Interview With R&D Master Randy Buehler

Ever wonder how R&D avoids making another Urza’s Block? Former pro Randy B. gives the goods on card testing, card creation, and dealing with groupies.

(Editor’s Note: I’ll be moving to Cleveland in about four weeks. If anyone there feels like playing with a vaguely-bizarre weasel, wanna do a brother a favor and email to say hi? — The Ferrett)

I first became aware of Randy Buehler utter brokenness when I told Sheldon we’d be playing against him in LA. Sheldon immediately broke out in hives.

“Watch out for Randy,” he said, trembling.”He’s a real pro.”

I shrugged it aside. I wasn’t terribly impressed with pros at the time… And Randy brought a goofy deck to the multiplayer tournament, something weird with Ley Lines that wasn’t even intended to win. As a result, he lost horribly.

So I was feeling pretty good about facing down the best Wizards had to offer when we whipped up a casual game of Extended.”This is my goofy theme deck,” said Randy, smiling. At which point he got to five mana, entered an infinite turn loop, and when he got to ten lands or so he cast Sliver Queen with double-Force of Will backup and then cast Coalition Victory.

Three times.

His goofy deck.

It was then that I realized that maybe Randy got his job on Magic’s Research and Development team for a damn fine reason: He’s good. And R&D’s team has been on a hot streak lately, creating three really interesting expansions that all culminate in the draft-busting Apocalypse set. So I figured I’d ask Randy about the card creation process; how they create the cards, how they test them, how they figure out what works and what doesn’t. So I set out to Seattle with a pad full of questions….

Q: What is your name?

A: Randy Buehler (although technically, it’s Randolph Buehler, Jr.).

Q: What is your favorite color?

A: I’m never sure whether to answer blue or black. Mostly, I like card advantage.

Q: What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?

A: What, African or European?

… at which point I was abruptly hurled out a window. When I crawled back in, swathed in moist bandages seeping with my own misery, I then determined never to start off another interview with a hackneyed Monty Python reference. It’s unprofessional.

Q: So seriously — how were you recruited for R&D in the first place, and what inspired you to go from the pro circuit to working for The Man? Was it the women? The song? The money?

A: I got to know Mark Rosewater and Skaff Elias fairly well from hanging out with them at Pro Tours when I was playing, and Mark seemed to think I might make a good developer. He recommended me to the Magic lead designer, Bill Rose, and Bill and I together for an interview at Origins ’99. Bill basically said,”We’d like you to apply for this job.” I answered,”Sure, but I’m not sure I’d take it — I don’t know if I could give up playing.”

But the more I thought about it, the better the job started to sound. I had been playing and traveling the world for two years at that point, and I was basically breaking even financially. I could pay the bills, but it wasn’t the kind of thing you could do for a living. I was twenty-seven years old and I figured I had had my two years of fun, and some time soon I should look for an actual career. (Note that this was before the invention of the Masters Series. Now that the Masters Series exists, I think it IS possible to make a career out of playing Magic! I make sure to tell my boss this every chance I get so he’ll keep me happy here. ;-))

I’m very lucky to have two amazing ways I could be making a living.

Q: How DO you handle the endless floods of R&D groupies pounding on your door?

A: Umm, well, I just bought a new house (my first) and they haven’t found the new address yet. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Q: You have what a lot of people consider to be a dream job. Not that we’re trying to flood Wizards with a bunch of terrible resumes, but what would you say are the qualifications for being a good card designer?

A: There’s an important distinction in R&D that a lot of people don’t realize, and that is design versus development.

The designers are in charge of thinking up new ideas. They aren’t supposed to worry their pretty little heads about balance, or even mana costs — they just have to think up cool ideas. Then they hand their ideas, in the form of a set, to a development team — so the qualifications for being a designer are things like creativity and imagination. Our main designers right now are Mark Rosewater, Mike Elliot, Bill Rose, and (to a lesser extent) Richard Garfield.

The development team is in charge of testing the cards (in both Limited and Constructed), changing the costs, balancing them, and fine-tuning the ideas. The qualifications for being a developer are the ability to build good decks and play them well; the ability to recognize good cards, bad cards, and broken cards; and most importantly, the ability to fine-tune cards to make them as cool as possible. I’m a developer, not a designer. Other developers include Henry Stern, William Jockusch, Worth Wollpert, Brian Schneider, and Mike Donais (though Mike has been dabbling in design more and more lately).

Both groups need to be able to argue. That’s really what we do all day. When we aren’t actually playing Magic, we’re sitting around arguing about it. And I really love to argue. That’s why I went to grad school in philosophy — because they were paying me to sit around and argue all day. Now I get to argue about cooler subjects and get paid more. It really is a dream job.

