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Proliferate Crazy Nights

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The letter W!elcome to Proliferate Week. This week we'll be exploring what I consider to be the most innovative and Johnny-tastic of the new Scars of Mirrodin mechanics. Normally when we get to the mechanic theme week, I'm in trouble because I spent the preview weeks explaining how all of the mechanics got designed. Luckily, I had so much to say during my three-part article about Scars of Mirrodin design (Parts 1, 2 & 3) that I didn't get a chance to tell proliferate's origin story. I will correct that oversight today.

I Can't Believe I Proliferate The Whole Thing

Before I jump into the story though I want to start by talking a little bit about a philosophy I have on design. In one of my five-star articles called "Innovate is Enough (Or is It?)" I talked about the role of innovation in design. In the article I explained that some players over-evaluate the importance of innovation. Similarly, it's a common design mistake to do something in a brand-new way when something in an established way actually services the set better. While innovation has a role, it is not the be-all, end-all for the design process that some assume it is. (Read the column for more in-depth look at this issue.)


I think some readers walked away from that column thinking that I do not like innovation. I do, very much actually. The point of the column is that designers have to be careful to use innovation correctly. If the wrong emphasis is put on innovation it can lead a design astray. That said, I do think innovation is important for Magic design. In fact, one of my design goals for every set I do is that I want to make sure that the set has some innovation in it. I accomplish this in two ways. One, I always try to make sure that there is something holistic about my set that is innovative and two, I always try to make sure I have at least one innovative mechanic (although not always a named one).

The innovative holistic element I talked about last week in my State of Design column. This block is about building and fleshing out two distinct groups, the Mirrans and the Phyrexians, and then bringing them into conflict with one another. There was a lot of work put into defining each side mechanically and then making sure the evolution of the block played into the interaction of these two groups.

The innovative mechanic is proliferate. I do love infect but it's much more an example of taking various previously known elements and weaving them together to craft something new. I like metalcraft but again, it's a riff on affinity. We wanted to have an "artifacts matter" feel for the Mirrans and metalcraft filled that space. I love imprint and was excited to get to bring it back, but obviously returning mechanics are clearly not innovative (although this block does try to do some new things with imprint.) Proliferate, though, is unlike anything we've ever done. Everything above can be compared to other mechanics. Proliferate is comparable to a few individual cards but we've never come close to this design space in previous mechanics. How did we get to this space? Well, I'm glad you asked.

Ask the Proliferate Ball

Two weeks back, I explained how when putting together Phyrexia we used the metaphor of disease as a guide. From a story standpoint, the Phyrexians are a horror archetype I call "The Plague." It is a race of usually foreign creatures that come and slowly turn you into them. Examples of this archetype would be the zombies from Dawn of the Dead, the pod creatures from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the Borg from Star Trek The daunting part of this archetype is that stopping them feels hopeless insomuch as each victory not only puts them up one but you down one. In addition, the idea that some monster turns you into a monster like them is pretty creepy.


I knew going into the design that I wanted to try out poison but I wasn't sure what else the Phyrexians needed. We fiddled around for many months and eventually we ended up with infect. One of the things I really liked about infect was that it created this feeling of the Phyrexian infection spreading as counters piled up both on the players and the creatures. The enjoyment of this feel led me to create the following card:

Infection Spreader
2B
Creature – Phyrexian Warrior
2/2
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, give every player that has a poison counter an additional poison counter, and put a -1/-1 counter on every creature that has a -1/-1 counter.

I liked this guy a lot because I felt that it tied into what we were doing with infect without actually having infect. The very next playtest I moved Infection Spreader down to common (I had originally made it as an uncommon) and added this card:

Bigger Infection Spreader
3BB
Creature – Phyrexian Warrior
4/4
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, give every player that has a poison counter an additional poison counter and put a -1/-1 counter on every creature that has a -1/-1 counter.

I played them both in the next playtest (my love of infect had me playing a slightly higher amount of black and green) and really enjoyed what they were doing. The next step was to finish off my vertical cycle: (For those that don't know the terminology a vertical cycle is a cycle where you have three cards, one at each rarity—common, uncommon and rare / mythic rare.)

Even Bigger Infection Spreader
6BBB
Creature – Phyrexian Warrior
8/8
Intimidate
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, give every player that has a poison counter an additional poison counter and put a -1/-1 counter on every creature that has a -1/-1 counter.

As I often explain, I am a very instinctual designer. I tend to make a lot of changes in my design based on feel. The "infection spreaders" were hitting a chord I liked. Meanwhile, I was trying to find a second keyword for the Phyrexians. At the time, the Mirrans had affinity and imprint. My idea was that when we returned to Mirrodin, the home team had the same tools they had last time (with some tweaks of course—things do evolve) while the visitors were the ones bringing new mechanics to the table.

