Tackling Great Designer Search 3 Trial 3: The Design Test

Ryan Normandin
February 23, 2018

As one of the lucky 94 individuals who passed Trial 2 (the multiple choice test) of the Great Designer Search 3, I had the opportunity to then tackle Trial 3, the Design Test. Because I did not make the cut to Top 8, I am allowed to share and discuss the designs that I submitted. First, the challenge itself:


For Trial 3, the design test, you will need to design ten cards that meet the following criteria:

  1.     All the cards will be two-color and each of the ten two-color combinations (listed below) need to be represented.
    2.     Each of the following five card types (creature, enchantment, instant, planeswalker and sorcery) needs to be represented twice, and never on the same color.
    3.     Each rarity (common, uncommon, rare, and mythic rare) must be represented on at least two cards.
    4.     Submit your cards in order of quality of design from what you consider your best design (first) to what you consider your worst design (last).


In a follow-up email from Mark Rosewater answering some FAQ’s, he included this as well: The goal of this test is to show us what you are capable of as a designer. I want you to do that through innovative, cool designs.”

It was my goal in this test to design ten cards that each did something novel.


Because this was your one chance to show what you could do as a designer, I wanted to try to show off an exploration of design space that hadn’t yet been explored. I’m happy to say that I think all of my cards do this, to varying degrees.

As many have already pointed out, figuring out how to design ten cards to fit the specifications of the test was tricky, but, for me at least, there was a logical starting point. Planeswalkers have always been printed at mythic, so that’s where I began. (Now that I’ve been cut, I’m questioning whether I should’ve tried to design a lower-rarity planeswalker instead.) There were two areas that I wanted to explore with planeswalkers: two planeswalkers teamed up represented on one card and a planeswalker that transformed into another permanent.

Other attributes that are important for planeswalkers to have is for their abilities to be linked together on the single card, but also for characters to have consistent abilities throughout multiple iterations. Based on all these requirements, I designed a dual Nissa/Chandra walker.


Chandra and Nissa United (mythic rare)


Legendary Planeswalker – Chandra Nissa


+1: Reveal the top card of your library. If it’s a land, put it onto the battlefield. Otherwise, exile that card. You may cast it.

-2: Untap target land you control. Until your next turn, it becomes a 4/4 Elemental creature with haste and “Sacrifice this creature: this creature deals 4 damage to target creature.”

-8: You get an emblem with “Whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control, this emblem deals 3 damage to target creature or player.” Then look at the top ten cards of your library. You may put any number of land cards from among them onto the battlefield. Put the rest on the bottom of your library in any order.


The +1 ability was, in my opinion, an elegant blend of abilities we’ve seen on Nissa and Chandra in the past; Nissa can put lands into play and Chandra can cast spells off the top of the deck. The -2 blends Nissa’s signature land animation with Chandra’s ability to deal damage to a creature. Though I toyed with allowing you to fling the land at the player as well, that seemed too strong. The ultimate blends something green cares about (lands) with something red does (Bolts) to create a mini Valakut/Scapeshift emblem. The emblem won’t always end the game if you’re unlucky, but it will make a significant dent in your opponent’s board at the least. The abilities are within color pie for green and red, they connect to each other (get more lands onto the battlefield à animate them; post-ult, same thing but now with Bolts!), and they are appropriate for the ability set that we’ve seen Nissa and Chandra have access to in the past.

For my second planeswalker, I needed a good reason to transform a planeswalker into something else. It also needed to be an upgrade, since planeswalkers are kind of at the top of the food chain. I pulled inspiration from Theros, where we first saw a Xenagos planeswalker, then a Xenagos god in a later set. What if the flip condition represented ascending to godhood? Furthermore, could we tell a story through the abilities?


Irides, the False Idol (mythic rare)


Legendary Planeswalker – Irides


+1: Create a 1/1 White and Black Human Cleric creature token. Then, tap any number of untapped creatures you control. For each creature tapped this way, put a loyalty counter on Irides.

