Design Class – Gene Simmons Hates to Be Ignored

When he unmorphs, he parties all day

Well, it finally happened.

If you’ve been paying attention to the GDS2, you’ll see that today Jonathon Loucks was eliminated. I’ve been pulling for the guy to succeed, but to tell you the truth, it wasn’t really a surprise that he was let go.

No, I haven’t done one of these goodbyes for each of the members of the Top 8, but I felt that when Jonathon was released I’d talk about the impact he’s hopefully made on budding designers.

I’ve met Jonathon a couple of times, so this is no way a bashing of him. He’s a nice, smart player, which is why he got this far. If he and I played Magic, he’d most likely beat me 9 out of 10 times (this isn’t to highlight how bad I am, just how good he is). And you can see that in his cards; it seems like everything he’s designed it’s taken to the next level. What Jonathon was doing was designing cards that he enjoys.

And that’s a bad thing.

Like I said, Jonathon’s a very smart player. By being a PTQ grinder, he knows all about Magic game play making him an Advanced player (and not like the “Advanced” label on expansion sets, but like Advanced advanced). In fact, some of the other grinder players in the area sometimes hold BOO drafts. Basically, everyone designs cards to draft and then proceed to draft them. I would love to do that sometime and it looks very fun. Here are some sample cards from that format that Jonathon designed:

Since this was a fun draft between friends, they could be as powerful and off the wall as they wish (There was a 1/1 for 1W with “Lifelink Lifelink Lifelink Lifelink Lifelink Lifelink Lifelink Lifelink Lifelink Lifelink” which was amusing before Lifelink was changed). See, they can do that. Why?

Because they’re advanced and they understand what they’re doing.

If you look at the cards, some of them are just really wacky and fun, which is the whole point of the format. Of course, they didn’t have to be a stickler to templating, but if you don’t realize some of the small things that happen with these cards. Let’s take a look at the three of Jonathon’s I used for examples:

John McCain
Whenever a creature is put into a graveyard from play with more damage than its toughness, that creature’s controller takes damage equal to the difference.

This really means:

John McCain
All creatures gain trample.

Is it less sexy? Yes. People in the draft could figure that one out however. I’m sure they weren’t asking questions about how it worked.

Sheer Brilliance – [2/U][R/G][W/B]
Draw three cards.
Sheer Brilliance has flash as long as you have U in your mana pool.

Remember, you can add mana to your mana pool before announcing a spell. So was this really a drawback?

Valley Knight
Protection from activated and triggered abilities.

No, you can’t equip him, but you can enchant him with an aura.

It’s small things like these that might be lost on an average Magic player. He was designing for like-minded players who all understood the small parts of the game that we all take for granted. And this is where Jonathon got in trouble. Magic is more than just playing at the highest level; it’s about the people at the kitchen tables, the ones who buy packs every so often, the ones who don’t draft all the time, AND the people who understand everything about Magic. (The situation with the BOO draft is different because it’s meant to draft than be used in constructed ways).

When M10 came around, WotC got rid of damage on the stack and mana burn. They said most players don’t use them and for the most part it doesn’t come up all that often. They said it was over complicating the game. And for all the gripe that WotC hears about trying to make the game too simple, it needs to be that way for it to last. MaRo already explained to me why that notion is laughed at.

But with Jonathon, who wants to make Magic more “awesome” by trying to do many things, he forgot the first rule of design: KISS.


This is more than just trying to cram 100 different abilities on 1 card, something you see a ton of with beginning amateur designers. It’s a phase that every designer goes through, like when a player thinks the “Lucky Charms” are great in any deck. But in Jonathon’s case, it’s not trying to do those things, just the complexity of the card in general. Let’s take a look at the card from the intro:

(Please ignore the Snow symbol. Jonathon wanted @, but MSE doesn’t have a new symbol for that, so I just used Snow. Also, that’s Gene Simmons, lead singer of KISS. Get the connection now? Kids these days and their angry feminist Justine Bieber music.)

Zyx Scorpion – @
Creature – Horror
(@ can only be paid with colorless mana.)
Morph B

What you have with this card are several things:

  • A “New” color
  • Colorless cards
  • Morph

You’re not throwing one idea at a person, you’re throwing multiple ones and they can all get lost within each other.

I had messed around with a colored/colorless theme with my entry into the GDS2, and decided that I wasn’t going to have enough time to properly decide if it was going to work. It needs to fit in with the rest of the MTG multiverse before you make it a major theme. Though I believe a good number of players can handle a “sixth” color in concept, it’s the execution that’s the issue. Once you start making concepts complicated, there’s no turning back.

