Friday, March 30, 2018

Ryan Siegel-Stechler's Essay Submission

(Wizards has alerted GDS3 Top 8 contestants that their essays would not be published on the mothership, and gave them clearance to self-publish. We reached out to all contestants and offered to host their essays.)

1) Introduce yourself and why you think you would be a good fit for Wizards R&D.

My name is Ryan Siegel-Stechler. I am 29 years old, and I currently live in Baltimore with my wife, Kelly, and dog, Ethan. I have a psychology BA, an MFA in poetry, and currently work as a compliance analyst for a financial regulator. Professionally, I have been a jack-of-all-trades, having been an English teacher, organizational consultant, admin… the list goes on. Personally, though, I’ve always had one goal – replace MaRo as Head of Magic Design.

I first learned about Magic when I was 13 and asked that fateful question: “What does Phasing mean?” I was instantly hooked. I’ve been playing ever since, and I started designing my own cards shortly thereafter. I have been doing Create-a-Card contests online for ages, and more recently have been a part of the Goblin Artisans community, working to hone my design skills in hopes that GDS3 would eventually come around. I also have entered other game design contests, and have been working on completing a card/negotiating game called Horde and a tarot-card based tactical game/RPG system called Arenaball.

Besides having worked hard to keep my design chops up to snuff, I also believe that my professional life has given me lots of insight into how I would be a good fit inside of Wizards HQ making Magic. As a financial analyst, working to uncover compliance issues at regulated firms, I’ve cultivated a careful eye for detail, and for spotting patterns that others might miss. I’ve also had the fortune to do work with a strong team as a regulator and relish the opportunity to continue doing so as part of Magic design. I am passionate about working with others, leading by example and sharing credit when due. My writing background gives me a strong foundational skillset; I can communicate my ideas clearly and effectively (which these essays will, hopefully, reflect!) I pride myself on being ethical, diligent, and above all kind.

I believe these traits make me a strong candidate for this internship. Thanks for your consideration.

(The card was Sandbar Crocodile, by the way. Still own it. Somewhere…)

2) What is an existing keyword mechanic that you would promote to Evergreen status?

The existing keyword mechanic that I would promote to Evergreen status would be Exert, introduced in Amonkhet Block. The main reasons, which I’ll outline further below, are as follows. First, Exert has deep design space that hasn’t been fully explored, which is important for an Evergreen mechanic. Second, Exert simplifies rule language in several instances, saving text on key sets of cards. Lastly, it has proven to promote good gameplay.

Exert in Amonkhet block only was used on creature cards, either when attacking or as part of paired activated abilities, one stronger and one weaker. However, the concept of “super-tapping” could be used more or less anywhere tapping currently is in the game. Abilities like Outlast from Khans of Tarkir, Cohort from Oath of the Gatewatch, or Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca’s from Rivals of Ixalan could “tap and exert” for more powerful effects. But why stop at only creatures? Particularly large Vehicles might take more effort to get going – maybe you have to exert your creatures to start them up. Lands might need to exert to get more/better mana out of them. There’s plenty to mine here, which is crucial for an Evergreen mechanic.

Even instants and sorceries could get in on the fun, which leads to the next reason: simplifying the text on “freeze” effect cards. “Tap and exert target creature” is five words, where “Tap target creature. It doesn’t untap during its controller’s next untap step.” is twelve, and at least one more line of text. This is a bit of an ancillary benefit, but still shouldn’t be overlooked.

The most important reason, though, is good gameplay. Optional Exert on creatures, the way it’s currently implemented leads to more strategic depth, as well as more tapped creatures each combat. This leads to less board stalls, encouraging games to conclude at a reasonable pace. Exert on crewing Vehicles, using artifacts or lands, or as a more traditional “freeze” style instant or sorcery would have similar strategic depth.

3) If you had to get rid of one evergreen keyword, which would it be and why?

If I had to get rid of one evergreen keyword, I would argue that Defender would be the most logical choice, for several reasons.

Firstly, defender is the only current keyworded drawback ability. It hearkens back to old Magic and Walls, which although iconic for certain groups of older players (including myself), hardly are inspiring to most newcomers to the game. Most players look at a creature with Defender and need to be convinced that the card is good by the rest of the text on it; almost no-one would blink if a creature that had Defender suddenly didn’t (except Overgrown Battlements et. al., who would cry in a corner but probably get over it one day). Drawback abilities have been mostly culled out of the game for good reason; most players will focus on the downside of a card, even if otherwise exciting.

