Monday, October 31, 2011

Unifying Theory #1 - A card-by-card GDS/Innistrad review

Hello, my name is Scott Van Essen. If you’ve heard of me at all, it’s almost certainly as a finalist for the first Great Designer Search and, more recently, making top 3 during GDS2. I hold the dubious honor of being the most successful GDS competitor who does not work for Wizards. (Go me?)

A year ago, I had just been informed that I was a finalist for GDS2. Five years ago, I had just finished the first round of GDS1. With a little perspective and a crazy year behind me, it seems like an appropriate time to kick off my new column: Unifying Theory. This column will attempt to distill my thoughts on Magic, design, games, and play into something informative and entertaining. I hope that at the very least the dozens of fans and supporters I picked up during the GDS enjoy what I have to say.
For my inaugural column, I would like to share some card-by-card stories for the cards in Innistrad that I designed*. Sadly, this does not indicate that Wizards has hired me as an outside design consultant (yet!), nor do I expect that my submissions caused a frazzled designer on a deadline to bolt upright and shout “EUREKA!” The design (and development?) for Innistrad was surely complete by the time the GDS rolled around. Rather, this is simply a delightful case of concurrent development, where due to some common set themes, Wizards has created cards that are (at their core, at least) very close to cards that my team and I designed. I cannot tell you how tickled I was to read the Innistrad spoiler and see echoes of four cards that I sweated blood over.

* Due to the collaborative nature of the GDS2, the majority of these cards are taken directly or evolved from a design submitted by one of my supporters. I owe an immense debt of gratitude to everybody who supported me with submissions and critiques. I would never dream of assuming credit for those original designs, which is why (per Wizards’ instructions) links are provided to the original suggestion for each derivative card. That being said, and without taking anything away from the original designers of these cards, I feel a strong sense of ownership over them. Any card I used was culled from sometimes hundreds of other suggestions. Often it was created in response to a hole request or another card I had designed. Once in my care, I tested, tweaked, and tore my hair out over each one before adding it to my submission package. Design is very much a collaborative process, and each card I submitted has my fingerprints (if not my DNA) all over it.

That being said, let us commence:

One of the things that has always bugged me a bit about black creature kill is the Doom Blade Guy effect: “Heeeeyyyy, that’s a nice angel... oops, it’s dead.” The ability to kill almost anything for just a few mana has been designed into Black since the beginning of Magic (and has been well tuned to be "fair"), but sometimes it feels a bit too easy to me, especially in more casual play. What I like about this card is that while it starts out quite terrible, over time it can become fantastic, and allows the player to work towards making it better faster. Now, when your opponent plays their bomb creature, if you can’t answer it immediately, you are likely to build up to an answer if you can survive long enough, and conversely your opponent doesn’t feel like their Titan got offed as easily as a Squire.

I pushed this down to a one mana sorcery (from a two mana instant) so that you could use it mid-game without overly disrupting your curve, or late game as part of a multi-spell combo. I also wanted a spell that could be "better" than a Doom Blade in certain circumstances, but one that wasn't overpowered all the time. Clearly, the Innistrad Development team either disagreed with my costing, or intentionally chose a weaker form for limited purposes, as Tom LaPille discussed here. At the point in the competition that I submitted Final Haunting, my set wasn’t graveyard-themed, but did have a strong death theme, which is the point of commonality that gave birth to these similar cards. I like Final Haunting as a strong removal spell, but I particularly enjoyed how much its power vs. time curve differed from typical black removal.

Falkenrath Noble is effectively an enchantment with a body, and ironically, Insatiable Rot (an enchantment) evolved from a suggestion that was a dude with a cool enchantment-like ability. A one point life drain is one of the simplest effects that you can put on a repeatable trigger, and given that I was working with death triggers already, this was a fairly obvious design. I have learned (often painfully) that that is in no way a slight towards the design. The obvious answer is in fact often the best answer.

What surprised me about this card is that even though the ability doesn’t directly affect the board state, it nonetheless creates an invisible board presence that can sometimes completely take over the game. As your opponent's life total approaches the number of creatures in play, their ability to attack and block becomes seriously compromised, and barring removal, the pendulum of inevitability swings farther and farther into your court. Beyond that, I particularly love how this guy combines with a sacrifice outlet to feel like a combat trick. It can buy you a few turns against an evasive beater, let you survive an alpha strike to swing back with a few more creatures than your opponent might expect, or even enable "throwing" your team at your opponent for those critical last few points of damage. The few points of damage gained and lost often seem insignificant, but they add up fast, and heaven help your opponent if you get two or three of these guys out.

