Tuesday, May 29, 2018

GDS3 Reflections: Aftermath

By Ryan Siegel-Stechler

Ever since I was 11 and first learned about Magic, it’s been a giant part of my life. My brother Kevin and I have been jamming decks (with ever-increasing competence) for years, keeping up via Magic even when we both moved to different states for college. Same with our childhood best friend, Spencer, who lived down the street from us. Magic gave us a bond that is strong to this day.

My dad used to play with us as well; even when he was diagnosed with cancer and was in and out of the hospital for a few years, we had a Type 4 pile that we’d play with on the side table of his hospital bed. He passed away when I was 18 – the last words I ever said to him were a report on how we had done at FNM. My brother had won, Spencer came in second, and I’d lost badly. He told me I’d get ‘em next time.

For a while, I wanted to grind to be a pro, but I never had the capacity to handle huge tournaments. I can’t stay “on” for long stretches of time, especially not in incredibly loud, stressful environments like a tournament hall. I made Day 2 of a limited Grand Prix during Theros block, went 2-4 on day 2 with some mediocre draft decks and some questionable mulligan decisions, and basically decided that I was done with solo tournaments.

I still go to Team Sealed tournaments with Kevin and Spencer when we can, but it’s hard as adults with full schedules. We’ve made a couple over the years, almost made Day 2 a few times, but never quite made it to the top. The last time, Spencer couldn’t make it, and our fill-in third was great, but it wasn’t quite the same without the team all together. We dropped after a mediocre start and played cube the rest of the weekend. We’d get ‘em next time.

I’ve been a part of Goblin Artisans for four years, but I’ve got custom magic designs from my teens. Playing online, I met David Conrad literally by chatting about our standard decks. We ended up designing an entire set together, Heatwave (the one I’ve referenced in some of my other articles). I went to school; we grew apart. I kept doing create-a-card contests here and there until I found GA. Prepping for the next time a Great Designer Search came around was so far from my head then; I just wanted to talk about what Wastes meant for Magic design with other passionate people. As I kept up with it as a side project, the old competitive flames came up. I wanted a GDS to happen, to see if I measured up.

It happened. The announcement went out, and I almost didn’t sign up. “I wouldn’t make it anyway,” I said to myself. “Even if I got a good grade on the test, I wouldn’t win,” I said to myself. “Moving my whole family across the country would be crazy,” I said to myself. “I have a career, even if it’s not the one I’d choose,” I said to myself.

Fortunately, I had a psychology background, and I knew enough not to let self-defeating thinking keep me from trying out for my dream job. I wrote the essays and turned them in. My wife, Kelly, asked what I was doing, and I reluctantly explained what the GDS was to her. I had intended not to tell her anything unless it went somewhere. I was worried that she’d tell me I was crazy for signing up, that moving just wasn’t possible with her in a PhD program, with us having just bought a house. She was immediately supportive, and I felt like a dummy for not telling her sooner.

The test was insane. I had sixty windows open; scouring Gatherer, articles on the mothership, listening to podcasts, looking for anything I could find to clue me in on what the thought process was behind the questions. I got a perfect score, one of three on this test and one of four ever in a GDS. On the Drive to Work podcast that weekend, I heard about how the only person ever to get a perfect score on a past GDS got an interview at WotC. I was beginning to believe.

I made the top 8 with a set of cards that in my heart of hearts, I believed in. I woke up my whole house screaming when I found out. I got an email from Mark Rosewater, someone who I’d looked up to for years and years. He knew my name! He read my cards! He LIKED them!

Then I read the commentary, and saw him say I didn’t excel in anything. I knew it was a reality show judging thing, and that he was being harsh on purpose, but it still frustrated me. I vowed to wow him.

I got the first challenge, and blew it. I got too deep in my own head. I made mistakes that amateur designers make with drawback mechanics and commons with play pattern issues. My playtesters told me everything was great, but I didn’t press them. I didn’t show them that I meant it when I said I wanted honest feedback. And so I made a terrible first impression (no pun intended) on the judges, one that I couldn’t get back.

I wanted to quit. I wanted to stop sending cards in. I wanted to get my weekends back. My playtesters and my wife wouldn’t let me grovel. They kicked my ass into gear and forced me to get to work. I came in third, then first on the next two challenges. Winning the mechanic challenge gave me hope that I’d turned the corner. I started to believe again.

I got an email on a Wednesday evening, the day before we’d have received the fifth and final challenge, from Mark. My gut dropped twenty stories. He informed me that I’d been eliminated. I thanked him, and got a really nice personal note in response, one he didn’t have to send. He told me he was a fan of my work, and that he hoped that we’d meet one day. I told him, me too. What else could I say?

I’ve been spending the past month rehashing the GDS. What the judges said. How I’d reacted. What I submitted. What I didn’t. Should I have taken more risks or played it safer? Was my botched first challenge an anchor around my neck (their “hanging on by your fingertips” comment seemed to suggest it was)? Did I lose on my merits, or was the process unfair? Kelly and I took a vacation, much needed. It didn’t help. We talked about the GDS more than anything else on the trip.

Keeping a game face on while the GDS has been going on a delay has been hard, but worthwhile. I’m glad that I’ve been putting out content and making a name for myself. Proud, even.

I don’t know what exactly I want to do next. I do know that I have been convinced by this process that I have to be a game designer. HAVE to. Looking back, I have never felt as fulfilled as I did while working on the challenges and designing for the job of my dreams. I just didn’t *get* the job of my dreams. It kills me that I had a golden opportunity slip through my fingers, but at least it shook me from my complacency.

I’m ready to stop telling myself that I have to settle for a job I’m not passionate about. I’m ready to stop telling myself that I don’t have any design wisdom to offer. I am a Great Designer, and that doesn’t change. I’m ready to get ‘em, right now.

