At PAX East I was fortunate enough to get time to sit down with Magic the Gathering Brand Manager Liz Lamb-Ferro about a variety of topics. The highlight of the discussion was a playable demo of Duels: Origins which Liz walked me through. We also discussed Magic Online, Women in Magic, and the decision to move the World Championship to PAX Prime.

The Future of Magic with Liz Lamb-Ferro

We sat down in Wizards lovely press room at PAX East which was just off to the side of the massive judge station they had to run a variety of events. Liz had a couch set up and a demo version of Duels: Origins was on the screen. We spent the first half of our conversation with Liz explaining all the exciting things they are looking forwards to with this year’s Duels game. Afterwards we talked about a variety of topics including Magic Online, Pro Tour Coverage, Un-Set 3, Battle for Zendikar, Women in the Magic Community, and PAX Prime. You can scroll down to any of those topic headers or just read through the entire interview.

Magic Duels: Origins

We fixed all the things.

Liz Lamb-Ferro: So you’ve played Duels before?

Rich Stein: I have.

LLF: And you played D15 last year?

RS: Yes, I did.

LLF: Well, we fixed all the things.

RS: I heard! In the panel yesterday I saw the trailer and after you spoke about it I thought to myself, “They basically took everything everyone was upset about and said here, done.”

LLF: Yes, and having been on the front lines of [receiving that feedback] I’m excited to get to tell you about the awesome new one!

RS: Was it that kind of situation last year where D15 came out and the initial feedback was like, “what happened to everything we loved about Duels?”

LLF: Kind of, in a way. We felt that we were doing a lot of things right with D15. The deck builder, having a full deck building experience, that was a right thing to do. The tutorial made some pretty vast improvements last year, that was a right thing to do. I think that the infusion of story last year was good. But one of the things where we missed on was really understanding the importance of multiplayer formats. Also we were trying something kind of different with how you got boosters and where we put them and why. The thing with the multiplayer boosters was that they weren’t better cards. If you looked at the actual lists it wasn’t like we hit all the bomb rares. So I think we thought a lot of things were going to land differently than they did. But that’s the thing that’s most awesome about the Magic community. If we do something wrong they’ll tell us, but if we do something right they’ll tell us that as well. It’s both sides of that coin.

RS: So this year you’re expecting the opposite sort of feedback?

LLF: I hope so. I’m excited about [Duels Origins]. One of the things that was always tough was that we did an annual release. It was once a year and once you played through it you could keep playing multiplayer and there were some things to dig into there. But the thing we get to do now is that you download Magic Duels: Origins, that’s your base game, and when Battle for Zendikar comes out in the fall, there’s a Battle for Zendikar content expansion that you can continue playing with. It’s the same thing when “Sweat” comes out, and when “Tears” and “Fears” come out. There’s going to be ongoing content for folks.

RS: So is there going to be another annual base game next Summer?

LLF: No, this is going to be a persistent client. Once this comes out you download it for free and then you keep grinding through. You can earn coins by playing through and winning or you can jump ahead and buy coins if you want to if you don’t feel you’re earning them fast enough. The only thing you trade in for boosters or expansion content is coins, the in-game coins. Wheras in D15 you’d win a game and open a booster, in Duels you’ll win a game and earn coins.

RS: Will the coins just be used to buy boosters and expansion content?

LLF: Boosters or content expansion such as when Battle for Zendikar comes out, you’d use your coins for that. Down the road there may things more like vanity items like avatars. We’re talking about sleeves and playmats being a thing you’d do eventually which could be kind of fun.

RS: I would definitely make sure you explore that route thoroughly.

LLF: Yes, I’m all about having all my stuff match. I’m that person who’s like, wait, my deckbox doesn’t match the sleeves which doesn’t match my playmat!

RS: There will be a large community of players who will just grind for those sleeves before they grind for the cards.

LLF: And it’s the same thing with foils. None of them impacts game play but its something down the road we want to do.

RS: It’s mind-boggling to think back on when foils were announced and people said it would be the end of Magic.

LLF: People get comfortable with how things are and something changes and we never want to do something that will truly jeopardize Magic. It’s important to note that we haven’t fixed the rate of earning coins yet. Players should expect to see some modifications in the first couple of months because this is a grand test. We’re going to be doing a lot of internal testing at Wizards to figure that out.

