Sullivan’s Satchel: Working At WotC, Mutate, And Food

Patrick Sullivan opens the mailbag for questions on his experiences working at Wizards of the Coast, the upside of mutate, and the downside of Food.

Pouncing Shoreshark, illustrated by Dan Scott

Hello, and welcome to this week’s installment of Sullivan’s Satchel. I apologize for the delay in getting this posted, but this past Sunday my family and I were greeted by the arrival of our baby Avelina. I will not be posting any photos for myriad reasons, but I assure you she is the sweetest, cutest baby, and fortunately in contrast to her older brother sleeps more or less through the night. Everyone is doing well, not that you asked.

Magic recently announced a handful of bannings (and I think erasure from Gatherer searches) of some older cards for being racist in nature. They are racist, so I’m not going to argue that point, but I never know how to balance “removing offensive imagery/content” versus “accepting history so we can learn from it.” Maybe the latter just doesn’t apply here; the cards still exist, and so a ban doesn’t amount to a scrub of history. All the cards in question don’t show up in competitive play, and so it’s worth unpacking how much of this is just signal from Wizards of the Coast (WotC) versus an expression of a start of a different approach to a number of internal and external processes and cultures.

My framework for most analysis is class-oriented and so I think banning some cards with gross imagery is fine, not causing any harm, but definitely secondary to hiring and promoting people from under-represented demographics, a place I would hope even WotC could admit it has been deficient over the years. Tone-deaf Tweets and announcements still sprinkle my timeline, and a less homogeneous culture would naturally solve many of these issues, I think. That’s the nature of privilege — you don’t even think about this stuff because what is actually a series of systemic advantages just appears to be “normal” or “natural law,” and just being around people of different backgrounds and experiences is helpful for shaking yourself of the assumed normalcy of your experience. Anywho, you know the drill.

From Andrew Brown:

What is your biggest surprise in terms of expectations of working at WotC?  PS you’re doing great work, keep it up!

Andrew Brown

It’s hard for me to speak to the exact internals of WotC’s culture; I was only in-office for two days before COVID-19 shut down the occasional trip to Seattle. It’s hard to get an exact sense of things when you’re working remotely, so I can only glean what I can from the remote chats and people like Andrew who give me all the dirt.

The biggest surprise is how supportive the environment is. Game design is naturally contentious even if you think everyone is engaging in good faith. The details matter, and compromise often produces worse results than choosing either position being advocated. All of this is amplified with Magic. Millions play, there are billions of dollars of revenue on the line, and getting an opportunity to shape the game is a honor for any game designer. And Magic is still produced physically, meaning you don’t have the out of Hearthstone or Eternal of just adding a mana to something when it goes wrong. The downside risk on mistakes can be enormous.

All of that sounds like a recipe for stress and anger, but Magic’s design team seems so committed to creating a nurturing, supportive environment that I have to assume they hire with that in mind. I’ve never caught a whiff of someone trying to bury someone else for a perceived mistake or even a card getting banned, even in private conversation. I think there are some trade-offs for operating this way, but people do seem happy to come to work and believe they have a support structure to try their best. No studio I’ve ever worked for comes close in valuing morale, support, and harmony. 

I think the sheer volume of stuff each person is tasked with memorizing and organizing is one of the toughest parts of the job and something each person I’ve interacted with seems exceptional at, so I imagine that’s something they actively seek out in their hires, as well.

From @theactualwhat:

What would it take for you personally to play Standard? Bans? Emergency reprints? Assume there’s no upper limit on changes, it’s just personally for you, ASAP (in other words, if given the option of formats it is the one you’d choose).

Standard is my current format of choice. Fires of Invention kind of ruined it for me (just too good and boring), but post-banning I’ve been playing a lot. For reference:

I messed around with Embercleave for a while but hated the post-sideboard matchups almost universally. You have to play four copies of Embercleave plus a ton of cheap creatures to make it work, so there’s no way to sideboard into a different deck. All of your opponents are bringing more cheap interaction to bear, and so trying to make Embercleave work after sideboard is too hard.

This deck is trying to capture enough of the aggressive elements that make red appealing in Game 1 while not being destroyed by a single sweeper or Aether Gust after sideboard. Chandra, Acolyte of Flame is really fun. I think this deck wasn’t competitive against Fires of Invention but now the only explicitly tough matchup is Temur Reclamation; everything else has felt palatable or better.

I’ve also messed around with Mono-Green Creatures of Varying Costs and Quality. In spite of winning about 70% of my matches in Magic Online Leagues I couldn’t imagine playing it in a “real” event. It has its charms though.

From @ThatHawkwardGuy:

Congrats on the new baby! Should I sell out of Magic? I have been turned off since mid-October. Heavily invested player, can build multiple Modern and Legacy decks. I just don’t have faith the game is going to get back to a place I’m not interested in, but that RL isn’t going away so that stuff will only go up in value.

Not much of a finance person, but two thoughts, mostly in conflict with one another, so whatever. First, I think you may be selling at the short-term floor. COVID-19 has introduced both the first systemic threat to physical Magic’s viability along with lots of people needing to dip into “savings” to make ends meet. If you can, I’d hold tight.

The other side: “This stuff only goes up in value because of the RL” is one of those things that sounds true but isn’t. The market on that stuff has dipped a lot of in the last two years, both due to pandemic and due to Bitcoin spikes creating some inflation in collectibles markets (2018 was good for my Magic collection but better for my comic book collection). Don’t bank on perpetual increases in value; maybe growth will be slow, maybe we’ve already crossed the inflation-adjusted ceiling, I don’t really know.

But your question speaks to “I’m not into it” and in that case do whatever you want. Unlocking that kind of money can open up a lot of opportunities or entertainment or whatever. If you think you might get back into it I would hold if you can, as rebuying is an awful spew of resources. But I wouldn’t sell or hold assuming any specific future; it’s a wild time right now and I think speculation is risky business.

Lastly, and our winner of $25 in SCG credit…

From Eric Wong:

What card, mechanic, and/or set design in recent years surprised you the most, positive or negative? That can be competitive viability, design innovation, public reaction, etc.

You get both.

Positive: Mutate. I’ve played Magic for over 25 years, I’m probably one of the Top 1,000 or so players of all time, I’ve designed games professionally for over fifteen years, and I currently work on Magic: The Gathering. When I can’t tell what a mechanic does after reading it a dozen times and having current WotC employs explain it to me in person, I consider that to be a pretty serious strike. But I think the mechanic plays extremely well and isn’t as complicated in practice as it is written down. I’ve played more Ikoria Limited than any set since Magic Origins, and I think Mutate is a big part of it.

Negative: Food. Seems innocuous enough, but I think it’s problematic both in general and in specific execution. I don’t think the game plays well when both players have a few Food tokens, certainly worse than Treasure or Clues, and so it’s tough to saturate at a level to make it “matter” without incurring some gameplay costs. I wish Throne of Eldraine leaned into more sideways forms of making Food matter (“when you gain life,” “when you sacrifice an artifact,” etc.) such that you could combine the cards with other stuff rather than just working with Food. I think you could generate a file where Food was present and net-fun but I think it’s a much more difficult task than any artifact token they’ve made previously or could easily make in the future.

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