Scott Van Essen
Part I - The World
A. Malgareth, the UnderPrison
B. A subterranian prison that was abandoned by the world above.
MR: Your world has a great conflict none of which is revealed in your logline. "Subterranean prison" sets the world—now use the rest to tell us what interesting thing is going on.
C. The people of Yttria solved all their social problems by sending criminals and undesirables to a continent-sized cavern miles beneath the surface, with no method or possibility of return. Knowing that leaving evil super-geniuses to their own designs is asking for trouble, they also sent a small cadre of watchers (who volunteered for the one-way trip) to keep the prisoners from ever returning to the surface. They built mana conduits from the surface to give the watchers near limitless power and invulnerability as they wandered through the criminals. This worked for thousands of years, but a century ago, the mana conduits went dim and prisoners and replacement watchers stopped arriving. Now, the watchers have retreated to well defended enclaves. Driven by a zealous devotion to duty, they still muster sorties to break up organization among the prisoners, but where before they could wander out singly, now they send massive sorties.
The prisoners have devolved into madness, bestiality, and bloodshed. But, a few of the strongest and oldest (the last who even remember the surface), emboldened by the dimming of the mana conduits and fading of the wards, plot their return and revenge upon those who exiled them.
Meanwhile, the natives, displaced for thousands of years, have begun to crawl out of their cracks and seek to drive out their longtime invaders.
MR: I really like your world set-up. I both enjoy the subterranean setting (be aware that Jonathon Loucks is playing in similar space, although your structures and stories are wildly different) and the environment of the story. There is a lot of cool potential for neat mechanical executions. Also, I enjoy having a world with three factions.
D. The denizens of Malgareth fall into three factions.
Natives are Green, Red, and to a lesser extent, Black. Green and Black natives are primarily oozes and fungi with the occasional predator and night elf farmer. They use graveyard recursion and the cycle of life and death to grind out advantage. The reclaim mechanic allows them to use graveyard resources to reuse spells. The compost mechanic uses the death of creatures as a resource, which can be harnessed for mana, strength, or reanimation.
Red natives are the goblin tribes and subterranean dragons. They use the Rage mechanic to go out in a blaze of glory trying to drive out their enemies.
Prisoners are strongest in Black, but have representatives from all colors. They operate through stealth, thievery, murder, and deception. Their primary mechanic, Grift, allows them to gain strength by stealing from others, friend or foe. Their deceptive abilities include auras that are more than what they initially appear. The strongest are focused entirely on increasing their personal power to the point that they can escape.
The watchers are White and Blue, with a small contingent of corrupted ones who fall into Black. They are vastly outnumbered soldiers, wizards, and thought police who therefore use the strengths of their enemies against them. They are all fanatics to their cause, and some have gone beyond soldiers to become missionaries and inquisitors, devoted to bringing all of the prisoners (and the natives as well) into their fold.
MR: I feel like you understand what you are supposed to do to mechanically represent the three factions. You've given each faction its own keywords and a mechanical identity. The only problem is I don't think your execution lives up to the potential of your ideas. I'll talk about your mechanics as I go card by card.
Part II - The Cards
1. Feature Article
Drothar Deftblade (Mythic Rare)
Creature - Human Assassin
When CARDNAME deals combat damage to an opponent, that opponent sacrifices a creature. If they do, put a loyalty counter on CARDNAME.
When CARDNAME has two loyalty counters on it, flip it.
Planeswalker - Drothar
+1: Target creature gets -2/-2
-2: You may play target creature in any graveyard as though it were in your hand.
KEN: I guess it's a 2/2? I'd make an effort to not leave null entries in our database unless you enjoy playtesters making up their own broken numbers on the fly.
Given that flip cards are in the set, this is the kind of trick we might do to spice up a planeswalker card. I wish it was less dependent on my opponent cooperating by playing creatures. Mythic rares at should also beat up boring creatureless decks.
AJ: Awesome flavor—a human finding their spark and ascending to planeswalker status should be a rare event to capture on a card, but I'd love to print it. The problem is flip cards—as much as I love them, they have so little space for text. I don't think either of your halves would actually fit. I would recommend finding another way to capture this flavor. The mechanics themselves on this card don't feel like they live up to the greatness promised by a mythic rare or the planeswalker spark event. The +1 ability in particular is a bit of a letdown after I fulfill what should be an epic quest. Honestly, your "failures" on this card are mostly because you found such an awesome event to turn into a card, and the card needs to hit on all cylinders to live up to that event.
