A Site To See
In 1990, Wizards of the Coast opened its doors (and by doors I mean the door to founder Peter Adkison's basement). Several years later, Wizards of the Coast made its first web page. It was pretty simple and was just a means to stake out the Wizards of the Coast name. In 1993, Wizards came out with a little game called Magic: The Gathering, and they began what would be a major growth spurt.
In time, Magic: The Gathering got its own web page, but it was strictly a corporate web page mostly used to announce upcoming products. Eventually, Magic: The Gathering started printing content through Sideboard.com, a website used as an expansion of a paper magazine Wizards created to help promote organized play. Sideboard.com was sporadic in its updates but it was the only Magic-related content put out by Wizards of the Coast. Meanwhile, the success of a Magic website called The Dojo spurred numerous Magic-themed websites created by other people or companies. Other than the Sideboard.com, Magic had no content web presence. Cut to January, 2001.
Each year, the company sets goals for the upcoming year. The idea behind having company goals is that it helps give focus to what the company is trying to do for the year. Goal #1 for 2001 was: "Get a better web presence." It was 2001, and the Internet was booming. Our consumer base is highly technical, so it seemed odd that we weren't embracing the Internet as well as we could.
As the #1 goal for Wizards was "get a better web presence," so too was the #1 goal of Magic for the year to "get a better web presence." The Magic Brand Team met with Web Team (the names of sections of the company change, so let's pretend they were called Online Media, though today they're simply the Web Team) and they talked about how they wanted to finally make an awesome site for Magic. Everyone was excited. The person in charge of the project was a man named Daniel Stahl. Daniel wrote up numerous documents explaining how the site was going to be put together. (While I am not going to talk much about all the hard work Dan and his team did—mostly because I didn't witness much of it and thus don't know about it—they were instrumental to making MagicTheGathering.com happen.)
One little section talked about content. Oh yeah, if Magic was going to have a daily site, it was going to need content. Someone who understood Magic was going to have do that. The Magic Brand Team took the assignment of making sure content happened. Seeing that R&D was the section of the company that both made things and had experts in Magic, they gave the assignment to the vice president of R&D, then a man named Jim Lin. Jim passed on the assignment to the head Magic lead (head designer and head developer were at the time one job): a man named Bill Rose. If you read this column regularly, you know that Bill is now the vice president of R&D.
Bill looked over his staff. My credentials were as such:
- I had attended Boston University's College of Communication studying, obviously, communication.
- I had been the editor-in-chief for many years of The Duelist, a paper magazine dedicated to Magic that Wizards produced.
- I was a strong writer and had, at that time, three different Magic columns.
- I was the R&D liaison with marketing, specializing in communicating with our public.
- I was one of the spokespeople for Magic.
Bill handed the project over to me. He said it was my top priority: make Magic an awesome website. Never one to shirk an assignment, especially one I was so excited about, I told him I would make something truly memorable. Little did I know the immensity of the project I just took on.
One of the things they drummed into my head in communications school is that a lot of communications is about doing things in a way that plays into how human behavior wants to receive and process information. In other words, there are tried-and-true methods that have proven to work. The basis of these are taught in what is called communication theory. As this was a large project for our company's biggest product, I decided that I was going to follow the rules I'd been taught to the letter. If we were successful, we could innovate later. The first version of the site, though, was going to be Communications 101.
#1: Communication is About Structure
Long ago, there was a newspaper company that wanted to figure out how to get more people to read its newspaper, so it did an intensive study to understand the motivation of its audience. The very first question the company asked was, "Why do you read the newspaper?" What do you think the number-one answer was? To get the news? No, that was number two. The number-one reason people read the paper was... they read it every day. It was a habit. They had engrained newspaper reading into their daily routine.
Humans are creatures of habit. Think about how you go about your day. How many things do you do the exact same way every day in the exact same order? If you stop to think about it you'll realize: quite a bit. Why is this? Because humans fundamentally fear the unknown. To help with this, we crave structure. If you do the same thing every day in the same order, it helps you know what to do. (It also helps you remember what to do, but that's a topic for another column.)
