Conversations - I Never Promised You a Rosewater, Part 1
When I started working on this series back in the summer I had four people I wanted to talk to for the first edition.
were two of those people; Zvi was another (but we're both too busy to find the time now) and the final person was a wildcard I had no idea if I'd be able to get. You see “Conversations” pieces take time thought and energy to pull off. This person had plenty of energy and thoughts but time was always going to be a problem for him. Thankfully I didn't need to recruit him very hard – he came to me.
Anybody reading this article likely knows who Mark Rosewater is. For those who need a refresher course he's the head of design for Magic: the Gathering and has been designing cards in Magic R&D since Moses brought the Ten Commandments from the Mount. Mark is the Cal Ripken of Magic writers having written the “Making Magic” column on MagicTheGathering.com without a break since the start of 2002. Before that he also wrote columns for the Duelist Topdeck and Sideboard print magazines. Oh yeah and he was also a writer for the television sitcom Roseanne which ran for nine seasons and was one of the top five most watched shows in the United States for six of those nine.
He's funny he's brilliant and he thinks about Magic more than almost anyone on the planet so I was ecstatic when he asked to be part of the series. What follows here took place over the course of six weeks with no time limits word counts or topical limitations to constrain us. Thus you get more than 14000 words from the two of us (including part 2 tomorrow) and the result is... well judge for yourself.
TK: Alright so basically everyone who has played Magic has heardyour name and probably read a column of yours. Additionally youfrequently discuss elements of your personal life in yourcolumns so it's possible that all possible readers for thisarticle already know everything about you. Thankfully I don'tcare. Before we get to opinion I feel we shouldbriefly deliver some facts about Mark Rosewater just to make sure we're well grounded.
What is your age?
MaRo: I'm 43.
TK: Where did you grow up?
MaRo: I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland Ohio named Pepper Pike.
TK: How many kids do you have?
I have three children. A ten-year-old daughter named Rachel and six-year-old twins named Adam and Sarah.
TK: What is your favorite non-pizza food?
MaRo: My favorite food is Alaskan king crab legs. For the last thirty-five years I have eaten it on my birthday.
TK: What is the best place you have ever visited outside the U.S.?
MaRo: I think the place I enjoyed most was Sydney Australia. The runners up are probably Rio de Janeiro Venice and Tokyo.
TK: How long have you worked for Wizards of the Coast?
MaRo: As of October 30 2010 I will have worked at Wizards of the Coast for fifteen years.
TK: Name a favorite non-Rosewater Magic article?
MaRo: The Magic article that had the biggest impact on me was “Revelations of a Magic Writer” by Abe Sargent. As a Magic writer who likes to weave in my personal life into my articles this article really blew me away for the honesty of its message and the bravery it took to bring forth such a personal issue.
TK: Boxers or briefs?
TK: True/False: Dustin Hoffman used you to model his character for Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium?
MaRo: It was a pain. He followed me around for weeks mimicking everything I was doing. Finally I turned to him and said "Dustin you should try acting."
TK: So Mark in whatever terms you can mention what are you working on these days both professionally and personally?
MaRo: Professionally I am:
1) Leading the design for Rattle the '11 winter set that follows Shake.
2) Leading the design for next year's From the Vault.
3) On the design team for Roll the '11 spring set.
4) On the design team for Hook the '11 fall set as well as helping plan the entire Hook block.
5) Planning The Great Designer Search 2.
6) Writing my column.
7) Working on various small odds & ends.
Personally I am:
1) Spending a lot of time with my family.
2) Acquiring more apps than any human should own.
3) Reading a lot of comics & graphic novels.
4) Planning parties to throw with my wife.
5) Outlining a personal project I want to write.
6) Forever playing and fiddling with Mood Swings my mass market TCG that will probably never see the light of day.
7) Working on various small odds & ends.
TK: Man that is a lot. I will never be as busy as you and that is something I have to be thankful for. When do you sleep? Since you mentioned it give me a few comic books from the last five years or so that I absolutely should be reading. (They don't have comic books in Curacao. They don't have Magic either. They do have a lot of Magic players but that was my fault.)
