Nine years ago, I first got the attention of one Mark Rosewater and made my first real step into a game design career. I did it the way many of us dream of: I made up a bunch of Magic cards and showed them to Mark, and he liked them. He must have liked at least one of them, because he felt I had some talent. Enough talent to let me work on the Fifth Dawn design team (by e-mail).
I’m going to look at the cards I designed back then, and judge them with my professional designer’s-eye of today. I have not looked at them since then. I lost track of them amongst my stuff for several years, and when I found them again, I wasn’t tempted to look. I was too afraid of what I might see in the cards I designed before I had any real experience. I didn’t want to punch myself in the face with the fist of shame.
Today though, I need article material—and fast—because it’s PAX week and I’ve got too much else to do.
Before I open this box, let me tell you what I remember designing. I had a mechanic called consume, which somehow or another let one creature eat another, and the eater would get the dinner’s stats added on. I also had the word “vigilant” on my creatures that didn’t tap to attack. This was before WotC ever printed the word Vigilance! I’m a genius!
Okay, that’s really all I can remember. Let’s open the box!
On the right we’ve got some packs—I made packs so the cards could be drafted—and maybe some Sealed decks? On the left are just more cards, sorted by color and rarity. I’ll just grab a pack and see what’s in it.
Yeah, I am an anime fan, and I named this card after a “character” in Princess Mononoke.
This card is reasonable, if you translate the terrible wording into “When you cast Shishigami, green creatures you control get +2/+2 until end of turn.” It’s not spectacular, but creatures weren’t so strong nine years ago, and rares were not as well defined (compared to uncommons) as they are today. In talking about the stack I, like many new designers, was trying to use new design space without thinking about if it should be used.
Talking about the stack on a card is not something Magic does, so you feel like you’re breaking ground, and a lot of amateur designers want desperately to prove they can do something new and inventive. In this case, Magic doesn’t talk about the stack on cards for a reason. It’s not like they haven’t thought of it, but rather that they’ve decided talking about the stack is a terrible idea. New players—and a surprising percentage of casual players—have no idea what you’re talking about, so your cards don’t look like Magic cards to them.
Worse, they can’t play them because they don’t understand them. The stack is a mechanical necessity of the rules engine, but there’s not fantasy, no flavor to it. You don’t gain anything when you mention it, and you confuse players and break the fourth wall.
Again, that horrible stack wording. As an uncommon, this really doesn’t need its ability to be a cast trigger. Just “when this enters the battlefield it deals 1 damage to target creature” is fine. This design isn’t uncommon. It would make a perfectly fine common in pretty much any set. I’d probably change the mana cost to 2RR and/or drop the toughness to 2, but even as is—a Canyon Minotaur plus—it would be acceptable.
Here we’ve got a perfectly good instant removal spell that features a set mechanic. It should be common, not uncommon. The set mechanic itself, however, is pretty bad. Restock’s reminder text is, “Pay the restock cost to shuffle this card into your library. You may restock from your hand, graveyard, in play, or on the stack.”
Take a moment to list for yourself all the things that are wrong with this ability. Keep going. There’s more wrong with it, keep going. Ready? First, this is going to introduce way too much shuffling into the set. Shuffling is not fun. It takes a lot of time, and often doesn’t do anything helpful. This ability could just as easily put the card on the bottom of your library and achieve most of its goals. Then you could add a few shuffle effects into the set (just a few!) and there would be a reason to value the two things together.
Next, why would you need to do this from your hand? That doesn’t help you! While there might be some tiny corner cases, the vast majority of the time players would be confused as to why you could restock from your hand at all, and some might mistakenly think it’s a good thing to try. Including the hand was just me trying to be fancy again, instead of thinking it through properly.
On the stack is similar—if you can do it from play or the graveyard, there’s really no reason you would need to do it from the stack. Plus, as I’ve said, mentioning the stack isn’t a good idea. Even from play isn’t particularly exciting, though it might have some uses. Were I to do it again, I would have the ability only work from the graveyard.
But would I? Well, the idea was to let you get your cards back once you used them. In concept, at least, it is appealing to a significant segment of the audience. I used a shuffle-in both because I thought (somewhat wrongly) that it was inventive and new, but more because it gave you a chance to get the card back sooner. I didn’t want to put it on top because I thought it would create a repetitive game state. But this ability doesn’t really do much when it is a shuffle-in or a put-on-the-bottom.
