Wednesday, January 10, 2018


Let's get personal.

My dream job for the last 25 years has been: Magic Designer.

I got into Magic during Revised. I even remember thinking before then that Magic (about which I knew nothing true) was some creepy culty thing.

As bad as it was, that set wasn't entirely devoid of value. It included 'planeswalker' cards functionally identical to the vanguard cards that would be revealed that coming Summer alongside the Ice Age prerelease. It probably took a few years for me to accept this coincidence was just a case of Convergent Design.
When I was 15 or so, I made a Magic set and mailed it to Wizards of the Coast. It was terrible, of course. They changed their policy and stopped accepting submissions of any kind between the time I mailed it out and their response.

I've been designing games just for fun since then.

In 2006, Wizards held the first Great Designer Search, an online competition for a job designing Magic, fashioned after single-elimination reality tv shows. I just barely didn't make it past the very tricky multiple choice test that narrowed the competition down by a factor of 10, but I followed along with great interest because the design challenges that followed were super fun and engaging, and the feedback these professionals were giving was terribly illuminating.

That's about the time when I decided to become a professional game designer (as opposed to a film maker or roboticist), and started pouring real time and energy into making games.

Those thousands of cards I'd designed had the educational value of maybe 10 cards critiqued, because humans are just bad at evaluating their own work, especially when doing so socratically instead of empirically, and all the more so when you're just getting started in your field and don't have years of experience and critical feedback to inform your opinions.
In 2010, they held the second Great Designer Search and this time I managed to become a finalist. That was extremely gratifying and exciting for me. I had designed thousands of Magic cards and was sure I'd go far… I was the first of the top 8 to be eliminated. Which was crushing. I made some mistakes that I can't reasonably blame myself for, but the ones I can were over-confidence and not playtesting.

Up to this point, I simply never understood how critically important putting your work in front of other people and getting honest critique is. I'd playtested the games I made with my friends—I wasn't completely ignorant—but I'd never really playtested my Magic designs, and I had yet to reach out to my peers in game design to get rigorous criticism.

Losing galvanized my need to prove my worth as a game designer. The feedback I'd received from the judges was revelatory. I followed along as a spectator/contributor for the rest of the competition, rooting for other finalists and learning what I could.

Goblin Artisans was founded before GDS2 was completed, by contestants, eliminated contestants, and contributors to that contest. We wanted to found a community where folks could talk about Magic design; share cards, ideas, criticism, and feedback; collaborate on design projects; and challenge each other to grow. We've also written a lot for the benefit of Wizards, theory and critique meant to advance the game. I'm super proud of this site, and more grateful to its members than I can express because having my designs critiqued and critiquing others' designs have taught me far more than I ever would have in a lifetime of designing in a bubble; and also because this is a truly lovely community of smart, passionate folks who give of their own time to help one another, and all in a friendly, respectful way you don't see on most Magic sites.

Another big change—the thing to which I attribute my success as a game designer today—was taking my game designs out and playtesting with strangers who would give me real honest feedback and discovering a network of fellow game designers with whom I could trade playtests and feedback.
I've made so many wonderful friends through game design. Here's a secret about the people in this industry: They make for really great friends because they are, almost without exception, smart and fun people who would rather bring joy than make a buck. As much as I want to see tabletop games spread throughout the world and become as big as video games or moves, it is very much the fact that we're small and there's not really any fortune to be made that draws the kinds of people who are more interested in art, craft, fun, and humanity than in money and exploitation.
I met John Moller this way, who would go on to found Unpub, which rapidly became the single most valuable organization for budding game designers. Of all the advice I give to people looking to get into this hobby/profession, my first and most important is, by far, "Get in touch with Unpub and find other game designers in your area." These folks are critical to your development as a game designer, because they will share vital resources with you (like why you shouldn't try to patent your ideas or worry about them being stolen) and challenge you to develop your ability to find, assess, and address problems in games (theirs, yours, and published games).

In 2012, I visited Seattle for the first time. It was a great trip. Seattle is a beautiful place—forested hills and lakes everywhere. I got to visit a cousin and her delightful family. I interviewed for a game design position at Wizards of the Coast. And I went on a Magic cruise.

At the time, Wizards was trying once more to sell Duel Masters in the US, this time as Kaijudo. It's an excellent game, marketed toward a younger audience. I didn't get the job, but they told me to keep applying. Disappointing as that was, I did get to visit Wizards of the Coast. The lobby is where my wife took this blurry picture of me and Shivan Dragon.