Q: About how many people are on the R&D team right now?

A: There are probably twenty, all told. In addition to the people who work primarily on Magic, we have others who specialize in the Harry Potter game that’s about to come out, the Showdown Sports games (MLB Showdown is already out and NFL and NBA are on the way), a Football (that’s soccer to us Americans) TCG that we’re releasing in Europe, Pokemon, and some other really cool projects that I’m not allowed to tell you about yet. Most people work on multiple products.

Q: So do you work on multiple projects yourself?

A: I’ve actually made an effort to specialize on Magic. I’m the only one who has worked on as many as five of the last seven sets… And I’ve been on all seven. I guess they’re happy with my work!

I have worked on a few other games, though. I was on the development team for the WCW wrestling game — the game was actually decent, even though we kind of suspected that it wouldn’t be popular enough. I have also worked on baseball (MLB Showdown) ever since I got here. I was almost on the Harry Potter team, but when I let my boss (Bill Rose) know that I really preferred to work on Magic, he decided to let me specialize.

Q: Do you ever look at the fan-created cards that pop up on the internet from time to time — and if so, what do you see as the biggest problems when Joe Schmoe creates his cards?

A: Yes, I do look. It’s weird how my Internet surfing has changed since I retired from the Tour and took this job. I never used to read mtgnews at all, but now I read it somewhat regularly. I want to understand all parts of the audience, not just the tournament players. I’ve seen some good card ideas in that time, too. I’ve also seen some really complicated cards – that’s usually the biggest flaw I see. We try not to print cards at below 7.5-point type and we prefer that many of them be at 9 point. Throw in the line breaks we put between abilities and many of the cards I see on the Internet just wouldn’t fit.

Q: Has Wizards ever thought of doing a”create-a-card” contest? I know the art on Spiritmonger was fan-inspired, but we’re talking actual cards here.

Q: Well, we do have the Magic Invitational. The Magic version of the”All-Star Game” is really just one big create-a-card contest! In fact, Olle Rade recently contacted us wondering if he can still submit a card since he won the very first Invitational.”I was young, I didn’t realize what an honor it was,” etc. We said”yes” and his card is currently scheduled to appear in the Judgment set! (Yeah, but like I’ll ever get an invite to the Invitational, let alone design a card — The Ferrett, still waiting for his magnificent green card,”The Weasels Of Doom”)

Q: If you could hire any three current pros to be on your testing team, who would they be and why?

A: The things that make you a good card-tester aren’t necessarily the things that make you good at Magic. For example, being good at deck building is more important to us than playing well. In addition, the most important thing we need is the ability to communicate and interact well with others. Finally, while I’m tempted to say”Jon Finkel” just because we need him for the R&D basketball team, I wouldn’t want to take marquee stars off the Tour. I’ll go with …

Alan Comer — Perhaps the best combination of innovative deckbuilding and good communication skills available. He’d try out every weird rare we threw at him and have fun telling us about them.

Michael Turian — The two biggest weaknesses in R&D right now are 1) all our top players are better at Constructed than Limited and 2) most of us prefer to play control rather than beatdown. Turian would fill both of these holes very well. His Limited skills might be the best in the world, and his Constructed leanings are pure beatdown. Plus he’s a good guy.

Chris Pikula — One of the smartest guys who ever played on Tour, and one of the biggest gamers. He’d be spectacularly fun to have around and he both loves the game and is good at it. We probably would already have hired him if we could afford him.

Q: We know you try your best to break the sets of cards the designers give you… But do they hand you stacks of cards and you just give feedback, or do you actually have an input into the design process?

A: Well, my very first day on the job I got thrown into an Invasion development meeting and they were talking about what lands to print. They knew they wanted lands that were good enough to enable multicolor play (even with Rishadan Port running around) and they were thinking about doing two-color lands with”gating” (these eventually wound up in Planeshift as the”dragon lairs”). I told them those just weren’t good enough, and if they really wanted good lands they should just do comes-into-play-tapped dual lands. They told me comes-into-play-tapped duals would be way too good. I said no, just try them out — I think they’re about right. So we tested them and I was right. Voila, they wound up in Invasion.

Like I was saying earlier, I am a developer. Sometimes I think a card up out of whole cloth, but more often I’m the guy picking the power level of cards. Another example is Fact or Fiction. I thought it was a really cool idea and I pushed the Invasion development to price it at 3U so it would get played a lot. I also suggested that Apocalypse have a cycle of 2/2s to mirror Invasion’s, so I guess Goblin Legionnaire is”mine.”