Secondly, defender encourages board stalls and discourages attacking. So strongly, in fact, that it forbids it altogether. This isn’t great! The absolute best part of Magic is creature combat; why would we make a point of sprinkling in creatures that can’t attack? Although evergreen doesn’t have to be used every block, I’d argue that the same reason that ”can’t block” wouldn’t be an evergreen ability would suggest “can’t attack” should be in the same boat.

Third, it means some great stories are never had. You have a 0 power mana dork. You have a Giant Growth in hand. Your opponent is tapped out and at three life. If only R&D had listened to Ryan…

Finally, keyword abilities are in a great place! There are so few other candidates for this cut that it would be nearly impossible to make another choice. The new additions of Menace and Prowess have really rounded out the ranks nicely, and I would hate to see Trample go (probably my next choice?) in order to keep forbidding a 0 power mana dork from reaching her glorious destiny in story and song.

4) You are teaching a stranger to play Magic. What is your strategy for ensuring the best possible outcome?

The best possible outcome of teaching Magic to a stranger: that stranger hands me a cool million dollars for my time. My strategy: I look for the richest strangers possible.

Kidding, of course. Based on teaching my dad, my wife, and my wife’s dad, I have my typical strategy down pretty pat at this point. Here’s how (and why) I do what I do when I teach Magic:

First, I explain the mana system, with five basic lands, and cards of varying costs. I usually hide the text of the cards completely, only focusing on having and playing lands, how to pay various costs, and how tapping and untapping work. Once they understand the mana system, I start talking about what a deck is. Understanding the mana system first means that they can grasp the inherent give-take involved with having more resources and fewer things to do, and vice versa.

It’s usually about the time I get done with this part that I get the question “well, how do you win?” – creatures come next. I start with vanilla creatures at varying points on the curve, and explain how attacking and blocking work. I’ll show them a few vanilla abilities with reminder text, explain what abilities are, and how to parse them.

The next thing I’ll do is show them a few simple examples of the other card types, the concept of “targeting”, and quickly run down the phases in a turn. I try to keep this part short, because people usually want to get into a game to try for themselves. I build two starter decks that are super basic, so that people aren’t overwhelmed; include a couple of very obvious, splashy, powerful cards in the new player’s deck, so they get a sense of the excitement that comes with the game, and try to articulate all of the decisions being made, gently pointing out mistakes, trying to understand where the underlying misunderstanding was, and going from there. I also try to let them win. (Don’t tell them.)

5) What is Magic’s greatest strength?

My opinion is that Magic’s greatest strength is the simplicity, strategic depth, and flavor of the core portion of the system, creature combat. The nuts and bolts of creature combat have been mimicked by several other incredibly successful games (e.g. Hearthstone), and I think that there’s a reason for that.

Firstly, it’s easy to understand. Two numbers; one for attack, and one for defense. The fact that players can instantly grok “high numbers = powerful” and “oh, I saw a lot of 2/2s, that 15/15 must be AWESOME” is an incredibly underrated part of Magic’s appeal. Trying to play other card games, it always strikes me how long it takes to understand what cards are good. Magic has a rating scale right on half the cards! (sort of)

Secondly, it’s hard, if not impossible to master. The fact that the highest level professional players can mess up attacks or blocks is a huge statement to the strategic complexity of the game, which is important. If Magic were easy to master, I have no doubt it would be orders of magnitude less popular.

Thirdly, the flavor is a huge draw. Pokemon has a huge appeal because people like the idea of choosing your perfect loyal companion. Magic draws from that same idea to give everyone a chance to fight alongside the allies of your choosing. I think one aspect of game design that I can tend to overlook when creating games of my own is how important it is for players to have a cohesive narrative around the game mechanics. “I turn my card ninety degrees – you reduce your score to zero and I win” - means nothing, feels like nothing. “I attack with my Shivan Dragon for five damage – your life force is gone, and you are vanquished” is a story that anyone who enjoyed reading The Lord of the Rings can get behind.

6) What is Magic’s greatest weakness?

I understand that this is a design contest and that, potentially, answering this question honestly may “cost me points”, but in the interest of answering the question seriously and being true to my ethics, I think that it’s important to address the elephant in the room rather than trying to claim that anything Design does is a weakness comparable to the real culprit.

