A Story of Most Favorites

Posted in NEWS on September 7, 2007

By Devin Low

Hello there! This is Devin Low, Lead Developer of Lorwyn and Head Developer for Magic: The Gathering. And now I'm the author of Latest Developments. "But wait a minute!", you might dramatically gasp. "Who are you, where did you come from, and what have you done with Aaron Forsythe??" First of all, rest assured: Aaron is still here. As you may have read in this very column, when Randy Buehler was promoted to Vice-President of Digital Games, Aaron was promoted from Head Developer to take Randy's place as Director of Magic R&D. With all the new responsibilities, it's as good a time as any for Aaron to hang up the keyboard. But he hasn't hung up the wand, and he's still heavily involved in designing cards, developing sets, and brawling in the FFL. You may remember me from a few Latest Developments articles that I wrote when Aaron was out of the office. I think the best way to get to know me is to let me take you on a tour of the Magic cards I've loved, feared, and hated, from Alpha through Lorwyn.

Little Devin and the Archaeological Succession Table

When I was very young, if you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I'd say "I want to be a game designer!" My dad brought us all up to play civil war cardboard counter wargames like "Gettysburg," while my mom taught us word-matching board games like "Upwords." I'd always loved all kinds of games, and there's a funny home video of seven-year-old Devin trying to pronounce "Archaeological Succession Table" (and failing) when explaining how to play the classic Avalon Hill board game "Civilization." I made little wargames on hex paper and showed my dad how to play. In middle school I made little card games by cutting up index card and drawing tanks and soldiers on them. And Dungeons & Dragons took me and my friends by storm. But as time went on, and I got into high school, I changed my career plans to "I might as well be a computer programmer." After all, being a game designer wasn't something you could really do for a living. It was a foolish kid's dream.


The year: 1993. The scene: the Pennsylvania historical gaming convention "Historicon." I was 14 years old, and I'd won a paltry $5 gift certificate from playing somebody's homebrew minis game. What did the dealer have with that kind of price tag? Hmm, two packs of something called "Magic: The Gathering." As I opened them up, the dark moodiness of the world grabbed me right away. The rotting faces and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner on Scathe Zombies. The rat chewing on some skulls on Giant Growth. "The chaos of a thundercloud" described by Mons's Goblin Raiders. And the cream of the crop: a mystical embodiment of all Earth's powers, whose force could grow to literally unlimited proportions: Gaea's Liege. Oh, and some random piece of cardboard called Mox Emerald. I had no idea what any of this was, or what any of the rules were, and I didn't care; I was entranced.

It took a few weeks to find someone to tell me the rules, and months before I saw a rulebook. But I put the cards back in their protective storage wrapper and opened them up again dozens of times before really even knowing what they were for. Once I got the gist of how the game worked, it was obvious that Forest and Mox Emerald did basically the same thing. Hmm, why did they make two cards that did the same thing? I remember making a mental list of pros and cons of Mox Emerald versus Forest, trying to figure out why they would make two identical cards and which one I liked better:

Destroyed by Stone Rain and Ice Storm Destroyed by Shatter and Disenchant
Pumps Gaea's Liege Doesn't pump Gaea's Liege
Can be enchanted with Wild Growth Can't be enchanted by Wild Growth
Shanodin Dryads can't forestwalk on you
You can play it on the same turn you play a land.

One of those points was obviously head and shoulders the most important: Mox Emerald didn't pump Gaea's Liege. So I decided I liked Forest better. How times have changed.

Most Favorite Card: Gaea's Liege
Most Feared Card: Nightmare. In most of our games, each player got about 16 land out, and most of creatures we owned were 1/1s. In those games, a 16/16 Nightmare goes a long way. (And the Liege seemed almost as good.)
Most Hated Card: Northern Paladin. First this guy blew up all your creatures. Then he went to work on your Swamps, which were clearly the blackest of black cards. Pretty nasty for a do-gooder.

Pikemen Attack!

