I begin a six month internship at Wizards of the Coast in Magic: The Gathering Research and Development on June 23 of this year. This is in every sense a dream job, and I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to help make something that has been such a hugely positive part of my life. However, this will mean the end of my tenure here at StarCityGames. My original plan was to finish my time here with straight strategy articles, but Evan Erwin convinced me that I needed to write something about how I made the internship happen before I rode off into the sunset, especially since a year ago I was just another face in the Magic crowd. This article describes the path I created that led to the internship opportunity, and offers some advice for those who wish to make their own way into Magic R&D.
How I did it
A year ago I decided that I would work at Wizards of the Coast.
I just finished four years at Ohio State, and in each of the three summers between the four academic years I had full-time internships in various fields that didn’t excite me. My happiness is very closely connected to how intellectually engaged I am at any given moment, and those three tastes of what a real job would be like showed me that I was not very good at being motivated to work by money alone. A month into the third summer of this I gave in to the idea that my work would have to be meaningful to me and seriously investigated what things I liked doing, but I never really got past the fact that I really deeply enjoyed playing Magic. This annoyed me until I realized that the obvious answer was that I should work for Wizards.
There were a number of obvious problems with this plan. At the time I was a complete nobody in the Magic world because I wasn’t exceptionally skilled and I didn’t write. I considered myself to be a good player, but I didn’t have any reason to believe that my stature would ever rise to the point where Wizards would consider hiring me. Fortunately, I had just been introduced to Seth Godin and Hugh MacLeod, two marketing bloggers who gave me my solution to the problem of being non-notable: start a blog about Magic. Now I just needed a niche and an audience. I didn’t know where my audience would come from, but I was sold on the idea of having my niche be competitive Magic. It seemed that there weren’t a lot of people out there writing specifically about how to have more success in tournament Magic, and that’s what I was interested in. I would later discover that this was because there wasn’t much demand for that compared to the demand for less serious topics, but thankfully my naivate lasted long enough for me to start building that brand around my name anyway.
As if by divine providence, I happened to play against Richard Hagon on Magic Online two days after I decided to start a blog, and I pumped him for information about how he had gotten his foot in the door with Wizards. He corroborated my impression that writing was a good way to get noticed, and gave me his contact information. My next stroke of luck was the announcement that the 2007 Magic Invitational would use Cube Draft as a format. I immediately e-mailed Rich to offer him my services as a subject matter expert for the Invitational coverage, and I did an interview with him about Cube Draft at the Pro Tour in Valencia that also mentioned my blog at the end. This served the dual purpose of building my brand as a Cube expert further, and promoting my blog to a wider audience.
Almost immediately after the Pro Tour, Craig Stevenson e-mailed me out of nowhere offering me a writing slot on this very site. This was very clearly moving up in the world from writing an obscure blog. I was thrilled, and accepted immediately.
Although the Magic Invitational had showcased Cube Draft, I was completely baffled by the choices that Aaron Forsythe and Paul Sottosanti had made when constructing the Cube that was used there. Aaron was scheduled to be at the 2007 Magic World Championships in New York, so I wielded my newly-minted status as a StarCityGames columnist in a friendly e-mail to get an interview with him about the Invitational Cube’s construction. The end result of the interview is part of this article. However, what you can’t see is that during that interview I did my very best to sell myself to him as someone who thinks and cares deeply about what goes into creating good games of Magic. The article that came out of the interview was also designed for that purpose. Aaron is the head of Magic Research and Development at Wizards, so I think I chose an excellent audience for that message.
Two weeks later, I sent Aaron an e-mail thanking him for his time, linking him to the article, and asking if trading card game jobs at Wizards ever showed up on the job board website. My goal with this was to find out what I eventually needed to do to get in the door when the time came. Instead, I was informed that they were about to start looking for a new six-month development intern, and Aaron invited me to apply for that position to head developer Devin Low with the caveat that normally the position is filled by a Pro Tour player. Undaunted, I ran wrote a cover letter, ran it and my resume past a few close friends, and sent them off. I didn’t expect to win this round, but learning about the process would be invaluable later on so I dove right in.
I don’t feel comfortable giving specific details about the interview process, but I was asked multiple times to produce written work about cards I had never seen before on short deadlines. It was also not clear if an in-person interview would be part of the process. I wanted one, however, so I decided to fly into and out of Seattle for Grand Prix: Vancouver in order to make sure that I could. I planned the trip so that I would get to Seattle at around ten o’clock in the morning, which gave me plenty of time to stop by the Wizards office before driving to Canada that night. This would have been great, but disaster struck that day and I missed a connecting flight that caused my arrival in Seattle to be delayed to seven in the evening on Friday night. Happily, Mike Turian and Matt Place were already planning on visiting the Grand Prix and I ended up doing a live interview in Vancouver on Saturday night with them. The final stage of the process was a pair of phone interviews. In early April, I was offered the internship.
