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Thursday May 26, 2005 1:45 am

E3 Interviews: Randy Buehler - Head of Research and Development for Magic: The Gathering

Posted by Charles Leake Categories: Features, Strategy,

The other day we brought you our interview with Mark Rosewater, Head Designer of Magic: The Gathering. Today we bring you the next installment of Magic love in our interview with Randy Buehler, Magic Head of Research and Development:

Please explain Magic the Gathering?

Magic the Gathering in my opinion the best strategy game in the world.  Its primarily a paper based game, but Magic Online is a direct transliteration.  We have this strategy game we think is amazing and with a lot of fans, who seem to agree with this.  We have ported this onto the online world as well, so you can play the game either way.  Sort of one game, two platforms.

Please explain Magic the Gathering Online?
One game, two platforms is the way we think of it at the office.  It’s the same game whether you buy the paper cards or play the online version of the game.  We are consistently releasing new cards we have three releases in a typical year.  We have a core set we update every couple years.  Basically it’s a trading card game that you get to build your own deck.  I think of it as chess where you get to decide how your pieces move.  It is a game where you’re playing your strategy against the other guy’s strategy. 

There are so many cards and so many different ways that you can build a deck that it really hooks people in and for fans of the game it becomes almost a lifestyle.  It’s like their hobby.  It’s the thing you can spend hours and hours and hours doing and can spend all your time thinking about it, trying to build the new deck and trying to find new ways to use the cards you already have. 

Talking on the Internet with your friends about what’s going to be in the upcoming sets.  So I don’t even know if there is one answer to what is Magic: the Gathering.  There is the card game itself, which I think is an amazing game.  Then there is the, you could almost call it, the metagame, the game outside the game.  The lifestyle of people trying to, they call it, break the cards.  People trying to build the new strategy and unleash the latest deck technology on unsuspecting opponents.

What makes Magic so popular?
I think it’s the customization.  I think it’s the fact that you get to design your deck.  I really think that’s the hook.  I also think the gameplay is fun.  It’s deep and interesting and sort of complicated in this way that it is fun to try and to puzzle out.  At the same time the game is fun to play.  We have learned that people come back.  The latest fad, some new hot game will come out and we will see some customers go away for a little while as they try the new game out.  They always come back to us because you never get tried of Magic.  People keep coming back to the game, it’s just got more staying power I think then any of the other games around.  I think that’s a lot of what makes it special.

What role do you play in designing Magic the Gathering?
I am head of research and development.  I oversee pretty much all the research and development aspects of the game.  From first thinking up the mechanics and themes of a block through to getting the set edited and handed of to production to actual make the film and turn the crank to get the cards produced.  I oversee all that.

How does it differ from Mark Rosewater?
I am Marks’ boss!  I sort of rose up through the department where I started out as developer.  Mark is a designer and I was a developer.  We started on sort of separate paths.  I was also lead developer for a while.  Which meant I was overseeing the development half of the process.  Recently Brian Schneider has taken over as lead developer and now I am sort of in charge of the whole thing.

What role do you play in designing each set?

Really Mark designs the sets I am his sounding board I guess.  He will bounce ideas off me.  I will make some suggestions.  We have some designers and we tell the designers just go think up cool stuff.  Don’t worry about balancing, don’t worry how good it is.  Just make sure it’s cool, make sure it’s fun. Mark will bounce ideas off me, really I trust him to run that piece of the process.  His design team comes up with some amazing stuff and then eventual what happens is their designs get put into sets and then handed off to a development team.  It’s the development teams job to see if the cards are powerful enough to be interesting, but not so good that they just dominate everything that we have every released before.  We really like the power level to be on an even keel.  We want the game to just stay around forever.  We have conversations about what we are going to do 10 years from know, 20 years from know.  So it’s important for us to make sure we are not inflating the power curve.
Its not like new cards are better then the old cards, they’re different.  You know they just do different things and some of them are good and some of them not as good.  It’s all sot of interesting.  So those sets get designed and they get handed of to a development team.

I use to be very hands on running that development process.  I used to get my hands dirty and do a lot of the play testing myself.  This point I work with Brian Schneider to sort of oversee that process.  Both team are really talented.

How has Magic the Gathering Online changed Magic?

I think it has done two things.  One thing it’s done is very specific to the pro tour and top levels of competitive magic.  Magic on line has clearly given the rest of the world a chance to sort of catch up.  It used to be, to be the best player in the world you had to have a community of really good players.  You know for a while, Southern California just had this great hot bed of players.  Boston had it, Pittsburgh for a while.  London for a little while.  The Parisians got really good.  The Japanese players got really good.  Now what has happened anyone can log onto Magic on line and just find game 24 hours, 7 days a week and good games against good opponents.  You can look at someone like Terry So, who is from Malaysia, who has no local community to speak off.  Who has turned himself into a world-class player just through Magic on line.  All of sudden, he comes out of nowhere to go top eight pro tour Nayogo.  He here tied for first place at the Invitational with three round to go (Terry So won the Invitational).  Magic on line has really sort of leveled the playing field at the pro tour level and the rest of the world has caught up.  That is a very specific thing Magic on line has changed. 