In high school in Connecticut, my best deck was white weenie, and I even knew that that's what it was called. Benalish Hero, Mesa Pegasus, Pikemen, and brutal enforcer Keepers of the Faith banded together under Crusade and Jihad to put the hurt on. This was also the phase when I'd hear friends say "Man, Creature Bond is soooo bad!" and that would make me want to build a deck around Creature Bond. It went something like "Play some Psychic Venoms. Then play a couple of Creature Bonds on your guy. Play two Unstable Mutations on him, Terror him, take 16 and you're dead! Somehow everyone else's decks were all so equally awkward that this actually worked sometimes. Those were innocent days.

Most Favorite Card: Crusade. I loved the flavor. I loved the feeling that my little weenies powered up, and could work together to take down Earth Elemental. I loved the synergy with banding.
Most Feared Card: Dark Ritual + Hypnotic Specter. Or its big brother: Ritual + Ritual + Sengir Vampire. The fact that these were all commons and uncommons, so widely popular, and so obviously powerful meant that I ran into this turn-one opening a lot. It's hard for turn-one Icatian Infantry to beat that.
Most Hated Card: Control Magic. Wow, what a jerk card. You play your best guy, and they take it and bash you? Not fun.

Little Fish Sees a Bigger Pond

I worked hard in high school, and in 1997 I started college at Harvard, studying Computer Science. The gamer friends I met there also played Magic, but in a totally different way. They played in tournaments. They went to prereleases. They were trying to get onto something called the Pro Tour. Soon I wanted to do all these things too. Chris Manning and Aaron Landry took me under their wing and took me to my first prerelease: Tempest. I was busy attacking people with Spined Wurm, while Landry was saccing all his guys to Goblin Bombardment, playing Living Death, then saccing all his guys to Goblin Bombardment for the win. I had a lot to learn. I got bit by the Competitive Bug, and I started playing a lot. By the time of the Stronghold prerelease I had gone from being the bamboozled to the bamboozler, and I flipped Tempting Licid on and off creatures all day long, dodging every Kindle thrown its way. Chris and Aaron taught me how to draft, how to talk about drafting, and how to care about drafting. Stronghold was the first set I drafted regularly, and I can still remember the excitement I felt on beating Tom Guevin with the "bad" draft combination of Metallic Sliver, Muscle Sliver, Spined Sliver, and Heart Sliver.

Most Favorite Card: Soltari Trooper + Seething Anger with buyback + Seething Anger without buyback + Fling for an exciting 14 points. My first favorite draft combo.
Most Feared Card: Rolling Thunder. As if Fireball wasn't amazing enough at common, this is the most ridiculously devastating common X spell ever.
Most Hated Card: Constant Mists. "Target game takes 15 more minutes."

Mercadian Masques: The Crane Kick

I started playing PTQ's during Urza's Saga, and I learned a trick or two, but I never got very far. Then came Mercadian Masques. Rebels, Mercenaries, Spellshapers, Walls with tap abilities, alternate-cost spells, bizarre art and story, and Snorting Gahr and Wild Jhovall leading a host of very straightforward Magic cards. I don't know why Masques was the turning point. Maybe the years of drafting finally paid off. Maybe something about Masques fit my play style. Maybe it was playing amongst all the high-level duelists at Somerville, MA's Your Move Games. Or maybe something just finally clicked. But something happened like the Karate Kid learning the Crane Kick: All of a sudden, I was good at Magic. During those summers I played in the excellent store Barron's Comics & Cards in Milford, CT, and suddenly I was "that guy" no one could defeat.

My mentor Chris Manning won his first PTQ during Tempest block, and suddenly it all seemed within reach. I won my first Pro Tour qualification at Your Move Games' outstanding Providence, Rhode Island store in triple-Masques Sealed / Draft in the 1999-2000 school year. I can still remember how happy I was, calling my dad at 3 a.m. to tell him I'd won. It was a dream come true.