MaRo: My favorite comic is called Invincible and it's written by Robert Kirkman. I strongly urge anyone who's never read it to start with the first trade and work your way through. Kirkman is one of my favorite writers and Invincible is just a joy to read. The basic premise is that the main character is the son of that world's Superman and in the first issue he finally gets his powers. Telling you any more than that would ruin the fun.
Scott Pilgrim made famous by the recent movie is also a great comic. It's only six volumes so it's a pretty fast read. The movie made a few changes but was overall very faithful to the comic.
I'm also a huge fan of Brian Michael Bendis (as a writer I'm much more drawn to the writers of comics than the artists). His Ultimate Spider-Man has been consistently awesome for ten years.
Next I guess I choose Bill Willingham's Fables. The premise is that the fairy tale characters you know are forced out of their homes and have to come live in secret in our world. It's another series that's been running for a while with all sorts of twists and turns.
Finally since you asked for the last five years I guess I'll choose Joss Whedon's run on Astonishing X-Men. It ran for two years a few years ago but it was my favorite treatment of the X-Men since the Claremont/Byrne years. Unlike most of my other suggestions this one actually requires a little previous knowledge to fully appreciate it. This run makes me very hopeful for the upcoming Avengers movie.
TK: Before we delve into the real meat of what I wanted to discuss with you today there are a couple of things our readers should know. First of all Mark volunteered for this. That crazy schedule above is being put on pause in various places just to chat with little ole me about writing. Apparently talking to old dudes has turned out to be an interestingidea.
MaRo: When I read your first article (the one with Rizzo) I was captivated. The idea of a Magic column about Magic writers seemed like such an obvious idea yet one that's never been done. I wrote to you and volunteered because the idea of actually talking about writing Magic seemed like a lot of fun. I've written something like two million words on Magic but very little about writing those two million words.
TK: Next I owe you an apology. I think I've said this to you before but I want to make 100% certain of it before we go on – I didn't respect you or your writing nearly enough when I was younger. Even when I came aboard to copy edit the big site I still felt that you were the gimmick-writing goofball who designed Magic and that was about it. That's big but it doesn't give your writing nearly enough credit. After working with you for a year and gaining some perspective on what it is you really do I'm now of the opinion that you might be the single greatest teacher that an entire generation of gamers (not just Magic players) will ever have.
MaRo: Thanks Ted that means a lot. So the readers can get some context let me talk about a fight you and I had shortly after you came to work at Wizards. A few months or maybe it was a few weeks earlier you had written an article called “The Seven Levels of Magic Writer.” In it you explained how you saw the seven hierarchies of Magic writers. You put me in level 6 along with Flores Zvi Wakefield and Bleiweiss. Level 7 were writers (Tim Aten Jeff Cunningham Geordie Tait Tomi Walamies Dr. Mox Mark Gottlieb and Josh Bennett) that mostly wrote sporadically but turned in quality work whenever they turned it in.
My issue at the time was that you seemed to value quality percentage over overall quality volume. In essence you punished writers for writing. Level 6 was filled with the writers who were writing week in and week out. Yes not every article was top quality because that's impossible to do on a weekly schedule but each of us averaged more quality articles per year than the people in the seventh level. I complained to you and you were like "I called you Masters of the Form and said your 'contributions to the community are often monumental.' What more do you want?"
That was your introduction to copy editing me me yelling at you for your take on Magic writing. And then when you left a year later you wrote me a very nice note where you said that copy editing me had given you a much better appreciation of my writing and you joked that maybe you should have put me in the seventh level.
Let me throw back that time has also given me a much better appreciation of your writing. I think I spent too much time on the opinions and not enough on the thought that led up to the opinions being created in the first place. You have a very nice sense of context that I don't think I valued when reading you many years ago.
TK: Since the readers likely weren't involved in the original conversation that led to me to suggest you "might be the single greatest teacher that an entire generation of gamers (not just Magic players) will ever have" I probably should flesh that out a bit more. 'Scuse me while I contextualize the situation.
