Talking Paper Interview Series: Mark Rosewater

Photo courtesy of the artist

Photo courtesy of the artist

Mark Rosewater is Head Designer of Magic: The Gathering for Wizards of the Coast, holding that title since 2003. He has been involved with the creative direction of the popular card game for 21 years and during that time has been involved with the creation of 14,000 unique cards. He regularly shares his experiences and advice about the game within an ongoing blog called Making Magic while also producing a behind-the-scenes photo comic series about the game's production called Tales From the Pit. He recently spoke with Nomadic Press about his literary influences, Magic's new Shadows Over Innistrad expansion set, and his collaborations with previous Talking Paper subject Nathaniel Holt for the Magic-themed video series Walking the Planes

On His Reading Habits

"A lot of breakthroughs happen when people cross-pollinate different fields of study."

I definitely try to do as much reading as I can. I actually enjoy reading nonfiction a little more than fiction. I’m very fascinated by learning about things. I'm also an avid comic reader, so a lot of my fictional needs get addressed by that. I read a lot of different comics. When I read books, I read some fiction, but I definitely read a lot more nonfiction. For some reason, creatively, I find learning about different things helps me a lot in just thinking about things in different ways. So that is one of my little creative things. I talk a lot about creativity. I’ve written a bunch of articles on it. My take on creativity is that it's really the ability to find connections between things that most people don’t see connections between. I’ve done a lot of reading on creativity, and one of the things I talk about is the importance of cross-disciplinary things — that a lot of big breakthroughs happen when you take one discipline and go to a different meaning. Like a scientist that studies biology goes to a chemistry thing, and they come with a biology mindset, and so they look at chemistry in a different way. A lot of breakthroughs happen when people cross-pollinate different fields of study. 

So I take the same approach for writing. For me, the more different ways I can think about things, the more I can approach things in different ways. So I really like nonfiction to sort of say, "Here’s how we study this problem. Here’s how we approach this thing." And I find that that really gives me new and interesting ways to approach problems. Like saying, “How did neurologists study this brain issue? How did language pathologists study this language issue? How did sociologists study this?" I’m very fascinated to see how different people study different kinds of problems, so that when I am facing a problem I can have lots of different kinds of approaches. I think that’s really valuable.

On Fantasy Vs. Science Fiction

I work in a fantasy medium, but growing up I was, and still am, very much into science fiction and not fantasy. I’ve read some fantasy. I’ve read Lord of the Rings and other stuff. I have read way more science fiction than I have read fantasy, and my secret belief is that Magic, while it has the trappings of fantasy, is secretly, from a story structure standpoint, much more a science fiction medium. To me, the big difference between science fiction and fantasy is that science fiction is more about "What if" and fantasy is more a take on morality, and I think Magic is much more the former. Magic is really a "What if" game. Like, "We’re going to go to a world and see something's changed, and let’s examine it." A world where creatures are made of metal; it’s a gothic horror world; it’s a Greek mythology world. We are always thinking, "What if," and then sort of taking Magic’s filter and applying it to the premise.

So I think a lot of my background is much deeper in science fiction, and that sort of exploration of the "What if." I think that has actually been very valuable to me on Magic. Not that I’ve read zero fantasy, but fantasy is not where I go to for my genre reading. I much prefer reading science fiction and so that speaks a lot to how I approach the game.

On Influential Sci-Fi Authors

Philip K. Dick was one of the more influential for me. He plays a lot with identity. I love his take on reframing what the situation is, the character that doesn’t know that he’s doing something. I really enjoyed a lot of Philip K. Dick's stuff. He probably was the one who shaped me the most. Robert Heinlein, I love. Ray Bradbury, I love. I’m really into time travel, so The Time Traveler's Wife—over the last ten years, that's the book that's really had the strongest impact on me. 

Literary Inspirations for Shadows Over Innistrad

Image courtesy of Wizards of the Coast

Early on, when we did the original Innistrad, we were looking at Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker and the classic stuff. For Shadows Over Innistrad, we were definitely looking at the more cosmic horror end of the spectrum, like Lovecraft. I really think that the core of Innistrad has always been a lot of 18th century / 19th century early take on horror. I think that’s a lot of the stuff we're looking at. Not the modern twist on horror. We were thinking a more gentile take on horror. That’s more horror as trying to understand society’s problems. I think modern horror's got a lot of more introspective—a lot more interpersonal—stuff. Whereas a lot of the stuff we were looking at was more Victorian stuff, was more societal horror, more about the flaw in the system of society, and less about internal flaws.

