Odd Job

Posted in Savor The Flavor on June 24, 2009

By Doug Beyer

Senior creative designer on Magic's creative team and lover of writing and worldbuilding. Doug blogs about Magic flavor and story at http://dougbeyermtg.tumblr.com/

I'm commuting home, sliding up the Seattle artery of I-5 one endless summer day in 2008, with a serious work question hanging in my brain:

Can a Griffin be a Soldier?

I have a seriously strange job. When asked what I do, my answer is context-sensitive, based on the expected comprehension level of the asker. My business cards say "Creative Designer for Magic: The Gathering," but if that answer would throw the asker into a whirl of question marks, I lead with something else. I've previously gone with "I'm a writer for a fantasy trading card game called Magic," but that just leads to the inevitable follow-up question, "What do you write?" See if you can try to get across the essence of flavor text in a sentence. Maybe you'll have better luck than I.

Doug: Well, there's non-rules content at the bottom of these game cards ....
Asker: And your job is to write that?
Doug: No, not all the flavor text. There are thousands of different cards. Most of the time I coordinate teams of writers who submit flavor text.
Asker: That's what you do all day? You ... coordinate writers. For cards.
Doug: Well, no, that's actually just part of my job, I—
Asker: Oh! I'm trying to write a greeting card for my dad's birthday—you should write the message!
Doug: Sigh.
Asker: Did you just say the word "sigh," instead of sighing?
Doug: Slap.

So I've tried other ways of describing what I do. The best way is to get out actual Magic cards, show them the art, and talk about how there are fantasy worlds behind the game that I help create. But even then, it's hard to get across the day-to-day details of what I do at work. I conjure up what I think sound like office anecdotes, but I can tell by the looks on people's faces—their jobs are not like mine.

I exit off the highway, heading for home. The Soldier subtype question is game play–relevant. The word "Soldier" appears in the text box of at least one Magic 2010 card, so it matters for Limited whether a Griffin can be a Soldier. A developer has asked, and as a creative team representative, I'm mulling the question.

It's an easy one, when it comes down to it. Soldier is a class type. Class types belong to races that can have jobs, that can claim some degree of sentience. I'm having the whole discussion in my head as I rumble up one of Seattle's steep hills to my street:

Doug: No Griffin Soldiers. Only sentient beings can be Soldiers.
Devil's Advocate: But the phrase makes some sense. Say it out loud. It conjures up an image of a griffin who has been recruited by an army—it's actually pretty cool, and not that different from other concepts we've done.
Doug: But just being part of an army doesn't make you a Soldier. Enlisted Wurm is the exact same concept, and it isn't a Soldier. It's a wild animal, even if it's in the employ of an army. Even if it was perfectly domesticated, like a watchdog or a warhorse, it still wouldn't be the kind of thing that could have a career. No class type.
Devil's Advocate: But it would be tribally relevant ....
Doug: We wouldn't gain enough from that mechanical interaction to justify contradicting dozens of other similar cards or unnecessarily overloading clean type lines. Besides, the art's already in, and it's clearly a wild animal, not even close to the concept of a Griffin Soldier.
Devil's Advocate: Turn here.
Doug: Oh yeah. Thanks.

That whole discussion-in-my-head gets cooked down to one line, when I sign on to the Multiverse database from home to finally register my verdict: "Nope, no griffin soldiers."

My girlfriend calls from the other room. "What're you up to?"

"Just ... a work thing," I tell her, and sign off.

Another issue of explaining what I do is that the nature of my job puts the kibosh on details. Since Magic sets are secret, and since we often work so far in advance of release dates, I can't have work discussions with outside friends, even with the significant other. That bleeds a lot of the fun out of my work anecdotes, but that's the way it goes. I tend to simply turn off the work-brain when I leave the office.


It's earlyish on a Saturday, and I'm sleepily inspecting the display case of the fish market near my house. It's not Pike Place Market, where all the tourists go to get their picture taken with a fish flying over their heads. (PRO TIP: Ignore the flying fish, and keep your eye on the ugly-as-sin monkfish head embedded in the shaved ice.) It's my local fish place, walking distance from my house. It's got a good fish-market smell here—clean and fresh like the seaside. I'm looking at salmon, halibut, sashimi-grade tuna, Dungeness crab. I settle on four fat scallops and two wild-caught King salmon fillets. It'll be nice out today, and I want to get my grill on.

I yawn as I walk out with my paper-wrapped prize, and thoughts turn to work again. Some combination of the seafood and my sleepy state have got me thinking about blue mages, and about a top-down-designed blue spell in the M10 file. It's a spell that's supposed to put creatures to sleep, and it strikes me that it wrong to me currently. Its rules text make it feel like more like a quick combat trick than a ritual that knocks creatures unconscious. When I get a chance, I suggest that it needs to feel like it has a little duration to feel like a sleep spell and not a cat-nap.

