As part of our story on today’s release of Magic: the Gathering Companion, Hipsters of the Coast had the chance to speak about it with Bill Stark, the app’s Digital Product Manager. Below is a transcript of our conversation.

The Development of Magic: the Gathering Companion

Hipsters of the Coast: How long has Magic: The Gathering Companion been in development?

Bill Stark: The Magic: The Gathering Companion app has been in development for most of this year, but that’s a little misleading. The backend services that power things like the home tournament organizer features will also power the new Wizards Event Reporter, which is also under development, and we’ve been working on those since the end of 2018.

The frontend development for Magic: The Gathering Companion, the portion that users interact with and probably think of as “the app,” has been under development for about three months, or one quarter of the year. Before that the team was hard at work launching a new Store and Event Locator.

What has the development process been like?

It’s been a relatively smooth process so far. The key thing keeping it that way was buy-in from our leadership up front to build a lightweight app that targeted a single problem our players have told us they have. We’ve had laser focus on solving that problem effectively because there wasn’t a great solution already, and have been iterating on the app based in part on feedback from our userbase. Those in the software development world will recognize that as a more agile approach to development, and it’s something we’ve been building towards as a company for quite some time.

Early in the year, we spent time staffing up for the effort so that we could have multiple devs focused solely on Android and iOS development as well as a user experience (UX) team with the resourcing to make the companion app a focused experience for our players. Having a separate team building out the backend services that will also be used in WER.NEXT, the new installment of Wizards Event Reporter, really helped us stay on target timing-wise. Because another team was doing that work, we could keep the Companion dev team focused on building the frontend of the app and quickly get something in front of fans to start understanding what they might see that we didn’t. It was an effort to push for delivering an “MVP,” or “minimum viable product” to the public so we could build the best product possible for Magic players. I’m really satisfied with where we’ve gotten so far.

Early in 2018 Wizards announced the “Official Magic Companion App, Magic the Gathering: Portal” and last fall it was announced that the limited beta for what was at the time in that article referred to as MTG Portal would be coming soon. In the original announcement the list of features begins with the ability to create, manage, and track home tournaments, which is the first feature launching for the new Magic the Gathering Companion app. What happened to MTG Portal? Is this the same app re-branded? Will there be multiple companion apps?

The Portal team did an awesome job on answering a lot of the questions we needed to understand about building a great companion app, but in the end, the actual product from that effort fell short of where we needed it to be for players. There’s not a plan currently to create multiple companion apps for Magic players.

Magic: The Gathering Companion will add features this year and next, but there could come a point where we’ve packed it so full of options for Magic players that it becomes too large to add anything to it and we start a family of applications to solve additional needs so you’re not trying to download a gigantic-sized app from an online marketplace.

What is the Magic: The Gathering Companion app built with? Is the development team in-house?

The development and UX teams for the Magic: The Gathering Companion app are all in-house. We built the app with a host of technologies you’d find consistent with iOS and Android products, but the key design constraint from the technology perspective was building the app natively.

One of the best aspects of developing with this team is how we focus on app development: we explore technologies, take feedback from one another, and make the decisions we think will best meet our end users’ expectations. I’m not the type of product manager that tells UX how to build a thing or demands devs use a technology because I read an article in “Wired” about it or something. We hired smart, talented, hardworking folks for this product and mostly have let them do their thing, always with an eye towards how our users will benefit from the decisions and features we implement.

A good example of how our team operates and collaborates was our decision not to use something like Xamarin. Technology-minded folks out there probably recognize Xamarin as a framework that allows you to build a codebase that works on both iOS and Android at the same time. Input from both the devs and UX designers was that the sacrifice you make in usability for a cross-platform technology weren’t worth it. It might make it easier for our development team in the short-term, but at the cost to the user’s experience in the long-term—and that’s not something that was acceptable to us. We’re focused on designing something intuitive and accessible for our users long-term.

What changed the most from the original idea to its upcoming open beta release?