-2: Create three 1/1 White and Black Human Cleric creature tokens.

-12: Destroy all creatures. For each creature destroyed this way, each opponent loses 1 life and you gain 1 life. Exile Irides and return her to the battlefield transformed with a +1/+1 counter on her for each creature destroyed this way.


Irides, God of Traitors


Legendary Creature - God


Flying, Indestructible

Irides can’t attack or block unless you’ve sacrificed a creature this turn.

1B, Sacrifice a creature: Each opponent sacrifices a creature.


Irides came with additional constraints; because of the way the color allocations in the test worked out for me, Irides could only transform into a monoblack creature. As such, Irides tells the story of a false idol or false prophet type of character who accumulates a large number of followers only to consume them all to fuel her ascension to godhood. The -2 helps to fuel the +1 and also to protect Irides while tapping down defenses for the +1. These abilities lean white, but the -12 leans black. Destroying all creatures is in both white and black’s portion of the color pie, while draining life and getting stronger for killing things is exclusively black. Once Irides has ascended into a god, she no longer needs to pretend to be interested in followers. She leans into her identity as a traitor, and is enormously powerful in what she does, if the player hasn’t already died due to the large drain from Irides’ ultimate.

 In fact, this is one of the flaws with this design; the ultimate killing the opponent is usually good, but here there is a strange tension between wanting to kill them with it and wanting to transform into the cool creature on the other side. Additionally, do players even want to transform their walkers into creatures? It feels like a downgrade despite my best effort to justify it here. Regardless, that’s how I arrived at the design of my two planeswalkers!


For some reason, I was thinking about phoenixes at the time of GDS3, and I saw a question on Blogatog on whether R&D would ever print a multicolored phoenix. That got me thinking: what would a multicolored phoenix look like? Well, it would have to fly and it would have to return from the graveyard, but with a second color, the return from the graveyard condition could be something that red doesn’t usually care about. The two most natural second colors for a phoenix are black and white, as those are the two colors that most often return creatures from the graveyard to the battlefield.

Additionally, Phoenixes are not generally printed below rare, which eats up one of my rare slots, and means that I can push it a little bit. But I also talked about wanting to explore new design space in each of my cards, so what could this phoenix do that was different? Perhaps it could provide some sort of boon while it was in the graveyard? Thus, Soulfire Phoenix was born!


Soulfire Phoenix (rare)


Creature – Phoenix


Flying, Lifelink, Haste

As long as CARDNAME is in your graveyard, instant and sorcery spells you control have lifelink.

Whenever you would gain 3 or more life, you may instead return CARDNAME from your graveyard to the battlefield.


As you can tell by the name, the card is inspired by Soulfire Grand Master, as it grants your spells lifelink – but only while it’s in the graveyard! This enables it’s return clause, which is lifegain. Instead of gaining the life for yourself, you can donate it to the phoenix and return it to the battlefield. I ranked this as my best design when I submitted, as I think it’s clean, elegant, flexible, flavorful, and fun.

My only concern with this card was whether it’s in-graveyard ability was so good that people wouldn’t even want to cast it or return it. If this was in a burn deck, for example, and it got put into the graveyard, you might never return it to the battlefield to turn all your spells from Bolts to Helixes. I went back and forth on whether to make the return trigger mandatory, but in the end, decided that it was more fun to give the player a choice. I could be completely wrong on this.



Golgari Bugfest (uncommon)



For each B spent to cast CARDNAME, create a 1/1 Black Insect creature token with deathtouch.

For each G spent to cast CARDNAME, create a 1/2 Green Spider creature token with reach.

I knew that I wanted to design a multicolored cards that cared about the colors of mana used to pay for it. This has been done with hybrid cards in the past, but I wanted to do it on pure multicolored so that you get the benefits of both colors, but can choose which you want more of. I ranked Golgari Bugfest as my second-strongest design, as I think it’s an incredibly simple card that has a lot of play to it. It also feels right in BG, as BuGs are something they both enjoy!

