Intro: Bernie Monsanto, a member of the Zero Fortitude Podcast, had a great conversation with Rob covering tons of material, the history of Epic Card Game, Colony Wars, Star Realms digital expansions, and Rob’s history with Magic the Gathering. We transcribed the podcast for you here and you can also enjoy the Zero Fortitude podcast. This blogpost is also posted on the Star Realms blog.
Bernie: Welcome everybody, I am Bernie from Zero Fortitude. We are a tabletop gaming with a “+1” to geek. And today we have the world famous, world renowned Robert Dougherty. So, how are you doing?
Rob: I’m good, I’m good. I just got back from a couple trips. We were in Essen, Germany for the big Spiel trade show. We were showing off the Epic Card Game and Colony Wars, our new set for Star Realms, doing lots of demos, selling lots of games. And, as soon as I got back from that, I was off to the Magic Pro Tour. I just got back from that trip. And now, I’m hard at work making games again.
Bernie: So, you know there’s something called sleep, right?
Rob: [Laughter] I guess that’s optional.
Bernie: Yeah, so for gamers, sleeping is optional. Eating is optional. Game is forever.
Bernie: Ok. So, I thought I’d first start with your current game, Epic. How has the response been for Epic?
Rob: The response has been great. Like, Epic is…
Rob: [Laughter] It’s such a cool game. We’ve been really excited about it for a long time, as we’ve been working on it in-house. It was such a big project because we basically created a full trading card game and packaged it in one little box and sold it as an individual $15 purchase just like star realms. And it was a big project in the making because there was so much design and development work that had to go into it. And the art that went into it was a huge project on its own. There are 120 unique cards in the box. Most deck of cards games that you buy for the $15 range will not have a lot of different cards. They’ll have multiples of a relatively small number of cards. Usually the art isn’t very impressive. With Epic, we went all out with 120 different cards, and we went with TCG-level art on each individual card. And, the game play is very rich. There’s a huge amount of skill in the game. There’s a ton of different ways to play. The game is meaty, which means that if somebody’s a very casual gamer, it might be a little much for them. Some of our more casual gaming Star Realms fans found Epic to be a little bit too difficult to learn. But, for the people who are a little bit more on the trading card game end of the spectrum, a little bit more intense gamers, have been absolutely loving it. We’ve gotten a ton of really great feedback on the game. There’s so much depth in the game, and people right now are just scratching the surface. So, I’m really looking forward to people’s continued discovery as they try different formats of the game, including constructed. It’s a lot of fun.
Bernie: Yeah. One thing I thought was kind of curious was… I guess I can ask it…Is there a lore to the game? Because you read some of the cards and there’s text, there’s a lot of good pictures and you’re like, is there a story here or is it just text?
Rob: So, the story of the world of Epic is more a story of the Gods. So, basically, the players of the game of Epic are gods. The world of Epic is the second world, the second creation in this universe. There was a cantion of gods, basically a family of gods that created a world. But, they disagreed on how things should be. They bickered, they fought, they would change reality back and forth as they saw fit. And, in the process, they destroyed the universe. So, the gods were left in a void with no universe for a considerable period of time, and then they remade the universe but they agreed that they would no longer directly change reality. If they had a disagreement on how things should be, they would choose champions in the mortal world to battle and the victor would get to make the changes that they wanted to make. So, the gods that were around for the first incarnation of the universe are elder gods. Players in the game are second and third generation gods. So, basically there are many gods and there are many demi-gods in the world and the world is a generally speaking it’s fantasy/medieval, but the gods have the ability to reach through time and to pick champions from any location that they wish. So, when the players are playing, they are playing champions, they are playing events, the events are representing gods warping reality to their will and the champions are the heroes the gods are choosing to represent them in the world.
Bernie: I think one of my favorite pictures is a picture of a tyrannosaurus going up against a knight on horseback and I was just like wow, where did this come from?
Rob: Yeah, so, obviously there are dinosaurs in the world of epic and dragons. So, you get this cool mix of the prehistoric and the fantasy melded. But, yeah, I really have enjoyed that sort of playing with time and using the ancient and the fantastic together in one world. It’s pretty cool.
Bernie: So, let me ask you real quick. Tyrannosaurus versus dragon, who would win?
