Untold Tales

Posted in Making Magic on February 22, 2016

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.

Last month, I talked about how I do a significant amount of social media. That means that over 20 years, I've told a lot of stories. A lot of stories. In fact, I've retold a lot of stories. It's a running joke that I tell the same stories again and again. So, my goal with today's column was to try and tell a number of stories that I've never told before—stories from Magic's past that I've somehow never shared in my columns or my podcast or my blog. This is a lot harder than it sounds, so bear with me. That said, let's get started.

My Employment Interview

I've told the tale of my employment by R&D many times. The quick version is that I started as a freelancer for the Duelist, making puzzles and writing articles, and from there started freelancing with different sections of Wizards of the Coast. I had freelanced for seven different sections of the company and had been brought up to the corporate offices in Renton numerous times. During one of those visits I was talking with Mike Davis, then the vice president of R&D, when I said to him that I'd decided I'd be willing to move to Seattle and work at Wizards, to which he replied, "When could you start?"

The story I haven't told up until now was about my employment interview. Technically, I had a few interviews with various people, but in each case, I was very familiar with the people interviewing me and mostly it ended up with me asking them questions about the job. But I did have one interview where I was put on the spot to demonstrate why I'd be a good fit for Magic R&D. My interviewer was Joel Mick. Joel was one of the original playtesters (he'd met Richard through a bridge club) and had come to work in R&D. At the time, he was the head designer and developer for Magic (back in the day, it was a single job with one person overseeing both sections).

I was a bit nervous when I entered the room for our meeting, because even though I had met Joel, I didn't know him as well as many of the other R&D folks. He was a bit intimidating to me. "Come on in," Joel said. "Take a seat."

Joel was seated at a table in the conference room, so I sat down on the other side of the table. He looked at the bag I had with me. "Did you bring what I asked?" he said.

I nodded that I had. "Well then," said Joel. "Let's begin."

And with that I pulled out my Magic deck.

You see, Joel felt that the best way to tell if I had it what it took to work in Magic R&D was for him to play me in a game of Magic. I was told by others before the meeting that if I really wanted to impress Joel, I needed to beat him. They warned me, though, that Joel was very good.

I had a lot of decks to choose from. I was a Johnny deck builder and I had a lot of decks built. The problem was, I was a Johnny deck builder, so my decks were mostly built to win in weird ways. I had my deck that defeated you by casting Tunnel (a card whose rules text is "Destroy target Wall"). I had a deck where I defeated my opponent with Sorrow's Path. I had a deck where I animated every card type and attacked with them. I had all sorts of very strange and wacky decks, very few of which felt appropriate for the interview.

My best deck was a blue-green weenie deck that had the ability to win on turn one and often won on turns two or three. But that deck was inconsistent, and I didn't felt it showed off anything about my knowledge of Magic.

In the end, I decided to use a deck I called Edgar. Back in the day, it entertained me to give all my decks names of actual people. Edgar was a bleeder deck. It was designed to gum up the game while I slowly injured my opponent, sort of a death by a thousand paper cuts. Edgar was made so that it used a lot of different cards, and it was designed to be very difficult for my opponent to figure out what I was up to. For those who care, the deck was powered by four Land Taxes, a card that back in the day did not have the reputation it would later earn.

I chose Edgar to play against Joel because A) it was probably my second-best deck competitively, and B) I felt it was a good deck to show off because it used a lot of cards in interesting combinations. Joel seemed very confident as the game began, because he was seeing cards that he didn't think were all that good; but as the game dragged on and it became clear that I was going to put up a real fight, Joel began asking me interview questions. Why did I include a particular card, and what were my thoughts on its design and development?

Joel knew that focusing on answering the questions would make it harder for me to focus on the game, but I had played Edgar a lot, so I was able to maintain the game state while focusing on the questions. As the questions continued, they stopped being about my thoughts on the card and started to be about what a particular card did for the deck. Joel was trying to figure out how to beat me.

In the end, I answered all the questions and managed to win. As I dealt the last point of damage to Joel, he thanked me and told me the interview was done. I later found out from the others that it went well. I had impressed Joel. Not only had I managed to beat him, but I did so with a deck that he didn't fully understand.

And that was my employment interview.

My Favorite Development Meeting

When I was first hired into R&D, it wasn't as a designer. I started at Wizards as a developer. It was me, Bill Rose, Mike Elliott, and William Jockusch, and the four of us (eventually joined by Henry Stern a year or so later) served as the development team for all the Magic sets. The first set that the four of us did development on separately as a team (Alliances had a giant development team of thirteen, with just about everybody in R&D on it) was Mirage, followed by Visions. Both sets had been designed by one of the original playtest teams (Bill Rose, Charlie Catino, Joel Mick, Don Felice, Howard Kahlenberg, and Elliot Segal).

