Sunday, September 03, 2006

Magic Carpet Ride

This post is going to stray from the norm a bit, and this is why. Hopefully this won't be too long to read.

Wizards is running this contest, and I've entered the damn thing. Giant essay to follow...

1: Introduce yourself and explain why you are a good fit for this internship.

1: My name is Matt Swanson and I’m from Battle Creek, Michigan. I’ve been playing MTG since Ice Age was new, and I’ve seen a lot of crazy things come and go. I’ve never advanced very far up the tournament ladder because of my preoccupation with building crazy theme decks and combos that break the game (but seldom work). I once built a deck that involved re-casting Icatian Javelineers over and over so as to kill every player in a 5 player multi with javelin counters (what a way to die). I consider it a personal challenge to find a way to make “unplayable cards” useful, even though it usually takes 27 tries to do it. I have a great sense of humor and a tendency for bad puns (watch out Mr. Rosewater, I’m after your job!).
The things I would bring to the table as a designer: 1: The ability to spot broken cards and combos. Since my brain is hard-wired into min/max mode, I can spot a broken infinite combo a mile away. 2: Vivid imagination. I can think of a thousand story lines and ways to tie in cards and mechanics. You could say I think in five colors. 3: Humor. I’m trampling out the vintage where the Apes of Rath are stored, and I’ve been a long-standing member of the Itappa Mana fraternity. I think magic needs more [really] bad puns, and not just un-sets. On a serious note, though, I can tell that the majority of the designers of MTG have a sense of humor. At least those whom post articles on do, anyway.

2:Explain three positive ways "mana screw" affects Magic.

2: First off, “mana screw” is another way of saying “weed out the dumb and the weak.” The quest for the right number of lands in a given deck is as never-ending as the quest for the Holy Grail (except that John Cleese has yet to appear on any cards, much to my dismay). I’ve played with players everywhere from “I’ve been watching you guys play this for the last three weeks, teach me how to play” to my friend Kurt “I have the Controlicore deck type named after me” Walli. One thing I’ve noticed is that the basic grasp of how many lands to put in a deck is like a high school diploma in magic. Once you’ve completed this level of deck construction, you can go on to get your degree in control, combo, or VCR repair.
Secondly, though it’s never fun to be on the “draw, discard, go” and of mana screw, it does give us a reminder of the randomness of the game of magic. Mana screw is the great equalizer. It can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse. Kinda like a evil robot from the future; you never know when it will strike again.
Thirdly, the card “mana screw” is a good way to make your opponent forfeit at the end of a long night of playing magic, similar to the Shahrazad, fork, twincast, mirari combo. Nothing says “I give up” like watching your opponent flip a coin for 45 minutes.

3:Name a popular, existing mechanic and explain how you would make it better.

3: Unfortunately for me, the magazine ‘Popular Mechanics’ was no help whatsoever with this question. I can re-roof my house now, but I couldn’t find any rulings on banding in any of the back issues.
I would have to say that the most popular mechanic, consistently, throughout magic has been flying. It’s cool on so many levels. Evasion, blocking, and lets face it, critters with wings are more neat-o than those without. But how does one improve on such a staple mechanic? This is how: The freedom of flight has been mankind’s greatest desire since he first looked skyward. Flight is sovereignty. It is the ability to chase, to avoid, or to ignore altogether. It gives you a position to look down upon the field of battle and choose where and when you want to strike, to see the near future, as in Sage Owl or Sage Aven, or to spy on an enemy encampment, as in Aven Soulgazer. The ability of flight puts a creature or military unit amongst the ranks of the elite. A flying-modified mechanic might go something like this: Soar (X): This creature comes into play with (X) soar counters. As long as it has a soar counter on it, this creature cannot attack or block, is indestructible and cannot be the target of spells or abilities. Remove a counter: Target player reveals his or her hand or look at target face-down creature or look at the top 3 cards of target player’s library and put them back in the same order.
This creature would not just fly like a bird, but soar like a U2 spy plane (if only Francis Gary Powers had had this ability…).

4:From a design standpoint, what was the best thing about the Champions of Kamigawa block?

