Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Ari Nieh's Essay Submission

(Hey all, Ari here! These are my essays for Trial 1, now with special Goblin Artisans exclusive formatting. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them.)

1) Introduce yourself and explain why you are a good fit for this internship.
My name is Ari Nieh, and I’ve written more sonnets about Magic: the Gathering than any other person on earth.
SERRA: That’s it? That’s the opening line we’re going with? Sonnets. Really?

FADE IN to reveal ARI sitting at a desk, typing his first GDS3 essay. A tiny, concerned SERRA ANGEL perches on his right shoulder. TIBALT, THE FIEND-BLOODED sits languidly on the left. 

TIBALT: The sonnet thing is gold. Rosewater and his schmoes have been reading essays for days. They could use a laugh! Besides, it’s true.

SERRA: Shouldn’t we lead with our work ethic? Or thoughtfulness, or creativity?

TIBALT: Any chump can claim to be smart and hardworking. Trust me, humor is the way to go.
I’m a freelance professional singer of medieval, renaissance, and baroque music. By day, I teach writing to mathematics majors. My other interests include puzzles, cooking, and game design.
TIBALT: Avacyn H. Christ, this is the worst Tinder profile I’ve ever seen.

SERRA: We’re showing humanity, Tibs. I think it’s relatable. Maybe they’re huge medieval music fans!

PAN to TIBALT’S pitying expression. A long silence. CUT back to SERRA.

SERRA: Moving on.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about Magic from a game design perspective. After GDS2, I co-founded the blog Goblin Artisans under the name HavelockV. Some of my better articles there include Variance and Entropy, Why Magic is Fun: Tempo vs. Card Advantage, and the New Player Perspectives series, which documents the process of my non-gamer girlfriend learning how to play.
SERRA: Isn’t referring to outside writing... kinda cheating the word limit?

TIBALT: Restrictions breed creativity, toots.
I also have a strong background in pedagogy, teamwork, and communication. My diverse skills and experiences make me an ideal creative collaborator.
SERRA: There. Clear and on topic.

TIBALT: Dull and tedious. But so is Ari.

SERRA: Do you think they’ll like the Angel/Devil framing device?

TIBALT: You kidding me? Rosewater uses this “conflicting personalities in dialogue” schtick in half his articles. It’s a shoo-in.

IRIS SHOT on TIBALT, who grins at the camera and winks. FADE TO BLACK.

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?

I hesitate to give this answer. It is, as the kids say, basic. If it were any more basic, it would be wearing Uggs and drinking a pumpkin spice latte while Evolving Wilds fetched it. But here it is anyway: Cycling should be made evergreen.

Cycling is a fantastic mechanic. It allows the printing of conditional cards: narrow answers like Stinging Shot, late game haymakers like Greater Sandwurm, conditional tricks like Djeru's Renunciation, and conditional threats like Unburden or Inferno Jet. It synergizes with virtually all graveyard mechanics such as Delirium, Flashback, and Unearth. It smooths out bad draws and prevents games from being over before they begin due to mana screw.

It’s also an extremely easy mechanic to grasp because it plays into normal human desires. Don’t want the card you just drew? Grab another one instead! It’s like picking up an apple in the produce section, noticing it’s bruised, and putting it down for a new one. The reminder text is a mere six words.

Cycling has an extremely broad design space, since it can be printed on almost any effect or permanent. The cost is flexible and can be colored or generic. It’s also easy and intuitive to build in cycling triggers for “smaller versions” of a spell, like Deem Worthy.

Lastly, Cycling is flavorless. This means it can fit into any world or setting without seeming out of place.

Every set needs a smoothing mechanic to improve rough draws and reduce mana screw and flood. Cycling does an admirable job of this. Right now, most new expansions spend some of their complexity points on unsexy incremental smoothing mechanics like Clash, Investigate, and Explore. Why not use Cycling every time and save the new mechanics for something that will get players excited?

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

I would stop printing cards with First Strike. First Strike is secretly just a bad version of Indestructible, and its design space isn’t that interesting. A new variant of Bushido would be a superior replacement.

