Even More Maro on Maro

Posted in Making Magic on December 9, 2019

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

Every once in a while, I like to sit down with myself and do an interview. I started last week (which you might want to go back and read if you missed it) with a hard-hitting question, so let's do the same again today.

You've been the head designer since 2003. Might it be better for Magic if you to step down and let some fresh blood take the reins?

I do agree that having fresh perspectives is important, which is why I've spent a lot of time and energy finding talented designers to hire. So far, for instance, I've run three Great Designer Searches (GDS1, GDS2, and GDS3), which has led directly to eleven internships/full-time hires (not all in R&D, though) and indirectly to several more. In addition, I make sure that we're constantly changing up our design teams so that each one has a different cross-section of people creating a unique "team brain" for each team. (Also, R&D has a general philosophy that sets go through various teams—Exploratory Design, Vision Design, Set Design, and Play Design—to ensure that different sets of eyes are looking at them.)

That said, a fresh perspective is not the most important skill of a head designer. The main role of a head designer is the ability to have a holistic vision to understand how all the pieces fit together to create a larger tableau. Let me use a metaphor (as I do so love my metaphors). Designing Magic as a whole is much like putting together an orchestra. Yes, you need talented musicians, each capable of making their own beautiful music, but it takes a conductor to bring all those diverse artists together in unison to create a singular performance. The best conductors are ones who have years of experience doing it. Having a bold new take on conducting isn't a recipe for success. It's having put in the hours to understand the role of each instrument and how they sound in conjunction with one another.

In other words, the fact that I've been doing this job for so long is a benefit, not a drawback. It means I have years and years of experience interacting with many different kinds of designs, allowing me to best understand what does and doesn't work together.

How do you deal with some people saying such mean things to you online?

I've learned not to take these things personally. I'm the biggest face for the game, so people who have comments about the game will often make me the focus, regardless of whether the topic at hand is something I have anything to do with. To them, I am Magic, and there are things they have to say about Magic.

At the core of most negative comments is a piece of criticism. There is something (or often numerous things) that we are doing that they are unhappy with. My job in looking at this communication (and it is my job to look, as it is with the rest of R&D) is to try and understand what it is they're saying. What mistakes have we made that they would like for us to not repeat in the future? It's through this feedback that I can become better at my job. So, even though their intent might be one of vitriol, in the end, they are actually helping me improve.

All that said, my job is a lot easier if people could be polite when talking to me because a) it encourages others to speak up and thus stimulates more dialogue from the community which leads to better information gathering and b) it's just the right thing to do. I've dedicated the last 24 years to making Magic as awesome as it could be. If you're taking time to talk with me, that probably means you enjoy the game on some level and that some amount of my work has brought you happiness.

Why are you so flexible about some aspects of the game and so stubborn about others?

I'll use my house-building metaphor that I often use when talking about design. I'm an architect. I spend my life building houses. Lots of people eventually live in these houses, and some of them get back to me with thoughts about their experience with the houses. Some of that feedback is very actionable. For example, perhaps a certain light switch was positioned in a place that's awkward to get to. Next time, could I position it differently on the wall? That's a great note. I had different focuses when deciding where to put that light switch, but the new feedback is very valuable, and I will definitely take it into account the next time I'm building the house.

Other feedback isn't as actionable. There's a wall that separates the family room from the kitchen. Could we knock that wall down? It would really open up the kitchen. Well, that wall is a bearing wall and it's holding up the second floor. It isn't something we can just tear down. Maybe the whole building can be restructured, but that's a more complex issue that can't easily be signed off on without a bunch of work being done. As an architect, I'm grateful for the note, but it's not something I would promise I could do.

Finally, there's feedback that is unactionable. If the house could be moved three feet over, it would allow the backyard to fit in a swing set. The problem is that there are laws about how close a house can be to the property line, and no matter how much the buyer wants it moved, I don't have the authority to do so. It's not a problem I can work around. I'm being asked to do something I can't do.

When people give me feedback on the game that's actionable, I take it to heart and actively look for opportunities to use it. When people give me feedback that's less actionable, I listen, and if I'm ever able to find a way to make use of it, I might, but there's no guarantee. And when people ask me something that's not actionable, I'll tell them why I can't do it. It's not that I'm changing how flexible I am, it's that every topic is different, and some can't be as easily addressed as others. The one thing I do try to do is explain why I can't (or don't want to) do something, so the person asking has some understanding of my reasoning.

You're forced to add a sixth color to Magic. How would you do it?