Quick aside: you'll notice that the three "infection spreaders" all had the creature type Phyrexian. Design played around with the creature type but we had to abandon it when it was pointed out that Magic has had numerous Phyrexians in the past, none of which had the Phyrexian creature type.

I liked our disease metaphor and felt like the second mechanic was going to come out of that feel. While I was busy trying to create a new keyword mechanic, this little set of cards kept scratching at my subconscious. Then one day the pieces came together. What if this infection spreading was the keyword mechanic? I turned my original card into this:

Infection Spreader
2B
Creature – Phyrexian Warrior
2/2
Accelerate (When you cast this card, give every player that has a poison counter an additional poison counter and put a -1/-1 counter on every creature that has a -1/-1 counter.)

My initial instinct was to make the mechanic something that triggered when you cast the spell. This would allow us to design not just permanents but also instants and sorceries. The only downside I saw, at first, to the mechanic was that it felt like it wanted to be in the exact same colors as infect, black and green, as these were the two colors that had the feel of a disease growing.

Another quick aside: many people have questioned how it is that green has the second most number of Phyrexian cards as to them green has nothing to do with the Phyrexians. MY answer is that green has a lot to do with the Phyrexians, much as I firmly believe the Borg and the Body Snatchers are inherently green. The Phyrexian are doing what naturally comes to them—to grow, the core essence of green's philosophy.

Globus Depot

I liked accelerate but I knew it wasn't quite there yet. Besides the color limitations, the mechanic had one huge problem, I discovered—it was very parasitic. For those that might not be fluent in R&D lingo, parasitic, in design terms, means that the mechanic too much replies on itself. If you want to play it, it requires you to play with other cards like it. Infect already had this problem in that one infect creature heavily encouraged a second one.

Yet another quick aside: one of the ongoing debates Scars of Mirrodin had through development was whether or not it was the right call to mix infect and non-infect creatures. The thought was that the mechanic is so parasitic that you want to commit one way or another. I (and developer Zac Hill) kept arguing that there was plenty of utility for the infect creatures and that just having a few in your deck allowed you to have a plan B. A power-pumping Equipment on Plague Stinger, for instance, can often win the game. Also because of the wither aspect of infect, the infect creatures can impact the game without ever giving a poison counter to the opponent.


Back to the problem at hand. Accelerate was super flavorful and played really well with infect, but the interaction stopped there. The second Phyrexian mechanic had to have a little more use than helping your infect deck. I knew the mechanic had issues but I wasn't sure how to solve them. Then Mark Globus stepped in and said exactly what I needed to hear.

Mark is the Senior Producer for Magic, which means that it is his job to oversee all the R&D processes that go into designing and developing Magic. Wizards of the Coast is a constantly moving machine with many parts and navigating through the system takes some skills. I want to just design sets, mechanics and cards, so I'm glad to have someone like Mark around to make sure I'm able to do that without having to waste hours cutting through red tape.

Great Designer Search finalists Graeme Hopkins, Alexis Janson, and Ken Nagle. Mark Globus not pictured.

Mark ended up at Wizards through The Great Designer Search. He didn't win. He wasn't even one of the three finalists, but fate was on his side. You see, Mark was one of the final five. While we only flew out the final three for the interview, we actually bought tickets for all of the final five. The reason for this was that we weren't going to know who the top three were in time to get the best airline ticket prices. If we waited until we did know, those three tickets were going to cost more than getting the five a week earlier, so the travel department did what was cheaper.

Meanwhile, Randy Buehler was putting together a project called Gleemax (it was named after the alien brain in a jar that runs R&D) that required hiring a lot of people with digital experience. Mark's resume looked good to Randy (as he had seen him in The Great Designer Search) and he was interested in hiring him. Then one day while talking with Randy, I brought up the fact that we had to buy Mark a plane ticket to Seattle. I could see everything click in Randy's eyes and the next thing you know Mark was in Renton interviewing for a digital job. It went well and Mark was offered a job.

A similar thing happened with Graeme Hopkins and before you knew it five of the final fifteen from the first Great Designer Search were working at Wizards. (Alexis Janson and Ken Nagle got offered design internships and Noah Weil was offered a development internship.) As the Head Designer, I'm constantly looking for designers to put on sets, so no way I was letting five GDS alum work in Renton without being on design teams.

Mark Globus

Mark worked on different design teams plus, as an avid gamer, often found himself playing games with members of R&D. One of these people was VP of R&D Bill Rose. Bill became a big fan of Mark and during one big reorganization Mark was brought into Magic R&D as the Magic Producer. Having Mark in Magic R&D only made it easier to put him on design teams. Scars of Mirrodin's design team got switched up midway through design and Mark was put onto the team.

