On the Shoulders of Giants

Posted in Play Design on June 16, 2017

By Dan Burdick

A former semi-pro Magic player and Wedding Karaoke World Champion, Dan now manages the Play Design division of R&D.

Chicago, 1999, 2 a.m. on a Friday morning

While a snowstorm rages outside, four young men are huddled around a table in the basement of a grand hotel. The mood is growing dark as they watch their deck get destroyed over and over in playtesting.

During the somber moment after a particularly brutal defeat, one of the men, Brian, suddenly breaks the silence:

"Have you guys noticed," he blurts out handsomely, "that the Winter Orbs in this deck are awful?"

"Oh, you're right!" says another man. "I can't stand having it in play. This deck wants to hard-cast iron giants, not get mired down!"

For the next 5 hours, they deconstruct their entire deck and rebuild it from scratch, including the sideboard. After a grueling, inspired, and sleepless night, they look down at what they'd built together.

"It's perfect," one says.

"I wouldn't change a thing."

There's an ending to the story, but it's not about the Pro Tour that took place directly after. The deck did well, but didn't win the tournament (or even Top 8). Three of them had just met that day. Only one of the four was even qualified!

However, they all describe that experience as one of the greatest nights of their lives.

Brian Kibler, Lan D Ho, Brian Kowal, and Dan Burdick
From left: Brian Kibler, Lan D Ho, Brian Kowal, and Dan Burdick

Back then, information from online sources was sparse, and Grand Prix weren't common—or even uncommon. You could go so far as to describe them as rare. You might travel to another city and find players there didn't agree with you that Mana Drain was good. A single person or group of people were more likely to find things the rest of the world hadn't.

Magic has changed, mostly for the better. It's easy to find a game, and the entire culture is more connected and vibrant.

However, there is still one group of players out there trying to defeat the entire world.

As Mark Rosewater mentioned in "Metamorphosis 2.0," there have been some major developments in R&D this year. He went into detail about a lot of awesome stuff on the horizon, but left one thing for me to tell you all about: the formation of the new Play Design division.

So, What Is Play Design?

Awesome question, and one we're excited to finally answer! Play Design is a new division of Magic R&D being led by Dan Burdick.

"Who the heck is that?" you might ask.

It's me, one of the guys from the story earlier!

This guy!
This guy!

Right now, you're probably eyeing the bonanza of prizes in that picture and wondering if I'm really that good at Skee-Ball. I must be completely honest here: I'm incredible. More relevant to the topic at hand, however, I also used to be pretty decent at a game called Magic: The Gathering. Known primarily as either a rogue deck builder, Pro Tour Mainz 1997 Champion Matt Place's half-brother, or not at all, I grew up traveling with the Pro Tour from its very beginnings, sometimes as a player, but just as often to support friends and watch the fireworks with all the other fans.

Life's twists and turns led to a career in game design, which led back to where I began—thinking about Magic all day.

My role in Play Design is primarily as a facilitator: being a fully available resource for the team, first point of contact for other departments, and the one ultimately responsible for our deliverables.

Seriously, What Is Play Design?

Play Design is responsible for bridging the gap between the set-design process and the experience of playing the game at all skill levels. From the beginning of story arc planning to the end of a set's legality in Standard, Play Design becomes increasingly more active in providing guidance, design input, and playtesting, all from the perspective of what it will be like to play in the environment that's being created. Over time, we will help shape gameplay for everyone who sits down and draws a card from a new set. Pretty intense!

