld, a mechanic we used in Eldritch Moon. The mechanic allowed two creatures to transform and join together as a giant card. To me, the mechanic has the potential to be beloved, but the market research showed that the reaction to it was just so-so. (It did have its fans, but they were a minority according to the data.) I feel like this is a mechanic that with the right flavor and environment could be a showstopper.

8. Of all the Magic expansions that you've played, pick your favorite and then explain the biggest problem with it.

This is another question seemingly digging into the applicant's knowledge of the past, but really it's just a chance for us to examine if the applicant understands what makes a set work (or, in the case of the next question, not work). I used a similar technique in the GDS2 essay trial to test whether an applicant could see the failure in a success and the success in a failure.

Recover
Recover | Art by Nils Hamm

This question is very hard for me to answer, as so many of the sets are my babies, but I'll give it my best shot. Right now, my favorite set is Unstable. I worked for years to get it actually made, so seeing it released and watching so many players enjoying it has been a big deal to me, but if I were allowed to go back and change things, there's plenty I would change. One of the goals for the set was to make it attractive to formats that might play silver-border cards. I think I missed a bit with Commander. I should have color-balanced a little better with the legendary creatures. I made decisions based on flavor that led to a bit of an imbalance. While I'm not a fan of black-bordered cards referencing specific formats, I think I could have done that a bit in Unstable. I needed, for example, to find a way to make sure The Grand Calcutron could be a commander.

I also wish I'd done a little more work with the watermark-matters cards. There isn't quite enough to make them work in Limited as a build-around theme. I also wish I'd added a few more Squirrels to make a Squirrel deck more draftable. I could have been more consistent in thinking about how cards interacted with Contraptions. There are a few simple changes that would have helped themes cross over better with the new mechanic. Finally, there are a lot of small nuanced changes I would make. For example, Mad Science Fair Project should only make you roll a die if you want to rather than being mandatory. The fact that it sometimes makes you roll a die when the outcome doesn't matter is sloppy.

9. Of all the Magic expansions that you've played, pick your least favorite and then explain the best part about it.

While I like to pick on Homelands, I think my actual least favorite Magic set is Prophecy. While I dislike most of the larger themes of the set (I found the Rhystic mechanic and the giant amount of land sacrificing unfun), I do think the set succeeded in making a bunch of fun cycles. I like the alternate-casting-cost cycle where you discard a basic land type. I like the Avatar cycle. I like the Wind cycle. I like the legendary creature cycle where the creatures can discard two cards for a huge effect. I also thought tapping all your lands as an activation cost, such as on Chimeric Idol, was cool in small amounts. Finally, there are two individual cards, Dual Nature and Squirrel Wrangler, that I'm a big fan of.

10. You have the ability to change any one thing about Magic. What do you change?

This last question is more of a catch-all question to allow players to bring any issue they want to the forefront. This question allows them to go bold and large or small and subtle. Any answer is good as long as they explain their reasoning.

My change might not be popular in the short run, but I believe it would be good for the game in the long run. I would remove the rules baggage from the legendary supertype. The legendary creatures play a huge role in our story and in Commander, but the restriction constantly forces us to have to choose between gameplay and pushing characters. I would add a new keyword (something like unique) as a separate keyword that would allow us to add the restriction where it was necessary for gameplay. I believe this change would allow us to better sync up our best cards with characters we want players to associate with. It would also let us make more legendary cards.

Pencils Down

And with that, we end trial 1. I'm curious to hear how all of you would answer the questions above. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

The applicants who qualified from the first trial were invited to take the second trial, a multiple-choice test. Next week, all of you will be able to take the test yourself. Once you've seen how you would have fared, I'll run through all the answers. (It's going to take two weeks, as there are a lot of questions.)

Until then, may you mark March 9 on your calendar for the start of the Great Designer Search 3.


 
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#506: Game Knights

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I had the opportunity to appear on Game Knights with Jimmy Wong and Josh Lee Kwai. The three of us and Gavin Verhey drafted Unstable before its release so we could show off how fun it was. This podcast is all about my trip down to Los Angeles to...

 
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#508: Unstable Talk, Part 2

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This is technically a "Drive from Work." I picked Mark up at his house to do the last podcast, so we figured we might as well do another podcast when I drove him home.

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