4: The Kamigawa block was a refreshing change from the continued tales of the Weatherlight crew and their associated shenanigans. From a flavor standpoint it was a flavorful foray into the realms of the non-European fantasy realm. A whole hemisphere of legend material had gone mostly unrecorded, save for Arabian Nights, which was only Middle Eastern and not far Eastern. Samurai were real samurai; dragons were real dragons; and ninjas were… well about anything they wanted to be.
From a game mechanic standpoint it introduced the revolutionary new “legend rule” which made legends more playable both as their true form and as a “legend-control” spell. Running multiples in a deck became more viable. The playing field became a little more fair for those who didn’t get their legend out first.
The ninjutsu mechanic was also a revolutionary new way to play. In the past, blocking or not blocking a creature depended only on the imminent giant growth cast by a player with an untapped forest. Now you have the “surprise, I’m a ninja!’ aspect. Never before was there away to bring a creature into play, not just as at instant speed, not just with haste, but already attacking and unblocked! Complacent players beware, there are ninjas lurking about. Ninjutsu has proven that there are still new ways to bend or break the standard rules of magic. New surprises are always good. They keep the game new and exciting, break traditional barriers, and provide the thinking magic player with more mental ammunion.

5:From a design standpoint, what was the worst thing about the Ravnica block?

5: The Ravnica block was touted by some as “Invasion revisited”. Whereas I don’t completely agree with this assessment, there is some validity in the argument. Any set that focuses on multiple colors is apt to run into design repeats from previous sets, specifically Invasion. The two sets did differ greatly in one aspect, though: the number of colors that were prime for a deck. Invasion was all about how many of each color you had. You were penalized by some cards for only running one color, and rewarded by others for running multiples. Tribal decks became the in thing. Everything was spread out evenly, making tool decks viable.
Ravnica, however, was all about running two colors and no more. A change, but not much of one. Monocolor decks were still widely punished for being so, as were three color decks, save for in booster drafts. The ever-changing wheel of available colors made two-color selection almost impossible in this format. The same green/black combo cards in the Ravnica boosters were scarce in Guildpact and Dissension. It made for an interesting new challenge, but I’ve heard many complaints from all but the most seasoned booster drafters. Though the overall block was strong, the individual sets lacked cohesion between them. Without reoccurring color combinations, themes, or mechanics, one was left with only a vague understanding of how the whole thing fit together. Though the storyline was very rich, it did little to enrich the overall play of the cards.
I can’t believe I’m bashing the best block ever made.

6:We design cards for three player psychographics: Timmy, Johnny and Spike. In the average set, who should the most cards be designed for? Why? Who should the fewest cards be designed for? Why?

6: Of the three magic psychographics, I identify most with Johnny. He’s the player that likes the cards that no one else likes. He’s the guy that pulls off the amazing combo. He’s the guy that most cards should be designed for, and here’s why:
In life there are rules. Laws. Physical limitations to the nature of earth, wind, fire and water. These rules cannot be bent, broken, or otherwise mistreated. They are what they are, and most of them suck and most people agree that bending or breaking the laws of nature would be a pretty neat idea.
In magic there are also rules. Turn structure, lands per turn, cards drawn during your draw phase, summoning sickness. But this, of course is not real life. If you need a rule broken, you must merely find the card that bends or breaks it. The rules are not set in stone because this is a fantasy, an escape from the reality which is everyday life. Play by the rules and you lose. Where’s the fun in that. We all want to be Superman, don’t we? If the laws of physics didn’t apply to us, wouldn’t we be free?
The same is true in magic. We need cards that bend rules. They, in combination with other cards can break the rules. It’s the combination, the thinking, the grind that compels Johnny to seek that new card that will make his other card break all the rules.
To this end we do not need one all-powerful card or small set of them. No, we need many. We need the subtle, the unimpressive. A two piece puzzle is not a challenge. Magic is a 60,000 piece puzzle. Its assembly is the adventure. Go Johnny, go!
On the other hand we have Spike and Timmy. Timmy needs the fewest cards, because he’s low maintenance. All he needs is that small handful of prized creatures and spells. Back in my day, all we had was Craw Wurm and we liked it! For years it dominated the tables of my hometown games. The bigger the better, but how many big scary creatures does one need? In the end, they’re all just Craw Wurms with different wigs.

7:Imagine you must eliminate a card type (artifact, creature, enchantment, instant, land or sorcery) from Magic. Which one would you choose and why?

