Consulting The Arcane: An interview With Head Designer of Magic The Gathering: Mark Rosewater

Today we have a very special interview to share with all of our readers. Mark Rosewater, the Head Designer of legendary trading card game, Magic: The Gathering, was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the game, where it is going in the near future, and how to be a good game designer.

But first, before we get to the interview, some background about the Magic and the people who make it.

Magic: The Gathering is the world’s first collectable card game, introduced by Wizards of the Coast in 1993 with the release of the set now known as “Alpha.” The game, in which players take on the role of powerful wizards and attempt to bring their foes life total from 20 to 0 with powerful spells and fearsome creatures, proved to be a huge hit and just last year celebrated its twentieth anniversary. Today, the game is more popular then ever, with recent sets, such as Theros and Khans of Takir, being among the most popular in Magic’s long history.

Mark Rosewater, or Maro as he sometimes referred to by Magic fans, is the game’s Head Designer, a title you can find out more about below, and is among the most recognizable public faces of the game. He often answers questions on Twitter and Tumblr from Magic: The Gathering fans from all over the world. According to Wikipedia, he also worked in Hollywood for a time and was among the writing staff for the hit 90’s TV sitcom, Roseanne

Now, without further introduction, let us get to the interview!

APGNation: Firstly, thank you so much for taking the time from your busy schedule to answer a few questions for our loyal readers. To begin, could you explain what your position at Wizards of the Coast is and what role you have in creating the cards that make up every Magic: The Gathering set?

Mark Rosewater: I am the Head Designer for Magic: The Gathering. I oversee the team that figures out what every card does mechanically. I am not in charge of the flavor elements (the beautiful illustrations are done by freelance artists and the other story elements are done by our in-house creative team). Magic is an ever-changing game with new cards always being created, so it’s my job to make sure we’re constantly pushing the proverbial pendulum in different directions. I also serve as one of Magic’s key spokespeople with a weekly column and podcast and a daily blog on Tumblr.  I also have an online presence on Twitter (@maro254), Google+ and Instagram (mtgmaro).

APG: What is a typical day of work at Wizards of the Coast like?

Mark Rosewater: I get up. While I get ready, I make my comic for the day. I have a daily Magic-themed comic I post on my social media. Then on my way to work, I record my podcast (called appropriately enough “Drive to Work”) where I talk about some aspect of the game. Once I get to work, I usually have a series of meetings. We always have a number of design teams running concurrently. I usually lead one design team and am on all the other teams to contribute and keep up with what is going on with each design. I work out during lunch and while I eat at my desk, I usually answer questions on my blog. I have more meetings after lunch. Often those meetings are playtests where we play with future sets to better understand what is and is not working. There are also a few meetings each week where larger groups get together to talk about things – the designers and developers, the managers, all of Magic R&D. I also have meetings for what we call exploratory design where we do blue sky exploration for an upcoming set that has not begun design yet. During my meeting-free hours, I design cards and monitor what is being said for the day about Magic. As one of Magic’s spokespeople, it’s important that I understand whatever issues are being discussed on social media each day. On my drive home, I listen to that day’s podcast to make sure it’s good. 

APG: With the recent success of sets like Theros and Return to Ravnica, what do you think it is that draws more people than ever before to play Magic: The Gathering?

Mark Rosewater: One of the advantages of making a game for over twenty years is that we’ve had a lot of time to fine tune how we make it. I believe these last few years have just been us hitting our stride. In addition, we have introduced wonderful products like Duels of the Planeswalkers which serve as a great way to teach new players. Magic’s number one-draw overall, I believe, is its gameplay. I’ve been a lifelong gamer and have bookcases of games at home and Magic is hands down my all-time favorite game. It’s just really fun. The fact that it is constantly evolving helps keep the game fresh and allows our players to not grow tired of it.

APG: Planeswalkers, powerful wizards who are capable of transporting themselves from one plane of existence to another, have been the face of Magic: The Gathering for some time, but only recently have they been featured on cards. Can you tell us how the decision was made to create the Planeswalker card type?

