Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Portfolio Theory

Now that the judge feedback for the design test in the GDS is live, Ryan Siegel-Stechler has written up a summary of how he approached the test. Click through to see what he has to say about the test that landed him a spot in the Top 8.

By Ryan Siegel-Stechler

One thing that fellow GDS3 competitor Chris Mooney said on Twitter that really resonated with me was:

To reach the top 8, you needed to be able to get +2/+0 while blocking fliers.

Especially when reading through Jay and MaRo’s articles about how they approached this test, one thing that struck me was how individually focused they were. They both briefly mentioned thinking about the submission as a whole at the end, but the way that I worked through this test, I was thinking about the complete picture the entire time, while I was designing.

Why is this important? Well, for one, we didn’t have any specifics about what the judges were looking for. You needed to make sure you covered a lot of bases, especially because one judge was a mystery. Tailoring your whole test to MaRo might work if he’s the only one judging, but with four judges, you wanted to make sure various factions would all be made happy.

For two, you weren’t allowed to have any commentary with your cards. If your cards all screamed “I AM A SPIKE LOOK AT ME PUSH STANDARD” but nothing else, I don’t think you’re representing yourself well even if every individual card is well-designed. Magic does a lot of things for a lot of different people, and being able to step outside of yourself to design for different demographics is crucial if you want to have a successful game in general or Magic set specifically.

So, with that said, let’s go through my submission card-by-card and I’ll describe how I think the card fits into the overall portfolio, as well as my thoughts on my individual cards.

Swallow Whole was meant to appeal to both Spike and Vorthos. The flavor of giving your creature the ability to eat an opponent’s creature whole and grant you the life force gained was the Vorthos angle, and the efficient removal spell (two mana for exile target creature, even needing a creature of your own, is a very strong rate) was the Spike angle. I tried to not duplicate mana costs as much as possible – this card and Kaya both cost CD, is one of only two mana costs that repeat.

Sewer Skimmer was meant to show off an ability on a common that suggested an entire world. I intended for this card not to be seen in a vacuum in a generic Standard set, but rather to show the possibilities of a word where no cards in a graveyard mechanically matter and what sorts of space one could play in there. The second ability was keyworded in my original design, until MaRo’s FAQ specified that we were not to create new keywords. In hindsight, this made the design too complicated (and, incidentally, I think it made it feel less UB. Though it doing something that Black clearly does primarily, most keywords are not contained in just one color, and Blue or perhaps Green seem like the logical other fits) and I should have kept iterating, but I wanted to make sure at least one common gave a sense that I could think beyond a typical set, and that I would have done well in a GDS2-esque competition as well.

Indiscriminate Slaughter was my attempt at making a Timmy/Johnny card that still included a lot of strategic depth and hidden modes, that Spike would (even begrudgingly) appreciate. It’s also a clear top-down design and somewhat Vorthos-y, in that it taps into the “leave a witness, kill the rest” trope. A Wrath effect that encourages you to play some creatures was interesting enough as a standalone that I wanted to include it. I have since been informed that it’s also already a Hearthstone card, Brawl, which at least suggests I was barking up the right tree.

“You got your Hearthstone in my GDS3 designs!” “You got your GDS3 designs in my Hearthstone!”

See You Tomorrow was my attempt to make a spell that was Spike-y without unduly punishing non-Spike players. It’s also one of the more Melvin-y cards that I included. I liked the fact that See You Tomorrow punishes players who generally “play correctly” by attacking before casting spells, and that playing around it meant casting your spells out of order, which a control player might take good advantage of. I also wanted to have at least one “unbalanced colors” multicolor card. That is; I wanted a card that costed some amount of generic and CCD, where the card itself felt slightly more like color C than color D. The effect on this card is almost entirely blue, but applying to an attacking creature makes it feel slightly white, making this the perfect candidate for that costing.

Heart’s Desire was meant as a pure Johnny card for the Commander crowd. The idea was so simple and pure that once I stumbled on it, I knew I had to include it. There’s a specific player I have in mind for this card, and that player will be the happiest person in the world if/when this card gets printed. Once I knew that, I didn’t really care about the potential rule issues or templating problems; I knew that the seed of the idea was gold. (That didn’t mean the potential rule issues or templating problems didn’t push it down my order some, however!) Also, I had the same plan as MaRo mentioned in his article about making sure I made at least one non-planeswalker Mythic Rare to show I could do Mythic design, and wanted my expensive, splashy giant effect to be a big poster for what I could bring to the table.

Kaya was meant to be Spikey, as a two-mana planeswalker ought to be, but was also mostly designed as a thought experiment – what if a Planeswalker, especially a two-mana one, wasn’t designed to take a game over by itself, but rather to sit to the side and provide incremental advantage? Kaya was meant to essentially be a small life drain spell that, if unchecked, eventually got big enough to eat creatures as well. The ultimate felt super flavorful for Kaya, and played into the more enchantment-y feel of this planeswalker. It’s possible that this should just be an enchantment somehow! But I thought it felt different than most planeswalkers, which warranted its inclusion. A lesson to be learned – sometimes different isn’t good enough. In hindsight, I personally think this is probably among my worst cards and should have been lower on the list or excluded.