I think Magic is one of the greatest teaching tools I've ever seen especially for advanced skills. At the top levels the game kind of self-selects really smart kids/people since it takes a high degree of aptitude just to make it to the Pro Tour. Regardless even at the basic game level with average players Magic provides an incredible teaching tool for math vocabulary reading comprehension (RTFC!) logic planning and adaptive strategy – all things that help you on standardized tests and for life in general. I actually think there are some academic studies to be done here that could prove my theories but developmental learning isn't really my area of expertise. You have been directly involved in making Magic a great game for a long time now and deserve credit for where it is. (And since I've been playing since near the beginning I can certainly say it's gotten better to play and better at teaching over the years.)
Additionally your column intelligently deals with numerous topics that come up outside the game and has proven to be incredibly valuable at work to myself and a number of people I know. General topics like innovation and design can be applied almost everywhere and there have been a number of times where you've given me an unexpected framework for current or future problems that I might not have stumbled upon anywhere else. Forsythe also said"Rosewater articles allow other game companies to netdeck how they do their jobs." Which is typical Aaron and completely true.
Obviously this is a really condensed analysis that just skims the surface of an archive that right now measures nearly 500 articles but the point is that playing Magic and reading your work about making Magic regularly will almost invariably make you smarter (and in many cases a lot smarter) than you would have been otherwise. I find that to be incredible.
MaRo: Wow that's a whole lot of compliment. Not to break my whole egotistic image I have working for me but there are a whole bunch of very smart people that make Magic and I am honored to have the pleasure to work with them day in and day out. I feel like Magic R&D is constantly trying to learn from its past and evolve much like the game does. We spend so much time thinking about things that most players don't even notice but I strongly believe it's the details that make Magic the game it is.
From time to time I'll Google myself (I've heard that described as "internet masturbation" – I can say that on SCG right?) and I'm always amazed at where my articles get talked about. It turns out that there's so little written about design of any kind that the few writers like myself that take the time to talk about it get a lot more attention than I originally realized.
The weird thing is that the number one reason I write my column is that I'm a writer at my core and one of the ways that I process things is to write. A lot of my big realizations have come about because I was trying to put an idea into words and it made me finally understand why I was doing something that I had been doing based only on instinct. It also turns out that writing proves to be the best way to get feedback. By getting into the public eye I've become the default person to write to about whatever people feel about the game. This feedback has proven invaluable and I feel is my biggest competitive advantage as a designer.
In his book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell claims that in order to become an expert at something you have to put in ten thousand hours with a lot of feedback. Working on Magic for fifteen years has gotten me the hours but I believe it's the mail that was key because it was the feedback. It's not enough to be designing. You have to learn what worked and what didn't. I'm known for reading every email I get. The reason I do this is I really want to hear what everyone has to say. I believe that a lot of what I've been able to achieve as a designer and a writer has come from hearing the players talk about the game. Without my writing I would not have this valuable feedback.
TK: How important is writing/video/podcasts about the game of Magic in contributing to its success?
MaRo: I feel it's very important. In R&D we talk about the metagame. Note that we're talking about Richard Garfield's definition not the one that helps you figure out what deck to play at the next big tournament. In R&D lingo the metagame is about all the things that make up the game over and above the game itself. If you wrote down every minute you spent doing something Magic related you'd find that a small portion is actually spent on playing. Magic is as much about building decks and thinking about building decks and talking to other players about cards and guessing what the next set's going to do. Magic is about the community. It's about making friends and just talking about Magic. A big piece of this is the role of writing.
What is the one thing that most Magic players do every day? They go onto the internet and visit Magic web sites to read about Magic or to watch videos or to listen to blogs. They check in on Facebook or read tweets off Twitter. So much of being part of the Magic community is interconnectivity and the shared experiences. The writing/video/blogs are key to that shared experience. Did you see what so and so said or what so and so wrote? Magic writing is in my mind the glue that holds the Magic community together.
In addition a lot of the writing I do is to provoke reactions out of the audience. Part of the Magic experience is the roller coaster ride that Wizards designs and I'm one of the people who straps you into your seat every week. I believe my writing is my most important tool in doing that job.
