Wednesday, May 23, 2018

GDS3 Reflections: Jay Treat, Challenge 2: Bigtopia

I was hoping to look between the lines of all the judge comments throughout the contest, but it's too much too fast, so I'm just going to respond to the comments I received and talk about my experience working on the challenge.

I'm not telling you anything you don't already know when I say the judging for this round was pretty subjective. Despite the judges' mixed opinions, I feel very good about my submission here.

In order to overcome the hurdle of approaching the circus theme—which was clearly chosen because it's a rich source that black-bordered Magic would never dedicate an entire set to (see the Rakdos)—I worked out a unique story and novel gameplay feel. With that in place, I could plan out mechanical subthemes to support both the game experience and theme. Not being able to label the cards with the Ringmaster or Peak Performance mechanics hurt my ability to communicate them via the cards, and I feel like that restriction was another self-defeating choice for the judges. With the limited communication the contestants and judges already have, this is a bit like asking someone to whisper the best secret to you and then standing across the room from them.

While it's a bit simplistic and wouldn't support an actual ~300 card set, finding three mechanical themes for every color to explore, and some archetypes for various color pairs shows my vision for the larger product, as opposed to just the 8 cards submitted. I'm really happy with how well Ringmaster and Exalted make the player feel like the show manager of a circus. Rebound is always fun and supports Ringmaster. Peak Performance rewards Exalted in a thematic and satisfying way. Rogues are my tribal element, and that's such a slam-dunk. I'm very happy with the big picture here.
I'm a little confused by Mark's comments on Acrobatics: "I like the gameplay of rebound, but I'm not quite sure thematically what it's adding to the set. … Does it make sense as a part of circus world? I'm a little more dubious."

I explained in my intro that rebound supports ringmaster (which rewards players for keeping their 'audience' entertained by casting a spell every round). In addition, rebounding is what performers do after they fall, and setting up a chain of spells to fire off really captures the feel of putting on a show when you actually play with it.
Three out of four of the Unicycles submitted were equipment, and with good reason. Vehicles in Magic don't actually transport creatures, they are machines that require operators in order to attack.
When you consider how they actually play, they're more like siege weapons than transportation. A unicycle is not a siege weapon. (Also, vehicles can be piloted by any number of creatures, but a unicycle can only have one pilot.)

I playtested a vehicle version—it was a 2/1 with crew 1—and while that was an interesting haste variant, its aggressive nature didn't feel like a unicycle and didn't contribute to the set's gameplay.

What I did submit feels like a unicycle because its rider is elevated over a single point, such that only one creature can get in its way at a time. It supports exalted creatures in a big way, and let me tell you, putting a Trained Elephant on a Unicycle is the kind of hilarious that just feels good.

Finally, I wanted to call out the flavor in the costs: A unicycle is small and cheap, so it costs {0} to play, but actually managing to get on a unicycle is really tricky, so it costs {3} to equip.
I wanted rogues and carnival folk to be a significant part of my world, so building upon Jeremy's winning tribal submission from the previous challenge seemed natural. Being able to recognize your peers' successes and steal/support them (weirdly similar actions in game design) is a critical skill in this industry. I imagine the judges caught that and chose not to comment on it.

I worded this as -1/-1 N times rather -N/-N so it feels more like you're throwing multiple knives than one big knife, but at no point would throwing knives at multiple targets have been appropriate for uncommon at a mana cost that doesn't make the card look awful (because you've got to balance for when it's their only rogue as well as when they have 10).
Tightrope was and remains one of my favorite designs from this submission. It inspired the Ringmaster mechanic, which is absolutely worthy of building a set around.

There are a lot of ways to convey flavor:
Shivan Dragon does so very literally. You can read the card and imagine the thing, and it is what it does. 
Tightrope does it more metaphorically. That may sound like a weak implementation, but in games, it's actually stronger, because tightrope creates an experience for the player that's like walking a tightrope. Rather than looking like a tightrope, this card feels a tightrope.  
Literal flavor is better for selling packs initially by appealing to player immediately where metaphorical flavor is better at selling packs later by giving players more fun and unique play experiences that keep them coming back.
Tightrope is hella fun in play because being up on that highwire gives you a better view (hence the scry), but you're in risk of falling and ruining the act (hence the sacrifice). The scry helps you to avoid falling but there are no guarantees. Sculpting Flow and Fiero

Putting the scry at the end of your turn gives you something to do while your opponent draws and plans their turn, and doesn't slow anyone else down.
I like the flavor of Traveling Circus: Whenever you put on a show (aka cast a spell), you get the attention of the locals and one runs away with you until they realize they've made a horrible mistake. I appreciate that the flavor's not quite as tight as some would like.

