Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Lessons from YMTC4

I was lucky enough to help with the initial selection of design submissions for You Make The Card 4. Now that the community's card is complete, I'd like to share some of my takeaways from that experience. I don't speak on behalf of Wizards in any way.

You learn some things when you read 7700 black enchantments. Things like: Players fondly remember Necropotence; Players remember Necropotence fondly; and Necropotence is fondly remembered by players.

Ahem. I exaggerate, of course. Pretty much every classic black card got a lot of love from the contestants of You Make the Card. Even Uncle Istvan got some Form of the Dragon-esque love on a card cleverly named—wait for it—Form of the Uncle Istvan. It was pretty great. I was quite impressed with the quality, ingenuity and flavor of so many submissions. Magic has a truly exceptional player community.

But I'm not here to pander. Well, not just to pander. I want to share some of the things I learned while helping R&D narrow down the list. I also want to give you some feedback on your submissions.

If you’ve seen my work here on Goblin Artisans, you know I treasure feedback, but I can never stress too much that we improve at the things we love so much faster when we put our work out there, let our peers and mentors review it, and then use their feedback to learn and become better.

I obviously can’t go one-by-one, so I’ve compiled a list of general feedback, some of which may be relevant to you, and the rest of which is relevant to a few thousand other contestants.

Player Expectations

It’s one thing to understand what kind of abilities a color gets, and something else entirely to know what kind of abilities your audience identifies with that color. You will not be surprised to learn that more than a thousand of the cards submitted involved discard; Black’s the only color that gets to make your opponent discard, so that makes sense. Similarly, hundreds of cards involved sacrifice, which is not mechanically exclusive to black, but couldn't be any blacker thematically.

Drawing cards was very common and almost without exception involved the loss of life, a pair of effects we’re conditioned to expect together from years of cards like Sign in Blood and Phyrexian Arena. Not far behind was card searching, the unrestricted version of which has been solely black’s domain all the way back to the original Demonic Tutor.

Another big area the audience associates closely with black is getting back used cards. From a simple Raise Dead, all the way up to variants on Living End and Yawgmoth's Will. Whether you’re getting creatures or spells, returning them to your hand or directly to play, and even working from exile as well as from the graveyard. (While some cards use exile as an individual repository for cards not currently in play, it’s best to avoid effects that treat the exile zone as a second graveyard, because that diminishes the meaning of both the graveyard and the effects doing the exiling.)

Finally, there were a few direct and mass creature removal effects, but even more Pestilence and Harbinger of Night effects gradually consuming everything alive. Black is undoubtedly the master of death.

Stepping away from mechanics for a minute, there were also clear flavor themes. Disease, necromancy, demon worship / summoning, dangerous pacts, as well as twisted paths to immortality.

My takeaway is that these are the themes and mechanics that Wizards has done the best job of using to express black over the years, and that every set should have enough of each to satisfy the players’ expectations. It also means that anything else that truly represents black remains ripe for the picking, and is a deep well of future innovation and expression for black moving forward. For instance, a black mage is happy to break the rules when they inconvenience her, but won't hesitate to invoke the rules against someone else who's getting in her way. I can imagine a number of ways to demonstrate that mindset on cards, and most of them sound like a lot of fun.

Designer Feedback or How to Make the Cut

Understand the requirements. YMTC called for a black enchantment. Submitting a red card, or a sorcery, or a card that would be better red or better as a sorcery is the quickest path to elimination.

There are quite a lot of good designs left for black enchantments in this world, but remember that this was a contest and only one card will be chosen, by popular vote no less. That means a lot of good designs will get passed by in favor of exciting designs. Make something that could win a vote.

Demonstrate your investment. While no entries were dismissed because of misspelled words, questionable grammar or non-traditional templating, understand that when there are so many other submissions that you need to give the judges every reason to care about your submission, and you're hurting your chances when it's clear that you don't care about your own submission.

