Monday, May 14, 2018

Meet the Top 8: Jay Treat

Today we finish our series of introductory interviews with the GDS Top 8, talking design with Goblin Artisans most prolific writer/designer, Jay Treat. Click through to read a little bit about him and some of his thoughts on Magic design.

Prior to GDS2, were you at all involved in magic design? Had you designed other games at that point?

I had designed at least a thousand Magic cards. Except for the (terrible and bloated) set I made when I was 15, I hadn't playtested them or shown them to anyone, so I really didn't learn much from it.
I had designed maybe a dozen games by that point, with 2-5 playtests each. They were all terrible, but there was a nugget of brilliance in a few of them that were eventually reborn into published games much later.

The one I put the most work into that will never become anything was a dungeon crawler that used negative space on tiles to define walls and corridors.

The one I most need to rebuild and get published is Candybar Tycoon. It was terrible, but the theme was so fun people loved it anyway.

Once you were eliminated from the GDS2, how did you connect with GA?
The true origin is lost to either the burned library of Magic wiki or to the sands of Twitter. I can say that in January of 2011, Ari emailed me, Chah, Ethan [Fleischer], Scott [Van Essen], and metaghost with "You know why you're receiving this e-mail" and so the blog was born. Despite the emotions of having been eliminated from the contest, participating in the Magic design community I'd finally discovered was very appealing.

You've been writing Cards of the Day, Weekend Challenges, and other design content non-stop for the past six or seven years, on top of designing and publishing a bunch of other games. What's your secret to being so prolific?

The rote answer is that I just made a professional habit of it. The insightful answer is that ideas are cheap, and that the vast majority of that content wasn't here's-something-I've-perfected-for-you-to-nod-approvingly-at but here's-the-spark-of-an-idea-let's-talk-about-its-potential. I've also written dozens of theory articles, most of which advised changes large and small that have since come to pass in Magic.

It's funny: All but one of my games so far were solo designed, but my process depends heavily on others. Playtesting and peer feedback are critical. Anyone who would ask you to design in a vacuum is working from a dangerously insular head-space.

How would you characterize/summarize your growth as a designer between the second GDS and the third?

There were three things I started doing after GDS2 to which I attribute most of my growth as a designer:

1) I committed. Rather than just making games as a hobby with no plans for them, I adopted the identity of game designer and committed myself in every way to mastering the art and getting games published. I always prioritized the hard work of learning over simply selling something.
2) I found my community. I reached out to establish a network of game design peers with whom I could trade playtests, critical feedback, and theory. Now I have extra reason to go to playtesting events, because that's where I see the friends I've made, and that pushes me to iterate on my designs faster. Getting in lots of playtesting is critical.

3) I taught. As soon as I figured out something generally helpful about game design, I wrote about it and shared it (and I was reading what others were writing, obviously). I found niches to become an expert in, and I taught what I'd learned to my peers and to starting designers. Teaching forces you to think critically about the lessons you've learned intuitively, which reinforces the lesson cognitively. Understanding something well enough to explain it other people is the final step in mastering it.

When you found out you made the top 8, what was your reaction?
I was excited and relieved. There was enough randomness in the multiple choice quiz that most of R&D would be eliminated if they actually took it, so when I learned I'd passed that hurdle, I felt much better about my chances of making the finals. When I made the top 8 the second time, I knew I'd achieved something rare and that however the contest resolves, that will make future interviews with Wizards easier.

What keeps you interested in Magic as a player? As a designer?
Magic is a deep and interesting game, and the combination of numbers and text makes for lots of possibilities to explore.

Designing Magic cards is so compelling because the color pie creates a roadmap for us to express any Fantasy concept in the form of a card. It's poetry. Can you get the essence of the idea on your card, and still have a balanced card that's sensible but exciting, and fun to play? It's a big challenge, and so satisfying.

In contrast with designing other games, you get to skip all that nebulous exploration: "What does the game want to be? How should the rules work? etc." I also enjoy that, but that's an investment, whereas knocking out an idea on a Magic card is like popping design candy.

What do you think the biggest mistake amateur designers make when they're starting out?
Starting designers don't playtest enough. It's all too easy to look at an idea and see no flaws and feel like you're done. The point of playtesting is to see what you're missing. You need to see the game in action, with players trying to understand and win it. You need people who aren't afraid to hurt your feelings to tell you what's lacking. You need strangers to fumble through the rulebook so you can see what's ambiguous or confusing. You need aficionados to tell you what games yours is like, so you can differentiate it. You need other game designers to look at your work with experienced eyes. And every time you change your game, you need to playtest it all over again to see how everything's different.

I'm often asked, "when do I know I'm done playtesting?"
When you know exactly how every last detail works and why.

What's your favorite thing Magic R&D has done in the last five years?

Tough to choose, but I'd say that ramping down the efficiency and universality of removal is the biggest. That one change has fixed numerous problems.

Outside of Magic, what game do you think is the best designed out there?
Coloretto is elegant, accessible, and deep like nothing else. Codenames too.

What do you do when you're not playing and designing games?
I spend time with the wife, perform sketch and improv comedy, play volleyball and climb.

You don't often publicize them here, but if our readers want to find your other games, where can they find them?
If you enjoy bluffing, deduction or micro-games, check out Cunning Folk from Button Shy Games. If you enjoy engine-building or negotiation (in clever magnetic boxes that unfold into game boards), check out Merchants of Araby from Daily Magic Games. That one shares considerable DNA with Magic, so if you like multiplayer Magic you'll definitely want to check it out. If you enjoy trick-taking card games, check out Cahoots from Mayday Games. If you enjoy asymmetric partnerships, or games of bodily-dexterity, look for A'Writhe: A Game of Elditch Contortions from Wizkids later this year. And if you like roleplaying games and either Buffy/Supernatural or Star Trek, check out Legacy of the Slayer and Strange Gravity on DriveThruRPG.

Are there any Magic formats you've developed we should know about?
I've written about a number of two-player draft formats, but my favorite Magic format of all is Live Booster Draft, where players draft while they play. It's by far the most fun experienced players can have opening 3 packs each.


  1. I think you captured exactly why Magic design is fun to me as well. It's like a medium or canvas used to execute on a vision. What's the best way to capture that vision that most accurately conveys it in the most fun way? It's a creative tool for me.

  2. Looking forward to see what all y'all came up with starting tomorrow!