Back in 2006, I wrote a two-part article called "Life Lessons" (Part 1 and Part 2) where I examined different lessons I'd learned in life and then explained how I applied those same life lessons to the design of Magic. I realized recently that I haven't written a more personal column in a while, so I thought it would be fun to examine some of the life lessons I've had since writing the original column sixteen years ago.
I'm going to talk about four different life lessons (just a one-parter this time). If, by the way, you enjoy seeing me intermix talking about my personal life and Magic design, here are a list of other articles (most from a while ago), you might want to check out:
- My origin story
- My dating life
- My time as a runner in Hollywood
- My time on "Roseanne"
- My first interactions with Magic
- My wedding, part 1
- My wedding, part 2
- My resolutions
- Raising my kids, part 1
- Raising my kids, part 2
- My Magic celebrity
My last article of life lessons ended with my wife being pregnant with our twins, Adam and Sarah. Last month, they graduated from high school, so suffice to say, I've had a bit of life to experience some new lessons.
The first lesson actually happened shortly after the last lesson of the previous column (where I told the organized play department that I had to stop attending Pro Tours). When my wife Lora and I built our first house, we knew that we would eventually have to move as the school system wasn't great. Rachel was born two years later, which started the clock of finding a new home. We had six years to find it as that's when she would start kindergarten. When we learned that we were having twins, that only sped up the issue because our first house wasn't big enough for a family of five.
After an exhaustive search, we ended up building a new home in a suburb of Seattle with a good school district. We were able to choose the house plan we wanted and the lot, but that meant that we had to wait for the builder to build the house from scratch. They told us it would take about a year.
To make sure we got our house sold in time, as the purchase of the new house was contingent on its sale, we sold it a couple months before the house was scheduled to be finished. The house sold in a weekend. Because there wasn't much time before the new house would be completed, we got an apartment for the interim. Adam and Sarah were babies sleeping in our room, so we just got a two-bedroom apartment. If you've ever built a house, you know where this story is going. Our house wasn't ready when they said it would be.
We knew things were going to be tight in the apartment, but it was only supposed to be for a month or two. That turned into six months. The babies turned one while we were in the apartment and started walking. And we just didn't have all the things we would normally need, both because it wouldn't fit in the apartment and because we'd packed them away assuming we could do without certain things for a month or two. Lora and I both got stir-crazy pretty quickly. One day when I was freaking out a little, Lora said something that really stuck with me:
Sometimes on the way to beautiful, you have a lot of chaos.
By this, she was saying that we were in the process of building something, a new home, that would serve our family for many years. Part of getting there was going through a difficult stretch, but it was in service of that larger goal. We needed to think of the chaos as part of that journey.
This life lesson is very easy to apply to Magic design, because the same thing happens when you make a set. There are a lot of times, especially early on, when everything seems in chaos. When you look at the file and it feels like it's never going to come together. But having done this many times, I realize that an important part of the creative process is exploration. In order to find the gem of an idea, you often have to explore a lot of duds. In addition, the act of finding the tightest, cleanest execution usually requires you to start with a more complicated version.
One of the things I like to do is make the version that captures the feel we want no matter how complicated it is so we can playtest it and find out what parts of it are doing the most work. Then, over time, we peel away the parts that aren't adding enough, so we can get to the core of the idea.
Sagas are an excellent example of this process. We knew we wanted to capture the idea of a story, so we spent a lot of time trying crazier versions of it. For instance, some of the earliest Sagas looked like a game board where you moved a piece along a track. At each stage, we were able to fine-tune how we wanted to capture different elements, and with each new iteration, it got more elegant, finally ending up as the Sagas you know today. But without the game-board version, we wouldn't have found the chapters, so the chaotic element of the design was a crucial part of finding the ideal end state.
When Adam was in elementary school, he was diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder). His kindergarten teacher had identified that he needed testing, and it took maybe a year to get the official diagnosis. For Adam, the ADHD meant he had a big problem with focus. Sometimes he couldn't stay focused on a topic, other times he was hyperfocused and focused on something too much.
We were very open to whatever treatment he needed with one caveat: we didn't want to give him medication. Looking back, I'm not sure where that dictum came from. I think Lora and I had both read/seen stories about kids being improperly given drugs, and we were scared that we might be inadvertently doing that to Adam. There were a lot of treatments available that didn't involve medication, so we could just focus on those.
