By: hamtastic, Erik Friborg
Nov 11 2009 11:42pm
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For those of you that are unaware, Erik Lauer is one of the members of the Wizards of the Coast Research and Development team and if you've enjoyed Magic 2010, Conflux or Alara Reborn you've seen his work in action.  This interview is by far the longest (over 3500 words so far) and doesn't even have everything from the audio... I spent more time with Erik than any other Wizards person last week (beside Mike and/or Marcella), and I must admit that this was an amazingly fun interview session.  Such great topics as Erik beating Flores with old janky cards, the exact length of a Doom Blade and others.  I must thank Erik Lauer for his and for being a great interviewee and competitor during the Community Cup itself.  It was an honor to play against him and an honor to have spent so much time with him.  I hope you all enjoy this last (for now?) interview spawned by this event!


EF: Design of M10 compared to previous core sets
EL Magic 2010 was designed specifically to make blue look unappealing to people at first, but then they'd learn that Merfolk Looter was a really great card.  We gave Red Lightning Bolt, Black got Doom Blade... what did Blue get?  Merfolk Looter.  Actually, Aaron Forsythe has on his wall the first actual M10 Lightning Bolt he cast and the Merfolk Looter it killed of Randy Buehler's.  Then we go from there where slow cards were good to Zendikar.  Where cards that would have been powerful in Magic 2010 but in this format, they're not as it is much more aggressive.  And there are hidden gems... I don't think everyone at first thought that a 2/2 for three with "Landfall: Gain two life" would be a good card to run, but in a fast format the fact you can get in for two while gaining two life is actually pretty good.  It changes the race situation completely.  It's a format where some cards that have not been good enough in the past are good enough to run now.  There was a draft in play testing where I had a heavy black draft with the card that would become Crypt Ripper, and I wound up running Mindless Nulls to fill out the 22nd card.  Sure, he's not great but he gets in for two and it's not a format that has a lot of blocking anyway.

EF: What about cards that are worse than before, but still playable?
EL: Cards that are worse but still playable is something we've been doing for a while.  We went to Volcanic Hammer, and Incinerate and then to Lightning Bolt.  I think people wwere surprised when Lightning Bolt was announced.

EF: Yeah... Lightning Bolt, that was one that really surprised the community.
EL: We made a poster showing a lightning bolt, but "it's not lightning bolt!" people said.  It showed that people really did not believe the card could be Lightning Bolt.

EF: Speaking of Core Sets, is M11 finalized?
EL: It's close.  We will definitely be looking at Worlds results.  We'll keep an eye on that for anything that might need to change.  We try to make sure we have answers for pretty much everything, although Faeries went a little longer than we would have liked.  That's one of the fun things about Magic is that things are constantly changing.  But other than that we're just putting on the finishing touches.

EF: 2010 Was very different from 10th, will that trend continue?
Magic 2011 will not be a huge change from M10 but there will be not as many 'newly named' cards in 2011.  There are still some since we have to change things to fit into Dominaria which is where the Core Set takes place. 10th was just a step over 9th but Magic 2010 was a huge change from 10th.  Magic 2011 will be more like 10th was to 9th.  A step up, but it will not be that huge of a change from M10.  There's really no way to make the next core set as big of a change from Magic 2010, and it's not a great idea to, as Magic 2010 was very well received.

EF: A little to well received, actually.
EF: Yeah, that was a little embarrassing.  We were happy to have such demand but it's not good when people just can't find their cards.  Magic 2011 will be close to Magic 2010's complexity level but still below an Expert Set. Previous Core's were more fitting if you did play but stopped, and it would help you catch up from the past four years or so.  You'll find new stuff, new cards in Magic 2011.

EF: Are there any other Magic online specific pieces do you work with?
EL: Besides the 'core' stuff of Zendikar, I was the lead of 2010, and worked on Alara Reborn and Conflux.  I also developed Jace vs Chandra and Garruk vs. Liliana.  I also help maintain the Banned and Restricted lists for the Online formats.  We look at what the people in the community want, and for some formats we sometimes lean on what's done in paper like for 100 Card Singleton.  And there's a group that call themselves "Highlander Magic" from the shows and movies.  But of course we're not going to call them that.  And by the way the first movie is excellent.

