Thursday, March 22, 2018

Meet the Top 8: Alex Werner

I reached out to GDS3 Contestant Alex Werner for a brief interview as we ramp up to the show. Click through to find out a little bit about one of the Top 8 competitors. 

Tell us a little bit about your background as a game and/or Magic designer. 

I've been playing Magic since 1995 (right after the release of Ice Age). I've never worked as a professional game designer, although I do work as a video game programmer, at times in the past working on gameplay stuff, although currently on back-end stuff. (I work for Cryptic Studios, which is making the Magic MMO, although I'm not working directly on it).

Have you designed other games? 

Never professionally, but I frequently invent or modify games, most successfully with various social games. I also invented the Most Fun Draft Format Ever (tm). I also create magic puzzles from time to time. (Editor’s note: Alex was kind enough to provide us examples of each of these, appearing at the end of this interview.)

How long have you been designing magic cards?

Basically since I started playing Magic. The biggest things I've done are three entire sets. Twice a friend and I created an expansion to an existing set, so we could draft boosters of the main set along with boosters of the homemade expansion. The first was an expansion to Mirrodin Block (before Fifth Dawn came out), and the other was an expansion to Rise of the Eldrazi (Rise 2: Eldrazi Boogaloo). Both of those I printed out and drafted with friends. I worked with GDS1 Top 8 competitor Chris Luhrs on a standalone expansion that we finished, but then never actually played. I also came up with a set of double-faced cards to be drafted with Innistrad, swapping my homemade DFCs in for the ones from the boosters.

What do you think the biggest mistake amateur designers make when they're starting out?
It's hard to answer that question without knowing what they're trying to do. For instance, the cards I've designed for homemade expansions can violate tons of the restrictions that normally apply to a magic card, given that they're only ever going to be drafted by very enfranchised players. It's entirely reasonable in that setting to make a card that’s strictly superior to a basic land, even though that's obviously a no-no for "real" designs. You have to ask yourself, “am I designing cards to mimic real magic design? Am I designing cards to be drafted with? Cards that would be fun in commander?”
Looking back at the very first cards I designed (at least, the oldest ones I still have digital records of), they tended to be overly wordy and overly complicated. Whatever your card does, it should do that thing. It doesn't also need to have firebreathing and protection from blue. 

What keeps you interested in Magic as a player? As a designer?

As a player, it's variety. I love starting a game and thinking that in this game I might see something I've never seen before. Possibly even something that no one has ever seen before. That's why I play limited, and why my favorite format is cube. As a designer, I want to design cards that add new experiences to the game. My favorite card ever designed is Mindslaver, partly because it's perfectly balanced (powerful but not broken in every format), but mainly because there are stories and decisions that come up with Mindslaver around that never could have happened before it.

What's your favorite thing that Magic R&D has done in the last five years?
I absolutely adore the draft-matters cards in Conspiracy. If only it wasn't designed for multiplayer free-for-all games, a format in which I have zero interest.

Outside of Magic, what game do you think is the best designed out there?
The game I look at and say "man I wish I had designed that" is Codenames.

What do you do when you're not playing and designing games? 

My wife and I have two dogs, and we sing in the San Jose Choral Project.


Alex provided us with rules for a social game, a Magic draft variant, and a Magic puzzle, all of his design.

Chain Reaction
(based on the bonus round of an old TV game show, but turned into a social game by me and my friends back in college):

Players: 8-12

Setup: Everyone takes about 7 pieces of paper and writes an answer on each one. These answers must be something that everyone in the room has definitely heard of, but they could be nouns, names, verbs, phrases, etc. Examples might be: "Opera,” "Weapons of Mass Destruction,” "Birds of Paradise,” "American Idol,” etc. All of these pieces of paper are folded up and mixed together in a big bowl. Then players divide into two even teams.

Teams now take turns. On a given team's turn, one team member will be the guesser and everyone else will be the askers. The guesser sits separately. The askers then huddle together, pull an answer out of the bowl, and all look at it. They then ask a question whose answer is the given answer. The trick is they take turns saying words in this question. So if there are 4 askers and the answer is "Weapons of Mass Destruction", it might go like this:

1: What
2: couldn't
3: president
4: Bush
1: find
2: in
3: Iraq
4: Question Mark
(yes, person #4 actually says the words "question mark" out loud).

The guesser starts guessing, and can keep guessing until either the guesser or any of the askers say "pass". The team gets as many as they can in 90 seconds, then the other team goes, etc. Repeat until the bowl is empty.

Because the people are trying to form the question collaboratively but don't always think on the same wavelength, great hilarity ensues.

