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And then there were three.

The Great Designer Search Episode #7
“And The Winner Is…”

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The letter A!nd then there were three.

On Monday, December 18, the Final Three (Graeme Hopkins, Alexis Janson and Kenneth Nagle) were all flown out to Renton Washington for their interviews.

Here’s the itinerary I sent them before the trip:

The Great Designer Search
Final Day Itinerary

8:30 – 9:30 – Tour Wizards of the Coast

Your tour guide will be Randy Buehler.

9:30 – 12:30 – The Gauntlet

Three interview groups. Three one hour interviews. Go.

12:30 – 2:00 – Lunch

I take you out to lunch. Well, me and my boss (Randy Buehler) and my boss’ boss (Bill Rose).

2:00 – 4:00 – The Final Design Challenge

Seventy-two hours? How about two?

4:00 – 5:30 – Break

You will be allowed to go back to your hotel room, relax (trust me – you’ll need it) and get ready for the night ahead.

5:30 – 6:00 – The Final Decision

The announcement will happen publicly at the party. (what party? – keep reading)

6:30 – 11:30 – Party – “The Finish Line”

We’re throwing a party celebrating the winner of The Great Designer Search. No, really. We rented a club. We’ve hired a celebrity DJ (Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite) It’s invite-only with a who’s who of Magic in Seattle (and as Wizards is here, it’s quite the list). This is where the winner will be publicly announced. See the attached invitation.

Yes, we weren’t making it any easier for our candidates. Three hours of interviews. Lunch with three chains of bosses. And a two-hour Design Challenge.

To make matters even more interesting, the Thursday before this fateful day, the Pacific Northwest was hit with the largest windstorm in over twenty years. Over one and a half million people lost power including Wizards of the Coast. Wizards was shut down Friday as was the Seattle International Airport. R&D was calling each other on our cell phones to figure out a back-up plan. Luckily, The Great Designer Search has some kind of supernatural power to ensure that it continues unabated and all was well come Monday.

The Tour

For a full hour, Randy Buehler showed the three candidates around the Wizards of the Coast halls (kind of like my “80,000 Words” column but with even more things to see and the ability to actually touch stuff). The tour seemed to be overshadowed by the news of the storm. Everywhere the three went, they got to hear the latest horror story of the weekend. Nonetheless, Graeme, Alexis and Kenneth had a chance to see where it all happens in all its messy glory. (Okay, just my desk was messy, but there was a bunch of glory spread around.) When I asked about the tour, I was told “it was pretty cool.”

The Gauntlet

Here’s how this worked. I put together three groups that wanted to interview the candidates. Each group had the candidate for an hour. At the end of the hour, the three applicants were rotated and the next interview began. This continued for three hours.

For the interview portion, I’m going to introduce each group, explain what topics their interview covered and then have one of the interviewers give their feedback on each candidate.

Group #1 – The Design & Creative Group

The Interviewers

  • Me (Head Magic Designer)
  • Devin Low (Magic Designer & Developer, GDS Judge)
  • Mark Gottlieb (Magic Rules Manager & Designer)
  • Brady Dommermuth (Magic Senior Creative Designer – oversees World Building and Card Concepting)

This group focused on the candidates’ opinions and attitudes about current Magic design and creative.

Mark: Hi, it’s me in lovely green judge mode. Here’s my take on each of the candidates in their interview –

Alexis

Overall, I felt Alexis had the strongest interview. She did a good job on most of the Magic specific questions and clearly demonstrated that she had a firm grasp of many of the design topics. Her biggest area of weakness was that she was a bit wishy-washy when we tried to nail her down on her specific opinions on Magic’s strengths and weaknesses.

Graeme

Graeme had the best interview interpersonal skills of the three. He was the most enthusiastic and came across as the most comfortable. Of the three though, Graeme stumbled more on the Magic specific questions. While he had interesting answers to the questions, they felt less thought out than the answers given by Alexis and Kenneth.

Kenneth

Kenneth came across as the most nervous of the three (although all three were obviously nervous). He always spent the time to think out his answer before he replied. This resulted in strong answers but many moments of silence. I found Kenneth very insightful but, by his own admission, he clearly had a better handle on players more like himself.

Group #2 – The Development & Editing Group

The Interviewers

  • Aaron Forsythe (Head Magic Developer)
  • Mike Turian (Magic Developer)
  • Matt Place (Magic Developer)
  • Del Laugel (Senior Magic Editor)

This group was focused on how the candidates felt design interacted with development and editing.

Aaron:

Kenneth

Kenneth was the first of the three candidates to be interviewed by the development squad. Of the three, his knowledge of Magic from top to bottom was the most impressive, and he continued to impress with his knowledge of other popular TCGs. We walked away feeling that, of the three, Kenneth thought the most like “one of us”—meaning developers. Whether that’s a good trait for a designer to have is yet to be determined.

Alexis

Alexis came into the interview with a bit of a lead over the other two competitors and certainly said nothing to hurt her chances. Two things were obvious when talking to her: 1) She knows the game very well, including the Magic Online audience, and 2) she pays close attention to all the content we post here on magicthegathering.com. She certainly had a great grasp of what we were looking for and delivered accordingly.

