A Day in the Life

Posted in Latest Developments on November 22, 2013

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.
In the US this week we're celebrating a day of Thanksgiving. So that the DailyMTG staff can spend more time with their families (and eating), we're bringing you a repeat of last week's column.

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!
—DailyMTG Team

No matter where I go or who I talk to, there is a single, unanimous, most-popular question about my job: What is working in R&D like?

Here. Join us for a day, and let me show you.

8:51, Thu, reads the screen of your cell phone. Excellent—it looks like today you even made it here with a few minutes to spare. You walk through the parking lot toward the big glass doors at the front of the building, making your way inside as people trickle in before and behind you.

You wait for the elevator, nodding at the people you recognize from the third floor: Adam Prosak and Tim Aten—two roommates that usually carpool together—and Ethan Fleischer, champion of the Great Designer Search 2. They nod back knowingly, no words necessary to convey the simple message of, "Yep, it's early."

The elevator dings. You scan your work badge—necessary to enter the secure R&D floor—and press 3.

The elevator soars past the second floor, home of much of the Magic Online team, among others, but stops before the fourth floor, home of brand, legal, business, and many others, resting at your destination: the third floor.

You all get out, trudging like a pack of zombies exiting the New York subway, turning due right so you can reach another security point: two big double doors. You scan your badge, open it, and walk through.

Then you crest around the corner, and there it is. Like some kind of cubicle Narnia that still snaps you out of your morning haze and gets you a little bit excited even to this day. The sight that cuts off your lurching morning feet and replaces them with feet that have a spring in their step. The place where the Magic (notably uppercase) happens: The Pit.

From left to right, you have different areas each focusing on a different area of Magic, starting from base conceptualization and working all the way toward where the cards move out of R&D.

Closest to where you entered from sit a lot of the designers and digital team. These guys work on creating the concepts for sets, digital games, and experiences from scratch. They paint the canvas.

Then, as you move toward the back wall you hit the developers, who take what the designers have made and make sure it's implemented in fun and balanced ways. They refine what's on the canvas, tweaking the palettes and positioning.

Eventually, as you hit the back wall, you hit the rules manager and editors, who are the last line before the cards move elsewhere. They frame the canvas of a set, making sure everything actually works and looks legible before moving on elsewhere.

You walk in and sit at your desk.

You start up your computer and let your email load to see if there's anything pressing sitting in there. Normally, not much happens in your inbox between one day and the next—the emails start to happen as people roll in—but it's always worth checking.

In the meantime, you strike up a conversation with Gerry Thompson, the newest member of R&D and also the person who happens to sit across from you. He hands you a deck and you make a suggestion or two, then get into some banter about card choices. Then the banter about card choices evolves—as it often does—into whether certain cards are appropriately costed.

Gerry begins to argue one of his cards should cost one more because it's been a little too strong and fits in all of his white decks, meaning it should get dinged a little so only the decks that really want it run it. You trade a few notes back and forth, and before you know it, it's 9 a.m.—and you have a 9 a.m. meeting today!

You glance down at Outlook to take in your meeting schedule for the day:

You get up and head to Graceland, via the coffee station. Time to get started!

Almost all of the meeting rooms in Wizards are named and themed after some pop culture reference. (Or they're just ridiculous, like the meeting rooms "Somewhere," "Nowhere," and—most confusing of all—"My Office.") In this case, Graceland is named after Elvis Presley's home. But you ain't feeling like a hound dog here: you're about to work on a Magic set!

This is a development meeting for an upcoming set. Each set has its own team—and you're on this one for one of next year's sets. Development's goal is to take design's ideas and craft them into something fun, balanced, and interesting.

The leader of the team—and also the leader of the meeting—sets the goals for what each meeting is trying to accomplish. In this meeting, it's a Limited-focused discussion.

The draft format for this set has been a little unbalanced so far, and both black and green seem to be the strongest colors. It is Dave's suspicion that the ratios of As, Bs, and Cs are off, so today's meeting will be spent going over the commons and uncommons as a team and coming to a consensus about what each card's letter grade is. Remember: A is a Wind Drake or better, B is a Blind Phantasm or better, and C is anything worse than Blind Phantasm.

Wind Drake
Blind Phantasm

You start in white—WUBRG order, of course—and it only takes three cards to reach a disagreement.

