Thursday, May 17, 2018

GDS3 Reflections, Jay Treat: Challenge 1

While I'm proud of the work I did for this challenge, and the deck full of shamans and activated-abilities matter cards, I admit that the submission itself was poor. If I hadn't won the previous test, I likely would have been eliminated this week.

1 - Vision Quest
This is a fun card to play, as Grow from the Ashes somewhat demonstrates. It fixes your mana, triggers activated-abilities matter powers, and benefits from activated-ability cost reduction. In retrospect, it's fairly clear this isn't common. My playtesters had no trouble understanding it, but neither of my testers were new players, so my data was skewed, and I had common-tinted goggles on.

2 - Shamanic Epiphany
What a terrible card. Super embarrassing.

What happened is that I needed an enchantment and didn't really have one. At the same time, there were some simple common creatures doing good work that I couldn't fit. So I tried to make an aura that granted haste (because that's handy with tap abilities) that also allowed you to get multiple uses out of your tap effects (as Dancer in the Woods did). The result went untested and was total garbage. Ugh.

3 - Moonspire Diabolist
Alexis: I'm afraid your theme isn't going to work out at lower rarities. "Activating abilities" is a very mechanical concept and one that beginning players shouldn't be asked to understand to play casual Magic. I'm not sure why you went black here, as the third color doesn't add anything to your submission, and creatures "working together" is pretty much the antithesis of black.

Shamans are common in black, red, and green, which is why included a black Shaman. This original Vampire Nighthawk was a shaman, and so I thought making a callback to such a popular card would be fun way to reward players for going shaman-tribal. I wasn't expecting to encounter resistance to showing the theme could work in more than just two colors. I'm guessing that comes from the reliance on two-color archetypes in the last few years.

It's true that "'Activating abilities' is a very mechanical concept." The Mel-ness of this mechanic seems like a characteristic that limits its appeal and which products it's usable in, but I believe it could find a home in the right set. Alexis is right that it could take a long time to find that set.

Black Allies exist.

4—Ritual Flame
This design was, throughout playtesting, Lightning Volley only for shamans +1. I could have submitted that and it would've been well understood and supported my themes without confusion or distraction. But the judges had asked us (and me specifically) to be more daring and innovative.

They're right that this wasn't the ideal card for (T/r) and definitely not the first card to show it off on, though I do believe it's a fine execution (minus the +1) once you're acclimated to the new mechanic. They're also right that the once-per-turn restriction is completely wrong. What's frustrating is that I'd written in my notes that I wasn't sure about that restriction:

A mechanic this different clearly requires a great deal of playtesting, ideation, and iteration; Something an entire team would work on over a course of weeks. I put forth my best guess from mere hours of consideration and a note that it may well need to be different. The result is painfully negative. It was this response that forced me to scale back future innovation.

Here's where this challenge being a contest rather than a project hurts everyone involved the most. In a healthy team environment, leaders make everyone feel safe to share any idea, so that unlikely ideas with potential can be shared and developed. In a contest, the judge's job is to find flaws and the riskiest ideas will have the most flaws. Here we see contestants punished for sharing novel ideas, and that affects what they'll share in the future. The contestants' creativity is squelched and the judges don't get to see the innovation they want to see: Everyone loses.

5—Sacred Circle
Alexis: Allowing the cost of abilities to drop to zero is a huge red flag for my otherwise excited inner Jenny, even with the mana ability restriction. I understand the desire to innovate, but this would almost definitely become something more like "T: Add CC. Spend this ability only on activated abilities of Shamans."

The funny thing is Alexis' suggestion is exactly what the card had been before I submitted my cards. I had decided that it would be less dangerous and more fun to require a player to get two Shamans in play before this land kicked into high gear.

I partially understand why the judges hated this so much, though I fully believe them. The "no minimum cost" idea is too dangerous. It seems like their other big concern is that it's a land: This is kind of doing what other rare colorless lands do and being looked to Shamans makes it pretty hard to break, but multiples of Sacred Circle are problematic: Can it be legendary? Again, ironically, the cost reduction effect had originally been on a creature, but we weren't allowed more than three creatures for our tribal submission.

