There are a lot of faces to Magic. Folks like Mark Rosewater and Aaron Forsythe feature in R&D, and the enigmatic Doug Beyer is ever-present on panels as a Creative force. Video coverage guys sit front and center of our Twitch streams most weekends, putting outside-of-Wizards folks like Marshall Sutcliffe and Rich Hagon onto the street-corner soapboxes.
. . . Well, more precisely, I had a chance to watch how hard they work.
Liz Lamb-Ferro and I met in a hurry on the first day of PAX East, as the start of any big event comes with difficulties for everyone to make it through the queues and navigation. We ended up with just ten minutes for me to get the rundown on what’s really happening with Magic Duels: Origins. As someone who’s cut his dictation teeth in the narrow minutes between rounds at Grand Prix, catching it all was easy mode.
With minimal paraphrasing, and if you missed the news over the weekend, this is what to expect. (My context and thoughts are in parentheses.)
- It’s an entirely new digital experience. (Though built with the same great interface as the previous Duels of the Planeswalkers series.)
- It’s a new storyline that focuses on the five characters as they develop over the next few blocks. (This reinforces the double-down on creative and character-based storytelling we’re seeing in Tarkir block and coming with Magic Origins.)
- For actual gameplay, Two-Headed Giant is back! For serious back! (Liz literally opened the technical build to the Play mode screen and physically pointed to the option, as seen in the photo below.)
- In solo battle mode, we have thousands of AI decks to play against. Randomized decks. Randomized opponents. Virtually limitless. (After reminding her of the Shandalar game, she mentioned that the random-deck opponents and battles are similar, though there’s no over-world map or anything like that as far as I could tell.)
- Versus mode is multiplayer against friends. (The best part of Magic, period.)
- The deck-builder is back, and you’ll be able to go in and pick up a base set of cards. You can make any deck with open deck-building, but for people who are like I am, who are a little bit lazy, you can just use an archetype. (The experience caters to both new and veteran players.)
- One of the most exciting things is it’s entirely free-to-play. There are no microtransactions: You can play to earn coins—or you can purchase coins—to gain more booster packs or new chapters. (Like the reversal with the expansion to Duels of the Planeswalkers.)
- By playing—multiplayer, AI, or with friends—you can earn coins. The tutorial experience is integrated: You even earn coins during the tutorial! (You can play the game along to unlock things, or you can jam with friends. Any way.
- It’s persistent contact: When the fall set Blood (later revealed as Battle for Zendikar) comes out, new expansions will come, as they will with Sweat and Tears. (It sounds like the client isn’t going to be replaced annually, but it wasn’t exactly clear either.)
- We’ve looked at new features—sleeves, foils—but we’ve just focused on listening to our players and delivering the free-to-play experience they want and keeping playing years from now.
- It’s coming for a July 2015 release on Xbox One, PC via Steam, iPad, and PS4. We want to be where our players are. Magic players are savvy players, and we want to make sure we’re delivering a great experience on that technology. (The implication here is that there was some development snag for the PS4 hardware version of the last Duels of the Planeswalkers version. Although there’s a strong partnership between Microsoft and Wizards, it’s not an exclusivity agreement as some have suggested.)
It took a second day to follow up for more and to dig into why working on Magic means so much to Liz. While promoting “the next great Magic thing” is always in Brand’s set of goals, it meant more for her, too. “With Duels of the Planeswalkers, a lot of my job was being frontline about what we did wrong,” she said, referring to the initial response at release of last year’s edition. “It’s a two-way conversation, and a lot of my role is taking what we’re hearing from players back to the office and figure out, “How do we change that?” Some of it’s translation, but a lot of it is being player advocate: There’re casual and kitchen-table players that aren’t winning Pro Tours that we cater to, too.
“Pivoting from what we’re seeing in the market to what can make actionable for players is what I do.”
I‘m trying to build a passionate fan base. For every product or service out there, there’s a fan boy.”
Liz counts herself as one for Magic. “I played in high school. We had a weekly board game club—Settlers of Catan, Monopoly—but eventually, we moved to Magic,” she explained. “I got into it a little bit there, and then college and life happened when I moved away from it. I’ve always enjoyed gaming, and puzzle games especially. Magic is one constant state of puzzle: There’s always one right solution, you’ve just got to figure out if it’s in your hands. When I saw this position open, I got a chance to create the puzzle. I get to be a fan, and I also get to work on the game.”
“What I lack in skill, I make up in enthusiasm!” she said with a grin. “People that work on Magic come from all skill levels. You have Pro Tour players that can just go by just the numbers, and then there’re players like me that know their way around a board state but don’t cream other players all the time. I think that’s like players out there in the wild, not there to be “the best,” but there to have fun.”
That fun beyond just the game is part of what’s driven Magic to its greatest heights in recent years. In her two years working with the game, she’s been able to add that touch to experiences the world over. “One of the things I was most excited on was the Magic 2015 campaign: The San Diego Comic-Con axe, and make one of our most powerful characters relatable. “What would an axe made my Nerf look like?”” she explained. “Also, the cutout Garruk in all the stores—it’s a larger-than-life experience that added something without interfering with gameplay. For those, for the entertainment value, it was great: Life-sized Garruk is a big dude.”
“It’s what makes me want to build a red-black deck so I can have both Liliana and Chandra in that because I see a little bit of myself in both of those Planeswalkers.”
“The thing that surprised me most when I first started was the depth of the stories,” Liz explained. “There are things from five, ten years ago that we’re pulling bits from into stories today: The flavor text from one card years ago makes a difference today. The other thing I noticed is that I didn’t understand the breadth and depth of the community. I didn’t understand how global it is, and how awesome the community is. When you spend some time away, you can get some blinders on, but seeing how the community responds to things—Alesha’s story, and Narset’s—and the civilized discourse happens around that sets the tone of a larger conversation outside of the gaming community. That’s a powerful thing.”
“Yes, this is a game about power and toughness and bringing your opponent’s life total down, but it’s so much more than the pieces of cardboard you put down on the table.” She turned serious for a moment. “It’s so much more than any other games out there, and I would totally stand by that statement.”
That intensity and care is exactly why Liz and others appear en masse at conventions like PAX East. “Wizards doesn’t control conversations—we try to start them,” she explained. “We look for places where we can drop the proverbial pebble in the pond and see what people talk about afterward. It’s less about, “Oh. We like you more than the other guy,” but getting a conversation going on what’s new in Magic and seeing where the fans take it.”
She paused before cracking the widest grin I’d seen yet. “And, obviously, add Sarkhan to summon all the dragons.”
The more I travel for Magic and meet the people behind the scenes, the more I realize the game is just as intense and personal for them as it is for me. Liz’s story as a brand manager is just one of the many from folks passionate and proud to work on a game they love.
Magic’s just now beginning to tell stories as complex and interesting as those anywhere else, but it’s always been the case for the people bringing it all to life.