In my role as Head Designer and product spokesperson, I do a lot of interviews. I found that I was often asked the same questions, so, fourteen years ago, I wrote a column where I decided to be my own interviewer ("Twenty Questions") and ask the questions I wanted to answer. Ten years ago, I did a second interview ("Maro on Maro, Part 1" and "Part 2"). It's been ten years, so I figured it was time to sit myself down again and ask some hard-hitting questions. As you'll see, I plan on pulling no punches.
Let's start with a hard one:
You talk all the time about how important the color pie is and how valuable it is for the game. What are the downsides of the color pie?
Magic is a game of flux, that is, one of its strengths is that it keeps evolving. The reason players play Magic as long as they do (and the average Magic player now plays for over a decade) is because they don't get bored as the game keeps changing. In addition, there is a huge variety in the ways to play Magic, and those options themselves keep changing. The color pie plays an important role in all this because while the game keeps changing, it's important that enough of it stays constant so that Magic always feels like Magic. It's also important, as some formats use cards from the game's whole history, that there are reasons to not put all the best stuff in every deck so the game doesn't evolve into the same multicolor soup that everyone plays.
While the color pie does a lot of good in helping keep the cohesion, it's also the source of a lot of conflict. Different ways to play Magic lean on different aspects of the game, and those things aren't necessarily balanced in the color pie. For example, the colors were created originally around a two-player game where each player started with 20 life. Along comes the popular Commander format where there are many players, usually a lot more than two, and players start at 40 life. A big part of white and red's identities, for example, was built into the fact that they had aggressive strategies using low-cost cards. They were given less long game because they had more strengths in the short game. Well, Commander basically takes away most of the short game possibilities, which results in an unbalanced color pie.
The color pie is built to have some flux (it does change slightly over time), but it wasn't designed to change quickly or dramatically. That means it's become the sticking point in balancing Commander play. I could see it causing similar issues with a future format that likewise pushes in new directions. Simply put, the color pie is not as adaptable as many of the other aspects of the game and has become the bottleneck for change.
The second biggest problem is that, because it's designed so strongly around flavor, certain concepts become very hard to illustrate in a single color, as do certain mechanical abilities. As the game uses up more and more of the low-hanging fruit of design, we're forced to explore offbeat spaces, and some of those don't line up so neatly to single colors. Yes, we have access to multicolor, but not every set has as easy a time dipping into multicolor, especially at lower rarities. There's a lot of pressure to make things work in a single color, and there are just times it doesn't fit, and this grows as we push more into novel design space.
The third issue, and this one has pros and cons, is that it warps all our worlds to match the needs of five colors. On the plus side, it makes every world feel very much like a Magic world, but on the negative side, it limits the kinds of worlds we can do. As we use up the more obvious world concepts, this is going to become a bigger and bigger issue.
So yes, the color pie is foundational and crucial to the health and identity of the game, but it has its issues.
What's the hardest part of your job?
Some might guess it's not talking about the future. I (along with a swath of talented coworkers) work so hard making really cool stuff that I think the players will adore and that I can't talk about it for a long time. For example, it's a two-year gap from when I hand off a vision design file until it comes out. But, to be honest, I've become pretty used to it. My trick is that I always get to talk about something, so I just enjoy talking about whatever it is I'm allowed to talk about at the time. And I get to tease people on my blog and my social media accounts about the things I can't talk about yet. It's why I'm always so excited to talk about things. I've just waited so long to do it.
Some might think it's all the garbage I take online. I often get to be the punching bag for whatever Magic's issue of the day is, even if that issue isn't something I had anything to do with. Sometimes it's something I fought valiantly to change and failed. That's particularly fun. But, I've been doing this a long time and have grown a pretty thick skin. I've also learned how to disconnect the feedback of the message from the vitriol, so it's not as emotionally draining as it once was.