I was aware this was a colorless land in a tribe for which I'd presented three colors, but I was thinking it would be drafted the way pirates and dinosaurs were expected to be drafted in Ixalan, where you'd generally just choose two of the colors. I was often surprised how the judges would treat my 8 cards as the only cards and judge them in that narrow context; Obviously they have nothing else to go by, where I knew the dozen cards enjoyed in playtesting that weren't part of the submission; I expected them to imagine more of the set, and that was a mistake.

6—Brighthearth Pendant
Funny story: I submitted this as Braghorn Rite Fetish, a shamanic anagram of Brighthearth Ring. It wasn't until several hours of back-and-forth with Wizards after they hadn't gotten my submission that I figured out their email server had blocked the email because of the word 'fetish' and not notified either party. Good times.

Erik: This is too similar to Illusionist's Bracers.

Yes it is. I missed Bracers. I'm lucky the judges liked "If you do, or if equipped creature is a Shaman…"

7—Bearer of Lightning
Erik: This doesn't feel all that mythic rare to me. Also, the activation for R in a three-color tribe seems off.

Melissa: Not exciting, I have to jump through so many hoops to get my payoff. Very complex. Of course high complexity is fine for a mythic rare, but this card just doesn't excite me. It feels mythic rare because of complexity, not because of how cool/novel/splashy it is.

I'm a bit surprised by Erik and Melissa's reaction here. This card is strong (it originally cost 3 but I added 1 because I was so undercosted last time) and becomes an absolute powerhouse when you've got any two other shamans. The ability to throw a Lightning Bolt every turn feels splashy and exciting to me. That said, they are the experts here, so I'm going to assume I'm missing something: Perhaps that it doesn't usually win on its own? Designing mythics is absolutely one of my weak spots.

8—Mystic Slime
"I changed it to Ooze from the arbitrary Hound at the last moment because that explains the +1/+1 counters better."
Eli: Reducing the cost by "all its mana" screams red alert to me, just like it did last week when Linus suggested it. This isn't an alternative cost, so can X go sky-high? You've got a bigger problem, though. This card's a self-contained bombo. The sorcery timing restriction on the granted ability trumps the permission granted by the trigger.

I thought that I had solved Eli's concerns with Linus' execution by only obviating the mana portion of the activation cost, leaving tap requirements and non-mana payments like sacrifices in place. I also thought it was pretty clear X would be 0 here, but I was wrong. And I also thought saying "you may activate" would trump the "sorcery only" restriction; I hope that part can be fixed with templating.

Melissa: I like this design better than the land, because it's bounded to only one per Shaman per turn. However, this is still a risky design. This is the type of card where I would look to cast it and win the game that turn with some kind of combo.

The free activation is bounded to one per Shaman ever. This could be a simple case of writing something other than intended. You've probably seen me do that too.

Shouldn't mythic cards be a little risky?

Mark: You're the one of only two designers to cross-pollinate tribes, which I liked seeing. Shaman and Oozes seem like an odd place to cross the streams though. You're messing with free activations again, but this time it's just a one-shot, so far less dangerous. My biggest complaint with this card is that it doesn't hold together. Bearer of Lightning was complicated, but the pieces at least felt connected. Mystic Slime feels like a recipe where you just threw in ingredients you liked.

It took me a while to figure out why Mark didn't feel like Shamans and Oozes could go together. My leading theory is that he's decided Oozes are non-sentient and that there can never be a race of sentient oozes. I changed it to Ooze from the arbitrary Hound at the last moment because that explains the +1/+1 counters better.

As for not feeling like Mystic Slime is coherent: I'm lost. It gives your entire team the ability to grow like an Ooze, something an Ooze lord would totally do, it gives your team a bunch of free activations, something a Shaman lord would totally do, and the fact that it does both means you'll never feel bad about having creatures with activated abilities when it hits.