The disagreement comes on a two-mana 2/2 with an upside. Arguers on both sides debate the merits of the upside. Does that bump it into A status? The discussion continues for a couple minutes, until eventually Dave decides it's time to move on and, after listening to all arguments, he decides to call it a B.

The meeting continues on like this, with slight squabbles being made here and there and then being resolved by Dave. Eventually, it does look like, indeed, black and green are better than the others. But, as Dave counts up the number of As, Bs, and Cs, it isn't that black and green are really too strong—it's that the other colors are too weak; they don't have enough As.

That's often the case in game design: your initial hunch is in the right ballpark, but without actually looking at how it pans out you can make incorrect decisions. In this case, it would have been easy to just assume black and green were too strong and lower their power level, making the draft format considerably weaker than the target. Instead, it was that white, blue, and red were too weak!

Of course, game design and development is where art meets science. The numbers will only take you so far. And now that numbers have uncovered the problem, it's time to address the symptoms of your practiced art. The rest of the meeting is spent finding ways to slightly up the power on cards in the underpowered colors through our intuition about what will work. In the end, two cards in each of the three underpowered colors ends up changed.

You look up—the clock is nearly 10. That means it's time for cardcrafting!

In R&D, there are a variety of longstanding meetings that happen week in, week out at the same time slot. Design and development teams are ephemeral, but meetings like Cardcrafting are forever.

Cardcrafting is a weekly meeting to discuss any overarching issues that touch the design, development, or editing process that everybody in R&D—including creative—attends. (As a result, Cardcrafting is also a meeting notorious for filling up the room and running out of chairs if you don't get there a couple minutes early—and you're unfortunately there right on time. Looks like you'll be standing up for this meeting!)

Cardcrafting is a way for everyone to get together and open a new issue—or finally vote and resolve a longstanding one. It can be anything from talking about how future mechanics should work, to how old mechanics should work, to how creature type should be treated, to the monthly (or so) "Matt Tabak Power Hours" where Rules Manager Matt Tabak provides the lowdown on hot rules issues that need to be resolved.

This meeting is one of the latter.

Matt opens the discussion. "I've brought you all here today to discuss yet another ramification of your impulse to continue to create completely ridiculous cards. In this case, Strionic Resonator."

Strionic Resonator

Dave Guskin, sitting to your right, fervently types away on his keyboard as Matt speaks—Dave is the designated note taker for Cardcrafting, posting the discussions to the internal Wiki afterward so everyone has a record of what happened in Cardcrafting down the road.

"How do you think Strionic Resonator works with hideaway lands? As in, you play a hideaway land, copy the triggered ability to exile a second card. When you activate its nonmana activated ability, what happens?"

The room takes a brief moment of silence to think it over—R&D is a thinky bunch, after all—before Max McCall jumps in with, "You should just play one of the exiled cards. That makes the most sense." The room mostly nods in agreement.

"Okay," continues Tabak. "What about Oblivion Ring? You play a Ring, copy its enters-the-battlefield ability with Strionic Resonator, let the abilities resolve, then destroy it. What happens?"

The room grows quiet for another brief moment, letting the interaction trickle through the waterworks of each person's brain. And then Shawn Main speaks up with the answer: "You should get both back. One of them shouldn't stay in exile forever—that's very odd to me."

A small smile appears at the edges of Tabak's lips. "I've tricked you all!" he exclaims. The room grows silent. "You can't have it both ways."

A couple people start to throw out solutions, thinking perhaps they had it answered. As is often the case in Cardcrafting, voices raise as more and more people begin to talk and want to make their point heard, each convinced he or she has a revolutionary addition to the topic.

And then, just when the room thinks it might have a reasonable answer, Tabak reveals one of his trump cards: "Dave, please pull up the wording for Prototype Portal. Tell me how this card is supposed to work with Strionic Resonator."

Well, you think, this meeting is certainly going to be interesting.

11–12: Open

Around an hour and a few Phyrexian Ingesters, Duplicants, Elite Arcanists, and Spellweaver Helixes later, you stumble out of Cardcrafting.

R&D finally arrives at the unified conclusion to use "linked abilities" to help solve the Strionic Resonator problem. Prototype Portal will make two tokens for the sum of the total mana, and Oblivion Ring will return both exiled permanents. Windbrisk Heights will let you play both cards for one activation, but after much debate that corner case is decided to be acceptable.

Prototype Portal
Oblivion Ring

Voices were raised. Questions were asked. But in the end, there was at least an agreed-upon solution. That isn't always the case.