RS: Is there going to be a closed beta for public testing?

LLF: No, there’s not going to be at this point. But I think it’s worth saying when this comes out, expect some experimentation with that. We’re always going to make sure that players feel that they’re getting a good value. If they think things are too high or low they’ll make us aware.

[At this point Liz fired up the demo and jumped into the story mode, which is the only one playable in the demo version she had. As a note, I don’t believe the demo version is going to be made available to anyone publicly.]

LLF: There’s different modes of play, there’s playing against the AI or multiplayer. Then there’s story mode. You are going to play as each of the five planeswalkers and you’ll play through some of the pivotal moments in their storyline. For Gideon you’re going to get all the way through to his spark moment when he takes down a titan. And the cool thing about Gideon’s story is that it’s also the tutorial woven in.

LLF: For players who are knew they can learn as they’re going which is great. For players who are advanced you can skip this if you want to.

[Then the demo crashed and we had a good laugh about it.]

RS: Duels is going to be on Steam and XBox One to launch?

LLF: In July this year it will be coming to XBox, PC via Steam, iPad, and then Playstation 4 is going to come out a little later this year.

RS: Any plans for Android?

LLF: Similar to last year with Playstation, we make a conscious choice to cull the herd down to where we can give a good experience. We love our Android partners, they’re awesome, and that’s not to say that in the future with each expansion we may not have a new platform joining, but it goes back to the idea of a persistent platform. With each expansion we can add a new something.

[The game starts back up and we’re back into Gideon’s story mode]

LLF: So part of the tutorial are these things called skill quests. As things come up in the game like flying or this is what a land is and how you tap you’ll be able to learn as you go but there’s also a skip option. You can go into settings and adjust the difficulty of the AI as well if you want a better challenge. You start with a mono-white deck based on Theros cards because Gideon is from Theros, and you just start facing little cheap soldiers. It’s important not to throw new players into a confusing board state.

[Liz proceeds to beat down on some AI-fueled soldier tokens]

LLF: Some changes to the battlefield have been made. It’s a bit of a different design for Duels: Origins. Tips are back, for example. The biggest thing I’m excited about is this right here [mouses over the phases changing on screen]. There are three things that are incredibly difficult for new players to learn. The phases of the turn and the stack, well the stack is insane to teach people what goes where. We walk people through each of those, and the third thing is deck building which I’ll get to in a second here. We’ve continued to not just have symbols but also spell out everything exlicitly.

[I didn’t have anyone to take photographs, so I’ll just have to explain to you that the exciting thing was the minor tweaks to the display which allowed it to show the full names of the phases and other aspects of the interface to help players out. Next Liz jumped into the deck builder.]

LLF: You start with zero cards in story mode. When you start playing you get this base set of cards. It’s kind of a metaphor for getting a shoe-box of cards from your buddy. When you get to the advanced deck editor, which is very similar to the D15 builder, you can just search for a thing, such as a big creature. Now I can auto-complete around this Axebane Stag for example. The other cool thing not shown here is the archetype building. It’s called the deck wizard and it’s for those who say they just want to play a deck based on elves. We give them a deck based on elves. There are some options to modify the deck, but you don’t have to go through the process of building an entire deck if you don’t want to.

RS: How does the wizard build the deck?

LLF: The archetypes are pre-made and there are about a dozen of them. You can go through and say maybe you want something red and aggressive and it will have something built for you that you can then expand upon. Comparing this to paper it’s like the clash packs and this is kind of doing the same thing and then letting you into the deck-builder’s toolkit. Then it will give you the usual options to look at balance and curve and then you can set what your avatar looks like and what the deckbox looks like as a visual queue. It’s really a great opportunity to show off some of Magic’s art.

RS: Is there a limit to how many decks you can build?

LLF: No limit, although if you get above 30 we may wonder what you’re up to. And you have two-headed giant back, and then there’s solo mode against thousands of AI decks and finally the multiplayer mode.

[End of demo]

Magic Online

Magic Online is a literal translation of real-world Magic. Magic Duels however is a curated experience.

RS: How do you see Duels and Magic Online coexisting going forwards?

