I've always been a very holistic thinker in that I believe all the pieces affect the whole. What has shaped me as a Magic designer is not just the sets I've designed, but the life I've lived, the things I've done. Today's column is about a set of skills I acquired and how I've applied them to game design. That set of skills is something called improvisation (or improv, for short).

I guess I should start by explaining what improvisation is for those of you who don't know. It's an acting skill, the ability to make up things on the spot. In acting, it refers to doing a scene that hasn't been written, one you make up as you go. Usually, when doing improvisation in front of an audience, you ask for input from the audience to demonstrate that all the material is being made up. Most improvisation is done through improvisation games or formats where the audience is asked to provide suggestions for specific topics, which the actors then weave into a structured scene. Traditionally, improvisation for an audience is comical, but it needn't always be.

With that explained, I shall begin my story.

Giving It the Old College Try

As a kid, I was very into theater. In fourth grade, I was the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz and from then on I acted in every play I could get into. I took acting classes at the Cleveland Play House. I started writing plays for a local children's playwriting contest that I won for three years straight. In high school, I was involved in every play the school put on (in some context, not always acting) and ended up winning the Thespian Award my senior year. So, when I went to college, I knew that I wanted to get involved with theater in some way.

Mark as the Tin Man in his fourth-grade production of The Wizard of Oz.
Mark as the Tin Man in his fourth-grade production of The Wizard of Oz.

At Boston University, the student theatrical club is known as Stage Troupe. The two things I was most interested in doing were producing material I'd written and joining an improv troupe. I would go on to do the former, but that's a topic for a future column. Today's column is about my other goal, joining an improv troupe.

I had played a lot of improvisational games during my acting classes and had the pleasure of seeing a few different improv troupes perform growing up. I was fascinated by improv because it combined my loves of acting and writing. The idea of getting up onstage without a net and making up comedy on the spot sounded thrilling. Just one small problem—Stage Troupe didn't have an improv troupe.

I spent my freshman year helping out on various plays, getting the feel of how Stage Troupe worked and meeting the people who ran it. Sophomore year, I decided it was time to join an improv troupe. As one didn't exist, the only way that was going to happen was if I started one myself. I went through official Stage Troupe channels and set up an audition. Just a month later, the troupe met for the first time with all eight members (from the auditions, I'd selected three other men and four women). One of the topics of our first meeting was selecting a name. We chose Uncontrolled Substance.

I spent three years running and performing in the improv troupe. Today's column is going to talk about a bunch of the skills I picked up from that experience and how they help with the designing of Magic.

Lesson #1 – Appreciate the Power of "Yes, And . . ."

There are numerous ways to run an improv show, but here's the most common one. You have a series of games/formats, and each one has a number of actors assigned to it—most often two, but sometimes more. Solo improv, while done, is much less frequent. Usually someone who isn't in the scene will act as an emcee and start by asking for specific things from the audience. "Give us a relationship for our two characters." "We need a location where they are." "What's the source of conflict between them?"

The audience yells out suggestions and the emcee selects the choices he or she thinks will make for the best scene. Usually the more disconnected the selections, the better. You want the audience to feel like they're seeing a scene whose premise has never been seen before. They're two astronauts in Ireland and one believes the other stole his teddy bear. Go!

Because improv is mostly a group activity, one of the very first things you learn is something known as "Yes, And . . ." The premise of it is that when doing an improv, it's the role of every actor to build upon what the other actors are doing. If, for example, your fellow actor says, "Look, a leprechaun!" you're not supposed say, "No, that's a gremlin," but rather "Yes, and he's guarding a pot of gold."

Improv is about teamwork, and that requires everyone doing the scenes to be working in the same direction. To do that, you have to be constructive in your interaction and not destructive. You want to build upon what has already been created.

This couldn't be more true for Magic design. A lot of design, especially early design, is about finding new ideas. It's very easy to knock down what others are suggesting ("Well, that won't work because . . ."). The thing I encourage all my designers to do is to take ideas and build upon them. "If we did that, then maybe we'd want to do the following."

I'll give a real-world example. Early in Innistrad design, I asked my team to come up with interesting ways we could represent werewolves. Tom LaPille had worked recently on a Duel Masters design that had double-faced cards in it. What if Magic made use of that technology? I was very skeptical when Tom first proposed the idea. There were many reasons why double-faced cards might not work, but instead of knocking down the idea, I asked the team to explore it. If we had double-faced cards, how would we use them?

I took time and resources to explore Tom's idea because I wanted to test its merit, and to do that, the whole team had to take it seriously. We had to go down the path of double-face design in order to understand its potential. We did, and eventually realized that it was the best idea.