Cranky Hydra was meant to suggest an ability that could go on a cycle of cards – “choose X modes” on X spells. I knew I wanted an X spell among my submissions, and once the idea came to me, it was pretty obvious it was a winner. I also wanted to make sure at least one of the creatures I designed was a Hydra, Dragon, Sphinx, Angel, or Demon – you gotta hit the Iconics, in my book. It was supposed to be Timmy/Spike, and I think the modes could be tweaked a little bit perhaps, but I think this was one of my strongest submissions and certainly was too low on my list.

A traditional planeswalker in a new area – spells-matter. Meant generally for Spike and Johnny, though it sort of drifted a bit. I originally costed this at 5, but, again, wanted to not overlap mana costs as much as possible, so this ended up as a 6-walker. Due to that bump, I think the second ability should have shifted; either making spells cost 2 less, or creating an emblem. But that’s a power level concern; from a design perspective, I just wanted to make both abilities work with the ultimate. The ultimate could feel bad in two ways: you have lots of spells but can’t cast them, or you don’t have enough (or any) spells to cast. The two abilities neatly help with both those problems.

My one-cost card, which meant I needed a hybrid. Meant to be a showcase of Melvin-y, bottom-up design with an emphasis on interesting Limited play. Giving a creature vigilance means they’ll likely be able to both attack and block in a round – what if the boost we gave it also could help the creature both attack and block this round? Interestingly, while my other common was interpreted by many as a standalone and not indicative of a large theme, this card was interpreted by many as suggesting many other such “until your next turn” effects! It goes to show how you have to be very, very careful when you can’t say anything about your cards. In hindsight, the mechanic would be very hard to do on just one card, so I get where people are coming from. But the ability makes no sense on a card that pumps a creature and doesn’t give vigilance – either the ability is wasted if you don’t attack, or the card should be an instant so you can surprise the opponent when you block! The card says something it shouldn’t…but I knew it might! It’s as low as it is for the obvious memory issue, which I suspected would be noted by the judges. But as this was meant to be Melvin-y, I didn’t want to submit a card that didn’t push anything at all (for example, just “+2/+2 and vigilance until end of turn”) and had no clear demographic behind it, which is what kept it in.

This was the last puzzle piece, where I had fit almost everything in to all of the other cards. I iterated on this card more than any other, and couldn’t come up with anything that really spoke to me. Most of my ideas had been done before, and I had a lot of restraints I’d put on myself:

-I wanted it to be an Aura, as my other enchantment was a global enchantment.

-I wanted it to not be a bonus to a linear aggressive strategy, to show that I could design outside of the (very small) RW box.

-It needed to be uncommon, as I’d eaten my extra rare and mythic rare (the extra mythic rare on purpose, and the extra rare because See You Tomorrow, my second-to-last puzzle piece, had shifted up a rarity. I had intended to leave myself an any-rarity card for last, but failed.)

Once I came up with the effect, which seemed reasonable for an uncommon, I liked how elegant it was. But I had some pretty strong concerns, the strongest of which was in Constructed (in Limited it’s probably great), the only people who are going to play this are going to be people who are intending to turn it into Moat, one of the notorious unfun effects in Magic. And, worse still, I knew the exact card that enabled it: Silent Arbiter.

Not pictured: the other three GDS3 judges.

Making a card with a known combo, that would be Modern-legal if the card were printed in Standard, that Pacified all your opponent’s creatures felt very not-great, but eventually, I just ran out of time. I couldn’t come up with an idea that felt better, and I did like the Limited gameplay potential for the card a lot. So, I ended up leaving it in as the last card on my list. I wish I could’ve done better, but I think I would’ve felt down on any card that I left in last place on my list. I mean, if you think it’s your worst design…why aren’t you designing a better card?

Those are my thoughts in a nutshell. Were there any aspects of design that you think I missed representing? Did you think I accomplished my goals of demonstrating many different types of design and different target audiences, or do you think that there are one or more that I don’t understand well enough and need to learn more about?


  1. It's fascinating to see the many approaches people took! I must confess that I didn't think much about different audiences at all.

    1. Doing all that was required of us and caring about audiences (something I only did as an afterthought) and making unique costs is an impressive set of parameters. Well done!

  2. Yeah, trying to hit all those notes was a very good idea.

  3. Couple comments:

    Sewer Skimmer
    I agree with the judges about sewer skimmer's reward being off. Deathtouch just doesn't make sense when most of what enables the ability is the skimmer hitting them in the first place. Maybe discard, maybe looting, maybe just milling yourself if you're trying to show off a mill theme in a set.

    I talked to you about the timing issue when the first article was released, and you said that wizards just made a set called ahmonket with exhaust as a memory issue. That said, there are probs ways to work around that though idk if any of them are clean enough for common.

    Curse of Apprehension
    This is not, i repeat NOT an issue for modern. There is the devoted druid/vizier of remedies. There is solemnity/phyrexian unlife. Those are both better combos. There could be an argument that it is too good for standard but i can't remember the last control deck that didn't run planeswalkers that can deal with this let alone spell based answers. In my opinion this is a sideboard card at best and a fairly poor one at that.

    One last point. It seems to me that from the judge feedback they are very concerned with feel bad cards and cards that create feel bad gamestates. That all makes sense and that's probably why they suggested to just about everyone that they playtest more.

  4. Me: Um ... I hate to break it to you but you've reprinted a Hearthstone card that Magic would probably never ever use. Sorry!

    WOTC: Hold my mead. http://www.magicspoiler.com/mtg-spoiler/last-one-standing/