Gottlieb’s Fan Mail

Posted in ARTICLES on October 22, 2004

By Aaron Forsythe

I get a decent amount of reader mail from my column, but most of it is either complimentary (which I like), or well-thought-out complaints (which I don't mind). Rarely do I get what I would consider inflammatory email (and I don't want any, thankyouverymuch), but certain other members of this department get them somewhat regularly. Maybe the dulcet tones of my typing lull you all into complacency, but I have never received anything like this:

Dear Mark Gottlieb, this question may sound a little harsh, but since I love what R&D has been doing with the most recent set please don't take this as anything but an inquiring question.

Many other people on MagicTheGathering.com, including yourself, have made note that you are not the best player at making decks for more competitive play. I am a Spike (MaRo's legacy will live forever--the Spike, Johnny and Timmy thing) and though I know that casual players are a much larger part of the market I am wondering how you manage to make cards when you aren't that good. I know not everyone has to be Kai, or Chad Ellis it seems, but it seems that your decks, or at least the ones you put up on the site really, really suck. Do you purposely do this because your article is meant to be more casual or is this what you consider to be good?

What this email is trying to get at is play skill important to designing cards. I notice that almost all of the magic players recruited to R&D are very good. Its more of a chicken egg thing than anything else.

Thanks for a response, if you care to give one, have a good day.

Holy smokes, dude! What a beating. There are multiple misconceptions present in that letter, and I'm going to address the two biggest.

1) Mark Gottlieb is bad at Magic

Okay, I know this isn't the most relevant thing to a column supposedly about development, but… well, actually it is pretty darn relevant. Stick with me.

I admit to taking the random potshot at ol' Gottlieb every now and then, but it's more to get a rise out of him the next morning at work than to undermine any credibility he's building with you, the web audience. You see, I know something many of you may not: Mark Gottlieb is very good at Magic.

Early last year, when I was running this very website, a certain Mr. Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar informed me that he had had enough of my tyrannical ways and was moving on to greener pastures. With a heavy heart, I sent out the call for replacements for the talented JMS. The best audition came from one Mark L. Gottlieb, former Wizards of the Coast technical editor. As you know now, he got the job. And then he got a different, more important job as a developer in R&D to boot.

Mark, a graduate from MIT with a joint major in Creative Writing and Electrical Engineering (upon hearing this, coworker Worth Wollpert exclaimed, “Get the f#%* out, for real?!”), worked for a couple of years as an editor for the crossword puzzle department at Random House before getting his first job here at Wizards. And he thinks like the Gamers' Gamer, winning two MIT Mystery Hunts; he also wrote two of the darned things, and did his thesis on puzzles as well. If Creativity and Analysis had a kid, it would look like Mark Gottlieb (poor thing). In other words, the guy's no dummy, and that “lack of dumbness” is evident in his deckbuilding.

Deckbuilding on a non-cutthroat level is an art. Very little of the work has been done for you beforehand by the latest round of tournament winners. You need to come up with all the ingredients on your own, get the mana right, and have the final product be fun and interesting to both you and any prospective opponents. Mark isn't trying to win any Pro Tours, or even PTQs, and we all know that. He's playing the game for what it is at its heart--fun. After playing “serious” decks all day at work, I often log on to Magic Online and load up a “Gottlieb Deck” because I know I'll have a good time and that the deck will more often than not actually work.

Whenever I finish reading what's on most of the “tournament-minded” independent Magic websites out there--after my third helping of “Arc-Slogger,” “Ravager Affinity,” and “Cage, Moth, or Blademaster”--I really appreciate that we have writers like Gottlieb, JMS (back again!), Nate Heiss, Anthony Alongi, and Adrian Sullivan to get us all thinking about how the majority of players experience this wonderful game.

So there. Moving on…

2) You have to be a Pro-level player to work on Magic

You've heard all the names of the players that have been hired here at Wizards. Henry Stern--Top 8 at Worlds 1996. Randy Buehler--Winner, PT Chicago 1997. Worth Wollpert--Top 8, PTLA 1999. Brian Schneider--championship-level deck builder. Matt Place--Winner, PT Mainz. And walking around the halls are Alan Comer (Magic Online programmer), Scott Johns (website manager), and Mike Turian (R&D contractor), who combined have something in the neighborhood of 15 PT Top 8's. There is some serious card-playing talent at this company.