You walk back to your desk and lean back in your chair. Now that you're a couple hours into the day, perhaps some exciting emails have shown up—and indeed they have!

A refresh of your inbox yields two relevant emails. First, a hole-filling emailing from Mark Gottlieb. Hole-filling emails go out to several people inside the building, even outside of R&D. They are attempts to get people outside of the set's development team to generate ideas for troublesome cards that aren't doing well. This email features ten cards that need redesigns, due a week from now.

You flag the email to follow up on later.

The other one is more immediately pertinent. It's an email from Liz Lamb-Ferro. (Or, as she is occasionally and jokingly known to some of her coworkers, Liz Lemon.) Liz works up in Magic brand on the fourth floor, the team that does most of the hard work on everything from marketing to promotions to writing ad cards.

What's in this email? Well, Liz has the newest episode of Geek and Sundry's Spellslingers to be reviewed. And as the R&D representative for the show, it's your job to take notes and make sure everything is explained properly in the video.

While as an R&D member there are numerous design and development tasks to do, over time you also tend to end up picking up a few things here and there from other departments. At Wizards, a common comment is that "You end up doing what you're good at."

Some people contribute to creative (in fact, right now, from 11–12 there's a meeting called Worldcrafting going on that's essentially Cardcrafting for worldbuilding issues—but you aren't a creative delegate so you aren't in that meeting), some people contribute to other Wizards games, some people do a bit of work on brand experiences—each person inside Wizards has a truly unique job that extends beyond merely a "game designer."

And in this case, being the R&D delegate for these videos is one of your many duties.

You download the video and settle in for the next twenty-odd minutes to watch it. It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it.

You pause a few times to make notes, but don't notice much—it looks good. You forward the video to a few other people in The Pit who tend to consume a lot of YouTube content just to get a few extra eyes, but you're not too concerned.

You look back at the clock. 11:29. Ah, the eternal question: a half hour before lunch. What to do?

Everyone in R&D ends up with some free time, and from there you can work on myriad projects of your choosing. Perhaps it's a good time to open back up that prior hole-filling email and start working on designing some cards. Maybe there's some development homework from a previous meeting you need to take care of—or, if not, you could always pass through a set in Multiverse and leave some developer comments. It's even possible that, depending on who you are, there's a DailyMTG.com article you need to write that it wouldn't hurt to get started on.

But on top of all that, there's something that's always important: playtesting Standard in the Future Future League! (FFL, for short.)

After the weekly FFL meeting yesterday, the development team ended up changing several cards you had built around—rendering two of your decks useless. The dichotomy is always a bit odd: in real-life tournaments, breaking a card means you get to win a tournament. In R&D, breaking a card means that you don't get to play with that deck anymore.

Such is the life of a developer.

The good news is now you have some time to build some new decks to fill that need! There was some talk the day before about control being underplayed, so today sounds like a good day to build up a control deck and see if it's appropriately powered for Standard. You resist spending this time joining the conversation in the background about the best adventure movie of the 80s (besides, you already know The Princess Bride is the correct answer) and fire up Multiverse—the internal program that contains all card set data—and begin building away.

You finish your deck quickly and print it out on the stickers R&D uses for playtesting. Since R&D doesn't have physical copies of cards that don't exist—a TARDIS was outside the range of the department's budget—instead, you simply put your decklist into a tool that outputs the decklists as cards and prints them onto sticky paper. Then, simply peel them off and begin putting them over like-colored cards.

You finish stickering your deck—and just in time for lunch!

12–1: Open

Choo choo! The lunch train is pulling out of the station! If you don't move quickly, you'll end up missing the haumphtown express.

12–1 is R&D's lunch hour. On most days, you can find several groups headed out to lunch: R&D is a very social department on the whole, and rather than eat in, many people take the opportunity to head out and catch up with each other over lunch. Also, I mean, delicious food.

There's no real rhyme or reason to how lunch groups form, they just tend to happen in the order people leave or because people want to visit a specific restaurant. On this particular day, you walk toward the elevators in a conglomerate of Jonathon Loucks, Ethan Fleischer, Shawn Main, and Ben Hayes. On your way there, you encounter Lee Sharpe—a fourth-floor member who often enjoys joining the R&D crew for lunch a day or two out of the week—and he joins in as well.

How do you decide where to go? Well, the Veto Game, of course!

