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Great Designs: Billy’s Essays

Written by Billy Mitchell on . Posted in Magic Culture

Great Designs:  Billy’s Essays

Billy Mitchell

Billy Mitchell is an L1 judge and competitive player from the Philadelphia area. Outside of Magic, Billy is a high school math and science teacher. He can be found on Twitter @badluckbandit.

So this isn’t really an article. This was my submission for the first round of the Great Designer Search 3. I had some essays to write and I thought it would be interesting to share my responses. Hope you enjoy the responses!

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

My name is Billy Mitchell. Aside from being a level 1 judge, writer for LegitMTG, and PPTQ /RPTQ grinder from the Philadelphia area, I am also a mathematics and science teacher. I have been playing or judging Magic since Judgment and I sternly believe that Magic was the catalyst that got me to love problem-solving challenges in both my personal and professional life.

My love for Magic is very similar to my love for math; by studying and taking the time to understand what ties everything together, I have developed an interest that is much deeper than most. Magic design, like math education, requires hard work and dedication, as well as an aptitude to tie together hidden themes as well as overt themes in any given set. These are skills that I have honed over my seven years acquiring a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and a Master’s degree in Education, and more importantly, sixteen years of playing Magic at a variety of social levels.

My career in education focuses on introducing and explaining challenging topics to people from different backgrounds which makes me an excellent communicator. I am also required to interact with 130 different students in class daily, as well as their parents and school administrators. This requires superior time management which is necessary for an internship like this. Lastly, I have a genuine passion for Magic and game design. This internship will be grueling at times but being able to make a lasting impression on Magic has always been a dream of mine. I can think of no better way for me to do that than through the Great Designer Search.

2. An evergreen mechanic is a keyword mechanic that shows up in (almost) every set. If you had to make an existing keyword mechanic evergreen, which one would you choose and why?

If I had to make an existing keyword mechanic evergreen, I would choose bloodthirst. My factors in this choice were whether this could practically be included in each set, how its constant presence would affect gameplay, and if there were any keywords that could better satisfy the other two factors. I believe bloodthirst accomplishes all three the best.

Bloodthirst presents war, conflict, and the craving for bloodshed. These are themes that are constantly present in Magic stories, whether our leading man finds himself as a pit fighter or our leading lady struggles to protect her home from threats abroad. The keyword should enhance gameplay without seeming forced. I think bloodthirst is successful here.

If bloodthirst was in every set, I would expect to see it in mainly on red and green creatures, though it could move depending on the set. The vampires from the Shadows over Innistrad and Ixalan blocks would have been excellent candidates for having bloodthirst despite being outside of red or green.

If bloodthirst was in each set, we would likely see a faster Constructed format with a few more aggressive decks. The two cards that come to mind are Stormblood Berserker and Scab-Clan Mauler. Despite not being in a dedicated “bloodthirst deck,” the mechanic allowed them add a little extra power early in the game and create incentives to deal damage to opposing players later in the game, sometimes even outside of combat in cases such as Goblin Fireslinger.

If I had a choose an alternative keyword, I believe I would select cycling. While cycling is more universal, it does have some design costs. Particularly, how good can you make a card if its floor is a cheap replacement? Cards like Censor and Cast Out are almost a perfect balance while cards like Street Wraith present obvious issues in Eternal formats. I believe that after some time, cycling would cause more long-term damage to the game than good and would not like that opportunity presented in each set.

3. If you had to remove evergreen status from a keyword mechanic that is currently evergreen, which one would you remove and why?

If I had to remove evergreen status from a keyword mechanic, I would likely choose hexproof. This choice lies both in the philosophy of hexproof and the gameplay. Overall, I find the mechanic difficult to manage and detrimental to gameplay, especially in games of limited.

When protection was removed, it was beneficial for many reasons. First, protection added a level of frustration for newer players. Enfranchised players understood how to most profitably interact with threats that might have protection from a major color or creature type and could make a plan accordly. Second, protection required a firm understanding of the rules. While most players understood the basics, a few didn’t understand why White Knight could fall deathly ill to an Infest. As a judge, I occasionally still am asked about how protection affects particular card interactions.

Hexproof suffers from many of the same issues as protection. In many cases, hexproof is found on permanents that would be already difficult to destroy in a typical game. Thrun, the Last Troll can regenerate, managing to destroy him is near impossible without preparing certain answers ahead of time. Hexproof invalidates many of the choices that players make in terms of creature removal. A way to manage that would be to create more sweepers in the format. However, that adversely affects creature swarm strategies

Most obviously, hexproof is can be very difficult to manage in games of Limited. Ixalan Block has both Jade Guardian and Soul of the Rapids which can easily take over the game when combined with enchantments. The ability to not target hexproof creatures creates a subgame where players must end the game while invalidating an unmanageable threat. Without the proper resources to combat these threats, this often leads to feel bad moments in games of Limited. There are also examples of this effect in Modern with cards such as Slippery Bogle and Leyline of Sanctity.

