Finding the One, Part 1

Posted in Making Magic on November 18, 2013

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

From time to time I like to do articles in a series I've dubbed "The Rosewater Files." These articles are my personal ones where I share some aspect of my life and tie it into some aspect of design. As a holistic thinker, I don't see these two parts of my life as separate, but rather as intertwined elements that define who I am. As such, I feel like giving you all a glimpse of one aspect of my personal life will help you better understand how I approach my designs.

Here is the cream of the crop of my previous Rosewater Files:

One of the questions I always get is where my ideas come from. How do I find the cards and mechanics I need to fill my sets? As you will see, they come from a wide variety of different places in a wide variety of different ways. I am going to walk through numerous sets I've led in chronological order to explore how some aspect of each came to be. While doing that, I'm also going to tell a longer story about how I found the most important thing in my personal life, my wife Lora. Today and next week is the story of how we ended up married. (You can read about the wedding in the link above.)

I've talked a great deal about how I got to Wizards of the Coast (here's how I started playing Magic and then how I used that love of the game to get a job making it), so let's begin our story with how Lora ended up there. Lora grew up in Boise, Idaho. After she was out of school, she came to an important conclusion: she didn't want to live in Boise anymore, so she did something that impresses me to this day. She took out a map, randomly picked a spot on it (Santa Rosa, California) and then moved there.

Lora had been working at a Home Depot, so she was able to use her connections to line up a job at a store near where she was moving. Other than that, she had nothing else lined up. She knew no one in the city. She didn't have a place to live. She just loaded up her car with all her belongings and drove there.

After several years, she decided that Santa Rosa wasn't for her so she started looking for other cities on the West Coast. Her mother's family had grown up in Seattle, and while her mother no longer lived there, she did have family in the city, so Lora packed up and moved to the Emerald City.

Lora decided she wanted to try a corporate job rather than a retail one so she began temping. This eventually led to her getting a fulltime job at a company that made bricks and other components for building. Lora worked there for a number of years. It was a secure job with decent pay and good benefits, but it was boring. Lora decided she wanted more out of a job so she left secure employment to start temping again. One day, she was told to report to a young company called Wizards of the Coast.

Lora showed up bright and early in her suit. This was May of 1995 and Wizards was as far from corporate as a company could be. Most of the employees were gamers and treated work much like they would treat a game convention. Many were dressed casually, in t-shirts and jeans. Others were more flamboyant dressed in what, to Lora, looked like costumes. One of the first people she met was wearing leather pants (if you guessed former Events Manager Steve Bishop, you get a cookie).

Lora was taken aback at first and almost called the temp agency to request a different job, but decided she'd give it a chance. The company quickly grew on her as a place where people loved what they did and felt free to express themselves. Lora did excellent work and was soon offered a fulltime position.

I had been hired as a developer, but what I really wanted to do was design. Tempest was my chance to prove what I was capable of. I had an idea for something real cool to add to the game—draw triggers. These were cards that had an effect when you drew them. I had designed a notebook full of really cool cards. There just was one problem: there was no way to monitor it. While it would work fine in a video game, it just couldn't work in face-to-face Magic (the full story of that mechanic and how it eventually ended up in Magic is here).

I tried for months to make draw triggers work but eventually I realized that it wasn't a problem I was going to be able to crack. The set already had the shadow mechanic taken from a set Mike Elliott had made before he came to Wizards, but I needed another keyword. And while I liked shadow, I knew it wasn't sexy enough to be the new thing we could sell the set with. I needed an innovative keyword that was going to pop.

I have a saying that I often use. "Before looking outside of the box, make sure you first look inside the box." One day, I decided that, instead of coming up with something new, I should look at what the set already had in it. I did, and I discovered a card made by Richard. It allowed you to draw a card, and if you paid extra mana when you played it, you could keep the original spell in your hand. It was really cool and had played well (partly because the mechanic was good and partly because we really didn't understand how to cost the ability and thus it was somewhat overpowered).


So the card's ability got promoted to a keyword and became buyback. Many years later, we did a poll on what was the players' favorite Magic mechanic and buyback won the poll (followed by flashback—we'll get there).

My first meeting with Lora was not actually with Lora but rather with her desk. You see, I was freelancing for Wizards and from time to time they would bring me up to Seattle. By day, I would work on whatever project brought me there, and by night I would goof around with the guys in R&D. It was during these late-night play sessions that I would roam the rest of the office.

