As most of you reading this know, I was accepted into the finals of Wizards of the Coast’s Great Designer Search. The first step towards doing that was writing some essays.
Today, I was informed that WotC will not be posting the essays on their website and that it was fine for me to share them, so here they are.
These won’t be particularly comprehensible unless you know how to play Magic, so I apologize. Feel free to ask me for meanings of stuff.
1. Introduce yourself and explain why you are a good fit for this internship.
It’s Saturday evening at a local convention and I’m packing up my booth. I check the stock of my flagship game, a light co-op game that uses everything on the table as an obstacle, and I’m astonished to find that I’ve sold almost all of them in two days.
The reason this game sold so well wasn’t because of any one big idea. It was because, through repeated iteration and working with my friends and audience, I made something that people truly loved.
My name is Jeremy Geist. For the past three years, I’ve been designing, publishing, and writing about tabletop games as Phantom Knight Games.
Over the course of my career, I’ve done a little bit of almost everything related to the game design process, including rulebook writing, graphic design, art direction, working with printers, and of course, playtesting games with other designers. As Magic designers work more and more closely with other departments to create a greater game, my broad experience makes me a natural fit.
My design work focuses on keeping players engaged and stoking emotions. If I run a prototype and the players don’t laugh, cheer, and/or tell other people about what just happened, I revise it until they do. Magic is as successful as it is largely because of the stories it creates, and storytelling through games is firmly in my wheelhouse.
In terms of Magic experience, I’ve been playing for 11 years, constantly reading articles when I’m not spellslinging. I look at new sets with a designer’s eye, paying careful attention to the humble cards that make formats what they are behind the scenes. During preview season, I often get more excited about clever commons than powerful rares.
Many people call Magic R&D their dream job. I call it my career goal. I have worked tirelessly for years to build my skill set into something that will allow me to keep up with the fast pace and constant testing R&D needs to create a game as good as Magic, and I now believe I have what it takes.
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?
Welcome to the final round of The Great Evergreen Mechanic Search!
In the first round, dozens of mechanics applied to become evergreen. However, many of them failed to meet the minimum requirements. An evergreen mechanic has to be mechanically and thematically agnostic, which eliminated fan favorites like morbid, landfall, and populate. It also has to have a huge amount of design space, which eliminated mechanics like dash and haunt. Evergreen mechanics must function with only one or two of them in a set (goodbye, morph), and, of course, they have to be well received.
In the semifinals, exert was sent packing to the dusty sands of Amonkhet after the judges decided that Magic needed an evergreen mana sink. Numerous sets, including Kaladesh block and Ixalan, suffered because they didn’t have an answer to flood; a mechanic in every set that allows players to spend their excess mana is increasingly necessary.
Today, our three finalists, kicker, flashback, and cycling, compete.
Kicker is an easy solution, but making it evergreen would exacerbate the already existing problem of other mechanics technically being narrower versions of kicker. For example, if kicker was in a set with exploit, why wouldn’t you just make all the exploit cards say “Kicker: Sacrifice a creature”?
Flashback works great as a mana sink, and despite appearing in three blocks, has plenty of design space remaining. However, if flashback becomes evergreen, players will have to constantly scan both graveyards for flashback spells. This creates serious memory issues by forcing players to pay attention to an extra zone every game.
This leaves us with our winner: Cycling. Cycling solves both mana screw and flood in a way that retains a fun level of variance. Its mechanical and thematic neutrality allows it to support the needs of any set, and there’s no end to cards that can have cycling added to them. The only caveat is that cycling lowers the deckbuilding risk of expensive creatures and narrow spells, but that can be avoided with careful design.
Congratulations to cycling! Here’s your bouquet!
3. If you had to remove evergreen status from a keyword mechanic that is currently evergreen, which one would you remove and why?
A game has to be challenging to be fun, and the way Magic challenges its players is through risk management. We agonize over deckbuilding because building it wrong could make us lose. We agonize over blocks because our opponent might have a combat trick. We agonize over casting a Murder on an opponent’s creature because they might have a better creature in hand. And this agony is really, really great, because there’s nothing more boring in Magic than certainty.
Hexproof is certainty by its very design.