Magic’s greatest weakness is its continued failure to properly support stores, tournament organizers, and individual players in promoting safe, welcoming spaces, especially for female or other nonmale players or community members. I have been playing for a long time, and have never once been in a room with more female players than male players that wasn’t at someone’s home. The overall gender ratio of Magic players is still ridiculously skewed male, and at the professional level the disparity is just as stark. Despite the success of some female pros, cosplayers, etc., the playing field still isn’t close to level. I think that Wizards can and should be more proactive about checking stores to determine whether the atmosphere is suitable for their product, ensuring that judges are properly vetted and taught to address harassment issues more immediately and with more game/tournament impact if necessary, and to continue outreach like the new community standards, dialogue with female pros and cosplayers, etc. to keep the issue from being continually swept under the rug.

The hard truth is, I can’t get my wife to go with me to Friday Night Magic, and we have what I consider to be a good store, with several women/nonmale players in attendance regularly and a female tournament organizer. She’s afraid of being made fun of for being a girl who can’t play, and doesn’t want to “be a stereotype”. That’s the dark underbelly that I want to help eradicate, because I truly do think the survival of Magic hinges more on this issue than anything else (pushing cards & creating broken formats, Planeswalker creep, using up too much design space too fast) I could write about here.

7) What ability had the worst first introduction when compared to its potential? (i.e. what mechanic do you think would benefit the most from a reboot?)

Haunt is the ability that I think was worst implemented that would most benefit from a complete redesign of how it works. Flavorfully, the idea of an exiled creature haunting a living one is a straightforward and easy-to-grok (as well as easy to physically represent on the battlefield) ability. However, the first implementation in Guildpact added the additional hoop of the ability only triggering when the original entered the battlefield or the Haunted creature died, or for spells, immediately or when the Haunted creature died. This played against player’s expectations – the trope is that the haunted creature is affected in some way while they continue to live, and that often that person dying is the only way the spirit is put to rest. Having the ability work the other way made the ability unnecessarily confusing.

I believe that haunt, if given a second chance, should do away with being associated with death triggers or ETB triggers entirely, and should only be on creatures to start. The creatures would have a static ability that occurred when the Haunted creature took some action (usually attacking or blocking). For example:

Blind Hunter
Creature – Bat
Haunt (When this creature dies, exile it haunting target creature)
Whenever a creature haunted by Blind Hunter attacks or blocks, its controller loses 2 life and you gain 2 life.

This mechanically represents the Blind Hunter haranguing the owner of the haunted creature until the object of its scorn is put to rest. You could imagine a wide range of negative aura-like abilities on the Haunt creatures. The ability functioning like an Aura would help with making the second go-round of Haunt easier to understand, as Auras also attach to creatures (like the exiled creatures used as reminders for Haunt would be), giving players an existing mechanical tie-in, and would be more flavorful (how could a spell haunt a creature?), again hopefully making the reboot a bigger success for the audience.

8) Tell us what your favorite Magic set is and why, and explain its greatest weakness.

My favorite expansion that I’ve played with was New Phyrexia. The flavor was amazing, the story beat was one of the coolest dark turns I’ve ever read, the draft format was amazing and there were so many iconic cards packed into one set. But unfortunately, the signature mechanic of the set, Phyrexian mana, I believe was a mistake and should have been implemented differently.

Allowing different colors to have access to cards they normally never would have access to by paying life felt very Phyrexian, which had a flavor reason (“assimilation”) to do so. However, the most important thing to defend in Magic design at all costs is the color pie, and several cards printed in New Phyrexia did damage to the color pie in ways that will probably never be fixed, especially in Modern and Legacy. The card that is most important for this category is Dismember, which allows Green and Blue to have efficient, one-mana instant-speed removal that is leaps and bounds ahead of anything they should have access to. Dismember, I believe, is one of the biggest mistakes that Wizards has printed, and I’ve been consistently shocked that it hasn’t been banned simply for breaking the relationship between the color pie and the abilities that the different colors get.

The solution, in my opinion, would have been to have any Phyrexian mana cards that would have been color pie breaks to also have a regular colored mana of the chosen type in their mana cost. Dismember at {1}{B}{BP} or {B}{BP}{BP} would have kept the card out of decks that chose not to play any black, and preserved the inability of Green to deal with creatures without creatures of their own and Blue to permanently deal with creatures that had already resolved.

9) Tell us what your least favorite set is and why, and explain its greatest strength.