Try and stop me.


P.S. I would be remiss in not using this article to give some shoutouts. Thanks to Kelly for keeping me from starving on challenge weekends (and also being generally the best, love ya). Thanks to Claire & Jared, my amazing playtesters. Thanks to Kevin & Spencer, forever Team Crowd Favorites. Thanks to David, my first real design friend. Thanks to everyone at Canton Games, my LGS, for rooting for me (and apologies in advance that I’m going to keep being your endboss for the foreseeable future ;) ). Thanks to everyone at Goblin Artisans, the best custom design community anywhere. Thanks to the other 7 GDS finalists; I’m so glad I got to meet you all. I know whichever one of you wins will be incredibly deserving of the job, and that the other six will be…also incredibly deserving of the job. Thanks to all the WotC judges & staff that put the GDS together. Finally, thanks to all my friends & family who read every article, liked every Facebook post, and listened to every podcast, especially those who don’t know anything about Magic.


  1. Ryan, this article is incredibly moving and I relate to it very personally. I was in Mark's Honorable Mentions in his article on March 19th, and I feel exactly the same way -- the incredible pride of being singled out and congratulated, the difficulty moving past it, the fears that my friends and family may not understand or support a passion that turns out to be much more intense than I had previously thought.

    Know that folks are out here rooting for you, and going through what you're going through. You're not alone. And congratulations on a job well done.

    1. Thanks Brad, that means a lot to me. I appreciate it and know that there are plenty of super talented designers among those who got 72s on the test, or who, like you, got through to the 96 but didn’t make top 8. It was definitely an honor to be in the top 8 and make it as far as I did.

  2. Ryan,

    I'll reiterate what Bradley said: you're not alone. I understand too. These opportunities can lift you to great highs, but that means the fall can hurt a lot, too...

    But I also understand that passion, that determination, that recognition of your calling, despite the pain. Your courage and strength to keep sharing Reflections with us, to be so eager and hopeful despite 'seeing the future', is not just touching, it's inspiring. Same with all of the other designers who were eliminated and nonetheless spoke to their fellow Artisans here, their fans on Twitter, and elsewhere.

    We're honored to have you as an Artisan, Ryan! I hope to see you keep working with Goblin Artisans and keep pursuing your dream, because I want to be there rooting for you every step of the way to achieve it.

    1. Definitely plan to make GA a part of my life for as long as they’ll have me! Thanks for the kind words.

  3. Ryan, your passion and dedication are an inspiration to me. You are absolutely a great designer. Any form of artistic competition is going to have elements that seem arbitrary, unfair, or undervalue the competitors' artistry. (If I kept a list of every conductor who didn't hire me after I thought I'd nailed an audition...) I hope you take the judges' feedback with several grains of salt and keep trusting your own instincts as a designer.

    You should be proud of all that you've accomplished. If you decide that game design is the right career path, nobody and nothing can stand in your way.

    1. Thanks Ari! Rooting for ya! Make GA proud(er than we already are)!

  4. Dear Ryan,

    I do not know you for as long as everybody here. I just found this site a month ago after they showed the GDS3 T8. However, your story and your accomplishments so far have resonated very much with me. Since moving away from my home country two years ago, I've discovered that I also wish to be involved with games and Magic more than ever. And, like you, I also feel regret for not noticing this before because now it's much harder to do. Now, my point is that: I really hope to see you making it big! You serve as an inspiration!

    1. 😊 I wish you as much success as you wished for me. Thank you so much. It means a lot.

  5. Tearing up man. You are a real mvp.

  6. I’m not good with words, but I hope this emoticon conveys my feelings correctly. πŸ•

  7. If talent-based reality shows have taught me anything (and that's debatable), it's that exposure to your talent really, really is more meaningful than "winning." There are quite a few runners-up or eliminated contestants from any number of shows who have gone on to more successful careers than the winners.

    Which is not to say that I'm wishing that any of the remaining competitors fail or anything. I mean only that not winning this almost absurd "contest" to get a job should not even be seen as a failure or a step backward.

    I really enjoy a lot of your card designs and am looking forward to what you do next.

    1. I mean, didn't like half the people from gds1 get to wizards anyway?

      And a bunch of people from gds2 dis the same as well.

      Just Top 3ing would be enough for an interview I would think.

    2. It’s true, who knows what the future holds! For now, I’m focusing on what I can control & getting projects set up so I can keep the momentum going.

    3. MaRo was actually asked about it on his blog:

      "Five people from GDS1 got an internship or full time position. All the internships, but one, turned into full time jobs. (Technically six but I’m counting Scott Van Essen from GDS2.)

      Four people from GDS2 got an internship or full time job and all the internship turned into full time jobs.

      Note that not all of these jobs happened immediately when the GDS ended.

      Five of the nine people still work at Wizards.

      Obviously, it will take some time to see how the candidates of GDS3 fare."

  8. I finally caught up enough to read this.
    Obviously, I can relate. I was going to write something like this, but maybe I don't need to now.

    Ryan, you did some damned good work, and it was a pleasure competing with you. I implore you to continue to participate at GA, and to write for us as you can.

    Finally, for everyone eliminated at any stage of the GDS: Look at the Pro Tour Hall of Fame. Do you know how many tournaments those folks lost on the way to success? That every single one of them still loses more tournaments than they win? GDS only comes around every 4-7 years, and winning it is easily the most life-changing event Magic makes happen, but it's absurd to beat ourselves up about it. It's not a pure evaluation of skill, much less potential, though it is an amazing learning opportunity. Wizards of the Coast isn't exactly the pinnacle of the game industry we Magic devotees think of it as, either. We're awesome. Let's keep growing, and gaming, making games.