The game works like this: one person suggests a location. Everybody can either agree to go there, or any single person can veto and suggest a new location that hasn't already been brought up yet. Once everybody agrees, the location has been set!

But, of course, as the great philosopher Plato once said, "Gamers are going to game, yo." There's a bit of strategy in the game, mostly not leading with your actual desired restaurant so that after one or two vetoes you can recommend it and a few other choices will already be shut down.

Jon kicks it off by suggesting Chinese—a bold opening move knowing that Ethan Fleischer, well known for his dislike of the local Chinese restaurant of choice, is in the group. Ethan vetoes and counters back with a local sandwich place. It's a reasonable choice... but it's not good enough for Ben, who takes an aggressive stance by vetoing and recommending pho.

Nobody objects quickly. In everyone's head, there's a wrestling ringmaster counting down. "3. 2. 1..."

With no objections, pho it is. Everyone piles into Lee Sharpe's car, and you're off to lunch!

With the warm taste of pho swimming in your stomach and some Lee Sharpe political discussions swimming in your brain, you get back to work for your 1 p.m. meeting—a draft!

You head to the Lost Temple, where people are milling about before the draft.

It looks like you're going to be about two people short, so Erik goes out into the Pit and rounds up two people to fill out the draft: Digital Design Manager Ken Troop, and Digital Designer/draftoholic Ryan Spain.

Your draft starts off well, but then it appears Tom LaPille has begun cutting you off from your right. Or maybe it's actually Tim Aten's fault, who is positioned to Tom's right, and Tom is simply trying to protect himself from Tim's inevitable passcut. (A passcut being where you pass someone one or more powerful cards of a color, then proceed to cut them off of that color.)

Erik Lauer, who is not actually in the draft but watching the draft unfold so he can obtain data, laughs a little as he stands behind you and looks at your first few picks. However, you're not sure if that's because you're actually being passcut or if it's because he's just happy and likes to laugh, as is often the case with Erik. It's hard to tell.

But whatever the case, you manage to pick up some strong cards in pack two and by pack three Tom seems to be cooperating and passes you a bomb rare to put your deck in a good place.

You spend a couple minutes building the deck—although thanks to the first pack you don't have too many extra playables—and then figure out what your land count is going to be. You make sure to write down your numbers so that later on Erik can find out how many cards of each color you played, as well as how many rares.

And then, it's time to play.

Drafts are allotted in two-hour time windows. Generally, you try and play two or three matches. Fortunately, you drafted a fairly aggressive deck and manage to rattle off three matches with a little bit of time to spare: 2–1—not perfect, but not bad.

In the extra time you have, you head back to your desk and write up a few notes on the deck. After each draft, a link to a page on Wizards's internal Wiki is sent out for everyone to leave comments on so the set lead can look over them and make appropriate changes. Since you have a little bit of extra time, you write up yours now rather than later.

You make a few notes on the power level of individual cards and also note that your aggressive deck didn't have a good way to punch through big creatures and the set could maybe use some Act of Treason variant to help out with that. You also note that most of your creatures drops seemed to have 1 toughness, making 1-power creatures better than normal against you and sideboarded games hard to win—perhaps some of those creatures want a 2nd toughness.

Getting this down now will save you some time later. And good thing too—since it's off to another meeting!

Wizards of the Coast makes Magic, but that certainly isn't our only game. While you are primarily a Magic developer, a strong belief in many areas of the company (and especially in R&D) is that cross-pollination is good. By bringing your set of skills to a different game, you can provide a different vantage point to it—and in return, it can provide you with a new way of looking at development. The end result is both departments end up more enriched and with a better end product.

Earlier, you reviewed the Geek and Sundry video, interacting with brand. Now it's time to go to a meeting for another game entirely: Kaijudo!

In the room with you is a different crew than you see on your side of The Pit: these are team members from the Duel Masters and Kaijudo Pit, just adjacent to the Magic Pit. (They used to be one area, until the Magic team's recent growth meant the Duel Masters and Kaijudo team needed to move elsewhere.)

Sitting around you is Mons Johnson, a longtime R&D stalwart and Kaijudo development manager; Steve Warner, a Kaijudo developer; and Brian Hawley, the newest developer on the Kaijudo staff. And just like how you're in this meeting with them, often members of this crew will attend Magic meetings and playtests as well to help spread their knowledge and expertise to Magic as well.

