Maro on Maro, Part II

Posted in Making Magic on November 23, 2009

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.

Before we start Part II of this interview, is there anything you'd like to say?

Yes. If you haven't read Part I of the interview, I heartily suggest doing so. I'm going to answer these questions assuming you have.

When last we left, I asked you a question that you dodged by pushing it off until today's column. As it is today's column, I think there is a lot of expectation that I ask the question. So once more with feeling: You've written over one million words about designing Magic. What is the most important aspect of design that you've never talked about?

With over a million words I've written a little bit about everything, but if I had to pick the most important aspect of design that's received the least amount of attention in my column I think it would have to be the communication aspect of the job. I talk a lot about the creative part because that is both what most people seem to want to hear about and is the most fascinating for me to discuss. The creative aspect though is just part of the job.

Designing Magic cards is not a solitary task. I'm not some author squirreled away somewhere who emerges when I've finished my manuscript. Magic design and development is a collaborative process. It is very easy for me to talk possessively about Zendikar's design, but the reality is that Zendikar is the creation of many, many people. Everyone who interacted with the project did whatever they could to help perfect it.

My job as a designer is not just to create something, it is to help nurture it through the process. I have to crystallize my vision and explain it. I have to make R&D see what my team and I see. When they find issues, I have to help address them. And when I hand off the file I have to be there to give feedback but also step back to let others do what they need to do.

I am often asked what skills are needed to be a good designer. One of the most important is people skills, the ability to interact with others in a way that helps generate positive interactions. I have a tendency to play up conflict because it makes for better storytelling. The truth though is that I agree with my coworkers far more often than I disagree. R&D spends a lot of time talking things through because we want to be on the same page while working on a project.

This collaborative aspect of design is vital to its well-being, but I feel I am guilty of not spending enough time in my column talking about it. Why? Because, to be blunt, interaction without conflict makes for boring storytelling, and much of my job as the author of "Making Magic" is make an entertaining read week in and week out. I just want to give a shout-out to my coworkers because they are a big part of what makes my job so much fun. Having the ability to daily interact with fellow smart, thought-provoking, communicative gamers is a treat, one that I greatly value.

What else do you value in your job?

A number of things, in no order other than what I thought them up in. One, I love working on something that I and many others care so much about. Two, I love how creatively challenging my job is. Three, I love that I'm doing something that brings happiness to the world. Four, I love how much I enjoy what I do. Five, I love that my job is flexible enough to allow me to use so many different skills, such as getting to write a weekly column. Six, I love how often I get the sense that I need to stop doing what I'm doing to get back to work only to realize I am working. Seven, I love working with so many people that I respect and enjoy. Eight, I love how I get constant feedback on the work I do. Nine, I love how I can come to work dressed in a flannel and superhero t-shirt every day. And ten, I love that off the top of my head I can easily come up with ten things I love about my job.

What is the downside of your job?

Creative endeavors tend to have high highs and low lows. I enjoy when a product like Zendikar succeeds. I don't enjoy how hard it is sometimes to convince people to do something that I have so much faith in but that no one else does. I also dislike how sometimes discussions get more heated than either side wants them to. There's internal politics involved and there are always unpopular tasks that have to be done, but all in all, my downsides basically boil down to the fact that it's a job and every job has frustrating aspects.

What's the most common question you're asked?

I guess that would have to be "I want to work in R&D. How can I make that happen?"

If someone wants to work in R&D, how can they make that happen?

Let me start by saying that it's a hard thing to do for a couple reasons. One, our turnover rate in R&D is the lowest in the company. People who come to work in R&D really want to work in R&D and thus stay in R&D. As such, there just aren't a lot of open slots. (Although recently we had one for a game designer, so never say never.) Two, because so many people want the job, there's a lot of competition. Note that I'm not saying it's impossible. Tom LaPille decided one day that he wanted to work in R&D and took the steps necessary to make it come true.