For these reasons, I would remove hexproof as an evergreen mechanic.

4. You’re going to teach Magic to a stranger. What’s your strategy to have the best possible outcome?

Whenever I teach anything in class, my plan is to have some scripted examples that are easy to grasp and make intuitive sense. With Magic, I try to try to do the same. Whenever I teach Magic, I often try to create and follow a scripted game that explores some common scenarios that the stranger should expect to encounter in a normal game of Magic. My first introduction was a play by play game with my eldest brother where he walked me through how to draw cards, tap mana, attack with creatures, and destroy opposing creatures. These scripted experiences show you how to involve and interact in a game with so many moving parts.

Something I find important is to keep the complexity very low. Vanilla creatures should be used most but introducing some creatures with first strike, flying, trample, haste, and defender. I also prefer to include some creatures with enter the battlefield and “dies” triggers since those have become increasingly common.The complexity in game play is one of the most interesting things about the game so it’s important to introduce some of the more basic keywords. The most difficult thing for players to grasp are the flow of combat so introducing some basic attacking and blocking scenarios is important.

The last thing is that the new player should always win. Winning creates a positive association with the game regardless of whether of not the person truly grasped the more technical aspects of the game. By creating points for positive feedback, the stranger will consider the activity as a success and be more interested in trying again in the future.

5. What is Magic’s greatest strength and why?

Magic’s greatest strength is its ability to create an ever changing narrative. Magic is not a static event or moment; it is always molding and reshaping itself. Over my life with Magic, the game has been a multitude of things from an escape to a hobby to a job. Magic has the ability to be many things to many people. The ability for the game to adapt to fit a person’s lifestyle makes it inclusive. For newer players, replaying the same two decks can create a night’s worth of entertainment while at the highest level, a five-game set can result in some of the tensest games of Magic of the year.

When I first started playing Magic, my brother used it as a way to connect to his brother who was twelve years younger than him. When I went to middle school, Magic helped me make new friends. Magic gave me a reprieve from academics and sports as well as a part time job in high school. In college, I began playing Magic much more actively and used it to start traveling the east coast for events. When my sister died, Magic gave me a community to support me as well as a sense of normalcy in such a terrible time in my life.

Magic’s major success is in that people can use it for whatever they are able. The game does not demand dedication or persistence. It does not ask for more than you are able to give. Magic can be experienced whenever, by whomever, under whatever circumstances. The game is built for replay value, whether that’s now when you’re 11 in elementary school or 15 years in the future with a spouse and career.

6. What is Magic’s greatest weakness and why?

Magic’s greatest weakness lies in its inability to reconcile storytelling with card design. My least favorite moments over the past few years lies in the saturation of major story elements in the Magic expansions, mainly the Gatewatch and their opposition. The inclusion of the Gatewatch in so many consecutive sets created this atmosphere of one-upping each planeswalkers and their corresponding enemy. This came to a head with the creation of Liliana, the Last Hope, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, and Chandra, Torch of Defiance, which all see play in formats as far back as Legacy. This trend of storytelling through pushed card design led down a slippery slope of bannings that have plagued Standard over the past year, as well as the domination Bant Company and Green-White Tokens before that.

While the creation of new powerful cards is valuable for the life of eternal formats, I believe these cards were created for story more than anything else. Any lover of story can tell you that heroes are only as interesting as the villains they oppose. This challenge to make our villains as interesting as our heroes culminated in the printing of dominant Eldrazi in Standard. Emrakul, the Promised End and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger warped their respective formats and devalued other aspects of their sets’ design. While some of this would have likely been alleviated by the newly created Play Design team, I believe this initially was a mistake on storytelling through card design. If the Gatewatch wasn’t as heavily featured leading up to Eldritch Moon, I believe Emrakul, the Promised End might have been more balanced and avoided the ban list in Standard.

7. What Magic mechanic most deserves a second chance (aka which had the worst first introduction compared to its potential)?

I believe the Magic mechanic that most deserves a second chance is the “you don’t lose the game” mechanic. We have seen variations since my initial introduction of Worship in cards such as Angel’s Grace and Phyrexian Unlife. While I find these version of this mechanic frustrating, I could imagine a variation of this mechanic that requires a more manageable and less easily manipulated resource such as cards in hand or number of cards in library.