A few important technicalities:

  • The question can be as long or as short as you like. You can keep going around in circles forever and ever, or you can have a question so short that some people don't even get to say a single word
  • Questions have to be vaguely grammatically correct. You don't need to be anal about tense agreement on every last little verb, but you can't just randomly throw words together in a lump... there generally needs to be a subject and a verb and so forth.
  • As in most games of this sort, the askers can not use any of the words on the card, or forms of them
  • Until "question mark" has been said, the guesser CAN NOT BEGIN GUESSING. Nor can (s)he in any way gesture or indicate that (s)he probably knows the answer. You just have to sit there and wait for the question to wend its way to an (often comical) conclusion.
  • The guesser always gets at least 5 seconds to guess. So if time is called in the middle of a question being asked, the guesser gets 5 seconds to guess from the incomplete question. If time is called 1 second after the question is done, then the guesser gets 4 more seconds to guess. (Obviously, this rule is more a guideline than a precision regulation.)
  • If any of the askers don't know what the answer is, they throw it out and start over. This is very important. Chain Reaction is not a trivia contest where you try to put in super-obscure things that people haven't heard of. Rather, you put in things that everyone has heard of that might be hard to phrase a question about.

The Most Fun Draft Format Ever:

  1. Get a cube
  2. Get N players
  3. Get N booster packs
  4. Each player opens a booster pack, takes a sharpie, and then modifies every card in the booster until it's approximately good enough to be in the cube. You can make the card cheaper, or increase power and toughness, or add abilities, whatever.
  5. Shuffle all the modified cards together, randomize them into packs of 15
  6. Each player drafts 2 packs of cube, 1 pack of modified cards
  7. Play

One of my best magic puzzles:

You're playing a game of magic with one nonstandard rule: there is no decking. Players don't lose by drawing from an empty library. If both players end up with empty libraries and no way to deal damage, the game is a draw.

Due to a crazy combo earlier in the game, you have 100 million basic lands in play, evenly divided between the 5 types. Unfortunately, you are at one life, have no other permanents and no relevant cards anywhere else, and you just drew the last card from your library.

Your opponent also had an infinite combo earlier, and gained a googolplex life. They control 100 creatures, all of them 100/100s with vigilance, reach and hexproof. They have two cards in hand, no cards in their library, and mana to cast both their cards, which you happen to know are Negate and Swords to Plowshares.

There are a fair number of cards you could have just drawn that end the game in a draw. Supreme verdict, for instance, or obliterate. Also, something like Meloku the Clouded Mirror. You can cast it and make a few million 1/1s before it gets swordsed, and then you'll have enough blockers to stay alive, but no way to win.

I think that there is one and only one magic card you could have drawn that actually lets you win the game (although, disclaimer: I invented this puzzle 10 years ago, it's possible something has been printed since then). What is that card?

(Editor’s note: I have neither tested this puzzle nor attempted to figure it out yet. I’ll ask Alex for the answer after you guys take a crack at it.)

Thanks Alex, and good luck in the GDS!


  1. Thanks for the interview! The draft format certainly seems like fun for players who already overlap with "enjoying Magic design".

    Depending on the definition of "no relevant cards anywhere else", the easiest answer seems like (rot13 for spoilers) Fcnjafver bs Hynzbt, trggvat rabhtu Naavuvyngbe gb pyrne bhg gur oybpxref jvgu n fvatyr nggnpx naq gura fybjyl fybt guebhtu n tbbtbycyrk bs yvsr.

    1. That's what I came up with too, but it's fewer than 10 years old. I think Sam has the right answer.

    2. Vagrerfgvatyl gurer'f n irel genpgnoyr jnl gb jva ba gur fnzr ghea jvgu guvf nccebnpu! Whfg teno Oebbq Zbavgbe, Ryqenmv Qvfcynpre, naq Synlre Qebar gb perngr na vasvavgr ybbc gung oheaf gur bccbarag bhg. Vs gurl rire gel gb Cngu gb Rkvyr bar bs gubfr perngherf, lbh pna npgvingr Fcnjafver ntnva trggvat gjb pbcvrf bs Abg Bs Guvf Jbeyq (bar gb rng gur Artngr naq bar gb pbhagre gur Cngu).

  2. Thanks for this interview, Zefferal.

    Great to learn more about you, Alex. Your draft format definitely sounds fun. I'm absolutely going to try out that party game; I think both my gamer friends and my improv group would enjoy it.

    Deathforge Shaman solves the riddle if you've got at least half as much land as they have life, but I'm sure that's not the intended solution.

    Nzhyrg bs Dhbm?

    1. "Activate this ability only during your upkeep", too slow, sadly.

    2. That is a clever effect, but even if it was instant speed, I think Negate trumps it.

  3. Oh, cool! I love the draft format.

    And that puzzle is very me. I will return with progress if I make any :)

    1. Ulqen Oebbqznfgre looks like it should work: you should have enough blockers and still keep attacking for about 2.5 quadrillion damage every turn. But it will still take going on a googolplex number of turns to whittle the opponent down to zero :)

      But that's more recent so there must be an earlier answer as well.

    2. Grpuavpnyyl lbh bayl qner npgvingr vg sbe K = 25 zvyyvba(vfu) orpnhfr gur bccbarag jvyy Cngu va erfcbafr. Fb lbh pna "bayl" nggnpx sbe 625 gevyyvba(vfu) cre ghea.

    3. But I agree, this is also a valid solution and possibly the fastest available. I don't know of any card that wins in a realistically-playable number of turns, unless you count Pasteur's.