I consider myself very fortunate to be in this position, since I caught so many breaks along the way. I ran into Richard Hagon on Magic Online. Cube was a format at the Invitational. StarCityGames sought me out. There was a Grand Prix two hours away from Seattle. I do not consider myself lucky, however, since I took initiative often and put in a ton of work to make it happen. Fortune favors the bold.
Three days from when you read this, I will begin driving from Cincinnati to Seattle to start the internship. My initial purpose is to find out if game design and development is something I want to do. If it is, my purpose shifts to convincing Wizards that it should pay me for the time I would spend doing it. In that sense, the six month internship is as much of an audition as the rest of the process has been. Nothing is certain, but I will do my best to be hired full time.
How You Could Do It
These are my own personal observations about the things that I believe helped me through the interview process. They are not officially endorsed by Wizards in any way.
1. Play lots of games, including but not limited to Magic.
By far the most important thing for someone who wants to work in the game industry to do is to play a lot of games. On the most basic level, this is a great way to find out if you enjoy playing lots of games, which is exactly what a game industry job entails. If this is not fun for you, your time is better spent on more lucrative pursuits. However, the real prize is a well-developed taste for good games. Taste is a hard thing to define, but it is definitely not subjective and only experience can develop it. Knowing what makes certain kinds of games fun or unfun, not only for you but also for other people, is important so you can craft an experience that appeals to whatever your target audience is. Also, some game mechanics are just better than others and you should be able to recognize that. I don’t know any serious gamers who would argue against the statement that Settlers of Catan is almost strictly better than Monopoly, although that’s a bit of an extreme example. [I think Richard Hagon may have something to say on that score… – Craig.]
I have played all the following games seriously: chess, go, Pokemon TCG, Star Wars CCG by Decipher, Lord of the Rings CCG by Decipher, Ra, Settlers of Catan, hold ’em, gin, bridge, canasta, Starcraft, Quake 4, and Dungeons and Dragons. This became a big deal in my in-person interview. Wizards knew based on my written work that I could hold my own in a conversation about Magic. However, the company makes other games too, and the more useful you can be to the company as a whole the more likely you are to get in the door.
2. Win at Magic.
This is mainly important for prospective developers as a litmus test of your understanding of Magic. If you aren’t good enough to win a PTQ, you probably aren’t good enough to be useful as a developer. Someone in that role needs to be able to immediately identify if a card is way too good or hopelessly unplayable in order to make good decisions about power level adjustments. A possible replacement for actual Pro Tour experience could be winning at some other card game analogous to Magic at a level equivalent to a Pro Tour, but winning at Magic is the best thing to do because then Wizards won’t have to wait while you become acclimated to Magic’s own specific quirks and conventions.
In one of the episodes of The Magic Show from Valencia, Devin described Pro Tour experience as necessary but not sufficient to get someone in the door as a developer. I assumed that he meant years and years of putting up strong finishes at Pro Tours, which motivated my drive at the beginning of this year to get a lot better through the Project Hollywood series and to go to every Grand Prix I had access to. I expected to be working on my game for a long time, most likely in terms of multiple years, so it came as somewhat of a shock that I was offered the internship so quickly. I can only assume that Wizards sees playing on the Pro Tour as being a strong signal that someone has enough of a grasp on power levels to be useful as a developer and is less concerned about the player’s degree of actual success. Therefore, you should not fret if you aren’t a world class player but you still have dreams of getting a TCG development job at Wizards. If you struggle to quality for the Pro Tour then you have some work to do, but I’m by no means a world class player and I got in.
3. Build a personal brand.
Jon Finkel, Evan Erwin, Zvi Mowshowitz, Richard Hagon. Anyone who has been around Magic for a responds immediately to these names. Finkel is the best player ever. Erwin is the Magic Show guy. Zvi is a relentlessly smart writer and player. Hagon is the voice of Magic. We know who these people are. Do we know who you are? Should we?
There are tons of Magic players out there who would love to work for Wizards, and you need to do something to stand out to differentiate yourself from the rest of them. No matter how you happen to stand out, the fact that you have done the work to stand out at all will demonstrate a level of commitment to the game that goes above and beyond that of the average player. Any company wants employees that are committed to what they work on, and hiring someone who is already committed is a very easy way to find someone who is likely to do good work.