Let me explain my logic. Whenever two creatures get into combat, there are four possible outcomes:

WIN: mine lives, yours dies
TRADE: both die
BOUNCE: both live
LOSE: mine dies, yours lives

(Here, if I had a whiteboard, I would draw a square diagram and some arrows.)

But what if my creature is no longer vanilla? If it has Indestructible, that turns every TRADE into a WIN, and it also turns LOSE into BOUNCE. Deathtouch operates perpendicular to Indestructible, turning BOUNCE into WIN and LOSE into TRADE. First Strike, however, just does part of what Indestructible does: it turns TRADE into WIN, but leaves LOSE and BOUNCE unaffected.

So we’ve established that Indestructible and First Strike are heavily overlapping in their gameplay, even though the flavor differs. Evergreen mechanics, few as they are, should pass a higher bar for uniqueness. Here’s why First Strike (as opposed to Indestructible) deserves to be cut.

The main problem with First Strike is that it’s always on. Indestructible is generally used as a temporary effect, like Regeneration of old; it doesn’t work on defense unless you take a tempo hit by leaving lands untapped. First Strike, however, works great on defense with no mana investment. If you leave back any First Strike creature, many defensive TRADES become WINS, which will strongly discourage your opponent from attacking. This sets up incentives for stalled board states. As a result, it’s risky to put First Strike on commons or uncommons with power at least 3.

Instead, I would replace First Strike with a reflavored Bushido that only triggered on attacking creatures. This would serve much of the same purpose offensively, turning some TRADES into WINS, although it could improve LOSES and BOUNCES, depending on the numbers. Unlike First Strike, it would avoid the defense problem. Also, the number in Newshido would allow for greater flexibility in tweaking power levels.

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

My overall strategy is give the stranger agency in how they engage with the game, so that they feel accomplishment and ownership. I would bring two Welcome Decks, life counters, and a quick reference sheet as described below.

[NB: One-on-one teaching requires flexibility and improvisation. What follows is one possible route through a lesson.]

After greeting them, I would immediately hand them the Welcome Decks. I’d say, “Have a look through these two decks. Eventually, you’ll pick one of them to play against me. Feel free to interrupt me at any point to ask questions about the cards.”

As they browsed, I’d mix in some questions of my own:

“Why do you want to learn Magic?”
“What are some of your favorite games?”
“What do you enjoy about that game?”
“Do you like any fantasy books, movies, or comics?”

Based on their answers, I’d frame explanations of the game appropriately. (Explaining what Magic is “about” to a poker player is different from explaining it to an anime lover.)

Once we’d built up some rapport, I’d give an extremely condensed rules overview, all of which appears on the reference sheet- object of the game (reduce opponent to from 20 to 0 by attacking with creatures), card types (land, creature, other), and turn structure (untap, draw, cast stuff, attack, cast other stuff). I’d point out examples on the cards they’ve been looking at. Then, I’d ask them to pick a deck and we’d start playing.

Their first game of Magic usually needs to be played open hand to help them understand what options are available. As much as possible, I would let them make all decisions; mistakes are fine! Of course, I’d also describe outcomes so that their decisions were meaningful. I’d allow and encourage rewinding mistakes. I might make surreptitious loose plays to give them opportunities for “aha” moments.

Once we finished a game, I’d ask them what they enjoyed about it and call attention to any good decisions they made. If time allowed, I’d then offer them the option of switching decks for the next game.

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

Magic’s greatest strength is the “build-play-build” feedback loop.

The closest analogy I can think of for Magic: the Gathering as a toy (as opposed to a game) is that it’s like Legos. Each card is a brick, and you make decks by choosing 40 or 60 bricks that fit nicely together. Only it’s better than that, because each brick has some tiny, cryptic instructions written on it that tell you what other size, shape, and color bricks go with it. Like a Lego spaceship, once you’re done with it, you can admire the way it fits together and the pleasing combination of colors and effects.

