From Playing the Designs to Designing Play

Posted in Play Design on June 7, 2019

By Jadine Klomparens

A former Magic tournament grinder and a forever Modern Jund aficionado, Jadine Klomparens is currently a contractor working with the Play Design team.

Hello there, everyone!

I'm Jadine Klomparens. If you've heard my name before, it's probably because up until about six months ago, I was deeply mired in the competitive Magic life. I wrote weekly articles for StarCityGames.com, traveled far and wide to compete in Magic tournaments, and generally did whatever I could to advance the cause of Jund in Modern.

I still miss that life from time to time, but I don't regret putting it aside. These days, I work as a contractor with Wizards of the Coast alongside the Play Design team, helping to make every Magic card printed as fun to play with as possible. I've learned a ton since getting here, so much that it's strange to think I've only been here for a scant six months.

By far the most important things I've learned since getting here all have to do with what the work of Play Design is. Before I started working with Play Design, I had a few misguided notions about what they did. I knew that their mandate was to make sure Magic's play formats are fun and balanced, but I took that information and ran in exactly the wrong direction with it.

Of course, this was one of those times where I was happy to be wrong, as the task I thought Play Design had was fundamentally impossible.

An Unwinnable Competition

The idea that the work of Play Design is impossible is unbelievable on its face, but it's the conclusion I came to during my time as a competitive Magic player. Back then, Play Design seemed like my adversary. They were tasked with keeping Magic formats balanced, and I sought to break them in my favor. I didn't see how they could ever win.

That isn't hubris speaking, it's the wisdom of the crowd. It's no secret that every time a new Magic set is released, it takes less than a week for the global population of Magic players to amass orders of magnitude more person-hours of play with the cards than Play Design was able to throughout the set's entire lifetime in R&D. How can any group, no matter how skilled, ever hope to compete with a numbers disadvantage that severe?

If you've spent much time in competitive Magic scenes, you've probably heard the term "metagame" bandied about frequently. In brief, the metagame of a format refers to what you can expect to play against if you were to enter a tournament of that format. The strongest decks in an environment rise to the top of the metagame and see the most play, with the other decks lagging behind an amount roughly proportional to how much weaker they are than the strongest decks.

When a competitive Magic player thinks of format balance, they think of the metagame. The concepts of balance and the metagame are intrinsically linked. An imbalanced environment will result in a skewed metagame dominated by one or two decks, while a balanced format will have a healthy metagame with a good diversity of decks.

When a new set enters an environment, it will often take several weeks for a stable metagame to emerge. That's several weeks each with a volume of play that Play Design can't hope to match. And that, to me, was the crux of the impossibility: how could Play Design hope to balance a metagame that they could never find in the first place?

Accomplishing the Impossible

I know I'm not exactly shocking anyone when I tell you that the work of Play Design is, in fact, possible. Not only is it possible, it turns out that Play Design is rather good at what it does. The secret is that you don't need to find a metagame to make sure it's fun.

It's true that Play Design can't predict the metagame that will result from the release of each new set. If they could, they wouldn't be doing their jobs correctly. Turns out, an environment simple enough to be solved by Play Design is nowhere near rich and interesting enough for Magic players to have fun with for very long.

Play Design isn't the adversary of competitive Magic players. They don't struggle to outwit and outperform the sheer volume of play the outside world can manage. They embrace the inevitability of their "defeat" and don't seek to solve for the metagame that will eventually be reached by tournament players. They don't try to do the impossible.

Instead, Play Design simply ensures that all possible metagames that could arise from each new set are fun and balanced. Well, "simply" may not be the best word for it. This task is incredibly complicated and challenging, but at least it's possible. And Play Design has more than a couple tricks up its collective sleeves when it comes to this work.

The Impact of Change

The most important weapon in the Play Design arsenal is change. Indeed, it's basically the core of the work: changing the cards to make them more fun for the players. I've learned a lot about change in the last six months.

My first lesson was that big changes don't always have big impacts. Take my move to Washington. I drove across the country, over 2,500 miles and three time zones in just four days. I got a new apartment in a city I had never been to before where I knew next to no one. I thought this would be a big change in my life, and in some ways, it was. But not in the ways that matter.

I still wake up nearly every morning and get started on my busy day of thinking about Magic cards. Get some games in, build a new deck or two, get some more games in, talk some theory with my peers. The overall structure of my day is remarkably similar for how different the setting is.

The biggest change in my day-to-day is that now when I think about Magic, I do it with my blinders off. When I was a competitive Magic player, I believed that thinking about what could be was a liability. My goal was to win as many matches as possible, and I could only win matches with the cards as they were, not as how they could be.

Now, thinking about what the cards could be is the most important thing I do. It's my responsibility to look for ways to tweak cards, to think about what is and isn't working, and to figure out how to get all the disparate parts to add up to a fun experience. A challenging task to be sure, but a rewarding one.

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