Some people who love Magic play for the challenge, some play for the camaraderie, and others play just to show off something cool their deck can do. Others still play only once in a while but love the stories, characters and locations that the game provides. Then there are folks like me; the designers. We love to explore the inner workings of the game; we take apart all the pieces and try to put them back together again into something that looks like a Magic card.
I’ve been designing cards since almost the beginning. I made physical cards with crayons and construction paper in 1994, and I still have a printout of my first huge list of cards from 1997. Magic design is in my blood.
You can imagine how excited I was to hear about The Great Designer Search when it came around the first time. The year was 2006. I finally had a way of reaching my life goal of creating Magic cards for a living. Anyone who wanted to try out for the search had to answer ten essay questions and submit them so they could have access to the next test. Writing these essays proved that one was serious about becoming a designer. Everyone who submitted answers for this round was able to move on.
The second test was a multiple choice test with 35 questions. This test was meant to narrow the pool to around 100 people. I answered 29 of the 35 correct and just missed the threshold of 30 to advance to the next round. I was crushed. I vowed to make it in the next time.
The next time was five years later, in 2011. My interest in Magic had waned at this point in my life and my self-confidence was pretty low. I didn’t even finish the essays this time. When I saw the deadline come and go, I regretted my procrastination and decided to look toward the future. I started a design blog and posted a new card every day for years. I immersed myself in design. I learned the color pie, I learned set structure, I learned about designing for psychographics. I read every article that Mark Rosewater wrote. I started listening to his “Drive to Work” podcasts so I could get better at designing. I waited.
Flash forward to 2018. The third Great Designer Search. I had prepared for years for this event. In an amazing stroke of luck, the year 2016 brought my wife and I to Seattle (home of Wizards of the Coast!), and my immersion in the game was at its peak. I was ready.
I submitted my essays and took the multiple choice test. The test this time was 75 questions, and I took care to read each one carefully and answer the best I could. A few days later, I had learned that I made it to the next round along with 93 other people. There were more than 3000 people who took the test and the threshold to make it was 73 out of 75.
This is where things get difficult. The 94 of us were tasked to make 10 cards for Standard play. There had to be two each of Enchantments, Sorceries, Instants, Creatures, and Planeswalkers. They each had to be a different pair of colors, and none of the colors and card types could overlap. (For example, if I had a Red/Black creature, the other creature couldn’t be red or black.) We also had to have at least two of each rarity, and we were encouraged to submit our best designs first.
The Planeswalkers took up both of the Mythic slots, so at least that choice was easy. Nothing else about this challenge was (I guess that’s why they call it a challenge). We received a second email from Mark Rosewater the next day clearing up some of the questions that were asked (Can we use new keyword mechanics? No. Can we use hybrid cards? Yes.)
Here is my list of designs (with some notes and things that I would’ve done differently after looking at them again):
Tershan Shepherd (Uncommon)
Creature – Human Druid
W,T: Tap target creature.
G,T: Untap target creature.
One of my most elegant designs. I made this years ago, and I still love it.
Dual Demise (Rare)
Destroy two target nonland permanents.
This was a design that I did for my design podcast, but it was made for the Commander format. I added “nonland” since our design goal was to make these cards for Standard. I should’ve left it as is.
Living Rime (Uncommon)
Snow Enchantment – Aura
Enchanted land is snow.
Whenever another snow permanent enters the battlefield under your control, you may have enchanted land become a 4/4 red and green snow Elemental creature with first strike and vigilance until end of turn. It’s still a land.
There should be the ability word “Snowfall –” at the beginning of this, but we were told not to add new named mechanics, so I took it off. Also, I should have just made this an Enchantment that makes your lands Snow and turns into a creature with the snowfall trigger. I’m not sure why I wanted to attach it to a land.
Barstoe’s Banishment (Common)
Return target creature or planeswalker to its owner’s hand. Cards with that name may not be cast until your next turn.
This card was also made for the podcast, but I didn’t change anything about it. It’s just a modified Reflector Mage without the creature attached. In retrospect, this should be uncommon and Tershan Shepard should be common. I’m not sure what I was thinking when I chose the current rarity.
Tibalt the Torturer (Mythic Rare)
Legendary Planeswalker – Tibalt
+1: Tibalt deals 2 damage to target player and 1 damage to you.
-1: Destroy target creature. You lose life equal to its power.
-7: You get an emblem with “Whenever you lose life, create that many 2/2 red and black Devil creature tokens.”
I wanted to show how much Tibalt enjoys inflicting pain. I think this fit the bill.
Haughty Noggle (Common)
Creature – Noggle Wizard
Discard another card named CARDNAME: Switch CARDNAME’s power and toughness until end of turn, then draw a card.
I think that Grandeur was an underused ability. This card shows the possibility that it could be at common on non-legendary creatures. I should’ve just made it a ¼ and have the discard give +3/+0 instead of switching power and toughness.
Gaxiar, Compleationist (Mythic Rare)
Legendary Planeswalker – Gaxiar
+2: Put two +1/+1 counters on up to one target creature.
-3: Gain control of target creature with a +1/+1 counter on it.
-6: Draw a card for each +1/+1 counter among creatures you control.
I’m happy with Gaxiar. I think he gives off the flavor of what Phyrexia would look like if it assimilated the Simic.
Triumphant Charge (Rare)
Attacking creatures get +X/+0 and gain first strike until end of turn.
This card is a dud. It’s way too strong for what it costs; it will end the game almost every time it is cast. It should be a sorcery and we probably should skip the first strike as well.
Crippling Anxiety (Uncommon)
Enchantment – Aura
Enchanted creature can’t attack.
At the beginning of your upkeep, enchanted creature’s controller sacrifices a permanent.
I like the choices that this card creates. 95% or more of the time you will just sacrifice the enchanted creature, but if it’s the only blocker saving you, or if it has a good ability, the decision can be rough.
Counter target spell. You lose 2 life.
This card shouldn’t be in Standard. I flubbed this one as well. I really wanted to make a hybrid blue/black “exile target creature spell”, but I didn’t have the guts to flaunt the color pie that much.
I submitted the cards, and then I waited.
If you’re following along with the competition, you will know that I didn’t make it to the top 8. I will not be working for Wizards in the near future, but I have my hopes up for GDS4. I will keep designing and hopefully I can make myself known as an awesome designer, even though I don’t have a college degree. As it turns out, a degree is required to get a job there in the normal fashion.
I hope my story gives you all some insight on the life of a hopeful designer and remember, whatever your passion is, go after it. It’s worth it for the journey alone.
You can send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you want to talk about Magic design, or you can hear me talk about design with my co-host, Bradley Rose, every week on the Beacon of Creation podcast.
Header design: Justin Treadway
Header image: “Inventors’ Fair” by Jonas De Ro