Let's start with the obvious question. You already interviewed yourself in a column back in October of 2005 ("Twenty Questions"). Why repeat yourself?
One of the most important lessons I've learned as a designer is to recognize good ideas and be willing to reuse them. If something works the first time, what value is there in throwing it away? I interviewed myself once before and I really liked the article that resulted. (If you haven't read it, I recommend you do so. I am going to make a conscious effort to not repeat answers from that interview.) It's four years later and I have a lot of new questions I was curious to ask myself so it seemed like a good time to repeat the idea.
So you just celebrated your fourteenth year with Wizards of the Coast. How does it feel to be doing this for so long?
Blessed. I believe for most people there is a short list of major things that they want to achieve with their life. One of the most important is finding a job that they can both excel at and enjoy. I couldn't ask for anything better than what I'm doing right now. I have my dream job. Not a lot of people get to say that. Why am I still here fourteen years later? Because when you find your dream job, you stay.
How has Magic changed in the fourteen years you've been with it?
My oldest daughter, Rachel, is nine. If you asked me how she's changed in the last nine years I'd give the exact same answer. She's grown up. She's got more growing to do but I've been able to watch her mature into her own person. She's the same person though and there are definitely traits I see today that I saw when she was just a few months old.
The last fourteen years have been amazing because I've seen the game mature in ways that I couldn't have imagined. I didn't always foresee the changes but in each case, I believe the game moved in a direction that it needed to go. What exactly are those changes? There are more than I could list but here are a few of the highlights: Limited play has gone from being an afterthought to being ingrained into the essence of every set. Blocks and sets are now created holistically so that all the moving pieces work in concert with one another. We've been better able to distill what makes the game fun from what makes the game complicated. The creative elements are now an organic part of the design rather than a retro fit. We design and develop cards much more with the thought of who wants to play each card and what they want from it.
Part of growing up is learning who you are and what you want to be. That's what Magic's done. If I look at Tempest (my first design) and Zendikar (my latest design – that's been released) I can see the evolution in both the game and myself as a designer. While the game at its core still has the same spark, it has matured. It is now capable of much more than it once was. The gameplay is more layered, richer. It allows more possibilities while cutting back on a lot of what I'll call baby fat.
There are times when I take a step back and run the mental slide show of what Magic has been like at different points of my time at Wizards. The emotions are the same ones I have when I look through a photo album of my kids. I love Magic. I loved it when it was a baby and I love what it's grown into. It makes me proud to have had the honor to be someone so involved in its upbringing.
Be aware, it's still got some more growing to do and I'm not going anywhere so I'm just as excited to see what changes are ahead.
How do you think you've changed as a designer in the last fourteen years?
The biggest change comes from having done the same thing for fourteen years. I've talked about the book "Outliers: The Story of Success" by Malcolm Gladwell. In it, he claims that to become an expert at something you need one major thing: a lot of time spent doing the thing you want to become an expert at (the book says a minimum of 10,000 hours) with constant feedback. Well, I've been designing Magic cards for over 10,000 hours and I have made a strong effort to hear what the players think about what I (and the rest of R&D) have done. In short, I've learned a lot of the craft that goes into designing Magic cards.
Another big change is that I have a very different mindset than when I began. Once upon a time, I would design a cool card and then just try to get it into a set wherever I could. Now I'm very conscious about making sure that each card goes in the right place. If I make a card that doesn't fit, I have no problem yanking it because I know that if the card is good enough it will eventually find the proper home.
With time, I have also broadened my scope in how I think about design. In the beginning, I was very focused on the individual cards. Then I shifted to being very focused on the mechanics. The next shift was a focus on the sets. Next was block theme followed by block structure. With time, I find myself more and more fascinated by the big picture.
Finally, I've begun thinking about advancing the design along a different spectrum. In the evolution of any technology, it begins with a need to stress practicality. In the beginning, the new thing has to be able to do whatever it is it does. But with time, technology starts to solve the practicality issues leaving the designers time to start moving towards the other end of the spectrum, aesthetics. The best example I can think of is the cell phone.
In the beginning, cell phones were a giant brick. They were ugly and bulky but they did allow you to talk on the phone wherever you were. Today we have phones like the iPhone. While the iPhone is pushing to constantly do new things it also has made a strong attempt to make the cell phone be something beautiful. Magic is in a similar place. We have figured out a lot of what we need to do to make the game practical. Now design is starting to focus much more on the aesthetics. Can we give you the game experience you want while also making the game appealing on an emotional level? This is a super complex issue and I'm sure I'll dedicate a whole article to it one of these days.