Often in these cross-game development meetings, you won't talk as much as in Magic development meetings: you just don't know the game and the specifics of every card that has been printed as well. Fortunately, however, Kaijudo has enough similarities to Magic that a lot of your knowledge translates over. As a result, when it comes to core fun things and what works and what doesn't, you can chime in.

...and that's exactly what happens when during the meeting the team designs a card that is essentially a card recently killed from a Magic set because it causes frustrating board stalls. Without you there, they may have had to go through the same playtesting the Magic team did to discover it ultimately led to annoying situations. Good work: you just saved the team a lot of valuable playtesting time.

While development covers individual card and set development, the department also tends to work on organized play some. More than any other department, R&D is comprised mostly of players with significant Pro Tour experience—meaning that getting their feedback into the mix with important organized play decisions is crucial.

"Strike Force" teams exist inside Wizards as reoccurring teams that address specific issues—and in this case, it's time for the one you're on regarding event coverage.

Around you in this meeting, also from R&D, are two powerhouses: Aaron Forsythe, the director of R&D, and Erik Lauer, the senior developer responsible for incredible sets like Innistrad and Theros. Representing the website side of things is Trick Jarrett, the fearless leader of everything involving DailyMTG.com. Also present is Lee Sharpe, who does a lot of work on the business intelligence team as well as Magic Online.

Leaning back in his chair at the back of the room, facing you, is the Nick Fury–like figure that calls this particular Strike Force together: Greg Collins. The man in charge of Magic event coverage, Greg takes all of the feedback in this meeting and coalesces it into tangible pieces for Pro Tours and Grand Prix.

As if actually adopting the role of Nick Fury, Greg begins: "Thanks for coming today. Today's mission is to take a look at a couple deck techs from the last Pro Tour and note what worked and what didn't, so I can relay that information to the commentators at the next events."

Greg starts up video from the last event and you make notes throughout on tiny details that can be improved. Sometimes it's the small things that can make a big difference.

Afterwards, each of you rattles off what you noticed as well as any ideas you had, and Greg writes down notes. No doubt, if you watch closely, you'll be able to see some of this reflected in the deck techs at the next Pro Tour.

5–6: Open

Your meetings for the day are finally done, but that doesn't mean your work is over yet! You have an hour left to work on whatever projects you see fit—and in this case, you know exactly what you want to do: play some games with that control deck you built earlier!

Building a deck but not being able to play right away always seems to leave a mental itch you can't wait to scratch, so you shuffle up and head over to the other developers to find a game.

Future Future League playtesting time is on every developer's schedule at specific times on both Tuesday and Wednesday. Additionally, there's an entire rotating cast of people on the FFL team. They're like a development team for a set, only instead of working on a set their sole focus is Standard. They spend an entire set's worth of development time a week in dedicated meetings to playtest and address specific FFL concerns.

But even outside of all that time, all developers are encouraged to play as much FFL as possible. It's impossible to ever playtest the format too much.

Ian Duke, a fellow Magic developer, is eager to throw down and has a couple new decks of his own to play against you.

First, he tries out an aggressive deck, and you beat it four games in a row without much trouble. Then, out of interest, Ian switches over to a midrange deck—and suddenly the tides seem to turn. You can't deal very well with some of the big threats and disruption the deck seems to play, not to mention his Planeswalkers. The control deck could really use a removal spell that can clean up big creatures but also deal with Planeswalkers.

How would adding that to my deck effect my game against beatdown? you begin to wonder. At what mana cost am I playing it because I want it to fight midrange but not because it's good against beatdown, since this deck already has plenty of tools for beatdown?

Your thoughts are interrupted as you notice several people grabbing their bags and heading back toward the elevators. You pull out your phone and glance at the time. 6:04.

Guess you'll have to ponder that some more over the night. When you come back tomorrow, you can open the question with some other developers. You'll have to do that tomorrow.


Thank you for joining us as a developer in Magic R&D for the day! Hopefully, you enjoyed the brief window into what an average day working at Wizards is like.

Interested in returning to Wizards? Keep your eyes peeled to the jobs section of our website. As you may have noticed, you don't have to be in Magic R&D to come down and interact with R&D or be a part of some of our meetings. If you want to work on Magic, there's no better place in the world to be than Wizards.

If you have any comments, questions, or thoughts, feel free to post in the forums or send me a tweet. I'd love to hear from you! Otherwise, I'll be back in my normal role next Tuesday for ReConstructed, and I'll see you there.

May you, too, be able to live your dreams—even if just for a day.


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