Monday, April 9, 2018

Meet the Top 8: Ryan Siegel-Stechler

Continuing our interviews with the GDS Top 8, we spoke with long-time Artisan Ryan Siegel-Stechler. Click through and see what he has to say about Magic design.

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

I first started playing Magic somewhere around 1999, and first started designing my own Magic cards shortly thereafter. I had a couple of custom sets that I worked on with friends, the first & only that I saw through to completion being Heatwave with David Conrad, who I’d met playing on MWS. He and I went through the set recently and it’s really interesting looking back at this time capsule of younger me. We made a ton of mistakes but also a ton of designs that I really think still hold up, which is super cool.

I entered a game design contest on Something Awful and created a diceless RPG system/tactics game called Arenaball, and I also have a prototype for a card/negotiating game based off of Haggle by Sid Sackson that I named Hoard that I’ve been working on for the past year or so.

You've been contributing at GA for a few years now, offering feedback and submissions to the Design Challenges. How did you find the site?

I was trying to figure that out myself, honestly! I'm pretty sure that I stumbled across it by some combination of Google and possibly seeing someone mention it elsewhere. I had done amateur design via You Make the Card contests on mtgsalvation and magic-league back when it was thriving, but both of them didn't have a lot of design content otherwise. When I was going back through, it seems like it was somewhere around 2014-2015 that I started visiting regularly, and it's been one of my top bookmarks for a long time.

Once I found GA and knew there was somewhere I could come back to, for the design contests, but also for regular articles and a bigger community of people who were there specifically for design, I was hooked immediately.

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

I think an underrated mistake is not talking to many other people, both other game designers and non-game designers, and also not being open to the feedback that you get. One of the best things about being a part of a community like Goblin Artisans is that you constantly get feedback on what you’re doing well or poorly. You can’t just design in a vacuum and come out with a perfect product, so the more you can get others’ opinions and learn that they’re not attacking you personally, that they’re just trying to help you be the best designer you can be, the better off your game will be for it.

Do you think GA has helped you grow as a designer?

Absolutely, mostly from the regular card design contests and weekly feedback. The fact that the whole community is so generous with their feedback on the weekend design challenges makes for an excellent feedback loop. When I get good commentary, I know what's working, and by looking at other people's cards and forcing myself to consider what would be fun or not about them, I learn a lot about different design aesthetics and different ways of approaching the same problem. Design challenges on other sites are usually much more open-ended design, and only one person would "judge" at a time. GA is a totally different model, and I think it works much better when you can be both an amateur designer and an amateur judge every week. Both are muscles you need to stretch regularly if you want to get better at both coming up with design of your own and being able to refine and polish that rough idea into a good card.

With something like GDS3, where you have to be your own harshest critic and not be too sentimental about your first draft ideas, it's incredibly helpful to have made so many cards and have gotten so much feedback, and also to have practiced giving feedback for a long time.

When they announced the GDS3, did you think you’d make it all the way to the top 8? Did you prepare ahead of the essays and multiple choice quiz? 

It's sort of a weird question to think about. On the one hand, obviously I felt like I had a shot, because otherwise I wouldn't have taken the time to write all the essays and take the test. I read a whole bunch of GDS1 and GDS2, I did a bunch of the practice test questions that were on GA and generally devoured all the content from MaRo that I could so that I could give it the best shot possible. But realistically, I thought, "eh, this is a pipe dream," while I was writing the essays.

Really the first moment that felt "Wow, I actually maybe have a real shot" was when we were all swapping test scores and I figured out by process of elimination that I must've gotten a perfect score. I had just listened to MaRo's podcast and the fact that only one person previously had gotten a perfect score, and he had gotten an interview at Wizards at one point, and so it really started to sink in that I'd done something pretty special. Then when I submitted the design test, I felt pretty good about most of my cards, but still, I knew there was only a less than 10% chance that I'd make Top 8. I was steeling myself for rejection, to be quite honest, and when I got the email from MaRo at like seven in the morning, I woke up my whole house I was so excited. It still feels a bit surreal that MaRo knows my name, has personally emailed me, playtested my cards, and liked them.

