Last week the Magic community was introduced to the new lead of the Play Design team, Dan Burdick. Dan’s introductory article both gave us some insight into their history in the Magic community and also the goals that he hopes to achieve with the Play Design team. Most importantly we learned that Dan is really, really good at Skee-Ball.

In Dan’s own words, “Play Design is responsible for bridging the gap between the set-design process and the experience of playing the game at all skill levels. From the beginning of story arc planning to the end of a set’s legality in Standard, Play Design becomes increasingly more active in providing guidance, design input, and playtesting, all from the perspective of what it will be like to play in the environment that’s being created. Over time, we will help shape gameplay for everyone who sits down and draws a card from a new set.”

Dan continued to elaborate that, “You can have balance without fun, but you can’t have fun without balance. Delivering both is our mandate.” It’s easy to see where that mandate is coming from if you look at the struggles Standard has gone through in the last calendar year. The creation of the Play design team is a testament to the fact that Wizards, a company that is sometimes too stubborn to change, has come around to embrace the need for Dan’s new team.

Last Friday at Grand Prix Las Vegas we were fortunate enough to get to sit down with Dan and ask him questions about Play Design and its role in Magic R&D:

Hipsters of the Coast: How will you measure the success of the Play Design team?

Dan Burdick: We have these big aspirations where metrics will be used to say, before this was the level Standard was at, and after XYZ process took place with Play Design here’s where we feel we’ve gotten. Figuring out what those metrics are is something for the future. But, the basic tenets of Play Design are that Standard, and other formats, are balanced, diverse, and most of all, fun. So, those are the types of things, but how do you measure them? Right now we’re working hard on implementing those ideas and then as some of our work makes its way into the real world we’ll decide from there how do we quantify these metrics through various data gathering, one of the most important ones being coming to events like this and feeling the tone and what people are saying.

HotC: Do you view it as an iterative process?

DB: Yes, absolutely. In terms of our philosophy and our process. Since we’re brand new, those types of things are being iterated on and starting to become implemented. And of course there’s 25 years of history before us. We’re not breaking a lot of molds, we’re just formalizing a lot of things that used to be part of the set design process and are now an entire division of R&D.

HotC: Where does your team sit between design and development?

DB: We run all the way through the entire set design process from start to finish. From inception of any type of theme or world or story arc we start to give any guidance or make any type of interpretations about what this might feel like to play. Then as we get later in the set process as more and more cards are created we’re there to help playtest and give philosophy guidance. Near the end, during our focus dedicated time, we’re really making sure that the format that is going to be created from this meets our goals.

HotC: From exploratory design through print?

DB: And after that as we gather information from the real world and get information and see what predictions held true and what players are experiencing.

HotC: Can you give me some examples of the different sorts of scenarios you might see play out that you’re trying to predict?

DB: Heading into a set’s release we have a good idea about a lot of general archetypes. But, what we can’t predict is exactly how the metagame is going to shift along those archetypes. The deck we tested that was really cool but inconsistent might be perfectly positioned on any given week. The metagame is a living thing where we’re just a microcosm testing it. Once we release the sets then we watch the actual evolution of what happens. Our goal is that the world is going to have a very wide range and dynamic and interesting ways in which it can develop, but that there are these invisible borders that keep something we really don’t want to poison the natural path from happening. That means having lots and lots of counterplay and things that provide backstops.

HotC: So if there’s a scenario you don’t want to see play out you can put in a mechanism to try to prevent it?

DB: Yeah, and that can evolve over a set’s time. For example, say we created a mechanic and we put some amount of counterplay against it but we wanted to see it have its day in the sun. But in future sets you make sure that some of the new cards or mechanics interact in interesting but potentially ways that thwart a mechanic that someone may have gone all in on previously. In particular you make sure there’s a way to attack something that had its day in the sun a little longer than you wanted. You’re always predicting with a range. You can never be exact. Even if we could solve in some way we can’t predict the path the real world will take. Having specific counterplay cards that we know will be awesome against other strategies so we can make sure there’s always a boogeyman for every other boogeyman.