The reason I'm telling Mark's whole back story is that him ending up on the Scars design team led to the solution of our problem. To understand how it happened, I have to explain one last thing about Mark as a designer. He thinks big. Whatever you're doing, he asks if it could be bigger, if it could include more. While Mark has a lot of Spike on his surface, dig a little deeper and you'll find a full-fledged Timmy. Mark loves the big effect.

This is extra important for me because I find that when I'm dealing in new design space I tend to start small. The reason for this is simple. If you throw a new idea too big at people it tends to make the freeze up. It's hard for someone to see less in an idea. As such, I've learned to take my wilder designs and first pitch them in a smaller version. The timeshifted sheet in Time Spiral, for example, started with me saying, "What if we just put a few old cards on the premium sheets? That way every once in a blue moon an old card with an old frame would show up in your booster pack?" Usually once I can hook an idea, it will naturally grow to the proper size, but I often find myself in a place where I need someone to go, "Can't we do it bigger?"

When Mark looked at my accelerate mechanic, he replied, "Why just poison and +1/+1 counters? Couldn't it work with all counters?"

Jackpot!

My eyes lit up. Of course it could. And it solved all of our problems plus a few that were problems from other parts of the design.

First, affecting all counters got us out of black and green. When you pull it back the mechanic starts to be about manipulation. That has blue written all over it. This allowed us to get the Phyrexians into a new color and allowed interesting deck-building options. Did you just want to quickly poison out the opponent or did you want to slowly kill them with poison? Having accelerate in blue now meant that those two decks had different colors in them.

Second, caring about cards with counters greatly broadens the scope of the mechanic. Magic has a lot of cards that use counters. All of a sudden, this mechanic went from a parasitic Limited mechanic to being something to excite Johnnies everywhere. I loved that the day Contagion Clasp went live, all the posts about it were "And it works with Card X!"


Third, it solved a problem I haven't even talked about yet. We were working on creating two different factions but it was important for the game that the two different sides had elements that worked well together. Magic Limited, especially Draft, needs there to be a lot of options on how you can mix and match elements of the set together. If we kept our two sides mechanically isolated from one another, we were going to greatly lessen these interactions.

One of the Mirrans' themes, for instance, is equipment. We realized that if we made sure there was enough power-pumping Equipment that the Phyrexian side would like it as it worked well with infect. I was still looking for something that the Phyrexians used that had application on the Mirran side. Making this change to accelerate did exactly that. The Mirrans had a strong "charge counters matter" theme which now played nicely with accelerate.

Fourth, as I explained at the start of this article, I like to see an innovative mechanic in each set. Scars was missing one. The change to accelerate made that no longer true.

The Tweak In Review

So, accelerate was done and fit for printing? Not exactly. We turned our cards blue and added a few more to the set. We also added some accelerate cards in artifact because we wanted everyone to have some ability to get in on the fun although for a dedicated deck, you were probably going to need to play blue. Here's what Infection Spreader looked like in blue:

Accelerate Wizard
2U
Creature – Phyrexian Wizard
2/2
Accelerate (When you cast this card, give every player that has a counter an additional counter of the same type and put an additional counter on every creature that has a counter.)

We played with the new cards but quickly found out that we had a problem. See, the just poison and -1/-1 counters version affected everyone because the thought was that when infection grows all infection grows regardless of who or what it's on. With the change to all counters, this "hits everything" feel ended up making playing accelerate a more difficult decision. Sure, I give you a poison counter and weaken one of your creatures but I also give you an extra use out of your artifact and kill one of my creatures. Do I want to do this?

It just took a few playtests to realize that this both complicated the mechanic (players had to figure out whether or not it was right to use the ability) and made it less fun. The answer was simple—let players choose which counters they wanted to add. That way you knew to play the spell; it could only do good for you and bad for your opponent, just the way you wanted.


With this change the mechanic quickly imbedded itself into the design. So much so, that I chose to make it a major component of blue, especially in common and uncommon, so that it would have a big impact on Limited and give blue a strong definition.

Once the card hit development, two big changes were made. First, Del Laugel, Magic's Head Editor, changed accelerate to a keyword action (like scry) allowing it to exist as a verb in rules text. Second, Del changed the name to proliferate because it technically was a better representation of what the mechanic was doing.

The other big change happened slowly through development. The development team liked proliferate, but were also a little scared of it. The mechanic messed with something that was often used as a means to control things. Counters are mostly a resource and a mechanic that could sweepingly add counters to multiple cards was potentially dangerous. As such, the development team pulled back a lot on the number of cards with proliferate. It no longer had a strong presence in blue common and, while relevant to Limited, was not something you could consistently draft around. Along with this shrinking of number, the development team decided that the few that remained would be usable multiple times (well, all but the one common) to allow players to build decks around the mechanic.

