Thursday, May 24, 2018

GDS3 Reflections: Jay Treat, Challenge 3, Mechanic

Greetings, acolyte. You wanted to know how to defeat all those who oppose you? You must shed all reluctance to spill blood. Mercy and hesitation are unknown to a true warrior. They who would be victorious have already accepted that their own blood will run with their enemies, but know that the fluid of life will continue to flow through their veins as long as they stand last.

Bloodspill is a very {B}{R}{G} mechanic that rewards you for causing players to lose life, and sometimes you've got to be willing to cost yourself some life to get your engine running. It's pretty spikey, definitely not for everyone, and incredibly fun.

The biggest concession I made to flavor was saying "if you spilled blood" rather than "if blood was spilled" even though the mechanic doesn't care who caused whom to lose life. I made that choice because I wanted the player to feel active and responsible, but in retrospect, it was confusing; reveling in any blood being spilt is still good flavor, and you can still feel responsible when it happens because of your choices.

I believe this life gain is justifiable in black because it only happens when someone loses life, making it a Drain Life sort of thing. I will grant that's debatable.

Maybe I should've made Cylian Physician a 3/3 for {3}{B} so that it would look better on its own. In practice, having this be a two-drop was great because that allowed you to cast a one- or two-drop bloodspill card before it that turn.
Mark says: "I'm a bit torn about bloodspill. I like that it's flavorful and cares about something game relevant, allowing for a lot of interactions with minimal text. I'm less excited that it might discourage attacking and cause games to slow down."
I don't understand how Mark would come to the conclusion that bloodspill would discourage attacking or slow games down. Bloodspill heavily rewards players for aggression and attacking. I suppose the defending player wants to block more than they would otherwise, but racing is also heavily encouraged. As someone who playtested this deck against several others, I saw only acceleration.
I got dinged pretty hard for using X on a common. My understanding had been that mana costs with X in them were confusing but that cards that define the value of X explicitly were okay. Doing a search, I see that we do the latter at common, but pretty infrequently. Fair enough.

The judges were completely correct to call out caring about how much life was lost when the rest of the mechanic only cares whether 3+ life was lost. It's clear how the card works, but that's still aesthetically displeasing.

As for spilling your own blood being unappealing, yes; this is not the mechanic we're using to draw new players in. That doesn't mean it has no audience or place. The folks bloodspill works for will really enjoy it. Better to have a mechanic that's loved and hated than merely tolerated.

This is one of the rare spots where I disagree with Melissa. Share Pain is narrower than Nameless Inversion, but it's trivial to cast it after you attack or after you're attacked, and it's usually 100% worthwhile to pay the 3 life to cast it before damage is dealt, especially when that enables your other bloodspill cards.
Mark says: "One of my pet peeves is mechanics that work differently on different cards."
I'd love to hear the story of how Mark came upon this opinion. It's entirely possible that I completely missed something during testing. I only had two playtesters and a few hours. The limited data I do have suggests that using similar phrases passively and actively is intuitive for players.
Bloodthorn Acolyte is the poster child for bloodspill. This is how the vast majority of bloodspill cards work. It feels great to invest 3 life on turn two to make this a 3/2 and then swing on turn 3 and enabling your next bloodspill card for free. It also feels great to cast this and Cylian Physician together on turn 4, getting the benefit at no net cost.

It may well be that having a bunch of commons like this is a burden on NWO. That's a cost I'd happily pay in a set that is otherwise fairly simple, knowing how much fun it is in action, but I grant that limits its applicability.

Making both my common creatures 2/1s for two makes sense in the world where they belong to an entire set, but I see how that was a mistake in this 8-card microcosm.
Melissa says: "…I dislike that the mechanic is doing too much."
We were asked to show that our mechanic had range, and so I tried to show a number of different possible applications.
Mark says: "I can have a surprise blocker if somehow before combat damage I've lost 3 or more life? I know there are tricks to make this work, but it's quite frustrating if you don't have the trick."
I don't understand this comment. Jund Vengeant allows you to pay 3 life to play it with flash, no matter what else is happening. That's something you'll often do happily in order to ambush a bear.

