A Boy and his Cube

Posted in Latest Developments on January 1, 2010

By Tom LaPille

Tom LaPille makes things. Some of the things he makes are card sets, like Dark Ascension and Born of the Gods. Sometimes he makes stories, too. Sometimes he makes unexpected things, like 16th-century Japanese clothing. He's probably making something right now.

I've done a lot of Magic writing. I wrote a column for StarCityGames.com for nine months, in which I wrote as Tom the Magic Player trying to help others get better at Magic. I've now written Latest Developments for a year, and I write it as Tom the Professional Game Developer talking about his craft. Origin Stories Week gave me a chance to move away from that perspective, and I wrote "A Boy And His Cube" as Tom LaPille the Human Who Likes Magic. It's my favorite article that I wrote this year, and I'm proud to show it to you again!

This article originally ran on June 5, 2009.

Ten years ago, I first read about the people who make Magic and dreamed about how much fun being one of them must be. Two years ago, I decided that I would try to make that dream a reality. One year ago, I started working for Wizards.

Of course, nothing is that simple. There have been many significant events during my journey as a Magic player. I could talk about the day my seventh-grade friend Andrew introduced me to the game in 1997. I could talk about the Odyssey Prerelease that hooked me on the rush of big tournaments. I could talk about the 2002 Amateur Championships at Gen Con, where I placed fourth out of 364 players in the first constructed tournament I traveled more than twenty minutes for. I could talk about the second half of 2005, in which I won my first Pro Tour Qualifier, played in a Pro Tour, and made the Top 8 of Grand Prix–Charlotte. These were all formative events. However, they don't explain why I decided to be a Magic developer or how I had a few skill ranks of Magic development before I started working here. To explain that, we must travel back in time about four years to my fateful first meeting with the Cube, a geometric shape that changed the course of my life.

    I Meet a Cube!

The first time I encountered a Cube was Grand Prix–Salt Lake City in 2005. Gabe Walls had just come into a great deal of money, and he used part of that windfall to purchase single copies of 400 or so of the most powerful cards in Magic's history and sleeve them, then put them in a box that he brought to the Grand Prix. From that box, he generated random fifteen-card packs filled with awesome Magic cards that he and his friends could draft from.

I saw fascinating things every time I walked by the crowd of people around Gabe and his Cube. Saturday morning, I saw Masashi Oiso building a sick mono-red Limited deck with Jackal Pup, Cursed Scroll, Ball Lightning, Fireblast, and Grim Lavamancer. Later in that draft, I saw Antonino DeRosa with an Ancestral Recall imprinted on an Isochron Scepter, then later found out out that he had somehow lost that game. The next day I watched Kenji Tsumura curve a first-turn Sol Ring and Umezawa's Jitte into a second-turn Tradewind Rider against a helpless Gabe Walls. These were not the sort of things that usually happened when one drafted.

I also saw many board states that looked like Constructed decks had fallen through time warps. Everywhere I looked, cards from different eras were interacting in fascinating and unexpected ways. Among other things, Recurring Nightmare looped Kokushos and Yoseis into and out of play, a Tooth and Nail found Verdant Force and Simic Sky Swallower, and a mono-blue control deck used Vedalken Shackles to deal with the stragglers after a Nevinyrral's Disk exploded.

Most of all, however, I saw people smiling. Everyone who played with Gabe's Cube left the experience a happier person, and that was enough to convince me that there was something awesome going on. I briefly entertained the idea of making one myself so that I could have and create for others the same kind of fun that Gabe was creating around himself. However, the idea of assembling all the cards scared me off. I didn't have the collection to do it without spending a lot of money, so I filed the idea of building my own Cube away for later.

Let's flash forward one year. During that year, I learned how to trade and amassed an impressive collection of cards. At first my goal was only to make sure that my Constructed decks would never again be limited by card access, but I kept going after that until I had amassed more cards than I knew what to do with. I flirted with the idea of becoming a card dealer until I pulled the idea of building a Cube out of my mental file. Before, I didn't have anywhere near the collection I would need. It was now clear to me that I had exactly that collection. I chose to take the plunge.

    I Make a Cube!

I started sketching out my Cube by answering the big questions. My first choice was that I would exclude some cards for excessive power. I had seen cards like Sol Ring and Black Lotus essentially ruin games in others' Cubes, so I excluded them. Once I had decided that, I figured out how many artifacts, lands, multicolored cards, and cards of each color I would include and started scouring Gatherer for the best Magic had to offer. I was very conscious of each color's mana curve from the very beginning, so I went through each color by mana cost in both creatures and spells. After that first pass, I went through years and years of tournament deck lists to catch any tournament cards that I had missed. Once I had a list, I started to assemble the physical cards I would need.

Don't call us, we'll call you

The first rewards of all this effort came in August of 2006 at Gen Con. Sunday at large conventions is often slower than the other days, and by early afternoon on that Sunday lots of people I knew had nothing to do and were idly moping around the trading card game hall. I fixed this by breaking out the very first version of my Cube for an eight-person draft. Wacky things involving cards from every era of Magic happened, and the games were interesting and tricky. I was sold.