Adam got a lot of therapy, and we tried all sorts of treatments, but nothing seemed to be working. The idea of drugs popped up from time to time, but we always pushed it aside looking for other options.
Time went by, and while we'd found things that had a small effect, we just weren't finding the larger solution. One month, I had a conversation with three different people, two friends and a doctor, where I had a chance to talk through my fears of medication. They each explained that while medication can be used improperly, there are also lots of cases where it was the best answer for the problem and that trying it didn't mean we had to continue doing it if it wasn't working.
Lora and I had a long talk and decided we needed to give medication a try. Adam tried one medicine. It did wonders. We added a second one, and it was also a huge improvement. While medication alone wasn't the only answer, combined with other treatments, it proved to be the best answer for the problem. Which led me to this lesson:
You have to be willing to question your absolutes.
Black and white are just more comfortable than gray. Something is either right or wrong, and once you identify where it belongs, you can put it in its box and not have to think about it anymore. This lesson taught me that sometimes you do have to think about it again. Limited information can often lead you to one result where more information can lead you to a completely different decision. That means you have to be willing to requestion your assumptions.
This is another lesson that's very applicable to Magic design. Part of making a set is coming to decisions about what you do and don't want to do, but those decisions can often become absolute. For years, we didn't make a lot of legendary creatures because we didn't like the gameplay of it. Once someone played their copy, no one else could play it, making it a dead card. It wasn't until Champions of Kamigawa design where we said, "You know, despite it basically being a drawback, players seem to like legendary creatures. Maybe instead of just not making a lot of them, we could change the rules to make them more fun to play."
Likewise, we spent years making every black kill spell not hit non-black creatures, until one day we had to question, "Why are we doing this?" Richard had made [autocard]Terror[/autocard] in Alpha and gave it a non-black rider because it made flavor sense for that card, but somehow that became the staple for how black kill spells worked. I remember arguing in a meeting, "The color black's more than happy to kill other black creatures. It had no qualms killing anyone."
It's so easy to have things ingrained in the game that don't necessarily have to be that way. Other times, the game shifts in a new direction and something old that existed for a reason doesn't have that reason anymore. Magic design is about being willing to question decisions you've made before and overwrite them if need be. When we started Innistrad design, for example, the rule was we didn't make cards that mechanically cared about Humans, but I realized that would make Innistrad a worse set, so I got permission to change it. Rules exist for a reason, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't ever question them.
Now, we finally get to a life lesson that came from working on Magic design. The set was Scars of Mirrodin. The original plan for the block was that it was going to be New Phyrexia for all three sets, and then in the very last set, we were going to reveal that it was the plane of Mirrodin. (Mirrodin becoming New Phyrexia had been in the plans since Mirrodin premiered.) I think our inspiration came from Planet of the Apes (spoilers) where at the end of the movie, Charlton Heston discovers the Statue of Liberty which reveals to him that the alien planet he is on is actually Earth in the future.
At the time, I was leading most the large sets that started the block, so that I meant I was going to design the first ever New Phyrexia set. I spent a lot of time trying to mechanically shape what it meant to be Phyrexian, but I was having problems understanding what the larger block was going to be about. What was the conflict? What was I building the block around?
I was really having trouble with the set, so much so that Bill Rose, then VP of R&D, was worried about the design. It got so bad at one point that he made substantial changes to my design team, then gave me a six-week deadline and said if the set wasn't approved by that date, he was going to give the design to someone else. Bill had never said that to me before, so I had a crisis of confidence, something I'd never experienced as a Magic designer. Why was I having such a problem with the set?
One day, Bill said he wanted to talk with me. I asked if I could have more time, and Bill said no. We had a schedule to keep, and if I wasn't going to solve the problem, he had to make sure the new person had enough time to solve it. Then Bill gave me a little pep talk, something Bill had never done before. I guess he sensed how frustrated I was. My next life lesson came from Bill:
Stop trying to make the thing everyone else wants you to make. Make the thing you want to make. You're at you're best when you're passionate about what you're doing. Find your passion.
I went home for the weekend and did a lot of thinking. I came back on Monday and said, "We're making the wrong set. There's a cool story to tell, the story of Mirrodin falling to the Phyrexians, and we're choosing to start our first set after that story is already over. Let's change that." Bill signed off on that change and the whole block came together.