A few months later, Manning, Landry and I played the Masques-Nemesis Team Limited PTQ occurring on the grounds of that year's Pro Tour–New York, brawling with all the pros cut from Day 1. I remember the excitement of playing multiple Pro Tour champion Dirk Baberowski. With Giant Caterpillar and Horned Troll out, he tapped out to play a fifth creature. I pumped my Flowstone Thopter to 7/1, hitting him for 7, then Ruptured it to deal 7 more damage to him and wipe out all 5 of his guys while my Cho-Manno, Revolutionary lived. It might have been The Sickest Rupture Ever.

I had always concentrated on Limited tournaments, and later that year I decided to play my first Constructed PTQ. I made a decklist and borrowed the cards from a friend with joking assurances that I'd give him half the $250 if I won the PTQ. The tournament occurred at the awesome Neutral Ground in New York City and the format was Masques-Nemesis-Prophecy Block Constructed. In the first round I lost to some guy named Osyp Lebedowicz. Then I won the next ten rounds and won the PTQ. I had played white-green with Blastoderms and Saproling Bursts. I was going to play my third Pro Tour in a year. I could do this. I gave my friend the $125.

Most Favorite Card: Parallax Wave. Such an intricate combination of offense and defense, with so many options and choices. Do I defend my own guys? Phase out yours? And how many for how long?
Most Feared Card: Mageta the Lion. The old legend rule meant that if your opponent got Mageta out first, yours was locked unplayable in your hand.
Most Hated Card: Rishadan Port. When everyone has main deck mana denial, any stumble on lands and you are toast.

Welcome to the Pro Tour

In 2000, I played Pro Tour–LA (Masques Booster Draft), Pro Tour–NY (Masques-Nemesis-Prophecy Team Sealed), and PT–Chicago (Masques-Invasion Standard). The grandeur, pomp, and pageantry of being at the Pro Tour was truly amazing. Playing against all these names I'd heard before was exciting. Watching Mike Long play Darwin Kastle for the Top 8, and having Mike Long's deck suddenly confiscated by judges to search for allegedly marked cards, was as dramatic as any television show. Unlike the multiple Pro-Tour-winning developers who work with me, I never finished very well in any of these tournaments, but I knew my time would come. As the year ended and I finished my bachelor's degree, I applied to graduate school at Harvard and was accepted. I decided to stop playing Pro Tours while I finished graduate school. I earned my master's degree in Computational Game Theory and Decision Theory, which sounds like it's about Magic, but is really about predicting how much competing city bus companies are likely to bid against each other for certain bus routes. Though I put the Pro Tour on hold, I drafted and played steadily through Invasion, Odyssey, and Onslaught blocks.

Most Favorite Card: Ancient Hydra. The art is among my favorites to this day. And its design was such a perfect match of fading to the long line of growing-and-shrinking, pinging hydras in Magic.
Most Feared Card: Waterfront Bouncer. No card taught the lesson of tempo advantage better: Spending one mana to make your opponent spend four mana can be worth all the card disadvantage in the world.
Most Hated Card: Tsabo's Decree. The classic way to play against board sweepers is to hold back some reinforcements in your hand. Tsabo's Decree took all those strategic decisions and backup plans away by "Extinctioning" your hand too.

Something Has Happened!

By the time I finished grad school, my only real job had been programming databases for General Electric's global corporate headquarters in Connecticut. On a trip to Seattle to see extended family, a cousin introduced me to Richard Garfield and some of his Wizards of the Coast friends. I was totally star-struck, but tried to carry on a conversation about what games were fun and why. I went home and started thinking. Maybe it wasn't just a foolish kid's dream after all. Maybe I really could make a living as a game designer. After all, some people did—I'd just met them. I started to put together the ultimate pitch of why Wizards of the Coast just had to hire me.

Then the flashpoint: ironically, it was reading this column. I can remember sitting in my brother's room on March 14, 2003, reading Randy Buehler's Latest Developments article that day, Taking on Vapor Ops. The first sentence of Randy's article reads, 'One of the most frequently asked questions I hear is, "How do I get a job in R&D?"'

"Oh no!" I thought. "This is going to open the floodgates, and thousands of people are going to try to get jobs there! I gotta send this packet now!" I wrote an analysis of Randy's the Vapor Ops test Randy later posted as the final part of my pitch packet, and I sent it to the people I had met at Wizards of the Coast. Reading that column that night, I never thought I'd end up writing it!

