Monday, January 22, 2018

gds3 essays

Remember how I said I was done writing about Magic? I changed my mind. Kill Reviews will continue after a long hiatus, but in a different format then before, so check back in a couple weeks-ish.

I entered the Great Designer Search 3. Because the essay submission deadline is closed, I'm allowed to share the (obviously correct) answers; because of the last one, I doubt I will advance very far.

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

Hi, I’m Jesse Mason. I’m where I am because of Magic. Literally. About five years ago, I was alone and feeling hopeless in rural upstate New York: I had just lost my job, had no real friends in the area, and all my potentially-productive time went toward playing Elves on Magic Online and writing about the game on my blog.

What I did have a network of friends that I knew from Magic. After being told, “you should move to Seattle!” over and over, I realized I had no real reason not to do that. So I did, and immediately fell in love with the area, its people, and its vibrant Magic community.

I was a hardcore tournament player, but really, those tournaments were just an excuse to live inside Magic: meaning testing it with friends, talking about it constantly, scribbling decklists on scraps of paper, trying not to get banned from MTGSalvation. (Well, I didn’t try super hard.)

Unusually for a tournament player, I could honestly take or leave playing the game itself. What I wanted was to demonstrate my complete understanding of the game, its theory, and its metagame.

After I moved, I got a full-time job staring at Magic cards for Card Kingdom. I used my off time to write Kill Reviews, a comprehensive review of the design of every Magic block, and my biggest personal source of pride (well, either that or hitting Diamond in League of Legends (Janna owns)).

There’s a difference between just having opinions about Magic design, and having experience writing long-form analyses of its design, researching it, defending those opinions (or changing them). I’d like to think that I’m the second most-read author about Magic’s design history, slightly behind Maro with perhaps 1/10,000th his readership.

I’ve already transformed from some guy who thinks about the game, to someone who writes about its design. I’d love the opportunity to go the final step into helping to design it myself.

2. 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?


One of the defining aspects of Magic is that players have some choice over their cards (by building decks), but never perfect choice of what’s in their hand. This gives the game its variance and therefore, its fun, but it’s also what makes some cards completely useless at different times. No one truly enjoys a game where one player has a hand full of spells they can’t cast, and holding two Shatter against a deck with no artifacts isn’t providing the thrill that keeps people opening packs.

In its simplest form (such as in Urza’s Saga), Cycling just helps those issues in a straightforward way. Sets like Onslaught take it further, making it into a mechanic that can do, well, pretty much anything: you have options of casting the card versus cycling it for a different effect, or you can build around it with cards like Astral Slide. One of the best parts of Shards of Alara was how everyone got cycling, but only Grixis had the benefit of tying it in with its incredibly cool graveyard theme. Its Future Sight-esque Viscera Dragger made a simple common with two keywords and no other text into a constructed staple.

Amonkhet used it again, and very well, but it didn’t push it in too many new directions: it had Cycling matters build-arounds a la Onslaught, and some graveyard tie-ins a la Shards, but mostly it just smoothed things. Abandoned Sarcophagus, which combines the two, deserves its own shout-out for brilliance.

Every set should have at least a few cyclers. Then, every now and then, when a set has a new “Cycling matters” variant, intrepid deckbuilders will go back and reevaluate every single card with the mechanic to come up with amazing Modern, Legacy, Commander, and casual decks.

This will lead to more fun games, especially limited, because tossing away useless cards puts people in better position to cast their spells. And casting spells is rather important in Magic.

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

I’d like to offer a fistbump in solidarity to the person tasked with reading these answers, who’s going to pore over thousands of people ranting about Hexproof. I’ll go against the grain and say Reach.

Reach makes very little sense. It’s half of Flying, and not even the cool part. Defensive creatures are sometimes necessary, but not as many of them are needed compared to aggressive or utility-oriented ones; a set requiring a slot for a defensive creature that also hoses flying is rare.

It’s punishing to new players. If a player has a cool small flyer, and their opponent has something with Reach, our hero’s creature may as well lose flying as far as attacking is concerned. There’s not even a unifying look or theme to Reach: it’s Spiders, sure, but also Archers (which historically could also symbolize First Strike), and even a Cobra. A Cobra! It’s difficult to look across the table and know, at a glance, who has Reach. Not everyone has “Spider = Reach” burned into their brain, especially when there’s about one spider ever two sets now.

There’s so many other ways to hose flyers. You could make them lose flying, you could Jump creatures during other plays’ turns, you could deal damage… lots of things that aren’t Reach.

“But wait!”, I hear the Hexproof-rant-reader exclaim. “What identity will Spiders have without Reach?”

Honestly, Reach is holding Magical arachnids back. They’re so many things in fantasy: they’re scary, they trap and eat things, they come either as a mass of thousands or as one huge one. Spiders have symbolized malevolence countless times. Alpha’s Giant Spider ensnared these infamous invertebrates into the web of always being 2/4 Reach creatures. This prevents them from being the predatory, poisonous, nightmare fuel-beings they deserve to be. Magic should recast them as natural-born Vampires, sucking the lifeforce from their victims.