Rob: Depends on the dragon. The T-Rex is represented in Epic. He’s 12 offense 10 defense, so he’s pretty big, bigger than most of the dragons in the game. He’s not very smart. He has to attack every turn no matter what’s happening the other side of the table. But, it’s a really powerful card for the wild in that if you can reveal two wild cards when you play the T-Rex, you get to draw two cards, which is a very big deal. So, the T-Rex is a really, really powerful card in the game. But, the dragon Thundarus is bigger.
Bernie: I think there was one neat thing because when I first started looking through the cards I got from the Kickstarter, I was like oh wow these are cool. This is a white card, so I’ll put the white cards together and here’s the green cards to put together, and the red cards to put together. Once I had all the cards put together, I was reading the instructions, and it was like..yeah, you don’t have to do that. If you want to just put everything together and just come up with the first cards that come out, that’s cool. If you want to put them together by color, by race, by you know, whatever, you can do that too, and I was like wow, this really is a very versatile….
Rob: Yeah, there are so many ways to play Epic. You can break the cards up by color and play them that way. We designed those mono color decks to play well against each other, so you can separate them out and play against your friends that way, you can shuffle all the cards together and deal 30 out to each person, and play with whatever 30 cards you get, you can shuffle and deal more than 30 cards to each person and build down to 30 card deck so you have a little bit of that sealed deck-building feel from the TCG. Drafting it is incredibly fun. There are a ton of different ways to draft. One of my favorite ways to draft with two people is to flip over four cards at a time and then one person picks one card, the other person picks two, and the last person gets the last card and you just repeat that process 15 times and then you have a 30-card deck. And, players are discovering news ways to play all the time. I just heard about this format people were doing called Alignment draft. Basically, you have the four pre-constructed decks and one player chooses one alignment that they want in their deck and they get all 30 of those cards, and the other player gets to pick two alignments from the remaining three, and that’s their deck. And then, the first player gets the last alignment and then you shuffle up and have a 60-card deck with two alignments, but you get to kind of choose the alignments in that process. Epic is designed to play like a trading card game, but you get everything in one little box for $15. So, it gives you the awesome play experience of trading card games, without the incredibly high cost involved with them. Unlike some of the card games that have come out in the past, like the living card games and such, Epic is much more flexible. It’s designed to play sealed and draft, right out of the little box. And you can also do these constructed formats. Basically, any way you can play a trading card game, you can play Epic. The big difference being, of course, that it only costs $15 and you get the entire collection. You can keep it in your pocket because it’s so small. You just get this incredible amount of game play in one little tiny box that you can carry around with you.
Bernie: Yeah, I have to admit that that was one thing that I was like, how in the world are you going to do that? And, that’s one of the reasons I got into the Kickstarter because I was like, I’ve got to see this, because if he says that this is possible, I’ve got to see how he’s going to pull this off. Because that just sounds so hard to do.
Rob: And it was a really challenging design for us because we set out with this goal of making this game play experience in this small box. One of the reasons we were able to do it was because of the resource system we used in the game. Most strategy card games emulate magic’s land system where you sort of build-up resources slowly over time. Some of them use resource cards like Magic’s land; some of them let you play any card as a resource; some of them say your resources just go up by one every turn, but they all use this concept where you start with one resource and then you have two and then you have three and then you have four, then you have five, and some cards cost 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 or 5, which means that for a particular card effect that you want in the game, if you want to have varying power levels of it at these varying costs, you need to create a whole bunch of cards to represent this one effect. So, if you just want to have some strong guy for the cost, you would have to create a version of that that costs one and two and three and four and five and six and seven, etc. With Epic, we have completely departed from that resource system. Instead, each turn each player has one gold. If a card costs a gold to play, it’s going to be incredibly powerful, like the equivalent of a cost 6 to 9 card in these resource system games. And the free cards are still very powerful, but not as strong as the things that cost a gold. What this means is we can condense much more game play in a smaller number of cards because all your cards do incredibly powerful things and have big game effects. In a small number of cards, we can have a wide variety of game effects. Wherein, a game with a resource curve, you might need resource cards to be able to play your other cards at all, and then you would have cards representing the same effect of every card on the cost curve. So, those types of games need a lot more cards to be able to give the variety of play. In Epic, because everything is a big, heavy-hitting, powerful card, in a small pool of 120 cards, we were able to give 120 different game effects, not having to duplicate the same game effects at various costs of the curve. So, that factor really allowed us to get this game play in a relatively small numbers of cards. The amount of play you get out of the 120 cards in Epic is easily equivalent to the amount of play you get out of 500 or 600 different cards in a system where you have resource curve. So, we get a lot of condensed, cool game play out of a small number of cards that way. And, of course, we took the reins off as far as making the cards as pretty as we could. We had a very large art budget and spent a lot of time on the design and development and graphics, etc., to basically make the game look really good. And, of course, we spent a very long time doing the design and development and testing, again and again. Basically, we would go through and play through the entire collection of cards again and again and any time we had a card which was difficult to use, like you’d have it in your hand and you’re like, “Ugh, I can’t find a use for this”, we would take that card out, and we would redesign it until, basically, every card was a useful, viable tool when playing sealed or draft. It was very important to us that you could shuffle up the cards, deal 30 cards out to a player, and it didn’t matter what 30 cards you got, you would have useful tools for winning the game.