This begs the question: what are those steps? The answer is that there isn't any one particular set of steps. Everyone who has come to work in R&D got here through different means (hmm, an interesting column idea). If someone wants to work in R&D, they have to find their own path. Here's what that entails. First, figure out what you have to offer R&D. Note that passion or desire while valuable aren't enough unto themselves. A lot of people really, really want to work here. What R&D cares about are what skills you bring to the table.

Second, you have to find a way to communicate that you have those skills. For development, the easiest way to do this historically has been to do well in high-level Magic events. Doing such helps demonstrate that you can analyze metagames and build decks. Design works a bit differently. In design what we care about is an understanding of what makes the game tick. Winning Pro Tours doesn't necessarily show that. My advice for would-be designers is to get a pulpit (and there are numerous Magic web sites to do this) and analyze not the metagame but the game itself.

A lot of people seem to think the door to design is to show off cards you've designed. This avenue tends not to work for several reasons. One, I and the other designers, for various reasons, are instructed to not look at amateur card designs, so if you send me your homemade card set to my email or mail it to Wizards in a box, I can't look at it. Two, what I need to know more than anything else is how a card designer thinks. I can get that from card designs but it takes me a lot longer than listening or reading the person just talk about design. Three, it's hard to surprise me. I've been designing cards a long time and even if we haven't printed them yet, I have seen a lot of different cards and mechanics.

A few other random tidbts. Get an undergraduate degree. While it is not technically required, it is highly encouraged for R&D. Check the Wizards Jobs page. All the jobs get posted there. Also, don't make R&D an all or nothing. There are plenty of opportunities for Wizards employees to help on Magic. Aaron Forsythe, for example, started as the editor in chief of, and Brian Tinsman began in Market Research.

Finally, I cannot stress enough that your message to us should be one of "here's what I have to offer," not "here's how much I want to work for you." This is the most common mistake I see in letters attempting to get their author's foot in the door. Don't tell us what we can do for you, tell us what you can do for us.

We hear a lot about how good R&D is at Magic. How good a Magic player are you?

My entry to R&D wasn't through the Pro Tour, so I don't have the resume that most of the developers do. How good am I? I'm above average for Magic in general (I have been playing continuously for sixteen years), but below average in the ranks of serious competitive players. In R&D, I fall near the bottom. It doesn't hurt my game though that the people I play regularly against are of such a high caliber.

I have learned that I do have two skills for limited play. One, I can pick up new cards much quicker than most as years of design playtests have honed this skill. And two, my mind tends to easily make connections – see my creativity column for more on why—so I tend to see synergy of cards at rate faster than most. My biggest failing from a competitive standpoint is that I tend to make plays that maximize doing something cool rather than doing what is more likely to make me win. ("Hello. My name is Mark, and I am a Johnny.")

You've been interviewed on camera numerous times and you always seem so energetic. Are you always like that?

I wouldn't say always, but yes I'm rather energetic, more often than not. It probably has something to do with the fact that I let my emotions run pretty high. Remember, I'm an Izzet man. I am well known in the Pit for having the loudest voice. One of the reasons I feel I'm good at my job is that I'm genuinely excited about it. When people ask me to talk about my work I get animated because I love talking about what I do. Luckily, there seems to be a significant audience that's wants to hear me talk about it, so it works out well.

One of the things I try hard to do in my columns is to give all of you a sense of who I am as a person. The reason I share a lot of personal details and write with the tone I do is that I'm honestly trying to reflect who I am. Love me, hate me, just like me about average, I am what I am. I'm not trying to create a persona. The person you read every week (at least I hope you do) is Mark Rosewater, warts and all.

Do you think who you are personally has an impact on the game?

How can it not? The act of creation is a very personal one. The fact that individual designers or developers have certain patterns they follow is a running joke in R&D. For example, I love doubling things. I love copying things. I love token making. I love power/toughness swapping. I love engine cards. I love inter-set synergy. I love open-ended modularity. When I design a set, there is no mistaking it for anything but my set. And I think that's great. I love when a designer has such a passion that you can see it in his or her work.