Q: You guys have a ton of formats to check… Type I, Extended, Type II, Block Constructed, Sealed, Draft, 5 Color, Multiplayer, Emperor, Highlander, Ghetto Smax, 15, et al. What formats do you check for brokenness, and which ones do you check the heaviest?

A: We spend most of our time testing Standard and testing Sealed Deck. We also do a little bit of Block Constructed and a little bit of Booster Draft. I was a little bit depressed when I realized that it was more efficient to test Sealed Deck than to test Draft (because Draft is more fun for me), but it is.

The problem with drafting from a tester’s perspective is that draft is self-correcting. If black is too good, it just means that more people will draft black. And when everybody is drafting black, there’s actually enough green and white going in around that one or two players at the table can do just fine drafting green/white decks, even though those colors suck. So if your goal is to see if the colors are balanced, draft might confuse the message, because people might be going undefeated even though they’re playing the weak colors. The good news, though, is that if we accidentally print an unbalanced set, draft is still a fine format.

But if the colors are unbalanced and you build forty Sealed Decks, you’re definitely going to see which colors get played more often and which get ignored. As far as Constructed goes, we figure the cards get a thorough workout if we just play Standard all the time. We keep an eye out for broken Extended combos and we have certainly changed cards because of these combos, but we don’t build Extended decks on a regular basis. We usually take a couple weeks off from our normal (Standard) Future Future League each set to test Block Constructed, but that’s all we have time for.

Q: You said earlier that you want to understand all parts of the Magic community, Randy — how do you try to design for casual players and kiddie players, who live in worlds that don’t even begin to intersect with yours?

A: Keep in mind that the portion of the audience that plays to win, period, is actually quite small. Something like 90% of our audience cares more about winning in a cool way, or in some cases just having fun playing regardless of the outcome. We refer to the cutthroat players as”Spike,” and Spike is actually not that hard to take care of — he just wants some good cards and then he’ll play with them no matter what they are, just because they’re good. Now that I understand this, I spend a lot more time trying to make sure the cards are cool, regardless of their casting cost. Timmy, the archetypical kiddie player, for example, likes fat creatures and he doesn’t seem to care how expensive they are. We try to make sure that every set has something for every player.

Q: Now that we know which formats you check, let’s see how you check them; what is your procedure for testing Constructed decks? Do you all get together and build decks on your own and then playtest the heck out of them, or are there specific cards that you gravitate to first? Do you build decks individually, or do you do some sort of groupthink and then break out decks in one mass testing?

A: Our Constructed testing revolves around the FFL (Future Future League). Every week, whoever wants to play enters a decklist into the computer and gets assigned four matches. Over the course of the week they find those four opponents, play the matches, and enter the results into our internal website. Development teams keep a close eye on which decks are doing well in the league and tweak the cards accordingly. So the idea is that lots of eyes look at the set with an incentive to build good decks and lots of building and testing gets done in preparation for the league. Truly broken cards are usually pointed out to the development team before the person who discovers them even gets a chance to abuse them. And any card that looks scary to anyone in the development team gets a thorough workout, with someone trying to build a league deck around it.

It’s called the Future Future League, by the way, because R&D used to have a future league, but then realized it wasn’t far enough into the future (they were testing sets after development was finished when it was too late to change cards). Now we just like the sound of”FFL.”

Q: So what exactly do you look for when it comes to a”scary” card? Sure, there are the obvious”breaking” mechanisms like drawing extra cards, putting more than one land into play per turn… But what are your personal warning signs?

A: There is no definitive list of criteria. My own personal method is to compare cards to what we’ve done before. I played so much that I feel like I understand the power level of all the cards that have been printed since at least Ice Age. So I’ll look at a new card and try to think of some previous card to compare it to and that usually gives me a reasonable handle on its power level. Of course, for totally new mechanics this doesn’t help much, and then I just try to think up a deck that it would go into. Hopefully I’m a good enough deckbuilder that I won’t miss too much this way.

Q: And just out of curiosity, how do you get inducted into the FFL?

A: It’s an invitation-only league open to Wizards employees only. It’s almost exclusively R&D members, but we let in people from other departments if we know they are reasonably good players — like Omeed (and Jeff Donais).

Q: You’ve gone on record as saying that R&D never tested Saproling Burst and Fires. How DO you test for totally-broken combos? (Not that Sap/Fires is broken per se, but it definitely pushes Fires over the top.)