I do agree that the timing of flash is not the ideal showcase for bloodspill, and I'd likely replace this card if I submitted again.
I noted in my intro the issue the judges pointed out, but that doesn't solve the issue. The judges were right to pan Goring Taurean. I can defend it slightly in that, in practice, this really is much easier to turn on before combat than it looks, but ultimately that's not enough and this was a weak submission.
I got dinged in a previous challenge for submitting a colorless land for a tribe that exists in more than one color, so this time I fixed all three colors associated with my mechanic. I thought Field of Gore was comparable in power level to the Ravnica shock-lands: Both fix N colors and ETBT unless you pay N life. Three colors is a lot better (for decks that need it) than two, but this doesn't have any basic land types and not being able to get it with a fetchland seems significant. But I guess it's still too strong.

The point about it being impossible to balance whatever cycle this ends up in—and that imbalance skewing Standard—is well-taken. Just look at River of Tears, Grove of the Burnwillows and, um, the other members of that cycle.
I feel like calling back to an existing card using a new context is a valid thing, but I guess Blood Will Flow was too similar to Killing Wave. All I will say in defense of this card is that the flavor is strong, the gameplay is fine, and the name is great. Otherwise, meh.
Mark says, apart from things I covered in my intro: "I appreciate you trying to maximize how much design space you can get out of your mechanic, but you're making similar yet functionally different mechanics rather than tweaking your mechanic."
The innovation I was going for with bloodspill was the concept of an umbrella mechanic, not unlike a batch (I felt so good reading about batches the day after I submitted this). Yes, it means different things depending on whether you use it actively, or passively, on yourself or someone else. Thanks to the power of language, all players have to remember is "bloodspill deals with losing 3 life" and then what the mechanic does in any given context is clear from the grammar and context.

Except, the judges uniformly and enthusiastically disagree. My testing went great, but I just had a few hours with a couple (experienced) players. Maybe the judges have tested stuff like this and determined it doesn't work. If so, I'd love to hear about that and learn from it. Even if not, it's evident I made the same error here that I did with Shamans (well, one of them), finding something seriously fun and then over-looking its flaws. In my defense, that's not a mistake you see in any of my completed games, and is only possible when I'm forcibly removed from my design biome. I will never win a Fastest Game Designer contest and I'm okay with that.
I was happy to find an existing legend (Kresh the Bloodbraided) to be able to update with my mechanic in an organic way.

It's at this point reading the judges' feedback that it becomes clear to me how confusing bloodspill is. When the rules manager and several other members of R&D misunderstand how your mechanic works, it's your mechanic that's wrong and not them. As written, the ability is looking for specific moments blood was lost. Two Shocks would not turn on bloodspill (for any of these cards) but attacking with an unblocked 2/2 and 1/1 would (because damage is applied at the same time). Looking back, it should work the other way.

Given that data, I would change bloodspill from threshold 3 to threshold 1 and make it a state boolean ("has anyone lost life this turn"). That makes the aggro side of it identical to bloodthirst, but it also removes all question of when it's active. Does being able to spill your own blood to turn it on make the new version distinct enough from bloodthirst? My inclination is that it's not, but we have seen Wizards iterate on mechanics in that way plenty of times, so perhaps so.

While I'd defend paying 2-3 life to activate your own bloodspill stuff, I really can't defend paying 1 life. It's just too fiddly and inconsequential to justify that complexity, even if the feel-bad is now heavily mitigated. Melissa's suggestion of just including a handful of cards in the format that cost you life would be more fun.

