The Great Designer Search 3, Trial One
For those who don’t know what the Great Designer Search 3 is, I’m linking to it here. The first trial consists of ten essays, between 250 and 350 words. That’s a smidge longer than my regular articles, so I’m passing on a proper introduction and jumping right to my responses to trial one.
Introduce yourself and explain why you are a good fit for this internship.
Hi there! I’m John-Michael Gariepy, creator of the ‘According to Gatherer’ article series on my blog ‘Dial D for Dungeon Master’, host of the movie interview/discussion show Popcorn Roulette, and Producer/Director of the medical manga audio drama ‘Say Hello to Black Jack’.
I got into web content when my friends and I started the Myriad Games Session Impressions podcast, back in 2009. That show broke up after 350 or so episodes, but I was itching to get back on the microphone to review more games, so Jeffrey Norman Bourbeau and I started another game review podcast named ‘Power to the Meeple’ in 2013. Technical issues with the server forced us to regroup and release ‘Nerd Fountain’ in 2015.
Over the years spent podcasting, I played and reviewed over 500 separate tabletop games. I was often called to think critically about the games I played and glean design decisions made by game creator(s) in order to compose a proper review. We shared duties when it came to learning each games’ rules, so I read my fair share of rulebook literature. Few things bother me more than a well-made game thoroughly undone by a hack rulebook.
As a side project, I design Magic cards. You can find me haunting magicmultiverse.net. The owner of the site once did a user statistics breakdown and found I was the second most prolific designer (almost 2,000 cards back in 2014) and the second most prolific commenter (after the site creator himself.) That makes sense, since I’m critical with the cards I design, and tend to write at least two paragraphs about each card.
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?
Most non-evergreen keywords are either defunct, or set specific, and not built to last. Kicker seems like an obvious choice, since it’s so open-ended, and it’s seen its fair share of returns. But you can’t use Kicker in every set, since mechanics that are “like Kicker, except” look silly when paired next to Kicker. Likewise, adding Cycling restricts your ability to print other draw smoothing mechanics.
With my hand forced, I’m backing Bushido. Bushido is a nice, simple, scalable ability that does two important things: It adds relevance to small, early creatures in creature combat, and it delays games.
I doubt I need to explain why making early creatures relevant in the late game is good. I’m sure we all played too many games where our early creatures were immediately outclassed. A temporary boost in combat goes a long way to giving small creatures heft.
Arguing that the game needs something to slow it down, however… that’s a tough sell. But as creature creep continues to rise, making creatures more and more efficient at cheaper costs, the ability to end the game before an opponent’s game turns on becomes more and more common. Bushido fights against one-sided routes, but does so in a way that doesn’t stall the game. Cheap 2/2 creatures with Bushido 2 can be wrecking balls that pound into the opponent again and again, forcing either sacrifices or damage. But they don’t end the game in five turns. Bushido can be incredibly strong while giving players the breathing room to play.
Obviously, the name ‘Bushido’ needs to change. When I first saw the name, I cringed because I knew we were throwing away a resilient ability on a single block. Using Japanese warrior flavor immediately disqualifies the keyword from becoming evergreen. But it’s been 15 years since Kamigawa, so I’m sure we could reintroduce the keyword with a new name. Maybe ‘Battleready’?
If you had to remove evergreen status from a keyword mechanic that is currently evergreen, which one would you remove and why?
I have to? Then let’s get rid of ‘Search’.
That’s not to say I hate tutors so much that I want to kill every one. The current method of searching the library is instrumental to the game but includes a lot of words. This is apparent every time a cycle of cards is printed with basic abilities, and the green card in the cycle uses a Rampant Growth effect (see also Ainok Guide, Blighted Woodland, Horizon Spellbomb, etc., etc.)
Producing mana is part one of most Green strategies. Rampant Growth may not be the only way to make mana, but it’s a well-worn tool in Green’s toolbox. Despite the proliferation of the ability, I can only imagine the number of cards in which the Rampant Growth ability was pulled from, or wasn’t even considered for, due to a lack of rules text space.