A: Somebody has to see it. Wizards hired up a bunch of Pro Tour-caliber players so it could be better at catching stuff like that – we now have six people in R&D with PT experience. When we were testing Invasion, though, I was the only one from the new wave of hirings who had started and I had basically never played with Nemesis cards. Nemesis was released after I left to work at Wizards, but it was already finished when I got there (and the department had moved on to testing Invasion). Everyone who goes to work in R&D winds up with about a two-set”black hole” because of how far ahead we work. So no one saw this synergy. I believe that the reason I missed it is because I didn’t realize how good Saproling Burst was in the first place, but I’ve been on every Magic development team since Invasion, so I hope not to miss anything that good in the future.

(Meanwhile, I don’t think”Fires” is broken good. It is quite good, probably a little better than we’d like, but I’m certainly not upset that the best deck is green-red beatdown and I certainly don’t think anything needs to be banned.)

Q: When you create a monster like, say, Spiritmonger, how thoroughly do you test the environment to make sure it’s not overpowering? And does Spiritmonger mean that we can expect to always see some huge, undercosted green beast that any new decks HAS to be able to handle in every expansion?

A: We definitely knew Spiritmonger was good and we definitely tested him in league decks to make sure it wasn’t too good. I actually don’t think he’s one of the Top 10 cards in Apocalypse! It needs evasion. Without trample, it doesn’t matter how big Spiritmonger gets because opponents can keep recruiting chump blockers all day, or regenerate their guys, or just put Spectral Lynx in front of it. Don’t get me wrong – Spiritmonger is good –- but it’s not even close to broken and I’d probably rather have a Shivan Wurm.

As far as your second question goes, R&D has indeed been trying to make big creatures that are good enough to play in Constructed and with the Dragons, Spiritmonger, and Shivan Wurm I think we might finally have done it.

Q: A common complaint right now is that Wizards is prebuilding decks with the allied-color (and now enemy-color) cards and that there are no original decks left to build. Are there decks in the environment right now that R&D never even thought of — and if so, which ones? And are there viable decks that you’ve built in testing that nobody’s caught on to yet (in the same way that NetherHaups was completely legal for PT: Chicago but didn’t really show up until Regionals)?

A: We aren’t trying to prebuild decks. What we did try to do with Invasion was to give each two-color combination enough good cards that people could try building a deck of those colors. Maybe that counts as prebuilding, but I don’t really think so.

As far as R&D having decks that haven’t been found yet, it’s difficult to answer that because the card sets are in such flux while we’re building decks. During the development of Planeshift, I had a really good blue/white control deck with Sunscape Familiars and Mahamoti Djinns, but that was back when Sunscape Familiar was 0/4. I didn’t lose a league match for several weeks, but then we dropped the Wall to 0/3 (and probably changed something else that I can’t even remember right now). Similarly, Mike Donais built up his league rating with a Time Warp recursion deck that the real world hasn’t found because we decided not to put Time Warp into Seventh Edition! We certainly have decks (and especially cards) that we like more than the real world seems to – I was shocked at how few Kavu Titans saw play in Chicago – but in general, I believe the real world is better at building decks than R&D is. We just can’t compete with the sheer numbers of people who turn their attention to each set.

Q: Likewise, when you’re prebuilding color combinations so much, do you think that makes it harder for the rogue deckbuilder? CAN rogue decks really thrive in the current T2 environment?

A: Hmmm… Isn’t it easier for rogue deckbuilders now that you aren’t limited to playing monocolor decks? The lands are so good right now you can build three-color decks of any three colors and play basically whatever spells together that you want to play. (This will be even more true once the Odyssey large expansion comes out this fall and Port rotates out.) Maybe rogues feel guilty for playing with the same cards as the”real” decks and so this”gold” era is going to be more challenging, but isn’t being a rogue deckbuilder all about the challenge of finding something truly new?

Mostly, I have no regrets about pushing multicolored cards in this block. Magic should go through stages where different aspects of the game are explored in depth. Discard has had its day, Tempest block was very fast, Alliances was very controllish, Urza’s Saga was . . . . Well, maybe we didn’t need to explore combos in that depth, but you see what I mean. We like to keep things constantly changing.

Q: Do you shift cards around in expansions to purposely wax and wane the powers of colors? For example, I personally think that if Acolytes AND Flagbearers had been in Invasion, black and red might have been totally neutered in draft while white would have gone over the top. Have you ever moved a viable card from one expansion to the next just to keep drafts interesting?

A: Absolutely. We count how many cards from each color get played in our sealed deck tests, and when one color is doing too well, we either make its cards worse or push some good ones off to future sets.

