Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Alex Werner'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(Wizards has alerted GDS3 Top 8 contestants that their essays would not be published on the mothership, and gave them clearance to self-publish.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 explain why you are a good fit for this internship.

Hi, my name is Alex Werner, I would like this internship as a step toward winning a game of Magic Bingo that I’ve been very slowly playing for the past 20+ years. I almost have the card complete. Be a sanctioned judge? Check. Play on the pro tour? Check. Create, print out, and play with entire homemade expansions? Check. Get a friend’s face into the art of a real Magic card as an engagement present? Check. All I’m missing is “actually design real Magic cards”. Victory is within my grasp!

More seriously, I am truly passionate about Magic. I fall asleep at night thinking about what colors the various factions in Game of Thrones would be if they were guilds in a Magic expansion. I listen to Magic podcasts on my way to work. Many of my best friends are people I met playing Magic. In fact, I’ve known some of them for so long that I’m now also playing Magic with their teenage children.

And in addition to that, I’ve worked for 20+ years as a computer/video game developer, and have read and thought extensively (including college classes) about game theory. There is nothing I enjoy more than creating games, modifying games, improving games, and of course, playing games. In fact, each year my wife and I invent several new games, invite everyone we know, and host a game party to raise money for charity. This year the games included a variation of Balderdash with hidden roles, a clue-giving game involving manipulating a life-size puppet, and a version of What Were You Thinking (which was invented by Richard Garfield himself).

Plus, I’m hilariously funny, stunningly handsome, and nearly immeasurably modest.

2) An evergreen mechanic is a keyword mechanic that shows up in (almost) every set. If you had to make an existing keyword mechanic evergreen, which one would you choose and why?

Cycling. Next question?

OK, I won’t answer cycling, because I suspect everyone else is answering cycling. It’s a good answer. But I’ll go for something else. So, what do we want from an evergreen keyword?

(a) It should be easily grokkable. This is something that someone playing in their second game of Magic ever needs to be able to understand.

(b) It should not have any restrictions about what kinds of sets it can exist in. Any mechanic that references +1/+1 or -1/-1 counters, for instance, would only be able to exist in a set with that type of counters.

(c) It should be flavorful in the way that flying or trample is flavorful, but the flavor needs to be generic enough to fit into any fantasy world. So, no ninjutsu.

(d) It should fill a need. It should add something to the game, and to the color pie.

(e) It should be flexible. The more different types of cards it can go on, the more design space there is, the more variety it will bring to the game.

So, with all of that said, my choice is convoke. Particularly with the new templating, it’s quite easy to understand how it works. It can fit into any set with creatures. It presents interesting gameplay and deckbuilding decisions without being complex or overwhelming. It has interesting but not intrusive synergies with any mechanic that cares about tapped creatures. And it’s the rare mechanic that can go on any card type other than land. (A planeswalker with convoke? Yes please!)

I guess the biggest knock against convoke-as-evergreen is the question of what hole it fills, what need it’s addressing. I’d argue that convoke lets bigger creatures, and bigger spells, be cast. And big creatures and big spells are fun. Magic shouldn’t be dominated by 9/9s. But it’s fun when they show up occasionally, and convoke helps that happen.

3) If you had to remove evergreen status from a keyword mechanic that is currently evergreen, which one would you remove and why?

Hexproof, and it’s not close. In a practical sense, hexproof is widely disliked, both in limited and constructed. What was the only bad thing about Innistrad limited? Invisible Stalker + Butcher's Cleaver. What was the worst thing about Ixalan limited? Jade Guardian + One With the Wind. What’s a Modern deck that no one ever clamors to see more of on camera? Bogles.

But taking a step back for a second, I think the real problem is that it’s such a high variance mechanic, in a way that’s out of your control as a deck builder. How good it is depends entirely on what your opponent is trying to do. Some opponents, perfectly smart people and perfectly good Magic players, will have decks which are just heinously crushed beyond all belief by hexproof. Others will have decks that don’t care in the slightest. Arguably, that adds some level of interest to a constructed metagame, and I don’t object to splashy rare creatures like Geist of Saint Traft or Carnage Tyrant. But for limited, that leads to far more feel-bad than feel-good moments.

You draft all your hexproof creatures, and your opponent is just an aggro deck with no removal, and you get rolled over because your hexproof creatures are a bit overcosted? Feels bad.

