Friday, June 8, 2018

GDS3 Reflections: Ari Nieh, Finish Line

I'm writing this on Wednesday afternoon somewhere over Grand Forks, North Dakota, on a plane home from Renton. I won the third Great Designer Search yesterday.

Let me tell you a bit about what went down.

First, I got to meet Chris and Jeremy face to face. They are both extremely skilled and knowledgeable about game design in general and Magic in particular. As we got to know each other, I felt no vibe of competitiveness or negativity. We were all in Renton to prove ourselves to R&D, and there was an unspoken camaraderie from having been through the wringer to get there. The three of us had dinner with some Wizards employees on Monday night, then headed to bed early before our long day on Tuesday.

The first thing we did in the morning was tour the floor of Wizards where R&D is. Here's something I hadn't fully digested before that tour: the machine that makes Magic is huge. We're only exposed to a small part of it, via the Mothership and social media. There were many, many people I'd never heard of busily at work on different aspects of Magic, and they were creating fantastic stuff. We got to see art from several upcoming sets, and I can't even tell you the kinds of amazing things you're going to see in the next few years! (Like, I literally can't tell you, because we're under NDA.)

It was great to meet the judges in person. Mark Rosewater was overflowing with energy, Melissa de Tora was chill and insightful, Erik Lauer every bit the "Mad Genius", and Eli Shiffrin quietly hilarious. I also finally had the pleasure of meeting many more people in R&D, including our Goblin Artisans alumni: Ethan Fleischer, Scott Van Essen, and Jules Robins.

After the tour, we had three hours of "The Gauntlet": meetings with different teams of R&D, who would grill us about Magic, our history with the game, our design philosophies, our ideas, etc.

Tuesday is "Magic for Lunch" at Wizards, so we ate gyros while playing Dominaria sealed. I skillfully opened Lyra Dawnbringer, Shalai, Voice of Plenty, and Verdant Force, which was enough for me to fight Paul Cheon to a standstill.

Haumphing his way through my army of saprolings.
Then, we had the final challenge. We had to design a replacement for Séance, keeping the same card art, color, rarity, and alphabetical order (between Sanctuary Cat and Silverclaw Griffin). First, Jeremy, Chris and I would spend an hour in individual rooms coming up with ideas. Then, we, along with the judges, would choose one of them as a replacement.

That hour was the second shortest hour of my life. (The time I got my wisdom teeth out under general anesthesia was #1.) Between jet lag, restless sleep the night before, and general afternoon drowsiness, my brain was moving in slow motion. It felt like no more than fifteen minutes had elapsed by the time I brought three uninspired designs to the meeting. All of them were safe to print and matched the art reasonably well. None of them were anything I was proud of.

Of the three of us, I thought Jeremy did best in the final challenge. His designs were elegant and fit Dark Ascension well. When he spoke up in the meeting, he was both confident and thoughtful. I think Chris and I did fine as well, but I would definitely give Geist the edge.

After that, the judges deliberated for quite a while. I was quite drained by then, and zoned out on the couch until they called us in for the announcement. When we entered the room, I had no idea which of the three of us they'd pick. It was clear that we all had different strengths, all of which could be valuable to R&D. The adrenaline hit as Rosewater talked about how much we'd each impressed them all, and how difficult the decision had been. And then-

"The winner is... Ari."

I don't think there's a word for the mix of emotions I felt when Rosewater said my name. There was some satisfaction- I'd come to the end of a quest that began seven years ago with the previous Great Designer Search. There was relief- no more challenges, no more waiting for judgment, no more nervous apprehension. There was some sadness as well- the journey itself had been such an absorbing part of my life for the last several months. There was even a bit of indignation- Jeremy and Chris and so many other talented designers had worked just as hard as I did, and wanted it as badly as I did. It felt unfair that they didn't get this recognition.

And, mixed in with all the complicated grown-up emotions, there was some of the pure childlike joy- the kind of joy teenage Ari would have felt if, twenty-two years ago, someone had told me, "Hey, kid, we want you to come make Magic cards with us."

Somehow, I pulled it together enough to take some smiling photos and film an interview with Rosewater. But the day was not yet over! As a special treat, we had an evening of pizza and drafting. I can't tell you the name of the set we drafted, or indeed anything else about it. But I will say that I've never enjoyed an 0-3 quite so much.