One night I found the perfect desk. The owner of the desk had a candy bowl that anyone could take candy from. It was kept well stocked so I would always swing by to have a sweet or two. While eating the candy I would often play with the puzzles on the desk. The owner left them out for people to try and solve. There were all sorts of puzzles and I spent much time solving each and every one. Finally, the most important item—a Nerf bow and arrow.

For those who do not know the history of Nerf warfare at Wizards, it is a long and storied tale. Often at night, when R&D had most of the building to ourselves, we would have epic Nerf battles. My item of choice was the Nerf bow and arrow from this wonderful desk I had discovered. Each arrow was marked with a little red heart (the only real clue that the owner of the desk was female) and I was always careful to make sure I retrieved every arrow before I returned the bow each night after its use.

There were many reasons that drew me to eventually take up the idea that I was willing to move to Seattle and work at Wizards, but I like to believe a small part of it was the idea that I could work somewhere that had a desk like this one. Candy, puzzles, Nerf weaponry—I didn't know the mysterious stranger whose desk it was but knowing that someone like that could work here made Wizards feel even more attractive.

One of the goals of Unglued was that it was supposed to break boundaries. A silver border meant that any rules Magic had previously made could be ignored. Anything—anything!—was on the table. With that in mind, I decided that the key to doing the unthinkable was to ask anyone and everyone if they had an idea. I wasn't restricting myself to R&D but anyone in the company who touched Magic in any way.

I set up meetings and then would ask the following question: "What is something we could do but we've never chosen to?" I found that when you asked people about the crazy ideas they'd come up with over the years that ideas started flowing. One of the meetings I set up was with a section of the company we call CAPS. They are the people responsible for taking the cards and physically laying them out and printing them. They take R&D's ideas and turn them into a physical product.

"Okay," I began, "Tell me something we can do with printing that we've never taken advantage of?" The people in the meeting started spitting out answers. One stuck with me. Cards are printed on a giant sheet and then cut into separate cards. That meant illustrations could be larger than a single card. Or elements of one card could appear on other cards. If we were breaking rules, we could think bigger than a single card and start to think about how cards interact with one another visually.


I left that meeting full of ideas. One of them would lead to the most popular card of the set, B.F.M. If we could print illustrations bigger than one card, that meant we could make cards bigger than one card. This idea of a card that was two cards led to B.F.M. Once I had the idea, I then asked myself what card would justify having to be on two cards. My answer was a creature so big that it simply couldn't fit onto a single card.

I'm Rubber, You're Glue

This printing technique also allowed another joke. The card Free-for-All shows a bar brawl between leprechauns and pink elephants. One of the leprechauns is hit so hard that he is knocked off the card and onto another card, a white enchantment called I'm Rubber, You're Glue. (You'll note that the two cards have the same artist—Claymore J. Flapdoodle.)

My first day at Wizards was October 30, 1995. I started at the end of the month because the way the health benefits were set up, they kicked in on the first, first day of a month you were working. By starting at the end of the month, you could have your health benefits start right away. I started October 30 because I wasn't planning to miss Halloween at Wizards.

Of course, I came in costume—one of my own creation. I was dressed as a superhero, complete with cape all of it in black. The only white was on my face and an "MM" insignia on my chest. I was Master Mime, the world's first mime superhero. Don't bother Googling it. Master Mime was my own creation. The costume was basically to set up the following joke. I would walk up to someone and say something. They would reply, "I thought mimes couldn't talk" to which I would reply, with my hands on my hips in my best Superman pose, "I'm no ordinary mime."

Yes, I was tickled pink by the fact that a mime superhero would have the power to speak. Lora's first memory of me was in this costume. She would later tell me that she had no idea what I was. I have never been very good at first impressions and that would hold true with Lora. Her first thought—that new guy in R&D's kind of weird.

Lora, by the way, dressed as Pocahontas.

I don't remember how this happened, but the Urza's Destiny design team had a single person on it—me. I think Magic had grown a little and we hadn't increased the size of Magic R&D, so we were stretched a little thin. If I had to guess, I probably volunteered to do it myself and the head designer at the time, a man named Joel Mick, said sure.

Back in the day, each block had two named keyword mechanics, and for Urza's Saga block that was cycling and echo (both, interestingly, had originally been in Tempest design, cycling designed by Richard Garfield and echo by Mike Elliott). As Urza's Destiny was the third set in the block, I was eager to find ways to further evolve both cycling and echo.

After much study, I came to the conclusion that the area where the two overlapped was that both sent cards to the graveyard, cycling from the hand and echo from the battlefield. If I could find a way to line up the two, I could design something that could overlap with both. My solution was to move cycling from the hand to the battlefield. To do this, I designed cards with "cycling from play." Just like cycling, you could pay and send it to the graveyard to draw a new card.

