Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Meet the Top 8: Chris Mooney

We are continuing our GDS3 Top 8 series of interviews, and today we're hearing from Chris Mooney. Click through to find out a little bit about his thoughts on Magic and Game Design.

Can you give a brief background of your history as a game and/or Magic designer?

I started designing games when I was a kid, though I didn't know it at the time. I would take apart my board games and write my own rules with the pieces. Throughout middle school and high school I designed games as a hobby. When I went got to college (at the University of Southern California) it actually wasn't for anything game related, but I quickly fixed that. I recently graduated with a BA in Interactive Media and Game Design (and a Comp Sci minor) from USC's School of Cinematic arts, recently rated #1 in the nation for game design! Go Trojans, Fight On!

Have you designed other games?

Yes, many! My most recent design was a year-long digital game called Chataclysm played through Twitch chat where one streamer attempts to defend their city from a Godzilla-like monster controlled by their audience.

Have you made any games available for download or purchase?

…let me get back to you on that one.

How long have you been designing magic cards?

Since the very start. It was learning about Magic design that got me interested in game design to begin with. Mark Rosewater was the first designer I ever found with hundreds of articles about the craft, and that really opened my eyes to how design worked. Prior to that, I didn't even think about the back end of the games I was playing.

I spent many years as an active member of the MTG Salvation Custom Card Creation forum. I would say this is where I really started building my chops as a designer, since it was my first exposure to an enfranchised design community.

Have you made any public-facing sets?

The last "completed" set I made (I don't think custom sets can ever really be complete) was made many years ago, and it was called Archester. It was a steampunk themed set with a heavy emphasis on colorless mana and colorless hybrid cards. The design is a mess for sure, but I'm still incredibly proud of it as an early endeavor, especially our creative elements.

Since then I've started a number of other public facing sets that fell by the wayside due to real life commitments. I'm hoping that my involvement in the GDS3 will help me get back on the horse. I have a number of sets I'm working on privately that I'd love to share at a later date.

What do you think the biggest mistake amateur designers make when they're starting out?

This is such a broad question that I'm going to have to break it down into a few sections.

What's the biggest mistake amateur game designers make? 

Not having a design goal (or a "user experience goal" as we call them in the digital world). You need to have a clear idea of what you want to do in mind, and make your decisions based on that. Note that this doesn't mean every choice must serve the goal, but you do have to think about it every time. If your choice doesn't support (or even contradicts) your design goal, you'd better have a good reason for it. Note that Magic sets, by nature of the game, often have many simultaneous design goals.

What's the biggest mistake amateur Magic designers make? 

Not breaking enough "rules". This is what I call the "Morph paradox". Morph is an excellent mechanic, but if it was posted by a custom card designer in a universe where it didn't already exist, I believe it would get torn to shreds for being way outside what's normally allowed. I remember many years ago I designed a mechanic identical to Embalm (without the Zombie flavor), and it met a lot of resistance for having memory issues. Then a couple sets down the line, WotC prints the mechanic word-for-word and comes up with a great solution (with both printed embalm tokens and the punch-out reminder cards). Tons of mechanics like Meld, Vehicles, Aftermath, and Sagas wouldn't be possible if WotC wasn't willing to push the boundaries of what a Magic card can look like, and I'm sure many others like Ascend, Exert, Energy, and Delirium could have been killed for tracking and/or memory issues if they weren't so much fun to play.

Generally, online communities try to help newer designers by teaching them the design "rules" (which is great and important!), but this can sometimes give designers the false impression that everything they do should fit in a box. But lots of Magic design doesn't fit in a box! So long as you have a good, fun reason to stretch the rules, go for it!

(Note that this advice applies to most Magic design, but the GDS3 in particular gave us a lot of restrictions that prevented us from doing a lot of the crazier things I described above.)

Lastly, what's the biggest mistake amateur Magic designers make, that includes myself? 

Not paying enough attention to player experience. In other words, don't design things for their own sake. A super cool, interesting card is worthless if it isn't fun to play with. Often I get so caught up in how "cool" a card is, I forget that it isn't that fun to actually cast (or even more often, it's no fun to sit across the table from). The best solution for this problem is playtesting, but I know we often don't have those resources available to us. Just do your best to think about how your cards are going to actually feel when they're in the hands of players, not in a visual spoiler.

