Tuesday, May 22, 2018

GDS3 Reflections: Ari Nieh, Challenge #2

My initial reaction to this challenge was, “Are you kidding me? Why would they ask us to do this?”

Circuses are a rich source of tropes, but they’re not a remotely appropriate setting for a Magic: the Gathering set. Magic is fundamentally a game about violent combat between supernatural creatures, and the entire concept of a circus is a poor fit. I assume that this choice was deliberately inappropriate, so as to avoid overlaps with any future sets.

To be honest, I did not initially enjoy this challenge very much. Coming up with a submission was a wildly overconstrained problem. Between the top-down names, the color requirements, rarity, card type, innovation, aesthetics, and worldbuilding, there was no question of nailing all the criteria 100%. That left us having to choose where to cut corners, and that meant gambling on which failures the judges would care about most. As we would discover, the judges had a variety of perspectives on what constituted a good top-down design.

By the end of the challenge, I was having a much better time. Top-down designs can be really satisfying to create, and my playtesters reported a few laugh-out-loud moments with my cards.

Acrobatics (common)
If target creature is blocked, it becomes unblocked. (It's still attacking.)
Draw a card.

I knew that this card was a risky submission. There had to be some reason that a similar effect had never been printed in the modern era. But my playtesters liked it, and clean commons are hard to find. In retrospect, a more conventional effect would have been received better.

Feats of Strength (uncommon)
Converge - Target creature gets +2/+2 for each color of mana spent to cast CARDNAME and gains trample until end of turn. It must be blocked this turn if able.

While I think Converge is a good mechanical fit for the set, it’s certainly true that the name is a poor match. My playtesters thought the lure effect was appropriate for showcasing a must-watch attraction, but it’s not clear whether the judges got that connection.

Unicycle (uncommon)
Artifact — Equipment
Equip 2
Equipped creature gets +1/+1 and has haste.
Whenever a creature with equal power and toughness enters the battlefield under your control, you may attach CARDNAME to it.

This was one of my favorite cards, and I was surprised by some judges’ reactions. I maintain that equipment is absolutely the correct card type to represent this concept- if you’re run over by a unicycle, it matters a great deal whether it’s being ridden by a clown or an elephant!

Traveling Circus (rare)
CARDNAME enters the battlefield tapped.
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, add one mana of any color.
T: Add 1.
2: Return CARDNAME to your hand. Activate this ability only if you control a multicolored permanent.

After being criticized for my rares being above rate in Challenge #1, I decided to lowball the power level on this land for safety. This would have been better with either a reduced cost or using a trigger as Melissa suggested.

Clown Car (rare)
Artifact — Vehicle
Crew 1
Whenever CARDNAME attacks, draw a card for each creature that crewed it this turn.

Funny story: I legit forgot that vehicles are deciduous! I’d been on hiatus from Magic during Amonkhet, so the two blocks most fixed in my recent memory were Kaladesh and Ixalan. Whoops. Previous challenges had not distinguished between evergreen and deciduous mechanics, and I didn't notice that the rules were different for this one.

Anyway, I liked this design because it incentivized shoving all your creatures into a tiny vehicle so that you could draw a bunch of cards. I don’t think the defining feature of a clown car is the clowns themselves- it’s the fact that there are a shocking number of people in a small car. In fact, the humor value of attacking with a car populated by a vedalken artificer, two Eldrazi spawn, and an elephant is one of this card’s main draws.

Earlier versions only drew cards equal to the number of rogues (i.e., clowns) that crewed it, but playtesting revealed that this version was more rewarding. One of my basic principles of top-down design is that perfect technical accuracy is much less important than evoking the correct emotion or narrative.

The Astonishing Alfonso! [Magician] (mythic rare)
Legendary Planeswalker — Alfonso
+2: You may exile a non-Rabbit permanent you control. If you do, create an 0/1 white Rabbit creature token.
-3: Exile target non-Bird permanent. Create a 1/1 white Bird creature token with flying.
-7: You may play any number of cards exiled by CARDNAME without paying their mana costs.

This card had originally been a creature:

The Astonishing Alfonso! [Magician] (mythic rare)
Legendary Creature - Human Wizard
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, exile target noncreature permanent and create two 1/1 white Bird creature tokens with flying.
1B, exile a non-Cat creature you control: Create a 4/2 black Cat creature token.
4U: You may play any number of cards exiled by CARDNAME without paying their mana costs.

Playtesters suggested that he felt very much like a planeswalker. They also didn’t get the “assistant turns into a tiger” flavor, so I switched to rabbits. It’s still not clear to me whether the creature or planeswalker would have been better. As the judges pointed out, this does a good job of reading like a stage magician, but the play pattern doesn’t live up to that promise. Changing to a planeswalker late on Sunday was a risk, and more iteration was needed to fix this design.

All in all, this was a disappointing challenge for me. I made some clear and avoidable errors of judgment. Many of my designs that seemed clever or flavorful to me received mixed reviews from the judges. I resolved to stop clowning around and do better on the next challenge.


  1. I loved Alfonso a lot. Definitely needed some tweaks but I think it was a great start.

    Converge was definitely hurt by the flavor and name more than the core concept. I think something similar happened with Exalted.

  2. As far as "appropriateness of setting," here's me trying to follow along WOTC's concepts for Battleborn as things get rolled out.