Since both cycling and echo went to the graveyard from the battlefield, I could make use of a mechanic, in this case death triggers (usually, creatures that do something when they die), that would overlap both mechanics.

Plague Dogs

My design ended up being very tight and allowed a lot of interaction. Unfortunately, I made one grave error, which is that I never identified the "cycling from play" cards as being "cycling from play," so a vast amount of the audience never got the significance. In fact, it was a running joke in R&D that whenever a new member started, someone would point out the "cycling from play" cards from Urza's Destiny and the new person would always reply (much to the amusement of everyone in the Pit except me) "Oh, I never noticed that."

Lora had a bunch of different jobs in the early days at Wizards. At some point, someone recognized that Lora was very good with people, so they started putting her at the front desk, where she could greet people as they came into the office.

Meanwhile, Peter Adkison, the then-CEO of Wizards, had gotten the idea that Wizards of the Coast should be getting into the games retail business. The company had always believed that organized play at the store level was important. What if we got in the business of being the local store to make sure it happened? This coincided with the boom of Pokémon (during the early days, Wizards distributed Pokémon in the United States), which meant that Wizards had some money to spend.

Peter knew we were getting into a business we did not know well, so he came up with the idea of turning the lobby of Wizards into a tournament center as a testing ground. This way, we could get firsthand knowledge of what we were getting into. This meant that Lora's job as the front-desk receptionist would get a lot more complicated, as she was helping to oversee the running of the tournament center. Lora was excited by the challenge and dove in to help.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the company, a series of events transpired that led to a female employee needing a reception job. She was given the nighttime job (the tournament center was open until midnight) but due to her being a single mom, she requested that human resources give her the daytime job instead. Much to Lora's chagrin, they agreed, and Lora was swapped to the night job.

The tournament center was much busier during the day than at night, so Lora's job went from being a highly interactive one to one where she was sitting around with little to do.

For eight years, I attended every Pro Tour. My job was to oversee the feature matches during the Swiss days, and the video production, including the commentary, during the final day. Part of running feature matches was that I was the judge overseeing the four tables that made up the feature match area. Much of the time, this meant I got a front-row seat to watch the most compelling matches of the tournament.

Many of the feature matches were exciting, but the game has enough variance that not every match was as compelling as the rest. Usually, when one player fell behind, I had a little game I would play. In my head, I would grant those players special powers and then figure out what they could do with them. Perhaps they had the ability to choose a free second target. Maybe they got to put all dying creatures into their hands. It was always some ability to allow them to catch up.

One of my favorite abilities to grant players was the deathlord ability, to be able to cast creatures from their graveyards (this ability, by the way, was originally on Erebos, God of the Dead, in Theros). Eventually, the ability branched off and allowed players to cast instants and sorceries from their graveyards. I called this ability gravecast. My assumption was that they would only cast each spell once, although at the time I didn't think about it officially being exiled.

This little game definitely had an influence on the Vanguard format. In addition, it helped me think about new ways to play Magic. Years later, I was working on the design of Odyssey. I knew it was going to be a graveyard set so I was looking for interesting things to do with the graveyard when I remembered this effect from the little game I played in my mind. I ended up going with the instants and sorceries version because (1) I felt the creature version would be too repetitive (I would later solve this problem with the unearth mechanic in Shards of Alara) and (2) I knew I could make token makers, which would allow me essentially to have some creatures.


The funniest thing is, if you had asked me what I was doing at the Pro Tour when I played this little game, I would have said I was just goofing around.

Part of setting up a tournament center was creating a LAN (or local area network) where multiple computers are joined together to allow them to play games together. Note that this was before such a thing was easily doable on the internet. The R&D group loved to go down to the LAN late night and play Warcraft (the precursor to World of Warcraft). Just one problem. I didn't like playing Warcraft.

Sometimes, I'd stay at my desk and do work. Other times, I would wander down to the tournament center. I would peek in on the R&D guys but had little interest in watching them play, so I'd find people to talk to. The one person who was always there was the receptionist. Her name was Lora.

Mirrodin needed one more mechanic. We had Equipment. We had affinity for artifacts. We had imprint. It didn't need to be splashy. The first three were all pretty splashy. It definitely had to go onto nonartifacts, and ideally on spells. It would be nice if it could serve as a mana sink later in the game once players got more mana.

Often, when there's a hole, the key is to define what you do and don't want. I often talk about how restrictions breed creativity. This is very true in hole filling. When you are trying to get designers to find a solution, the more detail you can give them, up to a point, helps. I spent weeks poring through the requirements.