The lesson here is that Magic design is a lot like improv, in that it's a creative expression done through a group activity. In order for it to work its best, each contributor has to build upon the others' work rather than tearing it down.

Lesson #2 – Learn the Importance of Group Bonding

The very first thing I did when we got the improv group together was to start holding practices twice a week. And we continued to have those practices even once we started performing on a regular basis. Why was that? This was an improv troupe that made up the scenes on the spot. What was the point of practicing?

There were a few reasons, but the most important one was this: I needed all the members of the troupe to be comfortable with one another. Performing improv requires a lot of trust, and that trust has to be built up over time. The more we practiced, the more comfortable we got with one another, the more we could start to anticipate how each other might react.

A good example of where this trust paid off was at my wedding. My wedding had a game theme, so rather than bring the something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, we treated it like a scavenger hunt and found the items among our audience mid-ceremony. My friend Andy, who had been in Uncontrolled Substance, was one of the ushers, and when I said, "We need something new," Andy replied, "This shirt is new."

Having done improv with Andy for years, I knew exactly what was about to happen (he was about to take off his shirt and give it to us) and I was able to set it up to maximize Andy getting the biggest laugh (Andy is the hairiest man I've ever met—something I knew few of the guests were aware of). Many guests told me that moment was one of the funniest moments they had ever seen, an impressive feat being that neither Andy nor I had planned it. It came from a bonding that resulted from years of interaction. (For more about my wedding, you can read my two-part article about it: Part 1 and Part 2.)

I've found the same dynamic is important when running a design team. One of the things I do early on any team is to start doing design work in the meetings. I want each member of the team to get a sense of what the other designers are capable of, because I want them to start trusting one another's design sense. Also, when the team as a whole comes up with designs, it also gets the team to start thinking of itself more as a team and less as a collection of individuals. Once this bonding starts to happen, I notice that designers will begin working together outside of the meetings when creating designs for the set.

Another way we play into the same dynamic is the structure of our working space. All of R&D design works in the Pit, so when a design topic comes up, it's something that people can hear from their desks and join in on if they have thoughts or ideas. A lot of big and important design ideas have come about because a two-person conversation turned into an eight-person conversation with many different thoughts thrown back and forth.

Lesson #3 – Move Toward Action

Another common improv dictum is "move toward action." What that means is you should always have your scene be going somewhere, have the characters striving to accomplish something. The key to any scene, scripted or made up on the spot, is for there to be momentum—that is, the characters should be advancing the story.

For instance, in an improv scene, once you establish a new element, make sure you weave its importance into the scene. "Look, there's a leprechaun." "Yes, and he has a pot of gold." "Good, he owes me money."

Each actor should then be finding ways of advancing the story. "You can't take a leprechaun's gold. He'll kill you." This way, you create tension in the scene and build the action. Another popular way to do this is to do what's called a throw, where you create an open-ended premise and allow your partner to advance it. "I think he's the one who should be worried. Remember the Easter bunny?" "You're the reason there were no eggs last Easter?" The bolder the actors are in advancing the action, the more fun the scene usually is.

Magic design has a similar quality to it. When adding to a design, you always want to choose something that will push what the set is doing. Each addition wants to boldly raise the stakes. For example, we started Zendikar with the idea of focusing on lands. This led to a lot of ideas of advancing the theme. What if the set cares about lands getting played? What if some of the lands do things when you play them? What if some of the lands turn into creatures? What if some of the lands generate giant effects once you have enough land? What if we have more lands than any set has ever had? What if we take a popular dual land cycle and make the enemy version? What if we borrow full-art lands from the Un- sets and bring them to black-border Magic? A lot of the excitement for Zendikar came about because of this constant focus on building upon the set's theme.

A similar thing happened in Ixalan design. Dinosaurs started as window dressing—something that just showed up in the background to give the world a cool visual component. That quickly led to us making creature cards out of the Dinosaurs, but that wasn't enough. The set wanted to have a tribal theme, and Dinosaurs were a new and exciting creature type, so we moved them from being additional creatures to being one of the focused tribes. That still wasn't enough, so we moved them from being one of the two-color tribes to being one of the three-color tribes to get them more cards, more focus, and more styles of gameplay.

In both of these examples, there was a push in design to figure out the heart of the set and then make sure that each new addition built upon that heart, advancing it and making the set even more about the thing that was going to make players sit up and notice it.

Lesson #4 – Pull In Others When Needed

Another important lesson of improv is that things don't always go as planned. Yes, some number of actors were assigned to a scene, but that doesn't mean others might not join in. Scenes have to be able to roll with the action. If your scene requires something it doesn't currently have, don't be afraid to bring it in, be that a prop, an audience member, or even another actor.