The reason it's so important to understand this aspect of humanity is because, in order to be successful in communicating to humans, you have to embrace it. How? By making your communication part of their habit. Once you become part of their routine, you have human nature working for you instead of against you.
To do this, communication plays into how humans build structure: repetitive iteration. Humans create a pattern and then copy it. There are three major time units that humans iterate around: days, weeks, and months. Certain actions you do every day, such as brushing your teeth or packing your lunch or surfing the web (we'll get back to this one). Other actions you do once a week. Perhaps you swing by the comics store on Wednesdays or watch a certain TV show Thursday night or drop by a certain bar Friday after work. Finally, there are monthly activities: perhaps you pay bills the first Saturday of the month or you turn in your rent on the 5th or have Game Night the last Friday of every month.
Daily routines are more powerful than weekly routines, which are more powerful than monthly routines, mostly because they iterate more often. All are important, though. Communication plays into this by matching these cycles. What this all meant for the Magic website was this: We needed to have content that played into each cycle. We needed daily features, weekly features, and monthly features.
#2: Communication is About Comfort
Good communication is very personal. In order to get someone to make a habit out your communication you have to make a connection. Yes, the structure is important because humans crave structure, but they also have to have some emotional investment. That's where people come into play. Ideas are great, but people don't connect to ideas. People connect with people. What this means for communication is that if you have a message you want to share, you need to get the audience to connect that idea with a person.
This is why the same people deliver you news every night on television. This is why magazines and newspapers have columnist who always write in their own voice. This is why things in media are always presented in the same way in the same place. Newscasts follow an exact script that works the same every day: they start with headlines; weather comes in the middle, followed by sports; and then there's always some light human-interest story to end with. Magazines always have the same departments in the exact same order so the reader knows what to expect.
The reason for this is that humans need to let their guard down to feel comfortable. To do this, they want to know what to expect and they want to have faces to connect with. This is why I knew the site had to have columnists. I wanted people turning in on a regular interval (weekly made the most sense) to hear what their favorite writers had to say.
#3: Communication is About Surprise
Once humans feel comfortable, you know what they enjoy? Things they don't expect. Yes, after you go through all the trouble to make sure they know exactly what is going to come next, they like to be surprised. This is why Spock had so much trouble with humans. We're not that logical. Humans like surprise because, biologically, there has to be something that forces us out of the caves and exploring for new opportunities. To do this, we have things like curiosity and the thrill of suspense.
Humans are hardwired to seek out new things, but we are also hardwired to be paranoid about new things, so we cope by carving out a safe space and then explore within that space. This is one of the reasons I believe Magic does so well—because it fits both roles. When you see a new Magic set, you know a lot of what to expect. The color wheel clearly carves out different areas for different colors. As I explained when I talked about mapping out the design skeleton, every set has certain slots that are always there (common green Giant Growth variant, common red Lightning Bolt variant, etc.). Every set also does things we've never done before, surprising our audience.
Communication works the same way. You set up a very clear structure, make the audience comfortable, and then you surprise it from time to time. This creates a sense of excitement and encourages the audience to check in every day, because even though it mostly knows what's going to happen, it doesn't know everything. There's always a chance for something the audience didn't expect. Done correctly, it's fun and exciting.
To accomplish this, we were going to have to throw some curveballs at our audience. We would have to make sure that every once in a while we did something no one saw coming. We'd have to occasionally shake things up. Also, we had to provide a structured way to allow for the unknown. The most obvious way to do this is to borrow a popular element from many mediums: the feature. Having a different and unknown article once a week would allow the audience to know that each week there would be a new voice and a new topic to read.
"And Don't Call Me Chief"
As the structure for the site started coming together, I knew I was going to need someone to help me. After all, once the site was up and going someone was going to have to run it. I was still in R&D, after all. I was given time to plan it, but I wasn't going to have the time it takes every week to get that volume of content up on the site. I needed an editor-in-chief.
