Wednesday, September 29, 2010

GDS2 Chronicles: Conceptualizing

To compete in the GDS2, I will need to design an interesting world that leads to fun mechanics and gameplay. I'm not going to commit myself to anything this early, but I wanted to share my thought process for a first attempt at a concept.

Step 1: What do I Like?

My favorite conceptual aspect of Magic is the color wheel. I love the philosophical and idealogical aspects of each color, and how that translates into mechanics.

My favorite set theme was Shards of Alara. It explored the color pie in a way that had never been done before, giving us five worlds that embodied different aspects (and absences) of each color. I like the way it gave each segment a distinct mechanical identity.

My favorite unexplored space in Magic is the color wheel aspects outside of their stereotypes. People forget that red is the color of passion and love, and black is the color of open-mindedness and dealmaking.

Step 2: World Concept

Imagine, if you will, a world where each color has found peace and lives in harmony with its ideals. Red is the color of artists and lovers. Blue is the color of teachers and philosophers. Black is the color of idealized Randian capitalists, living in a mutually-beneficial society of enlightened self-interest. Magic is powerful and widespread, but not used for violence.

Now, this world comes under attack by some horrible outside force, shattering the peace and prosperity. Utopia is under attack by violent forces they do not understand. Finally, here is the lynchpin of the theme: They fight back.

Step 3: Thematic Concept

In two words, "Weaponized Paradise."

What does it look like when red mages kill you with love and creativity rather than rage? How does blue act when it outthinks you with benevolent wisdom instead of callous arrogance? How do I get around the fact that black has been stereotyped as a bad guy for 17 years?

Each color has aspects rarely seen in Magic because they don't make much sense in a game that is fundamentally about conflict and combat. I want to take these aspects, and force them to fit. Let's make art and creativity and wisdom badass.

Step 4: Mechanics

"The colors like you've never seen them before."

I want to explore the boundaries of the color pie as thoroughly as possible without breaking them. I want the colors to explore new space in a way that fits with their ideas. All sounds good and shiny, but what the hell does that mean in terms of the actual game?

I want to take a page out of the Shards playbook and give each color a recognizable keyword or mechanic that really summarizes what I'm trying to show with the color.

Enemy color hybrid seems like it might be a good to show off some of their non-stereotypical interpretations. Improvisation and creativity represented by blue/red spells that draw cards with an emphasis on randomness, or black/white spells about power and authority.

Step 5: Skepticism

I'm not sure I'll stick with this idea. I'm in love with it right now, but I recognize that ideas have a honeymoon period before you start recognizing their flaws. Feedback is encouraged.

GDS2 Chronicles: Vision

Today we got our first taste of the Great Designer Search 2.

The contest hasn't even properly started, and it's already blown my mind and completely defied my expectations. In retrospect, it was silly of me to assume that Maro would want to run the same contest twice - he's a sucker the unexpected.

The biggest change is that instead of discrete design challenges for random set concepts, each contestant has to design their own world/Magic set and develop it over the course of the contest. Moreover, they have provided a wiki on which we can discuss and share our ideas, and receive input and ideas from other people online.

Maro said the most important sentence in the article was "If GDS1 was about furniture building, then GDS2 is about interior design." I think the most important concept is one word: Vision.

We can't just think up a silly new keyword or new template for a cool ability. We are essentially being asked to step into the roll of Lead Designer, conceptualizing a set from the ground up and adapting the ideas of others to fit our core vision. It goes without saying that this is no small task.

Designing a compelling and mechanically-relevant world will be key to advancing in the GDS2, and we don't know how much time we have to do it. Gentlemen, start your creative engines.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Grand Prix Portland: Competitive Gaming

I've played in quite a few Magic tournaments, and consider myself a pretty skilled player. I have a solid rating, consistently do well at local FNMs, and have won a number of 50+ player events. However, until this weekend, I had never really tested my skills at a competitive level. Grand Prix Portland had 1371 players in the main event and $30,000 in cash prizes, so it definitely qualifies.

It was a long and varied experience, but in the end I came to two conclusions:
1) I am skilled enough that if I want, I could play Magic at a competitive level.
2) I don't want that.

I love playing Magic, and would have no objection to putting in the time and effort it would take to get my game to a professional level. And winning money by playing a game you enjoy is awesome. But I learned that I don't like sitting down to a game with the knowledge that I've got hundreds of dollars on the line. Some people may like the thrill of competition that offers, but for me it makes the game feel too much like work.