However, unlike a Lego spaceship, you can fly your Magic deck into battle afterwards. And unlike a real spaceship, your deck will still be in perfect condition after the battle, no matter how badly you got thrashed. (Chaos Confetti notwithstanding.) But based on your experience during the game, you can make alterations to your deck before playing it again: perhaps the mana curve needs tweaking, or you’re packing the wrong removal spells, or your late game splash is just too greedy. And once you’ve made those tweaks, you can bring it back into battle, and so on ad infinitum.

This “build-play-build” loop is present in games other than TCGs. Many RPGs, both computer-based and tabletop, follow this formula as well: fight monsters, go back to town, buy swag and equip it. It is also a common feature in MOBAs, where you’ll teleport back from the battlefield and come back after shopping for the appropriate items to tip the matchup in your favor. However, few games have the depth of the “build” phrase that Magic does. In fact, most of those that do are games where the entire focus is on building, and omit the “play” part altogether. For a single game to have such richness on both sides of the experience is nearly unprecedented. It allows a player to spend as much time as they like on tinkering and theorycrafting, which is intellectually and emotionally engaging in a way few games can match.

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

Magic’s greatest weakness is the investment required to learn it.

Tell somebody you’re a Magic player, and you’ll often hear a story like this: “Oh yeah, I knew some kids who played in the cafeteria back in high school. I watched a few times, but I could never figure out how it worked.” Why is this so commonplace?

Well, first, there’s the rules engine. Because the original game was printed without anticipating the need for a formal rules architecture, the rules of the game are numerous, byzantine, and sometimes obscure. For example, the stack comes up all the time in gameplay but is quite tricky to grasp. (And you can forget about explaining priority or layers!)

Then, there’s the issue of ownership. Most card or board games require one person to own a copy, and then all their friends can play. In Magic, everyone needs their own deck, and there is a widespread public perception that pouring a lot money into powerful cards is necessary to win. There are ways in which this perception is false, and others in which it’s true, but the fact that it exists at all discourages potential new players.

Lastly, even if you have a decent teacher and a passable deck, it takes time to get good at Magic. There are many different skills to master, both in play and in deckbuilding. It may take upwards of ten hours of game time before a new player has a real grasp of the basics.

Is it bad for a game to require a significant learning investment before it becomes truly enjoyable? Well, yes and no. Yes, some games fitting this description have historically been very popular, such as chess, Go, and bridge. But with the rise of digital games, most of which have built-in tutorials, it is much harder for a game with a long learning time to be popular. The average age of a competitive bridge player is 71.

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

The most promising Magic mechanic whose initial printing did not go well was Haunt.

Haunt is generally remembered as wordy and confusing. But by itself, the Haunt keyword is extremely simple! There were two mistakes on how Haunt was executed in Guildpact. First, there was an insistence on using the keyword in similar ways on creatures and spells. Second, there were too few clean, straightforward effects to scaffold the learning of what the keyword did.

One possible solution could have been printing a spells-only Haunt variant, which would function a bit like Rebound. This would go fine on many simple white or black one-time effects: -N/-N to a single creature, draining a player, creating a 1/1 flyer, drawing a card and losing 1 life, Disenchant, etc. These cards also could have been templated like Rebound to avoid repeating text, making it clearer that the same thing happens twice:

Slurp Soul
Each opponent loses 2 life and you gain 2 life.
Haunt (If you cast it from your hand, exile this card haunting target creature as it resolves. When that creature dies, you may cast this card from exile without paying its mana cost.)

The biggest problem with mimicking the spells’ function on creatures was that it was too hard to parse the conditional statement: “When CARDNAME enters the battlefield or the creature it haunts dies, EFFECT.” That’s a compound condition with non-parallel structure, and it takes too much deliberate attention to truly grasp it. One possible fix would be making the structure explicitly parallel: “When CARDNAME or the creature it haunts dies, EFFECT.”

However, there’s a better solution if we’re willing to abandon the premise that Haunt is about one-time effects. Focusing instead on creature abilities, there’s a clean “backwards Bestow” execution:

Orzhov Sentry
Creature - Human Soldier
Vigilance, Haunt
The creature haunted by CARDNAME has vigilance.