KD: This is both a good look at something interesting going on in the set and a storyline character. Works for me.
MR: Very cool idea. I love the idea of a legendary creature "leveling up" into a planeswalker. Unfortunately, it's not an idea that can be realized. A flip card cannot hold this much text. Not even close. On top of that you are combining two different card types that have very different frames. If I took this to our graphic design person (Matt Cavotta, by the way—he's back!), it would make him cry.
Assuming the card could be printed, I like the design. All the pieces hold together and definitely tells a story. In some ways this card symbolizes this set right now. You have a lot of ideas but what they have in coolness they lack in practicality.
Also, as Ken said, make sure to fill in all your info. Don't make us guess what you mean.
2. Making Magic
Thought Watcher (Rare)
[Thought Watcher - http://community.wizards.com/magicthegathering/wiki/Labs:Gds/gds2/svanessen/round3cards]
Creature - Human Wizard
Your opponents play with their hands revealed.
At the beginning of each turn, name a non-land card.
Whenever an opponent casts a spell that you named this turn, draw three cards.
KEN: Removing hidden information en masse should be done delicately. There's a lot of fun in turn one: Peek, turn two: Meddling Mage because you got to combo two cards together. This card sells itself by daring the opponent to avoid casting the best spell each turn. If my opponent "breaks the standstill" as I'll call it, he's just going to get screwed next turn when I name his new best card in hand.
Perhaps it peeks just once instead of constantly, and doesn't require naming a card every turn?
AJ: Since I can't trick you into not knowing what spell I've named, I expect my opponent to never trigger this card. Abilities that never trigger are generally a bad idea. At the very least, removing the "shields down" moment would let this act as a Meddling Mage variant. A better design might find a way to conceal the chosen card or otherwise ensure the ability would trigger at some point.
KD: This is a fine preview card, but it's not a Making Magic preview card. Making Magic preview cards should let Mark talk about an important mechanic in the set—preferably both—and as far as I can tell this one doesn't.
MR: This card hits a land mine that I talked about above. Magic is less fun when you remove the unknown of the hands. While we don't mind one-shot Peek effects (good for Jonathon Loucks) we tend to avoid things that permanently keep the hand revealed.
It's very possible that this card might be neat without having to have the opponent's hand revealed. Perhaps it looks when it enters the battlefield, and then works from there.
3. Serious Fun
Swarm of Urchins (Rare)
[Big Dude - http://community.wizards.com/magicthegathering/wiki/Labs:Gds/gds2/svanessen/cards]
Creature - Human Rogue
Grift 5 - When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, remove a counter from up to 5 permanents and put that many +1/+1 counters on CARDNAME.
1G, remove a +1/+1 counter from CARDNAME: put a 1/1 human rogue creature with Grift 1 onto the battlefield.
KEN: I can't remove five counters from my Helix Pinnacle? Is there a compelling reason why not? Are there downside counters (cumulative upkeep) that this mechanic feeds on? I'm really supposed to screw my opponent's side of the table, stealing five beneficial counters from over there? Since I piled all his counters onto this one dude, it'll take FIVE Grifts in retaliation to steal them all back? Is that really the game play this set is trying to instill?
Our growth mechanics in this vein (graft, modular, Thallids), as far as I know, don't follow this nuclear-arms-race paradigm like grift. We position mechanics like this firmly into SimCity/Farmville/Minecraft territory where you build your evergrowing army to the exclusion of caring what your opponent is up to.
And even though Avenger of Zendikar was printed in my set, I'm not a fan of tokens that enable themselves to maybe have +1/+1 counters.
AJ: This card does nothing unless I'm playing a specific subset of cards with it, and it doesn't really become optimized until my opponent is playing that subset of cards. Feels a bit narrow for a keyword. This keyword and your other designs hint that your set is counter-heavy, implying grift would play well in Limited, but you didn't give me a common or uncommon to prove it.
KD: Definitely a multiplayer card, but a little too resource-management-oriented to make a great Serious Fun preview card.