Graeme

Graeme was the most “out-of-the-box” thinker of the three and gave answers to some of our questions that presented a very different viewpoint—that of the kitchen table player—than those of the other two. To me, Graeme had the biggest “swing factor,” meaning he had perhaps the highest upside—bringing really fresh ideas to the group—but also the highest downside by potentially being more out-of-touch than our other finalists.

Group #3 – Management & Human Resources

The Interviewers

  • Randy Buehler (Sr. Director of Magic, Sr. Director of Digital Games)
  • Andrew Finch (Director of New Business)
  • Frank Gilson (Sr. Developer, Digital Games)
  • Jo Hyde (Human Resources Manager)

This final group was the one where the focus was not on Magic. Instead they talked more about other opportunities at Wizards and gave the candidates an opportunity to quiz them on various company issues ranging from the hiring process to benefits to corporate culture.

Randy:

Graeme

Graeme really impressed us with his passion for gaming in general and his computer programming expertise in particular. Having built, among other things, his own MUD really gave him credibility in our eyes. Based on just the interview with this group, we actually had Graeme as the winner and, in fact, as soon as he walked out of the room Andrew and I looked at each other and said “We’re definitely hiring this guy for something.”

Alexis

Having read a ton of her posts on the message board, it was nice to finally meet “pai.” She was just as well-spoken in person as Graeme was and her ability to articulate her points was clearly above the line where we needed it to be. Her programming chops seemed good enough to be immediately useful to us even if the Magic thing didn’t work out, though they did not seem as directly relevant as Graeme’s. I was both surprised and a bit impressed that she was the only one who brought up specific questions about compensation and benefits and the like. All three looked at this as a dream opportunity (and all three looked at it as a job, rather than an internship … we haven’t exactly been hiding the fact that we too are hoping this turns into a permanent position), but I thought Alexis’s questions and her understanding of what she needed to get in order to feel comfortable uprooting her life showed a maturity and a perspective that I was happy to see. We had Alexis in second place for our little interview portion, trailing Graeme only because of Graeme’s computer game programming experience.

Kenneth

Ken was the most obviously passionate of the three candidates. He clearly lives, eats, breaths, and sleeps Magic and that’s awesome to see. Sure we had him in third in terms of interpersonal skills and ability to articulate a point, but he was still safely above the line where those issues are a problem. All three seemed like they could hold their own in a debate (winning the point when they should and conceding when they should) and after that was established the rest didn’t matter. During his interview Ken showed us a sharp intellect and a deep understanding of Magic. He seemed to be more of a Magic player who does some other gaming as opposed to a gamer who plays some Magic. That said, the other games he does play are a couple of long-time favorites in R&D: Starcraft and a Warcraft III mod called Defense of the Ancients (“Dota”).

The Lunch

Interviews are important, but so is spending some time with the candidates in a less formal environment. The sign that this was no ordinary lunch was that it was with their potential future boss, my boss and my boss’s boss. We ended up going to a local R&D favorite where many lunchtime game playing is done. During the lunch we talked a bit about the whole GDS process. All three candidates were equally happy that it was coming to an end. They reminded us that for them this all started in August, over four months ago.

One of the questions I asked over lunch was what Design Challenge did they enjoy the most? Alexis and Kenneth picked Design Challenge #4 (“Once More With Feeling” – the challenge where they were adapting other applicants’ cards) while Graeme picked Design Challenge #2 (“Picture This” – the challenge where they had to design to the art).

The lunch went well and Bill, who had not met the applicants yet, said he had good impressions of all three.

The Design Challenge (#6 – “Eliminating the Opposition”)

The challenge was a role-playing scenario. Disaster has struck. At the last possible moment, Development has figured out that a card needs to get killed. The file is due to films by the end of the day. R&D has two hours to find a replacement. To keep the players from having to learn a whole new file, we’ve chosen an existing set for the scenario. The set is Urza’s Destiny and the killed card is Opposition (because, as we all know, that’s the most broken card in Urza’s Destiny). The challenge is broken into two parts (each an hour long).

The candidates and I represent the design team. As the team lead, I am asking each of my team members to spend an hour coming up with three different cards. This means that they have to come up with three cards. Each card has to be a blue rare. It has to fit within the confines of the Urza’s Destiny set. It has to be a card that development can rubberstamp without playtest. It has to match the art. And it has to have a name which fits within the constraints locked in by the collector number (between Metathran Elite and Private Research). I asked for each of the cards to have a different name to give us more options. Here, to refresh you memory is the art from Urza Destiny’s Opposition (art by Todd Lockwood).

Opposition_640

The second hour was spent pitching their ideas (all at once in the same room) to the development team. We had an hour to find a solution.

Here are the cards that got submitted. After each one, I’ll put my judge hat on and chime in. (Since all the judges were in the same room commenting at the same time, I felt that one judge’s notes are all that’s necessary – note that some of my notes take Aaron and Devin’s comments into account).