You could compare it to dredge, and see that dredge effectively puts the card on top—creating a repetitive state, but note that dredge fills your graveyard with more dredge cards, leading you to build a deck that won’t be repetitive as it “searches” for different cards to dredge back. Well, you could claim that, at least.
Restock does something that many players think they want: it “rescues” your cards from the graveyard so that maybe you’ll draw them again, but really you could just draw some other useful card, and you don’t really “need” to put anything back in your library most of the time. Overall, not a good mechanic.
This is… Is this busted? Surely it would see play in several formats. A one-mana hard counter is potentially far too strong to print these days, but the “drawback” here is also huge. Part of what makes a cheap counterspell (like Counterspell) so good is that you can spend a small amount of mana to stop something that took a huge amount of mana to cast. I would love to test this, even if it proves, ultimately, to be a failure of a card.
Here it is! A card where I use the word vigilant to mean “attacking doesn’t cause the creature to tap”. Obviously, this is a perfectly fine card design. I wonder if Mark noticed that at least some of my commons had the correct level of simplicity.
Please ignore the flavor text on this and all of these cards, it’s just embarrassing.
Monk of the Ember Fists
Here is another thing I see a lot in amateur designs. Well two things, but the love of left-behind creature types is less important to design. The main thing is an ability that removes a keyword from another card. Removing abilities is awkward, and not a good idea at common. Worse, I tried to make it last beyond the turn. Ugh, I was so dumb! Tracking that a creature has lost a keyword over multiple turns is very hard. The words are still clearly on the card, but somehow you’ve got to remember that they’re not there anymore? Even long after this dwarf has died, we still have to know who he de-first striked? It makes for confusing games, and that’s not what Magic should be about.
Restock again. Looking through the rest of the pile, I see that I overfilled with this mechanic. I had not yet learned that you only need a few cards to make a mechanic feel present. My as-fan on Restock was three or four when it should have been one or two. Believe it or not this was a top-down card—the concept is that the waterspout can fling another creature into the air.
Aside from the fact that first strike is two words, this card is fine. Very aggressive for a common, though. Especially nine years ago. Hmm, actually is it too much even now? I would move it up to uncommon.
Here’s that consume mechanic I was telling you about. Oh my, this is a lot of text. Well, imprint didn’t exist yet, but certainly that’s how I would try to implement this now. Wait, no—even that is unnecessary. You can just exile the other card and put counters onto your guy. I might also leave off the power restriction. I would also make it only work at sorcery speed, because having three of these out is an incomprehensible mess of an onboard trick tangle. Like so: “Consume 1G (1G, Exile another target creature you control: put a number of +1/+1 counters equal to the exiled creature’s power on
Devour is not totally dissimilar from consume, but both suffer from a little bit of False Choice syndrome. It looks like you should make one guy bigger at the cost of another, but that’s rarely true. The resource you are losing is rarely worth what you gain. This point is more important than you might believe. Players want to use mechanics, and they want it to be the correct play to use the mechanics. You should avoid mechanics that are good to activate only 10% of the time, if they are going to be the showcase mechanic of a set.
Mind like a Sieve
Not sure why I made a worse Mind Rot. The color-restricted escape clause is also weird. (Maybe it’s part of a cycle?) Not entirely sure why I did this. If I had to fix this, I would increase the cost to 3B, the discard to three, and reduce the escape to “pay 1″—but that doesn’t really warrant the design being different from Mind Rot. I think the best course of action is simply to reprint Mind Rot in this set, if that’s what I need. The major lesson here is that you shouldn’t fear reprints, even when you are trying to impress Mark Rosewater. In fact, when showing off a set of cards like I was, I’m sure he would be more impressed if I had used a few choice reprints well.
This is basically fine, though today I would have created it as a sorcery. Sure, there are uses for it at instant speed, but it would slow games down more and generally be more annoying as an instant. The “benefits” do not outweigh the costs, and as a sorcery it still accomplishes what you want it to do. (Mildly annoy some players, amuse some players to no end, and generally be a weak common for blue.)
Mighty Scots Pine
Wow is this over the curve! Move over Solemn Simulacrum, the Mighty Scots Pine would like to do what you do, for less mana and with a bigger body. Exiling the second land is just stupid. Was I just trying to be clever, or trying to spike the heck out of it with minor deck thinning? Eww.
Often creating a parallel to the set mechanic is good, but the restock mechanic is bad to begin with. If I were to remake this card with my current design standards it would be this: 2RR, 4/2 “Discard a card: gains intimidate until end of turn.”