One of my favorite guilty pleasure blocks is Time Spiral block. With those three sets, Wizards basically said “you know what, let’s just throw a ton of abilities on cards and run with them.” You had Hellbent with a Morph trigger of discarding a card, Flying and Shadow on the same creature, and tokens with counters on them that copied the same creature. Magic will never be more complicated then it was during that block.

And I loved it. I’m sure Jonathon did as well.

Was it good for the game? Well, I’m sure that WotC didn’t bring in many new players that time since there were so many keywords and things to learn to play for a year. But for those players who have been playing a while, they didn’t need to learn new concepts as it was all stuff you’ve seen before. With the knowledge of already exploring that area, it was a welcome sight to see twists on it. This is why when you see keywords introduced for the first time, it’s always just the basic idea. Landfall was only see on permanents, Cycling cost 2 to discard the card, Morph was the same color mana as the creature. For the players who have wanted cards to be more complicated and new areas explored, this was their block. And while most players I knew were able to grasp at all of the things that were thrown out during that block, it was a lot to comprehend.

All this boils down to is information. Not everyone reads every day. I meet people that don’t know that Magic even has a web site, let alone that it gets updated every weekday. They’re surprised to learn how Regeneration actually works. Wait, what’s exile? While I’m going to be talking about this in an upcoming QuietSpeculation post, not everyone knows everything that goes on at all times with Magic. With too little information, you can sometimes get lost. Without the prior knowledge of something, you can’t build upon it. Jonathon was assuming you’ve been around long enough or can grasp large enough concepts to get everything he was doing.

But that’s not the average player.

You can’t design cards just for you. That’s what Jonathon’s only crime was. Design teams are teams for a reason, you so get many eyes and many opinions about how to design something. If you get a bunch of Spikes to design a set, that’s what you’re going to get. You’re not going to get something the average player is going to enjoy (the whole point of the game) nor even understand. I’m not saying the average player is dumb, but they’re average because they’re in the middle. You don’t always have to create cards that have to make sense for everyone, just the average player. I think Ken Nagle said it correctly this week in his final thought:

His fondness for complexity is detrimental to his card design skills; he suffers from “designer boredom.”

Yes, exploring new space and mashing up things that haven’t been combined before are fun. I do it and if you design cards as well you do it to (Again another post sometime about why that’s important). Adding complex cards to an already complex game is a fun exercise. Jonathon was certainly pushing the boundaries of what might happen in Real Magic, and was cut for it. While this doesn’t mean to say all your cards should be vanilla creatures, but there’s some elegance when you don’t have to have an abacus and think 20 steps ahead if you want to play a game of Magic. If you want to create something for a fun BOO draft with your friends that’s complicated, please do. Some people like that, others don’t (like like why some like Commander and others don’t, it’s all about taste).

Jonathon wanted to play with fire and it burned him. If you look at his designs as a whole you can see things that were interesting. However, they were too much too fast too complicated to see print. Yes, it probably didn’t help him that he was constantly jumping around of what his world was and that most likely played into a factor as well.

Keep It Simple, Stupid. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Find areas to do new design work, but don’t just throw things together. All good advice. Because sometimes rock and rollin’ all night and partying every day might just be too much for some people to handle.


6 thoughts on “Design Class – Gene Simmons Hates to Be Ignored”

  1. Great article! However, I have a nitpick. The “john McCain” card does not basically grant all creatures trample. If an attacking creature with 3 toughness is blocked by a creature with 5 power…the attcking player takes 2 damage. That just makes for a great example of added complexity in Jonathan’s designs…even you missed the full extent of the card design.

  2. Agreed. Also, he didn’t give @ an identity of its own, really. What does the absence of color mean in Magic? The Eldrazi are one example: all-powerful beings that existed before color, before eternity. In this world, colorless is different, mortal. I might concept a colorless creature as one that absorbs the identity of those it opposes. Maybe it takes on their abilities, stats, or colors. As darkness consumes the light, colorless creatures consume the lifeforce of the light-centered creatures in the world.

    I thought it was a mistake bringing in Liliana as well (same with Garruk for another contestant). Wizards is very protective of their core Planeswalkers, and showing a possible future for them smacks of fanfic nonsense. Why not create your own compelling character for a colorless Planeswalker?

    That said, I think Jonathon would be a great designer, if only as a constant stream of ideas. That’s why you have a team – to filter out the stuff that doesn’t work.

  3. John McCain really means:

    If a 2/2 is blocked by a 5/5, the 2/2’s controller takes 3 damage.
    If a 5/5 is blocked by a 3/1, then the 3/1’s controller takes 4 damage.
    If your opponent controlls ten 2/2 wolf tokens, and you earthquake for 4, you take four damage, and your opponent takes 24, plus loses all of his 2/2 wolf tokens.

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