The non-bloodthirst half of the mechanic is nearly bloodied, Jeremy's simultaneously submitted ability word for this challenge. I won't comment uninvited on his work, except to say that the fact we played in a similar space is a pretty good indication there's something there. I am however obligated to talk about this comment Erik gave Jeremy:
"This is a fairly simple mechanic, and one that enable cards that are in an appropriate power level in both Standard and Modern. However, it does not have a wide enough appeal for a Standard set. For a common, it is too challenging to get the reward. In practice, I would adjust your mechanic. So, for the rest of this assignment, I am changing your mechanic to 'if any player lost life this turn.'"
A lot of the feedback I got on bloodspill was like this "It looks fun in Standard and sweet in Commander, but I would change the first ability to read 'each opponent loses 3 life' and 'spill blood' to read 'lose life.'" Throughout this contest, I've been caught off-guard how focused the judges have been on the exact templating of cards, even though we've been told numerous times that designers just have to make their intent clear and the templating team will figure out the exact wording. There's a meaningful difference between "these words are keyworded" and "these are just words" and I grant that I made the wrong call (though again, I feel like exploration was punished, when exploration is what most sets designers apart from everyone else on a team).

I'm aware that there were other issues with my submission, but to have my mechanic evaluated verbatim (despite suggestions of simple substitutions) and Jeremy's mechanic be functionally adjusted—to be more like mine—I don't know how to feel okay about that.

Jules says: "Despite coming up with the best mechanic design of the bunch, I found your execution lacking."
My execution was lacking. I should have used "pay 3 life" rather than "spill your own blood;" I should have focused the mechanic; I should have hunted out and reduced complexity better; I should have found more optimal cards to show off the mechanic. Still, I have to wonder how the team works that they'd rather have designers who make fewer mistakes during the exploratory phase than designers who create the best gameplay.

While I disagree with some of the feedback the judges have given contestants throughout GDS3, most of it has been great. It's worth saying again that their expertise, insight, and professionalism are not just evident but laudable. It's important to remember that the sole purpose of criticism in game design in constructive: If what you have to say won't help the designer make something better next time, what you're offering is irrelevant at best. Absolutely everything the judges shared in their comments had that intent and none other. That might sound simple enough, and they made it look easy, but if you examine the criticism being offered elsewhere, you'll often find it reductive or self-aggrandizing. Little of that is coming from a place of mean-spiritedness or egoism, it's just that giving good criticism is a skill. So…

Thank you, judges.

It's worth clarifying that the results you see here do not represent three and half days dedicated to iterating on and polishing bloodspill alone. Of the time I was able to spend on Magic design, I was designing enough cards to build decks to playtest a handful of different mechanics, having selected those from a list of more than twenty. Four of those mechanics proved really exciting and I'll be sharing them with you over the next few weeks. I was iterating on all of them going into Sunday, and while bloodthirst was my frontrunner for its exceptional play, I didn't officially settle on it until after my playtest that afternoon. Here are some of the cards from that deck I didn't submit:


  1. Maro felt it woud discourage attacking because if people know your cards get powered up if you lose life, they will want to hit you less. Even if that isn't a viable strategy that for sure is a feeling that would come up. This is why i felt it worked better only if an enemy was hit, qs a Bloodthirst/Raid type abilty word.

    Also, and this showed up in "bloodied" as well but a 2 mana 2/1 that is only good if you cast something before it feels horrible to curve out with. Of of the key uses of 2 drop commons is to help with curve issues in limited and you are going to get feelbads when players are forced between putting it down for no value on turn 2 or just getting punched in the face mext turn (and at a point in the game where a bloodied instant would be less relevent even.)

    Also having a mechanic that was so many things was a huge mistake and probably cost you the mechanic. You really should have spelled out "as you cast this spell you may pay 3 life " instead of adding more vocabulary.

    Also the fact you felt the need to put life pay riders on blood spill cards to solve the AB issue highlights how narrow your implementation is. You either need to get enablers online or add extra text just to make the mechanic work.

    Also while its true that a small proprotion of the players may like this and that it is better to be loved by some and hated by others than be middle road, the audience for this mechanic is way to thin.