Bernie: And so it’s not really, I don’t really need this card right now. It’s more like wow, I’ve got great cards. Which great card do I play first?
Rob: Yeah. It’s really fun watching people play Epic for the first time, especially if they’ve played other trading card games before. Because they look at their hand, and they’re like Oh My God, how could I possibly lose? I can do all these amazing things. But of course, their opponent is looking at their cards and thinking the same thing. So, you get these really cool experiences where you get to do really cool, really powerful things from the very first game and your opponent gets to do it too, so you’re constantly making decisions, prioritizing which cards to play, and you and your opponent both get to do really cool stuff, and the choices that you make during the game determine the winner.
Bernie: So, let me ask you this. Let’s go back a little bit. Where did the name come from? The name Epic is like, that’s it? That’s the whole name? It’s just Epic?
Rob: So, many years ago, I had a trading card game that I designed back in 2008, 2009 time frame, of the same name. Back then, Epic wasn’t as popular of a word to use in game names. And that was the Epic Trading Card Game. That game had many of the same elements that the Epic Card Game has now where it had a similar resource system and the concept of very powerful cards. But, the art and the graphic design weren’t nearly as good as what we have now and the game was a little less refined. Nevertheless, it was a game that we really loved and I had worked on that for a little over a year, and we had sold multiple sets of it. It was doing fairly well for an Indie game. Basically, I paused working on that to work on Ascension with Justin Gary, and then Ascension took off. Epic was something I always wanted to come back to because I liked the core concept of it so much. But, the initial name Epic was a two-fold name because the card effects are so huge and awesome. They’re epic effects. But also, when you’re playing you’re telling the story of the gods and their champions. Basically, you’re playing in Epic. That’s where the name came from.
Bernie: So, this was a game that you’ve always wanted to do, or I guess you could say redo?
Rob: Yeah, well, it’s a pretty rare thing for a game designer to be able to improve upon something that you’ve done. So, you create a game and it’s got a base of players and you can’t just tear down the game and start again because people playing the game are like, “hey, what the heck?” But, trading card games are very strange things. It doesn’t matter how much a trading card game has sold or how many people bought it. As soon as you stop making it, it’s considered dead and a failed game. Whereas, if you have a board game, and you make it and a lot of people like it and have bought it, and then you don’t make it for a while and then you reprint it, people are like oh great, this game’s back in print. It’s never considered dead. It’s just there’s this awesome game that someone made. Because of this strange feature that trading card games have where if you stop printing them for a while, that’s it’s a dead game, we were kind of allowed to start over. Basically, the industry didn’t consider that game current or alive. And, there were a lot of things that I really loved about the Epic Trading Card Game, but there were a lot of things that I really wanted to improve. The new Epic Card Game has all of those improvements in it. It’s got a much stronger color pie. Basically, the things that each alignment can do are much better to find than they were in the new card game than they were in the original trading card game. The cards are better balanced. It plays even better in limited than the old game did. And, of course, changing the purchase model entirely to make it a single purchase game instead of a trading card game opens the game up to so many more players because trading card games are very expensive and hard to find. Basically, Epic takes the difficulty in attaining and playing cards away from the game. So, in Epic you can own every card simply by buying the box, so there are no cards that you can’t get, which are hard to find or expensive. The whole game is in that one box. When you’re playing, none of the cards are hard to play. It’s not like, Oh, I have to wait until I have some large number of resources to play this card. You can just play any card from the beginning of the game. So, the cards are both easy to access and easy to play in the game. It just gives you that pure joy of the trading card game experience without any of the barriers.