Into the Maw of Hell - (Falling Stalactite)

Amusingly, the first two times I went through the spoiler, I missed this connection due to the flavor difference and the difference in scale between 3 damage and 13 damage.

I started playing Magic Online when the Annex-Wildfire deck was popular. The first preconstructed deck I ever bought (chosen almost at random) was GroundBreaker. Man, did those games suck to play. I have a love/hate relationship with land destruction. I HATE HATE HATE total land denial as a viable strategy. On the flip side, I LOVE "underpowered" land destruction that acts as an answer to powerful nonbasic lands, an occasional tempo play, and a punishment for greedy manabases and bad mulligan decisions. Thankfully, Wizards seems to agree with me, which is why these days we see so many cards that fall into the four to six mana "kill a land + bonus" category.

Falling Stalactite could have been fair (I think) at 3R or 2RR to kill a non-basic land instead, but I needed it to be useful in limited. I started noodling around with the world that became Malgareth after the first Designer Search nearly five years ago, and the Falling Stalactite trope has been a part of the concept since the beginning. This incarnation came about because I needed to save a card slot by stapling a utility land destruction spell to some bad removal. The card was intended to be weak, but I was genuinely surprised at how valuable a role player it was for me in testing. While there were always the obvious uses where it color screwed an opponent or locked a land-light opponent out of the game, far more common were the games where the board had stabilized and Falling Stalactite took out a blocker (enabling Breakout) and more importantly bought at least one more turn before the opponent could play their game-breaking five or six drop they were counting on to turn the game around. Usually, this was enough to close things out for good.

Interestingly, the difference between 5cc and 6cc (and 3 vs 13 damage) significantly change the way these two cards play. Into the Maw of Hell (in my limited experience) acts more as removal for a premium creature with the land destruction being a flavorful add-on. The difference between 5 and 6 mana means you're far less likely to mana-screw your opponent or keep them off a useful spell.

Typhoid Rats - (Murderous Urchin)

This is my favorite of all the cards here, and may be the common I’m proudest of designing. It’s so simple, but it does so much. When I designed it, I was just looking for a guy that was going to be annoying to block, as that fit in well with my “Breakout” mechanic. I was pleasantly surprised to see how flexible he was.

First off, he’s practically guaranteed to trade up. That means that opponents never want to block him with (or let him block) one of their "good" creatures, nor do they want to "waste" one of their removal spells.

Because of this, he has several useful attributes.
  1. He'll often get in for a few extra points of damage that a 1/1 shouldn't get. This makes him like a Furnace Scamp that still gets to trade for value when your opponent finally bites the bullet and kills him
  2. He'll often go unblocked, enabling a useful damage trigger (e.g. Bloodthirst)
  3. He'll hold off multiple powerful creatures and buy you time because your opponent is unwilling to make the trade.
  4. He'll bait removal because your opponent doesn't want to lose a creature.
In effect, he gives your opponent lots of opportunities to make a mistake and mis-evaluate him. This makes him skill-testing in an important way, because he adds more decision points than he seems to, many of which are invisible to those who aren't looking for them, so they're not overwhelming.

Such depth from such a simple card. I'm delighted that I was able to spot the opportunity and take advantage of it, and genuinely surprised at all of its implications (one of the best rewards of designing a new card and the greatest joys of playtesting).


I hope that I have been able to provide an interesting perspective on these few cards. I look forward to the chance to repeat this feature for future sets.

Come back next week when I talk about Planeswalker Points from my perspective as a Magic Dad.

Finally, and once again, my deepest thanks to my design team for GDS2. Participating in the GDS and traveling to Renton has been the highest honor of my Magic career. I would not have been able to enjoy the tremendous experience I had without you. Only a few of your designs got highlighted here, but all of you have earned my gratitude.


  1. Oh how we remember the Murderous Urchin!

  2. I'm really excited to see where Unified Theory goes and glad to have Scott back and active.

    (the noun, not the verb. stupid homonyms)

  3. Thanks guys,

    The one advantage of being away so long is that I've got a dozen article ideas stocked up, so we should be good to the new year.

  4. Hey Scott! Great to see you writing on Magic design!