My Great Designer Search 3 Essay Answers

I have only so much time to throw at Magic writing each month. Last month, the Great Designer Search 3 essays ate nearly all of it. So I thought it might be fun to kill two birds with one stone, and to post my essay answers here on the blog. At the very least, if I don’t advance through the search, I’ll have gotten something out of it (and hopefully you will have too)!

What’s also nice is, here, I can show my work. Wizards’ text fields didn’t allow hyperlinks, which I’d added to link to relevant additional resources. Those links are preserved here. We’ll skip the “introduce yourself” question, and start from question two.

An evergreen mechanic is a keyword mechanic that shows up in (almost) every set. If you had to make an existing keyword mechanic evergreen, which one would you choose and why?

I would add Cycling to the rank of evergreen keywords, as it’s shown itself to be a durable, flexible mechanic that cleanly mitigates one of Magic’s more unattractive elements: drawing the wrong cards at the wrong time.

Admittedly, I would have liked to use this question to solve Blue/Black’s lack of an overlapping keyword. But the keywords I identified to solve that problem either don’t make sense as primary and prevalent in both colors (Wither), are too complex for evergreen status (Exploit, Monstrosity), require too much additional support to merit evergreen status (Ingest), or are unfun (Fateseal, Shadow).

Sinuous Vermin - Matt Plays Magic

With no other pressing problem to solve, the question becomes one of adding a keyword that contributes the most while shaking things up the least. I think Cycling is that keyword.

The problems Cycling solves (as explained in the article Cycling Round the Track) are present in every Magic set. Conditional answers are always conditional; players always draw large creatures and spells too early and small creatures and spells too late; and players always draw too many or too few lands. While R&D recently added Scry into the evergreen keyword mix to mitigate these issues, adding Cycling would allow you to further manipulate card flow and let Scry take a set off if there were to be an environment where it didn’t fit. The mechanics also function well together (Scry manipulates your draw while Cycling draws you cards). In at least some sets, R&D could carve out unique spaces to use both Scry and Cycling.

While Cycling could run the risk of being overused (for example, sometimes conditional answers should be conditional), the mechanic is flexible enough to provide value in most every set. Additionally, Cycling provides players with additional choices (“Do I need this card now?”), and thus creates additional tension. For these reasons, if I had to make an existing keyword evergreen, I would choose Cycling.

If you had to remove evergreen status from a keyword mechanic that is currently evergreen, which one would you remove and why?

I would remove Defender’s evergreen status. Defender is the lowest impact and least exciting evergreen keyword.

At the time of this writing, only five Standard legal cards use Defender. Rivals of Ixalan adds only two more. Defender can, and has been, used for some unique designs that flavorfully or mechanically reference the keyword, but those designs are rare. In most cases, Defender is used simply to stop players from attacking with a 0/4 Wall, which they are already unlikely to do. 0/4 Walls don’t attack well. Simply writing “CARDNAME can’t attack.” would successfully replace Defender in the large majority of cases where it is used. In outlying cases, such as Rise of the Eldrazi’s Vent Sentinel, design tweaks could be used to replace Defender. For example, a new Vent Sentinel could rely on the “toughness 4 or greater” mechanic, instead of relying on Defender.

Vent Sentinel - Matt Plays Magic

Additionally, while all other evergreen creature keyword abilities help define Magic’s color pie, Defender does not. Every other evergreen creature keyword is found primarily in some colors, secondarily in others, and so on. Defender is just there, available to any color, not really contributing to new players’ understanding of what creatures are available to each color. Removing any other evergreen creature keyword ability, without replacing it, lessens the definition of the color pie. Removing Defender does not, suggesting that it might not need evergreen status.

The other remaining evergreen keywords are largely necessary for the game to function. It would be a mistake to remove one of those, as certain standard abilities would, at best, become incredibly wordy or, at worst, fail to function. For these reasons, if I had to remove evergreen status from a keyword mechanic, I’d remove it from Defender.

You’re going to teach Magic to a stranger. What’s your strategy to have the best possible outcome?

  1. Ask the person why they’re interested in Magic in the first place. What do they want to get out of the game? Are they interested in role-playing ferocious battles between mighty wizards? Or are they more into math and strategy? That’s going to shape the kinds of games we play, and the kinds of cards we’ll want to use.
  2. Craft decks, and an experience, that matches their interest. Are they interested in summoning gnarly beasts and attacking each turn? If so, I’ll likely build them a simple Green deck. Do they seem more interested in stonewalling their opponent and enacting an ultimate endgame? Blue/Black here we come. No matter the player’s interests and experience, it’s best to start with simple cards. For example, my wife enjoys the art on Black cards. When I taught her to play, I built her a simple Black deck of Commons and Uncommons, and I piloted a similarly constructed White deck. My wife got to play with cards that matched her aesthetic interests and cleanly conflicted with her opponent’s deck, increasing her buy-in for the game.
  3. In most cases, it’s important to play the first game (or two) face-up, hopefully with a rules insert alongside. That way, you can walk the new player through a turn, explain phases and timing, and allow the player to find some answers on their own. The most important, and sometimes toughest, thing is to allow the player to explore and learn for themselves. “Ah ha, I get it!” moments are one of Magic’s greatest sells.
  4. Once the player is comfortable with the rules, and if they’re still interested, it’s finally time to play a full game with cards face-down. The most important thing throughout this process, much more important than getting all the rules right, is to make sure the new player has fun. A Magic player who’s having fun will likely come back and learn the rules at some point. The key is crafting an enjoyable overall experience.