HotC: With Aetherworks Marvel being banned, plenty of discussion has gone on around the idea that a card like Pithing Needle should have been around. Is that the kind of thing Play Design would be suggesting?

DB: A significant part of integrating Play Design into the process of set design is that, while set leads have the history of all of Magic and understand these things, like Rosewater knows everything that’s come before, it will be a significant part of our role to communicate all along the way that “this is what the format needs.” So set leads will be focused on their set’s design, and we’ll be looking at the format as a whole. We’ll be looking at what’s happening currently, what’s happening when this set comes, and constantly be able to give feedback to people on the ground working on the sets and say, “Pithing Needle would be awesome here because of XYZ.” One way to think about it is that Play Design is in an omni-present service role along a set design process.

HotC: Will the Play Design team be taking over Development’s responsibility of tuning cards for Standard?

DB: It’s less of people offering things up and being told what the consequences of their actions will be. Rather, because Play Designers will be on set teams we will be there and be part of the process. But, we’re also a team that comes back and discusses things as a whole, looking at the formats, and then create recommendations.

HotC: Will there still be a Future Future League?

DB: Yes, and everyone on Play Design is on the FFL. It’s still going to be around and it’s a significant part of Play Design’s job. Testing Standard was often FFL’s job, but we’ll also contribute to limited play tests. Non-Play Design people will still be in FFL and we’ll be looking to expand it. We want to find more than just the to competitive decks but also what’s fun so we want to have more fun events to bring more people into the fold.

HotC: Where do you begin to approach the casual Magic experience?

DB: It’s something that has been a big challenge. A significant percentage of our players don’t interact with us in a way that makes building data easy. They purchase packs and they play on the kitchen table and they have a blast and we don’t necessarily get to hear direct feedback from them. How do we get more in touch with players at all levels and how do we take that data and turn it into actionable items within our process. One of the ways is to come to more events, sometimes as coverage and sometimes to just hang out, going to Friday Night Magic, and trying to get in touch with the experience at every level. What do people like. What has them coming back. What has them excited. But also what are the frustrations and pain points as well. Doing more of that and figuring out how we can support casual environments more, not necessarily with new formats but by creating content that’s fun to play.

HotC: What’s the day to day experience of a Play Designer?

DB: It varies from person to person but a significant amount of the team come in for the morning, and that night or that shower they were thinking of some awesome brew, since when you go home you probably don’t stop thinking about Magic. So you get that deck built, find someone else who’s around, and start battling. And then there will be meetings along the lines of, “Here are the things we played today, let’s discuss feedback surrounding our experiences. We did some passes on the files today so let’s discuss some feedback and concerns.” Then we also participate in the larger R&D meetings, many of which involve a lot of cross-disciplinary groups. Basically, lots of talking about and playing Magic, which is what you might expect. While we are playing a lot there are a lot of formal processes involved. It’s the most fun way to have a tight ship with meetings and specific times to play.

HotC: The team that you unveiled today has a lot of impressive names on it. What was putting the team together like?

DB: Part of the team naturally coalesced around balance-minded designers who were already deeply involved in FFL and were clearly great choices for the beginnings of Play Design. Now that I’ve been hired and the team has been formally created we’re now starting to recruit outside of R&D and outside of WotC entirely. So to start we have designers who are natural fits, had Play Design existed when they applied to Wizards this is where they’d end up. Now we’re able to look outside of Wizards and specifically in the pro community because so much of this is balance oriented. Finding really strong players who are great at brewing decks and understanding formats and metas is important, and that’s what brought us to Paul Cheon.

HotC: Do you expect the team to grow as you iterate and figure out what you need?

DB: Yes, and we don’t know how big the team needs to be but we’re excited and the response we’ve gotten so far has been amazing. We went to Pro Tour Nashville and talked to pros there and a lot of them were excited to hear we were hiring outside the building.

HotC: What’s the reception from the rest of R&D?

DB: The rest of R&D has been uniformly positive about Play Design’s role in that our goal is to provide guidance and assistance, particularly with play testing or anything specific to how things will play or affect formats. Because we’re in a service role to the other teams, and not there to disrupt, they’re very happy.

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