The first card being off-rarity and the second card being awful were embarrassing mistakes. That combined with my innovation being imperfect and the whole theme being on the complex and melvin-y side really sunk me here.

I punted this round. That's all the more frustrating knowing how fun playing the Shaman deck was in playtesting: It was sooo satisfying to make all these different ritualistic combos; play any two Shamans and you feel super smart. I still hope to share this theme with you in a set targeted at experienced players one day.

This challenge involved a speed element where the first contestant to claim a creature type got it. I've played knifey-spoony before, though, so I refused to jump to a conclusion. Instead, I built and tested for tribes I found promising, Oozes, Shamans, Orcs, and Hounds. I like Oozes the best but they were, unsurprisingly, already taken. Hounds were adorable but really wanted to be paired with humans, which the challenge prohibited. Orcs were fun, but really wanted a keyword, which was prohibited. Shamans were super fun and thematic, but also complicated. Having been caught in a dead end in GDS2, I'm confident waiting to test ideas was the optimal strategy.

Here are some of the Shamans that didn't make the submission:


  1. I was trying to figure out why I didn't like the activated abilities matter subtheme of Lorwyn's flamekin, and I would say Alexis's evaluation of its mechanical nature would be why. HOWEVER, I think something like Shamans or Wizards actually captures a way this can work with the "threshold 1" activated abilities mechanic-- in this case, the wording actually reads flavorfully in my opinion, even if it's using mechanical words. "as long as you've activated an ability of a Shaman this turn." sounds like something you might say while roleplaying, for example. My Shamans care about using their magical abilities! The most mechanical word is "activated" but I think it still gets by.

    I think I've said elsewhere, but while I think your hybrid tap symbol mechanic looks very interesting and shows a creative brain at work I think ("hey, tap symbols use the same template as mana symbols... why not combine it like the hybrid symbol?), I'm not sure how deep its design space is, especially to fill out a 3 color tribe. How many abilities are there that work well as both tap and repeatable abilities in all 3 colors that can go on lower rarities, especially when compounded with a need to have a certain amount to enable an activated abilities matter theme? Did you have an idea in mind about the number of good abilities you could make out of hybrid tap symbols?

    1. I expect the design space of hybrid-tap is quite small. If a set used it, you'd want to use it everywhere it works, not just in one tribe.

  2. I kind of want to see your oozes. Shaman being your second choice, do you think that hurt a little?

  3. The biggest problem with the hybrid tap, in my mind, is that in most cases, 1 mana and a tap are not really close in cost.

    1. This is mostly what I mean about the design space. I think you could find a few designs that overlap (I think you could tap or pay R to deal 1 to a player, but maybe not even that, maybe it could take the lava axe spot in a set?), but the number you could do has to got to be really low. It doesn't have to be the only way you enable activated abilities matter, but i feel introducing it for just a small handful of designs doesn't seem worth it.

    2. I was surprised it was hybrid for a colour, I just assumed it would be hybrid "tap or three" most of the time, or similar. But maybe it's too hard to make that symbol visible.

    3. You're rarely going to have a use where the player has to decide between tapping and paying mana. Rather, its how much mana can I afford and is one more better than attacking/blocking/activating my creature.

      You can also use it as a pseudo convoke:
      2 R/T: Create a 3/1 until EOT.
      2 G/T: This gets +2/+2 until EOT.

      I hadn't thought of 3/T. If that fits, it could work well.

  4. I would have loved to see Hound tribal with some Human crossover. I wonder how the judges would've felt on that.

    I really liked the space you were in with Shamans. I think activated abilities are a good niche for them, and it makes them feel distinct from Wizards (which tend to care about instants/sorceries/triggered abilities-lately) and from Druids (which care about lands.) When I think of Shamans, I think of bursts of mana, direct damage, elemental powers, and to some extent auras.

    One thing that really struck me about your submission was the lack of a common creature. I think having both mythics be creatures might have hurt a bit. Amid all the "activated abilities matter" and granting of activated abilities, I would have loved to just see a common creature with an activated ability...maybe something like a mana dork or pinger to players that untaps when you play a Shaman.