The user flow to get people started on running an event. The idea we started with was something we nicknamed “pizza button” design inspired by an early app in the iOS app store that let you buy pizza by clicking a single button.

Ryan Sansaver and Dave Marsee, our user experience designers for the initial development, really clicked with that idea and dove in headfirst trying to design an intuitive experience that wasn’t frustrating to use because it took a million clicks and answering a thousand questions to get into your event. We wanted you to be able to start the event with as few actions as possible while also providing an opt-in experience for power users with lots of additional details you could fill out. With each sprint of work that went by, I felt happier and more confident in the user experience throughout the time we’ve had building so far.

What has been the most challenging aspect of the development process so far?

It’s absolutely the fear that this agile method of developing with feedback from users will backfire.

While I worry about managing reactions from a passionate fanbase, I’m totally confident that putting the application in front of users to get their feedback early on is key to our success in the long-term. It’s also why we’re rolling out in an open beta first; the application as a whole isn’t complete, but the home tournament organizer is in a highly functional state we’re ready to put in front of users. I’m excited to do that so we can figure out anything we’ve missed and continue improving the app with thousands of live users.

How long have you been leading the project and what were you doing before leading development for the app?

I joined the team building the app in late 2018 at the very beginning and as a product manager I’m responsible for the Store and Event Locator, Wizards Event Reporter (both Classic and Next), the Magic: The Gathering Companion app, and a lot of our legacy systems that we’re working to replace. I started with Wizards as an intern in 2008 after “retiring” from the Pro Tour and moved to Renton from my home in Iowa. Since that time, I’ve worked in the tabletop studio (formerly Magic R&D), the WPN team, on MTG Arena, Magic Online, and in event coverage. Prior to joining my current team, I was the producer for Magic Online.

What have been some of the biggest challenges and greatest accomplishments you’ve made along the way to finally being ready for an open beta release?

Taking a complex thing like running a Magic tournament and breaking it down into an interface simple enough for most users to understand the first time out is our biggest victory, and was the biggest design challenge. I don’t want to celebrate too early, but I’m confident players will be able to use the app quickly.

I’m also really happy that we get to release it and iterate in front of users instead of trying to guess at what we could be doing better. We still face lots of challenges and there’s no greater reality check in software development than putting your product into the hands of users.

How competitive is your team with the folks working on MTG Arena and Magic Online? Which development group would win in a Fortnite competition? Which development group would win in a Magic team sealed tournament?

I love this question. Actually, within Wizards people are pretty collaborative. There’s some good-natured ribbing when we’re playing basketball or at Draft Night every Wednesday, but in the end, we’re all gamers and we’re all working towards the same goal: making Wizards of the Coast as successful as it can be. When I get done with work, I’m playing Arena and Magic Online, so I want those teams to succeed alongside mine. I will say this: I’m way too busy playing Magic for Fortnite, so whoever is the best Fortnite team at Wizards it definitely doesn’t have me on it.

It’s only been a few years since Chris Cocks took over the helm and began to build up the digital products space. How does Magic: The Gathering Companion fit into Chris’s vision for Magic’s digital offerings?

Chris came from Microsoft, so he’s certainly been a big help in supporting the transition to more modern software development practices. Companion stands alongside Chris’ vision by helping to ensure we’re delivering the best experience for our fans when it comes to tabletop play, whether at home or through the WPN. For now, we’re releasing the home tournament organization portion of the app but we’re hard at work on the in-store experience that we’ll be debuting (hopefully) later this year and that’s the point where things really start to take off in making the experience of playing Magic at tabletop events much better.

We’ve had Chris’ full support in what we’re trying to do and that’s the number one thing Chris has brought to the table at Wizards: being willing to support the effort of trying new things.

Magic: The Gathering Companion Features

What does it mean to take community feedback to help guide the development process? How will you be soliciting feedback and how will it be incorporated into the future development of Magic: The Gathering Companion?