What is Magic‘s greatest strength and why?

Magic’s greatest strength is that it’s a hundred, constantly evolving games in one. Imagine if Magic had stopped releasing new sets after Alpha. The game would still be great, but it wouldn’t be the stalwart it is today. The thing that keeps players, including myself, coming back to Magic, playing Magic, streaming Magic, talking and reading about Magic, is its constant expansion and evolution.

Lightning Bolt - Revised Edition - Matt Plays Magic

This evolution includes releasing new cards, sure, but it also includes creating new formats, creating new decks, tweaking old decks, re-discovering old cards, adding new lore and stories, searching for new ways to use existing designs, and investing in Magic’s greatest strength: that it is many wonderful things to many wonderful people. No matter what type of gamer you are, casual or competitive, flavor-focused or math-oriented, Magic has something to offer. And it has more to offer each year.

You all recognize this strength and, especially in recent years, you’ve gone hard at exploiting it. Gavin Verhey recently wrote about how Wizards targets different products at different audiences, and while that article’s a good starting point for talking about how Magic is actually a variety of experiences in one, it doesn’t even touch on the fact that, to many people, Magic’s a 25 year story that’s still ongoing, serving the same function as a comic series or soap opera. Or that Magic’s expanding further into the digital realm, where the game will hopefully pick up an even wider casual audience.

Magic’s constant evolution, and the varied results of that evolution, are the game’s greatest strength. It’s what keeps the game fresh for old players and creates latching-on points for new players. Absent this evolution, Magic would not survive.

What is Magic‘s greatest weakness and why?

Magic’s complexity, both assumed and real, is its greatest weakness. There is a certain segment of players who would like Magic to become, and remain, as complex as can be. After all, complexity breeds depth, depth breeds replayability, and replayability is what keeps players coming back to the game. Again, if Magic was still just the same game it was when Alpha released, it wouldn’t be nearly the phenomenon it is today. Magic’s complexity is partially a by-product of its continual evolution. So adding some additional complexity to the game is unavoidable, and even desirable.

However, when I’ve introduced Magic to others, the game’s complexity is its number one potential turn-off. Before we begin, many potential players think of Magic as that “complex nerdy card game”. After we start, those players quickly grow to love attacking with giant monsters, throwing lightning bolts, and identifying with certain colors or cards. They don’t love learning that creatures attack players, not other creatures. They don’t (usually) love learning the ins and outs of the Stack. And don’t even get me started on trying to explain Planeswalkers. Magic has so many rules, mechanics, and interactions. While the basic rules might fit on an Intro Deck insert, the Comprehensive Rules are 227 pages long. The game is not always new player friendly. If Magic is to continue to grow and thrive, it has to manage and overcome this weakness.

Thankfully, you all know this, and you’re constantly working to mitigate the game’s complexity by providing solid on-ramps for new players. Innovations like New World Order, more forward-facing lore, Planeswalker Decks, Magic: Arena, and the return of Core Sets are designed to give new players latching-on points, allowing them to jump into this 25 year old game we all love.

What Magic mechanic most deserves a second chance (aka which had the worst first introduction compared to its potential)?

Converge, the Battle for Zendikar mechanic that produces stronger effects as a player uses more colors of mana to cast a card, got a bad introduction. While the mechanic’s flavor was on-point (showing how the Zendikari could combine forces to combat the Eldrazi), the BFZ draft environment didn’t support a Converge deck, so many of the Converge cards never found a home. Additionally, BFZ also included the “Allies-matter/Rally” mechanic to show the Zendikari banding together against the Eldrazi, and Allies received much better support. This led to Converge falling by the wayside, as colorlessness and Allies dominated the set. As noted in the BFZ Storm Scale article, players ranked Converge second-lowest in your mechanic market research; it was beat only by Cohort.

Bring to Light - Matt Plays Magic

Converge deserves better. While Converge may not be an incredibly deep mechanic, it is an incredibly cool and splashy one. When a player casts a good Converge card in a supportive environment (such as Painful Truths or Bring to Light in Modern), they feel like they did something awesome. Additionally, there is a real setup cost to running Converge cards (successfully crafting a 3+ color manabase), which makes the payoffs all the sweeter. While Battle for Zendikar played with a number of Converge effects, there are still more to be tinkered with (as Crystalline Crawler from Commander 2016 has shown). Imagine Converge as a leading mechanic in a Return to Alara set, in which the “converged” shards have begun experimenting with the new colors of mana available to them, and become stronger as they tap into more disparate mana. Converge has a lot more to offer, despite its lackluster debut. If the mechanic was reused in a supportive environment, I have no doubt players would love Converge.

Of all the Magic expansions that you’ve played with, pick your favorite and then explain the biggest problem with it.