Big picture what I think Magic online has done has made the game more accessible to more fans.  As people graduate from school and they get married and get lives, and you have to take your daughter to ballet class you can no longer run down to the hobby shop to play Magic.  Magic on line still allows you to get in the game.  The audience skew is older (for Magic on line), it’s really about convenience.  It’s allowed us to bring back some players who have lapsed from the brand.  The maybe have gone away from Magic because they moved away from the guys who they use to play with or they didn’t have as much time to play Magic.  With Magic on line it’s easy to play.  It’s really easy to hop right back in to the game.  It’s 11 o’clock, the kids are down, you hop into a draft or you get a couple games in the casual room.  It’s made the game more convenient.

How has Magic the Gathering Online changed Magic R&D?
It has made it easier for us to see what kind of decks people are playing.  I mean we will just go lurk and watch (Magic on line games).  I think we get more feedback about what people are doing with our cards.  I do not know if that’s a giant change we had a pretty good idea what people where doing with our cards, between reading the Internet, going to tournaments and pro tour and things.
It’s also fun for us to play.  You know go home from work and you want to play magic.  You can hop onto Magic on line and jump into a casual room and play some games.  I think it gets us a little more in touch with our audience,  Not a dramatic change but it’s there.

What is the core set and how does it differ from an advance set?
It’s really a combination of things.  We position the core set to be the starter product for the game.  So it’s where we try to point new players.  That means we try to make it a little simpler.  Magic can be a kind of complicated game.  So we like to have a set that is a little bit simpler.  It’s the right place to start.  We have some teaching materials in the core game.  We have done a lot of focus group testing.  Actually watching people try to learn the game.  We have gotten a sense over the years what stuff is complicated and what stuff is simple to pick up.  So we keep that in mind when we are putting the core set together. 

On top of that it’s very relevant to long time magic players because they want to know what’s going to be legal in Standard tournaments.  They want to know what old cards we are bringing back.  So we deferentially make an effort to try to shake things up.  Go look for cool old cards that would be fun to bring back into the environment.  Look for interesting tournament cards that would be fun or look for cards that will change thing just by taking them out and letting stuff rotate out.  We try to shake up the tournament environment at the same time.  So every two years we go back and we update.

What are the type of players you are targeting?
All of them, one of the great things of Magic I think that is we can speak to a bunch of different audience.  I mean we put some cards in the set that you the casual combo player likes.  You can put some cards in, the big creatures, for what we call the Timmy physiography.  The big guy who just likes some big creatures.  You can put some cards in the tournament players like.  You can put cards that are just challenges, what on Earth are you going to do with that card.  There are enough cards in the set of Magic cards, that we feel like we can cater to all of our audiences.  We try to think about all of them.  We try to make sure there’s something for everybody in each magic set.

How do you make each of those players happy?
It’s tough, we try to bring in enough people into R&D itself that we have representatives of all the major classes of players.  We have the guy that likes to build goofy combos.  We have the guy that wants to build, cutthroat tournament winning decks.  We try to have representatives of all those guys in R&D.  So we can just check to make sure.  Are there cards you like, are there cards you like.  I do not know if there is a special magic formula.  We just do our best to fine tune the set and take care of everyone.  It’s not an easy process but it’s one we have been doing many years.  I think we have gotten okay at it.

How does R&D plan to support some of the older formats like Type One and Legacy?
I know we have been involved with consultations with organized play about how best too support Legacy from a tournament standpoint.  So far, we wanted to try out the format and let it grow.  I know there are plans to do something.  Of course we are going to be watching the environment and maintaining the ban and restrict list like we do for type one.

I think type one has sort of settled into a nice sweet spot.  It’s got a world championship at Gen Con.  It’s getting attention from a banned and restricted point of view.  Occasionally cards will come up that are interesting for the environment.  When we think of those we stick them in.  We do not spend a lot of time trying to design cards for the type one.  The environment is so big that we can’t affect it in big and dramatic ways.  When we think of an idea we will throw it out and see what it does.  I think that if you look at the audience, it’s clear that the format is kind of interesting and it’s kind of fun.  I mean I actually went and played in an unsanctioned type one tournament locally and won myself a Black Lotus.  That was kind of cool.  I think Type One is in a pretty sweet spot right now.  We are going to maintain the support we have given it so far.  I do not think there are dramatic plans to increase support.

How do you test each set?
We test limited dramatically, starting from the design days.  We will mock a set of the cards, more commons then uncommon and try to get the collation right.  We have stickers that we stick over old cards, with the new cards.  Then we shuffle up.  We play a lot of sealed deck to get a sense of how the environment plays.  What new cards are cool.