Bernie: I think one thing that really blew my mind was when I read that on your turn you get one gold, at the end of your turn you lose that gold. I was like, but wait, that means I can’t cast Tyrannosaurus because it costs 1. Wait, what? I look at the Kong, 1, I look at the dragon, 1. It’s like, everything costs 1 or 0. Wow. Ok. Woah..Here we go. I wonder how this is going to play out. So, I have to say, that was a mind-blowing thing when I realized that there isn’t really too much of resource. It’s just what do you want to play.
Rob: Exactly. It’s not whether I can play something, it’s what do I want to play.
Bernie: Yes. And another thing that kind of impressed me was the artwork. It wasn’t really the artwork itself. It’s the fact that you have so many different artists and they all kind of blend their talents into coming up with one art style. You think it’s one artist. It’s like, man, this guy was pretty good. No. It’s multiple artists that are able to draw in the same style to make it look like one artist.
Rob: Yeah, so, Darwin Kastle was the lead developer on Epic and he was also the art director. He does a really good job with the art direction. He provides a good, clear vision to the artists and will give a lot of back and forth feedback to them in the process. That sort of bright colors, crisp, pop look that the art has is something he sort of tweaks out from every artist so that gives the game sort of a unified look to the art.
Bernie: Yeah. I really liked it. Let’s just talk a little bit about the comments section in the Kickstarter.
Bernie: There seem to be a few people that are just kind of like this isn’t fair, you ripped me off, this and that, but you do have a lot of people that do come back and say, dude you don’t really have an issue here. If you read the instructions or your read the Kickstarter page, they’re able to I guess you could say actually decompress the situation. I was just wondering, is this just a vocal minority that’s just upset with whatever?
Rob: Whenever you’re doing something like a Kickstarter campaign, especially one that is successful, and we had like 12,000 backers, there’s going to be people who have various issues or problems that come up. If you’re shipping 12,000 packages, if 1% of people have some problem, maybe they entered their address wrong, or maybe they didn’t properly enter the items that they wanted through the survey, or any little thing comes up, or they haven’t done the survey, or basically any little error that comes up, even if it’s a very small percentage of people, well if you start with 12,000 people, it’s going to be a bunch of people who end up having difficulty. If anyone does have problems they can just email firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get them straightened out. If they had a problem with not getting the right number of items or they haven’t gotten their shipment yet, or if there’s any item along those lines, we have a support channel set up for them. We’ve been diligently working on that. And, of course, there’s going to be some people who wanted the same game we made the last time. So, we made Star Realms, and it’s a great game, and we have a great expansion coming out for it, and Epic is a very different game. I love both of them, but not everybody’s going to love both of them. Epic is definitely a strategy card game in the style of trading card games, and if that type of game play is not your thing, well, you’re not going to like Epic. If that style of game play is your thing, I think you’re going to love Epic. And, Epic is inexpensive enough that if you have never played this style of game, trying out a trading card game can be very, very expensive, but trying out Epic is very cheap. Most good games that you’ll see in the game store are like $40 or more. Epic is $15, and is incredibly cheap to try out. So, there are going to be some people that don’t like this style of games, and there are going to be some people who have issues with their shipping. Obviously, we want to solve everybody’s problems. If they have an issue with not getting the right stuff, or whatever, we want to make sure their stuff gets solved so they’ve got that support at email@example.com email for any issues there. If you look at the threads on Boardgamegeek, etc., occasionally there are people that are like, yeah, I tried this game, I don’t really get it, whatever, but there are lots and lots of people who are like, Oh My God, I love this game so much.
Bernie: That was one thing that I kind of noticed is that when you go to the conventions, everybody loves this game. So, when you go to the Kickstarter and you go to the Comments section and you see these people say this and this and that, you’re thinking did you play this game? Are we talking about the same game? Because I don’t think we’re talking about the same game here.
Rob: Again, there are people with different varieties of views on what games are fun and what games aren’t. We’re going to design lots of different games over time and some player might absolutely love Star Realms, and not like Epic so much, or they might love the next thing we do, or vice versa. Overall, I’ve been super pleased with the feedback that we’ve gotten on Epic.