I went to dinner with Ethan Fleischer, Ken Nagle, and Shawn Main. (I would visit once more years later and got to meet Jon Loucks too.)

On the cruise, I got to know Matt Tabak, Lee Sharpe, and a few other wizards past and present a little bit. Patrick Chapin wowed my dining table with parlor tricks. Luis Scot Vargas yelled at me for calling him LSV. And I became friends with Shawn Main. These are all cool people, but Shawn hiked with us and I introduced him to Hanabi (using Magic cards). You can read more about the entire trip here and here.

In 2013, Ethan Fleischer reached out to me to read all the 7800+ card text submissions for You Make the Card 4 and narrow that down to the top 200. That was a lot of work, but I'm quite grateful to Ethan for giving me that contract, because I can technically say that I've been paid by Wizards of the Coast to do official design-related work for Magic. I learned a useful skill or two doing that (as well a not useful skill or two). And it was satisfying to know I was a good choice for that work because of the time and energy I've put into years of #WeekendArtChallenges. That doesn't suck.

September of last year, I went to a house con where I just happened to meet Peter Adkinson and got the best email I've ever gotten. Peter is the kind of guy no one could dislike. He's affable and enthusiastic. He ran a game of Burning Wheel for a few of us—an RPG I'd always wanted to try. I asked him if he'd tell me the story of Magic's origin (for what must have been the 300th time in his life) and he did and the story was magical. My favorite part was one I've never heard in a third-party recounting: The moment that Richard came back with the idea of a collectible card game, they were in a car in a parking garage, Richard and Peter and another friend, and they saw such massive potential in this game that they began hooping and hollering. I imagine it felt like winning the lottery, but one where you get to bring a lot of people together to have fun.

Speaking of which, that email I mentioned was from Wizards, explaining that they weren't looking to fill any positions immediately but they'd like to get ahead on the process for possible future positions. Mark Rosewater had named me as one of the people to reach out to. I signed an NDA and took a design test and waited. I didn't hear anything back. For over a year. When GDS3 was announced, I checked in and heard that whole project was scrapped for legal reasons. Womp. Womp. It had been so exciting to hear there might be a place for me in the future, and it was pretty disappointing to hear my 'in' fell apart and to only learn that because the third Great Designer Search was announced.

September of this year, I applied for a game design position for Duel Masters, which is Wizards third largest property despite being marketed to and printed for Japan only. This time, it took them more than a month to decide on someone else, and I learned made their short list. Again, they suggested I keep applying. Frustrating and encouraging.

And now GDS3 is firing up. I could win! Any of us could win. Or I might submit one weak challenge and be the first eliminated again. Or I might misunderstand a quiz question and never get the chance. Don't get me wrong, I feel great about my chances. I'm a much better game designer and Magic designer than I was seven years ago. Muuuch better. I'm just also keenly aware that exist factors beyond my control. And that I'm not infallible. And that I'm nervous. And nervous people make mistakes, as do over-confident people.

Why am I sharing all this?

When I say Magic Design is my dream job, I'm not being poetic.

I've had dreams about being at Wizards of the Coast and meeting Mark Rosewater and getting or interviewing for this job… for decades. Lately, I've had a lot of them. I had one last night. Sometimes, they're ridiculous fantasy: The oldest dream I can remember was Wizards of the Coast being like a shiny corporate Santa's Workshop or Wonka's Chocolate Factory. Sometimes, they're bone dry: Like returning after a lunch break to the conference room where my fellow aspirants and I are taking a design test, and chatting about where we might do dinner. But always—every time—there is that waking realization as the dream ends that, no, that wasn't a memory—that was a dream—and it never happened… nor anything like it. And that reality stings.

I have been doing and continue to do everything I reasonably can to make myself an ideal candidate for this job, but there were years where I convinced myself that being a successful game designer was enough. That it would be nice if that path led to Wizards, but I'd be fine if I never get there. I find joy in making games and continually learning and improving as a designer, and that also happens to be the best thing I can do to make my dream job a reality. But these dreams I'm having make it clear that denying that Magic is my dream—telling myself that being a successful game designer is good enough (even though it really is fulfilling)—is a lie I tell myself to ease the fear that my dream job may never come to pass.