Q: What keeps the fire going after designing seventeen million decks that never really see the light of day? How do you keep the energy going when most of your best work in weeding out really broken cards is never seen?

A: I don’t think my fire is in any danger of going out. It’s certainly odd that when I build a really good deck I no longer get rewarded with fame and thousands of dollars, but instead my toys get taken away from me (because the cards are changed). However, Magic is still a fun game even when your games and decks aren’t on worldwide display. I just love playing and thinking about Magic. My goals are just a bit different now – my best work is trying to produce sets that are fun, challenging, and powerful, without being too powerful.

Q: So what do you folks do to relax after a long hard day of playing cards?

A: The folks around here relax by playing games – no joke. We play a lot of cards. (Hearts was the game of choice last year while”Oh Hell” has taken over our lunches this year. We even have a rating system for keeping track of whose doing well in the card games we play over lunch.) We also see a lot of movies, like anyone else, except a couple guys in the department keep grades and try to see at least 100 movies (in theaters) per year. Several guys participate in D&D campaigns in the evenings. The most popular past time is almost certainly computer gaming. Everquest, in particular, has led to a lot of bleary eyes in the mornings. Personally, I prefer real-time-simulation games like Starcraft. Right now my favorite is Kohan, an excellent game that six of us turned our attention to as soon as it came out. Now none of us ever lose when we play on-line . . . if only they had ratings, sigh. We also have a loyal Diablo II contingent — a couple guys even helped to beta-test the expansion that comes out at the end of June. I beat the game on the easy difficulty, but got frustrated when my barbarian just couldn’t get past that slug thing (Duriel?) on the middle difficulty. It looks like there’s cool stuff in the expansion, though, so I may get back into it. I also like going to events and hanging out with my old Pro Tour buddies. More people will talk to me now that I’m not on an enemy team, which is nice, and I enjoy drafting and playing 5-color.

Q:”Gosh, this set’s too slow. R&D sucks ass.””Hey, these cards are broken! How does R&D let these get by?” How do you folks feel about the triannual R&D bitching come every new expansion, and does it affect your morale? Have you finally gotten more kudos with the current environment?

A: We already know that not everyone is going to be happy, so the bitching doesn’t hurt much. I’m much more affected by intelligent commentary than one-line laments.

Q: You attend a lot of the pro events and do reporting. Does this help you in designing, seeing the top decks in action at the highest level? How does the feedback from the pros on the current environment affect you?

A: There’s no question that attending events helps me do my job better. Seeing how the cards I’ve made get used helps me a lot and talking to intelligent people who spend a lot of time thinking about the game is immensely useful. Every time I get back from an event, R&D has a meeting where I download as much of what I learned to the rest of the department as I possibly can. We usually can’t change the current environment since we work about a year ahead, but we can try to balance the future environments knowing what good decks and cards will still be around. Plus, it’s always helpful just to understand the game better and learn from any mistakes we might have made.

Q: You’re well known for your 5 preference. Do you think about 5 a lot while testing?

A: Almost never. It’s just something I enjoy doing at events, especially now that no one seems to want me for their Draft team anymore.

Q: What were the most broken cards you’ve weeded out?

A: That’s tough to answer. Sometimes we’ll put a card into a set and then an hour later, or a day later, realize our mistake. Do those count as broken cards? Questing Phelddagrif’s green ability was”Return Questing Phelddagrif to your hand” for about a day – that was nutty. Void was 1BR for about an hour. The one that sticks out in my memory, though, was”Paralyze Land.” We were trying to fill out a set and we had art that screamed”enchant land,” so we figured sure: 1B, Enchanted land doesn’t untap unless its controller pays 2. Five minutes later, we realized the mana-engine implications (think Wild Growth) and quickly scrapped that idea!

Q: Conversely, was there a card that was deemed just too damn pathetic to see play? (Can anything be worse than Carnival of Souls? How?)

A: We think it’s good to sometimes print cards that are so bad that people will consider it a challenge to try to find a way to play with them. Carnival of Souls is an excellent example of this – so many people have spent so much time thinking and talking about this card that you can be sure we’re trying to think up the next challenge-rare.

Q: What happens to the proxy”test” cards after you’re done with them (which could be cleverly rephrased as,”Why the heck aren’t we seeing these puppies popping up on eBay)?

A: We shred them (though I sometimes wonder if someone has a secret stash at home in case he ever decides to quit).

Q: And just out of curiosity, who are your favorite internet Magic writers?

A: Eric Taylor and Josh Bennett.

Thanks, Randy!

Signing off,

The Ferrett

[email protected]

Editor, StarCity

* — Look, ma, no footnotes!