Welcometo Ninja Week! This week we'll be talking about Magic's newest and sneakiest creature type. (By the way, do you realize that with the introduction of ninjas in Betrayers of Kamigawa that Mistform Ultimus is now a Mystic Rabbit Ninja?) But I've already talked about how ninjas were designed (“When Ninjas Attack”) several weeks ago. What do I have left to talk about?

Then I remembered that I actually have two different responsibilities for Magic. One is running design. The other is overseeing the Creative Team (Brady Dommermuth, Jeremy Cranford, Brandon Bozzi, Matt Cavotta & Doug Alexander Gregory). So today I thought it might be fun to swap hats and turn this into a Magic Creative column. And in doing so I can answer a very thorny question – Do ninjas belong in Magic?

The Names Behind the Names (And Art and Flavor text)

I make it a practice every set to talk about the design team for that expansion. But I have yet to take a moment to introduce to you the team that creates the creative for every Magic set. I will rectify that right now.

Brady Dommermuth
I'll start with Brady as he is one of the two old-timers of the bunch. Brady has been working at Wizards for almost as long as I have (and that, my friends, is a long time). It's interesting to note that Brady originally started at Wizards as a Magic editor, but over time he starting drifting towards the Creative end of R&D (I'm not trying to imply that editing isn't creative, it's just that we call the flavor guys the Creative Team). Brady's key responsibilities to the team are world building and card concepting. That is, he's the key guy who starts trying to flesh out broad ideas like “a world made of metal” or “Japanese world” and turn them into something that will allow us to make six hundred plus cards. In addition, he's the guy that figures out what each spell is actually going to be so that Jeremy can explain to the artist what kind of picture we need. I have great respect for Brady because what he does is very, very hard. (Seriously, card concepting might be the hardest job in R&D.) Plus I'm one of the guys who makes spells that make no flavor sense that Brady has to salvage time and again, so I feel a little guilty.

Jeremy Cranford
Jeremy is the other old-timer of the bunch. (I believe Jeremy started at Wizards before I did, although he left for a year or two so I don't know who has more actual years of employment). He is the Magic Art Director. His job is to find and maintain a stable of artists and produce six hundred plus cool looking pieces of art a year. On top of that, he has to create and maintain a distinctive look and feel for each environment and for Magic overall. And as if that isn't enough, Jeremy oversees packaging for all Magic products. And that's just the stuff I'm aware of. I can't say enough good things for what Jeremy has done for the look and feel of the game. I feel the Mirrodin and Kamigawa blocks have the best overall art in the history of the game. As a little piece of trivia – I first got to know Jeremy because he designed my wedding invitations (a Monopoly board parody called “Monogamy” that was chopped up into a hundred piece puzzle).

Brandon Bozzi
While the youngest on the team, Brandon is third in seniority. Brandon got his start in Wizards as the Northern California regional representative that went store to store helping teach them how to demo and run organized play. He then acted as the liaison between the stores and the Organized Play department. Up until very recently, Brandon has been the names and flavor text guy. He's handing off these responsibilities to Matt Cavotta (his bio's coming up next). Brandon is the one Creative Team member who has numerous non-Magic responsibilities and as such is using his “Magic time” to help out all the other members of the team. Brandon's newest responsibility has been coordinating communication between the development teams and the Creative Team. That way when a development team decides to turn a 1/1 ground creature into a 4/4 flier, the Creative Team can act accordingly. Brandon also owns the largest piece of Silly Putty I've ever seen (currently made up of over 120 pieces of individual Silly Putties). Usually during Creative Team meetings, I break off pieces of it for all the team members to play with.

Matt Cavotta
Matt is our newest hire. And yes, he is the Magic artist of the same name if you're curious. He is taking over the name and flavor text responsibilities from Brandon. Matt got the job after winning out from almost six hundred applicants (the current record holder for a Wizards job application). Matt's creative exercise (something asked for from the majority of the applicants) was done up as a magicthegathering.com drafting article where all the cards in question were about his life. Matt has only been with Wizards for several months but he's fit in wonderfully. And with his mix of strong verbal and visual skills, I have great expectations.