The problem is that ‘search your library’ has been a part of the game since it’s induction. And unlike Banding (or Trample. Don’t think I don’t see you there Trample.) it isn’t immediately apparent how complex the ability is. Searching is easy. It’s the other stuff you need to do to make sure the game doesn’t fall apart in Search’s wake that’s the problem.
So let’s rip off the bandage, kill Search, and replace it with another keyword that involves shuffling your library afterward. Picking through the thesaurus, I found the word ‘Hunt’. I doubt it would stick, but I’d love to see a Magic 2020 Rampant Growth say “Hunt your library for a basic land. Put it on the battlefield tapped. (Then shuffle your library.)”
You’re going to teach Magic to a stranger. What’s your strategy to have the best possible outcome?
I used to wait in a restaurant, and my manager once told me something that stuck. “We aren’t trying to sell people a meal. The guests already chose to eat with us. They’ll pay for their meal. We’re selling the next meal. Our primary goal is to convince guests they want to return.”
The same applies to teaching Magic. If you’re teaching someone to play, the potential new player is already listening to you. The focus shouldn’t be the mechanics. Your focus should be an enjoyable first experience, to encourage future play.
There’s always the traditional advice. Keep a pair of simple decks with virtual vanilla creatures, sorceries, and land in your collection. Make sure there are cards of obvious power level difference to help spur conversations about how to customize your own deck, and the very nature of a collectible card game.
But the best trick in your show is the ability to lose. Players’ first impression of a game is increased dramatically if they win the first time they play. It makes them feel accomplished, and reinforces that this activity is something they can be good at.
So lose if you can, and lose gracefully. But don’t fake it. Even if they can’t tell why you’re holding back, people are remarkably good at reading signals. Instead, put yourself in a scenario where you will likely lose. Give your opponent a deck with a clear goal to victory, while you pilot a deck that’s disorganized, and too ambitious. A Darksteel Reactor deck missing a few key components to make it truly viable, for example.
You can even explain to your opponent that their deck is better than yours, and they will probably win. It doesn’t matter; the psychological result is the same. People like to win. Winning encourages further play. Eventually, they’ll want to be challenged. But by that point, they’re players.
What is Magic‘s greatest strength and why?
The ability to reinvent itself. Magic has been around for twenty-five years, and if there’s one consistent narrative theme, it’s that the game changes. It changed immediately with the first expansion Arabian Nights. It became something altogether different with its first standalone expansion Ice Age. It added block philosophies in Mirage and Tempest, redefined them with Battle for Zendikar, and altered the way we play with Vanguard, Planeshift, Commander, and Conspiracy.
This ability to correct and surprise has been instrumental in keeping the game relevant for so many years. Other great games, like Dominion and Pandemic, do what they can to mimic this model in their goal to make their game feel current. Classic games, like Monopoly and Risk, struggle under the burden of their antiquated rules systems to create variations on their original brand that are family friendly, economical, and potentially exciting to customers.
Magic does this by simply being Magic. Its title evokes the entire Fantasy genre; a genre whose potential is limitless. It’s a game built on a model that encourages regular and frequent alteration. Expansions are bought at the price of a cup of latte. Whole decks can be assembled for a dollar out of a game store’s bargain bin.
Of course, this description also describes other collectible card games. But the ability to reinvent itself is one of Magic’s greatest strengths against other ccgs as well. In this scenario, it isn’t about how Magic can change in the future, it’s about how Magic changed throughout the past. Few ccgs can compete with Magic when it comes to the scope or vision that Magic already achieved. New ccgs can often field impressive initial numbers, but tend to buckle under the the stress of a need for dramatic change versus the desire to maintain customer expectations. Only two other games can match Magic in terms of market tenacity, Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh!, and both are targeted at a much younger audience.
What is Magic‘s greatest weakness and why?