And it might not. But I will own that failure and the pain that comes with it, just as I will own my excitement at the prospect that it still might, and I will own the great effort that I've put into maximizing that possibility. I will even own the choices I've made that decrease my chances (like refusing to move to Seattle just to be close at hand, or like refusing to take a job at Wizards unrelated to game design or development). I'll be okay because I've got a really good thing going, but I won't pretend I'm happy about it.

Because Human, I'm also scared that I might succeed. If I get this job, I have to move across the country. I'll leave my family behind, and so many friends. My game design buddies. My volleyball league, and my improv troupe. Seattle is a beautiful place and I look forward to calling it home, but I'll miss Pennsylvania just the same. Employment with Hasbro will also mean that I can't work on my own designs anymore. I can't continue to build on the name it took me so long to build for myself in board games. Instead of expressing my worldly observations through any form of game I can imagine, I will be limited to doing so through Magic, which—as a product with real goals and a large team and hard deadlines—is a relatively terrible outlet for artistic expression and bleeding edge exploration. And my dream, presumably, will change from earning the best job to trying to keep it, which sounds both easier and more stressful.

I'm sharing all this because these dreams tell me it's too much to hold inside. I don't need anyone in particular to hear my story, but I need someone to. I'm sharing it with you because you are either my friends—and I think you care enough to want to learn one of the things that burns inside me—or because you are like me—you share my dream and will benefit from hearing someone else express what you feel—or both.

Thanks for listening. Maybe now I can get back to dreams where I'm flying badly.


  1. Thanks for sharing this Jay. (Even if it’s hard to hear, since I’m way, way behind where you were!!) It’s a tribute to how hard you’ve worked that you got those opportunities in the first place - persistence is the hardest part about any endeavor. I know it is for me.

    And thanks for making a site like this where we can all get a little closer to that dream, even if it’s probably not going to come true.

    1. See below, but also I want to point out that while I am this site's most prolific writer, I didn't make it alone, and I don't keep it going alone. This community owns Goblin Artisans.

    2. Speaking of which, if any of you ever feel like writing something for the site, please do reach out to any Artisans in Residence. We'd love to have more content.

  2. I'm definitely cheering for you, Jay! And I'm glad that Goblin Artisans has been part of your growth as a designer.

  3. You've done nothing but study game design?

    Seriously, though, you're an inspiration! Your dedication puts me to shame, and your contributions to this blog are a huge part of why I got into custom card design. Of course we all hope to be in the top 8, but if I'm not then I'll totally be supporting and rooting for you!

  4. Wow...

    That's a great article. I think it would be pretty cool to go far in the competition and ideally to win, and I think I have good design ideas (and I've also worked on a non-Magic game design on the side).

    But... your passion and desire for this puts mine to shame. I'll take my best shot, and I hope we both go far, but if we both make it to the end... I kind of hope you beat me. It simply means more to you.

  5. Yeah, that's really moving. Best of luck, I'm pulling for you!

  6. Thank you so much for your kind words and support, everyone! It means a lot.

    I want to clarify that the above is the expression of a single (if profound) emotional truth. It's also true that I don't feel entitled to my dream job, and I don't think my dream is any more valid or important than anyone else's.

    I very strongly want as much of the top 8 to be filled with Artisans as possible, and I hope very much that Artisans win it. I intend to help all of you accomplish that as much as I am able.

  7. Jay,

    Your drive and passion are truly inspiring. I hope for all of our sakes that, like past GDS's, multiple positions are available. It would be amazing to end up working with your fiercest, most respected competitors.

    It's intimidating to see stories like yours. For people like me, who haven't spent nearly the time you have, it's scary to know that we will be competing with people who are much further along their journey of learning design. Intimidating, but inspiring.

    Jay, I hope to see you in the top 8, the top 3, the top 1. I hope to myself right there with you, if I'm the right fit. Thank you for all you've done to support the aspirations of us passionate people.

  8. Jay! I don't know anything about Magic (here via G+) but I just wanted to say thank you so much for sharing your story - it was a thrilling, uplifting read! I really appreciated your honesty and candor. And, like everyone else, I'm inspired by your hard work, dedication and passion for achieving your dream - plus how you've pursued other things in the meantime that have served you well in various ways! Such a great reminder that there are so many ways to measure success. I'm rooting for you!