You draft an insane deck with tons of removal, and your opponent has a bunch of overcosted hexproof creatures, and you lose with 5 doom blades in hand? Feels bad.

And there isn’t really a corresponding feel good moment. OK, I had a hexproof creature, my opponent couldn’t kill it. I mean, that’s good, I guess, but it’s not enough of a fist pump to cancel out all the feel-bads.

So, demote hexproof from evergreen, occasionally use it on big splash rares when a constructed environment needs it, and the game will be better for it.

4) You're going to teach Magic to a stranger. What's your strategy to have the best possible outcome?

I would have a three stage process:

(1) Come prepared with some simple and straightforward decks, probably mono-colored; with a thematic and appealing, but not over-complicated, set of spells. But don’t go too far and have just a deck of vanilla 2/2s. Part of the fun of Magic is drawing a card and reading it and saying “oh, wow!” Even the very first game someone plays should have that moment

(2) Explain a few basic concepts (life totals, what your library is, how lands and mana work, touch briefly on creatures), being aware of some common misconceptions among new players.

(3) Play a first game in which both players’ hands are open, but making sure not to just dictate all of the new player’s decisions. You can go into slightly more detail about some of the concepts from step (2) as they come up. For instance, the first time attacking and blocking is possible, I’d go into a little spiel about “OK, when you attack, you’re not telling your creatures to fight one of their creatures. You’re telling it to go charging across the field and bash your opponent in the face. It’s up to your opponent to decide whether any of his creatures should try to get in the way…” and so forth.

(I think the trickiest balance is how quickly to get into actually playing the game. Both of the following are bad:

(a) Here are some cards, take 7 of them. No, don’t show them to me! OKk, find one that says “land” on it, kind of in the middle of the card. Put it on the table, OK, we’re having fun!

(b) This game is great! Now I’m going to talk at you for 45 minutes before we even try to play the most simple of games. Having fun?)

Above all, listen to what they say. Not everyone learns at the same pace. Not everyone enjoys the same aspects of Magic.

5) What is Magic's greatest strength and why?

Magic’s greatest strength is variety. Obviously, there are an enormous number of different ways to play magic. Draft, commander, competitive constructed, cube, pack wars, etc. But, while that’s wonderful, that’s not what makes me love Magic. What I love about Magic is that every time I play, there’s at least a potential that I’ll see something totally new. And this is echoed large and small. Each new set, each new format, is a different challenge. So is each new draft. So is each new deck. And even each match-up.

And not just new to me. I’ve probably made plays that no one else in the world has ever made. I once blocked Colossus of Sardia with Abu Ja'far and cast… Formation. Yes, that Formation. The rare cantrip from Ice Age that gives a creature Banding until end of turn. Yes, that Banding. Which means that I was allowed to assign all 9 damage from the Colossus to Abu himself, and take zero trample damage. That precise combination of cards may never have come up in any other game played by any other person, ever. Magic has an incredible range of experiences.

But at the same time, it’s always the same game. Every lesson I learn, every mistake I make, helps me improve going forward. There’s a frequently quoted claim that you have to do something for 10,000 hours to become an expert. Magic is something I can do for 10,000 hours, continuing to improve, continuing to work towards that expertise, but still constantly find new things to experience.

Also, it’s super fun.

6) What is Magic's greatest weakness and why?

I’m going to again skip some of the most obvious answers. You must be sick of reading 250-350 words about mana screw. Instead, I’ll talk about something that is arguably more of a difficulty than a weakness, which is the flip side of Magic’s variety. Magic can be played an enormous number of different ways. But that makes it incredibly difficult to design for. It would be much easier if the only Magic ever played was constructed tournaments in the Modern format. Then R&D could keep an eye on the Modern metagame, figure out which decks were too good or too bad, figure out what strategies could use a boost, and print cards accordingly.

But in the real world, all of those cards will get played in Standard, and limited, and constructed. A card which makes Modern better might render Standard unplayable, or lead to a tedious and repetitive limited format.

I’m a limited player. I could talk until the cows come home about what would make limited more fun, at least for me. But would that card I’d love to see, that mechanic, be tunable for Standard? For Modern? For Legacy? Would it get insta-banned in Commander?

It’s a tough problem.