What happens is, whenever we go to a particular style of thing, we'll read stuff that’s in that style. We’ll read gothic horror when we’re doing horror, we’ll read Greek mythology when we’re doing mythology. Some sets are really tied into what we're reading. Innistrad is gothic horror, so clearly we're going to go read gothic horror. Theros is Greek mythology, so we're going to go read Greek mythology. Something like Khans of Tarkir, where we had sort of an Asian influence, there are a lot of different influences. Like the Jeskai was more like Shaolin monks, where something like the Mardu was more Mongolian. So we would look at different source material to find different things. I know that the writers, for example, each time they’re trying to do something, they will look at writing in the style that they are trying to capture.

"I always want to have some different starting point, some different vantage, so that I’m just asking myself different questions."

Because I am more in charge of the design of the game and less in the design of the story, a lot of times my inspiration won’t necessarily be the same source material as much as I am looking for what is an interesting take. Like I said with my nonfiction, I often like to think, “OK, what’s an interesting take on this? How can I approach this problem in a unique way?” So talking about how I function creatively, I’m working on my 25th lead on a Magic set (or something crazy—I’ve done a lot of them), I always want to start from a place I’ve never started before. That’s my big thing to be creative. So one of the things I've done a lot is I’ve read a lot on neuropsychology. One of the things that they teach you, if you do the reading, is the way the brain works is when you figure how to do something, your brain remembers that. Then the next time you do the same thing, your brain's like, “I got it,” and it uses the exact same neural pathways. Because the idea is, "Why reinvent the wheel?" If you figure out how to do something, your brain goes, "OK." Normally, that’s great. You don’t want to relearn things every time you want to do something. But when you're trying to be creative, the problem is if you approach from the same direction, you get the same answers. You go past the same neural pathways and you end up in the same place. So what I’ve discovered the big trick for me is, I always want to have some different starting point, some different vantage, so that I’m just asking myself different questions. I want to use different neural pathways. The big trick there is just, "Don’t ask a question I've asked before. Approach it differently." 

A lot of times we’re doing new worlds, and the new world has a completely new vantage point. But when we're returning to worlds like Shadows over Innistrad, we’re like, “How do we approach Shadows Over Innistrad differently than how we approached Innistrad?” Because I don’t want to just recreate Innistrad. So for example, Shadows, we ended up having more of a madness theme and a mystery theme, like the world was slowly going crazy. Originally, we did sort of traditional gothic horror, and this time we were doing more cosmic gothic horror—more people are going crazy. So that was a very different way to approach it.

In the original Innistrad, I tried to scare the audience. I wanted suspense. We had all these monsters, and I was trying to make them act like they normally act. Like, "You know what a zombie is. What would a zombie act like? How would you expect zombies to play? And how is that different from how vampires play, or how ghosts play, or how werewolves play?" We were trying to capture that. This time, it was a little more like, "OK, we want a flavor of madness to it. What does a mad vampire look like? What does a mad zombie look like?" We asked those questions, and that way we built on what we did before. So the vampires had certain colors, but now that some of the vampires are going mad we've got to add an element that we didn’t do last time. So we have different vampires from before. So the way that Shadows Over Innistrad has allowed us to re-invent Innistrad is we had a different land to look through. Because when I was making Innistrad, my question for the vampires was, "How do vampires act? What does my audience expect of vampires? What are the tropes of vampires that people expect?" And then I built the vampires to act vampire-y, if you will.

Image courtesy of Wizards of the Coast

So with Shadows, I was like, "OK, now I have a new lens. Everyone’s going mad. OK, what are mad vampires like?" So I’m just doing something different. I’m building vampires in a different way. Vampires in Shadows Over Innistrad, for example—we had the madness mechanic. We decided to focus it in the vampire colors. So literally, the madness mechanics were very interlinked. If you're building a vampire deck, you’re making use of madness, and we're playing into the theme of, "Guess who’s going crazy? The vampires are going really crazy."

On Early Magic Cards with Literary Quotes

In the very first version of the game, some of the flavor text was brand new. We made it up like, “Hey, let me tell you about the grizzly bear,” or whatever. Some of it was quotes from classical literature. From a business standpoint, they had to be in public domain. So they were long-enough ago that they were public domain quotes. We weren’t quoting modern bands or anything. We were quoting poets who had been dead for 200 years. We eventually decided that we wanted to start doing some world building, that we wanted to do more storytelling. So we made the decision to say, "What we are going to do is, in expansions we’re going to tell our story. The flavor text is going to be used to tell our story. But in the core sets (at the time it was bi-yearly, and then we eventually went yearly), those sets we can do some classic literature stuff." Then what happened was, over the years, we slowly phased out the core sets, and we do the expansions. We’ve really ramped up our storytelling. We’ve done a lot in the last couple of years to really notch it up more than we have. We tell online stories now. We used to do novels, and you had to go read the novel. But now we do short stories that are online, that are free. And because they are short stories, we can jump around more and have more different characters. But we tell the story online every week. Magic online fiction is what we call it. Once we moved to that system, where it was just free and available every week, and bite size-y, it went to the number one read thing on our website by far now.