We’ve got the first feature where we want it for this stage. It’s been through an internal alpha playtest at Wizards with the hundreds of gamers on staff providing feedback. Now we want to see what thousands of Magic players around the world can offer up as feedback to broaden our perspective. Presently you can provide that feedback via email directly through the app’s menu. We had looked at different options for providing that feedback by including it directly in the app, but ensuring we spent the maximum time on developing features rather than spending that precious time on trying to reinvent the feedback wheel was a call I made so we could push more functionality in the app in a shorter period of time.

I’ll note: we run on two-week sprints which means that every two weeks we roll out new features and bug fixes for Magic: The Gathering Companion. That means community feedback can be consumed quickly and turn into action in a short time span depending on the quality of the feedback. We’ve delivered the base functionality for the first feature, but we expect to be updating things for end users every two weeks while continuing to build new “big” features behind the scenes.

What is your overall vision for the Magic: The Gathering Companion?

I’ve been working on companion app type projects at Wizards for a long time, whether it’s pitching them behind the scenes or supporting teams actively working on them. My goal for Magic: The Gathering Companion is for a new player to run into a Magic player that finds out they don’t have Companion installed and immediately be told, “Holy cow, you’ve GOT to get the companion app!”

In order to accomplish that sense of “must have” from Magic players, we have to drive value for our users by solving problems they face. At GAMA earlier this year, I talked about that with retailers, and a big part of the drive for early features in Companion is re-imagining the organized play landscape to get us out of what our UX team calls, “paper and yelling” for finding information like pairings, standings, and reporting results and instead letting players serve that information for themselves straight from their mobile devices.

We have a long list of features planned that I’m excited about. That said, 24 months from now I’ll be sad if there’s not a feature in Magic: The Gathering Companion that isn’t currently on that list. I’m certain our players are experiencing problems they want help solving that we don’t know about, and I’m excited to get great solutions into their hands based on their feedback. All of that development is driven by the notion of building an experience that makes it seem crazy to believe there was a time where you didn’t play Magic with the companion app.

Will Magic: The Gathering Companion only serve as a companion app for fans of paper Magic or will it also have features for fans who only play digital Magic, whether it’s Magic Online or MTG Arena?

That’s a great question. For now, we’re focusing primarily on driving impact to tabletop players because it’s an area whose needs aren’t being served as well as they could be, and we can quickly impact that. But I’ve spoken with product managers from both the MTG Arena and Magic Online teams about ways we might be able to work to support them and we haven’t ruled anything out yet.

Who is the primary target audience for Magic: The Gathering Companion? The initial feature of running home tournaments would imply to some that this may be a product targeted at casual fans more than enfranchised fans. Will there be features for a broader range of Magic fans?

Long-term, the aim for Magic: The Gathering Companion is that anyone who plays Magic uses the app regularly. The first set of functionality is admittedly narrow, and that’s by design. Our research in the marketplace indicated that being able to run an event was a problem players faced that they felt there wasn’t already a good solution for. Compare that to life trackers which have millions of downloads online. I knew we wanted to start by solving a unique problem instead of trying to break into a crowded marketplace.

The home tournament organizer element also happened to dovetail nicely with the launch of a new Wizards Event Reporter and significantly impacting the in-store play experience. We’re rolling out home tournament organizer functionality now as a double whammy: giving players something they don’t have a good solution for and allowing us to make sure the in-store play experience is up to snuff when it’s time for release.

Long-term, our features will focus on benefiting a broader swath of players and player types both casual and enfranchised. After we get the tournament experience really dialed in for Magic: The Gathering Companion, we’re going to shift to something I call the “daily engagement features” which are features that players are more likely to use on a daily basis. I’m not ready to go in too much detail on those just yet, but our current trajectory would have us start delivering some of those later this year.

Bill Stark’s Experience

What are your duties as a digital product manager?

In software development, a product manager is responsible for the voice of the customer. A producer owns the calendar and engineers own the technical quality of a product, but the product manager is responsible for understanding what users want and shepherding those features across the finish line and into the hands of the audience. You’ll often hear the product manager (or product owner) being referred to as the “single wringable neck,” which means that I’m the person guiding the vision of what the product is and if that product fails the buck stops with me.

