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Essay What

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The letter L!ast Wednesday I introduced you to the Top 8 Finalists for the Great Designer Search 2 (GDS2). In order to make it this far from a field of over a thousand applicants, each finalist had to pass three tests to advance. The second test was a fifty question multiple-choice test that I let you all take two weeks ago. The third test was a design test that I, and the rest of the judges, will be reviewing this Wednesday as the GDS2 begins in earnest. The first test was a ten-question essay test. Today I will be going over the ten questions to talk about what I read as well as give my answers to the questions asked.


Let's start by showing you the essay test:

Write an essay answering each of the ten questions below.

Each essay should be between 250 and 350 words, and so your total submission should be between 2500 and 3500 words.

  1. Introduce yourself and explain why you are a good fit for this internship.
  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.
  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?
  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?
  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?
  6. What do you think design can do to best make the game accessible to newer players?
  7. What do you think design can do to best make the game attractive to experienced players?
  8. Of all the mechanics currently in Extended, which one is the best designed? Explain why.
  9. Of all the mechanics currently in Extended, which one is the worst designed? Explain why.
  10. Choose a plane to revisit other than Dominaria or Mirrodin. What is a mechanical twist we could add if we revisit this plane?

Now that we've seen the test, let's dive in.

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

The role of this question was to give each applicant a chance to introduce his or herself. The number one mistake made with this question was a common one people make when trying to work at Wizards of the Coast. Rather than tell us why they would be a good fit for the company, they tell us how much they want to work here, how this job would be something good for them.

To score well on this question, I was both looking for someone who was able to explain why we should want to hire them as well as let some of their personality shine through so we got a little sense of who they are.

I'll skip giving my answer to this question as I've been answering it every week for over nine years (and that's just counting this column not the four different columns I had before this one).

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.

The point of this question was to get a sense of how comfortable the applicant was with the color pie and sense their willingness to try things that haven't been done before. The biggest mistake made when answering this question was not making a bad choice but rather not properly defending the choice. I enjoyed when someone made a bold suggestion and then were able to back it up with some support even if the overall idea was not actually a good one.

My favorite answer to this question, given by multiple applicants, was moving card filtering (draw some number of cards and then discard some number with the discard being equal to or greater than the draw) from blue to red. It's an idea that I'd never heard before that has a lot of merit—so much so that we've started talking in the Pit about what would happen if we made the change.

For my answer I'll give one of the most substantial changes I've ever pitched. I even wrote up a document and brought it to a Tuesday Magic meeting to officially present it. This was many years ago when the big color pie shift happened (when Disenchant became Naturalize and red started picking up tricky blue abilities and such). We were looking for more of an identity for white and the feeling was that blue had too much of the color pie. My pitch? Move "bounce" (Unsummon, Boomerang, etc.) from blue to white.

The idea was that "bounce" made perfect sense in white as it was a defensive delaying tactic. Rather than kill things, which white is reluctant to do, it merely sent them back from where they came. It would allow white to have an answer to any permanent but only for a short duration.

What kept R&D from making this change? It turns out that giving an aggressive tempo mechanic to white was too good with its white weenie strategy. The end result was that we decided to let it have some self bounce which it still gets to this day.

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?

One of the most popular answers for this question was Time Spiral. The interesting thing about this answer is that I disagree with it. Time Spiral had a lot of internal references to past sets in it, but that's not what I feel integrating design and creative is really about. To me, the key to integrating design and creative is creating a world where mechanics and flavor work hand in hand to reveal a unified world. I found Time Spiral to be more gimmicky than integrated. (And let me stress that was a result of what design requested; the creative team did a wonderful job delivering what was asked of them.)

My top answer is Ravnica as I felt the design and creative worked together so well to fully flesh out the guilds. Each guild looked and felt right and played right as well. All the pieces came together to create something that was bigger than the pieces.

My number two answer is Scars of Mirrodin. The story we're telling is really hitting on all cylinders with the mechanics and flavor blending together very nicely. I also greatly enjoy how each side, Mirran and Phyrexian, has a distinctive mechanical feel that reinforces what they are.

My third answer is Shards of Alara as I really like how the design and creative created five distinct worlds in a way where they all felt connected yet each had its own identity.

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?

When people think about design they tend to think about what to add to the game. This question was designed to make the player think about the opposite, but equally important, issue: what do you take away? The biggest mistake made with this question was removing something that the applicant really didn't understand. It might sound all good and wonderful to remove some phase or step, but usually when you start going after something that integrated into the game you tend to create more damage than you prevent.