Bernie: So, let me just ask you this? Do you see Epic going digital like Star Realms?
Rob: So, no promises, but Epic would make a great digital game. It would be a harder programming task than Star Realms. There is more going on in the game. But, it’s certainly in the realm of possibility. I’ll put it that way.
Bernie: Yeah, that is one thing I was like, wow, there’s so much stuff to do, even though you kind of took away the resources aspect, there is still a lot of strategy, a lot of tactics going on, that if you decided to put an AI into the game, there’s a lot of stuff to do, like you said.
Rob: Yeah, a lot of decisions.
Rob: So, that is the latest on our digital. Star Realms exists as a physical game. It is also an App, as we’ve discussed. You can play it on your iPhone, your Android, PC, MAC.
Bernie: Pretty much anything you have.
Rob: Yeah pretty much anything you have. You can download it for free, try the game out versus the AI, play through a campaign, all for free to see if you like the game. If you like it, you can pay $5 to upgrade to online play. You can play against your friends, anywhere around the world, you can play against new players, and you get more campaign missions. And if you want, you can also pick up some expansions to both increase the number of campaign missions you have and give yourself more options when playing against the AI, or against people online. We have two expansions now. The first expansion was the Gambit set expansion, which gave you gambit cards and also gave you the year one promo cards from the physical game, which are the cards you would get from going to a game store and playing in a tournament. You’ve got all of those. And then, the newest digital expansion we have out is Crisis: Bases and Battleships. The Crisis has four different packs in the physical game. There are Bases and Battleships and Fleets and Fortresses, which give you new ships and bases for the game. Then, there’s the Events pack, which has these special event cards that can come up from the trade deck unexpectedly and have major effects on the game. Finally, there’s the Heroes pack, which has character cards which when you purchase them they go directly into play on your side of the table. In order to use them, send them on a mission, basically, you scrap them and they give you an effect that turn and they also trigger an ally ability for that faction for the turn. So, there’s those four different sets for Crisis. We just released the first digital one, which is Bases and Battleships. We have a new campaign in the app for Bases and Battleships. Also, there’s a new achievements feature that we’ve released with this app. And, of course, you can play the Bases and Battleships ships and bases against people live online, by either challenging a friend or just pressing the new game button. And you can get paired up against someone with equivalent skill anywhere in the world.
Bernie: Ok. Now, one thing I was kind of curious about, is Crisis its own expansion and you’re going to maybe be doing something with Star Realms itself, or is the game now Star Realms Crisis?
Rob: Crisis is an expansion. So, it’s an expansion to Star Realms. The App is still Star Realms. There is the Crisis set which is those four different packs. We’re going to be releasing those over the next several months. You’ll be seeing more Crisis packs coming in the App, in which they’ll all obviously have Campaign and more cards that you’ll be able to add to the digital app.
Bernie: Ok. So, in the future let’s say there’s a catalyst expansion and then there would be a new dawn expansion?
Rob: In the physical game, we actually previewed the new physical expansion at Spiel in Germany. And, that new expansion is called Colony Wars. It is a very exciting set. It’s a stand-alone expansion, which means in Colony Wars you can play it by itself. It comes in a deck box just like Star Realms, and has 128 cards in it. It has the same authority cards, scouts, vipers and explorers that come with the base Star Realms game, but the 80 card trade deck is all new. Every card in the trade deck is a new ship or a new base. It uses the same four factions but all of the cards are new. So, that is incredibly fun. You can play with the same Star Realms rules that you know but every card is new and different. So, that is really cool. You could also combine it with the original Star Realms game, just shuffle them together and then you have enough cards to run up to four players in Star Realms. In the digital app, down the road, we are going to be bringing Colony Wars to the digital app, as well. And that will be a real treat, because that is a lot of new cards.
Bernie: Ok. So would you consider this Star Realms 2 or is that something else that you all have planned? Will there be a Star Realms 2?