EF: But the second movie doesn't exist...
EL: Yes... not the second one.
EL: We look at the paper versions but we don't exactly mirror them as there are card pool differences.  We loosely follow them.  If we have to choose between two cards and it's a close call, we'll tend to mirror those but it's a case by case decision.  Some of the paper format banning decisions are based more on social pressures, like if something gets too annoying.  But on MTGO there really isn't that issue for tournaments.  Like in a four round tournament or a weekend challenge.  I mean, they might say "we want to have Demonic Tutor"... and that was an unfortunate situation.  We ban on the 20th of every month, and independently the release for the Divine vs Demonic Duel Deck got bumped ahead of our ban announcement.  We thought we had time but we do pick cards like that.  Cards that will make combo too powerful, like Demonic Tutor or Gifts Ungiven and cards like that.  So what we do is try to find what does win, and if we see the cards that we expect like Gifts Ungiven.  We try to mirror those in 100 Card Singleton and Prismatic.  And of course our Commander lists are currently tightly linked to the EDH lists.  We also look at the current Tribal lists we have and look at the results.  We know it can be frustrating if people want things banned or restricted.  We look at the data and then we wait an extra month.  And as we announce on the 20th which then takes place a week or so after that, it sometimes feels like we're not responding fast enough but we like to give the format time to adjust.  I think it's correct to be a little more patient than perhaps some people would want.

EF: Sort of to allow the metagame to shake itself out, like with Necro?
EL: It could have been restricted right off the bat.  We definitely knew it was going to break eventually.  We also experimented with it to see how many people would be drawn to Classic that had a card that they could break.  Or how many would be attracted to a format because they used to play Necropotence and thought that it's too bad we banned it in the past and wanted to play with it again.  So we gave it a little while, and we were sure that they would eventually figure out that that was just *way* too many cards for the mana.  We were hoping that it would last until MED3, which would have had Black Vise which would have punished the Necro player and kept them a little more honest.  Three damage per turn starting on turn 1, that's pretty good.  But it really was not meant to be and games were ending on turn one.

EL: We're also doing the Client Redesign, and I try to give an R&D perspective.  We're all about making sure that any space that's not for playing cards is highly minimized and used efficiently.  Some people think it looks a bit too bland, but generally they aren't Magic players.  Magic players know that the cards, and the play area is both the game and the beauty of the game.  And the new client is very exciting in terms of how it uses space and hides things that you don't need to use all the time.

EF: Like the expanding mana pool.
EL: Exactly.  The pop-up the mana pool makes so much more sense.  I mean, it's something you rarely care about in paper until it's being used and this makes it much more obvious that something has happened.  Instead of colored digit on top of a colored background changing, the whole pool appears so you know they're floating something.

EF: Also, it should help with special mana like snow/doubled/engineer mana that has restrictions.
EL: Yes.  That would be so much better.  Some of this will require some game server changes.  I remember I was trying to cast something using Boseiju, and it was trying to put it into a Signet.  You should be able to control those things.

EL: This time, we've learned that we need much better communications between the people building it and the people who play a lot of Magic Online.  Last time it was basically in Beta getting ready to release and some members in R&D, myself included, were like "there's no play space".  The card play zone was too small.  The UI was pretty in its way, but that's not what we should be focusing on.

EF: Yes, the new client is way more efficient with its space.  You can pull pretty much everything to minimized and it's just the play area in game.
EL: Yeah.  I was a little concerned about the horizontal stack; I wasn't confident about that.  But as I started using it I realized that it actually worked.  Also, being able to see the difference of what's on the stack depending it is, if it's a spell or an ability.  They tried a little of that in the current client but all you can really see is the frame.  The definitely experimented with things.  Like stacked diagonal lands.  If you think about it, the next row needs to be up a lot more to fit.   Stacking them diagonally looks a little more 'normal', but if we tile them horizontally that will allow a lot more room for everything else.  You don't spend a lot of time looking at your land, and you can always zoom in/out if you want to.  We went through a lot of 'how can you make the things that you want to look at have as much space as possible'.  There was a lot of "do you need this?".  We did this with the game log.  We found that very few people use the game log.  They're not generally chatting with their friends while we're doing this exact testing.  I mean, you get what you test for, but that's not the same way that our players use it under normal circumstances.  There are no friends chatting during games, they're not checking their DVR's, they're just doing what you ask them to do.  The logs are there, it's one click away, but it's not there all the time taking up screen real estate.