Its tendency toward entropy. While one of Magic’s great strengths is its ability to change, its worst weakness is the need to change. Magic is not a perfect game. It’s a composite of many, many flawed pieces. It’s fun because there’s a constant influx of new, imperfect game pieces multiple times per year. But if Wizards ceased printing new cards, the audience would taper to a small core community rehashing the same decks to beat in an otherwise dead game.
The simple solution is to print more cards. That’s Magic’s model after all. But the more cards printed, the fewer obvious design avenues remain. This glut encourages designers to work with what’s available, creating bloated and unfun mechanics. Good designers reach beyond those spaces to find efficient and fun new designs. Sometimes mining this new territory leads to further lodes of explorable space. But overmining can also result in a dead mine.
As I said before, the genre of Fantasy is limitless. Magic: the Gathering, however, is not. Magic’s audience carries preconceived expectations about what the game curtails. They play year after year because they enjoy exploring and being surprised, but also because they take comfort in the stability of the core rules, mechanics, and game philosophies. Even when the game swings hard in a new direction, Magic tends to return to center. It can’t suddenly become a deck building game like Dominion, or a resource management game like Catan. I wouldn’t rule out its ability to morph into another game altogether, but the process of becoming altogether different while maintaining its audience would require decades of small changes.
When Magic Arena releases, it will be very different than how Alpha was played. That’s a good thing. Change over time is necessary for the game’s survival. But while the game is changing, it’s important to conserve energy and explore new territory with jurisprudence. Exploration without foresite and goals can incinerate design resources. Magic would struggle to find new space to explore while continuing to engage its core audience.
What Magic mechanic most deserves a second chance (aka which had the worst first introduction compared to its potential)?
Let’s talk about Haunt. No, no! Don’t run away! I swear this makes sense!
Haunt, as executed, was a mistake. It contained great flavor potential. But its execution was so confusing, even the flavor was a misfire. Players couldn’t figure out what it was doing. There were too many moving parts, and many of those parts weren’t intuitive choices.
Oddly, one reason I feel Haunt failed so badly was an attempt to simplify it. One simple way for players to remember what a card with two abilities does is to repeat the ability twice. The result with Haunt, however, was to craft a complex hoop to jump through to manipulate the situation required for the ability to fire a second time.
But Haunting isn’t confusing. Here’s Haunt with its reminder text for creatures.
“Haunt (When this creature dies, exile it haunting target creature.)”
That’s not wordy, nor is it confusing. It is, in fact, the mechanic Imprint, except only applied during a death trigger. So… simpler than Imprint?
Let’s fix Haunt. First things first: Haunt only goes on creatures. Being on Sorceries and Instants required Haunt to do something different on different card types, increasing the complexity of the mechanic. Putting Haunt on three card types was much too greedy. The mechanic makes more sense on creatures for flavor reasons, so we’re only putting it on creatures. Creatures die, become ghosts, and haunt other people. Besides, Sorceries and Instants with Haunt aren’t very different mechanically from Auras.
Now let’s use abilities that are simple, and make sense from a flavor perspective. How about a gorgon that can’t get too close to people because she turns them stone, and then when she dies she passes her curse on to someone else?
Creature – Gorgon
Haunt (When this creature dies, exile it haunting target creature.)
Creatures haunted by CARDNAME gain deathtouch.
Invasion is great, but its execution of color matters is sloppy and mean.
On sloppiness: Many cards in Invasion interact with color. Many cards change a card’s color. And many cards don’t care. If one is to print cards like Sway of Illusion, Blind Seer, Singe, et. al., why print color matter cards unaffected by the color changing cards? Don’t print Addle in this set. The same goes for all five Leeches, and the nonbos Mana Maze and Essence Leak. Also, changing a card’s color isn’t impressive in combination with cards that choose a color such Armored Guardian, Harsh Judgment, Stormscape Master, and Thornscape Master. It feels like the designers were so giddy to do a color matters set that they weren’t paying attention to which mechanics made sense.
On meannes: Invasion dodges the worst of this. Traditional color hosers were overpowered, but R&D grasped this by Mercadian Masques. There are no truly punishing color hosers in Invasion. But that doesn’t mean the printed color hosers are welcome.
