Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Great Designer Search II: Search and Destroy

Hey everybody! Excitement! Over at they're running a contest to determine who's going to be the next design intern! All kinds of fun, and I'm definitely going to participate. Don't get me wrong, I love designing games on my own but a chance to get paid to do it? These blog posts aren't making me the sweet sweet monies yet. So onward! Full steam ahead! Let's rock this like a series of mid level venues... wait, what's that?

The deadline for submission was on Monday, not Wednesday like I had assumed? Well, crap.

Crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap. Crap!

Err... ahh.... Good news! We get to play along here. It'll be like I'm doing all the work without actually getting a job at the end of it. Whoo!

Crap crap crap.

Let's take a look at those original essay questions and my answers which I was planning on writing up on Tuesday. As I'm not entered into the contest, I'm not confining myself to the 350 word limit per question.

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

Pass. Read the freaking first post if you want to know about me.

2) You are instructed to move an ability from one color to another. This ability must be something used in every set (i.e. discard, direct damage, card drawing etc.). You may not choose an ability that has already been color shifted by R&D. What ability do you shift and to what color do you shift it? Explain why you would make that shift.

I'd move flash from blue to green. "Flash" is the ability that allows you to play spells at instant speed, especially creatures. It does powerful things for blue where it is right now, largely because it allows the blue mage the ability to play his deck even moreso in response to whatever his opponent can do. Forget about stalking stones as a win condition, you can hold up your mana and counter whatever he's doing, or if he doesn't do anything you can drop in your threat at the last second and untap with basically haste and your mana up. If the blue mage can counter spells, draw cards and lay threats at instant speed when everybody else uses sorceries then they've got an advantage.

And then there's green. Most of the things green does in constructed are painfully obvious. They lay some undercosted two drop and swing in with him. They get wrathed and lay some more creatures. And then they overrun and kill you. Or they don't. The closest thing they get to clever are giant growth effects, which work like bad removal or bad burn spells. They do see play from time to time in constructed, but not that often these days.

Mono green decks aren't very popular on the tournament scene. Playing one entails beating your opponent into submission, with very little room for subtlety. If we took flash from blue (which would still have counterspells and card drawing at instant speed), we could give it to green, which allows them a chance to set up more clever interactions, especially if the flash creatures get enters the battlefield triggers. Briarhorn is my all star example here. While it can be played like any other pump spell for it's evoke cost, if you play it for it's regular cost it becomes a natural two for one (eating an attacking creature and leaving a 3/3 for you). This helps the green mage grind out card advantage, and gain position by being more clever than his opponents. If you allow green mages to be more clever, you'll get more tournament players playing primarily green decks.

3) What block do you feel did the best job of integrating design with creative? What is one more thing that could have been done to make it even better?

My initial impulse was to go with Shadowmoor, because the whole "world of light plunged into darkness" thing is pretty cool, and you get to do the whole death and decay thing with wither. Persist works pretty well too; Murderous Redcap is so evil that you have to kill him more than once, in good horror story tradition. On the other hand, the best justification I can get for the untap symbol is the whole mirror universe thing, and hybrid mana and retrace don't really fit in that well.

As my brother points out, on the other hand, Shards of Alara does really well. Five different mini worlds each with their own mechanics. Let's go around the circle, shall we?
Bant: Exalted fits in very well with the whole idea of armies settling their difference in duels between champions, which in turn makes very much flavor sense in a world where chaos and death magic (red and black) are absent.
Esper: Everything's robots! While the whole "be an artifact" mechanical connection isn't very deep, I love the whole "remake the world with permanent metal" bit, especially since, absent red and green magic, there's very little that can destroy artifacts. The occasional Dispeller's capsule can, but the present black magic has a harder time.
Grixis. You take a world of darkness, with no light or life magic, and what do you get? Ever growing armies of the undead. Necromancers and demons fighting it out to get at the ever dwindling supply of life to feed off of. The best part is the noble king who wised to the situation first and slaughtered his entire family to become a lich. Sedris, the traitor king. Mechanically, this is represented by Unearth, which means that pretty much anything that Grixis used comes back for one last huzzah as a zombie. Awesome.
Jund. Jund is a world without any forces of order to slow down the chaos. Dragons eat the ogre, who eat the viashino, who eat the goblins. Or something like that. Jund is all about devouring your neighbor before your neighbor devours you. Which makes Devour, a mechanic that literally does that, pretty darn cool.
Naya: Naya's main theme is behemoths, huge freaking creatures. Naya is in Green, White and Red, which allows it to make huge creatures, and it excludes blue or black magic, which have the easy ways of dealing with them. Also works really well.