Wizards of the Coast hired me for a six-month internship working on New Business TCGs and a little bit on Magic, and I started June 9, 2003. I felt almost as much euphoria as when I first qualified for the Pro Tour. My first assignment was developing game balance on NeoPets, a very colorful TCG about little lizards with big smiles on their faces. To give you an idea of the flavor, the "play at any time" card type in NeoPets was called "Something Has Happened!" I was clearly interested in Magic and tried to get involved with it any way I could. Fifth Dawn lead developer Brian Schneider took a chance on me and added me to the Fifth Dawn team for its last few weeks, in the polishing stage.

I tried to learn as much as I could from veteran Magic developers like Brian Schneider, Henry Stern, and Randy Buehler. Brian Schneider in particular went out of his way to teach me and help me get better. Filling holes on development sets got me a chance to join design teams and the opportunity to learn from wacky Mark Rosewater. Over the next 4 years, I served on the design teams for Saviors of Kamigawa, Guildpact, Coldsnap, Time Spiral, and Future Sight, while working on the development teams for Fifth Dawn, Betrayers of Kamigawa, Coldsnap, Time Spiral, Planar Chaos (lead developer), Lorwyn (lead developer), and next year's "Jelly."

Most Favorite Card: Mephidross Vampire. The first card I created, for a vampire art hole for Fifth Dawn. I'm happy that my first design was so "top-down." (Vampires make other creatures into vampires!) I've always enjoyed designing top-down vampires from then on, most recently Sengir Nosferatu. (Vampires turn into bats and back!)
Most Feared Card: Krark-Clan Ironworks. Before Mirrodin released, we hadn't had any powerful combo decks in a long time, and we decided to take a chance on this one. We were happy it didn't end up being obnoxiously powerful.
Most Hated Card: Arcbound Ravager. The Ironworks wasn't a problem, probably only because of this obnoxiously powerful little Atog. We spent many a day cursing the affinity's deck unfun impact on Mirrodin-era tournaments and talking about what to do to change it.

The Beauty of Lorwyn

Leading development for Lorwyn has been my greatest contribution to Magic so far, as well as the most emotionally rewarding. For many months across late 2006 and early 2007, I poured my heart and soul into the set, as did many talented others. Second only to the unparalleled genius of Richard Garfield's Alpha, Lorwyn is sincerely my next "most favorite" set of all time. In early 2007, I was promoted to become Head Developer for Magic. I'm excited to help keep entrancing new players into Magic the way I was entranced, as well as continue to reward the diehards who have been with us all this time with mechanics that are new and fun. I'm super psyched about Lorwyn's imminent release, and I have lots of behind-the-scenes stories to tell. Lorwyn has a lot of things that are obviously awesome, plus a lot of subtle beauty hidden further beneath. Over the weeks to come, I'll be guiding you through both.

Most Favorite Card: Oblivion Ring (I can't tell you why.)
Most Feared Card: It's a secret! There are cards I'm biting my knuckles over, but I'll wait for you to find them.
Most Hated Card: There were several cards I hated during Lorwyn development. One of the advantages of being the set's lead developer is that I got to kill them all.

A big thank-you to all the Head Developers I have known (two of them Latest Developments writers) who have gone before: Randy Buehler, Brian Schneider, and Aaron Forsythe. I've learned a lot from each of you. Thanks also to all the smart, talented, and hilarious designers and developers I continue to have the pleasure to work with every day.

Please email me with what you would like to see in the column going forward or what trends you would like to see in Magic going forward. I usually can't respond to emails, but I promise to read every one.

Next week: Lorwyn Previews begin!

Last Week's Poll

Ravnica will be rotating out of Standard soon, taking its dual lands with it. How do you feel?
I'm sad they are leaving because I love what they do for deck design. 5554 38.1%
I'm glad they are leaving because I hate feeling like I need tons of good lands to compete. 4634 31.8%
I have mixed feelings about it. 3197 21.9%
I don't care. 1210 8.3%
Total 14595 100.0%