Friday, May 25, 2018

GDS3 Reflections: Scott Wilson, Challenge 3

Closing our week on Challenge #3, Scott Wilson brings us the tale of how Ancestry came to be. Click through to read about it, and check out his GDS page for the judge feedback on his submission for this challenge.

By Scott Wilson

For me, this was the most intense challenge yet, for reasons I'll get to.

The starting point was deciding which new mechanic to use. I knew that I'd need at least two full days of playtesting and refining (we only had a bit over three days total), so I couldn't afford to spend a lot of time choosing.

I went through all the mechanics from the custom sets I've made, since I'd already had a lot of playtest time with them. I knew which ones were fun and which ones weren't.

After laying them all out, I divided them into three categories: (1) too safe, (2) too crazy, and (3) just right. The mechanic I went with, Ancestry, was in the "just right category." However back then, Ancestry worked a little differently.

Here's what an Ancestry card looked like:

This may look familiar. When I was brainstorming my Samurai cards for the first challenge, I'd created this card:

That card was also based on the Ancestry mechanic from my custom set. My friends who'd played it really liked Ancestry, and I'd tried to finagle it into the Samurai cards, but it didn't work out.

Now that we could create our own new mechanic though, I could finally use it!

...there was just one problem.

As I spent the next two days designing and playtesting Ancestry cards, something just didn't feel right. My playtesters had liked Ancestry at first, but the more we played, the more frustrated they grew with it.

Sometimes they didn't have the right creature types in their graveyard. Sometimes they felt bad when they had to choose between casting the weak creature without Ancestry or waiting around hoping for land drops to cast it with Ancestry. And sometimes, even when it all worked out and they Ancestry-ed a creature, it wasn't even that strong.

Essentially, Ancestry ended up being a lot of hoops to jump through just to give a creature +2/+2 or so.

The nagging feeling that something was wrong wouldn't go away. But despite that, I still designed all eight cards, even wrote up my essay and final versions of the cards, and went to bed about 16 hours before it was due, the e-mail to Wizards saved as a draft in my inbox.

But then, just as I was falling asleep, it hit me: why not just get rid of the creature type limitation? Why not make it so you didn't have to choose between casting it early or late? Why not change it so that the Ancestor wasn't the card in your hand… but the creature in the graveyard.

I immediately sprang out of bed and went to work. Here's what Ancestry eventually became:

Needless to say, I didn't get any sleep during those 16 hours. Thankfully I was able to finagle most of the original designs that I'd already had into the new format, but the rares and mythic needed to be completely reworked. Huge thanks to my playtesters who were willing to come over and help playtest while I had bloodshot eyes and was running on pure coffee and sugar.

But it was worth it: my playtesters really loved the new Ancestry. Sure, it may have been lacking the creature-type flavor it had previously, but making crazy family trees was part of its new charm. I somehow managed to get a submission together for the new mechanic just in time.

I was worried at the time that it was too similar to Scavenge, but I figured that the flavor, the granting of abilities, and the interactions ("become an ancestor triggers," etc.) would be enough to set it apart. In fact, I was worried that my mechanic had gone too far in the "crazy" direction.

But now, having read the judge's critiques, and with the benefit of hindsight, I agree that Ancestry still ended up too similar to Scavenge.

Maybe I should've stuck with my original design and tweaked it? (Having an Ancestry cost that's LOWER than the creature's mana cost was something I surprisingly didn't consider at the time, but would've been a good thing to test.) Maybe I should've listened to that nagging feeling earlier? Maybe I should've chosen one of my crazier, more out-there mechanics to begin with?

I'm not sure exactly what I should've done. But for the frantic state I was in when I put it all together, I'm just happy it was coherent!

-Scott Wilson


  1. I personally really like the Ancestry mechanic, but I would make one tweak: I wouldn't always have them give power/toughness equal to their own. That p/t boost makes the mechanic very tricky to balance, and more difficult to track in combat.
    While I was reading your submission my mind immediately went to a creature-based version of haunt, but as a boon. I think granting effects to its descendant without caring the +p/+t would make the mechanic simpler and easier to balance, while still keeping the same design depth (if not greater design depth).
    If you would then want to have an Ancestor boost the p/t of a descendant, you could put +1/+1 counters on the descendant when you activate Ancestry to make p/t-tracking easier at a glance.

    All in all I think it's a solid place for a mechanic to start, even if in its current form its somewhat of an overlap between two existing mechanics. In my opinion you did a solid job of showing the different directions you can take your mechanic in, though you did keep it relatively safe.

  2. "Couldn't afford to spend a lot of time choosing" really gets down to the root of why this week was so hit or miss for many of the contestants.

    1. Yup. I could have easily spent a week on this one, and it would have improved my submission significantly. That's probably true for some of the other challenges as well, but to a lesser extent.

      Scott, I'm glad and impressed you were able to pull this out after a late audible!

  3. It's a pretty interesting hybrid of scavenge, embalm and bestow. I personally think that's actually a good thing. "Flashback for creatures" is something that isn't possible to do in such a clean way as it is for spells so I think having flavourful variants of it is perfect. Even though it plays similar to scavenge, the flavour is completely different.

  4. I think I would have made it more like monstrous/renown and used a flat p/t bonus so that it was easier to to anticipate what would happen to the
    creature. Might have been easier to keep the tribal implications as well.
    "Cost: Ancestry N. (Pay cost and exile a creature card that shares a type with card name from your graveyard. If card name isn't ancestral put N +1/+1 counters on it, it becomes ancestral.)
    This iteration might be too close to monstrous, but I like moving it to the activated ability of a permanent because it encourages interaction. I like using the graveyard as an extended resource, but scavenge requires some specific pieces to do its thing. Eating any card is easy since creatures die all the time, but scavenge wants specific, nonspell cards, which takes much more work to ensure there's the thoughtscour's available for setting it up. It also doesn't stop players from playing creatures on curve or needing them to die to do their special thing.
    I do like it, I think it's got chops for a return to tarkir as the abzan mechanic.