"I believe that Magic at its core, archetypically, is very much like a superhero."

We put together a team of planeswalkers. The premise of the game is you, the person playing the game, are what's called a planeswalker, and the idea is there’s a multiverse. There’s all these different worlds and the average person doesn’t know that. All they know is the world that they live on. But there’s these people called planeswalkers that have the ability to walk between worlds, and you as the game player are one of these planeswalkers. And planeswalkers have powerful magical abilities, and as you go to different worlds you pick up different creatures that you can summon and spells that you learn. So each year, each block, we go to a different world. We go to two blocks each year. Then each world is different. The gothic horror world has monsters and werewolves and vampires. But the Greek mythology world has hydras and medusas, and more Greek mythology types of things. The idea is that our planeswalkers are like the main characters. So what we did recently is, we had a bunch of them team up and say, "OK, we're going to sort of bind together to try to do right by the multiverse. There are threats to the multiverse that the average person can’t see because they don’t even understand there’s a multiverse. But we can see it. We’re planeswalkers so we put together a team to do good, if you will."

I believe that Magic at its core, archetypically, is very much like a superhero. These are people who, when they come of age, usually through some traumatic event. You don’t know you’re a planeswalker until you have a traumatic event and you planeswalk for the first time. It’s called "sparking." You end up in a different world. It’s pretty disorienting because you didn’t at any point know there were other worlds, and all of a sudden you are on another world. But planeswalkers  the way we used to tell the stories is we'd just jump around and tell stories of different planeswalkers. But we wanted to have a more cohesive story, wanted a more ongoing story. So in order to do that, we had to bring some of our main characters together. So the last block, they officially became a team called The Gatewatch. One of the members of the team was trying to find somebody, so he came to Shadows Over Innistrad and got caught up in this mystery, and the rest of the team is going to come along eventually. A lot of what we are trying to do is make a more ongoing story, and we are trying to use our short stories so the audience can get more invested, and it is working like gangbusters. The interest in the story has never ever been higher. It is the most-read thing on the website. Like three times the next most-read thing on our website. People are really, really getting into the story. 

On-Paper Magic in the Digital Age

". . . in this age of screens, and people interacting so much through the screen, having the ability to interface with someone face to face has become actually a big selling point of our game."

For many years we had the belief, "We've got to get online. That’s the future. Online is the future." There’s Magic online and Magic duals. There's ways to play Magic digitally. But what we started realizing over the years was one of the things that separated us was that we were one of the few big games that was tactile. You actually sit down opposite other people. And that in this age of screens, and people interacting so much through the screen, having the ability to interface with someone face to face has become actually a big selling point of our game. For years we were like, "The downside is we're not digital." What we finally realized is, "While it's important to have a digital component, and we want people who want to play that way to play that way, the game at its heart is a physical game. When you play a game of Magic, you actually are face to face with the person you are playing with. They are not through a screen. You are not just hearing a voice. You are actually interacting with them on a personal level. What we have found is that that’s a big part of what Magic is. 

There’s been a big resurgence recently in tabletop gaming because I think that there’s so much interaction through the screen through the digital age, that people really are just desperately seeking in-person communication and contact. A big part of Magic is we run tournaments, and you can play at home on your kitchen table with your friends, or you can go to a store, or go to events and play with other people. That’s become a big part of it. The tactility of it, the interpersonal nature of it, is a big, big part of what makes Magic successful. We are one of the few games of our size that aren’t digital. If you look at the top-selling games right now, it’s digital game, digital game, digital game, digital game . . . Magic. We really are kind of alone among a sea of digital games. 

I actually like that a lot about our game in that part of playing Magic is interacting with other people. There’s a lot of neat reactions you get person to person that I think people are starting to realize that they are missing. That in this digital age, where you are texting every two seconds, that it is nice to actually be with somebody and experience something together. That is a big part of what makes Magic Magic. That’s why when people keep saying, "Are you going to phase out the paper part of your game?" I’m like, “No, no, that’s the heart of our game.” The paper part is the heart of our game. If you want to play digitally, we’ll let you do that. But I really think that the heart and soul of our game is we are a game where you sit down and you actually play with somebody face to face. You get to see them react. You get a person responding in a way that they just can’t on a screen. 

On Walking the Planes

Nate and Shawn—the first film they ever made, they did completely on their own. We had a Pro Tour in Philadelphia, which is their hometown, and they just made it. Nate was really the Magic player. Shawn wasn’t even a Magic player at the time. And they made this video and people really liked it. So they decided that they wanted to go to Worlds in San Francisco, so they started a Kickstarter to get there and they raised money. So I found out that they were coming and I really liked what they had done in Philadelphia. So I called them up and said, “Nate, this is Mark Rosewater.” He was a Magic player so he knew who I was, and I said, “I would love to be involved with this.” And Nate was like, “Oh, that's great. We would love to interview you." And I go, "Nate, I’m more than happy to interview with you. But I’m willing to go beyond an interview. We can do something more fun.” And he’s like, “Really?” I go, “Yeah." And he goes, "Well, let me think about it.” So he calls me back and he goes, “Can you sing? I have a neat idea for a Willie Wonka thing.” And I said to him, “I can’t sing, but I like the way you're thinking.”