We've talked about Magic and you. How has Wizards of the Coast changed in the last fourteen years?
When I first got to Wizards it was a young company. Only a few years earlier, it had been a tiny roleplaying game company so far down on the totem pole that I, a game aficionado, had never heard of them. Magic almost overnight turned them from a nobody into one of the dominant, core gaming companies. The Wizards when I first got to the company had a lot of charm but it lacked experience. Most of the people working for Wizards had never done anything anywhere close to the size of Magic. What time has brought is expertise, both in the fact that some of us have learned a lot by doing the job for so long and by the fact that we started hiring people based on their knowledge and experience.
Not only was the company young but so too were the employees. At the time I started, for example, every single person working in TCG [Trading Card Games] R&D lived in the same apartment complex. With the exception of Richard [Garfield], no one was married. We spent all our time hanging out together because none of us knew anyone else. (I should point out that R&D still spends a great deal of time together – me less so only because I have my family.)
I talked about Magic maturing in the last fourteen years. That goes double for Wizards. We purchased TSR (the company that made Dungeons & Dragons). We were purchased by Hasbro. We've been in three buildings (not counting founder Peter Adkison's basement). We're on our fifth CEO. While I have a fondness for the Wizards that existed when I first moved to Renton, Washington, I don't believe that company would be capable of doing so much of the things we do today.
Looking back on the last fourteen years, do you have any regrets?
My life and Magic are both in such a good spot that it's hard for me to want to change anything that led us here. Sure, things happen that in the moment upset me, but with hindsight I can see how those things led to the many good things that came after.
In the last fourteen years you've written over a million words about the game. How do you see your growth as a writer?
Much as I see my growth as a game designer. I feel the act of doing the same thing week in and week out has helped me improve my craft. One of the hardest things about writing is finding your voice. Writing 3000+ words a week for eight years (not counting the four other columns I wrote before that) has definitely allowed me to become comfortable with my voice. I've also built up a pretty significant audience so it's nice that there's someone listening to what I have to say.
The thing that's amazed me is that I still have so much content to write about. Sure, I've been very willing to occasionally step outside the normal bounds of topic for a column but most weeks I'm talking about what it takes to design Magic cards. Eight years later, I have no worry of running out of things to say. It's funny in that I'm always asked about when Magic will run out of design space and I always give a similar answer – the more I do it the less I'm worried about producing more material.
The final thing that experience has gotten me is the willingness to trust my writer instincts and write what I want to write about. Not every week is for everyone but every week is for someone and I've done this long enough to know my different audiences.
Besides being a frequent writer you've also one of the de facto spokespeople for the game. What is that like?
There's good and bad. Being a Magic celebrity has given me a little taste of what real celebrity must be like. On the upside, the attention is fun because it mainly happens at Magic events where I'm ready to be approached. I like signing autographs and taking pictures with people. I like getting a lot of mail from players. It still tickles me that I have a Wikipedia page. It's definitely fun Googling your name and seeing thousands of hits.
On the downside, being a public figure means you're fair game for whatever people want to say about you. Many times the issue at hand doesn't even have anything to do with me. Oftentimes it's not about the game at all but about me personally. There are people who claim to hate me that I've never met. The story I always tell is about a friend of mine who Googled me at work when she was bored and stumbled across some scathing articles by a writer that hated me. The next time she saw me, we had the following conversation:
My Friend: Do you know [Writer X]?"
Me: Yeah, he doesn't really like me
My Friend: Have you seen what he writes about you?
Me: I've read it.
My Friend: He says some really mean stuff.
Me: I know.
My Friend: He says things about you that aren't even true.
Me: Yes, he doesn't know me.
My Friend: It doesn't bother you that he says such mean things?
Me: What am I going to do about it?
My Friend: Confront him.
Me: I don't think giving him attention is going to do anything positive for me.
My Friend: You're just going to let him spread lies?
Me: I'm not letting him do anything.
My Friend: So you're okay with this?
Me: I've accepted that it's going to happen and there's nothing I can do about it.
My Friend: It really sucks.
Me: It does.