Be unique. If you tweak a popular existing card, you’re unlikely to be the only one. In fact, you might be struggling to stand out among 100 or more similar submissions. One of those might get the nod, as a sort of representative of the group, but if you submit something that’s never been done before, chances are better your submission will stand out and go farther.

Stick to the pie. Know the philosophy of the color you’re designing for. Know what effects are primary, secondary and tertiary in that color, and be sure that what you know is current. If you don’t see more than one example in the last four years worth of Magic, it may not be something the color does anymore.

For example, mana rituals are red now; the only type of mana boosting that modern black gets is swamp fetching and doubling the mana that swamps produce, both of which remain quite infrequent.

Resonate. Since Magic 2010, the number of cards made to mechanically match what the card concept represents in the game world has gone up drastically, and the number of cards printed for purely mechanical reasons despite their lack of flavor has nearly bottomed out. It’s imperative that your rules text matches and enhances the name and flavor of the card.

Value elegance. Many of the best and most loved cards in Magic have very little rules text. Day of Judgment, Murder, Serra Angel, Ancestral Recall, Lightning Bolt, Llanowar Elves, etc. That’s in no way a requirement for a great card, but it remains that the more crowded your text box is, the less likely your card is as good or as memorable as it could be.

Focus. Figure out the thing you want your card to do and then do that well. If you’ve got two abilities, they better be intimately entwined via the card’s flavor. Any more than that and you’re probably overdoing it. This is far and away the biggest mistake I see new designers make, so let me wax on it in a bit more detail for you.
The Cherry on Top — It’s tempting to look at a design and say, “That’s nice, but wouldn’t it be even nicer with this?” It’s already got flying and vigilance, why not throw on first strike too? This is a trap. Wizards has done keyword soup a few times with cards like Akroma, Angel of Wrath, Baneslayer Angel and Lightning Angel. Notice a common theme there? If you said “they’re all angels,” you’re right, but that’s not what I’m talking about. They’re all rare—not just in the booster collation sense, but in that they only make one of these every few years. These good-stuff designs look simple, but it’s actually really difficult to make it impactful enough to justify. 
The Self-Combo — Johnnies love to match cards up to create engines or combined effects greater than the sum of their parts, but we have trouble setting that tendency aside when we make cards. The trouble is, that’s like giving someone a puzzle for their birthday that you’ve already solved and mounted for display. Even if you just want to give them the first piece to get them started, it takes a lot of the challenge and joy of discovery out. 
The Swiss-Army Knife — You know what players love? Drawing cards. And killing creatures. And making creatures. And gaining life. Why not put all those effects on a single card? How awesome would that be? Not awesome. At all. It’s not called Magic: the Gathering because you only need one card to play. Give players the tools, let them combine them for the toolset they want. 
The Hot-Glue Gun — You love Giant Growth and Mind Sculpt, why not put them together like chocolate and peanut butter? Because not everything’s chocolate or peanut butter. Sometimes you can marry two effects under a common flavor, but we’re lucky enough to have so many very different effects in Magic that quite a lot of them don’t go together at all. If it doesn’t feel natural, don’t force it. 
New & Old — Your card does something new. That’s great; players love new things. Maybe it doesn’t do anything by itself? Or it might be so new and different that it doesn’t make sense without something familiar next to it? Stop right there, cowboy. If you’ve got something new, don’t taint it with anything else. Leave it by itself and let the players figure out what it’s for and which cards to pair with it. That’s what they play this game for.
Think it Through. While every card needs to be playtested before it’s printed, for a single card submission like YMTC, very few contestants will take the time to playtest their design at all. While your submission is more likely to make it if you do, skipping that isn’t a deal-breaker because Wizards won’t print it without testing it themselves. But you do need to think through a couple scenarios to make sure it at least passes the sniff test.
Imagine the best-case scenario for playing your card. How likely is that scenario? How great will it feel to cast it when it happens? How will it feel when your opponent casts it under those conditions? Next, imagine the worst-case scenario. And, if those scenarios aren’t close to each other, imagine the average-case, the most likely case. Finally, assume players understand the pros and cons of that card; Will they play it in Limited and/or Constructed? Will it change how they play the game? Will they enjoy playing it? Few cards are loved by everyone, but every design must serve an audience. Which players will love this one?