So the skit we ended up doing, which you can go and watch online—Nate interviews me, and then at the end he goes, “So, I hear you’re not that good. As Magic players go, you're pretty bad." I go, "Well, I'm not as good as some of the R&D and pro people, but I'm pretty good. I’ve been playing a long time." So we see us playing a game of Magic. Then I beat him at a game of Magic, and I start laughing maniacally. So he goes, “Another game?” I go, “Sure.” He goes, “My pick?” I go, “Fine,” and you cut, and we're on a basketball court. Nate is over six feet tall and I’m 5’5”, so he is almost a foot taller than me. So we're going to play basketball, and then through the power of video editing I beat him at basketball.

Then basically Wizards said, “You know what? We want to make this a regular thing after the worlds.” The worlds was something they did, but we signed them up to start doing Walking the Planes. So I said to Nate, “Whenever we are in the same city, I am more than happy to do videos.” So I've probably been on maybe five or six Walking The Planes, and the relationship Nate and I joke we have is a Spy vs. Spy relationship where we are just natural enemies. We square off against each other, somebody always gets the upper hand, and it just varies from video to video. My favorite one we did is a parody of the battle of wits scene from The Princess Bride with the poison, except we are playing battle of wits decks, because Battle of Wits is a card in Magic, and they are giant decks. So we recreate this scene but with Magic dialogue. It took us a whole day to shoot it. I’ve done a whole bunch of shooting with them. It’s fun. My background  I actually used to do a lot of acting and improv, so I don’t get to stretch those muscles much. Nate is always a blast.

On His Favorite Comic Book

InvincibleRobert Kirkman, the guy who does The Walking Dead, does a superhero comic. But it’s very meta. He is very, very willing to change the status quo, and it started from one place and it's just radically changed over the years. But it's well-written and it's probably my favorite pet comic. I read a lot of comics, though. In fact, right now is the perfect time to be a comics fan because there's just comics stuff everywhere.

On Tales from the Pit

There was an app on the iPhone called Halftone, and it allows you to turn things into comics. Originally, I just made one or two of them because I was using the app and I thought it was funny, and I have a lot of followers on Twitter. So I was like, “Hey guys, I made a little comic.” It was just kind of a one-off thing, and then the next day I made another one because it was just entertaining to do. Then after a couple days of doing that I’m like, "I can do this every day. It’s not that hard. It requires five minutes to do." So I named it, and then I just started doing it every weekday. Then I actually started a Tumblr to post my comics. My blog started because it said, "Are you willing to answer questions?" and I said, "Yes." Then it turned into a whole different thing. But the thing I like about my comic is, I’m working with social media. 

One of my jobs is being a spokesperson, and one of the things that I’ve been trying to figure out how to do is I want to make more different kinds of content, and I was really interested in making something visual that can be retweeted and re-blogged. I like a lot the idea of a singular image that I thought was very compelling. What I found was, as I played around with it, there was actually a lot of potential to do a lot of different things. I've always secretly wanted to make a comic strip  I just can’t draw. So this was like, "Oh, I can take pictures and put bubbles on things. I can do that." So I've had a lot of fun. In fact, I started doing this thing where we have these little Funko figures, which are little dolls, and I started doing this little sitcom with the Magic characters that become insanely popular. I call it Sparks, my take on Friends. It’s a little sitcom where I make them do jokes and stuff. I just do a lot of different things. 

"Having a deadline forces me to make something. I feel that when I put myself on a deadline I will make things that I might not otherwise make just because the pressure to do something will make me have to come up with something."

This week I’m making comics about the color pie, trying to show how the colors like different things. So it just became this little thing that people responded to really well, and as a creative person I love the challenge of every morning, I'm like, "OK, make a comic. I've got to make a comic." Having a deadline forces me to make something. I feel that when I put myself on a deadline I will make things that I might not otherwise make just because the pressure to do something will make me have to come up with something. I come up with a lot of things I think are really fun that I don’t know if I didn’t push myself I would get there. Today, I did my 1,278th comic. So it's some way to charge myself creatively and the audience has responded really, really well. It’s funny because I can see how much things get re-blogged and so I’m slowly learning what are the comics that people really love. They love the little figures. That’s their favorite thing by far. But I do a lot of R&D jokes, where I'll take pictures of R&D, and I’ll take pictures of our Magic art and I’ll make jokes about Magic art. And they love puns, that’s another one.