MR: I have very mixed feelings about grift. The Johnny in me likes the potential interactions but the long-time designer in me is a little scared of the world such a mechanic might create.
The trick to making an environment with a lot of counters (and this from a designer that loves making environments with a lot of counters) is to make sure that each card stands on its own. That way no matter what piece you get the cards work. That's my worry about grift. In order for grift to work the set has to have a substructure for grift to be built on top of.
This makes grift parasitic and forces linear play. My hope is that you can find some way to keep grift from requiring a separate substructure. If you can find a way to make grift cards self-reliant but have an upside with other counter cards that would be ideal.
The closest thing I can think of to what you are doing is Spikes from Stronghold. Also take a close look at the counter stuff in Mirrodin and Scars of Mirrodin. Also, Shadowmoor and Eventide might give you some ideas.
The one other problem with grift is I don't think the game play where I'm stealing counters from my opponent is going to play well. My 2/2 and 3/3 die so you can have a 5/5 feels pretty brutal.
The end effect is it will heavily discourage players from using something that is an important part of your design. Remember to think about what behavior each mechanic creates in the player. If that behavior is something you don't want to see, you have to change your mechanic.
The problem is, of course, that you're using the mechanic to convey stealing. I would explore if there is a way to get the stealing feeling that doesn't create such a negative feeling for the opponent.
4. Limited Information
Turmoil in the Ranks (Uncommon)
Remove two target attacking creatures from combat. They each do damage equal to their power to the other.
AJ: This line of text is an awesome and elegant design. I'm having trouble buying the second ability on a white card, even philosophically, since it's about disorder—the exact opposite of white. Well, I'm assuming it's a white card—the test I'm reviewing doesn't have a mana cost.
KD: This is an enormous Limited trick, and both using it and surviving it are worthy of discussion. A great choice.
MR: The card is very flavorful, I guess. The name implies to me that the card is red and part of the prisoners subset of cards, but without the name I'd assume it's white. I'll use this as a lesson to the finalists to be careful with your submissions. Leaving one piece of information off can keep the judges from getting what you want.
If it's red, I don't think it wants the attacking limitation. If it's white, I like it as is but the name seems wrong. I'm honestly not quite sure what you mean here so I'll say I think I like where this card is headed.
5. Savor the Flavor
Faltering Mana Channel (Mythic Rare)
[Mana Channel - http://community.wizards.com/magicthegathering/wiki/Labs:Gds/gds2/svanessen/round3cards]
(w/u), tap an untapped creature you control: Put a charge counter on CARDNAME. Play this ability only as a sorcery.
As long as there are 8 or more charge counters on CARDNAME, creatures you control get +2/+2 and have vigilance, and whenever you tap a land for mana, it adds one additional mana to your mana pool of any type that land produced.
KEN: What is this? A bizarro Mirari's Wake / Beastmaster Ascension you charge up first? Do mythic rares really need sorcery-speed activation clauses; are those words really pulling their weight? If the charging was more straightforward I'd be okay slotting it in the set.
Once again, I'm imagining Bill Rose grilling a designer as to why he's implemented random hybrid mana in his block without making it a key selling point.
AJ: This card has a great underlying concept, but bothers me on the details. Other than for quota reasons, I don't understand why it's an artifact, given the colored activation and lack of tapping and enchantment-like ability. The granting of vigilance feels extraneous, and I wish you'd taken the opportunity to line up the creature bonus and the land bonus—tapping for two additional mana would be epic.
KD: Obviously I don't know the full details of the setting, but at a glance this doesn't look significant enough to the storyline to be a really good Savor the Flavor preview card.
MR: This is another card that scares me about your counter theme. It makes you jump through a lot of hoops for an ability we'd probably just give you. Also, having to do eight of anything is a bit excessive if you're not getting an effect that's basically going to win you the game.
You also have jumped on another popular bandwagon, hybrid. While I'm one of hybrid's biggest fans, it has to be used carefully in places where it makes sense. If you're going to use hybrid, you have to make sure that it is being used because it plays a role not just because it's convenient for a card or two.
As for this card, I am not a fan of artifacts that have no use unless you are playing a certain color. With only a few exceptions, we design artifacts so they have some value for anyone and more value for a player playing a particular color or colors.