Khans of Tarkir was a great set, in which players got to explore wedge-based factions for the first time, mitigate mana screw by drafting Morph creatures, and add allied-color fetchlands to their Modern manabases. Khans Draft remained continually fresh and interesting. Additionally, Khans did a great job setting up the remainder of its block, allowing Fate Reforged and Dragons of Tarkir to gain resonance from its success.

Khans’s biggest problem was that its factions disappeared. Players, including myself, grew to love the Khans clans. You did a great job telling us Khans was a wedge set, and not the first part of a wedge block, but you also did a great job building fleshed-out factions that players wanted to see more of. As a result, when the Dragonlords took over Tarkir, players were less than excited. What’s interesting, is this problem isn’t a problem with Khans itself, so much as it’s a problem with the block’s structure and necessary narrative arc. As the story was constructed, Tarkir had to start dragon-less and end with dragons. Also, it’s interesting to note that Khans’s biggest problem was too successfully introducing the clans. This problem could easily be solved upon returning to Tarkir, and potentially serve as the spine of a return’s story.

Note that I understand Khans block as a whole was high on complexity, and that Morph contributed to that complexity without adding to the faction-based aspect of Khans’s design. However, I think Morph allowed Design and Development to create unique cards (Khans’s common, three-color Morphs are my favorite designs of the set), mitigate Khans’s potential mana issues cleanly, and set up unique gameplay experiences. While Khans may have been complex, I think it was a good use of complexity. I also think the steps Design and Development took to mitigate that complexity (using fairly simple faction-based mechanics, printing overlay cards for Morph, making sure attacking with an early Morph couldn’t easily lead to blowouts) worked. I would not remove Morph from Khans of Tarkir, though I believe it wouldn’t be out of bounds to consider it.

Of all the Magic expansions that you’ve played with, pick your least favorite and then explain the best part about it.

Outside of “colorless matters”, Oath of the Gatewatch did not add much to its Draft environment. Cohort and Support were Design misses, and these new mechanics (along with Surge) served only to further complicate and dilute the already messy Limited environment of Battle for Zendikar. Furthermore, Oath broke Modern completely, creating “Eldrazi Winter” and necessitating the banning of Eye of Ugin.

However, Oath represented a large step forward toward integrating Magic’s story into its cards and gameplay. Surge, and the art and flavor text on Surge cards, represented the Gatewatch (and players) combining forces, both with each other and the Zendikari. Thanks to both her high-impact Planeswalker card and the Surge card Fall of the Titans, Chandra’s arrival on Zendikar was notable. Relatedly, the most important story points, such as Ulamog and Kozilek’s defeat and Zendikar’s resurgence, appeared on cards. The most important of these moments were the Gatewatch’s oaths themselves, which gave players a way to feel Planeswalkers’ impact at a lower rarity.

Zendikar Resurgent - Matt Plays Magic

Oath even managed to push the set’s “join forces” story and theme into its pre-releases, where players were encouraged to attend and play as Two-Headed Giant teams. Many players (including myself) were excited to battle two-on-two with Wizards’ support, and the Surge mechanic made this experience truly unique. Oath of the Gatewatch pre-releases created a true sense of “coming together”, seeding the set’s story even further into its actual play experience.

Thanks to these innovations, Oath most felt like the Magic set in which players were a part of the story. This integration is definitely the best part of Oath of the Gatewatch.

You have the ability to change any one thing about Magic. What do you change and why?

I would further connect the physical and digital Magic experiences. Magic is unique among Collectible Card Games, in that it has robust physical and digital offerings. Up to this point, those offerings have remained largely separate, outside the occasional Magic: Duels promotion pushing players toward stores and the booster pack ad cards promoting Magic’s digital offerings.

Magic can, and should, do better. For the most part, players cannot go to their local game store and chat up their friends over an evening playing Hearthstone. And likewise, a player can’t go online and load up a game of Android: Netrunner to test their brews and refine their gameplay. But Magic allows a player to do both, and could offer very cool incentives for players who participate in both experiences.

The easiest pitch (and something I know you’re considering) is including digital booster redemption codes inside physical booster packs. This would allow players to invest in both physical and digital Magic simultaneously, encouraging the growth of both communities. Other CCGs have successfully employed this model, as have some comic book publishers. Magic should absolutely do something similar.

However, Magic can also do better, more incredible things. Imagine creating digital Magic: Arena “teams” from physical stores’ playerbases. Players at Crazy Squirrel Games in Fresno, CA (represent) could compete against the players from Mox Mania in Madison, WI (also represent; I’ve moved around some), bringing players into stores to compete against their cross-country, or even global, rivals. Imagine linking FNM stats to Magic: Arena awards, such that earning a certain amount of in-store Planeswalker Points provides extra digital boosters. These sorts of ideas require additional infrastructure, but they’re absolutely doable. Especially if Wizards begins implementing and iterating on them now, before any other company has a chance to try.

As I stated in my answer to Question 5, Magic’s ability to evolve is its greatest strength. Intermingling the game’s physical and digital experiences is likely its next best possible evolution. If I had carte blanche to change one thing about Magic, that’s where I’d start.

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