Doug Alexander Gregory
But wait, we have a second Magic artist (you might know him as D. Alexander Gregory) on staff with the Creative Team. Doug is our concept illustrator. You see, before Jeremy can assign art for a new environment, the Creative Team has to produce a document known as a style guide that shows (and to a lesser extent tells) the artists what the new world is like. This requires a great deal of concept illustration (aka so what does “this new thing” look like?). You won't get to see Doug's handiwork until next year's block, but trust me it's worth the wait.

I could spend many more paragraphs extolling the virtues of this team. They're awesome and they make my job as a manager very easy. (Saying “keep doing that” is not exactly a real challenge.) If you'd like to drop any of them a line, I'll gladly forward your messages to them.

The Eternal Struggle

Let's get back to the question at hand. Do ninjas belong in Magic? To answer this question I have to begin by examining the Great Creative Conflict. What? You've never heard of the Great Creative Conflict? Well then, I guess you haven't been hanging around the Magic Creative Team because it's the question that confronts them every day. Magic Creative wants two different things.

First, it wants what any Intellectual Property (shortened to "IP") wants. A stable “ownable” environment. That is persons, places, things (what the good people at Schoolhouse Rock called “nouns”) that are unique to your IP. Things that players can look at and identify as being your thing. And once you have those things, you want to keep them around. Forever. I promise you the third Star Wars movie (forgetting for a moment that it's a prequel) isn't going to say, “Yeah, we're done with the whole jedi fighting siths with light sabers thing. We're going to try something new instead.” They'll find ways to put a twist on it (double-sided light sabers, longer purple light sabers, kung-fu Yoda, etc.), but the IP will always deliver the things you've come to expect.

Let's continue to take the Star Wars IP as an example. The Star Wars IP has lots of ownable stuff. There's the jedi, the sith, the light saber, Tatooine, Hoth, the Millenium Falcon, Darth Vader, Mos Eisley Cantina, droids… The list goes on and on. Star Wars is filled with things that are, well, Star Wars. That is what any good IP wants. Lots of stuff that you associate with them. In addition, you want a particular mood. A dominant theme. An ethos (a fancy word for what your IP is about). You want stability.

Second, you want to service the essence of your core. You see, every IP is built around one center item. For Star Wars, for example, it's the films. For Magic it's (I hope this doesn't come as a shock to anyone) the game. The IP has to serve the game. And Magic is a game about discovery. An ever-changing game where the players are constantly rediscovering what the game is all about. And for Magic that means it wants an IP that constantly evolves. A constant influx of new environments with new characters and creatures and artifacts and spells. One where we visit a new plane, oh, let's say once a year.

Are you getting the gist of this conflict? The IP wants to be iconic and static, yet it has to service the game that wants to constantly evolve. What's a Creative Team to do?

In Like Ninja

So how does the Great Creative Conflict apply to ninjas? To answer this question, I present a little play entitled “Bad Boys, Bad Boys, Whatcha Gonna Do?”

