Goblins versus Interns

As you may have heard, Wizards of the Coast are hiring a new designer. The first stage of this was an essay competition. Many of you may have entered it, or at least thought about what answers you would have given. Wizards of the Coast were swamped with the number of entries. To give some idea of the scale, there were over 1,000 entries, each of an average of 3,000 words — a total of 3 million words, or 0.68 of a John Rizzo article.

As you may have heard, Wizards of the Coast are hiring a new designer. Mark Rosewater wrote about it in his column a couple of weeks ago, giving the cover story which we agreed about why this was happening, and what people who wanted the job had to do. The first stage of this was an essay competition. Many of you may have entered it, or at least thought about what answers you would have given.

If you were one of the 1,000+ people who did enter the competition, then I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. Wizards of the Coast were swamped with the number of entries. To give some idea of the scale, there were over 1,000 entries, each of an average of 3,000 words – a total of 3 million words, or 0.68 of a John Rizzo article.

Worse still, the staff responsible for keeping track of the entries had a bit of a mishap, and the entries have been separated from the names of the people who submitted them. This means that Mark and the rest of R&D have no idea who submitted which entry, and so will have to pick people at random to go through to the next round of the designer search.

You might very well ask how this blunder took place. I’m afraid it’s my fault. So I offered to explain publicly, and as some minimal compensation, to give samples of some of the answers that were given. If you happen to recognise any of the answers as ones that you gave, then just e-mail Wizards of the Coast, and they’ll put you through to the next round of the Great Designer Search.

To understand the background to this calamity, you have to understand that there have been goblins working for Wizards of the Coast for several years. I originally infiltrated them into the company around the time of Odyssey block as a protest at the quality of Red cards that R&D were producing. Those of you who remember the Punisher mechanic will know what I mean.

There were some teething troubles, like the time when they spent a week impersonating Aaron Forsythe, or when Randy Buehler tried to get rid of them as part of his Masterplan to help keep Blue as the best color. But after a while, things settled down, and the Goblins fitted in to R&D, helping to do the fetching and carrying, and occasionally helping out with development. You’ve got them to thank for the removal of Counterspell from the basic set, and, less positively, the design of Goblin Furrier (who was designed when one of the Goblins got hospitalised after a particularly nasty snowball fight at the end of last year). They also helped out in the legal department, and were particularly helpful when Wizards took legal action against an Elf for posting secret details of upcoming sets on the Internet.

But this comfortable working arrangement was disrupted by the arrival of a new intern, Zvi Mowshowitz. Now Zvi is a great person, but he’s got a thing about Goblins. One year, he wrote about an invitational card that he was thinking about submitting. One that would wipe out all Goblins, not just in play, but also in his opponents’ entire decks. He has frequently suggested that Magic would be a better game if Goblins were less powerful.

Right from when he started, there was trouble. R&D split down the middle, with some taking Zvi’s side and suggesting getting rid of all the Goblins, while others insisted that the Goblins were useful at running errands, clarifying rules errata etc., and if they got some things a bit wrong sometimes, so did people. I have to confess that the Goblins did behave badly, “editing” Zvi’s weekly column to put in mistakes, filling the forums with poorly written abuse of Zvi and his supporters, and altering the development files for Coldsnap to include the “ripple” mechanic (sorry).

Anyway, after a while, Zvi moved on, and the Goblins settled down and worked even harder than before. Some of their stuff on Time Spiral, for example, is excellent, some of their best for years.

Then Wizards did it again. They announced that they were going to hire another intern, to work as a designer. While there is no reason to believe that another Goblin hater would be hired, some of the Goblins aren’t too bright and think that “intern” is a bad word, like “elf” or “Tivadar.” Hence their disruption of the competition – they went through and deleted the contact details of every single entrant. That way, they thought, R&D could still use the good ideas, but without having any more of these interns.

So blame me for bringing the Goblins into R&D. Or blame Zvi for wanting to get rid of them. Or blame Mark, for not explaining what “intern” actually means to the staff. Anyway, here is a selection of some of the answers. And if you recognise yours amongst them, let us know and I’ll make sure you are fast tracked in the recruitment process.

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

Goblins got rid of all the answers to this one.

Explain three positive ways "mana screw" affects Magic.

“Mana screw” happens when players don’t draw enough lands for their deck to function effectively. It affects Magic by forcing players to trade consistency against power, it is essential for a resource management system which is simple to grasp but hard to master, and it helps make sure that no two games of Magic are the same.

There are a lot of cards and strategies which are extremely popular and fun which depend indirectly on the limitations caused by the fact that players needs to take into consideration that they won’t always have the exact mana available that would be optimal for their deck. Simply cramming all the cards with the most powerful effects into a deck is not the best strategy because of the existence of mana screw, meaning that cards with a lesser effect, but which are less likely to be uncastable if the right mana is not available, can be played.

Learning about “mana screw” is part of the process of discovering the subtleties and complexities of Magic strategy. It takes minutes to pick up the basics of how mana is used to cast spells, but it takes years to work out the optimal way of avoiding mana screw. It is a feature of all of the most popular and long enduring games that they feature apparently simple rules that have hidden depths.