Hexproof takes the unknowns that Magic is built on and turns them into facts. The controller of a hexproof creature no longer has to worry about their creature getting removed in most circumstances, so they can wait as long as they’d like to attack or block as needed. Often, powerful or efficient hexproof creatures (Invisible Stalker, Uril, Slippery Bogle, Jade Guardian, Scaled Behemoth, etc.) can run away with a game while the opponent sits there, boiling in their own frustration. The number of players who have had poor games because of hexproof far outweighs the number of players who have fun with the mechanic.
One may argue that changing hexproof back to shroud would fix this issue, but it’s difficult to remember that neither player can target a shroud creature and there certainly were cards with shroud, like Lightning Greaves, that created an uninteractive, inevitable threat.
But just because I think hexproof should leave the league of the evergreen doesn’t mean I think it should be tossed into the scrap heap. It works great on instants like Blossoming Defense, where it gives green an in-color way to deal with spells and creates a fun level of risk for removal spells. And the occasional hexproof creature, maybe once every few sets, isn’t so bad. But hexproof certainly doesn’t deserve evergreen status, and the sooner it leaves, the better for everyone.
4. You’re going to teach Magic to a stranger. What’s your strategy to have the best possible outcome?
My strategy for teaching Magic to a stranger isn’t to teach them the rules to a card game. My strategy is to show them a treasure chest filled with wondrous items they’ve never seen and let them rifle through it to their heart’s delight. Magic contains a vast amount of things to discover, and good teaching gives a new player just enough knowledge to go find it on their own.
Immediately after I cover the most basic outline of gameplay, I talk about the color pie at length. I explain what all of the colors represent in terms of flavor, sell their cool creatures and unique effects, and give a brief overview of how each one plays. Humans love categorizing themselves, and picking a color right at the beginning makes you feel like you have a degree of control over the game before you even know how to play.
I don’t explain any rules at all before we start playing game 1 (open-handed), instead taking the first turn and walking the stranger through terms and actions as they come up. The fastest way for someone to lose interest in a game is to listen to a bunch of rules before they can play, and fortunately, Magic’s gameplay structure makes it easy to dodge this problem. I also try to avoid correcting their strategy – it feels a lot more satisfying if they figure it out on their own.
Beyond the first few games, lessons are tailored specifically to the player. If they like the lore, I show them planeswalker packs. If they’re a hardcore tabletop fanatic, I talk about draft. If they want to keep playing with welcome decks until they’re more comfortable, I oblige.
I am not a Magic teacher trying to get this stranger to pass a standardized test. I am a guide who asks them where they’d like to go and takes them there.
5. What is Magic’s greatest strength and why?
Think about the first time you played Magic. Who was your opponent? What color was your deck? What cards did you play? Did you win or lose?
Now that you’ve done that, I’d like you to think about the most recent time you’ve played any other game.
I bet you can’t remember what happened as much as that game of Magic you played all that time ago.
One of the key elements of my design philosophy is something I call impact. Impact is a combination of a game’s emotional significance and its ability to create distinct memories of play – in other words, how much a game sticks with you. It’s the difference between “that was a fun game” and telling all your friends about it.
Magic is one of the most impactful games ever made.
Two of the three members of the Golden Trifecta directly contribute to Magic’s impact, with the TCG system claiming the most responsibility. Games with high variance have impact because they produce so many unique situations, and Magic’s thousands of interchangeable components create endless potential for new play and the ability to express oneself through deck construction. The color pie cleanly divides strategies between different colors, making a white aggro deck feel and play very differently from a blue control deck. In this way, individual games become more distinct. (The mana system is important to gameplay, but it doesn’t particularly contribute to the game’s impact.)
Magic also evokes emotion through its focus on bluffing and hidden information. Every turn, you might draw exactly what you need to turn the game around, or your opponent can get the spell that can finish you off. Crushing your opponent’s invincible army with a sweeper is a moment of sheer triumph, while your opponent slamming an Ugin is abject despair. This is impact in its purest form.
Magic is a wonderful game. It’s a human game. It’s a game that can make your heart beat faster and your hands shake. And most importantly, it’s a game that knows the emotional potential of play and chases after it at breakneck speed.