About once a month, I'm asked about a sixth color on my blog. If we added it, where would I put it into the color wheel? The answer is I wouldn't. I think the current color wheel is too well balanced to try and shift things around to add it to the circle. Instead, I would add it to the center so that it is not specifically an ally or enemy of any color but rather a totality of all the colors. This way, instead of it trying to carve out its own space in the color pie, I would have it borrow equally from all five colors. My thought is it would be a mix of abilities, almost all things the five colors can do, but mixed and matched in such a way that it could do things we couldn't normally do in monocolor. This would also allow me to make some hybrid cards (probably a cycle) that are purple and another color. Finally, I would look for a new mechanic that plays in novel space that I would allow only the new color to have access to.

You used to be very secretive about mechanics you didn't use, but recently, you seem much more open to talking about them. Why the change?

I finally came to the conclusion that excitement for a new mechanic is more about what it can do than the shock value of its existence. I'll give an example. Let's take debt counters, the mechanic we tried for Orzhov in Ravnica Allegiance (you made your opponent build up counters that would hurt them if they didn't pay them off). There are two paths we could take. Path A—I don't talk about it, so the audience never hears about the mechanic. Path B—I talk about the fact that we tried it and couldn't solve it. Let's say seven years later, we crack debt. Which is the more exciting path? Path A, where it's a brand-new idea the audience has never heard of, or Path B, where the audience knows about it and we get to say we finally cracked it?

After much thought, I think Path B is probably more exciting. The audience has heard about it and maybe it's popped up in discussion once or twice. When we finally make it, the audience that cares might be more invested in it as it's been something in their head for seven years. The other advantage for Path B is that there are going to be mechanics we never crack. Not talking about them means players never hear about it and it cuts down on the cool stories we get to share. All that was why I changed my mind.

You just celebrated your 24th anniversary at Wizards. If you could show 2019 Magic to yourself when you started in 1995, what would have been your reaction?

A bunch of things. One, I would have been happy that Magic made it to 2019. When I first started at Wizards, I had no idea how long Magic was going to last. I was hopeful it would be a long time, but I knew there was a possibility that it could fizzle out. Two, all the new frames would have blown me away. It wasn't until I started making Unglued (in 1997) that I even started thinking about the possibility that Magic could have new frames. Three, I would have been a bit taken aback by all the keywords. Back then, Magic had just a handful of evergreen keywords (banding, first strike, flying, landwalk, protection, regeneration, and trample) and new sets had somewhere between zero and two keywords. Four, I would have loved all the different worlds. The fact that we barely ever left Dominaria annoyed me when I first got to Wizards. Five, I would be tickled by Planeswalkers and the story. Michael and I would pitch the Weatherlight Saga in 1996 because it bugged us that there was no ongoing storyline. All in all, I think I'd be pretty excited by what I saw.

If you had to work on Magic but couldn't do design, what job do you think you'd be best suited for?

With the proper training, I think I could do a good job working on the Creative team focusing on story (basically what Doug Beyer and Jenna Helland do). My entire background prior to coming to Wizards was writing, and part of me would love to exercise that muscle again. I should stress that there's a lot of specialized knowledge in creating Magic Story, so all of this presumes that I was able to spend time learning all the specifics that go into that job. I'm not saying that I could just start doing it tomorrow successfully.

On your blog, you joke about how every time you say you like a Planeswalker, they end up getting killed, so you never answer who your favorite Planeswalker is? Now that I have you on the spot, who's your favorite Planeswalker?

My favorite's probably Chandra. She's just such a fun character. I love that every ounce of her wants to do the right thing, but a) her power suite is destructive not constructive and b) she just can't avoid her impulsive nature. She wants to stay focused on the task at hand, but she just can't. As a writer, it's impossible not to fall in love with a character that keeps making bad decisions for the right reasons. You just write her, and she creates her own conflict.

My second favorite Planeswalker is Jace. Like Chandra, his intent is pure. He's inquisitive. He believes that knowing things is good and will result in him making the best decisions, but he just can't help overthinking everything, causing him to be his own worst enemy at times.

And when you get these two together? Comedy gold. I started making "Sparks" (my sitcom in my comic using Planeswalker figures) because I had Chandra and Jace figures, and I kept making comics with them because they were so funny together. In general, putting two characters of enemy colors together makes a good comedy foil, but no pair matches Chandra and Jace.

I'm also blue and red at my core, and I think that's because I see Chandra and Jace within me. I'm impulsive. I'm inquisitive. I make bad choices for the right reasons. I overthink my decisions. Those two characters just speak to me. Also, they're our two most popular characters, so I know I'm not alone in these feelings, and the Creative team probably can't kill them even though I've said I like them.

Mark's Top 3 Set Montage

So far, you've led or co-led the design/vision design of 28 sets (at least ones that have been released). If you had to put them in order from what you consider your best work to what you consider your worst, how would you order them?

