joined the Magic
creative team in R&D a little over two years ago, mainly to write creative text (card names and flavor text). I had been part of the Magic web
team for about six years before that, doing writing of another kind (writing code under the hood of magicthegathering.com
). Because I'm a glutton for all things Magic
, I was contributing name and flavor text submissions as far back as Odyssey
(of course, there are people on this very web site who've worked on Magic
far longer than that, but it's a long time to me), and I had been writing Magic Arcana
for a couple of years (I’ve since handed it off to Monty Ashley). So when it looked like Matt Cavotta was going to say sayonara and ship out for the golden fields of the American Midwest, I was all over it. But it was way more roundabout than that.
I arrived at the office one late spring morning, parked my car in front of the shining silver "flash cube" office building that houses Wizards of the Coast, and walked in. I ran into Cavotta on my way in the entrance, and we exchanged pleasantries in the downstairs lobby. Matt, all cool and casual-like as if nothing were up, asked whether I wanted to zip up to his desk so that he could give me some foil versions of the Dissension cards I had submitted flavor text on. I had no pressing web-development meetings going on that morning, so I said sure.
We walked up to the third floor and entered the little area that housed the creative team. Brady Dommermuth's desk was right by Matt's, and he was in, and the three of us talked a bit. Matt gave me my foils, and I was about to head down to the second floor to go back to being Mr. Coder Guy. I was still clueless about the fact that Matt was leaving.
I still remember the exact words Brady Dommermuth used:
"How would you like to do a whole lot more work for less money?"
I chuckled, assuming that was rhetorical. I figured the two of them, Matt and Brady, had been having a previous discussion about the state of American workloads or wages or something, and they were jokingly going to use my uninformed opinion on the matter as another data point.
So I played along. "Ha, no thanks," I said. Seemed a sensible response given the set-up.
But it turned out they were feeling out how much I liked my web development position, and kind of asking whether we web devs were getting paid well.
Well I liked it fine. I enjoyed coding, I was good at it, and it let me work on Magic stuff as my job. And while I probably could have found a soul-crushing software development job somewhere outside the "flash cube" that paid better, the truth was, yeah, they paid me pretty well.
It soon became clear that Brady was serious—he sounded jocular, but he meant it. They told me that Matt was heading off into the sunset in a few months, and that they'd be looking for people to take his position on the creative team. I was electrified. Brady's word choice gave me some pause—as it was meant to—but I was definitely interested. I took the opportunity to change my answer to "Um, yes please," and headed back to my desk.
Flavor of Destiny
I instant messaged my girlfriend and told her "I think I just got 'The Call,'" like I had just been called up to the majors. That was premature, of course. But even being considered was flattering.
I buzzed with questions. What kind of work would the position be? What was Matt's day-to-day schedule like? Did I want to leave the web team, where I was well-established and respected? Would I be any good at doing Magic creative full time? Did I stand any chance against the other applicants? How many others were there? If I didn't get the job, would I turn into Mr. Frowny Guy from then on? Would it really be a pay cut, and if so, how much was I willing to drop to work in R&D on making Magic cards full time? ...Did I just miss my lunch break?
To me, the most powerful reason not to apply for the position was that I already liked what I did. If I moved over to R&D, I would be sacrificing work I already enjoyed and a group of peers I already got along with. But in the end, I decided it was worth risking "good" for the possibility of "great." If I didn't give it a shot, I'd forever be mad with myself, and I couldn't look any fellow geek proudly in the eye, knowing that I had a chance to work directly on my favorite game, Magic: The Gathering, and passed it by.
It didn't actually take that much soul-searching, when it came down to it.
My First Shot at Concepting: The Creative Test
I applied. All the applicants took a "creative test," which is a funny-sounding term for a timed challenge of our flavor-writing abilities. We were given mechanical descriptions of some made-up Magic cards, and within a week we were to write flavor text for all of them, a couple of samples per card. We were also tested on naming the cards and on card concepting, which is the true heart of the Magic creative process, a process that results in the art description that tells artist of the card what exactly to paint. I had been in charge of writing Magic Arcana for magicthegathering.com for a while, so, via the Sketches series, I had seen my way around an art description or two.
I found the concepting part of it especially fun, but I also had the least clue about whether I was on the right track for that part. While I had written names and flavor text for a zillion cards, I had never tried taking a bare set of Magic card mechanics (cost, type, rules text, power/toughness) and coming up with the idea of what that card's art should look like—what that card should be.