I do like the flavor you're aiming for here, but you have to find a way to do it that doesn't have the clunkiness of this execution.
6. Building on a Budget
Rageful End (Uncommon)
[ Rageful End - http://community.wizards.com/magicthegathering/wiki/Labs:Gds/gds2/svanessen/round3cards]
Creatures you control have Rage (whenever a creature with Rage attacks or blocks, you may give it +3/+0. If you do, sacrifice it at the end of the turn).
KEN: I like Rage. Is Berzerk a better playtest name? Seems ripe for a number parameter. I'd sure rather make a Ball Lightning variant with Rage 9 rather than "Rage, rage, rage." This build-around-me uncommon is quite appropriate for the column and goes great with my promo Hellspark Elementals. This designer is noticably stronger at this aspect of the design challenge than the other designers.
AJ: I'm generally against parameterizing keywords, but this should've been rage 3 or Rage +3/+0. There's interesting space in other numbers, and even if you don't use them, it puts the bonus where it's easy to see rather than burying it in reminder text. Aside from that, I tentatively like this simple combat ability—I'm cautious about something that sacrifices my creatures, so I'd have to give it some play time to be sure.
KD: This is worthy of building around, and best with cheap, aggressive creatures. A good Building on a Budget preview.
MR: I like rage, but I would prefer it it had an activation cost. This helps make it clear to everyone when you're using the ability. Also, rage is the kind of ability I'd probably leave on the creature and not grant to all creatures. It creates great tension when there's one or two. Less so when all your creatures have it.
While I know this isn't the guard faction, I'm not sure whether or not this is a prisoner or a native thing. This plays up that the definition of the three factions is still a little fuzzy.
7. Top Decks
Re-education Camp (Rare)
CARDNAME comes into play tapped.
T: Add U to your mana pool.
U,T: Put a conversion counter on CARDNAME
U,T, remove X conversion counters from CARDNAME: Gain control of target creature with power less than or equal to X.
The Time Spiral charge lands like Dreadship Reef were regrettable. In addition to smaller sins like promoting doing nothing early or only at instant speed, they contributed significantly to Dragonstorm combo and Mystical Teachings Control power level.
Dreadship Reef can't single-handedly steal all your opponents threats for the rest of the game.
What happens when my opponent drops this turn one and my opening hand contains two Birds of Paradise? I would just stand up from the table. Is the color blue so unplayable that it needs this level of reward?
Nowadays, players complain that creatures are too good—creatures are pushed to the max and are overpowered. What players don't understand is that sometimes (often?) when developers inherit sets from design, creatures suck. All it takes is an innocuous-looking cantrip Fog and WHAMMO! casting creatures and attacking is futile in Standard because Turbo Fog is the best deck. This card falls squarely in the "nobody should play creatures anymore" camp.
I'll give the designer the benefit of the doubt that he doesn't fully appreciate the nonbasic land costing and R&D's creature-matters metagame instead of assuming the designer was trying to design the least fun card ever.
AJ: This card scares me—we tread lightly on control effects as they are generally very unfun for the opponent; a repeatable control effect would need to work very hard to see print. This one's on a card that's nearly free to play in my blue control deck. I'd put four copies in every deck I made, while cursing the awful metagame they generated.
KD: There's an interesting discussion here about when this card's marginal cost of entering the battlefield tapped is worth it, and what sorts of blue decks might benefit from it. Good Top Decks fare.
MR: Let me start with one small tweak. The last ability should sacrifice the card. Why? Because repeated stealing of things is among one of the most unfun things you can do (for the guy watching all his stuff get stolen). With the sacrifice you now have an interesting decision when you want to use it.
The sacrifice also gives the opponent something to play through. Rather than not play any creatures, the opponent now wants to play some creatures to try and make you use it.
This is a card with counters that makes me feel better. The card makes sense by itself and so feels less like a piece in a giant puzzle than a cool card with additional combo potential.
8. From the Lab
Fungal Rejuvinatorium (Rare)
Whenever a creature is put into a graveyard from the battlefield, put a compost counter on CARDNAME.
BG, Remove X compost counters from CARDNAME: return target creature with converted mana cost X from your graveyard to the battlefield.