In my heart of hearts, I would love to see “artifacts matter” be revisited but every major set with a heavy artifact theme creates issues. My first foray into competitive play was during Mirrodin Standard and that format showed me that some ideas cannot be fixed. Arcbound Ravager and Cranial Plating would have been excellent in a format devoid of artifact lands or affinity for artifacts. However, in that world, modular would have been a keyword resigned to the Limited tables and Cranial Plating would not have been threatening enough to matter in Standard. I found the same issue with mechanics such as “end the turn,” “basic lands matter,” and “super trample.” Even if the mechanic could work, what would it matter if the players didn’t want it?

The other challenge with reintroducing any mechanic is making sure that you have reasonable space to improve it. I believe the “you don’t lose the game” mechanic, while frustrating, provides design space that something such as “artifacts matter” or “Living Weapon” likely does not. I think this mechanic could be used as often as “time warp” effects and appeal to a certain subset of casual and competitive players alike.

8. Of all the Magic expansions that you’ve played with, pick your favorite and then explain the biggest problem with it.

My favorite Magic expansion that I have played with is Khans of Tarkir. I believe flavor- and gameplay-wise, it creates the most interesting and skill-testing games of any expansion in recent memory. I have likely drafted that set over 25 times between paper and online and still find the format enjoyable. It reminds me of both Onslaught and Zendikar in both the Limited format’s gameplay as well as its impact on Constructed Magic.

My biggest problem with the set is the sheer number of morphs and the detrimental effect they had on combat and gameplay. Morph adds a level of complexity to attacking and blocking and a huge strain on hidden information within the game. Something that more experienced players understood but many inexperienced players didn’t was blocking a morph into open mana was normally a death knell. Many find this as a reward but I often saw this as a negative to players being initiated into competitive play.

Since it was a wedge-colored set, there was a high number of cards that could be revealed from under a morph creature. This rewarded players who knew the possibilities and could block appropriately to minimize risk. However it also incentivized players to move around morphs on the battlefield to disorient opposing players on which order morphs were placed onto the battlefield. From a judge perspective, managing players with morph is almost impossible and led to some feel bad moments for failing to reveal morphs or accidentally placing a non-morph creature face down. While I enjoyed playing the set and would willingly play it again, morph was very easily the worst part of the set while also adding to the format’s replay value.

9. Of all the Magic expansions that you’ve played with, pick your least favorite and then explain the best part about it.

Of all the Magic expansions that I’ve played with, my least favorite is Rise of the Eldrazi. While I understand I am in the minority, I did not enjoy how this set’s gameplay played for either Standard or Limited. Rise of the Eldrazi plays distinctly different from almost every other Magic set and, to me, most resembles Avacyn Restored, which was a commonly despised set. The format rewarded slower decks and allows six to 8 mana creatures to flourish. This anomaly rewards players who understand the draft format and punishes those who expect a more typical draft environment.

My favorite aspect of this expansion is the level-up mechanic. While this keyword certainly puts me out of my comfort zone, it is very interesting for game play. First, this followed on the heels of Worldwake’s multikicker and followed a similar philosophy: if you can commit a high amount of mana, you will be rewarded. Where level-up improved was that it provided a mana sink for players over the course of the game rather than requiring the investment up front. Multikicker rewards players for having a larger amount of mana before casting the spell. This creates a subgame where players are encouraged to hold back spells for a larger reward. Level-up instead allows decks with fewer lands to play with a similar effect without worrying about straining deck construction.

Level-up threats can be cast early in the game and create a decision tree. It asks players whether they want to improve their threat or cast other spells. If drawn late, multikicker and level-up act similarly but level-up provides an improved experience in the earlier turns of a game.

10. You have the ability to change any one thing about Magic. What do you change and why?

If I had the ability to change any one thing about Magic, I would change the way paper Magic and Magic Online are integrated. In my mind, Magic is Magic. I think players should be rewarded for playing Magic regardless of the format in which they digest it. While I don’t believe digital is the future of Magic, I do think that it is the easiest way for players in more remote areas to play the game they love. People should have more a reason to want to play both paper and digital.

First, I would make more incentives for MTGO grinders to play larger paper events such as Grand Prix. There is nothing more confusing to me than playing 20 Sealed Leagues in preparation for a Grand Prix, understanding the format inside and out, and then realizing you haven’t played enough to earn a round one bye. Even if not at the same rate, I would like there to be some way for Planeswalker Points to be added to a player’s linked DCI account. Even if it were just at the 1x rate.

Second, I would create more incentives for paper players to play MTGO. The major concern here is creating incentives that don’t negatively impact the MTGO economy. For that reason, I would want to avoid things such as free MTGO packs or treasure chests included in paper packs or pre-release packs. My first thought would be to have an invite-only Streamer Showdown at select Grand Prixs that offered an invitation to the Pro Tour. The players would be from that geographical region. This would hopefully get players interested in streaming Magic as well as viewing Magic streams.

My goal throughout this to come across as experienced, intelligent, and genuine. Hopefully I came across that way to the judges. Thanks for reading!

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