Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Meet the Top 8: Ari Nieh

Next in our series of interviews with the GDS Top 8, we spoke with Ari Nieh, one of the co-founders of Goblin Artisans.

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

I've done relatively little design for board games and card games other than Magic. Some friends and I once came up with a lunch buffet-themed card game called "Pass Me That Butter". Most of my experience is on the roleplaying side of things: I've collaboratively written many LARPs, and I once designed a tabletop RPG system for a friend's bachelor party.

I also love writing and editing puzzles. For examples of my work, have a look at Sufficiently Advanced Technology from the 2011 MIT Mystery Hunt and Mostly Clueless from the 2012 Mathcamp Puzzle Hunt.

How long have you been designing magic cards?

I caught the Magic design bug during the second Great Designer Search. I was quite obsessed with the competition, and designed many, many cards for the finalists. After GDS2 was over, a bunch of us decided to get together and found Goblin Artisans as a place to continue writing about Magic.

Have you made any public-facing sets?

Nope, not a single one. I got our Tesla project off the ground, but handed it off to other Artisans when real life got too busy. The most I've done myself is A Set in Four Cards.

You were there at the very beginning of Goblin Artisans. Can you tell us a little bit about its history?

The second Great Designer Search had a major community interaction component. In all the challenges, the competitors were required to use some number of community designs. A small handful of community members did a ton of design work, and were often available by Twitter to design cards or give feedback to contestants at the drop of a hat. We called ourselves Tweet Force Alpha.

After the five elimination rounds were over, but before the top three were flown out to Renton, I contacted all of Tweet Force Alpha as well as the finalists, and asked who was interested in starting a Magic design blog together. From Tweet Force Alpha, we got Chah, metaghost, and me. (Dan Emmons and shdwcat had both gone on to work for WotC around that time.) From the finalists, we got Ethan Fleischer, Scott Van Essen, Jonathan Woodward, and of course Jay Treat. (Obviously, we didn't get to keep Ethan very long!)

Over the years, we added other authors from the community: Daniel Stockton (GDS2 community contributor), Jay Zeffren (GDS2 top 100), Jules Robins (now at WotC), and Inanimate. Recently, we've formalized the community article submission process, which should make it easier for our many excellent commenters to write for the site.

Why has the community grown and thrived? Well, I don't know how people find us - we haven't done much in the way of advertisement. And we're pretty niche, so not very many people care about Goblin Artisans when there isn't a Great Designer Search going on. But without a doubt, the one major reason we've stayed afloat all these years has been because Jay Treat will not stop publishing. Most of the blog's authors have long periods of inactivity, but Jay is a design machine, and he's kept this place running for seven years!

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

I think there are lots of simple answers to this question: high word count, rarity issues, color pie mistakes, kitchen sink design, etc. But I'm going to be difficult and answer a different question, one whose answer I think might be more interesting to our readers: "Once an amateur designer has mastered the basics, what will take them to the next level?"

And here, I think the most important next step is thinking about player incentives. It doesn't matter if your designs are concise, elegant, evocative, color- and rarity-appropriate, etc. unless players are excited to put them into their decks! Lots of people think about amateur Magic design from an expressive point of view: they have these ideas inside them, and want to get them out using the language of Magic cards. And that's wonderful. But I think the best people out there are thinking about this in an audience-centered way. They ask the question, "Who am I serving with this design, and what are they getting out of it?"

What was your reaction when they announced GDS3?

I literally had chills and started shaking. I was in the middle of class, but fortunately not actively teaching at the time. When I found out, I wasn't sure I would even compete. My current employment situation and relationship are excellent, but my partner convinced me not to preemptively turn down any opportunity.

When you decided to compete, did you think you'd make it all the way to top 8?

I thought there was a chance. With thousands of competitors, it didn't seem like something I could count on. But of those thousands, only a handful have put in the hours I have in Magic design and theory. So, I hoped it might happen.

