Tuesday, May 15, 2018

GDS3 Reflections: Ari Nieh, Design Test

... or, How I Completely Misinterpreted the Design Test But Somehow Made Top 8.

You can see the judges' commentary here.

Steamfist Enforcer (common)
Creature — Human Rogue
If mana from an artifact source was spent to cast CARDNAME, it enters the battlefield with a +1/+1 counter and is an artifact in addition to its other types.

"Ari," you might ask me, "Why on earth would you put Steamfist Enforcer, an awkward not-quite-common design, as your #1?"

And there's a simple answer: I thoroughly misinterpreted the intent of the design test. They asked for designs that did not come from the same set. I interpreted this to mean, "Show us that you can design cards that come from many different sets." In fact, they meant, "Show us that you can design cards that could go in any set."

Thus, my main priority in putting together a collection of ten cards was creating ten designs that clearly came from ten different sets. This was how Alexis Janson aced the design test in GDS1, and of course I wanted to do the same!

I made this meme literally months ago and have been waiting to post it.

Of my ten designs, I felt that Steamfist Enforcer did the most "heavy lifting" in terms of defining a set. That is, if you could only look at a single card from that set, it would give you the most information about what else was going on. It establishes a "steampunk transhumanism" theme. It hints at other cards with the same ability word as well as artifact mana (in the style of Myr or Borderposts) to support them. Of course, that wasn't what the judges were looking for at all, and Maro was understandably mystified.

How did I manage to misinterpret the challenge so seriously? I think it's because I started designing Magic cards in GDS2. That competition was all about establishing a world. From that experience, I got the idea that designing cards for a generic set was boring, and building mechanics and flavor for specific sets was what Magic design was all about. Somehow, it didn't occur to me that the former was exactly what I was being asked to do. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The Raven Lord (mythic rare)
Legendary Creature — God
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, create two 1/1 white Bird tokens with flying.
Flying creatures you control have "1, T: Draw a card."
As long as you've drawn two or more cards this turn, CARDNAME has indestructible.

Playtest name: Totally Not Odin. I realized after submitting that this card might have a rules problem: it grants creatures an ability based on whether or not they have flying, and both of those occur in the same layer. Eli didn't seem to mind, though, so perhaps this is covered by 613.7b?

I'm not sure why the judges liked this card despite the fact that it really only makes sense in a Norse mythology set. But hey, I'll take it.

Mugai Creation Saga (mythic rare)
Do both of these, in either order -
* Draw a card for each creature you control.
* Create a 2/2 green Bear creature token for each card in your hand.

Playtest name: Provincetown Bear Party. In my spreadsheet, this was listed as my #1 design. (My notes say "super super cute".) I can't reconstruct the exact thought process that led me to putting it fourth, but I suspect it's the fact that it didn't hint at which set it was from. As it turned out, that's exactly what the judges wanted, so... whoops.

Nyxian Ascension (rare)
At the beginning of your upkeep, if you control five or more enchanted creatures, you win the game.

Playtest name: The Power of Friendship. I definitely wanted an alt-win condition, and Theros seemed like a good for for it. The hybrid mana is so that this can be played in more different decks- compare to Azor's Elocutors.

Gwyn, Harvest Celebrant (mythic rare)
Planeswalker — Gwyn
+1: You may sacrifice a creature. If you do, return a creature card from your graveyard to your hand.
-2: Target creature gets +2/+2 until end of turn. Another target creature gets -2/-2 until end of turn.
-7: You get an emblem with "Whenever a creature dies, each opponent loses 3 life and you may draw a card."

My main goal for this card was to capture the duality of life and death, a theme which planeswalkers haven't really touched. That this does very little without creatures is a deliberate choice; it's meant to be a build-around. The 1-2-3 progression was almost certainly too precious. I did consider the template "up to one target creature" for the -2 ability, but decided it looked clunky and was less flavorful.

Taiga Eruption (uncommon)
Create a 3/3 colorless Elemental Mountain Forest creature land token with haste and trample. (It has T: Add R or G to your mana pool.)

