Working with Some of the Best Minds in Gaming

Posted in NEWS on June 30, 2014

By Shawn Main

Shawn Main is a designer for Magic: The Gathering. He joined Wizards of the Coast from the Great Designer Search 2 after years of directing theater, training medical students, and playing multiplayer Magic.

In many ways, Magic is the perfect game for game designers: it's all about offering you individual game pieces and asking what you want to do with them. Before you even sit down at a table with an opponent, you're thinking about the kind of experience you want to have and how to shape that experience. Do you want to be aggressive? Defensive? Can you think of clever combos?

Goblin Kaboomist | Art by Kev Walker

If you're in a casual setting, you probably even think about what would contribute to the other players' fun—that your friends are delighted when you cast Warp World or quit when you cast Armageddon. There are a lot of possibilities all nestled inside one game, and there's a lot of space to get creative.

We've known there are a lot of game designers who play Magic, so for Magic 2015 we decided to do something we'd never done before: we invited game designers to try their hands at designing Magic cards.

I had the honor of working with them—hearing initial card ideas, making suggestions, going back and forth as we tried out designs, then developing those designs into cards ready for booster packs. The process was a blast. Some of them were intimately familiar with Magic and hit it out of the park on the first try. Others had more of an outsider's perspective, so we worked together to translate ideas into cards. There was a whole lot of creativity and we let that creativity push us to some unique places we wouldn't normally go with design.

George Fan: Genesis Hydra

Designer of Plants vs Zombies

Genesis Hydra XG

Creature – Hydra

Genesis Hydra enters the battlefield with X +1/+1 counters on it.

When Genesis Hydra enters the battlefield, look at the top X cards of your library. You may reveal a permanent card with converted mana cost X or less from among them and put it onto the battlefield. Put the rest on the bottom of your library in any order.


George was one of the designers who knew Magic really well. Really. Well. When I asked him to start pitching ideas, he gave me six fully fleshed designs and, except for one that would be more at home in a silver-bordered set, I could've slotted any of them right into the file. We both agreed that Genesis Hydra (his original name) was the best, so we proceeded with it. And everyone on the team immediately fell in love with the Hydra, so, really, other than cleaning up a small rules issue and turning a few development knobs, the card stayed exactly as George first designed.

Penny Arcade: Avarice Amulet

Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins: Gabe and Tycho, creators of PAX

"…a traitorous card that switches allegiance each time it's killed, with a buff of some kind for the current holder."

Jerry's initial list of card ideas started us down the path of a "Watchwork Golem." It was a sly reference and one that pushed us in interesting design directions, such as trying out artifact creatures that died and reanimated under an opponent's control, giving you extra turns, or finding lands. We circled, but the creative wandered further and further away from the idea of something players would actually fight over. So we regrouped and came at the basic idea from a more literal angle: What does a card look like if you want to pick it up off the corpse of your enemy? And that question led us straight to the final card.

Markus Perrson: Aggressive Mining

"Notch," creator of Minecraft and founder of Mojang

Aggressive Campaign


You cannot play land cards

Sacrifice a land: Draw two cards

Ah Minecraft, another game that's great for game designers. It's great for showing off creativity and playing the game the way you enjoy it most. Markus pitched this very Johnny card and I immediately showed it to developers. It's the kind of card that makes you scratch your head and squint trying to figure out how to use it. These cards are fun because they give you a puzzle to solve, but they often need extra development attention because they can function like engines, and you need to give them unappealing costs. And sometimes, they look a little too weird if you're not a Johnny, and should be replaced. In this case, the development team looked at the card and said, "Looks like fun. Just make it once per turn so it doesn't play like a sorcery where you sacrifice all your lands, draw lots of cards, and combo off." It was a good note and so we did exactly that. I'm excited to see what all the Johnnies come up with for this particular card.

Richard Garriot: Shield of the Avatar

"Lord British," creator of the Ultima series

Many of our designers set about creating cards that alluded to their own games (and in a few cases, we added our own winks). Richard created a card that would be at home in his Ultima games—a shield powered by the collective hope of all your creatures. It was interesting to watch designers who work in other genres try to balance Magic cards against the gameplay of those other genres. Richard's first version only absorbed so much damage before it fell apart and then dealt damage to the bearer. Instead, we get to make a clean card that absorbs damage and never falls apart.

David Sirlin: Master of Predicaments

Designer on Super Street Figher II Turbo HD Remix, Yomi

"A lot of my work in game design has been about the concept of yomi, which is about reading the opponent. Knowing that they know you know they know, and all that. So here is a card that explores that concept:"

Card Name: Yominous Merchant

Cost: 1WU

Type: Creature – Human Rogue (Human Merchant would be better)

P/T: 1/2

Rules Text: Tap, choose a number: Target opponent chooses "higher," "lower," or "equal." You may cast a nonland card from your hand this turn without paying its mana cost if its converted mana cost corresponds to the opponent's choice.