KEN: OK. Random gold cards? Please present your well-documented extrapolated sales curves to our Vice President proving you're spending splash expertly. Is this gold and rare to fulfill the constraints of the design challenge? It feels mono-black and uncommon.
Look at Quest for the Gravelord to see a similar and slightly better execution of this card; Gravelord has huge numbers ( 5/5!) written on it.
AJ: The devil is in the details—sync up "into a graveyard" and "from your graveyard," otherwise players will misread the card and make embarassing mistakes. Those sort of feel-bad moments are not good for the game—we don't want our players feeling like idiots.
KD: There are some interesting tricks to be done with this card, although I worry that they will all end up looking basically the same.
MR: Another worry I have about the counter theme is highlighted by this card. If this is one of a few cards that makes you monitor the board and keep track of some event happening, then it seems cool. If this is one of many, I have big concerns about board complexity.
The big question you have to answer about your counter theme is how much are you forcing random player in Limited (or casual Constructed) to care about it. Is it opt in or is it so fundamental to the set that everyone has to care? If the former, you might be okay. If the latter, I worry.
One of the issues I would spend a lot of time thinking about is what exactly are you doing with your counter theme? I won't say there isn't potential, but there does lie a lot of danger.
Finally, this card can be done in either mono-black or mono-green (most likely in mono-black though) so it doesn't need to be a multicolored card. In addition, why does your set have multicolor cards? I didn't check, but it feels like a quota-filling card.
9. The Week that Was
Life from the Cracks (Uncommon)
Put a 1/1 ooze creature into play for each card in your graveyard.
Reclaim 2 - Exile two cards in your graveyard to return this card from your graveyard to your hand.
KEN: Why zero mana to reclaim? I don't believe being unsolvable by Cancel, Cremate, and Vindicate at the same time will sit well with developers of this mechanic. Is that reclaim number supposed to run the gamut on other cards? Can I expect to see a reclaim 7 card and a reclaim 1 card and the minutia varied game play they entail?
Retrace was a semi-regrettable mechanic. That mechanic just increased card quality (by huge amounts). Reclaim is just raw card advantage from burning a usually useless resource. This card doesn't feed itself like Worm Harvest does. I don't believe development will be kind to this mechanic—I doubt you'd even get Greater Mossdog here.
My first instinct is to try reclaim with no parameter, it's just exile two cards and pay or maybe exile three cards and pay . Then you'll have effectively fooled me into thinking you're Mark Rosewater—MaRo designs these kinds of infinite graveyard recursion raw-card-advantage repeating game state mechanics multiple times in every design team he's on. "Players will love it!" he says. "Players love to win; your mechanic is stupid powerful," I counter.
AJ: The first line of text is simple, scales well over time, and is relatively unique. However, I believe that your compost-matters faction will find problematic interactions if you continue to make cards that both remove cards from the graveyard and return cards from the graveyard. It flows acceptably here, but these cards won't play nicely together, and players will be forced to waste time on "1% decisions": deciding which two cards to exile now, on the off chance that I draw my Zombify later.
KD: This card is fine for The Week That Was, but not a very exciting preview card in general.
MR: R&D has a term called "repetitive game play" which we use to tag things that makes game have the same thing happen too much. One of the great parts of Magic is the variety of play that no two games are the same. Certain mechanics break this by allowing players to keep doing the same thing. It was a big issue with delve and it's a big issue with reclaim. I know this term because as Ken mentions above I often design in this territory and I am often reminded by development to watch out for repetitive game play.
If you want to keep it (and I'm not sure you do), you have to deal with the repetitive game play issue. One suggestion is chewing up more of your graveyard to make it harder to repeat.
10. Latest Developments
Cloak of Invulnerability (common)
Enchantment - Aura
Enchanted creature has shroud.
Ward G - You may play CARDNAME face down as a colorless aura that gives enchanted creature +1/+1. At any time, you may pay G to turn CARDNAME face up.
KEN: No. The problems with this card abound. It's common? Face down attached permanents? That turn face up to do other things? It's keyworded so there's LOTS of these things? Why not just repeat the card Cho-Manno's Blessing?