Bill was the lead developer for both Mirage and Visions (he was also the co-lead designer on the sets—we don't normally let one person have both roles to allow fresh eyes on the set). Mike and I were both really designers, but wanted to work in R&D and so started as developers. Neither one of us was particularly good at power-level gauging, although that didn't keep either one of us from trying. William was the closest in mindset to a modern-day developer. William had a tendency to build offbeat decks that would often warp our playtest data (we'll get to that story later), but all in all, he was the most qualified to correctly cost cards.

I ended up being the yang to William's yin. Where William was very conservative in his costing, I was very aggressive. My attitude, at the time, was that the game was more exciting when cards were pushed, so I was always the force on the development team asking, "Can't we make this a little better?'

You have to understand that I understood I was a bit reckless, but I also knew the other three would keep me in check, especially William. I liked to think of myself as a force that made sure the team always considered tweaking the power level upward. Anyway, the four of us worked on Mirage, and when we were done, it was time to move onto Visions.

The last person involved in this story was Joel Mick, my interviewer from the story above. Remember, he was head designer/developer. Joel cared about Mirage and Visions not only in his role in R&D but also because he was the co-lead designer for both sets. So Joel was dismayed when playtesting showed that Visions was weak.

Development was almost over, so Joel knew that something needed to be done. He called the Visions development team to a meeting and sat the four of us down. "Okay," said Joel, "here's what we're going to do. The four of you are going to have a development meeting. Mark's going to make suggestions. William's not going to talk."

For those unfamiliar with Magic history, Visions is considered to have an above-average power level and had a big impact on all the formats at the time.

Best. Meeting. Ever.

Not Good Bayou

There have been a lot of Magic cards forced into sets for various reasons. Sometimes it's a development issue. The environment is out of whack and we need an answer to the card(s) causing the problems. Sometimes it's a creative issue. Some key element of the story got left out and we want to see if we can find a place for it. But of all the reasons to force cards into a set, my least favorite happened during Tempest. Tempest was the first set I was ever on the design team for, as well as the first set I was lead designer on. (We don't let people lead the very first design team they're on anymore.) Also, because everyone in Magic R&D was on every development team at the time, I was also on Tempest development.

The request came during development. We were making some video game in conjunction with Magic and we wanted to have some overlap between our new set and the game. Fair enough, a little crossover can be a good thing. We offered to show the people making the video game the file for Tempest and said they could pick whatever they wanted to include in their game. No, that's not what they wanted. They already had the things they wanted in their game. They were interested in us taking things from them. Okay, we could try and make it work.

And these things already had names, so we needed to match the names. Now, remember that Tempest was set on the plane of Rath. It was a very stylized world, and it wasn't necessarily the kind of place where just anything would fit, but we were team players. I don't even remember what all the cards were—I think there were like six to eight—but one remains in my memory. This card:

We had worked hard to fit all the cards in to make them feel as natural to Rath as we could, but Bayou Dragonfly stood out. There weren't really any bayous on Rath, but that was the name, so we had to work it in. We had freedom to design the card, but Bayou Dragonfly didn't give us much to go on. It kind of had to fly, as it was a dragonfly. I mean, "fly" was in its name. Now, green wasn't supposed to have fliers, but okay, we made an exception. I think we added swampwalk to try and make some sense of the word "Bayou."

Anyway, we took the square peg and jammed it into the round hole because we wanted to be cooperative. And then, literally the day after the file was sent off, the day after we had any ability to change the file, we heard from the video game company that the video game had been canceled. So if you ever wondered what Bayou Dragonfly was doing on Rath, now you know.

A Campy Tale

Were you aware that for numerous years Wizards of the Coast ran a Magic camp? It was an overnight camp for kids, dedicated to providing a full week of Magic playing and access to behind-the-scenes opportunities. The kids stayed in dorms at the University of Washington. There was a full allotment of counselors, including a Magic pro that worked one-on-one with the kids. I don't remember the pro every year (the camp ran for either three or four years to the best of my memory), but I do know the first year's pro was one of Magic's all-time greats, Mark Justice.

The reason I know all about it was I was one of the guest speakers that would attend every year. The camp wanted behind-the-scenes Magic celebrities to come and talk to the kids, so Richard Garfield and I would always come out, on separate nights, and give presentations.

My talk was usually about an hour. I would work with the kids to design a Magic card, walking them through all the processes we go through. Then I would do a question-and-answer period where I would answer all their questions about how Magic was made and often about why we made certain choices with the game. After my talk, I would then sign autographs and sometimes look at kids' decks to offer advice.