Before I get to my list, each and every set (barring one I'll get to) had an awesome design team to work with that helped me do whatever it is I talk about below. Ranking my sets was very hard to do, and if you ask me tomorrow, I'd probably order it slightly differently.

  1. Innistrad – I'm proud of most of what I've done, but when I sit back and look at everything I've designed, this is probably my tightest design.
  2. Ravnica – This is the most influential design I've ever done. This design fundamentally changed a lot of how we design sets. I put it second as it has more mistakes in it than Innistrad (oh, radiance, what was I thinking?)
  3. Unstable – This is probably the most inventive set I've ever designed. Looking back, this set is going to be seen as a precursor of things to come.
  4. Kaladesh – This is the set I think will most surprise people how high I rank it. Yes, this set had some play design issues, but I really liked the design of it. It oozes playful invention and has a very unique feel to it.
  5. Future Sight – This is my "art house" set. It got rave reviews, but it sold horribly. It's probably the most creative set I've ever made.
  6. Dominaria – This might have been my most daunting design. I love how it turned out, but it was a struggle getting there.
  7. War of the Spark – This is my most high-concept set. I enjoyed the boldness of the execution.
  8. Throne of Eldraine – I'm proudest of the modular "build your own story" aspect of the design.
  9. Unglued – There probably isn't a set that I've poured more of myself into. I love that I basically took a very open-ended request ("make a non-tournament-legal set") and turned it into something uniquely its own (something that spawned a line of sets, no less).
  10. Zendikar – I don't think there's a set I had to work harder to get made than Zendikar (yes, even harder than Throne of Eldraine). I enjoy that I took a solid mechanical idea and combined it so well with a creative concept.
  11. Khans of Tarkir – Man, how did this set not make the Top Ten? This is just a really good, solid set that played amazingly.
  12. Tempest – While I've made a lot of better sets over the years, this was a pretty good first design and will always have a soft spot in my heart.
  13. Mirrodin – This is the first world that I helped build. Yes, this block would go horribly astray play design-wise, but the core design was a lot of fun.
  14. Urza's Destiny – I designed this set all by myself. Only Richard Garfield can also say that. I was proud of how many different deck archetypes this set spawned.
  15. Theros – I enjoy how I wove the enchantments thematically into the set. Yes, I wish I'd put more "enchantments matter" stuff in it.
  16. Scars of Mirrodin – This is the most polarizing set I've ever made. I don't consider that a bad thing. The point of this set was to reintroduce the Phyrexians and create an emotional response to them. Mission accomplished!
  17. Shadowmoor – Okay, I went a bit overboard with the hybrid cards, but this is still one of my favorite sets to draft (well, Shadowmoor/Shadowmoor/Shadowmoor).
  18. Gatecrash – This design has a bunch of good mechanics, better than original Ravnica, but is far from inventive in any way.
  19. Dark Ascension – This is as low as it is not because it's that bad, but because it's such a drop-off from Innistrad.
  20. Odyssey – This set is way too Spike-y for its own good, but if you like that kind of thing, this design was well crafted.
  21. Amonkhet – This design would have been much better if we'd just pulled a few things out of it.
  22. Guilds of Ravnica – There's nothing wrong with this set, but I feel like the biggest thing I did for this design was make original Ravnica.
  23. Ravnica Allegiance – Ditto!
  24. Fifth Dawn – This set got backed into a corner and made some bold choices. It did lead to us getting Aaron Forsythe into R&D, though.
  25. Ixalan – Repeat to self—"Tribal sets need glue." It hurts extra because I knew this and still let it happen.
  26. Unhinged – There's a lot of fun individual card designs, but the larger structure is bad, and letting Gotcha through might be my single biggest design mistake. Screwing up in an Un- set (which I don't get too many of) makes it hurt even more.
  27. Eventide – Like Fifth Dawn, I got backed into a corner, but this time, I did it to myself. A lone set of enemy hybrid drafted with a lone set of allied hybrid? What was I thinking?
  28. Battle for Zendikar – This is at the bottom not because it's the worst (Eventide or Unhinged gets that honor), but I made it at a time that I should have known better. And the fundamental mistake of the set—making it about the war with the Eldrazi—was all my mistake.

"That Will Be All"

That's all the time I have for my interview. I hope you guys enjoyed it. As always, I'm eager to hear your feedback on any of my answers. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram) and let me know.

Join me next week when I talk about an important aspect of game design that I haven't discussed before (well, at least I never dedicated a whole column to it).

Until then, may you have the courage to ask yourself the tough questions.

 
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