This lesson isn't hard to tie to Magic design, as it came from Magic design. It's an important lesson though, one that shaped me as a designer. With every set I lead, I always ask myself, where's my passion in what I'm doing? What about the current design excites me? Why am I the best person to make this design? If I, as the lead designer, am not excited about what I'm doing, how can I expect anyone else to be? People always ask me why I'm so excited when I talk about any set I work on, and the reason for that is, I make sure that everything I make is exciting for me. My goal is to make a set people can fall in love with, and that has to start with me.
The next story happened when Rachel was a sophomore in high school. Up until that year, Rachel had always excelled at school, but sophomore year, her grades started falling. She was turning in work late, or in some cases not turning it in at all. It wasn't like her. In additional, Rachel just wasn't her normal peppy self. She was quiet, more withdrawn. When we asked her what was going on, we'd just get vague answers. It was clear Rachel was unhappy, but we didn't understand why. For those that have never dealt with a relative with depression, it's scary. You can see someone you love suffering, but it's not obvious how to help them. We got Rachel a therapist, and we tried our best to understand what exactly was causing her to be unhappy, but for months it just felt like she was spiraling downward.
Finally, Rachel suggested that maybe she should leave her school. As I explained in the story about the house, we had chosen to live in the city we do specifically because of the school system, but at that point, we were willing to entertain any idea. One of Rachel's qualities is when she gets interested in a topic, she dives deep. She started learning all about alternative education systems. The more she focused on learning about how else kids could learn, the more she seemed to stop withdrawing.
One day, she came to us and said she was interested in going to a school called Big Picture. It was part of a nationwide system of schools dedicated in teaching under a new paradigm. There were no grades. The learning was project based, using projects proposed by the student. There was an emphasis on internships and experience learning. And the school was 40 minutes away (and this was before Rachel had gotten her driver's license).
I'll admit, at first blush, it was a lot to swallow. I'd watched a lot of documentaries with Rachel on alternative learning, so I was beginning to understand the logic behind it, but as a parent, there were still concerns. If she started this program and didn't like it, it meant she'd have to redo the years as the lack of grades would keep the work from applying at other schools. We had no idea what colleges would accept a student without grades. And the school was far away in a school district that had a lot of financial challenges. But Rachel had stopped spiraling, and I guess we were willing to try anything if it helped her.
In order to get into the new school (and note it was the middle of her sophomore year), Rachel, Lora, and I had to come in for an interview with the two teachers that oversaw Rachel's age (the same pair of teachers oversees the class through all four years of high school). I was extremely skeptical as we were driving there that day, but when I watched the interview and saw what they were asking and how Rachel was answering, I knew it was the right place for her. They accepted her, and Rachel started the following week. (Longtime "Drive to Work" listeners might remember me driving Rachel to school for about a year.) Anyway, Rachel thrived, and I'm happy to say she just graduated summa cum laude (with a 3.97) from Columbia College Chicago. Which brings us to the next lesson:
The right answer is not always apparent at first.
Looking back, there were so many times when I was scared we were making the absolute wrong decision. The correct answer triggered so many red flags for me, but it was only through exploring ideas that scared me that we found the correct answer.
This lesson is an easy one to apply to Magic design. For example, I remember the first time Brian Tinsman pitched the exalted mechanic to me (Whenever a creature you control attacks alone, that creature gets +1/+1 until end of turn.) My initial impression was that it was too small a hoop to jump through to be a viable mechanic. I had no faith in it, but Brian was excited by it, so we tried playtesting it. After that playtest, I remember going up to Brian and saying, "I'm so sorry. This is a really good mechanic." And I never would have come to learn that if I hadn't tried playing with it.
Magic design is constantly exploring new space, which means we're going to try out things that we have no experience with. Those designs might feel foreign or unnatural. They might fly in the face of things we've purposefully chosen not to do. Pitch cards broke the rule that you can't cast spells when you're tapped out. Split cards didn't look like normal cards. Hybrid mana didn't seem to have much purpose. Double-faced cards didn't have a back. There's always a reason to reject something because it doesn't fit how you imagined things should be, but you have to be open, in life and in Magic design, to the idea that the best path might not be instantly obvious.
Keep on Learning
That's my column for today. I'm sorry it's taken me so long to write a more personal column. If you'd like to see more of these (or rather not see them again), please let me know. As always, I'm eager for any feedback, be it through email or any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week when I go through the As and Zs of design.
Until then, may you find the lessons of your own life.