TK: Is there a certain height requirement? Do you get a pass because you run the ride?
MaRo: I sure as hell hope there's no height requirement. Every time someone meets me or sees me on video they always comment "You're so much shorter than I imagined." I've come to believe that most players think I'm some kind of giant that runs design through the will of my giant fists. "Me no like synergy between two main mechanics. Me smash set." Okay my inner geek somehow morphed a giant into the Incredible Hulk.
TK: So with the importance of writing in mind should there be a writer/contributor branch to the Hall of Fame?
MaRo: Rather than a Pro Tour Hall of Fame I wish there were a Magic Hall of Fame with a Pro Tour wing. Mostly because as a historian of the game there are so many people vital to its existence that have nothing to do with the Pro Tour. Would I like to see a writer's wing? Of course I would because I believe Magic writing has been very integral to the game's success and evolution. I also would love to see an R&D wing and a judge wing and every other wing people could come up with. I'm fascinated by Magic history so I'm always chomping at the bit for some reason to talk about its past.
I remember that you wrote several articles about a Magic Writer's Hall of Fame ( "The Writers Hall of Fame” and "Mike Flores is a Big Fat Idiot plus Revisiting the Writer's Hall of Fame” ). Whatever happened to it? Also in rereading the articles (yes I did homework for this interview) I realized that I couldn't get my name within ten yards of either article. This reminds me of an interesting phenomenon I've noticed as a writer who's basically only ever written for "the man.”
The best example of this phenomenon is a story. So one day I'm talking with Brian David-Marshall and he talks about how Mike Flores has written about Magic longer than any other writer. I say "Brian I've written longer than Flores."
To which he replies "Yeah but that doesn't count." Somehow the fact that I've never written as an independent that I've always been paid by Wizards to write rather than ever just done so as a player seems to put me in some category that just isn't considered when people think about Magic writing. I've written longer than anybody more than anybody (with maybe the exception of Flores but we've both written millions of words so I'm not sure anyone's ever going to count them all) yet when Magic writing comes up in a historical context my name doesn't come up that much.
One of the historical factoids that no one seems to remember is that I was the first writer to do official tournament coverage. I wrote the articles on both '94 and '95 Worlds. I was very instrumental in the early coverage of the Pro Tour. In the early Duelists I wrote a lot of the first low to middle end strategy articles to try to help players improve their game. I've had the longest running columns in The Duelist and on MagicTheGathering.com. But still too many think I'm the "gimmick-writing goofball."
As an example Flores put together a bunch of writers to pick the best Magic article of all time ("Who's the Beatdown?" won for those interested) and the only vote for one of my columns was from Scott Johns for “Timmy Johnny and Spike.” Then in the thread of the article a whole bunch of the judges were like "Rosewater – yeah I just never think about him in that context."
TK: The issue (and obviously it's not entirely fair) is that you aren't the same generation as everyone else and you don't write about the same topics as everyone else. You started writing first and those early articles were written so long ago that your early work exists in an entirely different and mostly dead medium – it might as well have been written in Sanskrit on stone tablets for all the internet cares. So that counts against people's recollections despite the fact that you have carried on writing to this day.
Additionally you are an insider and have been an insider for basically the entirety of my adult life (I turned eighteen in 1994). Almost everyone in Magic now started out as an outsider and even those who were outside but then went inside admit to segregating your work because it feels like it's in a different category. You didn't have to grow up on the mean streets of SCG or Brainburst.com or The Dojo so it ends up feeling like your work isn't the same. Like if you look at my history you can follow a path from Brainburst.com to SCG to MTG.com and back again and for some reason writers can relate to that. For you it was basically The Duelist to Sideboard to MTG.com. Nobody else has that trajectory – you grew up in gated communities and went to private school.
