The Write Stuff
Most of the time in this column I talk about my work as a designer (and occasionally a developer) of Magic. But that is not the only interaction I’ve had with the game. In fact, it’s not even the longest association I’ve had with the game. As of October 30 of this year I’ve been working for Wizards of the Coast for eleven years. I’ve been a writer about Magic even longer. In fact, I have the unique distinction of having written both the most and the longest about Magic. (Mike Flores is nipping at my heels for the number two slot for those that are interested in such trivia.)
While I have a few Usenet posts that someone might dig up, my real start in Magic writing began in January of 2004 when I first pitched my idea for Magic: the Puzzling (my Magic puzzle column – you can check out my latest as part of last week’s The Past Returns theme) to The Duelist. For those unfamiliar, The Duelist was Wizards of the Coast’s first publication dedicated to the game of Magic. It was essentially the paper forerunner of magicthegathering.com.
With my foot in the door as the puzzle columnist, I soon began writing articles for the magazine. (One of my favorites “The Ten Mental Locks of Magic” can be found here in the archives.) That led to me writing chapters for various Magic books (for instance, you can see me wax lyrically about combos in the Fourth Edition Pocket Player’s Guide). That in turn got me to start working on other writing projects. In fact, it was one of my writing assignments that got me face to face with R&D. They needed some beginner text written for some Magic teaching tool (I don’t even remember which one) and I was flown to Renton to work on it. It was during one of these trips that I uttered my fateful “I’d be willing to move to Seattle” line.
Once I starting working for R&D, I became the R&D liaison with The Duelist. This led me to begin writing my first non-puzzle column called “Insider Trading” where I began spilling secrets from behind the curtain. Then, through a strange series of events, I became the editor-in-chief of The Duelist. Note that during that time I still had my full-time job in R&D. The editorship led to my editorial “Mark My Words” column where I set the stage for The Duelist each month. At some point I began writing a humor column called “Extra Pulled” where I designed cards that didn’t quite make it.
|Quick trivia: Question Mark didn’t actually start on Sideboard.com. What site did it start on? Click
While all this was going on, I was also doing time writing for Organized Play. Before I came to Wizards, I not only wrote for The Duelist but I also wrote for the DCI newsletter called The Duelist Companion. (This is, for example, where I wrote up my transcription of the first World Championships.) The Duelist Companion would later become The Duelist Sideboard and then The Sideboard and then Sideboard.com. As I was very involved with Organized Play and the Pro Tour in particular, I wrote for each of these publications. “Insider Trading” would eventually end up in The Sideboard. I even had a trivia column on Sideboard.com called Question Mark. Question Mark would pave the way for the Question Mark trivia contests I did at the Pro Tours and continue to do at the World Championships.
At some point, I ended my stint as the editor-in-chief of The Duelist, which then quickly transformed into a magazine called Topdeck. I had very little to do with Topdeck other than Magic: the Puzzling which appeared in it each month. In fact, other than some writing on sideboard.com, I was at a low ebb of my writing. When Topdeck shut down, Question Mark was the only recurring writing I was doing. That is until Bill Rose assigned me a little project. One of our corporate agendas was to make better use of the Internet. Magic was going to get a real website. I was put in charge of creating the vision for it.
Do You Believe In magicthegathering.com?
My college degree was a Bachelor of Science in Communications (Yes, I got a BS in Communications) from Boston University. When I started working at Wizards of the Coast I never thought my college training would ever become relevant. Little did I know. I edited and wrote for a magazine, I directed, produced, edited, and wrote videos (such as “Showdown in New York”), I oversaw video production, I did commentary, and I got to map out the vision and structure for a website.
What this meant was that while I was creating the structure for magicthegathering.com, I had a chance to tap into my communication background. One of the many things that meant was that I had to make sure the site was stressing our corporate advantage. What is our corporate advantage? We make Magic. We know things no one else knows because we’re the ones that actually create it. From a web site standpoint, this meant that we had the ability to create content that no one else could. To truly succeed, we had to capitalize on that.
This meant that the site had to have a number of “behind the scenes” columns. At the time, I felt two was the right number. (We would later add a third with “Taste the Magic.”) One would be a development column and one would be a design column. I knew who I wanted to write the design column right away, me. I was itching to write about Magic more and no topic seemed cooler to write about than design. I think I even came up with the title “Making Magic” that same day. All of this is really just a lead in to the following question: What does it take to write this column?