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

Get them into a game.

That’s only five of my 350, but that’s all that Magic needs to convince people it’s cool. I tell people the absolute bare minimum of information necessary to shuffle up and start a game, then explain everything else as it comes up: the phases of the turn, combat, spells, etc. Then we play a couple more games, with them internalizing more concepts as we continue.

Everything after that, I customize to what kind of person they are, and what most excites them about Magic. Just like elementary school teachers have to modify their teaching style to their students, because everyone processes information differently, those of us introducing Magic to others have to let them lead the way.

Magic has so many cool aspects to it: the flavor behind what’s happening, the strategy of cards interacting with one another, the probabilities behind what gets drawn, the before-game decisions about what cards to play, the incredible art on the cards… as a recovering tournament player, I can’t force someone to enjoy Magic exactly how I want to enjoy it.

If they’re interested in all the different things cards can do, and get excited about making something themselves, I guide them through making their first deck with some pre-selected piles of cards. If they’re more the technical type that enjoys the games themselves, I’ll just bring two new decks that we’ll trade off playing against one another, so that they learn more strategy each time. If they enjoy the fantasy lore more than anything, I’ll find someone else to teach them.

5. What is Magic's greatest strength and why?

John Peel was a legendary BBC radio DJ, and his favorite band was the long-running post-punk band The Fall. His famous quote about them was: “they are always different; they are always the same.”

Magic’s biggest strength is exactly that. Once you’ve learned Magic, you’ve learned Magic; you can come back to it a year or a decade after you quit, and a lot of things will be different, but the core gameplay will always be there.

There have been lots of times over the years that, for one reason or another, I set aside Magic for a while. Usually it was because another interest was occupying my mind at the time: a video game, basketball, or deciding to really try to get into ~film~. Every time I’ve gotten back into it, the game was constantly able to shock me. Even the most mainstream tournament Standard deck had jaw-dropping cards I’d never seen before, strategies that seemed unprecedented and unbeatable. In a way, that experience of seeing all of the game at once made me want to stop playing every now and then, just to get that sort of super-spoiler-season where I saw a year’s worth of metagame developments all at once.

But when someone does decide to get back into it, it’s so easy: you just show up to a draft, gasp at the cool cards, and pick whatever strategy seems fun and possible at the moment. Then with one draft, there’s no way you won’t be sucked into doing a second, and a third, then building a constructed deck around your favorite strategy.

Once you’ve gotten into Magic once, it’ll affect your thinking for the rest of your life. You’ll never truly leave it. Even when I went years between sanctioned formats, it still felt like Magic was there in my brain somewhere, like an old favorite book collecting dust on the shelf. Every game I tried, I would compare things in it to Magic. Long-time players can leave Magic, but it doesn’t leave us.

6. What is Magic's greatest weakness and why?

Cost, and ease of finding other players.

I used to think it was the learning curve of the game. Then I got into League of Legends. The learning curve of that game is like if the only way to play your first game of Magic was to enter into a thousand-person Grand Prix, and when you’re opening your first pack, everyone is telling you to hurry up and finish your mana base (or some other phrase you don’t understand). But somehow, League of Legends is the most popular computer game in the world. A hundred million people have overcome its learning curve, because if you have the time, you can always learn. It’s free, it’s a click of a button from finding teammates and opponents, and you’ll get better by playing more.

Magic doesn’t have those advantages. While experienced Magic players know how to build a Standard deck for under $100, inexperienced ones will be intimidated by people with a Cadillac worth of cards in a binder that don’t even get used. Others will see that $100 deck and be baffled at the idea that they can get a small fraction of a game for $100 instead of a complete experience for $60 (or $0).

Even if you have money, you have to be in physical proximity of a card store (or another place with tournaments), and have the time to go there. What if you work retail or food service late into Friday night, as many people in my generation do? What if you’re a social, fun-loving person, and you want to, well… have a Friday night? You’re out of luck.

This wasn’t such a big deal when Magic was newer. Now that Magic has competition from games that can be played for any price, anywhere on the planet, at any time, it really is.

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


Lorwyn was such a brilliantly design set that it gave itself a strange problem: it didn’t really need many mechanics. Champion is an incredibly cool idea, wasted in a nearly-flavorless Lorwyn implementation that just gave the caster Some Creature.

The idea of Champion, in its mechanical essence, is that something is completely consumed inside another thing. This doesn’t just have to be harmlessly making an Elf into a bigger Elf: what about the sci-fi trope of some alien consuming something else? In some Lovecraftian setting, you could have a Human championed into some twisted creature with a human somewhere inside it. Something like The Mimeoplasm could champion multiple creatures into one horrifying thing.

Not a single Lorwyn Champion got different abilities or stats based on what it Championed, and that’s huge untapped design space.

Not only could it be expanded out of a specific tribe, it could be expanded out of creatures entirely: a Legendary land could Champion a basic to symbolize a momentous battle being won on that land; similarly, a random equipment could become the signature weapon of a planeswalker. Why limit it to one type? Just like Ixalan had cards that transformed into other types, a non-creature permanent could Champion a creature to symbolize retaining the essence of that creature, but moving past its physical form. For example, a demon trapped in an adventurer’s sword.