And it’s even tougher than that. Magic cards don’t just need to appeal to players of different formats. They need to appeal to players of vastly different experience levels. I’ve been playing magic for over 20 years. Sitting next to me at a pre-release might be someone who’s been playing for 20 days. R&D needs to print cards that appeal to both of us. And that is not an easy job.

7) What Magic mechanic most deserves a second chance (aka which had the worst first introduction compared to its potential)?

I’m going to go recent on this one and choose explore (risking that by the time you read this, the RIX pro tour will have been dominated by explore decks). Explore is my favorite mechanic from Ixalan by far, but it feels squeezed out by the strong tribal themes, and the general speed of the format.

I think one of several things has to happen for a mechanic to really shine on its first release:

(1) Enough powerful, pushed cards printed with it to make an impact in constructed

(2) Wide exploration of the mechanic’s design space

(3) High enough as-fan to really feel like a key part of the limited environment

(4) Enough build-arounds for there to be a clear deck based on that mechanic.

Explore fails entirely on (1) (so far), falls just short on (3), and doesn’t even get close on (2) and (4).

I think what makes explore such a good mechanic is that it works fine just as a minor-creature-bonus and land-draw-smoother, which is how it’s mainly used in Ixalan, but also has enormous potential design space which is mainly so far unused. A creature that explores every upkeep. A creature that explores but also lets another creature explore when it ETB. Instant explore as a combat trick. And of course, it would be interesting to see what impact explore would have on constructed if it were really pushed on uncommons, rares and mythics.

Another benefit of explore, which is the sign of a flexible mechanic, is that it has built-in interactions with three entire areas of design space: lands, the top of your library, and +1/+1 counters.

Fingers crossed for more explore soon!

8) Of all the Magic expansions that you've played with, pick your favorite and then explain the biggest problem with it.

Hard to pick one single favorite after so many years, but easily in the top rank is Rise of the Eldrazi. MaRo would say that the biggest problem with Rise is how different it was from a normal expansion, how little it followed New World Order, how unapproachable it was to new players. And I’m sure he’s right, from an R&D perspective. But that’s not the biggest problem from my perspective, and I’m the one answering.

So, the biggest problem with Rise, as a draft set, was two interrelated issues: Totem Armor, and the lack of a good strategy for White. Totem Armor was one in a fairly long series of attempts to fix the problem with auras, namely, the risk of getting 2-for-1’d. But Rise is just about the worst possible expansion for Totem Armor to be in. Not only is Rise full of cheap interaction which beats totem armor (Narcolepsy being the prime example), it’s also full of decks that go way over the top. Oh, you have a creature with +2/+2 and it won’t die the first time it would otherwise die? How cute. I have an Eldrazi on turn 5.

And Totem Armor was one of the primary mechanics of White, which ended up almost entirely on the outside looking in. There was a good WU level-up deck, but aside from that, White was entirely absent from just about every good strategy. It wasn’t controlling enough to beat any of the slow decks in a long game, and it wasn’t aggressive enough to beat any of them in the short game. In the end, Rise limited became nearly entirely a 4-color format, aside from the rare time when you opened Gideon Jura and had to find some way to make it work.

9) Of all the Magic expansions that you've played with, pick your least favorite and then explain the best part about it.

I was playing when Homelands was released. But that’s just too easy (well, choosing Homelands is easy… trying to come up with the best thing about Homelands is not), so instead I’ll go with the worst set I’ve ever drafted, which is Coldsnap.

For me, the fun of Magic is variety. And most of Coldsnap’s mechanics worked directly against that. It was a set that actively wanted you to draft as many of the same card as possible. It’s possibly the most parasitic set ever printed.

But there is one absolutely top-notch mechanic in Coldsnap, one I certainly considered mentioning as my answer for mechanic which most deserved a second chance. Namely, Recover.

Recover is one of those rare mechanics which is as complicated as you want it to be. You can just cast your recover spells whenever, and not feel all that bad if they get exiled, because they did what they were supposed to do. But there’s also an entire strategic subgame built into pressuring recover spells in the graveyard, trying to catch a player tapped out, saving removal for just the right moment, etc.

And of course, Coldsnap itself never pretended to do anything but scratch the surface of the design space recover offers. Recover costs that aren’t just mana? Recover triggers? Creatures with recover? Land with recover? I’d love to see what a modern design team could do with it.