Granted that some of the things from later sets didn't fit in very well (Domain is fun, yeah, but sort of out of place, for example), Shards of Alara as a block did better at this than the others.

4) R&D has recently been looking at rules in the game that aren't pulling their weight. If you had to remove an existing rule from the game for not being worth its inclusion, what would it be?

The untap step. Why should we untap our permanents when we can just play more? Seriously though, you could make "untap all your permanents" a game action that happens at the beginning of your upkeep and you could skip an entire step. Moreso, skip a unique step where nobody gets a chance to do anything. Drawing your card already works that way, so there's precedent.

5) Name a card currently in Standard that, from a design standpoint, should not have been printed. What is the card and why shouldn't we have printed it?

My first impulse is Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Never mind the price tag, Jace has the problem of being too good. When a particular card is good enough that any deck running that color has to ask itself "why am I not running a full set of this?", then maybe you should wonder if it's too powerful. Jace fits the bill, and it isn't even a role filler like Lightning Bolt or Memory Leak. It adds card advantage and board control and hey, maybe even a win condition to your deck.

The other thing is, brainstorm, while a very fun ability to a large number of players, probably shouldn't have been reprinted next to the fetchlands. It's already a significant amount of card advantage, it'd lead to a lot less fiddling and shuffling if your blue mage had to work a bit to get his shuffle effects. As it is, it produces an effect like Sensei's divining top, if a little less pronounced.

Also, Jace was printed to make blue a little stronger than it had been. Blue was feeling the hurt between the rotation of cryptic command and the printing of Jace. Given that it's been dominant for the entire rest of the freaking game, you'd think they could have waited a little longer.

That's one option. My friend Stephen suggests Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. Emrakul, by being the biggest, baddest creature they've printed yet becomes the goto character for pretty much any combo deck. In vintage, for example, you can tinker out Darksteel Colossus or Inkwell Leviathan depending on what you expect to face. It's a legitimate choice. If they hadn't printed Emrakul, you could still argue choices between Progenitus or Kozilek or Ulamog or even something else, like Magister Sphinx. But when you're getting a free creature, Emrakul is just better than the competition, which makes for less interesting deckbuilding decisions.

The other thing is the "shuffle your graveyard into your library" thing is a cool idea, but it really screws over anybody trying to make a milling deck. And there's always somebody.

That, and when Emrakul hits the ground it's about as close to game over as anything in Magic is. Without the extra turn or the annihilator 6 it might reasonable to deal with. Without the extra turn you get sorcery speed options to deal with it (Journey to Nowhere, Aether Adept, Day of Judgment), with the turn you'd better have something on the board, or you're pretty much dead. (Not complaining about his protection ability, that's pretty cool.) Alternately, with a lower Annihilator value he would only kill a couple permanents of yours, you wouldn't sacrifice half your mana base just to stay alive. And that runs head first into the lesson of Zuran Orb; anything that makes you sacrifice your lands to survive just prolongs your inevitable demise.

6) What do you think design can do to best make the game accessible to newer players?

Now that's a tough one. The main barriers to entry for the game are price and knowledge. You could print sets less frequently, and with more reprints, but that cuts into the more experience players, with respect to point seven. And there are other things that they can't do, because it would hurt sales (make the best manafixing lands uncommon). If I was R&D, I'd try to make each set so it had a strong linear deck available that could be built mostly with commons and uncommons. For example, kithkin from Lorwyn. 4 Wizened Cenn, 4 Knight of Meadowgrain, 4 Goldmeadow Stalwart and 4 Goldmeadow harrier are plenty to produce a solid core for the deck. You can toss in four oblivion rings for creature kill, and whatever appropriate rares you get your hands on. It makes a strong casual deck, and Kithkin decks were tournament viable, if perhaps more expensive because of the Windbrisk Heights and Figures of Destiny.