LLF: They’re really geared for two different audiences even though they’re both in the digital space. Magic Online is a literal translation of real-world Magic. Magic: Duels however is a curated experience and it’s meant to be for somebody who doesn’t want to get into all fourteen-thousand-plus cards but to make it, in a way I consider it snack-size Magic. So we’re trying to make it easy for folks to pick it up as they go and have it as a convenience and a fun experience rather than jumping into the depths of Magic which, isn’t necessarily not fun, but can be overwhelming.

RS: For new players who want the full experience, is there going to be a way to transition from Duels into Magic Online or should they dive into the New Player events on Magic Online?

LLF: Starting with Duels is the best way to start. We’ve done a lot of testing about what is the best way to learn how to play. Is it with a friend? Is it the Magic Online tutorials? It is the Duels tutorials? And hands down, every single time, Duels came out on top in terms of retention. In the future we’re always looking for ways to improve our digital presence and I can see Magic Duels and Magic Online finding a better solution, because we know that Magic Online has issues. The thing we are working towards is listening to fans and players for what they want and trying to deliver on that.

RS: It is a bit of a sore point in the community and people yesterday tweeted at me asking why no one in the panel Q&A was asking about Magic Online.

LLF: It’s kind of like telling somebody that their shoes don’t fit when they’re aware of it. We know. It’s something we’re working on. We know there’s a better digital experience out there. The challenge that we have is, number one, how do you create a rules engine for a 14,000 card strategy game where every card has it’s own set of rules. Number two, how do you deliver that in a way that works for someone who is like, “Magic, I’ve heard of that” to someone that has won the Pro Tour multiple times. What is that experience look like, because it’s very different. And three, how do  you deliver that in a way that’s in-line with the digital gaming space right now. It’s a massive undertaking and I think it’s something where it’s easy to say, “I wish they’d done this” and we love that feedback, we want to welcome that feedback, but we have the mighty task of assembling that into something. I think that Magic Online has made some awesome strides forward in that space, trying to make the consistency of play important, but Magic Duels allows us to experiment and do some things differently.

RS: Is having to stick to releasing a new expansion every three months part of that challenge?

LLF: Yes, and that’s not necessarily what we have to do with Magic Duels, but there is a happy medium to be found there, bridging those two, and we’re working towards what that would look like, and I would venture to say it might be something very different from what you see on the market right now. I think Magic Duels does offer us the ability to experiment and try new things and get feedback. Now that it’s a persistent client with new stuff coming out every three months we can iterate the plan. I encourage people to give it a try and give us feedback. If there’s another two-headed giant equivalent we want to know about that.

RS: Are more formats something you may experiment with?

LLF: That might be something to look at. We’ve talked about stuff like tournaments. We’ve talked about bringing sealed deck play back. We’ve talked about bringing Planechase back. Those are all things that are a definite possibility. It just comes down to when is the right time for it, do we have the production ability to put it in there or not and still deliver a great experience, and you know it’s never a matter of us just wanting to hold something back, why would we do that?

RS: Do you think that fans understand that or do you think some of them may feel that way?

LLF: Sometimes it’s an obvious thing and we just don’t know about it, and two-headed giant was a prime example of that. We were focused on delivering a great experience in other ways without realizing that 2HG was such a massive issue. It was a miss on our part but we’ve responded and we’ve remedied that and we think it’s going to be an awesome experience.

Pro Tour Coverage

We listen to that and we hear that and we read the Reddit threads.

RS: A lot of people have a lot of feedback on Pro Tour coverage. Do you approach that the same way you do feedback for Magic Duels?

LLF: Absolutely. That is something, you know I will say that Magic has the best gaming community out of any gaming community out there, bar none, and things like Pro Tour coverage, we’re getting to a place where our coverage is awesome. I think the quality of the footage you get and the quality of the depth of analysis that you get is fantastic. That’s not to say that there isn’t space for improvement, and we listen to that and we hear that and we read the Reddit threads. Any space where we can get feedback from our players is great because that means we can get better and give them something better in return.

Un-Set Three

RS: Switching gears entirely to catch you off-guard, when is the third Un-Set going to happen?

LLF: There is one person who would really like to see that.

RS: How often does he talk about it? [Clearly referring to Mark Rosewater]

LLF: Daily. Mark’s great about it. I can neither confirm or deny that is something coming in the future.