It also doesn't help that your archive just for mtg.com is 500 articles long. I tried to research for this conversation and realized I didn't have six months. Then I tried just cutting back to the five-star articles that seemed sensible. At least you politely catalogued and rated all of them for me. Then I started reading and remembered how long the damned things are – you and Forsythe are exact opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to word count on the site. So I made it through about twenty and decided to wing it from there. Anyway the point behind that little aside is that it is nearly impossible to have a mental catalogue of even the best of your work unless you are named Mark Rosewater. (Might I suggest publishing a book or two? It certainly worked for Flores.)
Finally you just write about different topics than everyone else. As a point of fact we can't write about whatyou write about... we don't make Magic. That doesn't mean your work isn't great – it is. And it helps that you go out of your way to allow people to relate to who you are and what you do these days even if they also aren't making Magic. But it does mean that on topical material you are impossible to compare to. So when it comes to evaluating your writing you're like the cute smart glasses-wearing friend in the teen movies who everyone likes to hang around but no one ever is interested in romantically. Then ten years later they think back and say "You know Mark's stuff was pretty hot. Why didn't I ever hit that?"
Maybe your writing needs to lose the glasses and put on a slinky black dress.
MaRo: So if some popular writing makes a bet with his best friend that he can change anyoneof his friend's choiceinto a cool piece of writing I'm the writing he picks? Then while the popular piece of writing tries to show me how to be cool I slowly change him making him see me in a whole new light in the process. Then right before the big dance I let my hair down put on contacts and a pretty dress and then he wins the bet except he doesn't want to anymore because he's realized that he loves me. That's who my writing is?
The weird thing about this whole thing is that it's not like I don't get any recognition. In fact almost the opposite. Because of my high profile people assume I'm responsible for way more things than I'm actually responsible for. Just in R&D alone there's like thirty other people who are all working hard every day to make Magic what it is. But it's in people's nature to fill in the blanks with the information they know so the public at large just assumes that I'm behind everything for good or for bad.
Maybe that's what's going on. For most of the other Magic writers that's what they're known for – writing. Even though I've amassed this giant library of Magic writing and I have a larger audience than any other writer I'll always be known more for my other contributions. I'm not thought of as a Magic writer but as a Magic designer that writes which is quite ironic because I came to this job as a writer that had never done professional game design.
You bring up my volume. One of the running jokes with the web team is they always have to rein me in. My articles tend to average 3000 words and every once in a while I start to drift to 4000 or 5000 and my editor has to pull me aside and say "Mark you're killing me. Could you please stick to 3000 words?" The reason I write so long as opposed to Aaron is that Aaron wrote to make the column while I write because I enjoy writing. Aaron wrote as little as he had to while I wrote as much as I was allowed.
It's hard for anyone who isn't a writer to understand this but writing is something that a writer does because he feels compelled to. I compare it to a jogger that just needs to run so many miles each day to get the high he needs. You can't write for as long or as much as I have without honestly loving the act of writing. That's one of the major reasons I wanted to do this interview. (Yes once again I volunteered.) I have a passion for writing and I've channeled that passion into Magic writing.
Anyone familiar with my column knows that I'm more than comfortable stretching the boundaries of Magic writing. I've spent columns talking about my dating life and my life lessons and my wedding. The reason I picked Abe's article as my favorite is that it took something outside of Magic something brutally real and brought it into the game. While I'm all for strategy articles and set reviews what I enjoy most as a writer is to read other writers who bring themselves to Magic rather than just discussing the game. Jamie Wakefield for example is one of the all time greats and the reason I loved reading Jamie was that he brought himself to his writing. Yes Magic was involved but Magic was a component of something larger.
One of the things I want to say today to any of the writers reading this is that I want them to understand that Magic writing is only as limited as the writer makes it. If you can take someone's name off an article and put another name on it and no one would notice I feel that the writer is creating filler more than writing.
I'm throwing down the gauntlet to the writers of Magic. The articles don't have to be 100% Magic. In fact the articles that have some of you in them are the ones that will be the ones that stand the test of time. Yes you can say relevant things about Magic and about strategy and about whatever meaty content you want to put in the article but don't forget to also include some of you.
This isn't easy to do but at its core writing is about putting some of the writer in the writing. The greats of Magic writing have done this but I think there's so much more potential out there. Remember I've thrown the gauntlet. It's been thrown. There's a gauntlet lying at your feet. Pick it up and do something with it.