Rob: So, Colony Wars you could consider Star Realms 2. Basically, our sort of long-term plan with Star Realms is every year, making a new box set, a new 128-card box set with everything you need to play Star Realms, but the cards are different. And making a few expansions that go along with that box set. The Year One example would be the Star Realms game, the Gambit Set, and then Crisis. That was the first year of Star Realms. And then, the second year of Star Realms is Colony Wars, then there will be some expansion packs that will meld well with your Colony Wars set. But, everything will be cross-compatible. If you want to shuffle all the Star Realms stuff you buy together into one big deck, you can do that. If you want to keep them separate, you can do that. And we put various set symbols on the various sets, so if you want to mix your cards up and take them out again, and be like oh now I want to try mixing this set and that set, you can totally do that, and then separate out the cards again when you’re done.
Bernie: That’s cool. So, a lot of people recognize you as just a great game developer that comes up with great games. Other people, they know you as the Magic the Gathering guy.
Rob: Yes, indeed. I played a lot of Magic.
Bernie: You’re still playing Magic, right?
Rob: Indeed, indeed. So, I actually started playing Magic when the game first came out, back in the 1990’s, I think it was ‘93 at GenCon. Yeah, I’ve been playing Magic since the beginning, since before there were tournament rules or events. And, I opened up a game store featuring selling Magic cards and running Magic events. And when Magic first started doing competitive events, I had helped run a bunch of events. I went to Northeastern University in Boston and there was a gaming group at MIT in Boston, which was a nearby university. I had friends in that gaming group, and I would play Magic with them and help them run tournaments and such, and when Wizards of the Coast first started doing competitive events, I was very interested and I went to them as a player. There was a Wizards of the Coast employee who used to play in the events that I helped run at MIT and he got me started actually running events for Wizards of the Coast. So, I would run pro-tour qualifiers and regional championships and pre-releases and such for Wizards of the Coast. I did that for many years and I also played competitively in the professional tournaments. I had a team of players who frequented my store. Being in Boston, I had a store in Davis Square, which is on the red line, the same subway line that goes past Harvard and MIT and a bazillion other universities, so we had a lot of really smart people who love playing Magic and we had a really, really great Magic team. We actually had very large numbers of players in my store that got into the Magic Hall of Fame. Darwin Kastle, Dave Humpherys, and myself are all in the Magic Hall of Fame. And then, we have a lot of people who would occasionally play with us like Zvi Mowshowitz and such. Some of the New York crew we would play with occasionally.
Bernie: Boston vs. New York?
Rob: There was some of the rivalry, but also we teamed up a lot. We were all relatively near each other and could get together and play-test together for the big professional events.
Bernie: So, what was it about Magic the Gathering that you saw this game and was like I could do this?
Rob: So, actually, when I first saw Magic, I was not interested at all. I saw the game, and I was like, Oh there’s this game and people buy their own components and whoever spends the most money gets the best components and wins. So, basically this company has made a game where whoever gives them the most money wins the game. That sounds like the worst idea ever. So, I was not interested at all. But then, I had a friend who was really into games and game reviews and such, and he said, look you’ve got to try it. It’s amazing. And I tried the game out, and the game play in Magic was phenomenal. Really, really good. And then, I played that game, as I’ve been playing games my whole life, really loved them, and I would play games competitively. But, for the types of games I liked, there wasn’t really an intense competition set up. There’s always been intense competitions for games like Chess or Poker, but for the more fantasy-themed games and such, there was never really a competitive environment. So, I would do very well at any of these little tournaments we ran at MIT. I basically won every single one I played in. When Magic first ran their big events and I went to play in the first two U.S. National championships, it was incredibly exciting for me that there were all these great players gathered together and could kick my butt and that was awesome. If you are playing a board game or something, and you are really competitive about it and no one else at the table is, it’s not really fun for anybody. You’re looking for a particular type of competitive challenge and the others players are not looking for that. They’re looking to just have fun, so they want you to take it less seriously, and you want them to take it more seriously. So, it was really cool to have an outlet where there were people who were playing the game the same way. So, that was really neat or me. At the same time, there is a good environment for the casual player as well. It was a really nice mix and Magic did a huge amount for the hobby games industry as a whole. Gamers are much bigger and they’re more organized now that the whole concept of trading card games exists. Although, I find that the cost barrier to entry on trading card games is problematic. I love the style of play, but the cost to keep playing is so very high on trading cards games, which is one of the reasons I made Epic to basically have the style of play available to people at a cost that was affordable. It would allow pretty much anyone to play.
Bernie: So, you’ve seen probably millions of matches over all these years. Was there one play that still sticks in your mind, like “Oh my goodness! That was so cool. How did you do that”?
