Designing Cards for Fun and Profit

Wizards of the Coast are currently searching for a new designer. They’re holding a competition, in which the winner earns the right to an intern position at the Magic Mothership. Paul, along with countless others, longed for a shot at the big time… today, he shares his design questionnaire answers with candor and humor. An off-beat article, but one that should inspire debate.

Ever since I began slinging spells back in ’94 I thought it would be cool to design the cards. I never really thought it was possible, similar to my dreams of winning the World Series with my clutch 13th inning grand slam with two outs and down by three in game 7. I mean, honestly, how many people do they hire to make these cards? How long is this game really going to last? Why would they hire me? Of course, I was in high school at the time and things could fairly be described as different from their current status quo. Magic has flourished over the last dozen or so years, and Design has played a very significant role in said flourishing. And, yes, so has Development (consider the bone thrown).

The closest any Magician could have come to being involved in Design was to have won an Invitational- and that was only for one freaking card. Wizards realized the interest in Design, and more importantly recognized the raw talent pool that exists in their player base. They instituted “You Make the Card” with the help of the all-mighty InterWeb and its minions. In addition, they broadened their card selection audience outside the realm of their humble Washington offices to that of the entire Magic playing nation when we were allowed to vote for which cards would appear in the base set.

One fateful Friday, Wizards was exposed for the flirty tease that they have been. The good news is, they’re about to finally put out. Mark Rosewater announced that they are searching for a new author in the book of Arcana, a new scribe in the history books of Dominia. Yes, they’re hiring a new designer. You need to meet a few criteria to be eligible, and of course have to outlast your fellow mages, but after all of that is over- poof! You’re in! This is awesome news; especially for someone like me who A) has a number of friends already involved with Wizards directly and B) is ever-so-slightly bored with their current job. Oh, and of course AA) Loves Magic.

Then I saw it. Criteria # 5. Like the 5th Beatle, it doesn’t really belong. Unlike the 5th Beatle, it’s there.

If you are selected as the winner, you agree to (i) timely and fully complete and return all documents designated by Wizards and (ii) move and live near Wizards’ Renton, Washington headquarters, at your own expense, for six (6) months. Currently we believe this will be in January 2007.

I have no desire to be a Washingtonian. I’m an East Coast guy, born and raised. My fiancée is here. My family is here. Her family is here. Wait, that means my future in-laws are here – okay, so that’s one point for moving out West. But let’s face it, the “Honey, let’s move to the other coast so I can play more Magic,” argument isn’t going to cut it. So there it is, end of story right? Well, let’s just look at what they’re asking for. It sounds like fun, after all.

Turns out they’re asking me questions and are expecting some level of an answer. Well, all I got is answers, so let’s see how this goes.

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

I’m a dork, a geek and in all senses and all out gamer. I like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Monty Python, [insert stereotypical nerd pastime here] and of course Magic: The Gathering. I am thinking about Magic more often than I should, and in fact was going over a MODO draft from last night in my head before I saw Mark’s article. I’ve been playing Magic for a dozen or so years with accomplishments ranging from the 1998 NJ State Championships to placing in the money of multiple Pro Tours and Grand Prixes. But enough about me, let’s talk about you.

You’re looking for someone who is bright, friendly, dedicated, maybe a little obsessive (maybe a lot) and creative. You want someone who fights for what they believe in, is a champion of the people, and can have some fun here and there. You want someone who will take the job seriously, but not too seriously. You really want someone who is willing to break the rules of the game, but not the rules of the job. You need someone who will throw out any stupid idea that pops into his head and can openly and readily accept when the idea is, in fact, stupid. And then you want that person to remember that stupid idea two years later when it no longer seems so stupid, and to bring it up again.

Back to me. I’m all of that, and have a great singing voice. I’m the guy you thought you had when you hired yourself. I’m that young (is 27 still young?) go-getter, aggressive but friendly, up-and-coming cliché that you hear about in the movies. I’m Charlie Sheen to your Michael Douglass. And yes, if you start going corrupt, I’ll expose you. Because, most importantly, I’m honest.

2. Explain three positive ways “mana screw” affects Magic.

The first, and most obvious way mana screw (heretofore referred to as MS) has a positive impact on Magic is that, every once and a while, I get a win out of it. This may not seem important to you that I, as a single person, get the seemingly-far-too-infrequent free win, but think of me as a metaphor (don’t I have dreamy eyes for a metaphor?). Magic is inherently a game of skill. Jon Finkel versus New Kid = JF +1, New Kid —1, right? Well, maybe not. MS gives New Kid a chance of beating the greatest player the game has seen.