For most players, Magic is more fun when spells you cast help you win, as opposed to making your opponent lose. By the time Shadowmoor saw print, R&D understood this maxim and supplied players with a large percentage of beneficial to caster color matters cards as opposed to detrimental to opponent color matters cards. By my count, In Invasion there are 54 cards that hurt the opponent if they played a certain color, or mono-color, and only 16 cards that reward their caster for playing into a certain color, or playing multi-color. And that counts the Zanam Djinn cycle, Pledge of Loyalty, and Barrin’s Unmaking as a positive for the caster, which is quite arguable.
Invasion was a turning point, and established a template for a new Magic that focused on creating fun experiences in both limited and constructed. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves. It wasn’t special because it was the best that Magic could do. It was special because it showed a reflection of what Magic could become.
Of all the Magic expansions that you’ve played with, pick your least favorite and then explain the best part about it.
I really wanted to like Alara Reborn, but it never happened. There were many problems, but I think the flavor disconnect was what did me in. Five unique shards are separated from each other. Then they’re starting to explore each other. Things are getting good. Which all leads up to… everything recombined. That’s it? Boring.
But let’s talk about what made Alara Reborn unique. It was a set in which every card was multi-colored. That’s exciting. Oh, I don’t mean the execution was great, because to be honest that felt muddy to me as well. But I love how daring that was.
It’s an idea that on the surface sounds like a mistake. There’s a reason why multi-color sets don’t go full on gold. Mono-colored players aren’t incentivized to open a pack. Draft is both confusing, and limiting since many players choose a two-color combination early and stick with it (those that don’t could be hopelessly lost.) By rights, this is one of those ideas that should have been killed at many stages of design and development for exhibiting a number of logistical issues.
But it wasn’t. I assume the main reason was a constant chorus of “But what if it works?” Players love multi-color. If Alara Reborn was 100% multi-color with a solid execution, it could have been one of the defining sets of the decade.
It’s easy to tear down a set that over-reached and didn’t achieve as a failure, only to turn around and label a set that over-reached and succeeded as a heroic struggle after the fact. Zendikar, with its ‘lands matter’ theme should not have worked. Innistrad’s double-faced cards sound horrible when presented in a vacuum. Both of those sets aimed to do something radical and succeeded. And those sorts of successes would not be possible if designers and developers didn’t go to bat for posthumously decided ‘bad ideas’ like Alara Reborn.
You have the ability to change any one thing about Magic. What do you change and why?
I’d make every game store a safe environment for all players.
Okay, I know this is a cheat, since this answer doesn’t involve design. But I can’t think of a subject more pressing to the continuance of the game. Local game stores are the lifeblood of Magic: the Gathering. This game’s popularity is a product of its community. And when the community resorts to bullying in a misplaced attempt to form solidarity through gatekeeping, we all suffer.
I used to own a game store when I was a really stupid 21 year old. So I know how difficult it can be to recognize the difference between surliness and toxic behavior. It’s easy to throw up your hands and let the community figure it out. But it’s right to get involved, engage so-called ‘trouble makers’, and find a way for everyone to feel welcome.
I’m lucky. The worst I ever encountered in my store was well-meaning loudmouths that proved they could also be reasonable. But I know of a store a friend of mine once tried out and would never return because the knee-jerk reaction of the players there was to disparage his race. I know women who are afraid to play Magic in stores because that makes them a target. I know far too many adults who try to scare kids out of stores so they can play Magic among a more mature crowd.
I wouldn’t be so foolish as to grade the Wizards Play Network’s performance, nor tell them what they should and shouldn’t do. I have neither the experience, nor the information to make the kind of judgements they must regularly make. I do know, however, that if we rely solely on the Play Network to police stores, then we failed. It’s important for all of us to be vigilant, and speak up when someone is marginalized or mistreated. That’s easier to say than it is to do, but it’s what needs to be done. If it takes a hero to step forward and defend the people in our community, then we should all be heroes.