Zone Change

Posted in Latest Developments on December 2, 2011

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 started working at Wizards in June of 2008. It is now December in 2011. Two weeks ago, I said in this space that I was moving from Magic R&D to Dungeons & Dragons R&D. That is still true, and today will be my last Latest Developments article.

If I have learned one thing during my time working on Magic, it is that things change when someone brings higher standards to something than have been brought to it before. My favorite example of this from technology comes from Steve Jobs's Stanford Commencement address, in which he said that the earliest Macintosh computers were the first computers to have beautiful typography. While I can't prove his assertion, I used a lot of pre-Macintosh computers that had crude typography, and the Macintosh I used at my dad's high school was the first computer I had seen that had fonts that were nice to read, and most computers since then have had them as well. No matter how much credit you choose to give Steve for this, computer typefaces have been different forever since the first Macintosh.

I worked on Magic for three and a half years. In that time, lots of important things have happened thanks to raised standards. Duels of the Planeswalkers—the result of someone deciding that Magic should have a really good digital introductory product—created lots of new Magic players and brought many lapsed players back into the fold. Magic 2010—the result of Aaron Forsythe deciding that core sets entirely made out of reprints with bad flavor are lame—released to great success, ushering in a new era of core sets with good flavor and exciting new cards. Erik Lauer has built a very powerful suite of development tools that simply didn't exist when I started. We have also been much more careful about where we spend individual card complexity, making sure to spend our complexity points in the same places we want players' attention focused, which has sharpened the spotlight on the most important aspects of sets.

Although many of these changes came from my coworkers, a few came directly from me as well. I'm proud of my development work on Masters Edition III and Masters Edition IV, both of which I think are a big step forward in the technology we use to build smaller sets for one-set drafting. I have also been quite strident when an individual card does not tell a coherent story. Mark Rosewater said to several people in my hearing that I was the core developer who cared most about flavor, and I like to think that we make fewer cards like Cloudchaser Kestrel or Windwright Mage these days than we used to partially because of me.

We have higher standards for Magic sets now than we ever have before. Innistrad is a perfect example of this. We've never made a non-core set with mechanics and flavor this integrated before. There are classic horror tropes all over the place, with faithful expressions of those tropes in text boxes. The feel of each allied color pair's tribe is an attempt to express the way that creatures of that type act when they appear in the source material. Our standards were just as high on the development side. The draft environment is intricate, balanced, and awesome. The Standard environment is still morphing by the day, despite two months of Grand Prix, large third-party tournaments, and a World Championships.

Of course, people change over time just as much as games do. When I walked in the door at Wizards three and a half years ago, I was coming off four years of college during which about a third of my weekends contained long-distance travel to Magic tournaments. Somewhere during the past three and a half years, though, my gaming time shifted from card games to roleplaying games, and this year I found myself making as many trips to conventions to play roleplaying games as I used to make to play Magic.

While it's been fun to discover something new, I am also no longer the best person to keep standards for Magic high. Happily, Wizards also makes a well-known roleplaying game, and jumping over to work on D&D was a surprisingly easy transition to accomplish. I already feel that in my new role my level of standards is causing us to challenge the way we have done things in the past, and that tells me that I am doing the right work.


Magic has changed my life for the better in millions of ways both big and small. In grade school, it is how I learned that there really are people who are better than other people at things, and that in the real world this does matter. In high school, it's how I learned to make friends with people outside my obvious peer groups. In college, it took me on eye-opening journeys to places like Vancouver, Honolulu, and Barcelona that showed me I could handle myself outside my home country and continent. During my professional life, it has helped me learn about how to both create great things and get work done inside a corporate hierarchy. While you will not likely learn the same things at the same time as I did, I hope that your experience with Magic provides you with a similar list of worthwhile experiences.

Today isn't the last you'll hear from me. I was the lead developer of Dark Ascension, and I'm sure I'll pop up again at least once or twice as that set gets closer to release. But until then, I leave you with Zac.

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