For instance, Rise of the Eldrazi, the large set that caps the end of the Zendikar block, is a Brian Tinsman designed set. It oozes Brian's design sensibilities. It's not the kind of set I would have made. And that's great because I'm designing sets that I would have made. I don't need someone else doing that. What makes Magic great is that there are many different designers each doing something unique.

Speaking of which... Next week is a theme week, but the week after next I am going to dedicate my column to explaining what exactly is going on with Rise of the Eldrazi and talk about how exactly we decided to set up the Zendikar block the way we did.

Before you even get to see Rise of the Eldrazi, you'll get a chance to see Worldwake and learn what a Ken Nagle designed set is like. What are Ken's sensibilities? Worldwake will be your first chance to check out what kind of set Ken would make given the chance. I think it's awesome, by the way, that just three years ago, we ran The Great Designer Search, and mere months from now a Magic set is going to come out that one of our finalists lead the design for. Makes me want to run another GDS. Hmmm.

What does the average player not understand about Magic design? What would surprise them if the shadowed you for a week?

A while back I wrote a column called Nuts and Bolts: Card Codes where I explained that the majority of Magic design is focused on the minutiae. That's the first thing that would surprise people. A lot of design work is pretty routine. Second, I think most players would be surprised how much energy gets put into things that the average player doesn't even think about. The reason so much time is spent on these kinds of things is so that players don't have to spend time thinking about it. Third, even though I constantly talk about it, I still think players would be a bit surprised how far we work ahead. I had my first meeting for "Shake," the fall set of 2011, before Zendikar was released. Fourth, everyone seems to assume I work in an office. In fact, everyone seems to think that I run R&D. I am in charge of design, but I have a boss (Aaron Forsythe, director of Magic R&D) and he has a boss (Bill Rose, VP of R&D) and he has a boss (Greg Leeds, CEO of Wizards). I work in a cubicle in the Pit along with all the other designers and developers. (Come on, I did a photo tour and everything.) Fifth, we spend a lot of time talking to one another. As I said before, making Magic is a highly collaborative creative endeavor. Sixth, you'd be surprised how much design we churn through. The vast, vast, vast majority of design never sees the light of day. In my fourteen years I've designed hundreds of thousands, if not a million, Magic cards. Several thousand have made it to print.

Why is the hit ratio so low?

Because our standards are so high. Magic has a luxury that very few games are ever afforded. I once worked on a trading card game where we were given three weeks for the design. The average large Magic set gets a year for design followed by three quarters of a year of development. We're not just setting out to make a game, we're setting out to make the game. Magic is the crème de la crème of games. One of the reasons, Magic is such an awesome game is we are given the resources and the time to do so. A side effect of this is that we burn through a lot of designs. But we do so because it helps us get the best possible results.

Just so our readers don't think I'm going easy on you because I'm you, let me end with a very hard question. You've been designing Magic for a long time. Why wouldn't it be best in Magic's interest to have you step aside and get some fresh blood to run things?

In any creative design there are two key components: innovation and craft. The first has to do with coming up with new ideas. The second involves mastering the techniques needed to implement those ideas. When an idea is young, innovation is far more important. When an audience is caught up in the novelty of a new idea, you can get away with less craft, basically because the audience doesn't know any better. They have nothing to compare it with.

With time though, the craft gets improved mostly out of necessity as innovation can only carry so much of the creative burden. As the craft improves, expectation grows along with it as the audience now comes to expect that level of craft. Innovation is still important, but not at the percentages necessary at the beginning of the product.

Why keep me around? For starters, I've gotten pretty good at the craft. That's important because the key to finding new innovations in an established creative endeavor is knowing where to look, which comes from having a good handle at the craft. As I hope Zendikar demonstrates, I'm still capable of taking the game to new and different places.

The other answer is this: Magic should keep me around as long as I can keep pushing design in the direction it needs to go. Thus far, I feel I'm doing the game justice. I do agree that new blood is essential, though, and that's why I'm always on the lookout for new design talent.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

You're welcome, me.

Any last words?

Join me next week when I explain how we help players out to prove something.

And until then?

May my readers listen to their own inner voices. Just don't comply if they ask you commit any felonies.

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