Any individual game of Magic is not a pure test of skill; there is also an element of luck involved, which means that the result of a game can never be guaranteed before it is played. Mana screw is the main cause of this uncertainty, while also offering different sorts of challenge to the player trying to cope with mana screw.

And, of course, there are some players for whom the main attraction of playing Magic is watching their opponent get horribly mana screwed.

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

Like many players around at the time, I enjoyed the Echo mechanic from Urza’s block, as unlike some of the mechanics from that block it was fun to try to work out how good it was, and it turned out some interesting and balanced creatures and artifacts.

One simple twist would be to vary the cost that has to be paid on the turn afterwards – after all, echoes are often a distortion of the original noise rather than a simple repetition. The variation could either be a higher or lower mana cost, or an alternative cost such as payment in life or discarding cards, or the original cost could be an alternative cost to mana, e.g. discarding a card or paying life, but then the echo cost could be a mana cost, thereby avoiding some of the dangers of “free” cards which were highlighted by the Urza block. Another twist could be to give a bonus or drawback to the permanent when the echo cost is paid, or to have a variable effect by making the echo cost X mana or some such.

There is some overlap, though also significant differences, with the morph mechanic, which highlighted some of the possibilities which spreading the cost of a creature can have. Echo is a well-designed mechanic because it is harder to evaluate how good a permanent is if the mana cost is spread across two turns rather than one. By varying the cost, it increases the design options to challenge players’ evaluation of cards and making decisions about whether it is a good idea to pay the echo more challenging and therefore more interesting, while also allowing the initial costs to vary (unlike with morph), which opens up different design options.

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

Both Legends and Onslaught block had some cool Legendary creatures, but by modern standards Legends had all sorts of design flaws (and most of its Legendary creatures were rubbish), and Onslaught block’s legends were overshadowed to a certain extent by the tribal and cycling themes. Kamigawa block was constrained by the need to avoid “power creep” after Mirrodin block, which added to the difficulty of making Legendary creatures that most players enjoyed playing with and wanted to collect.

I don’t think that the mechanics or setting of Kamigawa block worked very well, especially when compared to Mirrodin or especially Ravnica, but the design (and development) of the Legendary creatures was excellent – people play Magic in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons, but every color contained numerous Legendary creatures which were evocative and exciting, whether opening a booster pack, or thinking about how to fit them into a casual deck, or playing them in a cutthroat professional tournament.

I’ve been playing for more than 12 years, and Zo-Zu, the Punisher (probably not one of the most generally highly regarded Legends) is one of my favorite cards of all time. The transition from extremely high-powered artifacts in Mirrodin block that could fit in any deck to creatures at a lower power level was always going to be a difficult one – it is a lot more fun tapping six mana if you are going to get a powerful Dragon for it than splicing a spell onto an arcane spell or summoning a zombie with soulshift.

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

The Radiance mechanic. All the other Guild mechanics have turned out pretty well – some turned out more powerful than expected, some less, some are better in casual Magic and some appeal more to tournament players, but all of the cards with Radiance are just quite blah and it doesn’t play in practice as the theory behind its design suggests it should.

Even the stronger Radiance cards, such as Bathe in Light, ended up being a cross between a “Falter” type spell and a damage prevention spell, with the idea of teamwork being lost. Whereas the Dredge mechanic helps players “get” what makes the Golgari tick, or Hellbent gets players to play like a Rakdos mage would, Radiance doesn’t manage the same trick for Boros.

In a way this is a small quibble, because it is an outstanding success that with ten different mechanics and a very ambitious overall theme, so much of what was attempted ended up successful. It does highlight, though, the problems caused when the design for a mechanic doesn’t quite work (the explanation for Boros could just as easily have applied to Selesnya). A mechanic which helped Boros creatures take out bigger opposition, either by “stunning” them and preventing them from blocking or allowing an apparently less powerful Boros creature to defeat a larger opponent in combat would have been truer to what I understand the intention behind Boros to be, and would have fitted in with White and Red-themed mechanics rather than Green ones.

The way that Ironclaw Orcs and Orcish Artillery used to team up to take down Ernham Djinn and big bullies like that is how I see Boros, and a mechanic which let the little aggressive beater take out his opponent would have been fun and as popular as the other Ravnica mechanics.

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?

Nearly every set is designed to be interesting and challenging when drafted in a competitive environment. Therefore, most cards, particularly commons and uncommons, are designed for “Spike.” This does not mean that Spike will like all of the cards, but any cards designed without Spike in mind, particularly commons, run the risk of spoiling Limited formats for up to a year.

Of course, the player psychographics are intended to aid design and development, not to constrain it. As well as hybrids of the three types, there are other types of players and collectors (such as those who are interested in the story behind the expansion, or those whose goal is to see Red defeat its foes, especially the Elves and the Blue mages). One challenge is to minimise the number of cards which are not very interesting to play with or exciting to open up in a booster pack but which are required for tournament Limited play – those of interest only to Spike. I am a dedicated tournament player, but I still get miffed when I open up a booster pack for a new set and half the cards have no hidden depths, aren’t very powerful, and are obviously just there for draft. For example, Krovikan Scoundrel – boring, Bull Aurochs – cool.

