From Player to Play Designer

Posted in Play Design on December 1, 2017

By Tom Ross

Hey everyone.

I'm Tom Ross. You might know me as that guy who plays Infect.

I've played Magic for over 20 years now. My first Pro Tour was New Orleans 2001. I won one match there.

Since then I've played in a handful of Pro Tours, and was even lucky enough to make the Top 8 of Pro Tour Honolulu 2009. Most of my Magic accomplishments come from the Tour, where I won some Opens and a couple Invitationals. My crowning achievement was beating Wizards of the Coast employees in the 2014 Community Cup.

I've taken several breaks from Magic, but never truly quit. Even when I wasn't active in the tournament scene, I'd always look forward to preview season and keep track of the decks everyone was playing.

I've enjoyed my time playing competitive Magic. I leave it behind with a heavy heart, but in its place I start a brand-new adventure.

My Journey

This summer, Todd Stevens (a content producer for and I somehow got roped into a 32-hour road trip from Roanoke, Virginia, to Las Vegas, Nevada, as part of getting Michael Majors safely across the country. A three-day Grand Prix as the last hurrah was too tempting to pass on. From there, Gerry Thompson successfully delivered Michael to Renton, Washington, to begin his stint working with Wizards of the Coast.

Then it came time to face the long drive myself. No detour for a Grand Prix. This time I traveled with Dan Musser, my future roommate and coworker, in a two-car caravan.

I never want to do this again.
I never want to do this again.

The trip began at dawn on Wednesday and ended at dusk on Saturday, just in time to get the keys to my new apartment before the office closed. Other than a minor treacherous snowstorm that slowed traffic to ten miles per hour for 2 hours, the journey went smoothly.

There isn't much of this in Louisiana.
There isn't much of this in Louisiana.

Now I'm working with Wizards of the Coast and am getting comfortably settled in. I've even designed a few cards and tuned others due for release next year.

My Role

One of Play Design's main goals is to make sure Standard is healthy. After that comes a fun Limited environment. Other formats are on our minds, like Commander, Modern, and Legacy. The latter two are where I come in.

The SCG Tour has conditioned me to focus on Modern and Legacy more than a Pro Tour competitor would. Modern and Legacy are enormous formats with a nearly endless number of decks that people can build. Keeping a mental log of the existing card pool and figuring out an angle to gain an advantage is quite the challenge.

So I'm here doing my best to make sure nothing broken enters Modern or Legacy. Treasure Cruise was a fair Standard card, but not so much in the older formats. I'm no slouch at Standard or Limited, but I've been cherry-picked as a safety valve against degenerate things happening to older formats.

I'm also here to reality-check everyone with streamlined one-drop-filled aggro decks in Future Future League. We don't want everybody playing mono-red in Standard, right?

Do I Like It Better?

Ever since I opened my first starter deck of Ice Age in 1996, I've wondered what it'd be like to make the cards. I used to jot down ideas in my notebook in high school. To say it's a dream job is an understatement.

Playing competitive Magic for a significant portion of your income is stressful. The prizes are top-heavy and any minor slip-up can cost you a tournament. You aren't someone who just plays Magic; you're defined by Magic. A Magic player is who you are.

The constant travel was the really tough part. Two weekends a month, sometimes more, often encompassing Friday through Monday. Depending on the tournament, Thursday might be spoken for as well. There are only so many hotels and long drives one can take.

The weight on my shoulders has shifted. Now I'm spending my mental energy on the long-term growth of the game. Instead of hemming and hawing over the fifteenth sideboard card minutes before my decklist is due at a player meeting, I now have months to get things right. Of course, there are more moving pieces to consider, but overall, I'm a fan of the change.

The stress level is lower. The stakes are higher.

I've by no means gotten a handle on everything here yet. It feels like every day gets easier, though.

I Wouldn't Be Here Without You

There are many people I'd like to thank for supporting me along my journey. My deepest gratitude goes out to:

  • Major League, my first local game store;
  • My mom and paw for never once questioning the validity of my passion;
  • My girlfriend, Hillary, who I met at a PTQ almost four years ago, for her endless love and support;
  • The guy who stopped me at a pairings board to tell me his daughter is getting better math scores since she started playing my mono-red deck;
  • The guy in Houston who told me he'd been off drugs since one of my decks got him back into Magic (I told him that I wanted to shake his hand and hear the same thing a year later. I did!);
  • Everyone who has come up and told me that infect is the reason they got into Modern and/or Legacy;
  • Everyone who wanted me to "damage" their cards with a signature (especially the Tropical Islands and Berserks);
  • April Olsen and John Armstrong from Rocket's Hideout in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who let me play their tournaments when I was broke (I hope those oversized checks are still hanging on the wall!);
  • and Pete Hoefling, for letting me write for their website;
  • Wizards of the Coast, for giving me the opportunity to help create the game I love; and
  • All the friends I've met along the way—the community is truly the best part about Magic.

Now it's time to fight the good fight.

Tom Ross

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