When I was first starting to travel to events, I went to PT: Rye. I was just starting to learn about the famous players of the time. I was in a midnight side Constructed event, paired against none other than Mark Justice. I read about him in the Duelist. I lost game 1 with my Black Weenie deck, mostly due to his Whirling Dervish. Game 2 he only had one land, and I was going to 3 against Mark Justice! Can you believe it? Then the unimaginable happened (almost). I put up a fight, and played pretty well, from all I could tell. The game ended with him on three and me on zero. I had almost beaten on of the premier players in the world! I was ecstatic for the next few hours and decided, at that point, that I wanted to be a pro.

Mana screw offers hope, and on the flip-side, requires cautious optimism from the better player. Rumor has it that Kai Budde always played one more land than was the norm in Limited events, to limit his chances of MS and increase his ability to win by out-playing his opponent.

MS also fosters better deck building. Mike Flores constantly tries to cheat on his mana until one of his playtest partners sets him straight (usually Pat Chapin). MS encourages deck designers to pay attention to the lands they choose in addition to the spells, and rewards those that do it well.

3. Name a popular, existing mechanic and explain how you would make it better.

I want to expand on the concept of opponents making decisions. Fact or Fiction and Gifts Ungiven are both favorites of mine because when I play them my opponent is forced into some difficult decisions. They offer my opponent the opportunity to misplay the board. They’re skill cards. Likewise, when my opponent plays them, I have the opportunity to make the correct play. I would like to see this type of concept broadened in scope to encompass all of the colors.

Think of how complex games could become if combat was controlled by the other player. I’m thinking of a Red enchantment that requires a certain number (or percentage) of your opponent’s creatures to attack, but you get to choose which ones. And then they choose blocking. I don’t have the full details on it, but I’m enamored by making decisions for my opponent (I was a huge fan of Word of Command, back in the day).

But that’s not my real answer, that’s just an idea. My real answer is that I want to see the Kindle effect spiced up a little. What if, instead of counting the number of cards in the bin, it counts in the grip? Maybe you even get to peek at your opponents grip to see if they have any. There could easily be an entire cycle of these cards for each color. This would obviously place a much higher emphasis on these cards in Limited formats, and could lead to some incredibly interesting Constructed games. They would have to be competitively costed so that a player couldn’t build them up in their hand and unload all in one turn…. Or could they?

4. From a design standpoint, what was the best thing about the Champions of Kamigawa block?

Champs block was cool because it really benefited those players who had a conscious idea of their deck as they were drafting it. People who adhered to the “best card” theory would generally fall in round 1 or 2 of a draft after having their two Samurai and two Spirits mauled by a deck with four of one and none of the other.

Champs was the first block I remember where I had to be cognizant of deck synergy, not from a two-card combo point of view but rather from a holistic deck perspective. Prior to this block you were able to draft your deck, taking powerful cards and maybe taking a less powerful card (maybe a weaker gating creature over a fattie) to compliment the most famous Kavu ever. That was the limit to your thoughts on how your deck’s cards worked with each other (outside of mana curve, of course). With Champions though, you actually had to think about which cards you were taking. You already have four Samurai from the first pack, maybe that Tallowisp isn’t such a great idea.

Thinking about which cards were in my deck as I was drafting it, instead of while I was building it, was a welcomed level of complexity that again rewards the best-prepared player. This theme was so popular that it was carried into the Ravnica block. Eidolons, while they took a while to catch on, became recognized as a valuable source of card advantage. But if you failed to pick up multi-colored cards in packs 1 and 2, you probably won’t find room for these in your deck. The next step was also to plan your guilds from pack 1, or at least leave yourself open. In order to do this, you had to focus not only on the cards you were taking, but which ones they work with in your anticipated future guilds. My favorite example of this is taking Orzhov Euthanist in the hopes of picking up some Rakdos Ickspitters in the second pack.

5. From a design standpoint, what was the worst thing about the Ravnica block?

Poor Selesnya. They’re sitting on the little yellow bus while all the other guilds are on the big-boy bus. Selesnya just doesn’t have many options. It had a good run in triple Ravnica, spitting out Siege Wurms and Conclave Equenauts faster than you could ever deal with them. Then with Guildpact, things started to go downhill. Scatter wasn’t as good. If you wanted R/G/W, you had to filter all of your Selesnya picks through Captain Boros, likewise with Senor Golgari if you went G/W/B. Oh, and you were never with Blue, current title-holder for Best. Color. Ever. Your partner Blue guilds didn’t show up until Dissension, at which point you’re either picking mono-colored spells…. Or your fourth (fifth? Shame one you) color.