Aaron Forsythe likes the suggestion, and makes a change to reflect the flavor I was hoping for. There's some argument about whether it should put artifact creatures to sleep or not, because of course, people's flavor intuitions vary. Ultimately, it becomes a rather brutal spell, a true threat in blue mages' arsenals. Perfect! Hey, red mages get to throw blasts of fire at all their enemies—it's only fair that blue mages at least get to distribute some massive somnolescent beats.

All in a day's weird work.

It's much later, early summer 2009, just a couple of weeks ago. I'm grabbing lunch at a teriyaki place near the office.

If you've never been to the Seattle area, your go-to mental image of the Seattle restaurant landscape is probably this: a zillion coffee shops. Well, that stereotype holds up—you could probably go to a different coffee shop every day of the year without trying too hard. But there is also a very large number of teriyaki joints. This, to me, is fantastic, as I can't get enough charred chicken held between two pieces of wood. A warning: the luxurious variety of Asian food can lead to pickiness and the development of "restaurant factions." Speak aloud "Let's go get some teriyaki" only if you're prepared to engage in a big subjective argument. (End aside.)

This place, where I'm eating now with chopsticks in one hand and a paperback novel in the other, doesn't have the very best chicken or teriyaki sauce—that place is over in the other direction from work—but this place is closer, and has the Bento box I like. A little sushi. A little teriyaki and rice. A little tempura. A pleasing wad of wasabi. Nothing fancy, but good variety. It's like opening a booster pack and sorting the contents by flavor. In other words, it's like opening a booster pack—AM I RIGHT VORTHOSES? (End aside.)

A few seedy-looking characters enter the teriyaki place, and by seedy-looking I mean perfectly familiar to me. They're some of my fellow R&D peeps, and they all happen to be on the same design team as I am, for a far-off set. I jokingly hide behind my book, but they spot me—and anyway, the restaurant is busy today, and my Bento box and I are hogging a table for four.

They slide in around me. We talk about secret things about the future set. I wouldn't want to spoil you, but the gist is that if we changed this one card slightly, and maybe even expanded what it was doing to other cards, it might give a little subtheme to that color.

(Spoiler alert: a future set has cards and at least one color in it. You heard it here first.)

It's a fun chat, and before long my chopsticks are hitting bare lacquer. But this is how Magic happens. Little lunchtime run-ins change the course of the game. My lunch hour gets turned into an impromptu card design session.

Back at the office.

I'm type-typing away, listing out alternatives for an upcoming keyword mechanic. (Spoiler alert: a future set has a keyword mechanic in it.) Brady Dommermuth, creative team manager, drops a printout on the table that separates my cube from that of fellow creative team writer, Jenna Helland. It's a sketch of a planeswalker character, done for a set that won't release for over a year (spoiler alert, etc.). This "sketch" was done in full, blazing color by one of our top artists, and it is awesome. There are a few details that aren't working for us, and we discuss them—the weapon needs a tweak, and the hair is too reminiscent of somebody else's, and one detail of the costuming should go away—but all of that will get handled. That is the work part of the discussion. The rest of it is that the piece is unmistakably cool. Throughout the day, we keep showing it to fellow Wizards who happen by. The verdict continues to be in favor of its coolness.

There's another printout drop-off, this time from art director Jeremy Jarvis. Sketches have come in for an upcoming web comic. This comic is set partly in flashback, featuring a younger version of CENSORED CENSORED . Our team's concept illustrator, Richard Whitters, designed the look for young CENSORED based on Aleksi Briclot's original piece, and the character is looking fantastic in action. The comic is already one of my favorites. Even at sketch stage, the art is bang-on, and the panels toward the end of Part 1 are even more heartbreaking than I dared to hope for. (I enjoy making bad things happen to good characters. Fiction is sadism.) It's so cool that I want to go home and talk it up, but it's a secret. Another anecdote that has to wait until most of my memories of it are gone. For the gazillionth time I resolve to keep a work journal, so that I'll always have good material for Savor the Flavor a year later.

Instead, I start writing this article, filling it with the word CENSORED. Probably suboptimal, I reflect, as my fingers reflexively hit CTRL-S, having learned through many years of school that it's important to save oft—

The power goes out at work. Computer fans sigh to a halt throughout the building. As it turns out, there was an auto accident somewhere in Renton, Washington, and somebody knocked over a power line with their car. I hope no person was hurt—but productivity sure is. Wizards of the Coast loses power for several hours. The servers get turned off, so that even if the power comes back on, the servers will take even more time to spin back up so we can work in the Multiverse database again.

No electricity. A darkened office building, lit only by the cloudy sky through the windows and a few glowing-green exit signs, apparently powered by some backup system. My computer is a bunch of dead circuits. I feel like I've been hit with red-white Ajani's ultimate ability, cut off from all my mana. Vengeance for some unknown slight, maybe. I'll probably have to go home to finish my article from there.