No, the thing that's actually the hardest is what I refer to as "rolling the boulder uphill." My job as Head Designer is to push into new space and try new things. I'm the guy that's always trying to convince everyone else at work to do something we've never done before. Sometimes, it's not a hard fight. Sometimes, I get people on board early and it snowballs into something that everyone's excited about. Other times, it's a slog. I might casually mention that it took ten years to make a set with a fairy-tale theme, but that means I spent ten years (admittedly, on and off) trying to make it happen. I had to pitch it and fail and pitch it and fail and pitch it and fail. And even when I eventually got the thumbs up to do it, there was a lot of work building consensus that it was something we should not only do but focus on in the set. That's why I call it rolling the boulder uphill. It's a long, laborious process, one where the boulder occasionally rolls back down the hill and I have to start all over.
Because there are so many products and we work so far ahead, much of this boulder rolling is happening concurrently. I remember having my fairy-tale idea shot down yet again the same day that I learned Unstable's release was going to be pushed back for the third time. There are days where the boulder rolling is emotionally taxing.
This isn't to say that the people trying to stop me are doing something wrong. It's the job of most of R&D to stress test the ideas of myself and the other vision designers. Our ideas are improved because of the gauntlet of resistance the process creates. I honestly believe that the system leads to a better product, but none of that makes it any easier when you're in the middle of pushing yet another boulder up yet another hill. And that is the hardest part of my job.
Where is the greatest potential for Magic's future design?
The biggest impact of creating Magic content continually for 26 years is that we've taxed a lot of the obvious veins of design. I believe the most robust future of Magic design lies in two big areas: looking in places we haven't looked before and combining things in ways we haven't before.
I'll start with the first category—looking in places we haven't before:
One of the greatest strengths of top-down design is that it forces you to look at a set from a completely different vantage point. It lets you make cards you'd never make anywhere else and combine components in ways you might not (more on this below). Some of my favorite designs have been when we start with a card title and create a card to match it. So often we make something wonderful that couldn't have existed had we not started with that goal. I believe there's a bright future in finding new and different top-down spaces to explore.
Another area rich with design potential includes mechanics that ended up being far more robust than we realized when we first created them. A classic example would be double-faced cards. We made them originally because they did such a good job of capturing the flavor of Werewolves in Innistrad, but the more we played with them, the more we realized the huge amount of design potential they held. Magic Origins, Eldritch Moon, Ixalan—we kept finding new and different ways to use this resource. Large mechanics, like double-faced cards, are a great tool for exploring new space.
Another resource that we've become more comfortable tapping into is card frames. Card frames have a couple important elements to them. First, there's a functional aspect. They can allow you to do things that might not normally fit on a card by using design elements to convey something that would take a lot of words to communicate, or they could serve as a means to track information that might be a memory issue on a normal card. Second, they can convey a lot of flavor, helping sell the theme of the set. Third, they can be splashy, making the cards more appealing for the players. All of this means that frames are an important tool allowing us to make cards and mechanics that we couldn't have ever made in the past.
This category talks about elements that aren't a normal Magic card. That could be tokens, such as food, where the text sits on the token, which allows us to push the boundaries of what we can print. That could be punch-out counters, like Amonkhet, where we can create extra play aids that fit in the booster. That could be cards like contraptions from Unstable where it's a card from another deck which allows us to push into a whole new vein of design. Finding what else we can fit into a booster besides normal Magic cards has all sorts of possibilities.
Another exciting new space has to do with what our printers can let us do. For example, Battlebond happened because we had a printer able to guarantee that two cards could always be put together into booster packs. That's just the tip of the iceberg for the future of printing technology, which will open up new areas of design for us to explore.
The other big category is combining things we haven't before. This can work on several levels:
Historic was a mechanic in Dominaria that tried something new. We took two things that were already part of the game (artifacts and legendary cards) and one new thing (Sagas) and invented a term to combine them into a singular thing. While we have to be careful when and how we batch things, I think this opens up interesting design space as we can make you care about new combinations of things that already exist in the game. It's a clever solution to making new things that are also backwards compatible.
Mixing and Matching Themes
While we're always on the lookout for original mechanical themes, finding new ones becomes trickier over time. Much like cooking, the thing we're leaning on more and more is taking known mechanical themes and combining them in new and different ways.
Another resource that we rely on are set structures. For example, Shards of Alara and Khans of Tarkir are built similarly. Part of paving new space is taking old structures we've used before and finding different ways to use them so that on the back end, we have a structure to build around, but on the front end (what all of you see), it feels new and fresh.