    Maybe a Shaman lord with this theme could double / copy activated abilities for Shamans, sorta like Naban. Then for the artifact slot, maybe it could be an Equipment that grants the abilities of equipped creature to all other creatures you control. Something like that.

    You definitely presented a lot to ponder. I think you're onto the right theme with Shamans. And that hybrid tap-mana idea is pretty mindblowing and brave.

    Hope to see you bounce back in the next challenge!

    1. The challenge constraints were tough. Only having three creature slots for 8 explicitly-tribal cards and having to make two of each rarity cut out a lot of the best options to present our theme.

  5. I like very much the tribe you chose and the challenge to make activated abilities matter. I also think that it was a somewhat dangerous space at lower rarities where complexity must be low.

    One of the possible approaches that I thought of would have been not to use act. abilities, outside mana abilities, at common. Instead, using triggers when the creature became tapped. This of course meant that the tribe would've slanted more aggresive. For example, in your rejected Raise Dance, it's easier to understand if you say "you may tap a shaman as an additional cost (...)if you do, return two cards instead".

    All in all, I really hope you got back into your feet for next challenge!

  6. I am also terrible at mythics, I feel you deeply.

  7. Ouch. Yeah, I hadn't realised how much you'd playtested. It should have been obvious! I admit, my first view of a lot of these cards is, "that looks way complicated, where are the simple 'care about activation' cards". But the judges didn't even mention playtesting, are they saving it for later rounds?? It is a real kick in the teeth when the cards play well but don't look good, and you get first impressions from judges.

    I think partly, the judges are always just going to be less than perfect, and people need to intuit what will impress them, not only listen to what they say -- which isn't really fair, but is likely to be the case unless the judges are really practiced at judging (which as you point out, is different to giving feedback to colleages).

    I guess, have a checklist, ideas, playtest, refine, but make sure to have a sanity check (maybe save a playtester till last?) for "does this look ok at first sight" and maybe "does this trip over any edge cases in the challenge/fulfil all the nuances"?

    Now I'm excited to play with the shamans, because I *love* that "put it together feel clever" feel, even though I wasn't when I first saw them.

    Good luck next week!

  8. It was frustrating not being able to expand Wizard's vision of tribal in this challenge because of the way the challenge was worded. I really wanted to show off incidental tribal (where cards of one creature type share a theme/strategy and synergize without naming that type explicitly) and/or cross-tribal synergy (where tribe A supports both tribes A and B, and probably B does too). That's the future of tribal and not being able to share that vision because the judges didn't know to allow for it

    1. As an outsider trying this challenge, the explicit synergy was really rough to design around. There are a TON of cool designs that are very obviously synergistic with your tribe without saying your tribe's name, but those don't technically count. I think this would have been a better challenge that allowed designers to strut their stuff if it was "Design 8 card, at least 6 of which have to have explicit tribal synergy".

      On a side note, I wonder how much your first two cards being off changed their perspective of the rest of your submission. Were they expecting the other cards to be problematic too, and did that affect their perception of some of your better cards? I really don't get the 3-color critiques they gave you.

    2. I think the concepts underlying Rule 3 in that contest help explain the mindset that caused some of the problems of Ixalan's block tribal set.

      The merfolk were essentially rule three applied to some very simple mechanics. So everything was just putting counters on merfolk, creating merfolk, buffing merfolk, and granting evasion to merfolk. It made them a weird turn-key, wind-up machine rather than a tribe that actual identifiable game play (or counterplay anyway).

      By contrast, with the pirates, lacking any strategical coherence, you ended up with these random pirate kicker cards--spells that performed better if you had a pirate in play. That wasn't terribly "tribal" either but it fit the terms of Rule 3.

      I think for all the flaws, most of you guys still managed to put together tribes more coherent than what the pirates were and more strategic than the merfolk.

    3. I totally feel your frustration with the "explicit tribalness". I think every submission was hurt by having to include the word "Shaman" on every card. It also makes it harder to include eg the characteristic creature that the rest of these cards support.