I really enjoyed Magic camp and did a talk at every session of every year. It comes up every once in a while because I will run into grown-up fans who had first met me at Magic camp.

The Untold Story of an Untold Story

With my background as a writer in Hollywood, I am often asked if I'd be interested in writing a script about Magic. What most people don't know is that once upon a time, I did. Okay, it wasn't actually a script, it was a story treatment (before you write a script, you write out the whole story in paragraph form to show what basically happens) for a Magic miniseries.

Here's what happened. We've always been interested in bringing the Magic story to more mass media outlets such as movies or television. Now, this story happened about fifteen years ago, long before the reboot of Time Spiral and the introduction of the newer batch of Planeswalkers (Jace, Chandra, and such). I don't remember what spawned the idea of doing a miniseries, but I think there must have been a high-profile one we were talking about in the office and it dawned on us that the longer running time of a miniseries would allow us to spend more time showing off all the facets of the game.

I got an interesting idea for a miniseries, and when I brought it up, I was told that I should spend some time fleshing it out and produce a treatment. Okay, they just wanted more detail, and I explained that the first step was writing a treatment. You can take the boy out of Hollywood, but...They agreed and gave me a month to produce it.

My miniseries took place in a world where everyday people dueled with magic. My protagonist came from a white-aligned village and was well steeped in the white-aligned philosophy of magic and style of dueling. During the course of the miniseries, he was forced to venture out and learn about all the colors, completing quests along the way. This led to a final big duel against the man who had killed his father many years before. The miniseries ran over three nights and was my attempt to let the audience get a really good understanding of what each of the five colors represented. It was also set up to show a lot of the creatures and spells from the game, as well as a lot of dueling with magic.

I was very happy with how the treatment came together. Unfortunately, R&D's idea of doing a miniseries never really caught on, and my treatment got filed away, never to see the light of day. I actually hadn't even thought about it in years until I stumbled upon it while looking for untold stories to tell you all.

Chicken Twiddle

I'm going to show you four blue cards. Rank them in terms of power level:

According to my development sources, it's a close tie between Counterspell and Opposition for the top spot. Both have been instrumental to powerful Constructed decks. Next is Force Spike. It's not quite as good as either Opposition or Counterspell, but it too has made its way into many Constructed decks. Psychic Venom is a distant fourth and has never been a Constructed card. This is the story of why Opposition, Counterspell, and Force Spike all made it into Seventh Edition, but Psychic Venom was cut for "power concerns."

Central to this story is William Jockusch, whom I introduced above (the one who had to stay silent as I had fun adjusting costs on Visions cards). Of the developers of the Mirage era, William was, by far, the best when it came to power level. But he had some quirks. One of which was his belief that one of the best ways to test cards was to forgo the four-of restriction in deck construction. His reasoning was that if you want to see what happens when a certain effect is amplified, you could see it in a single card if you allowed as many copies as the deck builder wanted.

So during Seventh Edition development, William built a deck with mostly three cards: Island, Psychic Venom, and Twiddle. All the deck did was put Psychic Venoms on the opponent's lands and then tap them at the beginning of the opponent's turn with Twiddle. Basically, the tapping of your lands slowed your mana development down enough that you died from the Psychic Venom damage before you could deal 20 to William. I remember one game where William put a third Psychic Venom on one of my lands, tapped it with Twiddle (dealing 6 damage to me), untapped it with a second Twiddle, and then tapped it with a third Twiddle, killing me.

William was convinced that the only answer to the threat of this deck was to remove Psychic Venom from the set. I don't think anyone cared enough about Psychic Venom to argue with William, so officially for "power reasons" it was removed—forcing blue players to have to settle for Counterspell, Opposition, and Force Spike.

Unspoken Like a True Gentleman

That's all the time I have for you today. I hope my untold tales were fun. If you enjoyed today's column and want to see me do more like it in the future (or hated today's column and want me to never repeat it) please drop me an email and let me know or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week as I say goodbye to Khans of Tarkir.

Until then, may you share some of your own stories that you haven't thought about for years.


"Drive to Work #306—Chris Rush"

Magic lost one of its family this last week when Magic illustrator and former Wizards of the Coast employee Chris Rush passed away. In today's podcast, I talk about Chris and share some stories of my interaction with him. Warning: it's a tearjerker.

"Drive to Work #307—Limited Edition, Part 1"

Today's first podcast is part one of a six-part podcast on the design of Limited Edition (Alpha), Limited Edition (Beta), and Unlimited Edition.

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