Yes, this card is utterly ridiculous. Close to the deadline, I was reading through my submission and thought to myself, "Everything here is just so obvious and tame." I decided to include exactly one gonzo crazy card, just to show them that I could think outside the box. As it happened, they didn't find the rest of my submission boring, but I think this was a reasonable hedge.

EDIT: Just to address some of the criticism people had regarding this card: it's an instant because that is vastly preferable to printing a land that costs 2RG. It grants haste because lands tap for mana on their first turn. Neither of these makes it non-ridiculous, of course, but I swear I didn't just make it an instant to fulfill the constraints of the test.

Macabre Rumors (common)
Each opponent puts the top four cards of his or her library into his or her graveyard.
Whenever a creature you control dies, you may cast CARDNAME from your graveyard. If you do, exile it as it resolves.

Like Steamfist Enforcer, this card has an unkeyworded keyword. Again, not at all what they were looking for.

All in all, I'm glad that the judges looked past my unusual interpretation of the challenge and found something to like about my cards. And even though my goal was clearly wrong, I'm pretty satisfied with the extent to which I managed to achieve it- my submission nodded at Norse mythology, Steampunk, tribal, graveyard themes, and returns to Kaladesh, Theros, and Zendikar.

*             *             *

For your amusement, here are a few other cards that I considered for RG Instant and GU Sorcery, the two last slots I locked in:

Burn the Unnatural (uncommon)
Choose one or both -
* CARDNAME deals 5 damage to target artifact creature.
* CARDNAME deals 5 damage to target enchantment creature.

This was one of the deliberately crazy ideas that was too absurd to submit. It definitely makes the reader ask, "What kind of set would you print THAT in?" The best thing about this card is probably the playtest name: "Shut Up, Lumière".

Artifact Enchantment Creature - Construct? I guess?

Koth's Vengeance (uncommon)

Destroy target artifact that's one or more colors.

From Return to New Phyrexia, naturally.

Southern Tiger Kick (uncommon)
Target creature deals damage equal to its power to each creature blocking it.

Who has two thumbs and loves wushu?

Destructive Brawl (uncommon)
Target creature you control fights target creature an opponent controls. That opponent sacrifices an artifact.

In retrospect, with full knowledge of what the judges wanted, this was almost certainly the best choice. But at the time, it seemed unbearably tame. Playtest name: "I Came In Like A Wrecking Brawl".

Shared Strength (rare)
Creatures you control have base power and toughness X/X until end of turn, where X is the greatest power or toughness among creatures you control.

I think this was an okay Overrun, but clearly not as interesting as Mugai Creation Saga. Playtest name: "Pilates Class".

Those Horrible Triplets (rare)
Target player reveals the top ten cards of his or her library. You may choose a creature card among them. Create three copies of that creature card. Then, put the revealed cards on the bottom of that player's library in a random order.

This one didn't last long enough to merit a non-goofy name. It's a serviceable Tammy card, but not particularly innovative.

I hope this sheds some light on my thought process. Feel free to ask any more questions you have about the decisions I made in the design test, and I'll do my best to answer them!


  1. That's a devastating misunderstanding if they struck it so hard against you. I have to say I would have made the same mistake. In fact I had already been spitballing various evocative world ideas to build individual cards around whilst taking the first trials before exact confirmation of how the design test would actually work because I was so enamored with Alexis's execution.

    1. I mean, clearly they didn't hold it against me too hard, or I wouldn't have come in second! But I did feel pretty foolish upon receiving their feedback.

    2. Just crazy to think that may have been the deciding factor. To me that seemed like it would have been the best execution of your prompt from a flavor standpoint! Making individually cool cards is obviously most important but I think the best individually cool cards also bear hints of a larger picture too. The recent core set card Gearsmith Prodigy comes to mind as a cool example of this that has stuck in my mind as indicative of the kind of thing I really like.