Battle for Zendikar

RS: The announcement for Battle for Zendikar yesterday was great and reminiscent of the moment from Return to Ravnica. Last year for Tarkir you moved that announcement to the Pro Tour. What went into moving that back to PAX?

LLF: It came down to experimentation. We were trying something different with how we announce the fall set last year. We thought Pro Tour coverage is great and the viewership on it is great so we thought let’s try that and see how it works. The thing we were missing though from doing that, what didn’t feel right, was that visceral 1100 people in a room screaming and seeing grown men hugging. That was something that we knew was going to happen with Battle for Zendikar. It’s a fan-favorite plane so seeing people have those memories come back was awesome. We want to make sure we’re giving players a chance to have that bonding moment.

Women in the Magic Community

We’re working on training retailers to identify toxic players, identify whatever the bad blood is in the community at any given point in time, to help figure out how to eradicate it.

RS: Was there any topic you’d hoped to cover at the panel that ended up being cut for time?

LLF: The thing we were excited to talk about quite a bit were the Alesha story and Narset and we didn’t get as many questions on that as I anticipated. The other thing we didn’t get questions on until afterwards, when I had a gentleman come up to me, was what are we doing to create safe spaces in our play community. We’re very active about that in premier play but in local stores we know some are awesome and some are not.

RS: That’s actually the next question I was going to ask.

LLF: One of the things we’re aggressively going after with our Wizards Play Network is working on training retailers to identify toxic players, identify whatever the bad blood is in the community at any given point in time, to help figure out how to eradicate it. There’s going to be a series of training videos on that. There’s going to be commitments that [retailers] make to level up as a store. We’re really putting that onus back on our local game stores and our player community to help surface those issues. We want to be supportive of that, but we’re not a franchise model. We believe in the people being able to create a community that works for them, and that looks different in New York City than in San Diego. But, we want to make sure that whatever that play community is that it’s welcoming and it’s open to everyone.

RS: How does that expand up to the Grand Prix/Pro Tour experience?

LLF: It trickles up. What’s going well in the premier play space is going to be something that’s going well in local game stores. We know that people who are playing on the Pro Tour have a lot of respect for each other. We’ve taken a really hard look at the standards we have in premier play and look to integrate that into the local level.

PAX Prime

Go to PAX Prime if you’re a Magic player.

RS: Last question, can you talk about the decision to move the World Championship to PAX Prime?

LLF: We mentioned there’s going to be a big moment for Magic players at the three-Grand Prix weekend, but PAX Prime, you’re going to want to be at PAX Prime. Let me give you a cryptic thing: Go to PAX Prime if you’re a Magic player. You’ll want to be there, or you’ll want to be watching Twitch. Big things are going to be happening. I can’t say any more than that.

RS: Thanks very much, and I’ll see you guys at PAX Prime.

The Quick Hits

  • The official announcement for Battle for Zendikar is out and not surprisingly the design and devlopment features a dozen white dudes [Daily MTG]
  • Huey Jensen shares the five greatest mistakes he’s made playing high-level competitive Magic [Channel Fireball]
  • The organizers of the disastrous Cardmageddon are finally going to make small payouts of some sort [Quiet Speculation]
  • Tokens are great and Dragons of Tarkir will have a few including a sweet Goblin token and the Narset emblem [Magic Arcana]
  • Adam Barnello attempts to tackle the problems of Legacy’s high barrier for entry due to cost [TCGPlayer]
  • MJ Scott interviews Chris Slade about his Domri Rade cosplay [Gathering Magic]
  • I won’t be making it to Grand Prix Vegas again but if you’re going you really ought to pre-register ASAP [Daily MTG]
  • In honor of the ending of Parks and Recreation, Danny Brown applies Johnny Karate’s 5 Karate Moves to Magic [Quiet Speculation]
  • Travis Woo discusses how he has enjoyable tournament experiences by having clear goals and expectations [Channel Fireball]

Wallpaper of the Week

Yes, please, and thank-you.

Grade: A+

What We Learned is a weekly feature here at Hipsters of the Coast written by former amateur Magic Player Rich Stein, who came really close to making day two of a Grand Prix on several occasions. Each week we will take a look at the past seven days of major events, big news items, and community happenings so that you can keep up-to-date on all the latest and greatest Magic: the Gathering community news.

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