    Even for spikes its not that sexy and even so, a main keyword mechanic cant have such a narrow appeal. A life pay subtheme can work like in Ixalan but doing a whole mechanic is something a set will spotlight and highlight and that means a broader appeal.

    Also burrying the fact you can pay life to enable bloodspill in reminder text is going to make a lot of people make Maroa mistake of not noticing that option.

    Further more you are defeating tje purpose of the keyword. The whole idea is to make a repeatable effect short hand memorable. Changing up how it works so much undercuts that.

    The fact some blood spill cards let you pay yourself and others don't is going to cause huge play issues with which is which. Pick one or the other. Otherwise people will miss pay options on cards like your Flash card and assume you can pay life for cards like your 1B 2/1 dude(which in that specific instance comes off as MORE confusing.)

    Also Umbrella batching is like anti batching . Bacthing is a single defintion for seprate things. Historic will always work the same way and refer to the same thing no matter which cards you are working on.

    You have blood spill be a word thay means three seperate things, each time you say it,unlike historic. The defintion changed.

    If you wanted to batch it something like. When ETB, do n if blood was spilled (Blood is split if a player lost 3 or more life this turn. Damage causes loss of life.) And then having blood being spilled as a constant action but the defintion shifting basically make this akin to an anti keyword.

  2. Also bravo Jay you really fought hard here.

    I was shocked to see you go but I cant honestly say someone else should have had the spot given the issues with this mechanic and the shamans.

    A greay designer, a great influencer on me and an all around cool guy .

    Still have that signed BOP!

    Good show friend! Good show.

  3. I think your submission was better than 2 of the other ones this week so I was sad to see you go. IMO you were a victim of the specific parameters that the judges thought they should judge against rather than just an overarching "whose work would be the most productive for us"?

    You definitely used the mechanic in too many ways but this is exactly what you want to do when you are exploring design space. You'd want to trim into the juiciest area (personally I'd want to try just caring about your opponent having taken 3 or more damage this turn - that's too similar to bloodthirst for the challenge but it's actually what is most promising for a "return to Alara" that wants 5 simple mechanics... also such a set would want a few cards that reward you for paying life while cast spells... and risking enabling your opponents' bloodspill cards).

    In any case, I was encouraged by MaRo's comment that he's sure that you'll work together some day.

  4. Sorry things didn't work out Jay.

    I did unfortunately find myself in a similar state of confusion as the judges sometimes (especially MaRo). It really did feel to me that bloodspill was ultimately more than one mechanic, and I would sometimes get lost over the idea that sometimes I could literally pay three life to activate the ability then and there and sometimes I could not. I didn't quite grasp why you could pay life to give the Jund Vengeant flash, but you couldn't pay life to give Goring Torean double strike.

    I think that what players are looking at when checking to see if a mechanic has triggered should be simple, and the texting repeated as consistently as possible. And then when it triggers, that's when you have all this space to design.

    It's unfortunate because I do think the design itself was a fun idea and one that there is plenty of space to iterate. And this is one of those situations where GDS as a contest ends up subverting what would happen in real life, which is that you'd collaborate with these guys to resolve the various technical issues. But because it's a contest, there is an inherent incentive to treat those situations as failures.

    1. Thanks, Larcent.

      That particular choice—only sometimes allowing the player to pay life—was definitely a mistake. Consistency is more important than brevity.

      Yes, it's helpful to accept that this contest is not representative of real world design, despite appearances.

  5. I've said it a couple times elsewhere, but i have to say I think while you really captured what I think is one potential future of Magic mechanics, it's really a shame you got wrapped up in trying several different ways to use the phrase rather than using it what I think was probably the correct way (as effectively replacement to things like ability word rules text). I'm also not sure if the value of counting your own blood was there-- perhaps it was, but that may narrow the design space enough that you get caught up in the issues Jeremy's bloodied had. You might avoid some since you can focus most of the mechanic on the opponent aspect which i think is the gold nugget of what makes this mechanic good (it's play pattern is like a mixture of raid and bloodthirst, both proven powerhouses in my opinion), but having it there at all might cause too much of a schism in design since the you losing life needs both specific support and specific designs to avoid the pitfalls of causing stalled gamestates due to wary opponents, to the point it may be more correct to simple ignore that aspect. But I'm unsure.

