An Open Letter to Spike

Posted in Latest Developments on December 11, 2009

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.

Dear Spike,

I love being a Magic developer, but my job is really hard. And you're why.

If you weren't so smart, my job wouldn't be so hard. Unfortunately, you're brilliant. You look at the cards we put in every set with a critical eye, try to figure out which of them are the best, pick the ones you think have the most potential, and play them until you figure out how to best defeat your fellow players. Oh, I'm sure you've got some things in your past that you aren't proud of—cards that you thought you could break, but that eventually didn't pan out despite your diligent efforts, or a deck you thought was powerful that turned out to be a flop. In the grand scheme of things, that's not important. What matters is that you want power, you want it bad, and you're willing to work hard for it.

It wouldn't be so bad for me if it was just you. Magic developers are pretty smart, and we're also pretty good at Magic. Each of us has played in multiple Pro Tours and countless Grand Prix. If it were just us and the rest of the Future Future League playtest team making the game for only you, and you were working alone, we wouldn't have any trouble at all keeping up with you.

Unfortunately, that's not how this works. You're hardly alone, Spike. There are millions of you. And you talk to each other. For many years in Magic's early history, that communication was mostly limited to live conversations between small groups of people. That helped you some, but you still didn't figure everything out too quickly.

Over time, however, you've gotten a lot better at working together to solve problems. There are message boards where thousands of you at once work together to find the best cards and decks. There are major websites that pay the very best Magic players for their professional opinions about how best to win at Magic. And, although you might get more personal satisfaction out of figuring things out for yourself, you're willing to listen to them. Even worse for us developers, you've built efficient systems for telling each other what decks win tournaments around the globe. At any time, you can know exactly what decks are winning tournaments halfway across the world with only a couple of clicks.

Imagine for a moment that you, too, are a Magic developer. That shouldn't be too hard for you, Spike—any time you think to yourself something like "This card sucks—it should cost one mana less," or "Red is too good. There should be one fewer burn spells at common," you're thinking like a developer on a small scale. As full-time Magic developers, though, we have to think big. We care about each individual card, but we have to think just as much or more about the world that all of our cards create when put together.

Let's extend this metaphor a little. Rather than a metaphorical world of cards, let's pretend that Magic developers built a physical world. We do our best to fill that world with fun and interesting areas to explore; jungles full of exotic vegetation, windswept cliffs leaning precariously over churning seas, mountain ranges with fiery volcanoes that might erupt at any time. We try to make this a world you're happy to visit over and over again, one that will not run out of interesting things to see and do.

However, we don't make the inhabitants of this world, and that's where you and the rest of the Magic-playing community comes in. When we're done terraforming, we invite you to see what we've made. And, because you love Magic so much, you do. Magic players invade, crawling across the surface of the world. Many players are happy just to see what we've made, and there's nowhere in the world that doesn't get explored. They want to see all the exotic plants in the jungles, the heights of the cliffs, and the splendor of exploding volcanoes, and it's all there for them to see.

But, Spike, that's not what you do. You want to find what's powerful. Rather than explorers in a wondrous new world, you behave, if you will forgive me the analogy, much more like water. You've seen maps of Earth, so you know a little bit about what water does after it falls from the sky. There are countless little streams all over the world, small groups of water molecules traveling together toward lower ground. Many of those lead to rivers, a mass exodus of water in search of a lower home. Many of those rivers end in lakes, places where a large quantity of water has decided to be content together. However, even a lake is usually not the end of a water molecule's journey. Most continue on, finding their way out of the lake into another river or stream that takes them further downhill. Eventually, most water ends up in the oceans, settled happily in the lowest place it can be.

Spike, you and your brethren do almost exactly this, but in the reverse direction. You land somewhere in our world, perhaps on a calm sandy beach, or in a grand canyon that stretches as far as the eye can see. But you are not content to stay there. No, you, too are explorers, but unlike many Magic players, you are driven simply to climb. You want to move higher and higher, to reach the highest points of power in the world we have made. You may reach the summit of the tallest peak in a mountain range, but, unsatisfied with the knowledge that off in the distance, there is another mountain that appears twice as high, you may trudge back down and hike toward that higher peak.