7: If I were forced to eliminate a card type, my choice would be sorcery. By simple process of elimination, we can see that we need the rest. Lands: Unless MTG becomes powered by a large series or pitch cards, we’ll need to keep those around. Creatures: Let’s face it, that’s what the game is all about. No matter how much power you have, you need someone that will seize the land for the victor, to rend the flesh of the loser. For that you’ll need some kind of critter. Enchantment: What better to provide variety to the game? What sets your Serra Angel apart from mine? Could it be the Armadillo cloak on her back? Or the is it the Glorious Anthem following in her wake? These have to stay in order to keep things from monotony. Artifacts: They are the “go in any deck” cards. They are what keeps the machine going. They are the go between for Enchantments and Creatures. They are the +3 swords of wounding, all grown up and moved off from the RPG family farm. Instants and Sorceries: They are one in the same, save for timing. For an experienced player, the idea of casting a sorcery on someone else’s turn is preposterous (except for Johnny, he’ll find a way). To a new player, though, what’s the real difference? The idea of not being able to cast a spell whenever is confusing to those starting out, which is why the beginner sets turned everything into sorceries and made all sorceries able to be cast whenever. It’s clear that the only card that could be tossed out is the sorcery. Then we could have instant Time Walks!

8:You stumble upon a time machine and travel back to the early 90's. What is the one change you would recommend Richard Garfield make with Alpha? (You must recommend a change.)

8: If I were to arrive in the early 90’s to meet Richard Garfield, the first thing I’d do is buy a set of Alpha and ask him to autograph it. Then I’d get critical and tell him about all the stuff he messed up.
Most of the things that needed to be fixed, starting with the Alpha set, were fixed in 6th Edition. Interrupts, the color wheel mess, it’s all fixed. In hind-sight, it’s easy to point a finger and laugh at the wording on Disenchants “target enchantment or artifact must be discarded”. I mean, the play zones are now rigidly defined. Discarded is discarded. Destroyed is destroyed. Ninjas are still ninjas. So, I guess number one on my list would be to set the rules for play zones and the wording that affects them into a rigidly designed structure. Everyone knows what a disenchant does now, but back then I could imagine the conversation would end in, “how would you know if I had an artifact or enchantment in my hand?”
Number two in my grip list would be creature types. I’ve noticed that WoTC has done this with D&D as well. A list of creature types to pick from is better than a hodgepodge of everything goes creature types that are just the same as their name. I mean, should Uncle-Istvan really his own creature type? What about my Uncle-Bob? When does he get his own creature type?
Number three is simple: More Chickens. Why did we have to wait ‘till Unglued, RG?

9:You are forced to move counterspelling out of blue. What color do you move it to and why?

9: If I was forced to move counterspelling out of blue, it would go strait to green without pause. Green has always been the anti-magic color. Nature has it’s own magic, and that has it’s place opposite of artificial, man-made magic on the cosmic color scale.
Traditionally, if there’s been an animal that has existed in real-life, it’s been a green creature. Whippoorwills, boars, bears, alligators, wolves, snakes (on or off the plane), apes, hippopotami, ants, badgers, bees, cats, dogs, and Jeff Goldblum, are all creatures that are found both in real life and in green magic. Giant critters surreal critters are all well within the realm of green, but they aren’t necessarily magical. I mean, hey, the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park were real, and they could’ve been a Pigmy Allosaurus back in the day.
For this reason, green as sort of the anti-magic color. It seems to me that is would make the best hero in the quest to foil blue’s magical villainy.
Red would be the runner up, because of its randomness. Nothing says “ooh you didn’t really want to cast that, did you?” like a Dwarf swinging a hammer at your crotch.

10:What is Magic design currently doing wrong? How would you do it right?

10: Magic design and what they’re doing wrong. Oh, man, do I really only have 350 words? Just kidding.
I think that the magic design team needs to come up with a few less keyworded game mechanics. Some of these really make sense and add a lot to the flavor and gameplay of magic. There are others, though, that didn’t really need keywords. For example: Sweep. There was no reminder text for sweep, it was all described in the body of the card. The sweep was completely unnecessary. The same is true for Channel. You knew exactly what the card did without the word Channel there. It wasn’t like a true keyword like flying, banding (back in my day!) or even Bushido. In some cases these cards needed reminder text, but they were tight, well-written gems. Fading was a neat mechanic. Its meaning was clear, but the ability of the card came from the things you could do with the fade counters. Every fading thing had a different purpose, but the same base ability. When the keyword is just tagged on the end of the card description for no better reason than to fill the empty void of creativity, I think it takes away from real keyworded abilities. The common bond is broken between cards of a similar type.
I would fix this by bringing back the sanctity of keywording. Not just any old thing should have its own key word. A little more imagination and less rush might be all that’s needed.
I would also bring back Ed Beard Jr.

Don’t forget to tip your waitress. You’ve been a great audience, good night!


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