My least favorite set ever would be Legions, because the design of the set purposefully excluded nearly everything that makes Magic, Magic. Nothing but creatures was a design handicap that was a bridge too far for many, including me, and many of the cards weren’t particularly exciting or well-designed (looking at you, Defiant Elf).

However, one thing that Legions finally did right was balancing Slivers and focusing on what worked for them. For the first two sets they appeared in, Tempest and Stronghold, there were a significant number of Slivers that were utterly unplayable, even when fully committed to the archetype. Additionally, the number of Slivers that required sacrificing Slivers was far too high, meaning that players couldn’t meaningfully take advantage of all of the options that the Slivers gave them, given that one Sliver couldn’t be sacrificed multiple times. Legions gave all the Slivers permanent abilities, and expanded to newer and more unique abilities that were, as I recall, at the time transgressive and shocking. Toxin Sliver and Essence Sliver giving deathtouch-before-deathtouch and lifelink-before-lifelink, respectively, stand out as two examples of quite prescient design that excited me greatly, one of the redeeming features of the set.

Legions also did a very slick thing with Shifting Sliver, my personal favorite of the bunch. It flavorfully drove home that the Slivers were not at odds with one another naturally, and that their only “weakness” were other Slivers that were just as adaptable as they were. Flavorfully, I think that was a home-run choice; although mechanically, Slivers have now taken another path to become less all-for-one for gameplay reasons, I still think the idea of a tribe that shares a loyalty beyond the petty duels of warring planeswalkers resonated well in the time and place that Magic was in during Onslaught Block.

10) If you could change any one thing about Magic, what would it be?

If I was able to change any one thing about Magic, no matter the cost, practicality, or cosmic power it would take, it would be one simple thing that nearly every Magic card printed has been burdened with.

The card back!

Almost every card game that exists is sold by the design that surrounds it, and the most prominent place that the look, feel, and story of the game is sold is the quality of the back of the cards. A uniform card back, that would have an aesthetic that strongly resonated with the game, would be immensely helpful in branding the product and giving it the foot-in-the-door effect that’s needed to get people to try the product for the first time. The drab brown back, the completely irrelevant and out of date “Deckmaster” box, and the tiny color dots all confuse (or, at the very least, do not clearly communicate) what the game is really about and scream “this game is old fashioned and weird.”

The fact that professional players sleeve their cards in opaque-backed sleeves with a slicker logo when playing at the Pro Tour is enough to show how important the visual appeal of the card back is to the presentation of the game. Most players, however, never experience the game anywhere other than the kitchen table, and for someone stumbling upon a new card and completely unfamiliar with the mechanics of the game, it seems brutally unfair to the beauty and complexity of the game that it be sold to them by the current card back.

Now as to what the card back should look like, I leave to professional graphic designers. But certainly Magic Online and Magic: Arena could experiment in this space, and I, for one, would absolutely welcome the change.

Or just print all DFCs from now on…? Hmmmm….now THERE’s a change to Magic…


  1. Ha, Ryan, I also picked Haunt and New Phyrexia / Phyrexian mana! However, we had quite different details for our answers. :) Fun to see how similar-yet-different a GDS3 Finalist was from me!

    I love the choice of exert for evergreen status, that's a bold move. Getting rid of defender is also a natural selection, I'm a bit disappointed in myself for not thinking of it!

    Excellent essays, Ryan.

  2. Whoa! A tactical tarot-based game? I've seen plenty of tarot-based RPGs and tactical RPGs, but they're all on opposite ends of a spectrum for each other. How does Arenaball work?

    1. It even sounds like a sports tarot game, which is weird! I am so intrigued!

    2. So it’s a tactics based sports game, essentially like 4v4 football or rugby, which uses a regular card deck and “contested draws” instead of dice to resolve normal actions (who moves first, how far you can “block” someone, passing the ball, etc.)

      The important part for contested draws are the suits and how much your number beats/loses to the other player’s number.

      For certain special abilities, you instead draw from the Tarot deck - each Minor Arcana suit corresponds to its typical suit and resolves normally, while Major Arcana are “super moves”. It could basically be considered a version of a critical hit table.

      There’s also an RPG system for when you’re not playing your matches to build relationshps etc., but it’s very old and very very based on Persona and i haven’t gone back through fixing it quite yet.

    3. Yeah, excellent essays and I'm also v interested in arenaball

    4. Wow Ryan, that sounds great. I love the idea of building up relationships between matches to emphasize the personal aspects of sports!

  3. Exert!
    I can't believe I forgot exert. Good choice.