Latest Look at History

Posted in Latest Developments on January 6, 2012

By Zac Hill

Zac is a former game designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast and was the lead developer for Dragon's Maze. His articles have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Believer, and on Currently he serves as the chief operating officer of The Future Project, a nonprofit education initiative, and holds a position as a research affiliate in the MIT Game Lab.

Ten years ago, was born.

I remember the moment vividly—which is odd, in a sense. How many websites can you actually recall having launched? Facebook? YouTube? I certainly can't remember Google, even though I've been an avid Internet user since the early-mid nineties. But—I was sitting at a desk in the Lausanne Collegiate School library trying to do some work, diverting myself with Magic content while letting an idea brew. Then suddenly Mark Rosewater started talking, and my attention was seized.

Which kind of sounds like any given Tuesday, nowadays, but I digress...

Ten years ago this week, our website debuted two columns related to the craft of creating Magic sets. The first was Mark's Making Magic, and the second was Randy Buehler's Latest Developments, a column that I hold the immense privilege of penning today. Mark has been the exclusive author of his column over the last decade, and is in a unique position to have watched huge portions of the website evolve around him. By contrast, I'm approaching from the opposite perspective: the freshly-minted fifth Latest Developments columnist who spent the majority of's lifespan reading all the content the rest of the people here spent so much time putting together.

It seems fitting, then, to start out this new year with a bit of a retrospective on the authors who have come before me. There are lessons to learn, of course, but it's also just kind of cool to spend some time swimming around in the immense history of this space, which (given some very rudimentary math, fifty weeks per year due to Holiday break times at ~2,000 words per article) has produced close to a million words about the process of Magic development.

That's a lot of words.

And a lot of development.

Buehler! Buehler!

Randy Buehler

Hall of Famer Randy Buehler. Gulp. Pro Tour Champion, World Boardgaming Champion, fiercely intelligent person, and the guy hired right off the Pro Tour to clean up some of the development mistakes of Urza's block. He kicked off the column with a masterful Torment preview that sneakily managed to a) preview something cool, b) offer tremendous insight into the development process, and c) outline, in fewer than one hundred words, why Wizards distinguishes between design and development, as well as what development does (or did, at that point in time).

Not too shabby of a debut.

What strikes me the most as I work my way through much of Randy's early content is how much of development's focus a decade ago was on ensuring that cards and format's didn't break. That's obviously one of our top priorities nowadays, but it plays into our overall strategy of ensuring fun gameplay across as many different environments as possible. Broken formats aren't fun formats—but fair formats aren't necessarily fun formats, either. It's a necessary rather than a sufficient condition.

There are a number of reasons for this, of course. The most salient, really, is that in a lot of ways Randy was paving entirely new ground. Former Magic developer Henry Stern had substantial Pro Tour experience, but up until that point nobody in R&D had quite the Magic acumen of a Pro Tour Champion. His presence lent R&D what in many ways was an entirely new perspective and re-shaped the role of development from then on out. Another issue was that the public—and as a member of that public, I remember this vividly—really needed to be able to believe that Wizards was capable of balancing formats at all. Urza's block was completely bananas, and it wasn't at all clear at that point that there could exist stable formats that weren't either boringly underpowered or cripplingly degenerate. So the focus on gameplay balance makes sense: it needed to be in place before the rest of the game could move forward.

Randy succeeded in communicating R&D's ability to navigate that balance successfully, and also largely succeeded in bringing such an environment to life. Invasion block took Magic to a whole new level—a feather in Randy's cap. The development technology present in that set was so far ahead of its time that it's almost shocking to reflect upon: commitment to powerful creatures, resonant mechanical themes, a coherent narrative for the evolution of the block's structure. Aaron Forsythe is said to have spent more time staring at Alpha, soaking in the interplay between the cards, than any other person alive. He derives inspiration from it. For me, though, the set I look to when I'm trying to resolve a problem or create an environment is Invasion. It heralds the modern world.