7) What do you think design can do to best make the game attractive to experienced players?

Pretty much the opposite of last one. Although less focused on price issues, to become an experienced magic player you have to come to terms with that barrier to entry. To keep people playing the game you need to give them new experiences. The good news is that Magic has this built in, what with new cards coming in and sets rotating fairly often. Your more experienced players are less willing to stick with a relatively simple deck, or alternately are more willing to play more difficult decks or explore the murkier areas of deck design. So to keep your more experience players playing R&D needs to design interesting, synergistic cards that don't necessarily confine themselves to one kind of deck.

8) Of all the mechanics currently in Extended, which one is the best designed? Explain why.

Persist. Let me say that again, only with a -1/-1 counter. Persis. For starters, Magic is a game of two for ones. If your card isn't generating some sort of advantage, then why are you playing it? Especially in midrange decks you want your cards to be worth more than one unit of cardboard. Blightning not only makes them discard two cards, but it also damages them for three. Oracle of Mul Daya lets you play another land as soon as it hits play, hopefully off the top of your deck. Aether Adept gives you a 2/2 as well as an unsummon. Two for ones give you naturally powerful cards, which draws the spikes to them, and they make for naturally fun decks. Giving a creature an "enters the battlefield" trigger makes it a natural two for one. If then you allow them to come back and do it again, it's a great feeling. Even if the effect is pretty small, you still feel like you're getting something for free.

Furthermore, it's inherently a creature mechanic. As Mr. Rosewater has said before and as I heartily agree with him, Magic is most fun when it's a battle between creatures. A good, fun creature based mechanic helps promote that.

The "play it exactly twice" mechanic allows you to make reasonably powerful but not overpowered creatures with it. Since it's not infinitely repeatable you get power without having so many worries about balance issues. And it does give your opponents ways to interact with it, via wither effects or graveyard hate or even better two for ones of their own. Alternately, it appeals to the Johnny segment of the playerbase because it allows so many ways to get around playing only twice. Either by infinities (the morningtide lords, the ranger from coldsnap), or bit by bit. (Kitchen Finks next to Oren-Rief, the Vastwood is pretty cool, or Murderous Redcap next to Reveillark)

Lastly, it's a "protect my creature" mechanic, and we all hate losing our creatures. So Timmy who gets his giant Woodfall Primus out can blow something up with confidence that, even if his treefolk burns he'll get to blow something else up.

9) Of all the mechanics currently in Extended, which one is the worst designed? Explain why.

A couple candidates come to mind for this one. Chronologically:

Clash. Clash is an inherently random mechanic, which to some people is very fun but to others not so fun at all. I mean, I get that the difference between clashing and winning and clashing and losing is made not so huge that it won't break me if I keep losing clashes, but by that same token it makes me less excited to win them. The chance of winning a clash is less than 50% on it's own, and the value in manipulating your deck to change that is usually pretty small. Furthermore, Rosewater has asserted that when someone looks at the next card in their deck for the clash it feels like a mini game, where you're excited to see what happens next. Usually it feels to me like a mini game where I'm annoyed that the main game paused.

Next up is Retrace. Retrace allows you to replay a spell by discarding a land and paying the spell's original casting cost. Unfortunately, the spell potentially can be recast many, many times so they can't put anything too powerful on your average retrace spell. (I think we've all learned our lesson from capsize.) The cards are also designed under the assumption that you'll be playing them when you've already got all your mana, so something simple like Monstrify ends up being a giant growth variant for four. Or Oona's Grace- all your lands now have Cycling 2U. Exciting, isn't it? The other problem is, it's not just play this from your graveyard, it's also play it by discarding lands. People like to play out their lands; it's part of what made Zendikar great. Unless you're engaging in Life from the Loam shenanigans (which I wouldn't recommend) retrace is usually a waste of your time.