As I worked on my Cube more, I learned many things about Magic development. Early on, I discovered that absurdly powerful cards can be fun as long as they require some kind of investment. I was happy with my choice to omit cards like Black Lotus and Sol Ring that were awesome for any deck, but I began to add cards like Balance that were interesting because they require some setup despite being very powerful. Later, I learned the value of building in themes when I put almost every Swamp-matters card I could find into black and tons of Jokulhaups-like effects into red. I also learned how much more fun some players had when I added seemingly random cards like Life from the Loam that could have entire decks built around them. These are lessons that still serve me to this day, and I would never have learned them if I hadn't built a Cube.

    The Cube Makes Me!

Let's flash forward another year to the summer before my last year of undergraduate study. For the last three summers, I had worked summer internships in fields that I was considering making a career in. The first of those was a short mathematical research fellowship working on knot polynomials, the second was a statistics and database programming job, and the third was a mutual fund analysis position. I was pretty good at each of them, but for various reasons they each left me feeling less than satisfied.

The collective experience of those three summers taught me that I was going to need to enjoy the work I did to feel great about my life overall. When I thought about the things that I liked doing, Magic leaped to the front. I was willing to drive many hours to Pro Tour Qualifiers and fly across the country to play in Grand Prix. I practiced for hours every week both on Magic Online and in real life. I had also spent tons of time and money to make an awesome Cube. I loved working on it, and I also loved watching everyone around me have fun while they played with it. One does not spend these amounts of time on something that one does not enjoy.

The next question was how I could get paid to play Magic. The Pro Tour is great fun, but not exactly a long-term career path, so instead I decided that I would work for Wizards as a Magic developer. I still felt a little bit silly about this because it seemed like I would be throwing away my potential to change the world for the better by working on a mere game, but I understood that I needed to be happy and I thought working on Magic would be fun.

The turning point in my quest came the night before Pro Tour–Valencia began. I was walking around the tournament hall and taking in the experience, and it overwhelmed me. There were hundreds of people in this room who came from countries all over the world to play a game at the highest level. There were also many players from around Europe who weren't qualified but came just to play Magic in the public events all weekend. The Super Friday Night Magic Sealed Deck tournament had four hundred players, and it didn't even have great prizes. Those players just wanted to play Magic. I watched them build their Sealed decks, and I was overwhelmed by the number of people who were smiling. Everyone was happy. It was glorious to behold, and without the people at Wizards back in Seattle pouring their hearts into this game, it couldn't have happened.

That was the exact moment when working on Magic changed from a selfish pipe dream to something noble. Magic makes the world a happier place, and there is nothing selfish about being part of the creation of that happiness. I knew right then that I was supposed to be a Magic developer.

Almost immediately after I returned home from that Pro Tour, I was offered a columnist position on StarCityGames.com. I took it, then used those credentials to get an interview with Magic Ramp;D director Aaron Forsythe at the 2007 World Championships about the Cube that was used at the Magic Invitational. In that interview, I attempted to demonstrate to Aaron that I was a serious student of Magic development. My thank-you email to him asked about how one becomes a Magic developer, and his response was to invite me to apply for a Magic development internship that would begin in the summer of 2007. I applied for that position successfully, and in June of 2007 I drove from Ohio to Seattle to start it.

    Thanks, Cube!

You're reading this on magicthegathering.com, so you know the story ended happily. I am now a full time Magic developer. The job is every bit as awesome as I thought it would be. Fellow Magic developer Erik Lauer remarked a few days ago that it's possible that the best career move I ever made was to make a Cube. I had to think about that statement for a while, but now I think he is correct.

By the time you read this, I'll already be in Hawaii doing event coverage for Pro Tour–Honolulu. The last time I was in Hawaii for a Pro Tour I had no idea that my Cube would have carried me this far in three years. I feel very fortunate to be here, but I also put in a lot of work to make it happen. I expect that my experience in Hawaii this weekend will be an excellent reminder of why I chose to be here!

    Last Week's Polls
Do you want me to finish the rares in this style?

I got tons of feedback from you that you love Multiverse columns. I have nearly as much fun writing them as you all do reading them, so it's likely that I'll make articles like last week's article into a regular feature for every set. I will finish off the Alara Reborn rares soon.

Have you drafted triple Alara Reborn?
I have not drafted with Alara Reborn.181835.0%
Yes, in paper Magic.134125.8%
No. I have only drafted Shards / Conflux / Reborn.104420.1%
No, but I have drafted Shards / Reborn / Reborn.4859.3%
Yes, on Magic Online.3877.5%
Yes, both in paper and online.1162.2%

Thanks for the feedback on this poll. I was curious how popular triple small set drafts were in paper Magic, and now I have an answer!

    This Week's Poll

Will you (or did you already) watch the live webcast from Pro Tour–Honolulu on Sunday June 7 at 4:45 p.m.?YesNo

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