    WOTC: It's setting is in a arena where people duke it out!
    Me: "Look online DOTA players! We love ESports!"
    WOTC: Introducing Pir and his imaginary friend!
    Me: You're throwing a kid into an arena to fight demons??????
    WOTC: It's okay folks, this is non-lethal combat!
    Me: Oh ... okay then.
    WOTC: Also, we're reprinting Doomed Dissenter and Doomed Travler!
    Me: Wait ... what???

    Anyway ...

    I like the idea of Alfonso, but the plus really felt more like too much of a punishment on a planeswalker.

    Good job making it through. This was clearly a rough round for folks.

    1. Supplemental products get far less scrutiny than expansion sets, but yeah.

    2. Frankly I dislike this concept. Magic, both as a game and a concept is broad enough to encapsulate nearly any genre or type of story.

      I remember debating with Maro on tumblr about if Mechs were allowable in the game and then Boom, Kaladesh came out.

      A circus plane would be a pretty cool set, especially if it played up the idea of a Multiversal collection of odditties and cool and amazing stuff from across the cosmos (I am surprised no one took this angle. )

      I also find it funny how multiple people literallized 'Circus' have many colors so this is a gold set'

      Like yes circus's LITERALLY have a lot of colors, but when you look at colors as mtg shows them having a bunch of them doesnt scream obvious with Circus's.

      Jay given how you pulled themes from other designers last challenges I wonder if you thought of a "have multiple card types" theme to go with the "collection of different acts" flavor.

    3. Jim Harbor you mean like the Collector in Marvel?

    4. I mean, we've already got multiple cards featuring children, or the spirits of deceased children. I don't think this is too much of a stretch.

      I'm expecting a comparable amount of silliness (in flavor, if not in mechanics) to an Un-set.

    5. > Magic, both as a game and a concept is broad enough to encapsulate nearly any genre or type of story.

      Any type of genre? Can't wait to see a romance, satire, crime procedural, or Bildungsroman Magic set.

    6. A detective story noir set is on the short list isn't it? And Ixalan's story was torn right from the pages of a trashy high seas romance novel (in a good way).

      I can also see a Watchmen or Ultimates esque deconstructive satire of a typical magic story showing up somewhere down the line, and the comic of age narrative overlaps with the heroic journey so much it could slot really easily into a set MCs story arc.

    7. I did not, Jim. Delerium… could work.

    8. Wasn't Odyssey through Onslaught bildungsroman?

    9. Shadows over Innistrad was partially a noir themed set.

    10. Clues were crime-procedural-y. I think some of these genres work *less well* but I think they're all plausible.

      I do think wizards have implemented some things less well than they might have done, even if they COULD be done well (maybe battle thing, I don't know it well enough, but likely)

    11. Not to beat this argument to death, but I still disagree. Film noir, crime procedural, and occult horror mystery are three very different subgenres of mystery, with fundamentally different structures, characters, and tropes. Of these three, the only one Magic has been even slightly successful at portraying is the third, and mostly the "occult" and "horror" parts of "occult horror mystery".

      As for the claim that Ixalan is a romance story or Odyssey was a coming-of-age story: no, they're not, unless you interpret the accompanying fiction as part of the game. Magic's story, as told through web fiction or novelizations, is not the same as embodying a genre with actual cards.

      I could write Connect Four fan fiction that portrayed a love story between red and blue. That would not mean the game itself was a romance.

    12. Thats a fair point. If you cut the fiction out that makes some themes harder to do than others.

      Not coming of age/heroes journey though. Growth of an individual has a myriad of ways to be represented in game which is where we got the Theros voltron theme from. Experince counters are also a pretty top down way to capture charcater Growth/coming of age.

      And once you have Investigate as a mechanic pretty much all mystery tropes are open space for in game design.

      Frankly I feel the fact that there were about two dozen top downable carda here shows the design space is big enough for a faction on one world or something in a suplmental set like Battlebond.

      Good work my friend.

  3. I love how both Redundo and the original Alfonso generate two doves.

  4. I've been kinda thinking on the best way to fix your Acrobatics.

    What do you think about:

    Acrobatics (common)
    Exile target blocked creature you control, then put it on the battlefield tapped and attacking.
    Draw a card.

    1. Going through my old files, I found I actually had a similar concept:

      Acrobatics (uncommon)
      Exile target creature you control, then return it to the battlefield under its owner’s control. You may have it enter the battlefield attacking or blocking, if able.

    2. Excellent find, DoubleFried! It doesn't retain the ability to cycle, but I think that can be fixed with "If target creature you control is blocked, etc."

      I wonder whether this sort of wording would have saved it in the judges' eyes.

    3. "up to one target blocked creature you control" also works, not sure which one is better.

    4. You'd also need to add a clause that this spell can only be cast on combat on your turn, but looks fine. Now, a) does it need to cantrip? without it could be very weak of course, and b) wouldnt it become too complex for what it does or common?

    5. I had this design in my file for a while as well. :)

    6. I like "up to one" better. The "if is is blocked" phrasing is slightly confusing because it sounds like it might work if it gets blocked later in the turn, as opposed to currently being blocked.

      I think it does indeed need to cantrip, because otherwise it's too narrow for common.

      @R Stech: great minds...

    7. I don't think it needs such a clause. The condition of "a blocked creature you control" can only exist in combat on your turn.

  5. Yes, clown car is hilarious, I agree with your philosophy that loading it up with every creature type you have really FEELS more like a clown car than requiring a specific clown type.

    I love that you got a "squeezing surprisingly many people in" flavour without making one that created lots of tokens.

    1. Thank you! I think the judges did get the flavor, but it's hard to say what they'll count as a successful top down design.