For starters, I take the fact that “Making Magic” is the design column very seriously. I feel it is my job to give the readers an insight into Magic design. I do this in several ways:
The Inside Scoop: The first category is the most obvious. A design column for magicthegathering.com has to, of course, talk about Magic design. But I have to dig deeper than just what we design. I have to talk about how we design and why we design. I have to walk you through how different designs evolved and the lessons that shaped them. I have to explain our design philosophy and talk about how it trickles down through the brand. I need to introduce the designers and give you an in depth look at each team. I have to be the definitive source on Magic design. If you want to learn about how we make Magic cards or Magic expansions or Magic blocks, “Making Magic” has to be the place you turn to.
The Nuts and Bolts: Another role of a design column is that of a teacher. If I want you to appreciate what we are doing it is my responsibility to teach you enough to be able to recognize it. One of the major reasons we have behind-the-scenes columns is because we spend so much time perfecting the details, it’s important to us that our audience have the sophistication to appreciate them. As an example, we started “Taste the Magic” because we realized that there wasn’t a venue for allowing the audience to understand all the work that was being done by the creative team. Having a voice to point out facets each week allows us to educate the audience and in turn enhance the product because that audience now has better appreciation. The same is true for “Making Magic.” The fact that the Magic audience now talks about Timmy, Johnny and Spike or how linear a mechanic is or how a color’s philosophy is represented means that I’ve been doing my job.
Representing Design: This is a little subtler than the first two categories. “Making Magic” is the design column. One of the ways that it communicates about design is by acting like design. “Making Magic” functions much like design does. It’s very creative. It’s ever changing. It builds upon itself. It creates different styles for different audiences yet it has a consistent voice and feel. It can be both surprising and predictable. It evokes strong responses from the audience. It shocks. It entertains. In short, it represents Magic design.
The important thing for me is that reading “Making Magic” helps the reader feel connected to Magic design.
But how does it get created? Interestingly, a lot like a Magic expansion gets made.
#1: Figure Out What The Column/Set Is About – A very simple novice mistake in both writing and card design is to start before you really know what you’re doing. I’m not saying that you should have everything figured out, but you need to at least know the big picture. What is the column/set about? For a column, that means knowing your topic. For an expansion, that means knowing your theme.
I’ve been asked on occasion why we have a theme week every other week. The answer is because we value our writers and are kind-hearted. Theme weeks are the lifeline for the writers. It’s hard to come up with a new topic week after week after week. The themes give guidance. (A.k.a., restrictions breed creativity – I snuck it in again!) Other than the one week I announced Unhinged was real, I’ve been on theme every theme week since magicthegathering.com started. I can say without hesitation that the theme weeks are much easier.
Every other week I’m left to my own devices. Sometimes I’ll hit upon a topic that’s reached some threshold. Sometimes I try out weird things I’ve been wanting to do. Sometimes (usually around when sets are released) I’ll stick close to the focus of the site. Sometimes I get around to doing things I said “one day I’ll do.” This week, for instance, came about because over the years I’ve gotten a number of emails asking me about how this column gets put together. I decided a while back that when I got a slot I’d dedicate a week to the topic. Six months later, a hole opened up and I remembered this topic.
Many of my more offbeat columns stemmed from ideas I came up with that I let gestate until I figured out how best to use the idea. For example, I had the idea of a choose-your-own-adventure column for almost a year until I got the idea of using it to show what my day was like. Likewise my idea for an all-picture column sat for six months until I realized I could use it to give the tour of Wizards of the Coast that I had wanted to do.
For an expansion, this step is all about figuring out what area you’re planning to bend the set around. Is the theme playing around with a certain mechanic? A certain aspect of the game? A certain zone? Is the theme based on flavor? Is the theme based on a motif? In a nutshell, when players first hear about your set, what will they say? “Oh, it’s a set about _______ .”
#2: Work Out Your Structure – Okay, you know what your column/set is about. The next step is figuring out the framework. How are you going to approach your topic/theme? What do you have to say or show off about it? In art, for example, most painters will sketch out a rough idea of what they are thinking about. The sketch is often simple and purposefully leaves out details, but it gives the artist a general overview of where they’re going. And yes, as an artist gets better (as does a writer or designer) this process gets more internalized. In the early days as both a writer and a designer I used to do outlines. They had the same function as the sketches as they gave me a sense of what went where. Over the years, I have learned to internalize much of what I used to write out. But my advice to anyone beginning to learn a creative art is to make use of writing down your preplanning step. The act of seeing what you plan is invaluable.
For a column, this step is about figuring out what points I need to make. For instance, for my numerous color philosophy articles (both the monocolor cycle and the dual color cycle) I mapped out an outline that I planned to follow for each part of the cycle. In my column on bad cards (“When Cards Go Bad”) I mapped out what the reasons were. For “Timmy, Johnny, and Spike” and “Timmy, Johnny, and Spike Revisited”, I figured out what qualities I wanted to discuss about each psychographic.