My Friend: It pisses me off.
Me: Well, thank you for that.
All in all, I've accepted it as a fair trade-off. I like speaking for Magic and I learned to take the bad with the good. If I'm going to be associated with something I'm glad it's something as awesome as Magic.
That's a fine transition to talking about Magic. I've seen you talk a lot about Magic's strengths. What is Magic's greatest weakness?
As I'm fond of saying, I believe your greatest weakness is just your greatest strength pushed too far. What is Magic's greatest strength? It's flexibility. It has the ability to be a different game to each person who plays it. It's constantly evolving and changing what it is. While obviously that's a good thing, it also brings with it many dangers. The game has an inertia that could destroy itself if left unchecked.
It's funny that every time I write about how we're simplifying the game, my thread fills up with people complaining about how we're destroying Magic. Here's the irony. We do what we do to keep Magic from destroying itself. The metaphor I use to explain this is fire. I think some of our players think of complexity as this dainty little fire we're building with a handful of sticks. We have to be careful because if we don't constantly nurture it, it will go out. R&D, on the other hand, sees complexity as a five-alarm fire. We are constantly working to keep it from engulfing the game. The idea that we're going to accidentally put it out seems absurd to me.
There is nothing we could ever do to make Magic not a complex game. It's got over 10,000 parts and we keep making more. With every expansion we throw fuel on the fire. You see, that's the tricky part: we want to keep adding new things to the game, but if we don't do it carefully that very desire will kill it. There is a point where we could load enough complexity on the game that it will collapse upon itself. That's the game's greatest weakness.
So when I show off land mechanics we could have done, there's a reason why we didn't use them. Yes, in a vacuum any one of them could be interesting, but R&D doesn't have the luxury to think in a vacuum. Our goal isn't just to make Zendikar as awesome it could be, it's to make Magic as awesome as it could be. Interestingly, I think Zendikar got better because of that attitude.
Aren't you essentially trading away old players to acquire new ones?
No, we're not. Some people seem to think that complexity is the thing older players want. It isn't. What do older players want? Interestingly, the same thing newer players want: a fun game. Magic, as is any game, is a diversion, a source of entertainment, a reason to interact with friends. The second that Magic isn't fulfilling those needs, that's when someone walks away.
R&D's goals of the last few years have been to cut to the essence of what makes Magic fun, not just for new players but for everyone. One of the things we've learned is that complexity for the sake of complexity is not it. Having more things to think about than a human being is capable of processing does not make the game any more fun.
What does make it fun? Having cards that do things players want to do. Having flavor that resonates. Having environments that are fun to explore. Having the game be about playing the game rather than figuring out how to play the game. Magic is cresting right now because I believe R&D has done an excellent job of making it fun.
I think I did a disservice many years back by framing the conversation about acquiring new players. Our real goal has always been to enhance the game for all players of which new players are merely a subset. Build a better game and everyone benefits.
Do you feel there's pressure to always build the better set?
It's never my goal to best things that came before. In fact, I don't even think in terms of competition. Zendikar wasn't designed to be better than Shards of Alara, it was designed to be the best Zendikar it could be. I think the biggest measuring stick I use is against what I feel my team and I are capable of. I constantly look at files and ask myself, "Can we make this better?"
The only thing I look at as far as comparison is that I feel it's important to learn from mistakes. If some previous set did something wrong, I want to make sure that I understand why so that we don't make the same mistake again.
Isn't the creative process ripe with mistakes?
I didn't say I wanted to avoid mistakes. I said I wanted to avoid repeating mistakes. I have no problem making mistakes. One of the greatest mental blocks to design, or anything creative really, is the fear of doing something wrong. It's societally ingrained in us from youth and it's hard to shake. The path to good ideas though often needs to travel through bad ideas to get there. As I've said in my column numerous times, mistakes are the best learning tool. I'm not afraid of making mistakes. My fear is not learning from them.
You've written over one million words about designing Magic. What is the most important aspect of design that you've never talked about?
Excellent question, me. Unfortunately, we've hit our word count for today's column which means I'll have to answer that question in two weeks when we have Part II of this interview. Be sure to tell your readers to join me next week when I'll be holding the whole Worlds in my hands (or at least trying to).
Is there anything the readers should be doing until then?
Why yes there is. I hope they may take a minute to ask themselves the tough questions no one else has and then answer them.