TK: With regard to my earlier discussions about the Writer's Hall the idea remains strong even after all these years. Those articles were written before you guys actually started the PT Hall of Fame so it's not like I copied anything.
Readers: if the stuff I wrote sounds similar to the execution of the current Hall I didn't steal anything (though I remember a grumpy email in there from Mark so maybe I did steal certain complaints from him and make changes). On the other hand I will fully admit to the fact that the first article on that topic isembarrassinglybad. I reread it about two years ago (when Oli was nominated for the PT Hall) and it did my head in. There are many articles in my archive I still like after all these years – that was not one of them. Anyway the reason why it never moved forward on my end was that I expected you guys to take over / do your own thing with it eventually once the PT one got started.
If it were to be done independently you'd see at least as many arguments as you get for the Pro Tour version but perhaps written more eloquently (since ballots would be written by just writers and not players). Magic players absolutely love to argue about things and the Hall of Fame has proven to be an outstanding emotionally charged topic that rears its head once a year.
MaRo: We have no plans that I'm aware of so I say go for it. I would love to have impassioned discussions on par with the Pro Tour Hall of Fame. Who are the great Magic writers? It's fascinating stuff. The only thing that I would ask is to remember that there are a lot of different types of writing and it's not just about Magic theory. Yes there are some people who deserve credit for advancing the game theory of Magic but there are so many other people that enhanced Magic in other ways.
The Pro Tour Hall of Fame was based very heavily on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for those who like inside dirt. I would do the Writer's Hall of Fame similarly in that I would require a writer's first writing to have been at least ten years ago. I feel it's important to have some historical context and time to really evaluate a writer's work.
TK: One of the things that not everyone knows (or that gets forgotten) is that you (and most of the people who make Magic) read a lot of what gets written in the community. As you mentioned you use it as a source of feedback but also as a way to headhunt potential new talent. Are Magic writers better now than they were five years ago?
MaRo: Reading what the audience has to say be it in my mailbox or my Twitter feed or in forums or wherever is an important part of my job. When people ask me about getting a job in R&D I usually say the two best ways are playing on the Pro Tour and writing about Magic. Aaron Forsythe Tom LaPille and Zac Hill – all of them now work in R&D partly because of their writing. I brought Aaron in to edit magicthegathering.com in a big part because of things I saw in his writing. Tom and Zac both clinched their internships because we could see what they had to say about Magic. We had a peek at their thought process.
Are Magic writers better? I don't know. There are good writers now and there were good writers then. I do believe the current economic model which produces articles pushes us away from personal writing and towards more analytical writing which I find less compelling. As I said earlier I think the best writing comes from writers putting themselves into their writing and I believe there is less of that now than there was five years ago.
Okay I guess I'm saying no Magic writing isn't better than it was five years ago at least as far as the writing I'm most interested in seeing.
The one plus to now versus five years ago is that there's more writing now than there used to be. True the writing is less motivated about expressing oneself than it is about getting paid but more writing is good regardless of its motivation.
TK: Who is writing today that you really enjoy reading? Is there perhaps a writer you like that you don't think gets enough credit?
MaRo: I've defined a good writer as someone who has their own voice and is willing to take risks. With that definition I think the writer I'm enjoying reading the most right now is Patrick Chapin. I feel Pat both has strong content and a solid voice. A while back he wrote an article about the metagame that was just fifty deck lists. That's the kind of thing that I love to see where a writer is trying to say something not by saying it but by not saying it by demonstrating rather than explaining. It's gimmicky but I think some of the most exciting writing comes from writers willing to push boundaries. Besides who am I to belittle gimmicks?
I do want to stress by the way that I think gimmicks get a bad rap. The reason I think is because often gimmicks are used in place of content. That is instead of saying something interesting the writer shows off in the way he says it. But I believe when a gimmick is put with content it creates some of the greatest writing. Many of my favorite articles ( my choose-you-own-adventure my all photo tour of Wizards my memory article etc.) are classic because they found a way to say something in a form that expressed it better than simple straightforward writing could have. As I often say about design don't go out of the box just to get out of the box. Do it when what you want to do can't be done in the box.