In play, this is mostly just a Mind Control where you have to keep up your Ringmastery to enjoy and that works great. Eli's right that this working at instant speed and potentially more than once per round isn't obvious; but those are within the blue-red color pie and not unreasonable at rare.

Is the final package worth it? No. When you add Melissa's concerns on top of everyone else's, it's just not worth it. Lots of great lessons here.
Feats of Strength brings up another flavor disagreement. Aaron and Mark have one interpretation of what feats of strength are and when they see a card that doesn't match their understanding, they reject it. Some of the players with the same interpretation will do the same, but most will do what they do for every Magic card and simply check to see if an essential truth of the subject matter is represented on the card and appreciate that. I disagree that you will only ever see a single performer performing feats of strength, but I'd be fine with a card that only depicted that because it's still showing feats of strength.

Melissa's criticism is spot on, as usual:
"These three modes are narrow by themselves and when you have three creatures in play the upgrade is not very impressive. I think this card has the complexity of a rare but the power level and coolness factor of an uncommon. Rares need to have a good balance between complex and cool, and while I think you're doing better in terms of complexity, I think this card could do something a little more exciting."
Agreed. Maybe costing this at just {G} would do the trick, but more likely we need bigger effects.

Feats of Strength is slightly better with exalted but mostly stands alone here. In terms of communicating the set's identity with just 8 cards, this contributes least.
Aaron: "I like the idea of a trapeze artist that can gain flying, but this package reads more to me like a human cannonball than a trapeze artist. Red, haste, flying, huge power? Cannonball."
I have to grant that increasing the power and potentially quite a lot makes this feel like a cannonball. If not for that, I'd disagree, but I can't.

I do still love the flavor here. Sometimes Rosella has everything under control and can fly through the air gracefully, but when things are desperate, she might make that leap and not catch the bar, sending her plummeting.

The play's great too.
Mark says: "Red's flying tends to be restricted to Dragons and Phoenixes, so I'd probably add in white or blue and make this a multicolored card."
I wonder if that's necessary. Red gets flying very sparingly, and the vast majority of the time it's tiny allotment is spent on dragons and phoenixes, because those don't work without it, but does that necessarily mean red's color pie forbids other creatures to fly? My inclination is that a red flyer like this would simply take the place of one of the set's dragons or phoenixes.

Rosella wants to be exalted, has peak performance, and helps you maintain peak performance.

Andrea points out in her video that Rosetta has too much text and is doing too many things, and she's right.
Pyramus is the choice I regret. I somehow managed to forget the lesson Eli shared with Linus in the design test, about casting cards from play. Worse, I spent my splash on a card that stalls the hell out of the game. I liked how re-casting Pyramus each round guarantees you maintain Ringmaster and that (combined with the call for innovation) blinded me to the cost of that strangeness.

I really love the flavor—an illusionist drawing your attention to a false image and then disappearing and re-appearing while you're distracted is classic.

But the gameplay's bad. Again, this is me being bad at mythic rare design. I found a unique, powerful, and flavorful effect, but it's the kind that jams up the game rather than accelerates it.

Part of what makes it so hard for me to grok how to design mythics, is that I can't playtest and tweaking them until they're fun like the other rarities, because mythics aren't fun for me. They really hurt Limited play by just winning the game most of the time they're drawn.

Erik and Melissa's final commentaries were helpful, illuminating something I hadn't thought about. Aaron and Mark's comments were frustrating because I painted a thorough and compelling picture of the set in the intro, and most cards supported at least one of those themes.

In the previous challenge, I saw the judges evaluate the 8 cards in a vacuum, but I failed to appreciate their commitment to that method. I thought if I presented 8 cards that were strong in flavor—that played well, and all supported the set's themes—that an intro selling the set as a cohesive whole would convey the rest. I thought demonstrating that I had a plan for the whole set would count for something. But I was again caught off guard by the judges' ability to ignore the intro and expect more picture to be painted by just 8 cards. It's my fault for not learning that lesson faster.

As I'm accustomed to delivering entire games, I'm honestly not sure how to convey an entire set in 8 cards. I thought this was a pretty good attempt, but it clearly was lacking. I wonder how much of that was influenced by half the judges disagreeing on the flavor of every card.

As my set was designed around both Exalted and Rebound, but we were restricted to a single returning mechanic, I had to choose just one to show off. I thought Acrobatics was beautiful, but in retrospect I wish I'd shown Exalted because it had a better mythic than Pyramus:
Contortionist was one my favorite commons, showing off Peak Performance:
Sword Swallowing isn't very special but was in consideration for the common slot in some configurations:
I considered Circus Peanuts as a hole filler, but decided the love-it-or-hate-it flavor was too contentious:
Stilts might have replaced Unicycle in the backwards world where Unicycle isn't great:
And finally, my favorite card I would have absolutely submitted if crew were evergreen rather than deciduous:


  1. Yeah, Maro just obviously didn't read your intro, or at least didn't remember it when he was commenting on your Acrobatics :/

    Maro is also clearly just wrong about Unicycles being vehicles. Equipment is obviously more correct: when a train is coming at you it doesn't matter who's driving it, but if you're being attacked by an X on a unicycle it very much matters what the X is.

