"Now that I have my column out of the way, it's time to get to the good stuff. But I don't want to rush it because it's so, so good. As such, I'm going to start from the beginning. Once a week, Randy Buehler (my boss) and I get together to talk about how things are going. This is the time where I'm supposed to point out things I need to do my job. One of my frequent requests is that I need more designers."
Mark Rosewater, Making Magic – 8/21/06
That paragraph was the crack of the starter's pistol for the Great Designer Search toward the end of August this past summer. In the intervening months, a field of well over 1500 applicants had been winnowed down to three with a barrage of tests that included everything from creating cards for an Un-set to designing all the commons in one color of a small set – along with the Prerelease foil rare – all in the pursuit of a six-month design internship and potential full-time employment at Wizards of the Coast.
The chase to the finish line brought Alexis Janson, Graeme Hopkins, and Kenneth Nagle to Renton, Washington for one last test. The three contestants were thrown into a role-playing session with the rest of R&D and asked not only to come up with a "safe" card to replace Opposition in Urza's Legacy at the very last minute before going to press, but to have the room come to some sort of consensus on what that card should be.
From there, the players had to wait until that evening when the winner would be announced at a special party in downtown Seattle. Element is a nightclub in the shadow of the Space Needle but on Monday it served as "The Finish Line" of the Great Designer Search.
After three months of waiting, it hardly seemed fair not to announce the winner as quickly as possible so the overworked contestants could actually relax and enjoy the party scene, including food and drinks, celebrity guest DJ, VIPs, improv comedy, your not-so-traditional holiday Fruitcake, and – of course – drafting.
After a brief introduction from yours truly, Mark Rosewater and Randy Buehler stepped onto the lit dance floor and let the tortured contestants wait a few more minutes as they recapped the process that was the Great Designer Search.
Mark and Randy could be forgiven, though, since all three were offered internships in the end! While it had not been the plan all along, the judging staff was so impressed with everyone's performance throughout the day that they scrambled around to find all three internships. Alexis Janson won the coveted first prize, a Magic: the Gathering Design internship. Kenneth Nagle was given an internship in TCG design, and Graeme Hopkins was awarded an internship in the computer games division. All three contestants were happy, but none seemed happier than Randy Buehler: "The big winner in all of this was Wizards of the Coast; we found three great people."
Winner Alexis Janson seemed stunned by the announcement that she had won. "It's a lot to absorb right now," she said later. Perhaps she was just relieved that she'd have until 2007 to get ready for her next assignment.
"I was expecting it to be a lot of work, but it was even more than I was expecting," she said. "Harder challenges, longer timeframe, more cards submitted, more effort involved than I even imagined. It was a marathon, so to speak."
Alexis had been a fan of the game for a long time and had often wondered how to break into the business of making Magic cards. The Great Designer Search was a dream come true. Alexis explained that she had always thought: "It would be really great if I could get behind the scenes and actually work on [Magic]. All of a sudden this came along – here is my shot. I am going to take it."
With the contest over – and the real hard work put aside until the New Year – it was time for everyone to enjoy the club and the party. Everyone who attended received a sweet gift bag that included , a draft set of Time Spiral, a scorepad and pen, a Magic mouse pad, a full-art version of either Niv-Mizzet or Voidslime, and a special holiday treat: the very limited Fruitcake Elemental foil promo card.
As a special bow on this present, Darrell Riche, the illustrator of the Fruitcake Elemental, was on hand to sign copies of his indestructible creation. This will almost certainly be the first holiday Fruitcake that never gets regifted.
Darrell Riche wasn't the only VIP brought in for this special event. Paul Cheon, Ben Lundquist, and Luis Scott Vargas (aka the U.S. National team) were on hand to talk with the press, draft with the locals, and meet the celebrity guest DJ.
In his spare time, R&D member Ryan Miller is a member of Seattle's Jet City Improv and midway through the evening, the group took over the dance floor to showcase their talents. That's Ryan being restrained on the left and troupe member Missy Meyer on the right. They were a huge hit with the crowd.
Everyone was intrigued by the notion of a celebrity DJ, and it turned out to be Efren Ramirez, who you may be more familiar with as "Pedro" from Napoleon Dynamite. Once the comedy troupe cleared off the dance floor, Efren actually got some people using it for its intended purpose – no small feat at a Magic related event.
Of course, not everyone danced. In addition to a spread of food, there was a bar offering a full line of beverages. While sufficient ID would get you at the hard stuff, everyone was welcome to sample the non-alcoholic "mana mocktails". Ilja Rotelli is going to have to keep his head clear as he prepares to launch City Champs in 2007, although it is not clear what Scott Larabee was downing in the background.
My beverage of choice was draft. Coincidentally, with my wife back at home, it was my activity of choice as well. With the U.S. National team embroiled in a draft with the players from a local store I settled into draft with the R&D crowd. Perhaps I should have stuck to the mocktails, though, as my deck did not live up to the first-pick Vesuvan Shapeshifter seen here.
Other players in the draft included Aaron Forsythe, Randy Buehler and Paul Sottosanti – a former development intern who appears to have stuck around for the long haul. Of course, after losing to my four-color monstrosity in that draft, Paul may not be showing back up for work after the holiday break.
Everyone had a great time and there seemed to be a real buzz among the Wizards personnel about the influx of fresh blood from this contest. While we waited for Paul and Randy to play out this match, I talked with Aaron Forsythe about the role of magicthegathering.com in the development of the trio's skill sets. Aaron started his Wizards career at the helm of the website, oversaw the evolution of Mark Rosewater's column, and now works in R&D. He was also cited by all the contestants as being the toughest taskmaster of the judges.
"It really speaks to the power that the website has grown into over the years," Aaron explained. "We wanted to offer the Magic community insider stuff they couldn't get anywhere else. Mark's column has been the hallmark of that. We often hear from people working on other games or in the computer game industry saying, 'Oh I read Rosewater's column all the time and it has really helped our company out.'"
For the three amazing finalists, The Finish Line is just the beginning!