I wander over to the Pit, into a haze of Sharpie-smell. Some of the developers have begun an analog activity: playing FFL decks by the light from the broad office windows. They're testing out cards that don't exist out in the world yet, but to me the things in their hands hardly even deserve the term "cards"; they're just marker on blank, white cardstock. The sad rectangles don't even have real rules text, just short, mnemonic phrases and handwritten mana costs. Some of the mana costs have marker-scribbles over them, symptoms of development alterations happening in real-time. Permanent marker; impermanent card designs. This odd little display is the true crucible of Magic: The Gathering, the eternal engine of creation behind the game.

A developer looks up to make out my face in the office gloom. "Hey, Doug. Can a Wurm be a Warrior?"

Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Flavor Driven":

You said in your letter of the week for this article that the planeswalker spark is more or less a one-in-a-million thing in sentient beings, and that having it ignite is even rarer. I've heard this many times before, and it brings one very good and I think practical question to mind.

If an ignited spark is so extremely rare, how come it seems that half of the extensive cast of characters in Magic novels is a planeswalker, and they invariably wind up meeting more? (With the exception of Karn, who got there through alternate means.) I think a great example of this is Venser, whom Teferi met after his own spark had been extinguished. Teferi at one point was a planeswalker (a 1/1,000,000-plus occurence), and Venser became a planeswalker shortly afterwards (also a 1/1,000,000-plus occurence). If the odds of either one being a planeswalker is exactly one-in-a-million, the odds of one planeswalker meeting another (especially when one or both of them are unignited, making it much harder to locate, nigh impossible) is one out of one trillion. Seems kind of hard to believe that the events of the Magic novels are numerically possible.

Although I suppose one explanation is that yes it's unlikely but it happened anyway and there are all sorts of alternate realities like the one infringing upon Dominaria in Planar Chaos where they didn't meet.

Devoted Savor the Flavor Reader and Proud Vorthos,

Great question, Steve—I'd been waiting for an opportunity to address this issue. You're absolutely right that events in which two planeswalkers run into each other by chance would be statistically rare. Even if our stated odds are off ("one in a million" is our rule of thumb, but it's by no means the law), the sparseness of planeswalkers spread across the Multiverse would mean that most of them would never meet another one like themselves. So why do the books have planeswalkers running into each other all the time?

Three answers. The mathematical answer is that the odds get weird when you take into account the size of the Multiverse. The fact is that there are a staggeringly huge number of planes—many planeswalkers even believe there are an infinite number. Maybe only a tiny fraction of those world-universes have laws and conditions that could give rise to an intelligent being capable of having a spark, but a tiny fraction of a huge number is still a huge number. Most planes aren't as populated as Earth, in the example of our human population of over six billion—as the cutesy saying goes—even if you're one in a million, there are six thousand people just like you (soon to be seven thousand). So even if it's extremely rare, a chance encounter between planeswalkers will occasionally happen, just because the huge Multiverse gives rise to so many opportunities for it to happen.

The second answer has to do with what I call "story gravity." Say you were born with a rare eye condition that allowed you to see into the ultraviolet spectrum, a one-in-a-million occurrence. You grow up in a town of 25,000 people and meet no one who has your same condition—as far as you know, you are unique. Even if you manage to meet everyone in your hometown—an unlikely feat (does anyone know how many people one is likely to meet in a lifetime? Seems far less than 25,000)—you'll never meet someone with your same ultraviolet-seeing talents. Then you go to a huge university with 100,000 people—you're still the oddball there, but you read up on eye conditions in the university library, and find that there've been a few documented cases similar to your own, and an article by the scientist who studied these cases. You travel to where the scientist lives, a major city of over three million people, and not only do you find the scientist who tells you about your condition, but you also meet a few people who have your same eyeball-powers. You have a grand old time at a pub and share stories of seeing flowers like bees do, and of warning people to put on sunscreen.

That's story gravity. Given the rarity of your crazy eyes, the math says that you would never run into someone with your same condition by mere chance. But you don't behave randomly. Given the opportunity, you tend to seek out others similar to yourself, giving rise to stories of exceptional people managing to meet each other. Who hasn't been to a wedding where the "how did you meet" story sounded almost statistically impossible? And yet they did meet, through a pretty logical chain of events as it turns out, and there you are.

The third answer has to do with the selectiveness of stories. A story is not an impartial compilation of statistically average events—it is selective in its focus, concentrating on those characters and events that are of interest for the purpose of telling the story. As planeswalkers are movers and shakers of momentous happenings in the Multiverse, and as groups of planeswalkers can give rise to even more momentous happenings, a story is likely to focus on the exceptional circumstances of their run-ins rather than on the (statistically much more likely) solo planeswalkers living quiet lives by themselves on their remote worlds. Certainly there are planeswalkers who never meet another like themselves, and certainly good stories can be told about them, but we just don't hear about those as often. Maybe there were a million Lukes who remained on their backwater desert worlds and never grew up to meet—and become—Jedi, but nobody ever made a movie about those guys. The exceptional is often the focus. Thanks for your question, Steve!

Stay tuned for Magic 2010 previews, starting next week!

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