Lastly, Stephen suggested poison. Now I haven't had much chance to play with Scars yet, so I don't know how this is going to play out by and large. He does make some good points though. Historically poison has been pretty unimpressive; swamp mosquito is the only playable card, and that one not really because there's nothing to play around it. Virulent sliver made for an interesting trick draft deck (And one heck of a pro tour story), but that was it. Now, well, maybe. Part of the problem is that poison is a win condition that you get by attacking people in the combat step. Sound like, oh, regular combat damage to you too? Only it also requires a massive commitment; it does you no good to have them at ten life and five poison counters. And then there's the fact that it breaks EDH. If giving your creatures double strike is good, quadruple strike must be even better (since 1 poison counter =4 life in that format.) And to top it off, if you make the blight dragon your general you can never kill them on general damage; the poison counters will get them first. On the other hand, I'm still not willing to judge it without playing it some more.

All in all though, I'm going with "Retrace" as the worst mechanic in current extended.

10) Choose a plane to revisit other than Dominaria or Mirrodin. What is a mechanical twist we could add if we revisit this plane?

Thematically? I'd love to visit Lorwyn/Shadowmoor again. With the day/night cycle constrained by powerful magic for the past I don't know how long, then there are probably some drastic repercussions for letting that go now. Suppose that the natural order can't reassert itself immediately, that the plane shifts unstably between week long days and nights. These mini auras would reshape the land, occasionally also reshaping the minds of the inhabitants. Natually this would end badly. A curious Lorwyn Boggart stumbles into a Shadowmoor Kithkin Clachan, a Shadowmoor Elf is banned from Lorwyn Elf society because of his scars. That sort of thing. And there would be other effects as well.

Now how we express that mechanically is another matter. Since we're essentially fusing two blocks, it's going to be combining elements from the two, and naturally adding a twist of our own. Of the two major elements, I think color matters will do better for a repeat than tribe matters. And I'll continue to think that until Wizards stops downplaying Zombies as a tribe. As the tribes are spread over three colors between the two blocks, this also allows for more options, especially with hybrid mana. You can run your R/G hybrid goblins alongside your B/R hybrid goblins, but you might want to splash black anyways for a straight black goblin, or the other way around. Additionally, since R&D have been looking to repeat old and good mechanics, it'll be easy to rip one off of either block. You might have noticed me being a fan of persist a bit earlier, but there are other good options.

But I need to describe some mechanical themes of my own. Howabout transformation? You've already got changelings and mimics which play into the theme, other things can be made. Blue's cloning abilities could be hyped up. You could even go so far as to make new flip cards, like from Kamigawa, but that would probably be pushing it.

Specifically, Blue/Black could have a mind wiping theme; imagine rogue auroramancers who have learned to manipulate those magical energies to reshape the minds of others. Although maybe that should be shifted to Red/Black. Blue already gets the clone portion of the mechanics. And red presents a fun twist on it: mages who are using the aurora but have no idea of the results they'll achieve. Blue can come in as the occasional mind control. Black gets it's usual discard effects and so forth reconcepted as using the aurora to rip minds, red gets threaten effects and anything else that fits the bill. I keep imagining a goblin somewhere repeatedly mindwiping himself and never noticing.

As for green, Green gets off too lightly in the villain department. What if Green's main motivation (and the elves in general) is to force the tumultuous terrain into a new natural order? Only green is deciding what is natural, and it's perfectly fine with completely wrecking other people's stuff as long as it's getting closer to it's ultimate vision of nature. SO green gets effects like Muonvuli Acid moss, destroying opposing permanents and replacing them with forests, or at least basic lands. Unfortunately you can't push green into creature kill without seriously distorting the color pie, so it'll have to get it from white. Because it's only been a week since Path to Exile rotated and already I want it back.

Can you tell I didn't really have much of an idea how to answer that last question? I certainly went on and on about it. And yeah, if I wanted to turn this stuff in I'd have to confine myself to the 350 word limit per question. That would have been hard. In any case, I'll be continuing this as the great designer search goes.

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