Thoughts on the multiple choice test? The Essays?

I liked the essays. They were similar to the previous ones but from what I've read of the Top 8 and from some people who didn't make it, there were interesting takes generated from each prompt.

I got a perfect score on the multiple choice test so I can't complain too much. Honestly, I think there are some merits to some of the criticisms about the controversial questions, but I think MaRo's addressed most of them in ways that I'm personally satisfied with. I think the biggest change I'd maybe like to see is weighted scoring, but I think ultimately the top 200 people of either version of the test are probably deserving and only 100 of their tests are going to get read, so it's kind of six of one, half-dozen of the other at that point. I don't think that it proves I'm significantly ahead design-wise of someone that got a 72 on the test, for example. But even if it was more striated, I still think more or less the "next 100" are all probably quite good.

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

I more or less play three formats now: Limited (usually Draft), EDH, and Cube. I treat a FNM draft like many people treat going to the movies: I spend $15 for 3+ hours of entertainment, and if I win, I plow the “earnings” right back into the Cube or my EDH deck. It keeps me on a budget (which back when I played Modern I had trouble doing), which is good. Limited is great too because there’s a new format all the time. I love learning a new format; going to a prerelease or drafting a set for the first time is one of my favorite Magic experience. It’s really fun to try to figure out on the fly what archetypes are/aren’t viable the first couple of times. I’ve found a couple formats too where I’ll fall in love with a quirky draft archetype and force it (e.g. Pieces of the Puzzle/Rise from the Tides combo in SOI/EMN draft).

As a designer, I’m generally pretty Melvin-y. I like looking at the new rules interactions when a set comes out and trying to figure out where the pressure points were that caused them to make the decisions that they did. I’m much more excited about a brand new mechanic than I am about a new tribe getting supported, for example. The game can just be so many things, and I’m always tickled at how clever Wizards is at finding the fun in unexpected new places (e.g. my mind was blown when DFCs first came out however many years ago).

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

The thing I can say is my favorite right now would be Conspiracy. Draft being my favorite format, the Conspiracy sets have been the source of many of my favorite Magic stories and the draft formats are really well designed. I enjoyed those a lot. I’m really excited about Brawl, though. Having a way for Draft-focused players to be able to use the one-of Standard rares that they get (without having to just use them as trade bait) is perfect for me, and I plan to try to be the standard bearer at my local store for the format!

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

Gosh, I don’t think I could pick just one. Pokemon obviously is up there, in the sense that it really pushed forward an entire genre of RPG. I love the Persona series for the characters and stories. From a board game perspective, Tzolk’in is one of my all-time favorites, especially with the way it combines form and function. I also love playing Wizard/Oh Hell! with family, and think it’s by far the best designed trick taking card game out there.

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

I’m a poet and do some writing (though frankly, not a ton anymore, game design is more or less my primary creative outlet now). I’m a total city boy and love exploring new neighborhoods or new cities. I’m pretty passionate about food, too. I’m not a huge TV/movie watcher but particularly compelling shows that my wife watches will suck me in – the first season of Jessica Jones for example was really good.

So when the show starts, what's your official walk on music?

Dangerous by Big Data ft. Joywave

What's your favorite Dominaria preview card so far? 

The one i want most for my commander deck is Verix Bladewing, the one I think is best designed is probably The Mirari Conjecture, and my overall favorite isn't a card that's in Dominaria at all, it's the original saga designs by Richard Garfield that they posted that are SO FREAKING COOL.

Thank you Ryan, and Good Luck in the GDS!

Follow Ryan on Twitter


  1. Great points about the value of feedback. One thing I'm super happy with about how GA has evolved is that design is an ongoing conversation here. I can go to any random card creation forum and see a bunch of designs, but here I get to read multiple perspectives and analysis on all those designs.

    I had no idea Rise from the Tides was a deck you could draft in SOI!

    1. Yes! Goblin Artisans is so blessed to have such a welcoming and supportive community. We've helped each other to grow so much over the years and I'm terribly grateful for it. It was no surprise to me when half the GDS3 finalists turned out to be Artisans.