If this sounds like a lot, it is, which is why when I'm asked how I feel about Magic's future design potential, I say optimistic.
Of all the various things you create, which is your favorite?
One of the questions I get asked all the time in normal interviews is "What's my favorite Magic color?" My answer is that I don't have one favorite. Having worked so long with all the colors, I really appreciate each one for what it is, and I don't think of them competing with one another. (Kind of how a parent thinks of their kids.) I really approach all my projects with a similar mindset. I appreciate what each of them gets to be, which is unique from the others.
"Making Magic" (my weekly column) – This is my oldest child. I can't believe in 2020, I'm going to be writing my thousandth article. The thing I appreciate about my weekly column is threefold. One, it's the place where I get to take time to think through a topic and really approach it with a lot of thought. It's where I have the most time to do research and solidify my take on an issue. Two, it's the one thing I do where I get to make use of graphics when I need them, so it allows me to do some visual things (like show old cards when needed) that are harder to do in my other mediums. Three, it's the most revisitable thing I create. I make it a habit to do a lot of linking in my articles to old articles because it's fun to have people rediscover things I've written years later. Also, when I see other people linking to my work, the column tends to be what gets linked to the most.
"Drive to Work" (my weekly podcast) – This is the thing I create that gets referenced the most when I meet people. This is also the medium where I get to be the most personable. It's just me talking, and with my low-tech process (start and stop the recording—no editing), I think it gives the audience the best sense of me of anything I do. It's also the medium best suited to storytelling and going super deep on a topic as I have thirty-plus minutes to fill. It's the medium where I get to experiment the most as I have so much content to create. There are topics I might never get to if not for my podcast. Also, it makes driving to work go a whole bunch faster.
"Blogatog" (my blog) – This is the medium where I get to interact with the fans. Most of my other stuff is me talking at all of you. Blogatog is where I'm talking with all of you. A big part of my job is understanding what all of you want out of the game, so I cheat by asking you directly. I enjoy how a community has formed around the blog, and it gives me a way to address issues in a faster and less formal way than my column. It also is the medium where I get to be a bit sillier at times than my other mediums.
"Tales from the Pit" (my daily comic, posted to my Twitter, my blog, and my Instagram) – This is the medium where I get to push myself every day to be creative. It's also where I get to most exercise my comedy-writing muscles. I usually write it when I'm getting ready in the morning, so I know the quality level is all over the place, but it's the one thing I write where I get to find the funny in the game. I also kind of backed into writing a sitcom from time to time, so that lets me revisit a path that I left many years ago.
Head-to-Head (my daily poll, posted on Twitter) – I started this up because it's something I tried to do on the Magic website many years ago and failed. When Twitter created a resource that let me do this easily, I started it as a way to give the Twitter followers something to do. Interestingly, it's ended up being a very good resource for gathering information and creates a fun activity at work (R&D has a game where we try to predict what you will all say).
I often get asked why I produce so much content, and the answer is it's just something fundamental to who I am. I have a desire to create things, and doing so brings me a lot of comfort. I've also learned, though, how to focus that energy in a way that's productive, so you benefit from my desire to create. Finally, I think it makes me better at my job as it allows me to interact with you and helps me focus how I think about things and communicate them in a way that others can follow.
I really do approach all my content as its own thing and enjoy how each allows me access to things the others don't, so, I plan to keep on making them. If, for some reason, you weren't aware of any of them, I've provided links above, so please go and check them out.
"No More Questions"
That's all the time I have for today, but I'll be continuing this interview next week. As always, I'm eager to hear your thoughts on anything I said today. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram) and let me know.
Join me next week as I continue interviewing myself.
Until then, may you ask yourself some hard-hitting questions.
#693: Food Cluster
#693: Food Cluster
I'm trying something new, what I'm calling a cluster podcast, where I pick a topic and talk about a whole bunch of little topics in that category. For my first cluster podcast, I have chosen to talk about food.
#694: Trivia – Top 50 Words
#694: Trivia – Top 50 Words
What are the 50 words that show up in the most Magic card titles? In this podcast, I go through that list and talk a bit about how we name cards.