Like most of the other questions, this question was more about hearing your reasoning than it was about getting a "right" answer. Also, I wanted to use the questions to give all the applicants a chance to think things in a different light than they were used to. I wanted the essay to give everyone taking it a little chance to see the world from Design's shoes.

The top answer given was to remove the maximum hand size rule. Interestingly, that is the rule that R&D has spent the most time talking about removing. (We're still on the fence, by the way, so if you have any thoughts feel free to share them in the thread or in my email.)

The funny thing about this question is that this is something R&D is always striving for. I always talk about the danger of complexity creep. One of the ways to help slow it down is to keep questioning if there are things that can be removed from the game. Removing mana burn, for example, was a project of mine for many years.

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?

These answers tended to fall into two camps. People naming cards that they didn't like and people naming cards that they thought I didn't like. While I can respect playing to the judge, I really wanted to get an insight into what boundaries the applicants thought we crossed in error. This means that while I still deeply disagree with Hornet Sting's printing, it was not the best answer to give to this question, unless of course you could add some new reasoning to why it should never have been printed.

So what card would I name? There are numerous choices so I'll go with my more shocking answer: Path to Exile. (By the way, I didn't care whether you used "old" Standard or "new" Standard as it changed right around the essay test. I cared much more about having a good answer.) The reason I name Path to Exile is because it did something really well that I don't want to see in white. That thing? Restriction-free creature removal.

I am a big defender of the color pie because I feel it is the backbone of the game. One of the most important things the color pie does is provide definition. The reason you have to branch out in colors is that no one color can do everything. Every color has its weakness. Black is supposed to be the king of creature removal followed closely by red. White is supposed to be number three.

Part of the way we accomplish this is that we play into the flavor of white. White sees itself as the good guy. White doesn't want to do anything that feels underhanded. As such, white doesn't like killing things choosing only to do it when it has no other choice. White doesn't kill out of pleasure or thrill. White kills only when it is left with no other option.

The flavor we've created for white creature kill is threefold. First, it is reactive. Like the Federation in Star Trek, white doesn't shoot first. White will fire back but only when provoked. Second, white can answer anything but its answers have answers. This is the Oblivion Ring type of card. White can get rid of your thing but not permanently. If you undo what white has done you get your thing back. I particularly like this flavor as it feels like white is choosing not to kill.

The third way is that white will trade with the opponent where he takes something away but gives something else in exchange. I'm not a fan of this third way because it allows us to rationalize away restriction-free removal. Swords to Plowshares is "okay" because it gives the controller of the creature life. My problem is that there is a thin line between Swords and Terror. This is the avenue that was used to justify Path to Exile. While I admit the trade is more meaningful than Swords it is still too low in my book.

But the card has seen so much tournament play. Exactly the reason I hate it so much. The last thing you want to see of a card that you don't think should be printed is it becoming a staple in its color. R&D does love precedent so every time something gets made and played it becomes that much harder to stop it the next time.

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

Now we get to some questions that I've thought about a lot for a long time. Here are the things I think are important:

Keep complexity in check, especially at lower rarities. All beginners start at the same place. Every time the game grows in complexity the leap from non-player to player grows wider. If we want to keep the game accessible we have to keep an eye on the overall complexity level. This is ironically a very complex issue that I swear I'll write a column on one of these days.

Keep the flavor resonant. You know what makes learning something easy? Tapping into knowledge the player already has. For example, flying is the easiest mechanic to teach because knowledge of flight makes you just "get it." The more we can create cards that do what a new player assumes it would do the easier it is for us to help them understand a card's function. Also, compelling flavor makes people more interested in learning about the game.

Keep the game fun. A giant leap we made several years ago about teaching Magic is that it is far more important to let new players have fun than it is to teach them everything they need to know. An invested player will figure out what he or she doesn't know. If a player's interest isn't piqued, it doesn't matter how much they learn.

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

Here's what I believe are the important things for the established player:

Keep evolving the game. The trick to Magic's longevity is that it really isn't one game. It's a game that keeps morphing into other similar games. The reason we have players play as long as we do (our average is currently nine years—nine years! That's insane if you know anything about game playing habits.) is that players don't grow tired of Magic as quickly because the game keeps shifting. Bored of a particular format? Just wait, a major upheaval is always coming.

Keep up the quality. Another thing Magic has going for it that few other games do is our staff. A lot of people spend a lot of time making Magic awesome. As an example, when I work on a large Magic set I get almost a full year of design team. Many years ago I was assigned to design the base mechanics for a brand new TCG. Note that I'm talking about creating the game not making a new expansion to an already designed game. How much time was I given? Three weeks. Three weeks! I've spent three weeks tweaking one card. Part of keeping the game relevant to the established players is making sure we meet the high bar of quality we've set for ourselves.