The Angry Hermit

Aaron Forsyth

Eventually, the demands of Randy's position as R&D head honcho necessitated a transition in authorship to Aaron Forsythe, whom Randy kind of hilariously refers to as both "new" and "fresh" in this article.

An aside on Aaron: I'm in the sort of sickening position of having immense, genuine respect for the people in the office who could be considered my "bosses." Hall of Famer Dave Humpherys—whom the most underrated Magic player in history, William "Baby Huey" Jensen, once referred to as "the most underrated Magic player in history"—has probably never made a single in-game error in his entire life, and as far as I can tell divides his spare time between mastering competitive Unicorn polo, roundhouse-kicking Chuck Norris, and embedding Klein Bottles in three-dimensional space. Aaron, meanwhile, is gifting all of us jobs solely due to his inability to clone or mitotically spawn copies of himself into existence at will. He can actually do everything, and do everything well. You sort of hope, you know, that you possess some kind of nebulous skill that the "execs" in your office lack, some kind of talent that lets you pat yourself on the back and say, "Well, I might not be as high on the totem pole, but at least I am pulling my weight—I can do something that they can't!"

My back-patting quota has been sorely lacking, as of late.

Aaron came into R&D having edited, and so he knew a thing or two about how to put together an article. What I admire the most about Aaron's columns is the same quality he brought to his Twitter series, Aaron's Random Card Comment of the Day: his ability to delve into and find meaning in every single card. This article on Fifth Dawn's "stations" is a shining example of that. He puts a single cycle under a microscope and reveals everything about it. This reflects a care and attention to detail R&D exhibits that I didn't fully appreciate until I got here. It hit me when I was in a meeting arguing passionately about how important it was to the gameplay of Innistrad that we create a vanilla 5/1 Zombie—it's like, "wow, they really do scrutinize every single card."

Aaron's other major talent involves writing "I'm gonna tell it to you like it is" articles, which for some reason invokes in me the image of a dad skidding to a halt on the side of the road and yelling "I'm going to turn this car around right now" in the general direction of the back seat. A classic example is this one on the Affinity bannings.

All of us hate to be the harbinger of this kind of news. It sucks to make mistakes, and it sucks to admit them, and it really, really, really sucks to know that your own failings have resulted in thousands upon thousands of people having a miserable time as a result of a game they have paid you for the promise of enjoying. That said, sometimes you have to make decisions that help resolve your mistakes, even if those decisions are hard. For whatever reason, Aaron is superlatively good at this. He manages to simultaneously blend immutable resolve with heartfelt empathy along with an absence of the kind of smug self-assurance that tends to betray an insincerity of sentiment. And that makes sense, because Aaron caresgenuinely cares—about Magic in a way that makes me proud to work with him, and proud to be a part of this game. I hope that, fingers crossed, I never have to be in the position to write an article like this—but I hope that if I do, I can handle it with a comparable amount of poise.

The Low Down

Devin Low

Eventually, like Randy before him, Aaron got promoted to director and eventually handed the reins to this column to Devin Low, then Magic's head developer and lead developer of Lorwyn.

The thing I will always remember from Devin's columns is his infectious enthusiasm for all things Magic. Everything was awash with possibility. His very first column brims with excitement: you can tell he's just aching to delve more into what was going on with Lorwyn even as you read the words. Although my time and Devin's never overlapped at Wizards, the number one story I heard about him was always something along the lines of, "Yeah, he was just so exuberant all the time that you would just swear to yourself he was being insincere—but he wasn't. He just loved Magic that much."

A part of why this column exists, of course, is to advertize and evangelize Magic. In many ways it's a PR vehicle and we don't go out of our way to conceal that. At the same time, the words I write in this space are going to be enshrined in the annals of the Internet forever. That's a vainglorious way of saying that I can be held accountable for anything I write here—gulp—for the rest of my life. What that means is that people are going to be able to tell if any of my own enthusiasm is contrived, and they are going to be able to hold me accountable for that.