6. What is Magic’s greatest weakness and why?
I give your creature -3/-3. You respond by casting Sure Strike to make it indestructible. I inform you that a creature with 0 toughness dies, even if it’s indestructible. You lose because you wasted your combat trick.
You cast Cryptic Command, targeting my Inkmoth Nexus to bounce and tapping the rest of my board. I sacrifice the Nexus to Arcbound Ravager and inform you that your spell is countered on resolution. I attack with everything and you lose.
I attack you with a 4/4 and you block with two 1/1 Devil tokens that deal 1 damage to a creature or player when they die. I inform you that I can assign all damage to one of the Devils, something that you had no reason to know until right now, and that my 4/4 only takes three damage. You lose.
Complexity is Magic’s biggest weakness. But it’s not the complexity of the cards; it’s the complexity of the core rule set, which routinely creates losses due to bad information.
Magic was a dense game from the beginning, and as the borders of its design expanded, more and more rules were codified to allow new and strange cards to function. The complexity of the full rules means that even a casual event in a store requires the arbitration of a trained judge. It also results in situations, even at the Pro Tour level, where someone can lose because they didn’t know some particular nuance.
Wizards has made valiant attempts to stop these problems from happening, like removing damage on the stack and creating planeswalker-targeting burn. But many of these obscure or unintuitive rules are load-bearing pillars for Magic’s massive Parthenon of interactions and can’t be changed without bringing it tumbling down.
If someone loses a game because they missed a tiny rule, they will never want to play that game again. Magic has hundreds of these tiny rules, waiting for someone to stumble into the exact situation where they can get one wrong. It might not be the most obvious weakness, but it is the most serious.
7. What Magic mechanic most deserves a second chance (aka which had the worst first introduction compared to its potential)?
In all the fuss surrounding Oath of the Gatewatch’s powerful Eldrazi and colorless mana requirements, cohort was quietly overlooked. Cohort cards worked only occasionally in Limited and were completely ignored in Constructed formats because it required you to tap another Ally. But this Ally clause, much like a pair of glasses in a 1980s teen comedy, covered up something beautiful, elegant, and holding immense potential.
If we remove the parasitic element of needing Allies in the set, cohort is now a series of effects that requires to you tap another creature as an activation cost. It becomes modular – after all, most sets have you playing with creatures – and maintains the strong flavor of your creature needing the help of another to get the effect. The gameplay also becomes fun and memorable as your merfolk teams up with an inanimate wall to help you loot.
The revised cohort’s design space is similar to both exert and vehicles in that it gives you a new way of using your creatures. Instead of attacking with your weak creature and trading, you might want to hold it back to activate a cohort effect with its friend. It also makes blocking better, as you can activate cohort effects when you block, slowing down formats that might need it. Of course, because you can activate them in combat you have to be careful to avoid Kabuto Moth effects that increase board complexity, but those can be relegated to sorcery speed or moved to uncommon.
Cohort also has lots of room for lenticular design. For example, take a 2/1 creature that lets you scry when it becomes tapped. You could attack with it once in the early game and get a scry before it trades off, but if you’re smart enough to put it in a deck with other creatures that can tap it, it suddenly becomes a Sigiled Starfish.
Cohort is such a brilliant, simple effect, it’s astonishing to think it wasn’t released until 2016. If it were to lose the Ally requirement, it could become the star it deserves to be.
8. Of all the Magic expansions that you’ve played, pick your favorite and then explain the biggest problem with it.
Khans of Tarkir is a blast to draft, and it provided a lot of fun cards for Constructed formats. In fact, for enfranchised players like me, it was close to the perfect set. However, Khans posed a major problem towards more casual players, even those with a lot of Magic experience, because it required players to memorize more stuff than any other expansion.
Morph creatures required that you had to remember about 20 to 30 creatures at minimum to play against it effectively. The 5-mana clause went a long way towards preventing the shenanigans of Onslaught, but cards like Ruthless Ripper still created major issues: You gained a big advantage if you did research beforehand that your tapped-out opponent could reveal a deathtouch creature. Once your opponent hit 5 mana, the safety wheels came off and you had to remember even more cards.