    I thought your Tightrope and the Ringmaster ability in general looked like they'd have really awesome gameplay.

    Your Sword Swallowing bonus design is also rather delightful.

  2. It amuses me to no end that your circus peanuts are black and are both good and bad.

    Though I wonder if there would be "memory" issues if you had an instant that gave a creature +1/+1 until the end of a turn, and then -1/-1 for the next turn. From personal experience, maybe that would be funnel cakes.

    1. I just realized that wasn't the latest iteration of Circus Peanuts. Editing...

  3. Your Unicycle, Tightrope, and Sword Swallowing really are fun, straightforward cards in my book, and your submission seems like such a huge step forward in clean design over the previous week's.

    I like Pyramus at its heart, and with any of the cleaned up templates from the judges I do think there's potential there. Since both parts of it are relatively small, surely there's a way to make it stall less? The Illusion etb tapped? Something that stops each of them from blocking alone?

    I have to wonder whether a Pyramus-alike couldn't take a "recurring red creature" phoenix slot from red, especially if the card draw was slipped into impulse draw, etc, etc. I just do think there could be a fun mythic nugget buried in that rock.

    1. Ringmaster enabler that hopefully stalls the board less and has shields down moments. Might still lead to repetitive gameplay, but I doubt this is a "always best to activate each turn" scenario:

      Thisbe the Magnificent 1UR
      Legendary Creature - Rogue
      When Thisbe enters the battlefield, create a tapped 1/1 blue Illusion creature token.
      R, Exile an Illusion you control, the top card of your library, and ~: You may cast any cards exiled this way from exile this turn.

    2. How does that stall the board less? Because the Illusion enters tapped?

    3. That's the idea! A single 2/2 blocker for 1URR every turn doesn't seem nearly as much of a slow-down.

      That said, unless you spin the temp-draw into a finishing advantage, it doesn't accelerate the game's conclusion, so you could still call it a "stalling" force.

    4. Here's how I'd redesign Pyramus today (with the rider that I'd actually just replace it with something else in the submission):

      At the beginning of your end step, if you cast a spell this turn, create a 1/1 blue Illusion creature token.
      2UU, Exile ~ and an Illusion you control: Return ~ to the battlefield tapped and draw a card.

  4. Oh yeah, Ringmaster is a great idea, like landfall.

    It looks to me like what happened is that what they actually wanted for this challenge (and the previous challenges) was to test people's ability to design stand-alone cards. (I'm not sure, *were* there any judges' comments about how well cards fit together?)

    And the "could come from the same set" language was just, "don't blatantly contradict each other in some way", that was added without realising it would lead to contestants designing a whole world the judges would... somehow deliberately not look at?

    I'm frustrated by the GDS3 because so much seems to be done well, but there's been a steady trickle of things that have caused a lot of problems and seem like they could easily have been avoided. I'm not surprised, organising this kind of thing is hard. But it's really painful to experience as a contestant.

    I guess the best strategy is "guess what they're testing for this challenge, and design for that" ignoring what the rules actually say. That's actually a pretty good rule for life.

    1. There were a number of comments in the vein of "I like this card, but I'm not sure what it's doing here" which very much shows they were looking at the cards as a whole.

      It's clear that GDS3 was not itself playtested.

  5. I spent a long time thinking about your submission last night as I was failing to fall asleep. A lot of your cards were really solid but there was clearly a disconnect between you and the judges and I've come up with a few reasons why.

    First off, you relied heavily on your intro paragraph to lay out your vision for the set. While this was an incredibly interesting vision, it didn't really fit the assignment. The assignment wasn't about world design so much as top down card design. You built out a world that was more diverse than you could really present on your cards.

    This meant that you were so focused on displaying your entire world concept that you spread out too far. Your single rebound card seems super out of place in your list of cards, even though it fit in the details of the world. I had read your intro and it didn't make total sense to me until you defended your choices here.

    Overall, it seemed like you tried to cast your net too wide and it ended up muddying the view as to what you were trying to do. I think had you maintained focus on a single element like Ringmaster it would have come through much stronger as a theme rather than trying to include cards from each different theme.

    What seems to have the most effect is telling your story with the cards and their interactions with each other, then using your introduction paragraph to point out a few of the eccentricities in the cards or why specific decisions were made. The cards need to tell the story on their own, I'd assume people are looking at the cards then reading the paragraph rather than the other way around.

    1. Wise words, thank you. I'd gathered some of this, but hearing it all really does help me piece together what happened.