TK: I also agree that Pat is probably the most exciting writer to read right now and I appreciate the boundaries he pushes when he's exploring topics. Obviously that's one of the things I appreciate in your writing too. Your writing adventures (and that's really what they are) don't always work how or as well as you expect them to but it's almost always worth the attempt. Life is far too boring to stay in content ruts for almost any period of time.
MaRo: It's interesting that I have many different types of readers for my column. Some of them just love my crazy columns while others just want me to write clear and concise behind the scenes articles with lots of little details. I often talk about how writing my column is a lot like designing Magic cards because no one thing can make all of my audience happy. The trick is doing a little of everything so that everyone gets something they like yet few like everything. The key is to make sure that everyone loves something at the cost of them liking everything.
TK: I find it interesting how writers – and frequently the quality of their writing – go through phases. These phases happen with almost everyone that writes for a long time but many writers get inspiration – from their environment their friends their editors... from life really – that shines through in their work. It's also a truism that life changes meaning all of these elements of inspiration can change too. What's intriguing for me is how that inspiration affects the topics they cover and in some cases the quality and tone of the work produced.
Some of my favorite Magic writers are fantastic storytellers and end up using their friends as props in tournament reports and the like detailing amusing antics and anecdotes that really flesh out some of the personalities and relationships in the game. Other writers have a more technical bent to them but still use discussions among their friends as topical material to spur them into covering decision-making or new areas of theory.Friends change. They move or stop playing Magic or sometimes stop talking to you.
I think Flores is one of those writers whose writing has been really influenced by the people in his life. His earlier work usually had wonderful stories about the guys he was hanging out with and the pop culture elements they were interested in at the time and those stories sang. I learned to love Mike through his early work because I loved how he described his friends and also how there was no real dividing line between Magic and whatever else he was into at the time. It was all there on the page in front of you.
As Mike grew older got married and became more settled his friends took a bit of a back seat in his storytelling but I know first-hand that they had a huge effect on his topic selection and a lot of his theory work. When I was editing him Mike and I would talk every other day about some element of Magic that was on his mind and I know he was having similar conversations with BDM Becker and Ravitz. I also think that period produced some of his best work even though I will always miss the stories and the non-Magic parts of his earlier work.
You're an interesting case because you have gone to a lot of effort to make it very easy for your audience to relate to you. I don't know if you realized early on that having a special approachability was something Magic needed (it's certainly been helpful) or if that's a natural part of who you are or what but you are easy to connect to on the page. That vulnerability you display about your personal life and also the honesty with which you share your own faults with your audience ends up being very charming.
MaRo: I think it's a natural part of who I am yet I also realized early on that it was a good thing for Magic to have. It's funny because I never started out to become the face of Magic. I wrote in the early days mostly because that was where I was needed. Wizards from very early on decided that they wanted to be a company that communicated with its player base and as such there was a great need for writers who understood Magic.
The reason I got sucked into Wizards basically boils down to their need for writers. My first in with The Duelist was my puzzles but quickly thereafter I started writing articles. I had at the time a rare combination of three skills: I could write I understood Magic and I turned my work in on time. Once Kathryn Haines (the first editor-in-chief of The Duelist ) understood this I became a regular writer. Each issue she'd call me up and ask me what I wanted to write about. I wish all The Duelist articles were on the internet because I feel like I did a lot of very inventive articles early in my writing career. The one that seems interestingly prophetic was an article I wrote about designing two decks that were meant to be played against one another.
Once I had proven myself in The Duelist other parts of the company who desperately needed writing started to track me down for other writing assignments. At one point I was doing seven different projects for seven different parts of the company all writing. I got hired because I was already doing so much that it seemed an obvious thing to hire me. In fact it took me a couple months to get hired because several different sections of the company were fighting over who got to hire me. R&D won but I was made the liaison to The Duelist from R&D. That led me down the path to where I became the editor-in-chief of The Duelist (while still working full time in R&D).
