Why I’ll be talking about designing Magic cards in the future (and a promise that I’ll make it interesting for the casual non-crazy readers).
I’ve got a strange hobby. It’s called ‘designing Magic: the Gathering cards. When I explain this hobby to other people, the conversation goes like this:
Me: Well, I design cards for the game Magic: the Gathering. Of course, one can only entertain oneself for so long making individual cards with no relationship to other cards. How can a card be perceived as good if it has no peers? So, I hunker down and sketch out whole sets of cards… somewhere in the range of 300 cards at a time. It’s a lot of fun, and I…
Confused Person: Wait, wait… are you saying you work for Wizards of the Coast?
Me: Oh, no. Nothing like that. This is a pastime.
Confused Person: So, you design whole sets of Magic cards in your spare time?
Me: Well, in what spare time I have, I suppose. I keep myself busy.
Confused Person: So, when you’re done with this set of cards, you what? You can’t sell it, right.
Me: Oh, no! That would be insanely against the law. If I started making any amount of money doing that, I’d have Wizards lawyers jumping through every opening in my body.
Confused Person: Okay. So, you hold tournaments instead? People play your game, and you make money from tournament entries?
Me: No… I’m pretty sure Wizards would get wind of that also. I’m hazy on whether they would allow that sort of thing, but I’m guessing they wouldn’t like it. I have run a few drafts before, and charged a nominal fee to pay for the ink, paper and sleeves. A $1 due. I think I lose money when I do that, too… ink is expensive. That and it’s a lot of work… it takes me days to put everything together, so I don’t do that too often. And there aren’t many people willing to help me. They’re happy when they’re playing, but few people are willing to do work for some one else’s pet project.
Confused Person: I see. So this is more like a resume, right? If you make enough custom cards, Wizards will see your work and tap you on the shoulder, and you get to work for Wizards?
Me: I wish! The truth is, Wizards employees go out of their way to avoid looking at other people’s designs. They don’t want the hassle of assimilating someone else’s work by accident, then dealing with a potential legal battle over it. Besides, Wizards doesn’t hire their employees based upon the amount of work they do… well, I suppose it doesn’t hurt… but their last four employees were hired in a grudge match game show fashion, where people pitted their design skills against each other. The ‘Survivor’ style show is very popular with the employees and the public, so I don’t see why they’d stop doing that any time soon.
Confused Person: Okay, now I’m really confused. If there are all of these barriers, why don’t you just design your own game. Wouldn’t that be easier?
Me: I think so. Yeah. It would probably just be easier to design my own game from scratch.
Confused Person: So why don’t you do that, and reap the rewards?
Me: I do, a little, on the side. But… I know this sounds strange… I don’t know if I can stop designing Magic cards…
Designing Magic cards is an odd habit. It’s like smoking. You snuck a design in when you were young, asked your friends about it, and were told a mixture of “That’s cool” and “Why would I ever play that?”. From then on, you’re off running… trying to figure out what you did wrong. Trying to replicate what you did right. Soon, one pack of cards isn’t enough. You find you’re designing cards without your friends’ input anymore. You do it at home, when you’re bored. You find your mind filling with the phrase “Whenever you take damage” and “Sacrifice any number of permanents”. It doesn’t stop.
It doesn’t stop, because that’s the type of game Magic is. There are over 12,000 unique cards in the game. The flexibility of the game is robust. If another 12,000 cards were added to that pile, there would be more space for design than there was before. Each card designed leads to an unending spiral of possibilities. Trying to wrap your head around Magic’s potential is mind-warping… which is why people don’t bother. They just try to make the best deck for the environment right now. And for the designers, both professional and amateurs, they build off of previous sets and leap into new territory. It’s hard to stop the design bug, because there’s no end point… no place where one can feel comfortable and say: “That’s it. This set is perfect. I don’t have to design anymore.”
Do I wish I focus more energy into creating my own games? Sure. I suppose, in the same way you probably wish you had the energy to learn to change the oil in your car. I do work on my own games, but it sure does feel like work. Designing Magic cards is more a crossword puzzle. It’s an activity… and a hard one to set down once you get started.