      For example, I think your Odin actually makes a lot of sense with or without a Norse setting. Odin may have specifically inspired it, but I think the card stands on its own as a cool card and people love keyword lords I think, especially flying. I think that has a lot to do with why it may have been popular, even if the image in your mind was specifically of Odin.

    3. They clearly thought they were asking for an "average Standard set"—though it seems more like they were expecting a core set—but they very definitely asked for a Standard set, and so all your cards were totally appropriate.

  2. Just realized I must have never read your submission before. Love each and every card!

    Although we didn't get the exact wording of the trial clarification, I don't think you entirely misinterpreted their prompt. If they wanted the submissions to be theoretically in any set, they wouldn't have made allowance for "They [Contestants] could write things [keywords] out as long as they didn’t name them"

    1. Thank you!

      Yes, I think that was the sentence that misled me. But to be fair to them, the phrase "ten individually cool designs" (or something to that effect) definitely appeared in the instructions, and I really did ignore that.

  3. Southern Tiger Kick is great.
    Maaaybe add trample?

    1. Maybe. The flavor is excellent, but it requires specific rules knowledge about trample's interaction with dead blockers.

    2. I was going to say the same thing!

  4. If it helps, I completely whiffed on the flavor of The Raven Lord upon first reading it, and I still thought it was a cool card!

    An ability can care about previous abilities applying in the same layer; it's called a dependency. For instance, if you have Conspiracy naming a creature type, plus an effect that turns all creatures of that type into a different type.

  5. Oh, cool! I really love all these cards.

    I haven't read the judges comments yet, but my impression is that they wanted designs which were strong in isolation (basically what designers learn to STOP doing when they start designing sets). A design that secretly carries a set with it misses that in some ways, but I think it actually helps in some ways -- "a set in one card" card is often a really interesting card for exactly that reason.

    I certainly didn't read the instructions as "actively avoid designing interesting mechanics" but as "design a card that doesn't HAVE to be in a particular set to work" (which some of yours fail a bit, but many don't). I think what they were trying to avoid was people repeating GDS 2 design-a-world although they sort of whiffed on that apparently :)

    FWIW, I loved Raven Lord, I think that easily COULD be in most sets, even if it's especially good in a whole Norse set. I'm not sure about the exact rules, but I assumed they were forgiving of templating problems if they could easily be avoided by rewording the card (it's not a rules manager competition :))

  6. The lesson I'm taking from people's comments on The Raven Lord is one that will be repeated many times over the course of the competition: It's really hard to get out of your own head! To me, that card will never be anything but Odin, so thinking of it as a generic flying lord is unnatural. But for people who are looking at the design itself and not reading my mind about where it came from, the package works. It's so challenging and so important to evaluate designs based on exactly what you've written down, and not the process which led you to write it down.

    1. This this this this a thousand times this! I was never really able to do this, even though I kept trying. It’s *so* hard.

    2. I think it's a similar thing for example to why I got the impression most people (including myself) didn't get Hapatra was Cleopatra. The design itself is cool, and without exact names it's hard to draw the line to what it was based on. People associate Cleopatra with snakes,and there was even a name simarity, and people didn't get it. I guess this is actually a bad thing in the instance of Hapatra, but in this case considering the prompt was "just make unique and fun cards", then it doesn't matter if you started from the idea of Odin to end up on the design and it doesn't necessarily read as Odin in the end. A lot of designs start from wanting to capture an idea, even if the card isn't necessarily supposed to represent the idea that inspired it in the end. It reminds me of how Mark used to say he'd do things like randomly decide he wants to make a card inspired by x thing to jump start creativity.

    3. This is the reason why I've stopped giving "designer's commentary" on my Weekend Art Challenge submissions.

      (Also - how the heck did I forget that Dominaria actually just printed a card that gives abilities to creatures based on what abilities they already have? Kwende, Pride of Femeref.)

  7. The distracted boyfriend meme image was worth waiting months for.

  8. There were some nice shout-outs on Magic Mics tonight for y'all. Evan in particular loved your Mugai Creation Saga.