Another TL;DR style card. The reveal is unnecessary, it just shows my lack of understanding on how the rules worked, and what was necessary for a “discard this from your hand” ability. Most of the rest of the text is also unnecessary. It could be: “1B, discard Gravelounger: Return target creature card from your graveyard to your hand.” Targeting rules mean it can’t target itself, and it’s fine to waste your mana getting a different copy back. This fix is great and all, but I should have just used a reprint of Gravedigger.
This is very close to Oblation, a card they had just printed in Onslaught (the PT I attended with these cards was between Onslaught and Legions). I probably arrived at this independently, as it fits the restock mechanical theme. Maybe I was doing a very lame knockoff.
That’s the end of that pack. Now I’ll search through a bunch more and pick out some interesting ones.
Well, I got the name right, at least.
The lockdown I chose is also used in Magic, so that’s fine, but I went for the “it breaks out of the ice,” instead of “it dies because you shatter it” interpretation of being frozen.
Oh this is interesting. Looks like I invented the chroma mechanic! I should ask Mark if he saw this card and if it later inspired the mechanic. I would bet that he didn’t see it, or did but someone else made the mechanic, or in some other way it was just parallel design.
I would like to emphasize that you don’t ever need to be afraid of someone stealing your ideas. Ideas are a dime a dozen. The ability to generate more ideas, and even more, the ability to execute on those ideas is what’s valuable. Plus, if you’re only ever going to have one good idea, Game Designer is just not the career for you. Be happy when an idea you have appears on a real card—happy not that they used your idea, but happy that you were able to generate something that was worth using.
Many have tried to work with rarity. Just don’t. Rarity is not something that should have in-game relevance. Once the game begins, all cards are equal. It doesn’t matter how much they cost, it doesn’t matter if you borrowed them from your older brother. During the game it’s only their text that matters, and that’s very important. This particular design tries to punish the opponent for playing a lot of rares. I’m sure a lot of players would love it, but it’s a terrible, horrible idea for your business model if you punish rare cards. This is not only because you’re trying to sell rares. It’s also because rares are valued by the players. The player that trades for months on end to finally get all the rares for their deck has worked really hard for them, and you can’t punish them just because you want to punish the rich kid in the neighborhood. Not to mention the adult players that work at real jobs for money and like to spend a little of that money on their hobby.
Lol! I don’t really know what to say about this one.
These two are perfectly reasonable cards.
This card would later be designed as a creature by someone else for Rise of the Eldrazi and become Tajuru Preserver. It’s pointless in my set because there are almost no ways to make the opponent sacrifice anything. If you think of something like this you need to have the restraint and awareness to use it when it will be meaningful, and not use it if it has no place.
Here we have another mechanical concept: removing extra copies from your library to gain a benefit. I am not entirely sure what to make of this. I bet I was thinking of it as a way to limit the effect to only once or twice a game, except perhaps in Limited where you might have a ton of the card in your deck.
The Dwarven Berserker is an early game card that prevents you from drawing too many of itself late, which might sound nice, but also feels wrong. Looks like I tried to balance out the free-cast by making you sacrifice them. While this might be fair, I don’t think I like the too-subtle way it shifts your deck balance around.
Blessed Books might be worse. It sort of says, “you can start with a 57-card deck, 6-card hand, and 24 life.” Not something I really want to add to Magic.
Well-Paid Pikemen makes it pretty obvious this is a bad idea. It’s really a 1W 1/4 vigilant creature you can only have two of in your deck (which, incidentally, is only 58 cards, except on the rare occasions when you have 3 of them in your opener). It’s too subtle for most players, and not very exciting either.
Rubber Squid is just embarassing. You exile the extra, but Restock doesn’t let you put cards back from exile. Your intuition says “this is a combo” but then you realize it’s not and it seems stupid or frustrating. I guess with four of them you can cast two as Man-o’-War, then restock the two from the battlefield or graveyard and get a third one to be Man-o’-War? So much work for so little.
So how’d I do?
As you have seen, I was not always as sharp a designer as I am today. I made a lot of the same mistakes every amateur designer makes. Also, like almost all amateur designers, I did a few things right. As you grow as a designer, your fundamental inspirations and creativity need to be nurtured and held onto, while your analytical mind learns to avoid the pitfalls and to quickly sort through the trash to reveal the treasure.