There were fewer Magic sites than there are now, but there were a few, so I did my research. I read them all, looking for people who had the knowledge and skills it took to run what would become the largest Magic website. After searching for a month, I came up with three names. I called each one and told them I would like them to apply to be the editor-in-chief. I said I felt each was one of a few people qualified for the job. Two of the three people told me they weren't interested (taking the job required moving to Seattle). The third was Aaron Forsythe.
Aaron wrote a wonderful three-part article talking about how he ended up as the director of Magic R&D (Part I, Part II, and Part III). Included in this story is how he first got his foot in the door. Here's my side of that story (at least the hiring him part): I called Aaron and encouraged him to apply. He and his wife Anne decided they could use a change, so Aaron told me he was interested. Aaron came out and interviewed. Aaron was my only choice who was willing to apply, so this should be a short story, right? Not exactly.
The part you don't know is that, although the editor-in-chief was going to work very closely with me crafting the content of the site, he reported to Online Media. This meant I wasn't in charge of the hire. I knew that managing the site day-to-day was going to require a significant amount of Magic knowledge, but Online Media was more interested in hiring someone with an extensive web background, even if the person was unfamiliar with Magic.
So Aaron got turned down and the job was about to go to someone else when things fell through. Seeing an opportunity, I made an impassioned plea to the head of Online Media. I explained that the content needed someone well-versed in Magic. The site was focused at our fan base, which, as you all know, is pretty knowledgeable when it comes to Magic. Aaron was not as proficient at web design but he was smart and I'd seen his work on other sites. Trust me, I said, I believe Aaron can do it.
Making Magic and Four Other Columns
With Aaron on board, the two of us started figuring out what exactly was going to appear on the site. After much thinking, I decided we needed to focus on the daily and weekly content. The weekly content was the most straightforward—I felt we wanted to have a column each day, and I had even figured out roughly what those five columns were supposed to be about. There was going to be a design column, a development column, a Timmy column, a Johnny column, and a Spike column. All Aaron and I had to do was figure out what exactly that meant for each column and then find the most qualified writer to write it.
The Design Column
This was the gimme. I had been writing about Magic since the very early days (mid–1994) and I sure wasn't planning on sitting out the launch of our big new website. We needed a designer to write and I was a writer who designed. It seemed like a perfect fit. I even had the name for my column: Making Magic. I premiered ten years ago, and I write the only still-existing column that has never changed its author.
The idea behind the column was a simple one: talk about what it's like designing Magic. There were some who worried there wasn't enough for me to talk about, but two million words later I think I've proven that Magic design is a deep, deep well of information.
We chose to put Making Magic on Mondays because I wanted the R&D columns to bookend the week, and I felt I would be up to the challenge of introducing the week whenever we had a theme.
View the archive for 'Making Magic'
The Development Column
This was the other pretty easy column to figure out. I knew most players didn't really understand how R&D worked, so the best way to help them see design and development was to separate them into two columns. Randy Buehler was my first choice to write the column, and Randy accepted, so it all came together rather easily. We took a while to come up with the title Latest Developments, but once we stumbled upon it, I knew we had our name.
As of now, Randy was the first of five writers to write Latest Developments. Randy was followed by Aaron (by then working in R&D), who was followed by Devin Low, who was followed by Tom LaPille, who has very recently been followed by Zac Hill. For more on the evolution of the column, check out Zac's article this Friday.
Since Making Magic was on Monday, Latest Developments was put on Friday.
View the archive for 'Latest Developments'
The Timmy Column
We always knew this was going to be the column that appealed to the more casual crowd. This column was going to be about multiplayer play and different variants and was designed for players who were just trying to find different ways to have an experience and enjoy the game. Once we plotted out what we wanted each column to be, Aaron and I independently made different lists for who we thought would be best for the column. Both of our first choices for the author of the Timmy column was Anthony Alongi.
Anthony had written a long-running feature on, first, The Dojo, and later, StarCityGames.com, called Casual Fridays. He was a strong writer and he knew his audience well. The only thing left was getting Anthony to agree to come write for our site. That proved not to be a problem. We called the column Serious Fun because we liked the idea that it took having fun seriously. Also, well, it's a pun.