The reason the development team stopped at six proliferate cards in Scars was so that the block would have room to add more. If you like what you see here, the Scars of Mirrodin block has more toys for you to play with.

Proliferate Is Enough

I'm very happy with how proliferate turned out. While I wish it could play a larger role in Scars Limited, I understand what happens if we don't listen to development's warnings. (A broken environment was definitely one part of Mirrodin we didn't want to revisit.) I'm excited to see how this mechanic ends up getting used because there are so many possibilities. I believe there's a good chance that it seeps into every format.

That's the proliferate story. I'm glad you had a chance to hear it. Join me next week when I talk a little about how to design worlds (as if such a thing is remotely relevant right now).

Until then, may you get extra counters of whatever counters you'd like to get.

Great Designer Search 2 FAQ

One final thing, actually. Here are a few answers to question you may have concerning our upcoming sequel to The Great Designer Search.


The Great Designer Search 2 FAQ #1

I want to enter the GDS2. What do I do to enter?

To enter the GDS2, you need to turn in the first test, which will be an essay test. The essay test will be posted this Wednesday (meaning Tuesday night for those that must see it as soon as possible) so don't worry you haven't missed anything yet.

Do I have to put something on the Magic Wiki to participate?

No, you do not have to post to the Wiki. The advantage of putting your ideas up is that you can get feedback from the "crowd," which may prove helpful to improving your material. You will need to be able to access the Wiki as it will be a mandatory resource for the challenges.

Can I use ideas that are not posted to the Wiki?

You may as long as you are the sole creator of those ideas.

What are the requirements to entering?

The full requirements will be posted on Wednesday. Here is a cribbed version:

• You must be 18.
• You must reside in and be legally able to work in the United States.
• You must be fluent in English.
• You must not be a current or former employee of Wizards of the Coast. (Contractors and freelancers, as well as previous GDS top fifteen, are all eligible.)
• You must be willing and able to move to Renton for six months.
• You must agree to everything else in the official rules.

If you fit all that criteria, you're good to go.

Do you have to have a college degree?

No, the internship does not require a college degree.

Why isn't the GDS2 open to people of all nationalities?

While we would like to include everyone, the procedure to get a U.S. work visa is complex and lengthy. The internship would be over before we would have any realistic chance of acquiring it.

Can people play just for fun?

If you are ineligible or unwilling to take the internship, please do not enter. Every entry takes time and other resources on our behalf and we don't wish to waste them on an applicant that cannot take the internship. All the various tests will eventually be made public allowing anyone who wants to "play along" to do so.

Can people not eligible still be involved?

Absolutely. That is what makes GDS2 so different from GDS1. Applicants are free to use any work done on the Magic Wiki. (Click here.) If you have cool ideas, post them and possibly someone who is applying can use them.

It is also useful to make comments on existing designs to give feedback to the designers that created them. A very important part of the design process is adapting to feedback from others.

What's this about building a world?

After the essay test will be a multiple-choice test. After the multiple-choice test will be a design test. A big part of the design test is proposing an idea for your own world/block. If you get chosen for the Final Eight, the world that you propose will be the world that you build all your challenges in.

It will be crucial for the Final Eight to have strong, well-thought-out worlds, so I have told everyone ahead of time to give you all more time to think about it. My column next week will be dedicated to giving you more advice about how to build a new world. (Don't wait for the article though; I'd start today—that is if you haven't already started.)

Can we revisit a world Magic has already visited?

I'd strongly advise against it. We're testing your ability to create a world. Using a premade world doesn't show off this skill.

How important is the flavor of the world?

While there is some value in spending time on things like names, the flavor I will be mostly evaluating is what I call mechanical flavor. How are you able to use your mechanical design to convey an overall flavor sense of the world? That means that you should spend less time writing up the story behind the world and more time figuring out how your cards and mechanics convey it.

Can people work in teams?

Yes and no. Anyone is allowed to submit ideas (be they world, mechanic or cards) and it is fair game for people to design specifically to the needs of a certain designer/world. That said, any idea posted on the Wiki (and note that other than ideas created solely by the applicant all ideas used must be off the Wiki) is fair game to any designer. In addition, only the applicant is allowed to compile the cards for the design test and challenges. Anyone can build the furniture but only the applicant can do the interior decorating.

Isn't this more testing applicants ability to recognize good ideas than coming up with their own?

Yes, yes it is. That's kind of the point of GDS2, we're looking for a slightly different, but equally important, design skill than GDS1. Note that there will be portions of challenges that will require the applicant to do their own work.

One last thing:

I plan on making more GDS2 FAQs as questions pop up. My plan is to put the FAQs at the end of my column so if you're participating as an applicant or Wiki contributor you're going to want to check here every week. See you all on Wednesday!



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