It is sometimes a solitary road you walk, as many of your fellow Magic players are not as interested in climbing as you are. However, Spike, you are not truly alone. There are many of you, and through communication over the internet on websites and forums, you leave signposts for each other—marks carved into trees, signals made of wood on the ground, or even flags thrust into the ground—that guide you to the heights you aspire to reach.

And, although I speak of you as though I am not one of you, I was once. Before I came to Magic R&D, I was a hardcore tournament player, and I aspired to climb to the same heights that you do now. I also know that I've been a little bit unfair to you by casting the journey to the peaks of the world as something that you don't have a choice about doing. You don't climb because you have to, you climb because it's fun. The journey to the top of the mountains is a rewarding challenge, one that pushes you to your limits as you try to understand the world you explore. That challenge is so compelling that, although you could choose not to climb, why would you? It would cost you too much enjoyment, even though sometimes you find yourself walking precarious ledges high in snowy mountains, or navigating your way across streams of flowing lava with no other explorers in sight in your quest to get ever higher.

Spike, we know that no matter what we make our world look like, as soon as you get inside, you and your friends will start your slow journey to the peaks. It's our job to make sure that your inevitable journey to the top is an enjoyable one. We need to create high regions of many different varieties: molten volcanoes, barren cliffs, snowy mountains. We also need your journey from the low parts of the world to the heights to have some variety. If one of our mountains is a barren, rocky, and snowless peak, it would not do to put it in the center of a desert. Far better to place it in the center of a lush forest, so that the mountain itself is a fresh change of scenery rather than yet another hot, dry, stark area to travel through.

That kind of variety of experience is exactly what we look for when we playtest constructed Magic. Although it isn't something that players often think about, we care a lot as developers that the journey from the beginning of a Magic format to the end of it is an enjoyable one. If reaching the highest peaks requires scaling sheer cliffs from which falling would be near-certain death, the climb will cease to be fun and will become drudgery. On the other hand, if the highest points in the world are mere hills, the journey will not be challenging enough. We work to make sure that the process of discovery of a new set is enjoyable enough that you want to do it set after set.

We also care a lot about what the peaks themselves are. The Future Future League helps us identify the potential best decks in a future Standard format, and we like those to be both reasonably numerous and different in character. Many Magic players like different things, and even Spikes like you sometimes don't agree on what is the most fun, so we try to include enough powerful decks that any Spike can be happy. Even so, we never have a completely clear picture of what a Standard metagame will be like when we're done developing, so the last bit of Magic development is a bit of a leap of faith.

You might wonder at this point why I say we can't know exactly what our Magic metagames look like. There are only a handful of Magic developers, and another few handfuls of people who help with Constructed and Limited playtesting. If that small group of people knew exactly what a Magic metagame looked like, it would take barely any time for the millions of you Spikes out there in the world to figure it out, and that would be no fun at all for you. I know it's hard to keep perspective while you're actually playing a game of Magic—I was one of you before I started working here, and all I cared about once a game started was beating my opponents. However, we all play games because they're fun, and it's more important to us that you enjoy our game than it is that we understand it perfectly. So as it is, we're always doing a little bit of educated guessing.

We only get four chances each year to change the world of Magic, so the time following a new set's release is both exciting and stressful. We're excited to see what our new cards do to the world when they leave the building, but we also worry. What if something went wrong, and we won't get another chance to change what the world looks like for another three months? Sometimes we're thrilled with what we see after things settle down, and sometimes we aren't. And whether or not we are happy, we'll be holding our breaths in anticipation again three months later.

I know you were expecting to hear from me last week, and I’m sorry. I had a lot to say to you, and I chose to take some extra time to make sure it came out right. We're honored that you and so many other smart people love our game so much that you put it through that much scrutiny. But, Spike, you do make our job hard.

Tom LaPille

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