I am fortunate to work on a product that is easy to be enthusiastic about, and about which I can sincerely claim to be invested in (since, after all, I spend a good chunk of my time playing Magic when I'm not designing it). The lesson I've learned from Devin is to be unabashed about that enthusiasm. It would be easy to assume a distant, journalistic-analytic tone about the subject matter in this article. You know, something like ::chinstroke:: Aah, yes, . We arrived at a cost of because the interaction of Foo Shade with Archmage Pfetzenreuter created an undesirable volume of combat phases that hinged upon whether or not the opponent had the Enbiggify, and that was very unpleasant. Very unpleasant indeed. ::chinstroke::.

I'm just not like that, though. Anybody out there who has met me knows that I dive headlong into things. I care immensely about what I do and what we make, and I don't want to subserviate my sincere passion for this game to some artificially distant tone or some marketing-manual-derived policy. Devin succeeded at advancing the overall goals of the column and this website while simultaneously remaining true to his own experience—the experience that involved him in Magic in the first place.

That's my MO, and I'm sticking to it.

::folds arms::





Tom LaPille

Eventually, Devin transitioned out, and Latest Developments was handled by a motley crew of Magic developers before finally falling into the hands of resident Cube Draft master Tom LaPille.

Like myself, Tom was a columnist for a number of independent websites before taking up the Latest Developments mantle. He had a knack for being able to clearly and concisely articulate an idea—which, in many ways, is the exact opposite of my own tendency toward, um, "verbosity"—to put it mildly. (In my spare time I'm a literary author, among other things, and my mom never hesitates to remind me that she shudders at virtually everything I've ever produced—"Too many words; I started yawning; sorry sweetie."—and so yes, I have in fact been "tl; dr"-d by my own mother.) Tom also was the first "Latest Developments" author to have begun his career after the landmark Magic design shift toward the "New World Order," and so probably offered the most compelling glimpse into how we actually create Magic in the modern era.

Tom's columns were immensely useful to me personally—I showed up in R&D in the summer of 2009, after a year living overseas, and spent my first couple days devouring every single column written over the last year or so. These served as a kind of "crash course" for the overall R&D climate and ensured I didn't embarrass myself in my first meeting by announcing some wildly off-base opinion about an issue that had already been resolved. So Tom's vision for Latest Developments will always hold immense personal significance for me—as will his occasional dives into narrative for narrative's sake, like this one.

Obviously, if you've read any of my columns since Tom handed this space over to me, I'm taking Latest Developments in a very different direction from him. I'm a very different person from Tom and have a very different style—I doubt, for example, that he'd ever have used the words "head honcho" in any context ever. Ever. But it might surprise you that, despite those differences, I've learned more about Magic development from Tom than from anyone other than Erik Lauer, with whom I lived for a year. His wisdom, and his ability to convey it, are a large part of why Wizards hired me at all. I disagree with Tom about a number of issues, of course—no one in R&D could ever survive if they weren't, to put it lightly, "opinionated"—but that's to be expected. He even helped me through the process of learning how to write an article for a theme week, which means he succeeded in getting me to (gasp) follow directions!

And I shudder to think about what would happen if I ever got into a samurai sword-fight with the guy.

There are enough proverbs involving "following in the footsteps of your forebears" that I won't bother to repeat them here. Point is: I'm treading through quite a bit of history, and I take that history seriously. I hope I'm able, as I pen more of these, to incorporate the best parts of Randy, Aaron, Devin, and Tom into my own style—while simultaneously creating a style of my own. Until then, I need help from you guys!

Something I've always been keenly interested in are the kinds of articles people like the most. We do a number of gimmicks here at Latest Developments—romps through Multiverse files, deconstructions of single cards, Twitter mail-bag columns, discussions about how mechanics evolve, and any number of other things—that provide recurring glimpses into our process. Some of those work, and some don't. So to kick-start the year, I want to hear from y'all, either via email or on Twitter at @zdch: What kinds of things do you like to see? What kinds of columns can't you stand? Anything missing? Anything we've never done before that might be cool?

Let me know.

Happy New Year. Hope you'll stick around for another ten.


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