Evolving IP: I just got a great idea. Let's do ninjas.
Static IP: Ninjas? We're fantasy.
Evolving IP: Exactly. No one will see ninjas coming. Just like real ninjas.
Static IP: Magic is about dueling wizards. What do ninjas have to do with dueling wizards?
Evolving IP: If you were a badass wizard and you were having a magical duel and you could summon anyone you wanted, why wouldn't you summon ninjas? They're ninjas!
Static IP: Then why not just summon robots?
Evolving IP: We did do robots.
Static IP: They were not robots. They were myr.
Evolving IP: Ooh, I'm sorry. Magical metal creatures with a spark of life that can walk and talk.
Static IP: I didn't want to do myr. We did myr because of you!
Evolving IP: I know. Good for me.
Static IP: Just be glad I surrounded them with goblins and elves. If I left it up to you, we'd have laser beams and mechs.
Evolving IP: You might not want to look at Urza's Rage.
Static IP: We've done djinns and pirates and squirrels and ghosts and humanoid versions of every animal you could think of.
Evolving IP: Armadillos.
Static IP: What?
Evolving IP: We haven't done armadillo people yet. Or gopher people. Or…
Static IP: Can't we just draw a line? Could we just make something off limits?
Evolving IP: Could we not do goblins and elves and dragons and angels and wizards and soldiers and zombies and blah and blah and blah every freakin' set?
Static IP: Okay. Hypothetically, if I allowed ninjas, what do I get in return?
Evolving IP: Fine. You know that old-time creature type that you keep bugging me to bring back? Maybe we could find a space for it in the next block.
Static IP: More than one?
Evolving IP: We'll see.

Can't We All Just Get Along?

To balance these two IP concerns, the Magic Creative Team has become very adept at the art of compromise. As it's ninja week, I thought I'd use the ninjas as an example of this delicate compromise.

#1 – Embrace The New (But Do So With Caution)

If every relationship has its non-negotiable, this one's is that the creative has to allow new things. Magic could not be Magic if nothing new was ever introduced. That said, just because it hasn't been done doesn't mean it's right for Magic. The new creative element has to make sense in context. Ninjas, for example, are stealthy assassins that use subterfuge and misdirection to kill unsuspecting victims. In a world based around creature combat, ninjas seem to fit in just fine. Gopher people? Not so much.

#2 – Make Everything Ownable

When you get right down to it, a light saber is a sword, but Star Wars turned it into their sword. When Magic Creative attacks a new addition to the world, they have to find a way to put their own stamp on it. The Ninjas of Betrayers, for instance, are not stereotypical ninjas. They are Magic ninjas. They borrow elements from the original but add layers that give it a unique feel. For starters, the Creative team nixed the black “jammies” that have become the ninja stereotype. In addition, our ninjas use magic as a means to aid in their stealth or combat skills. (For those that care, the blue ninjas are the scouts and spies while the black ones are the assassins.)

#3 – Surround the Unknown With The Known

Kokusho, the Evening Star
The Kamigawa block has ninjas and samurai, but it also has goblins and rats and snakes. It has dragons and demons and spirits and a host of other old-time elements. Now, these old favorites are dressed up in new clothes, but they are some of the things that you've come to associate with Magic. It gives the block a sense of familiarity (and for mechanical purposes helps tie the set to the past). This is very important because too much new will alienate just about anyone. The unknown has to be mixed with a healthy dose of the known.

#4 - Get Design To Help Where Possible

Magic Creative learned long ago that nothing adds flavor like mechanics. If the new thing does something different as well as look and feel different, it's destined to be better received. Ninjas are the perfect example. The addition of the ninjutsu ability not only gives them all that extra oomph flavor-wise, it makes them feel more organic to the set. This point is so important that Magic Creative most often begins creating cool new things during design once they see what the new mechanics are.

#5 – Make Use Of Every Resource

The final trick to achieving the perfect balance is making use of all the tools available to Creative. Art (including card concepting), names and flavor text all have great ability to convey different aspects of the new thing. From their look, to their name to the things said by and about them, much time was spent giving the ninjas the cool edge that everyone knew we wanted.

Answer the Question

My column is coming to an end, so it's time to finally to answer the question – Do ninjas belong in Magic? And so I shall.

Yes. Yes, they do.

Thank you all so much for joining me today. I hope this peek into the Creative side of Magic proved interesting for all of you.

Join me next week when I answer a number of questions that certain people have been itching to know.

Until then, may you take a moment to really look at and appreciate all aspects of the Magic cards in your deck.

Mark Rosewater