    As I said, I think I'm with you that mechanics like this may end up being important to Magic because it deals with some of the pitfalls of ability words (better conveyance of flavor, shorter virtual text due to reminder, off the top of my head.) while opening some potential new space.

    1. This 1000% both blood mechanics would have worked best as "If you shed blood this turn do x (You shed Blood if an opponent lost N or more life this turn. Damage causes loss of life.)

    2. This actually started closer to Jeremy's version where it only counted your own blood loss. I was definitely excited to realize it would be much more dynamic and appealing if it also counted your opponents'. Having played with it, I'm still confident counting your blood loss as well is fun and unique.

    3. I really am curious (and would ask on Blogatog if it wasn't already a super busy day over there) if having a mechanic work in slightly different ways is a feature or a bug IRL when designing a new mechanic.

      I understand that it wasn't the task and it was appropriate to penalize both the complexity and the inconsistency, but it does make me curious about how often in playtesting there are multiple versions of a mechanic.

      Is that a commonplace way of finding the juiciest implementation in an early playtest? Or is it something that is used sparingly only when struggling to decide between alternate implementations? Or somewhere in the middle / differs depending on context...

    4. It's definitely useful during testing to determine which version is better, though you'd generally want one deck with version A and another deck with version B.

  6. Oh no, I'm so sorry Jay. I hope you're ok. You're an amazing designer, I'm so sorry GDS3 didn't work out for you :(

    It's probably not the time to say it, but it's clear you're a really strong designer, and did an amazing job bringing the goblin artisans community together -- is there any hope of you focussing your energy on making a game BETTER than magic?

    1. Thanks, Jack.

      I will continue to make games, and they will all be better in a few ways (simplicity being the gimme) and for certain audiences.

  7. FWIW, I love bloodspill, the simple "lost 3 or more life" is a nice variant of several other abilities but looks like it will have interesting play, and I expect there are similar mechanics coming out from wizards.

    I think the strongest part of it is the simplest, spells that reward you for combat damage. I think having "pay life" enablers is also useful, and that having the breadth of possibility you show is also a plus.

    But I unfortunately think, those variants did not come across that well. With Morbid, an immediate problem players had was asking, "wait, if a creature dies? so I can sacrifice one?" People who know the rules well don't have that problem, but making something grokkable for beginners also makes it grokkable for experts when they're concentrating on many different things. Using "spill blood" both as a description and an action really promotes that confusion. And I think saying "if you spilled blood" is misleading when the answer is the same for all players. I think the judges could have done better looking past those things, but I do think they took away from the positive of the mechanic :(

  8. Tri-colored lands can be an issue overall. I have been trying to do that myself in a way and with your mechanic I could see some way to do it.

    Something like Mana Confluence for your colors, but if blood was spilled it doesn't cost life.

    This would empower attacking and offer choices on what to do on a turn. Play a haste threat and take a ding? Or play something second main with no pain?

    1. So...
      {T}: Add {C}.
      {T}: Add {B}, {R}, or {G}. Activate this ability only if blood was spilled this turn.

      I dig it.

    2. Or:

      T: add B, R, or G. You lose 3 life unless blood was spilt this turn.

    3. My idea was a shock painland hybrid but people might hate that. Pay 2 life or it enters tapped and can produce colorless or pay 1 for one of three colors.

  9. Sorry to see you out this week Jay!

    Your submissions reminded me of your posts here on GoblinArtisan - a first draft with a lot of great ideas but not quite a final product to be judged. That said, great job with those ideas, playtesting, and with posts to this site! It's been a really exciting contest if narrow contest. Hope to see more from you and more on other games too!

    1. Thanks, Zachariah.
      Yeah, proper game design takes time, iteration, and more eyes.