Or, for a less benevolent form of haunting:

Nephalia Moonhawk
Creature - Bird
Flying, Haunt
The creature haunted by CARDNAME gets -2/-0 and loses flying.

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

I loved Khans of Tarkir. After the poor reception of Kamigawa, I’d been waiting quite some time for Magic to return to an Asian-inspired setting. The clans each had their own vibrant, distinctive feel, and the flavor text, card art, and mechanics clicked together seamlessly.

The biggest blunder in Khans was the inclusion of Morph.

It’s not that Morph is a bad mechanic. It’s an excellent mechanic that rewards bluffing and game knowledge while still being fun for less skilled players. The gameplay is fun, and the design space is large. And Morph did do useful work in Khans. In a set based around three-color factions, it’s valuable to have cards that are playable for {3} early on before you’ve found your second or third color.

The problem with Morph was that it pulled focus away from what the set was supposed to be about. The heart of the set should have been the five clans. But each clan mechanic was printed on a mere 9, 10, or 11 cards. Morph, by contrast, was on 35 cards, including 17 commons!

Not only was Morph the most prominent mechanic as-fan, it was also by far the greatest expenditure of complexity points. For all its merits as a mechanic, Morph is fiddly and requires memory and attention. Many Khans limited games hinged on deducing the identity of your opponent’s face-down creature.

In short, Morph became a huge part of the mechanical identity of the set, despite not being what the set was about. It had no connection to the clans, no real flavor justification, and seemed as out of place in Tarkir as it would have in, say, Ravnica.

The most complicated and interesting mechanic in a set should be the one that best captures the flavor of the world. It’s fine to have off-flavor mechanics like Cycling or Rebound to fill in the margins, but your front-and-center flagship mechanic should evoke the setting, like DFCs, Vehicles, or Embalm. Horror needs werewolves, steampunk needs cool ships, and Egypt needs mummies. Asian warring clans don’t need Morph.

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

Lorwyn was my least favorite expansion. Champion felt downside-y and conditional. Clash was functional, but bland. The Tribal type was parasitic and arbitrary. And, of course, there were the Fae and their reviled Flashtastic gameplay. However, Lorwyn did one thing well which almost no other expansion has accomplished: it set a lighter, friendlier, and funnier tone for the game.

Much of this comes from excellent art direction. The color palette was sunny and vivid, and even the black cards had all the menace of a Brian Froud creation. Some artwork was overtly humorous, like Marsh Flitter or Stinkdrinker Daredevil. Other cards portrayed events that felt more like folklore than a duel: Footbottom Feast, Crib Swap, Pollen Lullaby, and Spring Cleaning. Violence, when it appeared, was shown as cartoonish rather than brutal on cards like Quill-Slinger Boggart and Giant's Ire.

Often, the nonthreatening feeling came from card names like “Glen Elendra Pranksters” and “Boggart Shenanigans”. Flavor text was another key vehicle, such as the delightful Springleaf Drum. And on many cards, art, name, and flavor text all contribute: Glimmerdust Nap and Lowland Oaf are two prime examples.

The mechanics of Lorwyn also supported this sense of lightness. Individual cards like Goatnapper brought levity to the gameplay. On a broader level, many of the tribal themes also supported the friendly tone. The death triggers on Boggarts gave them a slapstick feel- you could so easily imagine a Facevaulter carelessly knocking over a Mudbutton Torchrunner, whose cauldron would then slosh hot oil onto a hapless target creature.

I found this contrasting tone a pleasure to play with. Many games, movies, and comics are centered around Serious Badass protagonists who seriously solve their serious problems with serious violence. That gets old! Yes, Magic is a game focused around combat, but some people prefer Squirrel Girl to The Punisher.

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

There are several ways to interpret this question, and I’d like to answer two of them.

“You may change one thing about which Magic cards are printed in the future.”

I would redesign mana fixing effects in a few ways: separate fixing from ramp, reduce five-color fixing, and redistribute them throughout the color pie.

Rampant Growth is secretly two effects stapled together: it accelerates one’s land count by a single turn, and it fixes mana for any one color. These are both significant and powerful, and there’s no reason that the same deck always ought to want both. Instead, they should have to choose between Nature's Lore effects and Lay of the Land effects.