Graeme Hopkins

Misuse of Power
5U
Sorcery
Tap all creatures. Draw a card for each creature tapped.

Mark: Graeme easily had the simplest cards and I do like how straight-forward this card is. It didn’t have a great tie into the art although I thought it had a strong name.

Poignant Accusal
3UU
Instant
Return target creature to its owner’s hand. Draw cards equal to that creature’s converted mana cost.

Mark: My biggest problem with this card is that it really punishes players for playing big creatures and in the last few years we’ve been pushing hard in the other direction. If we made this card it would have to have a very high cost, so much so that it wouldn’t be attractive.

Point of View
2U
Enchantment
Whenever another player plays a spell with one or more targets, you may pay 1 to choose new targets.

Mark: I have two issues with a card like this. One, standing permanents that keep counterspelling cards are annoying. The cost to deflect spells would ned to be much higher to keep this spell from being too annoying. And two, this is the kind of card that you expect to do cool things but you never get to because your opponent knows about it and thus never plays into it.

Alexis Janson

Power of Authority
2UU
Enchantment
1UU, Discard two cards: Counter target spell.

Mark: Like Point of View, this card exists for no other purpose than to just annoy your opponent. This one is even worse because it works on every kind of spell. At least most permanents can avoid Point of View’s wrath.

Mutual Meltdown
2UU
Instant
Return all enchantments and enchanted creatures to owners’ hands.

Mark: I think this spell is very interesting. I’m not sure if its more an answer to cards like Replenish (also in this set) or something Johnny does something proactively kooky with it. The fact that I don’t know which at first glance makes me happy. My only subtle change is that I would make it “enchanted permanents” rather than “enchanted creatures” as it just feels cleaner.

Mounting Tension
2U
Enchantment
Spells that cost less than the highest cost of any permanent cost 2 more.

Mark: There’s something interesting buried underneath this card but it’s very confusing on its surface. Too confusing for development to just sign off on the card within an hour.

Kenneth Hopkins

Meddle in Affairs
2UU
Enchantment
U, Sacrifice an enchantment: Counter target spell unless its controller pays X where X is the sacrificed enchantment’s converted mana cost.

Mark: It appears each player had a standing enchantment that counterspells. This is the most interesting one to me as the enchantment sacrifice plays into the strong enchantment theme of the Urza’s Saga block. Like the other two, the activation cost would need to go up. By the way “Meddle” doesn’t fit in the proper slot as it has to be after “Metathran”

Plea Bargaining
3U
Sorcery
Each player draws a card for each enchantment they control, then discards a card for each enchantment they don’t control.

Mark: This card is interesting. I just don’t think it’s mono-blue. When the next multi-color set rolls around, I would put this in blue/black and be pretty happy as it’s a cool spell. (Development would probably make it cost more.)

Power Struggle
2UU
Enchantment
Whenever a player plays a spell, that player may return target non-enchantment permanent to its owner’s hand with converted mana cost less than the played spell.

Mark: This spell is also interesting, but far too complex (note that if Graeme made the simple cards, Kenneth made the complex ones) for something we had to sign off on in an hour. The spell probably doesn’t want to target land so I would change “non-enchantment” to “artifact or creature”.

So, what happened? We quickly narrowed down the field to Graeme’s Misuse of Power, Alexis’ Mututal Meltdown and Kenneth’s Meddle in Affairs. We cut Misuse of Power for not as connected to the set as the other two. Also, we thought it was a clean card that didn’t deserve the overcosting we had to do at the last minute. We upped the activation cost on Kenneth’s Meddle in Affairs but in the end it just seemed less interesting than Alexis’s Mutual Meltdown (besides having a name that didn't fit the slot). We did change “creatures” to “permanents” and changed the name (as Meltdown is in the Urza’s Saga block) to Misuse of Power. The card “turned over to editing” was:

Misuse of Power
2UU
Instant
Return all enchantments and enchanted permanents to owners’ hands.

The other important part of the challenge was to watch the three handle the time pressure and to see how they interacted with one another and with R&D. No one stood out from the others but all three did a good job at the challenge. Alexis and Kenneth even ended up voting to include a card by one of the other candidates.

The Decision

With all the work done, we sent the applicants back to their hotel for a much needed break and R&D started talking over the candidates. Here’s what we decided:

Alexis Janson

Graeme Hopkins

Kenneth Nagle

The Party

It wasn’t over yet. In celebration of the ending of The Great Designer Search, Wizards of the Coast threw an awesome party called “The Finish Line”. I don’t think words can do it justice, so click here for more info and lots of pictures.

The End

After four months, over a thousand applicants, six Design Challenges, seven episodes, hundreds of card designs, more words than I want to remember typing and quite a number of snarky judge comments, The Great Design Search comes to an end. It’s been quite a roller coaster, but I’m pleased as punch in how it turned out. Congratulations to everyone who participated especially to our three final candidates. Join us in a year when you’ll get a chance to play actual cards they’ve designed.

And with that, let me thank you for joining us on this journey. I hope it has been as illuminating to you as it has been to us.

Goodbye.

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