    4. Oh! Yes, I missed that you only got the tokens if it survived for the ability to resolve.

      And yeah, if you're waiting to do a googolplex damage, doing several trillion a turn doesn't feel that much faster than doing 1 a turn, even though it really is.

  4. Think I’ve solved it!

    Fcyvggvat Fyvzr fubhyq qb gur gevpx. Gurl pna arire Fjbeqf bar juvyr lbh unir zbafgebhf znan bcra, naq lbh pna znxr zber guna rabhtu gb puhzc gurve 100 nggnpxref naq unir n srj yrsg bire. Tvira rabhtu gvzr lbh’yy riraghnyyl or noyr gb penpx onpx sbe n tbbtbycyrk.

    1. This can’t be the intended answer though as it was printed within the last 10 years. So there’s at least one more answer!

  5. This is an insane answer to the puzzle, but I think it works:

    Znfgre bs gur Uhag.

    Trarengr n zvyyvba Jbyirf bs gur Uhag nf lbhe thl trgf Fjbeqfrq. Vs gurl nggnpx, oybpx nal nggnpxref jvgu 100 jbyirf naq xvyy vg, hfvat lbhe "onaqf jvgu bgure" novyvgl gb bayl ybfr bar jbys. Rnpu ghea, nggnpx jvgu 10,000 jbyirf onaqrq gbtrgure, naq vs gurl oybpx, ybfr bayl bar jbys naq xvyy ng yrnfg bar bs gurve perngherf. Ercrng hagvy gurl eha bhg bs perngherf naq/be qvr.

    Onaqf jvgu bgure, zbfg cbjreshy novyvgl va gur tnzr???

    1. I think you got it. At first I thought Arzngn, Tebir Thneqvna would also do the trick, but once it gets Path'd there's no way to force through an unbounded amount of damage.

    2. Grpuavpnyyl, nal fbyhgvba gung vaibyirf nggnpxvat jvgu perngherf cebonoyl vfa'g ybtvfgvpnyyl srnfvoyr qhr gb gur gvzr pbafgenvagf bs gur urng qrngu bs gur havirefr. N tbbtbycyrk vf n IREL ynetr nzbhag bs yvsr. Gung fnvq, Znfgre bs gur uhag vf n terng pubvpr.

    3. As the first card I spent $20 on, I'm pretty tickled with this answer.

    4. Oh, of course! It makes sense it would be something quirky like this.

      From the way the problem is phrased, I expect that you're intended to end up attack a googolplex times. I doubt there's a way of turning 100 100/100 or a 100 million lands into a googol damage, and if so, any other win would just be straight-up win regardless of opponent's life total and there aren't many of those in one card even with 'infinite' mana.

    5. That is absolutely gorgeous. Well done, Sam, and what a puzzle, Alex!

  6. All this giberish will teach me to post pictures of Emrakul in the future.

  7. Ooh, I found another possible answer. Soratami Mirror-Mage. Am I right? It looks like you can bounce itself in response to removal, and bounce all the opponent's creatures, and then pling for 1 every turn until the heat death of the universe.

    Alas, what we don't know is when the opponent has 'enough mana' to cast their spells, do they have enough mana from lands to re-cast their creatures, and are their creatures actual creature cards not tokens? If so, even if they can just play a 1/1 every turn, then you won't be able to bounce them forever. But if not, you could win? :)

  8. Sam's answer is the intended one, although I'm a bit sad that there are now additional answers, since any answer that involves onaqf jvgu bgure is obviously awesome. I'm trying to think of a simple fix that keeps my answer working while eliminating the other two... hmmm... I guess your opponent could also have ensnaring bridge in play? But then he could negate his own swords? And every additional bit of detail makes the puzzle less interesting.

    Anyhow, since y'all like puzzles, here's another one:

    Things aren't looking good for you this game, as you have mulliganed down to 1 on the draw. Here's how the first few turns of the game go:
    Opponent's turn 1: Play a land
    Your turn 1: Play a land
    Opponent's turn 2: Play a land
    Your turn 2: Play a land, cast a creature (hand is now empty)
    Opponent's turn 3: Play a land
    Your turn 3: Draw a creature, cast it (hand once again empty)
    Opponent's turn 4: generate an unbounded loop, use it to gain a billion life. Cast an icy manipulator. Leave a land up to activate the icy manipulator. Plow under your two lands. (But after that, has no further action other than the icy, can't gain additional life).
    Your turn 4: Win the game, no matter what opponent does

    What were your two creatures?

    (Note that the answer is not something like "well, the first creature was an elvish visionary, drawing a black lotus, and the second one was another elvish visionary, drawing ancestral, and then you cast doomsday, yada yada". You saw no cards other than the two lands and two creatures mentioned.)

    1. (To be a bit more precise, I'm looking for a solution that involves seeing no cards other than those 2 land and 2 creatures, and wins by attacking for lethal damage on turn 4 even through a billion life and an icy... although I'd be interested to hear solutions that win via any other method if any such might exist.)

    2. Combat Celebrant and Aphetto Alchemist with artifact lands _almost_ work, but not quite.