The easiest way to stand out quickly is to consciously decide what your brand is, and consistently be that in a public way. For example, Patrick Chapin brands himself as The Innovator, a title that is corny but works for him because he consistently innovates in articles. Stephen Menendian brands himself as the voice of the Vintage community, and he has been writing almost exclusively about Vintage for at least eight years. I intended my brand to be that I wrote about how to get better at tournament Magic in both hard and soft areas, but this led to me writing things that got me characterized as Super Cutthroat Guy Who Is Gigantic Scum. I’m not thrilled that this is what happened, but it definitely gave me name recognition. My other goal was to become the world’s foremost authority on Cube Drafting, which seems to have worked. I’m not the only person who is a Cube authority, but the reputations of both my Cube and me follow me every time I travel for Magic events. I used that angle to get my first live interviews with both Rich Hagon and Aaron Forsythe, and it also gave me material for one of the body paragraphs in the cover letter that I sent with my resume to Devin Low.
It is easiest to build a brand that no one else already has. Evan Erwin and Rich Hagon are both very good at what they do, but they had an easy time at becoming relatively well-known because no one else was doing video or audio Magic content early on. Similarly, it was easy for me to become the Cube Guy because no one else ever tried to be that before, but I don’t know if there’s room for anyone else to do that now that I have already taken that path. Find untrodden ground, and your path to being a someone will be easier.
I originally titled this number “Write,” but people like the aforementioned Erwin and Hagon have clearly demonstrated that there are other ways to make a name for yourself. If you like to write, then write. This is perhaps the easiest path to start on since sites like this one give you readers for free, but that also gives you the lots of competition. If you want to do something else, you’ll be more notable because you’ll have less competition but you’ll probably have to build your audience from scratch.
4. Be employable.
Wizards of the Coast is a subsidiary of Hasbro, which is a Fortune 500 company that exists for the sole purpose of making money. Your chances of getting and keeping a job there are directly proportional to your ability to help them make more money. Therefore, all the standard tests for whether you can make a company money apply. A strong educational background indicates that you can operate in structured environments and you might even be smart, and previous work history indicates that you have successfully made other companies money before. Happily, this is one area that I had on lockdown. I won’t get into the specifics of my resume, but I have done well and been active at Ohio State and I have interned in technical positions at both the IRS and a large insurance company. It always seems that most of the time many of the best Magic players in the world don’t have traditional jobs for whatever reason, so I think my strong work history was a strong competitive advantage that may have compensated for my lack of high-profile Pro Tour success.
One aspect of being employable that is more subtle and that I should have perhaps given more thought to is that personality matters. Wizards is an extremely collaborative work environment, so if the existing employees don’t like you then you probably wouldn’t be a good hire for them. I put myself in a little bit of danger by publishing articles with friendly titles like “No Mercy.” Luckily, the powers that be recognized through the interview process that I am actually not at all like the slimy bastard some of you probably think of me as being. I consider this to be a dodged bullet.
5. Make a Cube. // Make whole sets.
I have a near monopoly on the Cube brand, but any budding developer should still build their own Cube, ideally without looking too hard at anyone else’s. In Magic R&D, developers are given sets by design teams and tasked with adjusting them to make them more fun to play with. As outsiders, we can’t work with raw design files but we can work with cards that already exist. Carefully crafting a cube means taking cards as given and using them to build a coherent and fun play experience, so it’s about as close as you can get to actual Magic development without being able to adjust the actual cards. I learned my development instincts from a combination of Latest Developments articles on the official site and three years of Cube stewardship, but without the Cube work my tastes would not be nearly as refined. Having a Cube also teaches you if you like Magic development or not. I spend a lot of time working to make my Cube more fun for my players, but I love the challenge of crafting an experience and I get a rush from seeing people have fun with something I made. This made me confident that I would enjoy the development internship, which was why I was able to seek it out so powerfully.
If you’re interested in designing as opposed to development, design whole sets instead of individual cards. Creating a unified whole, all of which is interesting and compelling, is much more difficult and interesting than making just as many unconnected cards, but it is also much closer to what Wizards’ designers actually do on a day-to-day basis so it will be much more useful practice.
I am extremely grateful to everyone who helped me get here, including the StarCityGames community and everyone I’ve met through Magic over the years. It’s been fun so far, and I’m excited to transition into a new stage. If this article didn’t have anything for you, I apologize and I’ll be back with strategy next week. I was buzzing with ideas for this and it couldn’t wait. For those of you who have dreamed of working at Wizards, you should have some steps you can take now; everything I’ve experienced so far indicates that I’m about to have a really awesome six months, so I recommend giving it a shot.
Always have fun!