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

As a player, Magic keeps me interested by providing a constant stream of both traditional and experimental content. Regular expansions are the meat and potatoes of Magic, but I love the spicy side dishes like Conspiracy and Unstable that show how far Magic can be taken. Together, they provide a good balanced meal.
As a designer, what sets Magic apart from almost any other game (or game system) is how evocative it can be. Magic has this 25 year old vocabulary of how to represent things, which is what makes creating Magic cards based on existing tropes or properties so easy and fun. The most interesting part is that this resonant mechanical language is not just "cool", but it also makes the game easier to understand and more fun to play. I think my love of meshing flavor and mechanics shows in my Trial 3 entry, as most of the compliments I received were directed at the flavor of my designs. There are other games out there that come close to Magic on this front, but Magic's decades long head start definitely gives it a big advantage here.

What's your favorite thing that Magic R&D has done in the last five years?

Definitely Unstable. Unstable combines three things I love about magic: Drafting, humor, and stretching boundaries.

From a draft perspective, I think Unstable is actually a really great model for draft sets. Almost every color interacts with almost every mechanic in some way, which means during drafting you have a lot of potential synergy options. People have been giving praise to A25 for breaking away from the "10 archetypes" model (which is incredibly valuable technology but I can agree grows a tiny bit stale after a while), but I think Unstable actually did it better. It allows for generic "good stuff" decks, linear themed decks, and specific two card combos all to shine.

I love humor in Magic, perhaps a little too much, but I really appreciate how Unstable was able to bring that humor off the cards and into the game itself. I'm a huge fan of Unglued and Unhinged, but playing them was often a bit of a letdown. Unstable, on the other hand, blew me away with how fun, and funny, the games could be. I won't gush too much here, but I think the big standout for me was the "outside assistance" cards. Some of the most fun I had drafting Unstable was hearing my friend argue with my opponent about which card they were Subcontract-ing away, or sweating as I hoped a stranger would choose the right creature with Sacrifice Play, or turning a 2HG match into a 2v3HG match, or calling a judge to ask if they liked squirrels. There's something inherently fun about getting other people involved in your game, and unlike multiplayer games these spectators have no vested interest in the results so you can never quite expect what will happen.

As for stretching boundaries, I think Unstable goes to a lot of places "regular" Magic definitely shouldn't, but that doesn't mean they won't ever show up again. Plenty of formats like Conspiracy, Planechase, Archenemy, and even Commander show that there's lot of room to experiment in black border Magic outside of Standard.

Outside of Magic, what game do you think is the best designed out there?

It would take me a couple of weeks to answer this question properly, so instead I'm just going to give you some games I'm enjoying right now.

For physical games, I love 7 Wonders Duel. This is probably my favorite 2 player game ever made. It's fast and simple, but incredibly deep and skill testing. The original 7 Wonders is also one of my favorite games, but Duel is a much tighter and more focused design.

For digital games, I'm currently obsessed with Slay the Spire, a brilliant combination of deckbuilding, turn based RPG combat, and roguelike structure. This game so perfectly combines elements that I love, I feel like I should just throw in the towel right now; there will never be a more "me" game than this.

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

Between playing, studying, and making video games, board games, card games, roleplaying games, and mobile games, games really do take up the majority of my time. Outside of all that, I love movies and music (I've marched drumline for almost 10 years now), and theme parks (I currently work at Disneyland Resort).

I talk a little more about my interests and hobbies in my GDS3 essay answers, whenever those get posted (soon, I hope!)


  1. I desperately want to learn more about Chataclysm.

    1. https://www.chriskmooney.com/copy-of-the-game-jam-game-1

    2. And only now do i learn how Wix names your page links...

    3. I am loving your design articles, chatacyclism sounds really cool too.

  2. This interview lead me to realize that Chris Mooney is the one-and-only MOON-E! Super huge fan of your work! Great to see you in GDS3... so many people to root for!

  3. It sounds like they may not post the essays at all.

    1. That's a bummer, I was looking to the essays more than the designs themselves. Guess WotC has their reasons, but still...

    2. Wait, why? I assumed they'd post our essays when the public portion of the contest begins.

    3. Ditto. If that’s the case that’s a real big bummer.