Flavor Text: "Let's settle on a fair price."

Rarity: Rare

Sirlin also created a card that was a puzzle, but of a very different nature—one that gave you a turn-by-turn mind game with your opponent. As M15 moved from design to development and as we played with the card more and more, a few things became obvious: the mini-game was really fun, the card tended to dominate everything else that was happening in the game, and the templating was going to be a huge challenge. We moved the trigger from a tap to combat damage so your opponent could interact with it through normal Magic gameplay (and not simply the card's own mind games), then turned it into a big flier so it would move the game forward even when your opponent guessed correctly. And, finally, we realized that our guessing game always centered around a few values since the bluff was whether you had something bigger, so we choose a fixed value, which also let us template the card with some appealingly understandable language.

Rob Pardo: Xathrid Slyblade

Chief creative officer at Blizzard, lead designer of World of Warcraft

Rob's card is a great example of how we let the external designers lead us to places we wouldn't take Magic design on our own. Rob started from a very simple place: he wanted to make an assassin. But he immediately veered away from how Magic typically handles its assassins and gave it World of Warcraft-style stealth. Instead of focusing on the attack, he chose to focus on the character waiting patiently in shadows, only becoming vulnerable at the moment of the strike. Hexproof isn't in black's color pie, but the flavor tells a great story and leads to some great game moments.

Isaiah Cartwright: Warden of the Beyond

Lead game designer for Guild Wars 2

Void Keeper


Human Cleric

Whenever a card is exiled from the battlefield Void Keeper gets a +1/+1 counter


Isaiah's original design pushed at a part of Magic we've never really explored: exile matters. When you play in this kind of space, you have a number of options. Is the card more intended for Constructed or can you build around the strategy in Limited? Should it scale infinitely upward or give a reward when you reach a certain threshold? Because it's such new territory, we wanted to make the hoop as easy to jump through as possible, asking simply whether an opponent has a card in exile and rewarding you with a sizeable body if he or she does. Some of the fun here is the number of different ways cards can find their way into exile: casting Banishing Light is different from using Tormod's Crypt is different from sideboarding this card in against an opponent who plays suspend or flashback spells. The exile zone gets used in different ways and this card can become active at different times from one matchup to the next.

Justin Gary: Spirit Bonds

Designer of Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer and SolForge

Guardian Spirits 1W- Enchantment- Whenever you play a creature, you may put a 1/1 white Spirit token with flying into play. Sacrifice a Spirit: Target creature is indestructible until end of turn.

In addition to being a game designer and founder of Stoneblade Entertainment, Justin Gary holds the distinction of being the most accomplished competitive Magic player among our external designers, with a Pro Tour win and numerous other tournament accomplishments. He joined M15 a little later than the other designers, so I asked him specifically if he had any ideas for white rares, because the file was thinner there. He delivered immediately with a card that happened to tie right into some of our themes and played really nicely with convoke. Plus, it tells a great story.

Stone Librande: Goblin Kaboomist

Lead designer at Riot Games, designer of Diablo 3, creative director of SimCity

Name: Goblin Mine Layer

Type: Creature – Goblin (1/2)

Text: {T}: Put a red artifact Mine token on the battlefield. Mine tokens have the ability, "Sacrifice: Do 2 damage to target non-flying attacking creature."

Whenever one of your Mine tokens is sacrificed GoblinMine Layer takes 1 damage.

"I had just watched a video about the new units in the Starcraft II expansion and saw that the Terrans have a new mine unit. This got me thinking about how to do something similar in MTG. Of course it had to be a red card."

Stone's Mine Layer is a great example of a top-down design that leads to a really unique place. Tokens are a big part of Magic, but the game has few cards that make noncreature tokens, and until Gild and King Macar, the Gold-Cursed (which Stone wouldn't have known about at the time of M15 design), we hadn't printed noncreature token cards in booster packs at all.

With the Kaboomist, Stone continues the fine tradition in Magic of Goblins who are really bad at their jobs. Unfortunately, in his initial design, the Goblin was a little too efficient at laying down explosives. It was easy to amass enough mines that an opponent would never be able to attack again, so we made the Goblin even worse at his job to keep from too-easily stockpiling.

Brian Fargo: Yisan, the Wanderer Bard

Founder and CEO of inXile Entertainment, director of Bard's Tale, Wasteland, executive producer of Fallout

From the beginning, Brian wanted to create a bard. I thought it sounded great, as it nodded at his classic roleplaying game, Bard's Tale and was a resonant fantasy trope we hadn't explored much in Magic. His first attempt, though, veered into a very silver-bordered space.