Mark Rosewater: We really wanted to focus our story on a number of Planeswalkers (that’s the role that players take when they play the game) and we realized that if we wanted them to be a key part of the story, they needed to be a key part of the game. We spent a lot of time figuring out how to do that. In fact, we postponed them from the set we had originally planned to premiere them in because we didn’t feel they were ready yet. Finally, we introduced them (in a set named Lorwyn) and they were an instant hit. We had originally planned for them to appear every once in a while but fan response was so strong we changed things so they now show up in every set.

APG: We have many aspiring game designers amongst our readership; what advice would you give to those looking to break into the game design field?

Mark Rosewater: I think I have more advice how to design a good game than how to break into the industry. My belief is you only get one chance to make a first impression so make sure your game is ready before you start showing it around. 

The advice that I often give to writers is to read. I give similar advice to game designers – play. Play every game you can get your hands on and then think about what you do and don’t like and why. What was fun and what wasn’t? Feel free to adapt rules and try games differently. What impact did the change have? The way to build up game design skills starts with understanding why games tick.

When you start working on your first game, I recommend reading an article I wrote called “10 Things Every Game Needs”. My daughter’s fifth grade class was studying the American Revolution and the project was to make a game related to it. Her teacher had me come in to explain the basics of game design to the kids. I turned that speech into a two-part article. I feel it does a good job of talking about the basics of game design. 

My few other pieces of advice for new game designers:

  1. Keep the playtime short. Do not go over thirty minutes and less is good.

  2. Don’t make it too complex. Make sure that by the end of playing it once a player could then explain how to play it to a new player. 

  3. Playtest with people that are not emotionally invested in your wellbeing. Friends and family will often prioritize your feelings over the truth.

Most of all, be aware that it’s a rough industry and that it’s going to take time to get noticed. Your best bet though is to have a well-designed game when someone finally looks.

APG: On a lighter note, what is your favorite Magic card that you have designed personally?

 Mark Rosewater: My favorite Magic card I designed is called Mindslaver (from a set called Mirrodin). It allows you to take control of another player for a full turn making all decisions for them. I love it because it’s the kind of card that generates stories every time it gets used.

Mindslaver: Art by Glen Angus

Mindslaver: Art by Glen Angus

APG: Thank you for your time, but before we are through, do you have any parting words for our audiences about the future of Magic: The Gathering?

Mark Rosewater: People often ask me what the hardest part of my job is and I say it’s keeping quiet about all the cool stuff we have planned. (I work anywhere from two to three years in the future.) It’s just getting harder and harder because we keep upping our game and doing wonderfully awesome stuff. So for everyone who is enjoying Magic right now, you all are in for a real treat because the future of the game is filled with amazing things.

A big thank you to Mark Rosewater for both taking time to answer my questions, and making Magic: The Gathering such an awesome game. I hope that you all enjoyed the interview and, with any luck, it helped you understand a little bit of what goes into making the games we all play and enjoy every day. Also make sure to leave your thoughts on the interview in the comments or on Twitter where you can find us @APGNation.

Till next time, I’m Nicole Seraphita and you can find me on Twitter @fluffyharpy.

Nicole Seraphita
Written by
My name is Nicole Seraphita and I’m 27. I’ve been gaming since the days of the NES and have owned at least one system from each generation since then. My favorite type of games if most definitely RPGs, with my favorites being titles like Chrono Cross, Persona 4, and Tales of Xillia, though I also sometimes dabble in platforming games, fighting games, and visual novels. When I’m not writing for APGNation or playing games, I enjoy table top and card games, watch anime, and write fiction that I occasionally publish online. I tend to write a lot of Sci-fi and the occasional bit of fantasy, with the often overlooked sub-genre of Biopunk being my favorite. I’ve also written a few visual novels, though only one of them has made it all the way to completion thus far. My current dream is to be able to bring the Monster Girl genre to a western audience.

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