Thursday, May 31, 2018

GDS3 Reflections: Scott Wilson, Challenge 5

By Scott Wilson

Well this was it, the final challenge. And the day before we started, Mark Rosewater sent us an e-mail that made my heart drop.

He told us that, just like the first challenge with creature types, we would again have to pick something and then we'd be locked into it and couldn't change.

That first challenge hadn't gone so well for me. I'd originally picked Samurai because of two ideas that didn't end up working out in playtesting. I would've loved to be able to switch creature types after discovering that, but couldn't.

So in an effort not to make that mistake again, I spent a good chunk of time making lists of all the things the challenge could possibly be. Pick a theme for a Commander set? Create a new card type? Pick a plane to return to and design cards for? I felt like I was set for anything. I went to bed, ready to wake up as soon as we got the e-mail.

Due to the time difference of where I live, I had to get up at 3 a.m. As soon as the e-mail from Wizards arrived and I saw the challenge, I was excited. Our challenge was to design a booster pack of any Standard-release set; that was pretty close to the guess I'd had for "pick a plane to return to and design cards for" challenge.

And the number one choice on my list: New Phyrexia.

After double checking everything and making sure I wasn't misinterpreting anything, I sent in my choice… and got told five minutes later that Scars of Mirrodin block was already taken. (No hard feelings, Ari!)

So I went with my second choice: Innistrad. It was a tough call between Innistrad and Rise of Eldrazi. The period from Rise of Eldrazi to Avacyn Restored was when I drafted the most and played Standard the most, so I felt most familiar with those sets. In the end though, Innistrad's plethora of possibilities won out, and it's what I went with. After getting a few hours of sleep, it was time to go to work.

This was far and away the hardest challenge. Not only did we have to create 14 cards, but (for an Innistrad booster) 9 of them had to be commons – the hardest rarity to design for. I ended up creating over 150 cards, and whittling them down to just 14 was incredibly difficult.

Here's just a few of the more interesting iterations:

Last Grasp started out as an instant that read: "When target creature you control dies this turn, destroy target creature you don’t control." But my playtesters didn't realize they had to choose both targets when they cast the spell, not when the creature died, so I changed it to an aura instead.

Then of course I realized that white being able to kill any creature didn't fit into its color pie (I was being VERY careful with the color pie this week after last week), so I tweaked it to the final version.

Unfortunately, as the judges pointed out, the card is complicated for a common. I think I got a bit tunnel-visioned on the card and it would've been cool to instead create a white Morbid card, something like this:

Again, a bit complex for a common, but not as bad as the one I submitted. Plus it gets bonus points for white Morbid.

I knew this card was a risk to include, but I'm glad I put it in. Yes, a similar thing could be accomplished by giving it an ETB ability and an "exile from graveyard" ability, but there's just something more visceral and exciting about a creature card with Flashback. It feels weird and a little wrong, just like the feeling of the creatures on Innistrad.

Of course, that doesn't necessarily make it a good design. Just because something evokes the feeling you want, that doesn't necessarily make it good. Annihilator in Rise of Eldrazi is a good example of this: you felt helpless against it, which worked well flavorfully, but not so much fun gameplay-wise.

The other rare I considered including was this one:

This card was cool and my playtesters loved it, but there were two issues: (1) Evil Twin from the original Innistrad already did something very similar. And (2), if a creature had the same power and toughness (like a 3/3 or a 4/4), then the copy wouldn't be any different; the card would just be a glorified removal spell.

In the end I went with Vengeful Flame, feeling like I'd rather go down with the ship than never set sail at all.

Since I was doing Innistrad, I was lucky enough to be able to swap out a common for a double-faced card. I went with the rare Innocuous Sprout/Coniferous Carnivore. It was meant to be a card that showed off the "fight" mechanic, which first became a named evergreen mechanic in Innistrad, but it took a long time to decide on it.

I had a ton of ideas for transform cards to choose from: a man turning into a crab, a person turning into a dragon, a cultist turning into a Demon they summoned, a human turning into an Ooze, and even a version of Arlinn Kord to show what she was like before she became a Planeswalker.

But after playtesting them all, it came down to two choices that myself and my playtesters liked best: Innocuous Sprout and Manor House.

I liked this card as a mythic to reward you for playing with the monsters on Innistrad. But in the end, I decided against it for two reasons: (1) It was too easy to transform. I tried testing it as transforming if you had one of EACH monster, but that was too hard and required way too many deckbuilding requirements. I tried bumping up the numbers, but then it just became less appealing. And (2), I wasn't sure if a house coming alive and attacking was too Un-set. It felt like it didn't really belong on the realistic-horror plane of Innistrad.

So I went with Innocuous Sprout/Coniferous Carnivore, which has the honor of being my most favorite card name that I submitted in the competition.

Unfortunately, I didn't make it through this round. But after seeing the other contestants' submissions and reading the judges' critiques, I completely understand why. Rather than coming up with new themes and new spins on ideas, my cards mostly just supported themes that were already a part of Innistrad.

Perhaps I should've gone with Rise of Eldrazi. Perhaps I should've made some tweaks here or there or swapped out some cards. Perhaps I should've done a million things differently. But in the end, I'm proud of my submission, and I'm happy with performance overall.

I have to say, this contest was the most intense experience I've ever been through. Writing/defending my thesis, moving to and working overseas in Japan, having a book published… they all pale in comparison. And yet, each challenge was an absolute blast, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Huge thanks to the judges for putting this on, my playtesters for sticking with me, and best of luck to Ari, Chris and Jeremy in the top three. I'm excited to see which of you comes out on top, and no matter who it is, I know you'll make all of us custom card creators proud. Now get in there and attack for lethal!


  1. Great minds... I had also guessed that we would choose a plane to return to, and was planning on Alara. I had new mechanics picked out for most of the shards!

    Sorry I stole Scars block from you, Scott! You're a fantastic, inventive designer, and I hope you get all the opportunities you deserve.

  2. Ooh, sympathy :( And good luck in future!

    I loved a lot of your individual cards. Especially the Haunted Mansion, though I agree, I think the backside shouldnn't be a creature. And Drowning Ordeal, Tracking Hound, Wall of Flesh, Curse of Spiders are all really evocative.