AJ: I love this space, and of all the morph variants proposed today, I believe this has the highest chance of seeing print, as it's in a completely separate space. It doesn't inherently solve the card disadvantage built into Auras, so there's a danger of having a mechanic that only goes on a bunch of "bad cards." I have some ideas to work around that, but I'll let you explore for yourself.
KD: This is a simple execution of a mechanic that would certainly get a lot of development attention—a good Latest Developments preview.
MR: You started with a clever card we can't do and you end with a clever card we can't do. The reason this card won't work is that the rules define all face down cards as 2/2 creatures. There are ways to do this card without the card flipping but you seemed to be trying to do something splashy which will get lost with the change.
Drothar Deftblade is one of several powerful rare criminals who can dramatically increase their power over the course of the game.
Thought watcher is an example of the blue and white watchers who use their enemies abilities and hands against them. The ability is a triggered ability so that there is a window at least for instant responses.
Swarm of urchins gains significant power in a multiplayer game. And the creature creation ability enables more counter stealing and feeds into the native's sacrifice and graveyard themes. Grift's original design (which I slightly tweaked) is here http://community.wizards.com/magicthegathering/wiki/Gds/gds2/lycanthrope444/grift.
It is important to note that the Rage ability on Rageful End stacks with itself or the rage abilities on individual creatures.
Re-education camp is very slow, but potentially very powerful in a long game.
Most reclaim spells will be general utility or straightforward, but I wanted to show something a little more interesting and with some tension.
The ward ability was obviously modeled after morph. There will need to be some rules support to define a face-down card attached to a creature as a +1/+1 aura, and not a 2/2 creature. With three ward cards (granting a large P/T bonus, shroud, and a saboteur ability) it becomes an interesting mind game where your opponent doesn't know when to block or not, and whether to try to kill it with a spell or not.
KEN: Despite the extreme development issues I raised with some cards that are best resolved in kickboxing, I found this to be one of the stronger submissions. There's some "breakout," "thievery," and general underhandedness coming through even at this unpolished phase. I'm pondering other things I might see in this block: saboteur creatures and whatnot with gritty art like Chainer in the Cabal Pit. Keep it coming.
Highpoint: Rageful End
Lowpoint: Re-education Camp
AJ: "Subterranean prison" evokes darkness, creepiness, and sneaky backstabbing denizens. Can you deliver on that flavor? I buy what you've done with the spores, molds, and fungus. And grift captures theft perfectly, but there's still some places you can go with your flavor.
Your designs show me a lot of great base ideas—your biggest problem seems to be in the details. Add some shine and polish and you might go all the way.
KD: The individual cards are interesting designs, but they don't form a cohesive picture of the set, and they don't do enough to get me excited about it. Drothar is an eye-popping card, but the rest of them mostly feel like they're playing it safe—too safe for a preview week.
MR: Scott, GDS2 is all about vision and you have that in spades. I feel that you not only have a neat idea but one that can be done well within the context of a Magic set. Your ideas can be combined with mechanics to create something truly awesome. They lend themselves to the type of things Magic does.
I think you have a good sense of the kind of things you're supposed to have but you seem to be pushing a little too hard. Let's take the counter theme as an example. You started with the idea of resources being limited and then let the criminals steal it. Clever. The problem is that you made a system more complex than it wanted to be. You can get much of your flavor without the complexity you've created.
You are full of exciting ideas and I recognize you are trying to impress us. Ironically, what I want to see is not splash but restraint. I want to see you bring your world out in a way that makes sense for the game play. Remember, this expansion will not be read, it will be played.
I recommend that you (and all the finalists) try actually playing your cards. See how they feel. What I think you'll find with your current design is that you will have complex board states all the time. There's just too much going on.
Second, you seem to be creating flavor too cerebrally. The flavor makes sense because you can think about how it makes sense. You need mechanics that feel correct when you play them.
Also, I really like the idea that everyone is fighting over a resource because it seems to make sense in your story and Magic is a game all about resources. If you can find a way for different factions to use the resource in different ways I feel like there's real potential there.
My assignment for you for next week, which blends in really well with the actual challenge, is to simplify what you're doing. Convey all you want to convey with less. My metaphor is think Pictionary. You aren't trying to draw a realistic picture. You're trying to use as few elements as possible that convey the thing you're drawing. In short, use less to do more.