Anthony would go on to have the second-longest run of the original five columnists and Serious Fun still runs to this day. Anthony was followed by The Ferrett, who was then followed by our own Kelly Digges (longtime editor-in-chief of the site), and is now written by Adam Styborski.
We believed we were going to get more Timmies than any other demographic (remember, our site was the only one not targeted at the tournament player) so we decided to put Serious Fun as the first psychographic column of the week, on Tuesdays.
View the archive for 'Serious Fun'
The Johnny Column
We knew the Johnny column was going to be a deck-building column, one that played up style over win percentage. The big question was, "Who would write it?" I made a list of all the deck builders I knew, but they all tended to be more Spike than Johnny. Aaron was the one who suggested Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar. Aaron had worked with Jay and thought he'd be a good fit.
Upon Aaron's suggestion, I realized I recognized the name. Jay was one of the deck builders who had submitted numerous decks we wanted to use for an Invitational format called Auction of the People, where the pros bid on decks built by Magic players. Jay had made a clamfolk deck with exactly one Mox Pearl in it, which I loved and selected to be included in the Auction. Aaron and I were in agreement: Jay was our man. Just one problem. When we contacted him, he informed us he had just quit playing.
Just when Jay thought he was out, we sucked him back in. The column, combined with the vision for the site, reinvigorated Jay and he signed on. We called the column House of Cards. Jay eventually left House of Cards, but MagicTheGathering.com kept pulling him back as a columnist, first to write Into the Æther and then Building on a Budget. Jay was followed on House of Cards by Mark Gottlieb, who was then followed by Chris Millar. The column is now written by Noel deCordova. When Noel took over, the name of the column was changed to From the Lab, because there was a concern that not enough people understood from the name that House of Cards was a wacky deck-building column.
We had a lot of confidence in House of Cards, so we stuck in on Thursday to bookend the psychographic columns.
The Spike Column
And now we get to the biggest trouble-maker of the original five columns. Because Sideboard.com already existed, we promised to not step on their toes, which meant we weren't supposed to talk about tournament strategy. As that was the primary topic of every other Magic website out there, I decided maybe it was for the best. We would make MagicTheGathering.com different from every other Magic site partly because we would talk about things no one else did. Still, it made making a Spike column kind of tricky.
The idea we eventually came up with was a history column. The Spike column would examine the history of the game and the cards, and explain the significance of things that were relevant without dwelling on their tournament viability. Aaron also suggested the author for this column: a Magic player named Ben Bleiweiss. We called the column Uncommon Knowledge.
Of the five original columns, this is the only one to fall by the wayside. When MagicTheGathering.com and Sideboard.com merged several years later, we were allowed to start talking tournament strategy for the Spikes and the history column fell into obscurity. (This was also when the site went from five columns a week to ten— it would later go up to eleven and then back down to nine.) The column's spot morphed into the Top Decks column written by Mike Flores. Mike had written numerous articles for MagicTheGathering.com, and when the right column popped up for him he came aboard. (The same was also true for Brian David Marshall, who now writes The Week That Was.)
As this was the column we had the least confidence in, we put it in the middle of the week to help give it the best support.
All In A Day's Update
We had our weekly columns. The next thing was to come up with some daily content. Here was the criteria I had set out for it:
- It had to be quick and easy to make, since we'd be doing it every day.
- It had to be bite-sized, because we wanted to encourage people to visit the site every day. So we needed something they could digest quickly.
- It had to be broad in subject matter, as we wanted to make it relevant for as many people as we could.
- It had to allow us to play into our strengths.
When I was putting together the site, one of the things I asked very early on was what our advantages were. If we were going to succeed, we needed to play to our strengths. I came up with the following: we had unique, behind-the-scenes content no one else had; we were able to make announcements no one else could; and we were the official voice of the game, meaning when we said something it had value. I wanted to make sure these strengths were built into our daily content.