The other big memory burden came from Prowess and the environment built around it. In a normal set, you might have to remember six or seven combat tricks spread out across five colors. Prowess turned every instant in the set into a combat trick, requiring that you know everything that your opponent could cast when you go into battle. There were also numerous effective noncreature spells placed in Jeskai colors to work with Prowess, many of which were useful in combat anyway.
Khans had other, minor tracking issues – having to count your graveyard for Delve, for instance – but it was primarily the combination of morph with an instant-heavy clan of Shaolin monks that put a significant burden on any player who didn’t constantly read spoilers.
9. Of all the Magic expansions that you’ve played, pick your least favorite and then explain the best part about it.
Mechanical resonance makes games more exciting and allows a designer to express a complex system in a way that’s intuitive to the player. Achieving resonance is easy when you’re trying to create something already familiar to players, like the Invisible Man or Hercules. But what about when you’re trying to introduce something new to them? How can you get your players to grok something not only exclusive to your game, but also is supposed to be strange and otherworldly?
Battle For Zendikar, for all its issues as a set, made Eldrazi that felt bizarre, ominous, and fascinating.
ROE Eldrazi mechanically felt more like Godzilla than Cthulhu. Annihilator was a powerful and scary mechanic, but it didn’t express unsettling strangeness any more than a big dragon, and the drones were clearly designed for you to ramp into a bigger Eldrazi. Battle for Zendikar’s Eldrazi, on the other hand, felt like they were reaching into the game itself and twisting it around to suit their unknowable needs.
“Exile matters” and Processors interacted with a part of Magic previously off-limits to design, giving the Eldrazi a feeling of existing “outside” the established game without turning the exile zone into Graveyard: The Sequel. At the same time, the simplicity of Processors and Ingest allowed these strange effects to be playable at common. At higher rarities and mana costs, we see the massive threats, like Breaker of Armies and Desolation Twin, with massive, awe-inspiring effects. Void Winnower in particular stands out as feeling as weird as it is intimidating.
The most impressive part is that the Ulamog brood in BFZ was mechanically distinct from the Kozilek brood in Oath while still feeling related. Both broods twisted familiar parts of the game, but Ulamog’s processors clearly expressed the titan’s endless hunger as opposed to Kozilek’s distortion of mana itself.
Even compared to the Zendikari resistance in the same set, the Eldrazi in BFZ were something that felt like what they were supposed to be: Eldritch abominations with unknowable goals and incomprehensible methods.
10. You have the ability to change any one thing about Magic. What do you change?
If I could change any one thing about Magic, I would give Pauper as much support as Modern.
I know this sounds like I want my pet format given star treatment, but if I actually wanted to do that, I’d print two Conspiracy sets a year. I genuinely think a high profile Pauper could succeed with players and help alleviate Magic’s reputation of being an expensive game.
Price is one of Magic’s greatest barriers to entry. Constructed decks especially are often prohibitively expensive to people interested in playing at a tournament level. This problem even occurs in casual formats like Commander, where one person’s idea of a fun time is Sea Serpent tribal and another’s is a competitive Atraxa deck. Moving competitive cards away from Mythic rarity and printing Masterpieces patches the dam a little, but not enough. More experimental approaches, like LCG-style predetermined card pools, bear high risks for Wizards, stores, and players. Promoting Pauper invites everyone to try a budget-friendly competitive format that we already know is successful.
Players’ interest in Pauper is slowly rising, with attendance at side events increasing regularly. The format is diverse, healthy, and interesting, creating fascinating deckbuilding challenges and allowing players to enjoy many different styles of play. Most importantly, there is hardly any financial barrier to entry – you can get a Tier 1 Pauper deck for the price of dinner and a movie. One might argue that the demand for strong Pauper cards would in turn make them more difficult to acquire, but many of Modern’s staple cards, like Lightning Bolt and the Urza Lands, are still relatively budget friendly because they were printed at common.
The most important part of this plan is to only give players more options. Support for Pauper can be folded into preexisting expansions as commons, and Pauper GPs can be added at a moderate level that doesn’t interfere with Standard or Limited. This move isn’t intended to push away any other format, but to add a new option that allows people on a budget to compete at a top level.