For your amusement, here are a variety of ideas I had for trolling the competition. Common sense prevented me from actually doing any of these things, but it took some serious willpower.
  • Submitting eight Hornet Sting variants for the tribal challenge, then quickly e-mailing Mark, "Oops! I sent you the wrong version, here's my actual submission."
  • Including a BG 4/4 Insect with flying and vigilance.
  • Explicitly calling my Revered set "Return to Kamigawa".
  • E-mailing Maro the word "Alara" a few hours before they told us what Challenge #5 was, then saying, "Oh sorry, sent this to the wrong Mark."
  • Choosing Planar Chaos for the pack challenge.
  • Choosing Legends for the pack challenge.
  • Writing "Red is the best color. Don't @ me." as my explanation for why my basic land slot was Mountain.
  • Writing out my basic land as:
Mountain (basic land)
Basic Land — Forest
T: Add U.
  • Showing up at Renton equipped with crewing a unicycle. 
It me.

I have many people to thank for helping me get to the finish line. I hope not to forget anyone, but I almost certainly will.

Most directly, I owe a huge debt to my sharp-eyed playtesters: our very own Jay Zeffren, Marianna, Peter, Kevin, and Cal. Your feedback was invaluable. Thank you for spending your time and brainpower helping me and offering such insightful advice.

Jay Treat, Ryan Siegel-Stechler, Jay Zeffren, and Trevor Cashmore for participating in a mock final challenge to help me prepare.

The Goblin Artisans community and authors. When we started this blog, someday competing in the next Great Designer Search was a far-off dream. This thriving creative community is a big reason that Jay, Ryan, and I had this opportunity. Thank you for all your feedback and cheers.

The other finalists. Despite the fact that we were all competing for the same job, everyone has been tremendously kind, thoughtful, and encouraging in our discussions. I look forward to meeting and working with many of you someday.

The judges. Giving good feedback is hard, and I appreciate being pushed to refine my skills. Thoughtful critique is by far the best vehicle for improvement. (Or is it an equipment?)

Everyone else on Twitter and Reddit who offered advice, criticism, or encouragement. Special thanks to Alexis Janson and Markus Leben for their insights.

My past collaborators in game and puzzle design: Stinking Dog Inn, Team MAD, Get on a Raft with Taft, The Platonic Solids, Reehaamoo, a slice of toast, and Metaphysical Plant. There are far too many individuals to name, but I'm particularly grateful to Ian, Noah, and Yuval for countless hours of discussion and creation.

My family, for their love and support. I would also like to publicly apologize to my brother, Danny, for taking his Obsianus Golem back when ante was still a thing.

And most of all, my partner Helen. Her enthusiasm and support throughout the last few months has been priceless. It's not easy having your partner vanish for three and a half days every fortnight, then re-emerge looking like the artwork of Gibbering Descent. She was also the one convinced me to enter the GDS3 in the first place, so when WotC starts printing Elemental Mountain Forest creature land tokens, you know who to blame.

Thank you all so very much.

        -Ari Nieh / HavelockV


  1. What a guy.
    We're sad to lose you here, but we'll all benefit from having you in Renton.

  2. The resemblance in the final photo is uncanny!

    1. Since Helen and I were baking for Pi Day anyway, we had to take an appropriate photo.

  3. :) Lovely write-up, Ari.

    Looking forward to some Nice designs.

  4. Congratulations again! I love those trolls. And your choice of avatar :)

  5. I know you're not allowed to say anything but ... blink twice if they're bringing Haunt back.

    1. The signal for haunt should be full on exorcist head spin

  6. Fun bonus fact about Ari for total dorks: He also designed my favorite card from GDS2.

  7. I don't forgive you, but congratulations anyway.

  8. Awesome, and very well-deserved. I still remember the recurring theme in GDS2 of "HavelockV suggested this design and it was perfect for my set". Congrats!

  9. Very impressive, Ari. So happy for your success and the quality of your experience which you do ably described. Our Helen is definitely an encourager and we appreciate that about her, among her many other attributes. Aunt Diane