Making Magic with Melissa DeTora

Hallie SantoCommunity, Design

In many ways, Magic is a game about change. In Magic‘s storyline, we meet new heroes and explore an ever-evolving Multiverse with them. In playing the game, we acquire new skills as we try out new cards and strategies. And sometimes, in order to ensure that these new cards and strategies are as fun and engaging as possible, Wizards of the Coast needs to reevaluate and update its own design and development processes.

In June, we were introduced to Wizards’ new Play Design team, a group of seasoned game designers and experienced pro players whose goal is to ensure the health of play environments. We spoke with celebrated Magic pro and Play Designer Melissa DeTora about what it’s like to work on the team and how she thinks about the game now that she’s helping create the cards.

Card Kingdom: What is the Play Design team, and how does it differ from Design and Development?
Melissa DeTora: Play Design and Development are actually very similar. One of the main differences is the Play Design team gets involved with set design from the very beginning, starting with Exploratory Design. Development happens in the later stages. Play Design will have input every step of the way. This new process will mean we will recognize problems much earlier and fix them in a reasonable time so we’re not crunched. We are also testing future Standard formats much earlier in the process as well, which means we have more time to tune and iterate decks, giving us more accurate data.

Some other differences: We are very in touch with real-world Standard. We play Magic Online, talk to players of all skill levels, and attend events. Our goal is to make our formats fun to play, and being player-facing is important for that.

CK: What excites you most about your new position?
MD: This position is a perfect fit for me. I came here with zero game design experience but a very deep involvement with Magic at all levels. I’ve been playing Magic since 1997, my first tournament was in 1999, and I never took a break from the game. I have seen all of Magic’s best and worst moments. This history with the game gives me a lot insight in how I can help shape our game’s most popular formats.

So, to answer the question, practically everything about the position excites me. I get to work with some of the greatest game designers and best (former) players that the game has known. Every day I learn something new. And my work has impact at the highest levels of play.

Melissa DeTora at Grand Prix Los Angeles 2016. Photo provided by DeTora.

CK: How long have you been at Wizards? How did you start?
MD: I first came to Wizards in January 2015 as a Development Contractor. It was a year contract but when the year was up they didn’t hire me. I was away for Wizards for six months and they decided to take me back on another year contract doing playtesting. During that year the Play Design team was formed and they felt I was a great fit for it, so they decided to hire me full-time.

I came in to Wizards through the Pro Tour. Most Development Contractors get to Wizards through that path. Developers usually go to Pro Tours to recruit players that they think would be a good fit. The recruiter back then was Dave Humpherys (now it is a mix of Dan Burdick and Andrew Brown). After some formal processes like interviews and a Design test, they decided to hire me as a contractor, and here I am.

CK: Why did you decide to leave competitive play and move to Wizards? Was it a difficult decision?
MD: Honestly, during the time I was asked to work at Wizards, I was playing the best Magic of my life. I was Gold in the Pro Club and just came off of a finals finish at a GP. I felt like my game had not even peaked yet, and I had a lot more in me. But Wizards was a real job. It wasn’t clear when I would have an opportunity like that again, so it was a no-brainer to take it. It wasn’t really a hard decision, but I do miss playing sometimes.

CK: What has it been like to transition from playing Magic competitively to helping create cards?
MD: The transition is really hard. When you get there, you have the mindset of a Pro Player. You are playing to build the best decks and win, but that’s not the goal of a game designer. Playing Magic at Wizards is so different from tournament Magic. Everyone is taking back their plays, discussing plays, talking about if they think the cards or interactions are fun. Play is quick, not deliberate. You’re never just playing a game of Magic in silence, the way you are if you’re in a tournament. The goals for playing a game of Magic are just different at Wizards than they are in a tournament. Over time, I learned how to think like a game designer and not a player, but it’s definitely not the easiest thing to do.

CK: What has been the biggest difference in the way you play or approach the game since you began working at Wizards?
MD: I try to think about how our products or decisions will affect every type of player, not just the competitive ones. Maybe a card is a weak tournament card, but it could have appeal for Vorthos. I’m always thinking about who a particular card or product is for. Same with tournaments. Not every tournament is for everyone. Outside of Wizards, when I go to a game store or hang out with Magic friends, my goal is for everyone to have fun (previously it was winning). So, if that means sitting out of a draft if we’re at an odd number, or having my opponents take a mulligan to seven instead of six, that’s what I’ll do. Winning is not a priority anymore.

CK: What are some of your goals as a game designer?
MD: I want to be the next Ian Duke (our technical lead in Play Design). He is probably one of the smartest people I know and is a great designer. It’s hard to find someone who is great at Magic and also makes sweet cards. So, my goal is to be either Ian’s second in command in Play Design or be a lead myself (after Ian moves up the ranks, of course).


Header design: Justin Treadway
Images provided by Melissa DeTora and Wizards of the Coast