I'm glad I tried it and pleased with how well I did. I considere making day two alone quite an accomplishment for my first serious tournament, and I finished 75th after going in 3-0 my first draft pod. (I would have made Top 64 for $200 if my friend and I had gotten the math right and drawn our final round.) But at the end of both days I was tired and only staying in for the chance at money, which is not what I want my gaming to be.

The GP had some other fun stuff going on that I would have liked to see more of - we had quite a few high profile Magic artists and Richard Garfield himself. (Another friend from Willamette got to draft with Garfield's kids, which is a pretty awesome brag.) There are infinite people there to play or trade with, and the various dealers present some unique opportunities for buying/selling cards. Playing for the big money was a fun thing to try, but in the future I think I'll be the guy who takes my 1950+ rating over to the casual tables for EDH and cubing.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Ethics of Trading

I love trading Magic cards. Acquisition is part of the game's appeal, and trading allows me to acquire new cards without spending cashy moneys. The last two evenings, I've turned quite a profit at my local game store, turning piles of old rares I wasn't using into spiffy cards for my Cube, EDH decks, and trade binder.

This raises a bit of a dilemma for me, as I occasionally criticize people like trade-guru Jon Medina who put a lot of effort into gaining value on their trades. I consider many of the strategies used in such trades to be unethical and bad for the game. Of course, Medina considers himself to be an ethical trader who makes an effort not to rip people off, so there's clearly a range of perspectives here.

After putting a bit of thought into it, I came to the following conclusion: For people like Medina, the bottom line is for both people to walk away from the trade happy. If both parties are satisfied, the deal is ethical. My standards are a bit higher. Let me illustrate with a story, embellished from a true story:

A casual player returns to Magic after many years and starts getting back into the game. He puts together an EDH deck and brings it down to the local cardshop. One of the regulars notices a Wasteland in the guy's deck and figures he can pick it up for cheap. "I'll trade you this Strip Mine for it," he offers, "The mine is strictly better, but I can use that Wasteland in an legacy deck." They make the trade and both walk away happy - the newbie has gotten a better card for his deck and the regular has made some easy money.

A week later, the player goes up front to see if he can get another Wasteland, and discovers that they are worth $25 to the Strip Mine's $2. He feels betrayed and ripped off by the people who claimed to help him out and decides not to trade any more. A while later, he stops showing up at the card shop at all.

For me, getting people satisfied with the deal at hand isn't enough for the trade to be ethical: People need to know the value of their cards. Yes, that value is subjective and largely "made up" by the happenstance of the market, but it is real value nonetheless. I'll happily walk away with a $25 card for a stack of 20 bulk rares, but only if I've been open and honest about the value of the cards involved.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Great Designer Search

A few years ago, Magic R&D held something called the Great Designer Search. It was an online contest for a job at WotC designing Magic cards, where thousands applied and were eventually weeded down to 15 finalists. Then, those finalists were put through a series of elimination rounds, the final-finalists getting a job interview for the position.

Watching the GDS was a pretty big deal for me. I was just finishing high school and had recently decided that I was probably never going to be a famous novelist or comic writer. But watching the GDS, my thought was, "I can do that. I could be one of the best at game design if I work at it." Since then, I've always considered game design to be my eventual calling. I designed an RPG System for my senior project in high school and have tinkered with it quite a bit since. I design board game rules and Magic cards when I get bored in class. I write this blog.

This January, Aaron Forsythe (the head of Magic R&D) dropped a hint that led me to believe we might see a second GDS this year. As I'm graduating from college this year and looking for my place in the world, it seemed all-too-perfect and I spent a few days fantasizing about the possibility before filing it away. Then, last week, Mark Rosewater ended his column with, "Join me next week when I rinse and repeat (plus I have some exciting news you are not going to want to miss)." It all came flooding back. Was there really a chance? I wondered, Could there be a second Great Designer Search this year?

This week, it was announced that the Great Designer Search 2 would begin this month. I nearly died. I was simultaneously out of my mind with joy at the opportunity and terror that I might screw it up after all waiting all these years. Now, a few days later, I have calmed down enough to discuss the situation rationally, but overwhelming joy/terror still describes my feelings accurately.

I'll be spending the next three weeks studying design articles and the previous GDS, practicing card design, and going through all my old notes. I might not succeed in the end, but it won't be for lack of trying.