We also have a constructed league called the Future Future League (FFL) that we maintain.  A lot of our developers, guys we have hired off the pro tours, will really sink their teeth into trying to build standard decks with the cards, block decks with the cards and look and see if there is any impact on extended and type one. 
We spend a lot of time on each set, we are constantly looking for ways to test some more.  Every week there is a couple sealed decks, every week there may be a FFL tournament or a bunch of league matches.  There is a bunch of people on R&D working on it.  I mean our design and development teams tend only to have three to six people, but there is another dozen who are playing in the play test.

If a card slips through R&D’s tight net and causes issues in a format how does R&D deal with it?
We consider banning cards.  It’s the last resort.  That’s the one weapon we have if we mess up.

What format do you like the best?
My favorite format was extended before Wasteland.  I am probably biased because I won a pro tour in that format.  But I think it’s not just the fact I won that pro tour, I really liked the fetch land from Mirage, which you could use to get dual lands.  So you could get a mana base that would let you with regularity allow you to cast your spells.  I think dual lands are good for Magic.  They let people play their spells.  No one likes not being able to play his or her spells.  The game is more fun when you can play your spells.  I thought that extended was really interesting because you did not have any of the ridiculous combo cards from the Saga block.  Tempest block had this really crazy speed plus Wasteland.  Suddenly when Wasteland got introduced to the format, people could waster your duals, deprive you of your colors and just win these games where you are sitting with cards you could not cast.  I think that was the sweet spot.  I am sure I am hopelessly biased.  Everyone is nostalgic for the old days.

Please explain what a Pro Player is.
There are five pro tours plus worlds.  Wizards of the Coast gives away 3 million dollars a year in prize money for people competing in tournaments.  The bulk of that money goes through the pro tour and the pro players club.  Pro players are guys who have sort of arranged their lives so that they can go play in these professional tournaments and win prize money.  It’s an awesome lifestyle.  I did it for two years.  Traveled the world, won plenty of enough money to pay the bills, see the world, it was just an awesome lifestyle to live.  People are still doing it.  Truth be told I still miss it.

Do you plan to add a type one player to the Invitational, so that type one has a chance to add their card to the future sets?
Interesting idea, I have never thought about it before.  It’s not a crazy suggestion.  I will take it back to the guys and think about it.  There are no active plans.  It’s not something we had thought about specifically.  I will throw the idea up against the guys. We certainly position the Invitational as the all-star game for Magic.  Those all stars really come from the pro tour.  There is not a lot of crossover between the type one community and the pro tour.

How do you see Magic in a year?
I know what the next sets look like and I think it is going to be awesome.  I think our creative team has really come into their own and you are seeing more exciting worlds.

How do you see Magic in five years?
I do not see any reason why Magic should change dramatically.  We are constantly striving to new and exciting card mechanics.  I think that will continue to happen.  The game has taken a life of it’s own.  I remember when I started playing, the game was three or fours years old.  People were like when is it going to die.  It’s a fad.  It’s going away. It just didn’t.  It does not go away.  It’s clear that Magic has established itself as an Evergreen branch.  It’s going to be around, I mean forever is a long time but I do not see why it would end.

How do you see Magic in twenty-five years?
Different people running Magic.  They will at least be as good and talented as the people currently running it now.  The will be new card sets.  I think on line will be bigger part of the game.  I think I will retire from Wizards at some point and go back and compete.  Because the games in my blood and I love to play.

Do you personal regretting creating a card?  Which one?
Thing is we have made cards over the years I don’t know if I regret, but in my mind I would have done differently if I had to do over again.  But I don’t think I regret them because I think it is really important for R&D to push the envelope.  We have to keep trying new things.  We have to keep trying to innovate,.  We have to keep printing risky cards.  We have to risk mistakes in order to keep the game alive and refreshing.  We could make sure that we never regret any cards, but then every set will look like Homelands.  You do not want every card to be bland and boring and safe.  That’s way worse then risking a mistake.  So I do not think I regret any cards.  There are card, I might do differently and teak some numbers.  I do not think I regret pushing the envelope.  We have to keep the game alive and fresh.

What is your favorite card? 
Necropotence,  Back in the day people did not get it.  People did not appreciate how powerful the card really was.  So it became this very subtle skill testing card that if you where good you could win.  I enjoyed that.  I won a pro tour with a Necropotence deck.  That card is always going to have a special place in my heart for that reason.  I also think it was such an interesting card.  The fact it took the world so long to catch on how ridiculously powerful it was.  It made it a way interesting card to sort of experience those years.

Favorite creature type?
I do not know if I have one…One of my first decks was a Merfolk deck.  I guess it’s Merfolk.

Do you plan to ever design a video game?
I already have, I mean Magic on line has been very successful for us.  We have talked periodically about working on another game.  I cannot talk a lot about future plans.  Its kind of thing we have tossed around.  We have thought about a follow up to Magic on line.  We have some ideas.

Playfeed thanks Randy Buehler for taking the time to talk with us.

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