In general, the people who are best at any skill are those who have spent a great deal of time on focused practice with consistent feedback, so I did expect to see a strong Goblin Artisans presence in the Top 8. But honestly, the fact that I made it in feels a bit like coincidence. The multiple choice test could very easily have gone one point in the wrong direction, and then boom, nothing.

How did you prepare for the essays and the multiple choice quiz?

Well, I'd been quite out of the loop as far as Magic stuff goes. I hadn't played since Kaladesh, and had no idea what had even been printed since then! So I read spoilers, built a crapton of sealed pools, watched some streams. I caught up on the Making Magic and Play Design columns, and of course started writing and commenting at Goblin Artisans again.

What did you think about the multiple choice test?

The difficulty level of the questions was way, way, way too low. When you're only testing for the top 100 out of thousands, easy questions have no discriminatory power. Hard questions are much more useful. They literally could have cut half the questions on the test without making a difference in the scores.

The model they should be using for this is something called the Putnam Exam. It's a math contest for undergraduates, scored out of 120, and the median score is usually in the single digits. Sometimes the median is 0 or 1. It's great for picking out the top 100 or so math contest-takers in the country, whereas something like the math subject GRE is pretty useless for that, because you have too many perfect or near-perfect scores.

TL;DR cut all the easy questions, write twice as many hard ones.

When you got word that you'd made the cut to Top 8, what was the first thing you did?

Told my partner, who was standing in the kitchen with me. Screamed. Went back to cooking dinner, since it was Chinese New Year and we had a lot of people coming over.

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

As a kitchen table player who loves drafting, I adored Conspiracy. Shawn Main is a genius.

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

It's hard to pick a single example! Five selections from different genres: Galaxy Trucker, Drawful 2, Choice of Robots, Braid, Katamari Damacy.

Of the Dominaria stuff that's been previewed so far, what's your favorite design? 
(Editor's Note: This interview was conducted before the full spoiler was released.)

All of the Sagas. It's such a novel but natural card type, and they absolutely nailed the flavor and art with the new frame.

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

I'm a freelance singer of medieval, renaissance, and baroque music. By day, I teach writing to math students.

Once the show starts, what's your walk-on music?

Tightrope by Janelle MonĂ¡e.


  1. I can't believe we both write LARPs and never knew that about each other. What kind do you enjoy?

    1. My background as a player is in Mind's Eye Theatre and its adaptations of Vampire: the Masquerade. (Clan Malkavian represent!) But after college, I never found a group that really measured up to my local chapter, and drifted away from long chronicle LARPs.

      As an author and storyteller, I mostly write 3-4 hour one-off games for 12-45 players. My friends and I sometimes compete in Iron GM at Intercon. What about you?

    2. I gravitate toward no-prep statless American Freeform. My three best LARPs are 2-4 hours for 3 (Damned Love), 6-9 (Strange Gravity), 5-8 (A Pirate's Life) players, and focus on emotion, style, and relationships, respectively.

    3. If the GDS does absolutely nothing else, it at least led to this exchange, and for that I will always be grateful. :)

  2. This is a great interview! My favorite so far, especially as someone new to the site as of GDS3. It's super interesting to read about the history of the community.

    Good luck to Ari, and to all of the top 8!

    1. Thank you so much, Bradley! It was Zefferal's idea to tell our readers a bit about the history of GA.

  3. After a couple GDSes, I'm starting to wonder what a hard-but-fair multiple choice question about Magic card design even looks like. I'm starting to find it hard to imagine.

    1. "Here is a card. Design-wise, what is the biggest problem with this card?

      (A) Ability X is out of color pie.
      (B) The card is too strong for Standard.
      (C) The comprehension complexity is too high.
      (D) The play pattern it incentivizes is too repetitive.
      (E) None of these are true- the card is fine as is."

      Many questions like this. Or the same for fake new keywords, set themes, etc. Can you tell what will or won't fly, and for what reason?

    2. That seems like a really good question depending on the accompanying design. Just felt I had to say.

    3. Sam, have you seen the practice questions we published here before the test?

    4. I think a question like, why did we design this card or what is the purpose of this?