An example: We’re mentally evaluating Timberpack Wolf. The best case is that we play the first wolf on turn 2, give it a buddy on turn 3 and swing with our 3/3, then play two more on turn 4 and swing with a couple 5/5s (and the whole pack the turn after). That’s pretty exciting and enough incentive to push players to run a bunch of them. It would be a rough thing to lose to, but it’s very unlikely your opponent will draw all four copies (and four lands) by turn 4. Even if they did, you could still mitigate such an assault with any removal spell or even counter it with a board sweeper. 
The worst-case is having or drawing exactly one, possibly in the late game. That’s no worse than Grizzly Bears, a card we know fills an important role in Limited. Most of the time, you might have two in your Sealed deck or three in your Draft deck and you’ll get more multiples out at the same time about once a match, in which case both of those two-drops will be 3/3s. That’s more efficient than normal, but can be answered by most removal, perhaps even during combat where dropping to 2/2 could get the other wolf killed. 
So there’s very little downside, a common marginal upside, and a rather unlikely dream scenario. Green players will happily play this in Limited (maybe in Block, but probably not Standard), playing the same way as ever except perhaps trying to draft a critical mass of these and prioritizing ways to keep their curve low, protect their wolves, and/or push through damage. Sounds fun. Timberpack Wolf appeals primarily to Spike, who values synergy and a solid two-drop, but there’s some appeal for Timmy (four 5/5s for {4}{G}{G}{G}{G}!) and for Johnny (Rite of Replication much?) as well.
Test passed.
You’re now well-armed for the next You Make The Card. Is there nothing else you can do to maximize your chances of winning next time? Only the most fundamental thing: Practice.


  1. I'm quite happy with the result we got in Waste Not. It's exactly the sort of fun, build-around-me type of card that ends up being beloved by casual players even if it never sees "serious" play, which is far more important for a YMTC creation. The "casuals" are by far the larger part of the Magic audience, so it should be more important that they be satisfied than to pander to the more enfranchised.

    But, I'd still like to see some variation on my initial submission appear some time. I concede that what I'd submitted strayed a little too far from what's strictly allowed in black's core color pie, and for a contest like this it probably wasn't quite unique enough to stand out. But I love it all the same.

    Phenomenal Cosmic Power (Revised)
    Whenever you tap a Swamp for mana, add B to your mana pool (in addition to the mana the land produces).
    B, Pay 1 life: Add one mana of any color to your mana pool.

  2. Personally, I was very disappointed in the winning card. Waste Not is an inelegant, swiss-army-knife, hot-glue-gunned card with a terrible worst-case-scenario and an inconsistent best-case-scenario. I get that there are casual players who like discard theme decks, but there are plenty of casual players who HATE discard theme decks (to the point that WotC has nerfed the mechanic overall because of its "unfun" perception). Perhaps some Johnnies could come up with a use for it other than in a discard theme deck, but it's nowhere near as modular as any of the other YMTCs. On principle, I believe that a design challenge seeking to engage the community ought to have some appeal to the widest possible audience.

    FWIW, I'm a Spike and I voted for Blood in the Watering Can the whole way through.

    1. I was also very disappointed in Waste Not; and in seven of the eight finalists, for that matter. But I was pleased when someone pointed out on the Wizards forums that there are Windfall and Wheel of Fortune effects like Jace's Archivist and Reforge the Soul that would be hilarious and awesome with it.

      I still don't like discard, but that kind of effect is much less unfun while still happening to trigger Waste Not (a whole bunch of times, in fact).

  3. I love that you wrote this, Jay. Great read.