As I was allowed more access to write I started pushing to be able to write in my own voice. I began doing my first behind the scenes column – “Insider Trading.” Interestingly the original premise of that column was that I was an outsider – one of "you" – that managed to sneak inside Wizards and I was sharing all their secrets with my fellow players. Once I had a constant voice and presence I started becoming a face of the company.
The next huge leap was when I put together the website. The company decided that having a world-class website for Magic was important so they made it a major goal for the year. The task got passed down to Bill Rose who passed it down to me. I had been The Duelist editor-in-chief. I had the communications background. I was a writer or as I referred to it as the time "The R&D guy who studied words in college.” As such I was the obvious choice to tackle the new website.
When I took the job at Wizards I assumed that all my training in college would be for naught. I mean what does a game designer have to know about communication? As it turns out – a lot! I designed magicthegathering.com by literally applying everything I had learned about communication from school. There is an entire line of communication theory and I followed it all.
Part of that was creating a schedule so that we could build a pattern into our reader's behavior. As I often bring up in my column people love following patterns and communication takes advantage of this need to do the same thing every day and runs with it. As such I knew we had to have weekly columns to get everyone to turn up the same time each week. (And daily features to make them pop in each day.) When I was selecting columns it was clear to me that we needed faces for design and development so I put in two columns bookending the week. I took the design column because who else was going to write it?
Most people who don't write regularly have no idea how much work a weekly column is. It's an insane amount of work. The only thing that's allowed me to do it for so long is my absolute love of writing. It is a hard thing for most people to keep up with. As an example look at the development column. Tom LaPille is the fourth writer on it. (Following in the footsteps of Randy Buehler Aaron Forsythe and Devin Low.)
Anyway this is just the long-winded version of me saying that my need to write my way and the company's need to have a recognizable face kind of collided and I ended up becoming what I am. I'm glad you and others find me charming because I know there are many players out there who I seem to annoy to no end. Whenever I'm feeling a little too full of myself I read the thread to my column and they always help take me down a notch.
TK: What I'm not so sure about is what people influence you today and who has influenced you in the past. You're very generous in handing out praise to the design and development teams for the sets (even though readers often seem to think you create everything all the time) but there aren't as many recurring characters as I guess I might expect. Especially since you work in an office filled with... characters. Maybe because it's harder to include conversations and interactions – which generally demand a certain immediacy – when you are generally writing about cards and decisions that were decided a year in the past?
MaRo: I do feel that I have recurring "characters" in my columns. The reason I tend to keep them at a distance is twofold. First it's one thing to open up yourself. I'm making that choice. I'm volunteering all sorts of information about myself because I'm comfortable doing so. My colleagues haven't done that and I feel odd to do to them what I do to myself week in and week out. I don't mind praising them and I try to do it whenever I can because they really are an amazing group of guys but I just don't feel it's right for me to expose them with the scrutiny that I expose myself.
Second to make my writing interesting I need to setup conflict. Stories are just more compelling if I have obstacles in my way. If I put faces on those obstacles I start turning my readers against them. If the writer is doing his job correctly the vast majority of the readers are on his side. Putting real faces up just starts turning my co-workers into villains and that's unfair to them. The resistance I get to my designs is necessary and leads to me doing better work but that nuance is hard to capture when I'm trying to spin a yarn.
One of the things that I have to always be conscious of as a writer is that my first job is to entertain my readers. Yes I have to have content but content without form gets lost. While it's true that I get to talk about things that no one else gets to talk about that isn't as much of an advantage as people think. A big part of what I have to do is figure out context for what I want to say and then I have to figure out the right form to say it. Hopefully if I'm doing my job it seems easy. But it's all of those issues that I worry about that have kept me from creating the "cast of characters" that I might if I were writing about different things. I always joke about how my next job is going to be to return to Hollywood and turn all my experiences into a sitcom which by the way would actually work – a game company is ripe for a good sitcom.
That's all we have time for today friends. The conversation continues tomorrow when Mark and I discuss his favorite writers innovation and Mark dispenses advice for aspiring writers and designers alike.