Just like Fading begat Vanishing, the resulting mechanic doesn’t necessarily need to be called Champion. A body horror implementation could be Consume, a mechs-fitting-together implementation could be Upgrade, etc. People love Lego-esque mechanics almost to a fault, and Champion could be a great way to give them that feeling again.

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

Innistrad mishandled white in three different ways.

First, Innistrad is a horror set, and there was little horror in white’s cards. They were valiant vampire slayers, spirits, and angels. For Innistrad to really commit to horror, white needed to join in and be horrific. A look at The Dark shows just how to do it: Jesper Myrfors designed the white cards in the set to be about the evils of organized religion, and cards like Preacher, Tivadar’s Crusade, and Blood of the Martyr scare me more than any vampire can. This was the most notable time that Magic really showed us the evil that white could do. Innistrad should have replaced its noble fighters with paranoid, persecuting, intolerant zealots. It somehow made ghosts that didn’t even try to be scary!

Second, it didn’t have distinct enough themes to be as interesting in draft as other colors. Every color pair had some really cool synergistic archetype, but white mostly had aggro variants. A fliers deck with blue (Spirit tribal/fliers matter was underdeveloped), humans with green (which was really a Travel Preparations deck with no human synergy), scarier humans with black (the sacrifice theme didn’t work till Dark Ascension)... and red/white just got nothing. Rally the Peasants didn’t have the work put into the environment to make it draftable like Spider Spawning or Burning Vengeance did.

Third, its implementation in Innistrad handicapped the block’s narrative development. The story arc was supposed to be: things are bad, things get worse, Angels save everyone. But this was mishandled the whole way: very little distinguished Innistrad from Dark Ascension; the latter felt like Innistrad DLC. All of the “good guys” in white should have been moved from Innistrad to Dark Ascension, so that players notice a real shift. It would have felt like white’s gradual narrative progression of conquering evil (including in itself), rather than the deus ex machina that Avacyn Restored was in almost a literal sense.

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

Avacyn Restored did an amazing job of integrating its flavor themes with its mechanics.

In a huge percentage of sets throughout Magic’s history, the keyword mechanics are completely isolated from, or have a tenuous connection to, the flavor and the storyline: Buyback, Cycling, and Kicker are all amazing mechanics, but they are just words on cards. They mean nothing outside of what they do in-game.

I haven’t done the first bit of reading about the story behind Avacyn Restored, but I don’t need to; it’s right there on the cards: Everything Is Angels. Just like players are on the brink of death before they topdeck Bonfire of the Damned, Innistrad seems to be falling victim to all sorts of nasty things. Then, the Miracle happens and everyone is saved. Black’s non-keyword Loner mechanic tells players that the previously-insurmountable forces of evil now are all isolated and outmatched by Angels.

Where previously there were a couple Demons that were all upside for the player casting them, now the Demons require more, making players sacrifice their own creatures to continue on. This really makes players who choose to use them feel the trade-offs of enlisting the only things that can reasonably fight against Angels.

It’s rare for a set to fully incorporate any of its mechanics into its flavor like this. For a set to tell its entire story through nothing BUT mechanics is extraordinary. Later sets have tried to do this every time; they’ve certainly established themes using it (like Ixalan’s Explore), but only Avacyn could tell a narrative.

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

Make Magic less corporate.

Each layer of bureaucracy added to a company makes it harder to do anything; specifically, anything new. It’s like trying to pass a law in the Senate: you don’t just have to convince a majority of people that it’s good, you first convince them it’s worthy enough to discuss in a committee. And then three more committees. Then you convince 60% of people to back it, when half of them don’t understand what all the kids’ Itcoins and Fuddy Spinners are about.

It’s time that Magic doesn’t just follow trends (three years late, because of development cycles), but create them. Make something new and original without endless market research about how middle-aged Iowans will react to it. Let creative people make good sets, and get out of the way.

One response to this is “that’s not about Magic design,” but it absolutely is. Treating players like big bags of money waiting to get spilled affects everything about game design. You don’t have to make endless sequels because they’re sure-fire sellers. You don’t have to copy The Avengers because it’s a popular movie franchise. You don’t have to make memes into creature types because you think it’ll increase sales with tweens.

The change I’d make is the answer to the basic question of, “what is a good Magic set?” A good Magic set is one that players will not just buy because they still play Magic or because there’s a new card they want, but because it’s going to show them something original. A good Magic set is one that people will still be admiring 25 years from now because of how much it innovated.

Magic used to be like this. I’m not saying early Magic was better. It wasn’t. But a company can get bigger while still retaining its fiery, innovative spirit. One thing people search for now is the vague idea of authenticity. Authenticity drives what’s cool, and coolness drives sales. Anyone experienced in Magic can look at cards from the last five years and see that the game has lost that.


Firemaw said...

I relisten to your GDS3 podcast annually.

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