EL: I'm also a liaison between R&D and MTGO.  One example is that someone wanted to code the "Basic Land Suggest Button" and ask me what I thought.  I offered to build them a better algorithm and the said "no, no, you're going the wrong way... do you feel that this is cheating?".  (author's note; 54 Swamps, obv).  Because in paper, no one can give you a hand.  But this is video game medium and it can do some things for you.  I'm certainly not sitting there shuffling my deck, and if you made me, I'd say you're an idiot.  So I asked around and got more feedback and they all loved the idea.  And for most experience players you're just saving a few key clicks.  But the math is not exactly right but it's within a couple of lands and will save you some time.  But for the new player who may have gotten their swamps and islands mixed up this will be a much better experience.  If you're an experienced player and you think the new player will beat you now that he's not getting his islands and swamps wrong.  What are you looking for here?  Definitely we ask things that are on the borderline.  How much of this is the video game and how much of this is Magic the Gathering and how much computer automation is correct?  I try to bridge that discussion.

EL: It's the question of trying to have options.  For example there's an option to have the card name turn green when you can play it.  Some of that is too distracting to people who primarily play paper, and we like to give some options.  For some companies, like Blizzard there are infinite mods, and we sort of said that at a certain point it gets too hard the few options that you want.  And maybe at some point we can reach a point where you can just download from your friend and get access to the thousands of options.

EL: It definitely is a question about how much automation do you want.  You have to be careful with online as if you rely on it too much when you play paper you'll miss triggers.  But there's also an opposite effect.  I find that the level of rules knowledge of the game has increased incredibly thanks to Magic Online.  It occasionally gets it wrong, but from the early Pro Tour, if you look at where judging was before Magic Online I belive that Magic Online now on a typical day Magic Online is giving me better rulings than judges did during the old Pro Tours.  Of course humans learn from Magic Online, so now they're even better.  I think it has totally raised the bar on how well people understand the rules.

EL: I knew when M10 was coming out that people were going to complain about us taking damage off the stack, but it was really hard to explain what it was like before Sixth.  People would ask "You didn't have damage on the stack?" and my answer was "We didn't HAVE stack!".  Only interrupts used the stack, and then people would ask "what's an interrupt?".  Things have changed so much.   It definitely does make a difference, and it opens up choices.  Like the typical question of Savannah Lions versus Sakura-Tribe Elder.  Before there was only one right play but now it makes you decide which outcome is better.   Before it was a choice of "A, B, or both A and B".  It was memorizing the phrase "damage on the stack?".  We make a lot of changes that effect both Magic Paper and Magic Online.  One of the things are 'ability' cards in development is if something should be a 'may' ability or a 'mandatory' ability.  And this actually came up in the last Pro Tour.  The Angel came into play, and it's supposed to destroy a permanent.  One player thinks "oh, that's a may" because my opponent isn't doing it.  So that's the case for making things 'may'. The whole issue goes away if you make it may.  But on MTGO if we make it a 'may' it ALWAYS asks you.  I'm hoping with the redesign to get an 'always' button beneath the ability.  Maybe you have to do it at the beginning of each game, if you want it to be always.  And of course have the ability to turn off the 'always' on the fly.  So we have to decide between making it a 'may' or an 'always' because the 'always is better for Magic Online.  In Duels of the Planeswalkers, you just gain the life from the 'lucky charms' (Dragon's Claw et al).  Because it's not much fun to move the controller and select 'okay'.  But in paper Magic you're supposed to say "You forgot to blow up my land so I can't cast my Angel next turn".  That's not very fun.  Not to mention the fact, now, we have sort of a weird result.

EF: Any potential for the Astral Cards on MTGO?
EL: We have discussed an 'unline' set, which is an Unset for Online.  Of course right now we're just catching up with old sets.  We'll eventually have to get Masques.  I'm sure every one is waiting with baited breath for that one.

EF: I can't wait.  I have my calendar marked for "Masques Day!".
EL: But, yeah, we do have plans in the future to discuss an un set for MTGO.  We obviously can't commit to anything this far out because it's way too many years in advance, but we plan to explore how much room is there for stuff which computers can do that would take away from a paper card game.   Things like random effects and dice rolling which aren't great for paper events.