In a perfect set, there would be a lot of Johnny cards, which offer interesting challenges and provoke players to try to find new and exciting ways of breaking them, and lots of cards for Timmy that have big effects and are cool to play with. All of the cards would contribute towards a great drafting environment in which even underpowered cards can be useful in certain decks or situations, and the cards which Johnny and Timmy get should be ones which Spike either loves immediately, or dismisses at first, but later discovers uses for.

In other words, the most cards should be designed for Spike/Johnny and Spike/Timmy, and the fewest cards should be designed just for Spike.

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

Getting rid of land would ruin the whole basis of Magic’s resource allocation mechanic, and getting rid of creatures would reduce the appeal of Magic to most of its players, though there are some Blue/White mages who probably think that creatures are just something which inferior people play with, and Legions demonstrated that just land and creatures is not so good.

Getting rid of sorceries and letting all one off spells be played at instant speed would mean that some effects were either too powerful or couldn’t be part of the game any more. Instant speed card drawing, for example, seems innocuous but has proven to create all sorts of design constraints. Getting rid of instants would remove a lot of the interaction between players, which would have a massive impact on the game.

Which leaves artifacts/enchantments. Over the years, these two categories have converged, with equipment being closely related to auras, and many artifacts being either explicitly designed for use with a particular color, or ending up being used with some colors and not others, such as Cursed Scroll which saw play for several years in Blue Counterspell decks as part of a strategy of bluffing the opponent.

Enchantments are probably the least popular card type, but I can’t help but feel that the theory of having cards that can be played by any color is better than it actually ever turned out. Without enchantments, there would have to be more artifacts with colored activation costs that mimic enchantments, or part of the fun both of building big creatures with auras and of the quirky effects of enchantments would be lost. Without artifacts, there would have to be more ways of giving colors access to effects that they normally don’t have, which would lead to more innovations like hybrid mana. A badly designed artifact can spoil everyone’s fun, regardless of which color they like best. So if I had to choose, I’d get rid of them.

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.)

One quite interesting conundrum is that many of the features of Alpha which helped to make Magic such a success are ones which would not exist if it were designed knowing what we now do. Ante cards, ridiculously overpowered cards, and cards with microtext to explain what they do were all part of the attraction in 1993, but thirteen years of learning have got rid of them.

There would be no point in trying to persuade Richard to make changes to the Power 9, or to redesign Alpha in the knowledge that people would buy more than a few starters and boosters and would instead try to assemble huge collections. Instead I would make a much smaller change and get rid of banding. Banding was never very popular, led to the worst mechanic of all time (bands with others), and confused beginners to the game to no good point. The end to thousands of players’ time with Magic began with the question “So if I attack with my Benalish Hero and Mesa Pegasus…”

I would get him to replace them with a cycle of “pitch” cards, because of all the mechanics down the years, the one of having alternative casting costs to mana is still one of the cleverest and most influential. I think that a cycle of pitch cards would have been popular at the time, and it’s one that has been repeated several times through the years. I can only begin to imagine how stupidly powerful and confusing the pitch cards that Richard would have ended up designing for Alpha would have been, but that’s okay because they would have fitted in very nicely.

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

After I’d finished laughing my head off, I’d give the bulk of it to White.

White is the color of laws, regulations and stopping people from stepping out of line, so it would make conceptual sense, particularly “taxing” counterspells like Power Sink, which stop something from happening unless extra resources which White demands are provided. Giving it to White would also help to balance the color pie, where White has been lacking both in terms of how well its abilities are defined and in its power level for several years. Cards like Abeyance and Humility already have some of the same idea of saying “no,” which is what countermagic is all about.

Doing this would need to be done with some care, because the combination of efficient countermagic and efficient small creatures could easily prove overpowering and tedious, but it would also help to solve the odd division where White is about small efficient beaters and is also the defensive color. I would be tempted to give Green an equivalent of Remove Soul, because it makes sense to give the creature color the ability to stop the opponent from summoning creatures or artifacts (an abomination of nature and all that). By the same token, it would be odd if Green suddenly got the ability to counter spells unconditionally or to mess about with instants or sorceries.

Red can manage without any counterspells, except possibly some kind of random effects which might involve spells getting countered as a by product of something more fun like stuff getting smashed.

Black should be the second colour of countermagic, as evil should mirror the powers which good has. The ability to corrupt spells, and particularly making sorceries and instants go wrong, could be Black’s specialities, giving it the chance to interfere with White’s counterspells and the ability to counter the opposite kind of spells from Green.

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

Pay more attention to the Goblins! Design more powerful Goblins to help their numbers grow and more burn spells to burn the Elves! Burn the Blue mages! Burn them all! Mwahahaha!!!!

Take care

Dan Paskins
Goblin Intern