Brian David-Marshall once demolished me after I passed him two Selesnya Evangels in a triple Ravnica draft, taking two Faith’s Fetters over them. He chided me for my poor choice. And I believed him. The Evangel was just that good. Now, however, he’s making his way around the table more than once. Look kids, Big Ben, the Parliament.

The worst part is, with the death of Selesnya came the death of a really cool mechanic, in Convoke. Guardians of Vitu-Ghazi are no more, and certainly not on turn 5. You can’t have those crazy Fists, convoke to Scatter, untap, convoke to Siege Wurm with four mana up to protect him turns. Now, if you have a Scatter, you’re probably not even playing it. Josh Ravitz recently wrote an article on the construction of a Sealed deck. In his words, “Scatter the Seeds does literally nothing in this deck, so it’s not much of a choice despite being in color.” Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

6. We design cards for three player psychographics: Timmy, Johnny and Spike. In the average set, who should the most cards be designed for? Why? Who should the fewest cards be designed for? Why?

The least should be designed for Spike. I say this as a Spike (slash Timmy, according to Mark Rosewater test). Spike wants to prove he’s the best, wants to pour over spoilers and find that diamond in the rough that all of those other scrubs missed. Spike doesn’t need powerful cards; he can win without them. In fact, you know what? Forget it, don’t make any cards for him at all. He can win with stupid Timmy’s dumb dragon or with crazy Johnny’s combo deck. He’ll find the cards they’re missing, and play it better than them. Spike is going to play the game, and look for that card no matter what.

Timmy needs cards for him. Big fat flying cards. Global cards for his Wednesday night grand melee matches. Fun cards. If cards aren’t fun, why would Timmy even be here? Timmy and his friends might as well (mise) go see a movie or play some X-Box. Timmy doesn’t need Magic, but it sure is fun. Please sir, may Timmy have some more?

Johnny? Johnny sees that Seething Song there, and his mind is racing. He knows he can figure something crazy and cool out with that! And people will copy it. Without Johnny cards, what is Johnny going to do? He’s going to be a starving artist, or maybe in a cover band or something. Don’t worry, you’re not going to hear about him. But with Johnny cards, he can be a superstar. Enduring Ideal, huh? Johnny can do something awesome with that. Johnny cards are Johnny’s paints, and 60 card decks his canvas. You wouldn’t take paint away from Picasso, would you?

7. Imagine you must eliminate a card type (artifact, creature, enchantment, instant, land or sorcery) from Magic. Which one would you choose and why?

Sigh, this one hurts. This is like picking which of your children you love the least. Technically I love them all the least, since I love them all the same, right? But still, this is harsh. Lands have to stay, unless something more drastic than I’ve considered is happening (Is this what Time Spiral is bringing us?). Creatures, well, they attack. They get to stay. Artifacts have the sort of Swiss-friendly thing going for them, where anyone can use them (or is that more like being a prostitute?), so we’ll give them a pass. There’s something Magical about things being Enchanted. Think Snow White. She was enchanted, right? Pretty good-looking too, as far as cartoons go. So if we keep enchantments, we have a shot at pretty much every Disney heroine showing up, which doesn’t seem so bad. That brings us down to Sorceries and Instants. Call it in the air.

Remember interrupts? I do. Some strange things went on when those guys were around. They were so speedy and tricky, thought they could do anything. Nothing wrong with leveling the playing field and bringing things back to Earth. When interrupts became instants, everyone was at the same speed. Interrupts were actually faster than instants and sorceries. A common misconception is that instants are faster than sorceries. They’re not. Same speed, both of them. The rub, as the bard would tell us, lies in when they can be played. Instants have more freedom than sorceries. So the question becomes, do we want more or less freedom in when we can play these things?

While the broken-card-win-at-all-costs player in me really wants Compulsive Research to be an instant, I can see how that would get out of hand quickly. Losing instants wouldn’t be the end of the world, as there would still be effects that could be played at time when sorceries could not. It would make for a lot less guessing, which might add some years to my life from lower blood pressure, so that’s a bonus. Overall, it would be harmful, but not crippling to lose instants.

8. You stumble upon a time machine and travel back to the early 90’s. What is the one change you would recommend Richard Garfield make with Alpha? (You must recommend a change.)