Second, most fixing should not let the player fix any color: more Elves of Deep Shadow, less Birds of Paradise. This would decrease the prevalence of 4-5 color goodstuff decks and increase diversity in card selection depending on colors.

Lastly, given how fundamental the mana system is to the game, creature-based ramp and land-fetching ramp should not go in the same color. It’s better for colors to access similar effects in different ways, such as Murder vs. Pacifism. Green is already reliant on its creatures for Fight effects; why not let green grab lands and give another color more incentive to keep its two-drops alive?

“You may change one thing about how Wizards of the Coast manages Magic.”

Magic has been, for most of its life, a hobby dominated by men. Although the proportion of women players has grown much recently, the community leaves much to be desired. The competitive scene is still quite unwelcoming to women: see Megan Wolff’s excellent June 2015 article. Sexism, racism, and anti-LGBTQ harassment are unacceptably common and have driven people out of the community. Magic cannot afford to keep losing people like Christine Sprankle.

I don’t know what resources Wizards of the Coast can commit towards fixing this problem. But I do know that serious proactive work is necessary to repair the condition of our hobby for people of all races, genders, and sexual orientations.


  1. Excellent intro! The introductions of everyone have had such character, I love it. :)

    Removing first strike is a bold choice. Personally, I've been thinking very similarly, except I want to convert it to always be like Kor Scythmaster (or Quickdraw in Eternal, if you're familiar with that). I think it was a great choice. I appreciated the layout of how similar it is to indestructible to, I'd never considered that.

    Another person picks Haunt... but unlike the other, you did the same solution as me! I'm glad we thought alike!

    I also like that you get right to the problem of the inequality in Magic. It's a serious issue for the future of Magic.

    Splitting mana ramp and land ramp across two colors is a very bold suggestion. What color would you give creature-ramp too? I could see an argument for black, given its precedence for little 'stooges' helping big 'monsters', like Exalted. In addition, it adds an interesting wrinkle to its gameplay. I'd personally lean towards (controversially, I'm sure) giving it to red as an extension of its 'one-shot' mana, letting red get a bit more depth to its commons and more potential designs for its 2-drops.

    Now, here's an argument against such a split, that I'd like to see you respond to: damage is also a vital part of the game, but red is 'the damage color'. It can damage creatures, players, and planeswalkers. Should red, too, have to give one or more of these types of damage to another color? The way we deal with damage being fundamental is to share it across colors, with philosophical restrictions: white can do it to creatures in combat, black can do it if it gains life by doing so, green can do it based on its creatures' power.

    Shouldn't we then not try to split what green has, but instead spread it with restrictions to other colors? That way green remains as robust as ever, but the other colors can interact with this fundamental aspect as well. Why do you argue for splitting it, rather than spreading it?

    1. Burn spells are often implicitly modal. What we call "burn" is multiple effects, and those effects are already divided between colors. For example, creature removal is Vanquish the Weak in black, Divine Verdict in white, and Bombard in red. Same effect, different mechanisms.

      Mana ramp is an effect, and Llanowar Elves and Explore are two mechanisms of accessing that effect. That's why I prefer them in different colors.

      This opens up a large can of worms on the precise definition of "effect" and "mechanism", but I'll decline to clarify that for now.

      As for colors, I agree that black makes sense, and here's an excerpt from my GDS2 essay about that:

      Mana-producing creatures would fit well in black for several reasons. Mana acceleration via small creatures is greedy (ding!) and a fragile investment (ding!) for rapid gains in power (ding!). Playing a one-drop accelerant would allow black to cheat (ding!) the normal mana curve. It is typically black to manipulate (ding!) some small creatures for power (ding!) and then send them to a chump-blocking death (ding!) when they're no longer needed (ding!). Lastly, dark magicians drawing upon subordinates for power to fuel spells is a popular fantasy trope, and would capture a lot of resonance. Which sounds better: "Fireball the cultists before they summon a demon" or "Fireball the elves before they summon a wurm"?