We knew we wanted a place for news but we had one problem: there just wasn't news every day. The solution was to make a feature that gave information every day—just not always news. This feature could tell cool stories from the game's past; explain something going on players might not be aware of it; or, when we needed it, serve as the place we made announcements. The name Magic Arcana came about because I wanted it to have a magically themed name. I looked through every book I could find about magic (including many Dungeons & Dragons books) and wrote down all the magic-related words I could find. When I stumbled upon the word "arcane" I knew I had found what I was looking for.
Magic Arcana has appeared daily every weekday since the site premiered. As the editor of the site, Aaron did most of the early Magic Arcanas, with me pitching in ideas for what they could be. Modern Magic Arcanas are put together by Monty Ashley, one of the people behind the scenes putting the site together every day.
View the archives for 'Magic Arcana'
This column was created because I really wanted the site to be the official voice for the game. Part of doing that was giving the players a chance to ask whatever they wanted and then having us answer those questions. Of all the features that have fallen by the wayside, this is the one I miss most. A combination of logistics and a lack of questions made it harder and harder to put together, and the feature was dropped many years back.
Card of the Day
We wanted quick and bite-size daily features. We also wanted to make sure everyone knew this was a Magic website. One way to do this was to put a Magic card on the screen every day. All these goals combined to create Card of the Day. This feature took on a new life when Monty Ashley took it over. Not only were there daily factoids to gobble up, but Monty started making themes to the cards each week. Some themes (usually during theme weeks) are straight-forward, while others are anything but, allowing readers to try and figure out the connection.
View the archives for 'Card of the Day'
Odds & Ends
Aaron and I weren't done just yet. We had a few more ideas we implemented.
This was a weekly feature where we examined card names. Sometimes we defined them, sometimes we reviewed how we made them up, and sometimes we just explained how to pronounce them. This feature never really caught on and was slowed down to a monthly feature and finally abandoned.
View the archives for 'Lexicon'
Poll of the Week
I wanted to make sure that the site wasn't a one-way direction of communication, so I felt it was important to have polls to let all of you tell us things as well. This weekly feature still exists but has been rolled up into the Latest Developments column.
Orb of Insight
One of the things I felt strongly was that the website wasn't supposed to merely be passive. We wanted to allow our players to be active in what was going on. This led to things like You Make the Card and Selecting Nth Edition. My idea was to come up with a tool that allowed players to figure out things about the new website for themselves. We weren't sure what you all were going to do with the Orb but we knew we had to start off our first preview (for Torment) strong.
I am often asked why every set doesn't have an Orb of Insight. The answer is that we felt it was more exciting if it was something that only sometimes happened. Also, certain sets work better with the Orb than others, so sometimes we skip the Orb because we don't want you figuring out certain things ahead of time.
There was one last thing I insisted upon, partly as the guy putting the site together and partly as a columnist who had to write every week: I wanted every other week to be a theme week. This was done for several reasons:
- It helps give the columnists something to write about. It is very hard writing a weekly column, and having a topic given to you every other week is a huge help.
- The themes allowed us to push certain topics to help getting the audience talking about them.
- Restrictions breed creativity. Part of getting a writer to stretch creatively is to make him do something he might never normally do on his own. As an example, my favorite column of all time was my first Topical Blend column ("To Err Is Human"), where I forced myself to blend a Magic theme and non-Magic theme, both selected by my readers. (The topics were "Top 10 Design Mistakes and "Girls," if you've never had a chance to read the article.)
The theme weeks worked out well and have continued to modern day. I've managed to be on theme every week but one: the time I introduced the existence of the Unhinged set.
"I Love It When A Plan Comes Together"
There's not much story to tell about the launch other than it did quite well and started an upward trajectory that pretty much has kept going up over the last ten years. While columns morphed and writers shifted, MagicTheGathering.com has weathered on. It's hard to believe it turns ten today. Just as when my kids hit a milestone, it makes me feel old.
I would love for people to use the thread to share their stories of their first encounter with the website. I've tried to drop a lot of names, but there have just been so many people—both visible and behind the scenes—who have made MagicTheGathering.com what it is. To all of them, I salute you and all your hard work, and look forward to writing the twenty-year anniversary ten years from today.
Join me next week when we start our ascent into darkness.
Until then, may you take time to stop and look were you've been.