For an expansion, this is the part where I start to piece together the big picture. In what ways are we playing with our theme? What mechanics (both keyworded and not) will the set have at its disposal? What is this set going to do that will make it play differently (especially in limited)? It is also at this point that I begin to think through what cycles I might want and get a sense of card type percentages (for instance, what percentage of the cards will be creatures?).
#3: Make Sure You Have Some Goodies – Both a set and a column are memorable for three reasons. First is the topic. What was the column/set about? If the answer is something provocative (like, say, what you think of Type I or why you abandoned all demons in the game) or interesting (basic card design rules or how your design mistakes relate to problems with your love life), the audience will remember it. The second question is structure. How do you present your column or set? Is it something novel (like a collection of letters or a short story)? If so, your audience might remember. But there is a third important way: Memorable details. Maybe it’s a long stretched-out joke or just a few really awesome cards. The point is that people remember the highlights. If you want your column or set to be talked about years down the road, you have to make sure that you stick in individual things that are memorable.
What this means to my column is that if the topic or structure aren’t going to carry the day I have to be conscious what cool thing I’m going to do in each column. Sometimes the column is built around the cool thing (like, say, a preview card) and sometimes the cool thing is just a part of the larger whole.
In an expansion, this means making sure you have some cool one-ofs. That is, cards that by themselves will just get noticed. Sizzle can also be beefed up with a cool cycle (especially at rare) that draws attention to itself. The point of this category is that you have to understand pretty early what’s going to carry your column/set. The first two categories will do a lot of the job, but not all of it. A set is defined by its most memorable cards.
#4: Winging It – Planning is good. Planning every little detail is not. Part of the joy of any creative endeavor (and writing and card design fit in to this) is to allow the artist a chance to spontaneously express themselves. The reason for this is that the conscious mind is simply not as good as the unconscious mind at creating things. Speculative thinking and lateral thinking reside in different halves of the brain. The part that plots and calculates just isn’t the same as the part that goes “what if?”
This is why I like to write my columns from the cuff. Yes, I have a map and I know where I’m supposed to end up, but I like to do a little joyriding along the way (my column is metaphorically a car, the stack is metaphorically a car – is everything metaphorically a car?). Often this leads me to places that I never planned on going. But that’s okay. Some of my best creations have been things that I started with a germ of an idea and then nurtured it without any set direction. (Both split cards and hybrid cards, for example, began as crazy brainstorms, and these are my two favorite mechanics that I’ve ever done.)
Why have I been writing for as long as I have? I estimate that I’ve written over one million words about Magic. Why have I done so much? Because I love writing (don’t worry, I love design too). It’s fun for me. I love the process. I love the end result. I love the feedback I get for it. (Okay, I love some of the feedback I get for it.) If the process isn’t fun, you will eventually grow tired and give up. This is why artists say you have to love your art. Art is hard work. If you don’t enjoy it, you simply won’t be able to stay up with it.
#5: Lots of Polish - Wait, you’re not done yet. Once you’ve finished your first pass, it’s time to review what you’ve done. If possible, by the way, give yourself some time before you do. The fresher perspective you have the better your internal review will be. The condensed time of a weekly deadline keeps me from doing more than one or two rewrites on a column. Expansions, on the other hand, are constantly reworked and retweaked. And this is before development gets their hands on it.
The most important part of the review process is being honest with yourself. The best writers and designers are the ones that can call their own baby ugly. I’ve had columns that I’ve gone back through and hacked up with a machete. I’ve had sets that I’ve completely started over with. My favorite book, “A Whack On The Side Of The Head” (by Roger von Oech) has a sequel entitled “A Kick In The Seat Of The Pants.” In it, Von Oech explains how the creative process is broken up into four roles: the explorer, artist, judge and warrior. The first seeks out the good ideas. The second fancies it up. The third figures out whether it’s worthy. And the fourth fights for it once you’ve decided it is. Column writing and set design require these four roles.
One of the most important lessons that any creative person learns early in life is that creative work is hard. Very hard. The end result can be rewarding so it’s worth it, but the initial barrier can be quite intimidating. It’s easy to get an idea. It’s hard work to execute it.
One of the reasons I’m happy to have my column is that I enjoy writing. And I know that the only way to improve is to constantly keep doing it. Having a weekly column with a weekly deadline makes sure I keep up with it. And it allows you, my readers, to have a better insight into what it is I do and what makes Magic design tick. Hopefully, we’re all rewarded for the process.
That’s all I got today. I hope the peek behind “Making Magic” was interesting.
Join me next week when the yolk’s on me.
Until then, may you find something in life you enjoy as much as I enjoy writing this column.