But none of those people have the position “Designer.” Yes, each of the first five names listed has had at least one card of their devising printed, and most of them have many. But they are all “Developers,” the people that test and fix and massage and clean up the cards that the designers make.

Who are the principal designers for Magic?

Mark Rosewater is someone you should be intimately familiar with by now. He went to school for film and communications, worked in Hollywood for a while (most notably on “Roseanne”), and did freelance writing for The Duelist that he eventually parlayed into a full-time job, which eventually turned into the role he has now, Lord High Master of Magic Design. (He's my new boss as of this week, by the way. I promise I won't let him influence me to write more “elegantly.”) Is he a good Magic player? Eh. He'd lose at least four out of every five games he played against Matt Place. Mark's greatest Magic playing moment has something to do with enchanting a Flying Men with Unstable Mutation--records of it are drawn on cave walls in the mountains of France.

Mike Elliott is the other prolific designer in the department and has led as many, if not more, design teams than Rosewater. Was he ever on the Pro Tour? Nope. He was a serious bridge player for a while, and his involvement with Magic was mostly as a casual player and as a dealer in the secondary market. He ran into a few Wizards employees at a game convention in his home state of Arizona back in the mid nineties and impressed them so much with his suggestions and analysis of their games that they gave him a job interview. Needless to say, he passed with flying colors. While his contributions to Magic are many (Slivers, shadow, Incarnations, cool stuff you haven't seen yet in Betrayers of Kamigawa, etc.), he may actually be better known for his design work on some of our other games, like Duel Masters and Neopets. Is he good at Magic? He hardly plays around here, so I can't be sure. But I bet he'd lose at least four out of every five games he played against Mike Turian.

Bill Rose has stopped lead designing sets recently to focus more on his duties as the Vice President of R&D, but he has many cards and expansions under his belt. Bill has a degree in Economics and was the financial manager for the Chemistry Department at the University of Pennsylvania before he came to work here. He is an avid fan of the 52-card deck, and, like Mike Elliott, is very good at bridge. In fact, he met Richard Garfield during a bridge game. Is he good at Magic? He can hold his own, and won the Wizards Online Invitational a couple years ago. But I'd still guess that he'd lose about four games out of five against Brian Schneider.

Brian Tinsman started working at Wizards in Market Research. He really enjoyed playing and dabbling with games, but didn't really have the “street cred” to get into R&D. He eventually became the business manager for R&D, meaning he oversaw a lot of the day-to-day financial and logistical matters of the department. During that time, he kept submitting card ideas to Bill Rose, who was impressed enough to make Brian a full-time designer. Persistence pays off. But is he any good at Magic? His background was in very casual play, and I hardly see him shuffling any decks these days. So I'm pretty certain that he'd lose four games out of every five that he played against Randy Buehler.

What do these four have in common? They aren't the best players in the department by a long shot. What they are are fun-loving gamers that enjoy the game for what it is. Instead of trying to figure out ways to do lethal damage on turn four, they spend their time trying to open up the confines of the game and wow us all with innovations and ideas. Leave the grueling stuff to us developers; the designers are in their own world most of the time. And it works that way.

So if you read that Mark Gottlieb--he of the goofy decks--has actually designed some Magic cards, rest assured that he can beat the pants off of every actual designer we have in a duel.

Personally, I am trying to narrow the gap between design and development. I do a ton of playtesting, I am on development teams, and I write this wonderful development column each week. Yet my job title is “Designer,” and I am the first former Pro Tour player to be assigned the task of leading a design team for an expert-level expansion. The set is codenamed “Delete,” and will be out at the beginning of 2006. Wish me luck. I imagine it will turn out well, considering how strong the team is. The other members are the world-famous Mark Rosewater, Brandon Bozzi of the Magic creative team, …

…and some scrub named Gottlieb.

Last Week's Poll:

Do you plan on playing in States next weekend?
No 6397 82.2%
Yes 1388 17.8%
Total 7785 100.0%

Good luck to everyone this weekend. If you're playing in Virginia, I'll be in the neighborhood dueling at the Star City Power 9 tournament.

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