    2. First strike was a bold choice, indeed, and well-argued.

    3. Blood Pet was one of the biggest flavor-wins for me when I first started Magic! Obviously any mana acceleration needs to be carefully monitored, but I fully endorse this black/green/red split.

    4. I'm with you on splitting ramp between black and green, but in my GDS2 essay I argued for Nature's lore effects to move to black rather than green. Black has always had tutoring as a major mechanical identity, cares about accumulating more swamps and embraces breaking rules like playing only one land a turn. Mana production is already a core identity of green's Elves. Without it Elves loses a lot of mechanical identity.

    5. First strike is very high on my list to eliminate. It adds a whole extra phase to everything which needlessly complicates things (as evidenced by how problematic Last Strike is), and is a flavorfully offensive ability that actually works best on defense, and is especially problematic in large numbers because of board stalls.

  2. When reading your first essay, at first I thought the Serra and Tibalt were the “special Goblin Artisans exclusive formatting” and was a little overwhelmed! I’m glad you didn’t do that through all of the essays, haha.

    I really like your answers to 5 and 8.

    1. Nah, Serra and Tibalt were there because all my initial stabs at essay 1 felt either too terse or too boastful, and didn't show much personality. Of course, the web form didn't allow differing fonts, links, etc.

      Thank you!

  3. I know cycling was probably far and away the most popular answer for evergreen and it wouldn't surprise me if it actually happens.

    My one concern about it is how it actually gets implemented. My fear is that cycling would be used as a crutch to excuse mediocre or lackluster card design. Its value is very obvious when attached to cards that have narrow purposes or change in value as the state of a game changes.

    But it can also be used to hide that a card isn't particularly playable or worthwhile. I felt like there was cycling in Amonkhet that existed for the purpose of the mechanics that rewarded cycling cards and put on some really mediocre things that probably didn't deserve to see print (apologies for not having examples at my fingertips).

    So I worry that down the line cycling gets tossed on crap cards rather trying to make the cards worth actually playing.

    1. Agreed, cycling (if evergreen) would require care in its implementation. It might even preclude cycling-matters cards, but that's probably not such a great loss.

    2. I don't buy that we need both Cycling and Scry to be evergreen, as they both address screw/flood and smoothing. I might be convinced that every set should use one of Cycling and Scry, and pick on an as needed basis.

      For me, the recurring issue is that every set needs mana sinks, and clearly some sets they just forget to put one and limited suffers terribly for it (see Kaladesh, et al). Mana sinks have the problem of typically being complicated, but there are some simple ones. Kicker is the obvious choice, but Kicker is a feel bad mechanic more than a feel good one. If I have to cast my Kicker spell unkicked, I feel punched in the gut, and know I'm missing out.

      But there is an infinitely reusable non-feelbad version of Kicker in Monstrosity, and that is what I would pick to make evergreen. It is very easy to splash onto commons (like has been done in Conspiracy) and it does not add a lot of complexity. Since the effects can only be used once, they do not lead to repetitive gameplay or other issues like many mana sinks do.

      I do think there is the possibility that you want a tweaked version of Monstrosity that is Sorcery speed.

  4. You've got a Nash Equilibrium going for your First Strike discussion which means It's Time For Some Game Theory (tm)

    I'm a big fan of dividing Big abilities into smaller pieces, because Big abilities gobble up design space. Take Protection. Protection was insane, it was hexproof, indestructible, unblockable and a few other things all rolled into one. That's a lot! Separating it out meant those abilities could go onto more cards. And now we're even seeing Hexproof get further split to colors or just abilities. Rolling First Strike up into indestructible helps from an efficiency stand point, but it loses the nuance to create more evocative cards. Imagine a mechanic like:

    Final Revenge (When this creature dies from combat damage, destroy all creatures that dealt it combat damage this turn)

    This is a subset of deathtouch (turns losses into wins but not bounces into wins), but as a result has a different feel. Maybe this ability goes into a Klingon-esque RW tribe that always fights to the death? At least it feels like it would go on different cards than the scorpions, rats and spiders associated with deathtouch.