Change the way lands were distributed. This takes two steps.

First, take basic lands out of booster packs. Sell lands as separate packs. Every time someone went through a booster, that land was always just sitting there, mocking them. “Haha, sucker. Bet you thought you were getting 15 cards, didn’t you? Nope, just 14, and me. A stupid basic land. Should have read the fine print.” What a jerk, that land is.

I don’t know all of the marketing behind it, but I would imagine that you would need to increase the print run by about 6.7% to compensate for the missing cards. You’d also get to sell these land packs separately, which is a nice bonus.

Then make the dual lands uncommon. Back in the day, people had virtually no clue about how to build decks, and a dual land in your rare slot was an insult. Making them uncommon would create an easier environment for people to try mixing and matching colors a little more. I don’t know of anyone whose first deck they built was anything other than a mono-color mess of cards. Half of the time you didn’t even know about dual lands, because you hadn’t seen one (remember, kids with small budgets are buying this stuff). And then you finally save up your allowance and buy two, maybe three more boosters, hoping to get a Royal Assassin or Force of Nature. What do you get though? A stupid land. What a waste. At least there was a Serra Angel (she’s hot), but still, what a waste.

If people are getting dual lands as uncommon, they’re happier with the rare and are also thinking, “gee, I have 4 Taiga now. I wonder what I can do with that. I better buy more packs to see if I can get more Red or Green cards.” Plus, now when they get a dual, they’re still getting 14 spells.

Oh, and print all of the Circles of Protection, please.

9. You are forced to move counterspelling out of blue. What color do you move it to and why?

I can’t think of any White counterspells. The only Black one I recall is Withering Boon. Didn’t Green have Avoid Fate? Red. Hmm, I recall a couple of those. I think I’ve even seen them played in tournaments. I know, they were aimed at Blue cards, but they were there. Of all the colors, Red is the only one even close to being able to manipulate a spell as it is being cast. Even back from the beginning of Magic it had Fork, along with Red Elemental Blast. Now it still has things like Reroute. Outside of those few counters I’ve mentioned, I can only think of the Lace spells as ones where other colors could actually change the course of something that has not resolved.

Think of it this way. A magician is trying to cast a spell by harnessing the mystical forces around him or her. A noble, populous conscious White mage will not be chaotic enough to try to manipulate the sparkling lights surrounding another mage (that’s how I picture it) as a spell is being cast. He will simply put up a good defense when whatever-it-is comes around. An olive clad mage complete with living forest behind him is too busy enhancing the beautiful creatures he has summoned to be wasting time focusing on what some other guy is whipping up. That’s what combat is for. And Black, well, Black is far more proactive than the others. The guy with the cloak-noir? He’s spending all of his resources to set up for some serious damage. He’s got a plan, and it doesn’t involve worrying about what anyone else is doing.

But Red? The crazy looking guy who literally has fire for hair? He’s your guy. Impulsive, emotional. Able to manipulate spells as they’re being cast. He’ll do it for you. He won’t have a plan for what to do next, but he’ll be darned if someone else is going to cast something to get in his way.

10. What is Magic design currently doing wrong? How would you do it right?

It isn’t so much what is being done wrong, but rather something that was attempted and I think was successful, but then abandoned. I really liked the way Torment intentionally was weighted towards a single color (Black, for you young folk). It added a new level of intimacy with the draft that needed to be accounted for. Everyone had to be aware of pack 2, and how it was going to affect you. Set yourself up in pack 1 to either capitalize on it, or to at least minimize its impact (the really smart players figured out how to draft competitive non-black decks).

But even outside of the limited arena it was, quite simply, awesome. A single colored deck was extremely viable, and better yet, there were even two very competitive mono-Black block decks. Who’d have thunk it? The important part, and the part that was executed extremely well, was that while the other colors did in fact have less cards, they were still competitive. In fact, the other colors even managed to make it to other formats successfully (remember Wild Mongrel? Psychatog? Deep Analysis? Madness? Threshold?).

I would like to see, over the span of a few years, the same sort of non-balance done in some sets for the other colors. The model of doing it in the second set seemed to work well, although an argument could be made for putting it in the third set. The first set of a block would be kind of crazy, as the first three months of drafting would have literally everyone trying to get one color.

Weighted card counts by color is an opportunity to test the limits once again, and I think design could benefit from looking to its past for some inspiration (as it usually does).

That’s my application. Hope you enjoyed it. More to come soon I’m sure.