EL: Right now, stability and the new client are the top priorities.  After that there are all sorts of things like Leagues, Cube drafts, etc that are things on many of wish lists.  I would love to Cube Draft.

EF: A lot of people would love to Cube Draft.
EL: We're trying to make a thin client and a more stable server.  Which is boring compared to the alternatives but both are far more important.

EF: Without those it doesn't matter what cool things we have.
EL: People have fortunately forgotten what the waining days of 2.5 were like and how bad the last few release events were.

EF: Like MED1 and Lorwyn.
EL: Yes!  We had to alternate days of playing Draft to try to keep the server's up.  It was crashing multiple times per weekend...  I'm glad they've forgotten but things have gotten better in that regards.
EL: I see people say: "You made V3, it's not very good, why should we trust that the next one will be better?"  which is a fair question, but not really fair to the people who are working on it now.  They weren't even here for V3, nor were they the people who made V3.  My biggest problem was that there wasn't another server where I could go play after the first server went down.  I remember the thread we had to restart every few months because it got too big that was about the server's status.

EL: Things could always be better, but V3 is certainly better than the previous version for stability.  Customers have a right to complain and we listen to the complaints.  A big thing that people forget is that online there are people who don't play Magic Online for the same reason as you do.  There are drafters, hardcore players, ultra-casual play, multiplayer, and all sorts of things.  And when we made planeswalkers we thought about how they'd play in all sorts of games.

EF: I've noticed a lot of multiplayer specific cards that say "Target player does x", or "Target player draws a card", or that type of thing.
EL: Right, we definitely think abou that.  In core set we tend to do card draw more like Divination where you just draw them.  We do that to avoid questions when teaching a new player.  To avoid questions like "What does it mean 'target player, why wouldn't I just target myself?'".  But we definitely think out card draw.  Like (Mindspring) we definitely thought out.  We used to have Braingeyser and we had to decide if it was more fun to have to run a dedicated kill card in a combo deck or if it was better to have just a pure deck where your card drawer was also the kill.  I guess some of us who played those decks felt that having a card that doesn't fit in other than to win you the game... you know that trivial little part.  It actually makes your deck have a little more variety in the play, and you have to think a little bit more about the deck construction.

EF: For many the deck building is the most fun part of the game.
EL: It really is, it allows you to express what you love to play.  For some people they just want the deck with the highest win percentages.  But even then, many understand that you have to tweak and tune it to your style or change it to what they like.

EL: I guess some people don't understand is that we try to plan for the worst.  Sometimes we fail, but that's what we try for.  We've never had a sealed tournament with more than 512 people, and we weren't going to try and start that with the PTQ's, that would be a bad time.  There was so much we didn't know, will there be two hundred players?  Seven hundred?  Who knows?  So we had to figure out how to approach it if we did have more than 512 people.  Unfortunately that makes it a little long.  Some people wondered why we didn't just make one big tournament?  Because we didn't know exactly where the number is that's safe.  We have had some events that didn't work because of too many people, and we didn't think that the PTQ was the right place to test it.  So generally if there's a strange decision that we've made it's usually done for a reason.  Sometimes things look worse than they are, but there are reasons.


I then just chatted with Erik Lauer about random Magic-y things.  Which is beyond cool.  I mean, just sitting around and hanging out with Erik Lauer, Mark Gottlieb, Aaron Forsythe, Mike Turian and so many players, writers, designers and developers that I've read and watched over the years still seems surreal in a way.  All the folks at WotC were fantastic.  I can't say enough great things about them all.  Up next will be my 'quick hits' post where I wrap up the events and post lots of little tidbits I picked up that aren't big enough for an entire paragraph on their own but as a group are pretty interesting.  Until then, enjoy!

2 Comments

You should have called this by plarp (not verified) at Thu, 11/12/2009 - 00:59
plarp's picture

You should have called this Erik on Erik :) Nice interview, and I'm super jealous of you hanging out at wizards!

Nice article Hammy Having met by dangerlinto at Fri, 11/13/2009 - 16:29
dangerlinto's picture

Nice article Hammy

Having met Erik - he is just a super-fantastic guy. And according to all his peers, a super-genius - which I can't disagree with the couple of times we've chatted. Which made me feel all the better when I managed to beat him in 100cs at the CCC <-- possibly the brightest spot of playing I had.