The creative test went well. A few days later, Mark Rosewater, who was (in addition to his Head Designer duties) manager of the creative team at the time, told me I had done well enough to be interviewed.
I interviewed with Mark, Matt, and Brady in a conference room on the third floor. I was nervous, as I am always nervous in public speaking situations and especially in a room full of some of the most important creative minds in gaming—but it went well. I kicked myself for some questions I was unprepared for, but in general I was happy with my answers. Later on I interviewed with Randy Buehler (then the director of Magic R&D, the position now held by Aaron Forsythe) and Bill Rose (then, and still, the Vice President of R&D). I thought it was going well, until they took me out to coffee at Starbucks. I'm not really a coffee guy, but I ordered a hot chocolate despite it being almost summertime. I thought this was some kind of final exam, so I wasn't really sure what to expect, but actually the exam was over. They told me I had interviewed very well, and that I had the position if I wanted it, and they told me a number. The number was, happily, over the number I told myself it would have to be over for me to take it. I accepted on the spot. Best free hot chocolate ever.
The Fourth Dimension
Fast forward about a year. I had trained with Matt Cavotta during the latter part of the Time Spiral block, taking the reins of Magic creative text more and more through Future Sight. After Matt left, I had managed the flavor text writers for Tenth Edition flavor text solo, and then ran the team for Lorwyn, and then for Morningtide.
The world was still seeing Future Sight previews, but we were fast approaching the end of creative work on Shadowmoor. Doing four all-new sets in one year was a big challenge for our little team at the time (Brady Dommermuth, art director Jeremy Jarvis, concept illustrator Richard Whitters, and me), and Eventide was really going to be the test. Shadowmoor already marked more cards than the team had ever undertaken in one year, and there was still a whole small set to go.
Furthermore, the clock was ticking. Brady, as lead world-building guy, needed to start looking ahead to "Rock," the Fall 2008 expansion that would become known as Shards of Alara. Brady, who had done all the concepting for every Magic set since, um, well, since a long time ago, was in a bind. There was no way he was going to be able to have time to concept a fourth set and kick off the creation of the style guide for the next setting.
But, wonder of wonders, we had thought ahead. Brady had written an immense document about the card concepting process, and I had tried my hand writing a few art descriptions for Shadowmoor, with his oversight and feedback. I had been involved in sketch review, the process of critiquing the preliminary sketches that artists send in, ever since Lorwyn. Having already settled into a rhythm of dealing with the world of creative text, I was learning fast what worked and didn't work in the realm of the visual. It's far more intricate a process than it first appears, but I'm out of time. I'll go into it in depth in two weeks, after next week's theme week.
Letter of the Week
Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Selkies and Subtypes":
First and foremost, I really enjoyed this article. It's cool seeing where a creature like the selkie fits into the setting, and it got me thinking about the other creatures in the set, and what folklore they draw inspiration from.
So this was in mind when looking through the visual spoiler for Eventide. I was intrigued by one creature in particular - Stillmoon Cavalier. At first glance, I immediately thought of the Headless Horseman from Washington Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow. But that didn't make sense, considering the folklore in the set is based around the British Isles.
Compelled, I did some research, and discovered a creature called the dullahan, an Irish specter that is, indeed, a headless horseman. Assuming Stillmoon Cavalier was inspired by the tales of the dullahan, I found the flavor of the card all the more awesome!
Now, the question is... Do I assume correctly? Silly question, I know, but I was hoping to confirm.
Kudos and regards,
There are a number of creatures in Eventide that are based around the folklore of the British Isles, but twisted slightly or in disguise. Mechanically, Stillmoon Cavalier is the descendant of "pump knights" like Order of Leitbur and Order of the Ebon Hand, but in flavor terms it is indeed drawn from legends of headless horsemen from Irish folklore, and also from the Arthurian tale in which Sir Gawain beheads the spectral Green Knight. In some variations of the dullahan story, the dullahan drives a coach of black horses. In others, he carries his severed head under his arm and lashes people with a human spine (those details may have been a little grisly even for Shadowmoor—these things are always a judgment call). Note that many variations on the dullahan story describe the horseman as being the herald of Death itself, and therefore very hard to stop—it's just as tough to stop Stillmoon Cavalier from rapping gently on your chamber door. I get a chuckle from some depictions of the dullahan as having a vulnerability to items made of gold; Eventide's version is perhaps vulnerable to nonwhite, nonblack "gold" creatures and spells, but certainly not gold like Terminate or Lightning Helix. Ha.
Stay tuned for the rest of this article in two weeks, in which we'll look at a few more folklore-inspired creatures.