Keep surprising. One of the favorite parts of my job is that I get to really stretch my creative muscles. I'm allowed to break rules that players don't even know are breakable. I, and my design teams, are given carte blanche to keep all of you on your toes. When you think we'll zig, we zag. Or maybe we won't even zig or zag. We'll zog. What's that? You don't know because no one's ever zogged before. I believe a big part of keeping the game fresh is never letting all of you know what to expect next.

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

Looking back over the last four years there are a lot of mechanics that I believe are going to become, or already are, staple mechanics that we will use again and again. Here are my favorites:

Cycling: Designed by Richard Garfield for Tempest (although first used in Urza's Saga), cycling is the go-to mana smoothing mechanic. It's no accident that this mechanic has appeared in four different blocks.

Exalted: Designed by Brian Tinsman, this mechanic is a bit deceptive at first glance. It seems very restrictive but the moment you play with it you start to see its power. I especially love how flavorful it is and how perfect it was for Bant.

Infect: Designed by myself and the Scars of Mirrodin design team (Mark Globus, Mark Gottlieb, Nate Heiss, Alexis Janson, Erik Lauer & Matt Place), this is the culmination of a fourteen-year journey to find the perfect execution of poison.

Kicker: Designed by Bill Rose for Invasion this is the original "and do more" mechanic. My only problem with it is that it's so flexible that it can be many other mechanics. We've cut it down to just be "and make the spell better."

Landfall: Designed by myself and the Zendikar design team (Doug Beyer, Graeme Hopkins, Ken Nagle & Matt Place), this deceptively simple looking mechanic delivers on so many different levels it's kind of scary.

Level Up: Designed by Brian Tinsman for Rise of the Eldrazi based on a card designed by Brian Tinsman for Eventide this mechanic is the perfect capture of the leveling up mechanic seen in every video game and role-playing game you've ever played.

Proliferate: Designed by Mark Globus and I for Scars of Mirrodin this is the be-all, end-all of Johnny mechanics.

Scry: Designed by Aaron Forsythe for Fifth Dawn, this mechanic packs a lot of strategic depth in very little space.

Unearth: Designed by myself for Shards of Alara, this is flashback for creatures. (I'd have listed flashback here if only we'd done it in the last four years.)

Wither: If infect has succeeded it did so on the shoulders of giants. This mechanic was designed by myself and my Shadowmoor design team (Sean Fletcher, Mark Gottlieb, Devin Low & Ken Troop) and has the perfect mix of great game play and awesome flavor.

You will see all of these mechanics again, for sure.

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

Looking back there aren't as many failures as successes. While there were ups and downs, these are the ones I doubt we'll do again:

Clash: From Lorwyn. Somehow we made a mechanic for Timmy that Timmy didn't like but Spike did. Even Spike didn't care about the random part of this mechanic, which was the point of it. I consider it a noble but failed attempt.

Conspire: From Shadowmoor. One of the signs that this mechanic was a miss is that most players don't even remember what it did. (It let you tap two creatures of the same color to copy your instant or sorcery.) This mechanic isn't horrible just filler and Magic can do better than filler mechanics.

Kinship: From Morningtide. I liked what this mechanic was trying to do, but the logistics of using it just got in the way.

Reinforce: From Morningtide. Another not so memorable filler mechanic.

The untap symbol: From Shadowmoor. The idea of the mechanic was great. We were shadowing Lorwyn, so why not do the opposite of a Magic staple? The problem was twofold. First, the tap symbol is so ingrained in player's heads that the brain just can't wrap itself around what the untap symbol is trying to do. Second, players just read the untap symbol as a tap symbol. Only when you look at them side by side do people even get that it's an untap symbol.

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

The number one answer for this question was Ravnica by leaps and bounds. I believe Alara came in a distant second.


I tried to answer as many questions as I could, but this is one I just can't answer because this is something R&D has spent a lot of time thinking about and I don't want to give away any future plans. Scars of Mirrodin is the testing of the waters with a revisit to a popular plane. If it works out (and hint: it's working out quite well) we'll definitely entertain the idea of going back to other planes. Just as the idea of revisiting mechanics took a while for R&D to adopt, so to has the idea of revisiting planes. But don't worry ... we're getting there.

Essay Anything

I hope you all enjoyed a look through the GDS2 essay questions. Make sure to tune in this Wednesday as the "show" begins. The judges will give our feedback on the design tests of the Top 8 and the first Design Challenge will be revealed (to everyone as you all need to help).

Join me next week when I put you all on burn notice.

Until then, may you find the answers to your own questions.

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