Without getting into the technical details, here is a sampling of what we're trying to achieve and some of the ways we plan to get there:

  • You can have balance without fun, but you can't have fun without balance. Delivering both is our mandate.
  • While our primary playtesting focus is on Standard and Limited, we are committed to learning how to best serve the total spectrum of play, from the highest competitive levels to across the way at the kitchen table. In fact, gaining a deeper understanding of casual play will provide an invaluable barometer for how enjoyable things are overall. If folks that don't follow every nuance of the metagame aren't having a blast, then we are in dangerous territory of releasing content that doesn't play to Magic's core strengths—providing an extensive toolbox packed with fun and mostly intuitive interactions.
  • The number of possible card interactions, even if you trim the unlikely ones, is . . . a lot. We tackle the enormity of this task with a regimen of constantly evolving our philosophy, process, and playtesting.
  • A metagame that hasn't been played yet isn't "solvable" because there's no way to predict which of the many paths the real world will start with and what events will trigger the next evolution of the format. While the avalanche of games played in the real world rushes toward some inevitable conclusions, all it takes is one person winning in a tournament in a noteworthy way to cause a mudslide down the other side of the mountain.
  • What we're looking to do, then, is create a range of possibilities that feels (and is) vast but is also full of appropriate countermeasures. The desired function of including these countermeasures is to act as an invisible boundary that can hold against the combined fury of every misjudged card and its infinite combinations. We have a name for the ideal result of applying our own physics engine to the endless unknown of a Magic format: "The Finite Universe."

While it's super neat to think about the experience of playing Magic as something that can be built from an atomic level, there's a ton of work to be done to get there. We're standing on the shoulders of nearly a quarter-century of collaboration between the designers of Magic and the millions of players who made it real, and we take being the guardians of this legacy very seriously.

The Team

To draw better connections between our decisions and their end results, we are stepping up our information gathering and analysis efforts, both in terms of raw numbers and through observation and player interaction. You'll be seeing many of us at events both big and small. When we're not doing coverage, we're there to learn from you, so come up and say hello! We can't design in a bubble, and we're looking forward to having more direct engagement.

What's your favorite card? Favorite deck? What's the favorite deck of your friend who doesn't play online or in events? What are the biggest pain points you're experiencing while trying to play Standard? What would you personally like to see more of? At the end of the day, we all have the same goal: to create the most fun and thriving world possible for the game we love.

We're continuing to examine the resources we'll need to meet our lofty goals, but I'm already thrilled about the team we've put together. Without further ado, here is the inaugural Play Design team!

Ian Duke

A superb lead with immense technical expertise, Ian wears a lot of hats and rocks them all.

Adam Prosak

An awesome brewer and mentor, Adam's breadth of experience and willingness to educate others (he was a teacher before joining R&D) is an enormous boon to the newer members of the team, including myself.

Bryan Hawley

Only one thing ever exceeds the speed and acumen with which Bryan seems to tackle all manner of analyses and problem-solving tasks: how often people throughout Wizards seek his help. He's the definition of a go-to guy.

Andrew Brown

Fresh off two Pro Tour Top 8s and an early retirement, Andrew's expert play skill and capacity to learn are both extremely high. Additionally, his commitment to being an ambassador for the game is inspiring.

Melissa DeTora

Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Melissa DeTora is another strong player who contributes tremendously to playtesting and card evaluation. Her thoughtfulness and passion for play design speak to the commitment that led her to the Sunday stage at the Pro Tour and a job in Magic R&D.

Andrew Veen

Andrew is on loan from Duel Masters. Super knowledgeable, lightning-quick, and articulate, he's a big asset.

Paul Cheon

In mid-July, universally beloved Magic icon Paul Cheon is joining the team! Paul went to college at age thirteen and ended up rooming with someone whose initials are LSV, and the rest is history. As insane as this may sound, I venture that Paul's capacity to learn has never been truly tested, and we're all excited he's coming on board.

Dan Burdick

I co-designed NecroDonate, a really good deck way back in the day, but was hired for my people-management skills.

Magic has been an incredibly enriching part of all our lives, and we're excited about Play Design as a new opportunity to pay that forward. We have a huge task ahead of us, but everyone here is going to give it 110% (unless that turns out to be mathematically impossible, in which case we will give the true maximum).

See you next week, when Melissa will officially take over this column, with subsequent guest appearances by other members of the Play Design team and R&D.

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