The next card I designed was an attempted solution to the “punisher” mechanic, which is found on modal spells that give your opponent a choice between bad things. Punisher cards have historically been pretty bad because your opponent will always choose what’s best for them. How could we make punisher cards better and more fun? Well, the opposite of punisher is the charm/command cycle, where you get to choose from a list, and players love those cards. Therefore, I designed a punisher that turns into a charm:


Punisher Semi-Charm (uncommon)



When you cast CARDNAME, an opponent of your choice chooses Pain or Gain. If a creature you control dealt 3 or more damage to an opponent this turn, instead, you choose Pain or Gain.

-Pain – CARDNAME deals 3 damage to target creature or player.

-Gain – Draw two cards and lose two life.


The concept was simple, but the wording was actually super tricky to figure out. I ended up pulling from the wording format that Fate Reforged used in order to make it work. This card is a reasonable punisher on one side, but a fantastic semi-charm on the other. The condition that allows you to turn it from one to the other is something that both black and red care about, which is creatures doing damage. While it was tough figuring out, I was happy with the result.


Another card that I wanted to design early-on was a white Banisher Priest effect that cared about the card it exiled. We actually saw this for the first time in RIX (Bishop of Binding), and I was surprised at how little WOTC has done with this design space. I was between WU (Banisher Clone) and WG (Banisher Pump or Banisher Ramp), but in the end, the constraints of the design challenge dictated that it must be a WG Enchantment.

Banisher Vines (uncommon)


Enchantment – Aura

Enchant land you control

When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, exile target creature with converted mana cost 3 or less until CARDNAME leaves the battlefield.

Enchanted land has “T: Add an amount of G to your mana pool equal to the converted mana cost of the exiled card.”


The challenge with a Banisher Ramp is that it can easily ramp you way too hard if you make it cheap, or be a terrible deal if you make it expensive. As such, I had to limit what kind of permanent it could exile, turning it into an overcosted Silkwrap, but undercosted Explosive Vegetation (at best). This was another attempt to explore design space that Wizards hasn’t used very much.  

One thing that Rosewater has said in the past and nearly all GDS3 contestants I’ve talked to have echoed is that designing commons is hard. On a design test where you want to show off what you can do, it’s much more natural to demonstrate that with higher-complexity cards. Common puts strong constraints on what you’re allowed to do, so you must be even more creative. Here are my commons:


Simic Build-a-Beast (common)


Creature – Bird Beast Mutant


CARDNAME enters the battlefield with X +1/+1 counters on it.

If CARDNAME has exactly one +1/+1 counter on it, it has flying.

If CARDNAME has two or more +1/+1 counters on it, it has trample.


Twisted Defense (common)



Target creature can block an additional creature this turn.

Switch target creature’s power and toughness until end of turn.


Simic Build-a-Beast is a design that I’m proud of, with one exception: I have no idea why I didn’t make the flying be for one or less +1/+1 counters and the trample be for 2 or more. It’s easier to track mentally, as there are only two states the card can be in (flying or trample) rather than three (flying, trample, or nothing). Nevertheless, this felt like a clever implementation of a modal creature at common, and something that would give players fun options at different points in the game.

Twisted Defense was the last card that I designed and the one I was the least enthusiastic about. I was hole-filling for a WU common instant, and just couldn’t come up with anything novel. As such, I decided to simply combine abilities from White and Blue in a way we don’t usually see in order to make both abilities better. Twisted Defense is a fun combat trick that gives you lots of flexibility in which creature’s power and toughness you switch. You can use this defensively or offensively; you can use it to get a 1-for-1 or a 2-for-1. While there’s nothing really new about the card, it was my best effort to combine two old abilities into something interesting that felt newish.


The last two holes that I had to fill were a UB enchantment and a UR sorcery, and one of them had to be a rare. During the test, I realized that many of my cards were designed for Spike, the psychographic I most identify with, so I wanted to show that I could design for the other psychographics as well. This led me to design a build-around card and a super-powerful splashy card. First, the build-around.