The handoff to development was getting close enough that I needed to get the final mechanic, so we had time to play with it and get it into shape. The clock was ticking and I knew I had to find an answer.

One of the things I enjoy about my job is that the hours are good. I get to come home every night and be with my family. I don't have to work weekends and have an hour for lunch every day. The thing is, though, that my job doesn't require me to be at work. If I have a problem to solve, my brain is constantly working on it, even if it isn't the forefront subject on my mind.

One night, I got into bed, my mind chugging along as normal. I fell asleep, but my subconscious wasn't about to let go of the topic, so I started dreaming about it. And then, in my dream, I solved the problem. I very clearly remember exclaiming "That's it!" and then waking up. I quickly found something to write it down on.

And that is how entwine came to be.


Through our late-night chats, Lora and I started becoming friends. I would swing by reception most nights and say hello. We would talk about various things. One topic was that Lora was trying to help me with a girl I was having problems with. She was a freelance technical writer I had asked out. I was actually shocked when she said okay.

We had what I thought of as a wonderful first date when she informed me that she was not interested in dating me, but she had very much enjoyed my company and wanted to do future things with me but only as a friend. (You can read more about this and the mistake it led to in my dating article.) I stubbornly refused to believe there wasn't a possibility so I continued to spend time with her, believing that as she got to know me she'd change her mind.

Most people might look back and say that I had horrible timing. I met my future wife and I spent the time talking with her about another girl. In retrospect, I think it was a blessing in disguise. I had a horrible track record with women and I believe a lot of it was my own self-sabotage. I would psych myself out and not act normally. But because I wasn't even thinking of Lora as dating material, I acted normally and Lora got to know the real me rather than some persona I was adopting trying to get her to like me. (There's a lesson in there for you, kids.)

All of this happened during the spring and summer of 1996.

The first rule of Fight Club is: "You do not talk about Fight Club." (Don't tell anyone I told you.) The first rule of Un-design is: "It has to be a card we couldn't print in black border." I was working on the design for Unhinged and I was discovering that the Venn Diagram between the first rule of Un-design and simple designs was small. How exactly do you do something simple that black border can't do?

So I solved this problem by giving myself a challenge: Design a vanilla Un-card. At first blush, that sounded like an impossibility, but I reminded myself that I was allowed to break rules. Okay, vanilla meant that the rules text had to be blank. What else did I have to work with? Name, card type and subtype, rarity symbol, artist credit, power/toughness, collector number, legal text. There were a lot of things. "I can do this," I said to myself.

I went through one by one and challenged myself to do something with it we had never done before. Eventually I got to power and toughness. What rule could I break? And only then and there, when I as forcing myself to break that rule, was I able to find an answer. What if I break the rule that power and toughness have to be whole numbers?

I started with ½ because that seemed the simplest. From there, I came up with the idea for Little Girl. Clearly there were Humans weaker than 1/1. What if we represented that on a card? Once I adopted the idea of using ½ (I realized that ½ was all I needed), I started spreading it to different powers and toughnesses and then other aspects of the card.

Interestingly, ½ proved to be a little harder to parse than I had thought, but it still allowed us to do something black border would never touch in a way that didn't require a lot of words.

In August of 1996, the Magic World Championships was held at the Renton offices of Wizards of the Coast. It was an open event to the public and my dad and his good friend Don (who both played Magic) came up to Renton for the event. They had a fUn-filled number of days playing in a lot of side events and watching the World Championships (Tom Chanpheng from Australia would go on to defeat Mark Justice from the United States to become the third-ever Magic World Champion and would win a card called 1996 World Champion, of which only one exists in the world).

During that time, I introduced my dad and Don to all the various people I worked with (they had both met most of R&D during our numerous trips to my dad's house in Lake Tahoe). One of those people they had a chance to meet was Lora. She was working the front desk, taking care of the hundreds and hundreds of visitors.

At the end, I was saying goodbye to my dad and Don, when Don and I had the following conversation:

Don: That Lora girl, she's very nice.
Me: Yes, she is.
Don: You are aware she likes you.
Me: What do you mean?
Don: She and I had a chance to chat and it's very clear she's interested in you.
Me: No, we're just friends.
Don: That's not what it seemed like to me.

That one little conversation changed everything.

Join me next week as I continue the story of how my wife and I got together, along with more stories of how different Magic mechanics came to be.

Until then, may you have (or soon make) stories of your own to tell.

Drive to Work #70 & #71 – Odyssey, Part 2 and Part 3

This week, I continue my look at the design of Odyssey with Part 2 and Part 3 of a four-part series.

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