What is the biggest change in working at Wizards of the Coast today versus when you began your internship over a decade ago?

That’s a tough question. It is insane to me how much the world has changed in a decade. When I started college, Facebook didn’t exist. When I started at Wizards, Instagram wasn’t a thing. Streaming games wasn’t a thing. I started in 2008 when the company was going through a pretty rough time and there was a changing of the guard at the high levels in the organization. Those changes got a lot of things back on track. I think now the big change is that we’ve got our feet steadily underneath us so we can focus on a growth mindset by tackling new and exciting efforts. MTG Arena is a great example of that, but even adjusting the Magic Online release schedule was a huge undertaking that would have seemed impossible in 2008. It’s a really exciting time to work at Wizards.

When you started the Starkington Post the content world was a very different place. What’s surprised you the most about where Magic the Gathering content is in 2019 versus 2009? What’s surprised you the least? And what do you think StarkingtonPost would look like if you rebooted it today?

I love that you’re running out all the hits. I loved writing the ‘Post and it was a blast, but content is so different now. The game of Magic has grown so much, too. I think something that surprises me a lot about where content is now is how much content there is. The goal of The Starkington Post was to aggregate all of the major Magic news stories on a daily basis, and it was basically a one-man show. That seems impossible now because there’s just so much going on. In some ways I think that’s also the least surprising thing: Magic is an awesome game (hashtag WotCStaff) shepherded by a ton of really passionate fans who get to work on it so the fact it’s grown so much in popularity kind of isn’t a surprise. Of course Magic is huge. It’s awesome!

I think to reboot The Starkington Post now, I’d want to find an angle that is unique in a crowded field of great Magic content. That might mean taking a certain content angle (covering only competitive events for example) or focusing on a certain content type (just focusing on streams, or just focusing on social media content). In looking at the challenges content creators take to get heard these days I feel like I had it easy starting out years ago.

What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from working at Wizards of the Coast?

I’m not sure it’s applicable to all personality types, but for me getting to know as many people as possible has been incredibly valuable for building great products. When you’re a product manager it’s really impactful to know who in localization is making sure everything gets translated on time or being able to grab lunch with tabletop studio folks to pitch feature ideas and get feedback. Little things like random hallway conversations have led to entirely new ways of thinking about how we build the app and that comes from taking the time to know who I get to work with, what they do, and why they’re passionate about doing that thing.

As a result, I’ve been really lucky to enjoy working with some really talented folks who can help my products be better even if they’re not directly assigned to the product. It helps that I’m an extrovert and honestly coming from a rural community in Iowa contributes to the “get to know everyone” mentality. When there are 100 kids in your graduating class, you can’t afford not to know everyone.

What advice would you give to people who want to emulate your success?

This past summer I got to do something pretty awesome: travel back to my high school in Oelwein, Iowa and present to their gaming club what it’s like working in the gaming industry. That was pretty wild and super rewarding. I’d tell anyone what I told that group of kids: it’s possible to work in the games industry if that’s what you’re passionate about. While it’s true that it takes some luck, you can maximize your chances of getting lucky by demonstrating you have skills unique to the thing you’re trying to accomplish in the games industry. Publish a blog. Stream. Start putting your art on DeviantArt. Establish a brand for yourself and bust your butt working on building skills that companies are seeking out so you can demonstrate why pursuing your dream is beneficial to them as well as to you. I think generally being kind and positive while doing those things is beneficial, but most importantly you have to show up and put the effort in on a regular basis. I’ve had a pretty wonderful career over the last decade and I’m grateful for it every day, and that even includes the days where Reddit is mad at me.


Don’t miss our story on today’s release of Magic: the Gathering Companion, which draws heavily on this interview.

Don't Miss Out!

Sign up for the Hipsters Newsletter for weekly updates.