The Bard

Creature – Bard



When The Bard comes into play and each time it changes controllers, its new controller must sing a little Bard Song glorifying the old controller and referencing The Bard's current situation. The little Bard Song must be longer than all previous little Bard Songs previously sung in this game, or The Bard's controller loses 1 life.

At end of each discard step, the player sitting to the left of The Bard's controller gains control of The Bard.

This made us all smile and his second attempt was a lot more workable in black border:

The Bard

Creature – Bard

1/2 RWU

T: Put a lutesong counter on The Bard.

T: Search your library for a creature card whose power is less than or equal to the number of lutesong counters on The Bard, and put it into play. Play this ability as a sorcery.

This design came at the singing, summoning bard concept from a very cool angle. Of course, I pointed out that this design really wanted to be a green card. Our conversation (verbatim) from there:

Brian: That's great. My guys only comment that they thought green was some peace loving hippy type and didn't match the Bard's personality but I defer to you on that one.

Me: Lol—green represents nature, but tends to be more about wild beasts than holding hands. Most relevantly here, though, is that it's the color that's best at searching for creatures.

Brian: ok.. so long as he isn't a wuss. ;)

Me: Once he's ready for artwork, I'll make sure the artist gets the note. "Not a wuss."

Development would eventually combine the two abilities into a single action after playtesting showed too many decks never wanted to sing their way past a single counter.

Mike Neumann: Chasm Skulker

Gearbox Software, creative director on Borderlands

"The visual I had in mind was a large evil thing of Cthulhu's nightmares made of squids."

Mike's initial card idea was mechanically pretty solid: a giant creature where you could pay mana to add +1/+1 counters, which died into component 1/1s. It was a reasonable design, but, as with Brian Fargo, I told Mike it sounded like he was making a green card. Unlike with Brian, Mike was insistent that he wanted it to be blue. Blue was important to Mike and important to Gearbox—apparently two of the team even had blue mana symbol tattoos. I said, "Great! Let's figure some angles on the card that make it blue." We looked at ways a blue creature might grow in size and that led us to adding the counters on card draw. Suddenly, Tentaculon (the playtest name) started to look like a real card. A real card that was squirming with tentacles.

James Ernest: Hot Soup

Owner and lead designer for Cheapass Games, designer of Kill Doctor Lucky

Hot Soup: Equipment. Equipped character is unblockable, and its toughness becomes 1. "Hot soup, comin' through!"

James and his Cheapass Games are known for their tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. So when I first received James's card ideas, Hot Soup made me giggle. I didn't ever think we'd print something so goofy in our badass fantasy strategy game, but it continued to make me giggle. I shared the list with Aaron Forsythe, M15's lead designer, and asked which of the ideas looked good to him. He giggled (actually it's more of a mad cackle) and pointed at Hot Soup. I shared the card with creative, sure they would veto the idea, but they giggled and gave a thumbs up. If we were willing to stretch ourselves in design a little to let our external designers explore, they were willing to stretch a little from our normal creative, even if it meant concepting some battlefield broth.

Edmund McMillen: Cruel Sadist

Designer of Binding of Isaac and Super Meat Boy, featured in Indie Game: The Movie

Sadistic Child


creature—succubus/(vampire might also work)

X,T: pay X life and put X +1/+1 counters on succubus

X,T: remove X counters from succubus and do X damage to target creature or player.


Like many of M15's external designers, Edmund started with a list of card ideas. Unlike the disparate lists of many of the others, Edmund's was a cycle of one-drop creatures. Edmund is a Cube drafter and clearly had efficient, aggressive plays on the brain. There was creative to it, too, imagining the creature filling with the player's blood then spitting it back out at enemies (creative would eventually lean the card more toward blood lust and less vampirism). The card had very solid design, but proved really tricky to develop (as repeatable damage sources often are). Fortunately, the card had lots of knobs to turn, so we spent a long time turning up one cost while turning down another until the little assassin girl finally found the sweet spot where she could be a serious threat without overwhelming the game.

Brad Muir: Ob Nixilis, Unshackled

Game designer at Double Fine Productions leading Massive Chalice, project lead on Iron Brigade

Brad had a vision in mind immediately: he wanted to design a black demon for Commander that would hose people's tutor spells. It sounded exciting and hosing tutors sounded noble (I agree with him that they can lead to too-repetitive gameplay in Commander), but I told him there would be extra pressure if he wanted to go down that path. Early in design, we figured out that M15 needed to tell Garruk's story and we knew the fallen Planeswalker, Ob Nixilis, was going to fit into that story. As the black legend for the set, Brad would need to design a new Ob Nixilis (and a powered up Ob at that). We spent a long time exploring the space of Ob not only hosing your opponents' search effects, but also transmuting your own. But it veered too far off course. It did leave us with a demon whose cruelty shines through.