Aside from Recover, Coldsnap had some good flavor, and snow is another concept that has never really gotten a chance to shine, but Recover is by far its highlight.

10) You have the ability to change any one thing about Magic. What do you change and why?

Again, I’m going to take this in a slightly different direction from what was maybe intended, and not talk about mana screw or improving the trade interface in MTGO, and instead make a suggestion that is almost certainly 100% impossible now, but which would be fantastic if it had been built into Magic from the beginning. Which is… to have an icon associated with keyword creature abilities. Not an icon associated with EACH ability (ie, wings for flying, a sword for first strike, or what have you), mind you, but an icon associated with the very idea of a keyword ability. So, let’s call that icon “K” for the purposes of this discussion. Serra Angel would have a textbox like this:

K -> Flying, Vigilance

Primeval Titan would look like this:

K -> Trample

When ~ enters the battlefield or attacks…

Ideally, this would even be built into the card layout. So you could look at a card and immediately see all of its keyword abilities, right there in one convenient place. No more forgetting that something has first strike because it’s lost under all the other lines of rules text.

More relevantly, however, it clarifies a bunch of design space that currently requires extremely awkward phrasing. How many cards say something like “if target creature has flying, all your creatures gain flying until end of turn. The same is true of first strike, deathtouch, trample and vigilance”?

Instead, cards could just say “For every K ability target creature has…”.

There’s some trickiness here, where you want block-specific abilities to be K abilities during that block, but you also want to be able to print cards that say things like “target creature gains a K ability of your choice,” without that bringing in 5-year-old abilities. A partial solution to that is to say “Target creature gains a K ability of your choice from among all K abilities mentioned on cards on the battlefield and in all graveyards”, where it scales automatically with the current format, but also makes more powerful abilities like double strike harder to get.


  1. Your argument about the lack of feel-good moments for Hexproof is the most convincing one I've ever heard. Nicely done!

    1. And yet WotC seems weirdly resistant to killing hexproof. Does market research show that a majority of players actually like the mechanic? Or is it widely acknowledged as a feel-bad thing, but since it's not literally causing players to abandon OP in droves (the way "Constructed playable land destruction" did, even when it was balanced? Maybe? I dunno) WotC doesn't see a reason to stop using it as part of its toolbox?

      My last major Hexproof Story involved Bogles. It was an on-camera feature match, Bogles versus Abzan. Both games played out like so:
      Bogles plays a bogle.
      Abzan plays a creature.
      Bogles suits up the bogle.
      Abzan plays more creatures.
      Bogles attacks for a few turns.
      Abzan assembles its creature combo (because Bogles isn't playing any creature disruption whatsoever) and gains infinite life.
      Bogles concedes.
      As much as I hate Bogles, it wasn't even fun to watch Bogles lose.

    2. I wonder if Hexproof is quietly being demoted to a "casual only" mechanic that no longer goes on cards pushed for Standard. Bristling Hydra could easily have been an accident, but we're definitely not seeing the likes of Geist of Saint Traft nowadays.

  2. I love the Formation story.

    "Above all, listen to what they say." WISE.

    I'm also a huge fan of explore and hope to see it again.

    K is fascinating. Maybe we could bold keywords moving forward. Either solution would help keywords' visibility, as well as differentiating them further from ability words.

    I imagine when a card says “target creature gains a K ability of your choice” that you'd be limited to keywords that exist in the format you're playing.

  3. Green-black explore decks are proving to be very dominant in the limited two-block environment of Arena. As powerful as merfolk if crafted well. When they trigger properly, there's that moment where the game seems competitive, but then by the end of that turn, both sides realize it's over.

    I think it's your number three where it failed. Unlike the merfolk, it's really not apparently how strong it is until you get everything together. And maybe it should not have bled into the other colors. I think that diluted player understanding of where the mechanic belonged.

    1. Oh, and the other thing was that the pieces that really made it shine were actually in Rivals of Ixalan (Path of Discovery/Tendershoot Dryad/Jadelight Rangers). So you couldn't even really "see" there was a strong B/G deck in store based on just the first Ixalan release.

    2. I feel explore looks great on paper but plays a lot worse.

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    1. Hi Martin. I've deleted this comment because it's in violation of our community guidelines. You are welcome to post again in a more loving manner. If you have any questions, feel free to ask.