For example, let's say the leprechaun that didn't exist when the scene started has now become an integral part of the scene: bring him in. It was common for one of the actors onstage to signal another character if they needed it. "Hey Lucky, I want to talk to you." Then one of the actors not in the scene would join it, playing that character. "Top o' the morning, Bob. Let me begin by making sure one thing is perfectly clear. You're not getting me gold."

Magic design has a similar quality in that not all of R&D is working on every set, but you have access to anyone if you feel their services would help the set. (This is true, by the way, of Wizards in general and not just R&D.) It's common practice, for example, to invite someone to a single design meeting if you feel their contributions would be helpful. People can also seek out other R&D members outside of meetings. People, for instance, often come to me from set design or supplemental sets if there's some question about whether a card design they're working on fits the color pie.

I might ask Del Laugel's opinion on a template or Eli Shiffrin's thoughts on a new mechanic and how it would work within the rules. If I'm trying to do something top-down that plays into old stories, I might ask Kelly Digges or Ethan Fleischer, who have more knowledge on the topic. If I'm working on a component that plays into a future story beat, I might ask Doug Beyer for his input.

An important part of creating a design is, one, knowing what resources you have access to, and, two, a willingness to use those resource when doing so would help your design.

Lesson #5 – Know How to Read Your Audience

Another interesting aspect of improv is that you get live feedback. You perform and the audience reacts, meaning improv allows you to shape your content as you're making it, based on that feedback. If the audience laughs really hard at a joke, you now have information that should shape how the rest of the scene plays out. Likewise, if something falls flat, you can shift to avoid something similar later in the scene.

For example, maybe the reason you start focusing more and more of your scene on the leprechaun is because the leprechaun is getting laughs every time you talk about him. The best scenes I ever did were ones where we hit upon something that just clicked, recognized that that thing resonated with the audience, and then kept building on it.

Magic feedback is not as instantaneous as improv, mostly because we work so far ahead, but it is equally important. One of the reasons I spend so much time interacting with the audience is to help get the best read on what the audience does and doesn't like. I then use that feedback to shape what I and my designers do in the future.

For example, I was interacting with the public online when a topic came up where the players strongly demonstrated an interest in something I had not realized players felt so strongly about. An opportunity then arose during Dominaria vision design that I was able to capitalize on. That element of the set went on to make it all the way to print, and I'm excited for all of you to see it because, from the feedback, I believe many of you will enjoy it.

Lesson #6 – Do the Unexpected

One of the best pieces of improv advice I ever got was from one of my acting teachers. She said that in every improv scene, there should be some aspect the audience doesn't expect. Before each scene, she would always say, "Surprise me," and the class went out of our way to try and accommodate her. We would seize upon the craziest things and further work them into the scene. And you know what? It made the scenes better. Setting up the expectation from the audience that even you never know what you're going to do makes them lean in a little more. It makes them extra invested in what you're going to do.

The caveat is that the surprise has to naturally come out of the scene. It's not about non-sequiturs. It's not about surprise for shock value, but rather because you're willing to take the scene in a direction that the audience didn't anticipate.

I feel the same way about Magic. I love it when a set has something the audience doesn't expect. Again, it has to be organic to the set and be a natural extension of it. It just has to be a twist or evolution that wasn't anticipated. For example, I was very excited when I put the split cards in Invasion.

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It was a minor theme on only five cards, but it was something bold and unexpected, so I asked that we not preview them. I wanted players to have the joy of opening up a booster pack and seeing them without any idea they were coming.

It's hard to surprise players in booster packs these days, as we post previews of the whole set before the Prerelease, but we still do get moments of surprise during the preview season. I remember, for example, when we revealed the double-faced cards for the first time at the Innistrad party at PAX, and I had to walk many of the guests through what they had just seen.

One of the things I still say to design teams is "Surprise me."

And Scene

I haven't done any improv scenes in over 20 years, yet I feel in many ways I still do improv all the time, be it on social media or my blog or my podcast, live at events, and in all the design teams I lead. I hope today was both a fun peek into improv and a look at some different aspects of how we do design. As always, I'm eager for your feedback on today's column. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week when I start talking about Unstable. (Note that the preview week is two weeks away; I just have a lot of stories to tell.)

Until then, may you improv a little in your own life.

#482: Ixalan, Part 2
#482: Ixalan, Part 2


This is part two of a three-part series about the design of Ixalan.

#483: Ixalan, Part 3
#483: Ixalan, Part 3


This is part three of a three-part series about the design of Ixalan.