Snapcaster’s Essence (rare)



U, Exile target instant or sorcery card from your graveyard and pay its mana cost: Copy the exiled card. If you do, you may cast the copy without paying its mana cost. Activate this ability only any time you could cast a sorcery and only if CARDNAME is in your graveyard. Transform CARDNAME.


Stitcher’s Essence



B, Exile target creature card from your graveyard and pay its mana cost: Create a token that’s a copy of that card. Activate this ability only any time you could cast a sorcery and only if CARDNAME is in your graveyard. Transform CARDNAME.


This design also incorporated something else I’d wanted to do: have cards transform in zones other than the battlefield, the graveyard being the most practical choice. Inspired by Bridge from Below, I wanted to design something that you had to build around, but really wanted you to be in both Blue and Black to prevent color breaks. To get the most out of this card, you need to 1) find a way to get it into your graveyard 2) have a critical mass of instants and sorceries and 3) have a critical mass of creatures. As such, this looks like it wants to be in a deck of the style of Sultai Delirium. While it’s a lot of hoops to jump through and can be a dead card in some situations, it can also be powerful if you’ve built your deck properly.

The biggest problem with this card was whether it was justified only functioning in the graveyard. It’s an extra thing for players to track, is not intuitive, requires a completely different answer than other enchantments (graveyard hate), and would work just as well on the battlefield. This, to me, was worrisome as it might fall into the “designing something just because you can” category. But, as this was a design test that was supposed to show off what you could do, it felt acceptable, even if I’m not sure I would really push for this card to be printed.


And the final card was the splashy UR sorcery; though it wasn’t the final card I conceptualized, it was the final card that I actually finished and submitted. I wanted to use the card as an opportunity to suggest a solution to the Legendary spell problem. That is, WOTC has wanted to have Legendary instants and sorceries, but isn’t sure how to do them. The Epic mechanic was one stab at this.

I took a bit of an opposite Approach. Instead, I tried to think of a sorcery that should be Legendary, figure out how it was mechanically executed, and then force a new design into that skeleton. The only spell that truly jumps out at me as really being Legendary in both flavor and execution is Approach of the Second Sun. Thus, my card was suggesting that Legendary sorceries can simply have the “cast twice” wording of Approach, representing something legendary that hints at its arrival and then arrives.


Beseech the Firemind (mythic rare)


Legendary Sorcery

If you’ve cast another spell named CARDNAME this game, draw seven cards, deal 7 damage divided as you choose among any number of target creatures and/or players, and then you may cast any number of instant and sorcery cards from your hand without paying their mana costs. Otherwise, shuffle CARDNAME into your library, discard your hand, then draw seven cards.


The problem in doing this is, strangely, similar to the problem with Kicker. When Wizards designed Kicker, they realized that they’d gone too broad; a huge number of subsequent mechanics were waved off by players as simply being Kicker. Approach wins you the game on the spot, which is an incredibly high standard to try to compete with. I therefore Approached it like a planeswalker emblem; they all essentially read “win the game,” but in different ways appropriate for their colors and flavor.

Beseech the Firemind first will Wheel your hand (which is in both Blue and Red’s portion of the color pie) the first time that you cast it, which is a strong effect, but at a large cost. Just like you would never pay 7 mana to gain 7 life, you’re hoping that the backside of the card is strong enough to merit taking a hit now for a huge benefit later. The second time you cast Beseech, it will basically win you the game, assuming you’ve built your deck for it.


And with that, my GDS3 experience is over! While I was certainly disappointed not to be selected for the Top 8, I had a blast designing these cards, and I hope all of you enjoyed reading about them.

For any Wizards of the Coast reading this who are only now realizing that, in fact, they do want to hire me on the spot to design cards, write the Magic Story or movie, or do coverage (I’m a multi-talented fella), you have my email!



Ryan is a grinder from Boston with SCG & GP Top 8’s and a PT Day 2. His fragile self-esteem is built on approval from others, so be sure to tell him what you think of his articles on Twitter @RyanNormandin and in his Twitch chat at twitch.tv/norm_the_ryno.