Rob: Yeah, I can’t think of any particular play in a match. There’s definitely been a lot of cool ones over time. I think some of the most interesting plays are the ones when the outcome is not obvious, when you’re doing what we call playing for your outs, like a scenario where you’re losing the game and you have to think… under what scenarios could I win this game? You think about all the cards remaining in your deck. If I drew this card could I get out of it? If I drew that card could I get out of it? Then you start going through scenarios that are even more extreme. Like, if I drew this card, then I drew that card, and then I drew this other card, under that scenario could I get out of this situation? And then, when you determine, Ok. I’m going to lose the game unless I draw these three cards in order, that’s the only way I can win. And then, if I did draw these cards in order, in order to win, I’d have to make these specific plays. Sort of the coolest scenarios in these types of games for me is when a player’s got their back against the wall, they figure out their path out of the situation and then they start playing as if those cards are coming in that specific order, because if they aren’t coming in that specific order, it doesn’t matter. They lost the game anyway. So they start making plays based on this very small chance that they have this specific scenario coming from their own deck. To me, that’s always been a really neat scenario where you are no longer making the best play given what you have available to you right now, you start making the best plays based on a series of possible draws that could be coming for you, and sort of knowing when you need to move to that desperation style of play to give yourself a small chance of victory. It’s kind of cool.
Bernie: Yeah, there was one time I was listening to somebody and they said something that really struck me and I was just like, wow, I’ve never even thought about it. When you’re playing Magic, if you’re at one life or you’re at two life, you’re still playing the game. You should still be playing the game as if you had 20 life because at 1 life you’re still not dead. That’s a pretty neat way to think about it. Just because you have one life point doesn’t mean you quit the game. That means, you start playing the game. You’ve really started playing the game at 1 life point.
Rob: Yeah, the key is to constantly be thinking about what you need to do to win. It’s very easy to get frustrated in a game and be like Ugh, they drew better cards than me, I don’t have a shot, and to give up. In those scenarios, you’re going to lose most of the time but you can definitely salvage the game and basically pull victory from the jaws of defeat. If you don’t give up, and you think sure I’m at 1 life but what can I do to win. How am I going to defeat my opponent given this scenario and then make those plays?
Bernie: One thing that kind of irks me, or kind of annoys me, is when people concede the game. I’m like, really you’re just going to give up like that, and they’re like there is no possible way to win the game. No, you keep playing the game. You keep playing the game. Even if you’re just drawing land. Just keep playing the game because you might get that one card that costs 13 land and guess what? Hey, you win the game. You know?
Rob: And also, if you force yourself to keep playing, then you’ll have scenarios when your opponent looks like they’re in a winning situation. They won’t know what to do, because you react the same way if you’ve got 5 land in your hand and no plays to make as if you have a card that’s going to kill every creature they attack with. So, basically, if you concede every time you’re in trouble, and if you haven’t conceded, they know huh, something’s up, and they can play around it. But if you play the same way if you’re in trouble or not in trouble, then it makes it tougher on your opponent.
Bernie: So, has there ever been a play that you’ve regretted to make, like Oh My Goodness, I can’t believe I did that?
Rob: Yeah, all the time. Especially in the professional tournaments. Those events are long, they’re multiple days. They’re often in a different time zone. You’re flying half way across the world to play in it. You can be tired, jet-lagged, and maybe you’ve been playing for 10 hours. I’ve made some severely bone-headed plays. That’s definitely happened. I’m often good at seeing the really hard to see play and doing something really cool and clever. But, I’ve also been known to just walk into a wall occasionally and miss something that was obvious on the board. So, yeah, I’ve had my share of blunders.
Bernie: So, how do you recover from that?
Rob: You just play with a new game state. You can’t let it get in your head. Don’t spend time thinking about, oh if I hadn’t made that mistake, I’d now be doing this and I’d now be doing that, maybe I would have won the game already, whatever. None of that matters. All that matters now is what resources do you have. What resources do they have? How are you going to win the game from there? So, you just let it go and you look for that path to victory from your current game state. Given the mistake you made, the game play that you have in front of you at that point, you determine what your path is to victory and start playing for it. Maybe you’ll get there, maybe you won’t, but dwelling on your mistakes certainly won’t help. And sometimes making that mistake will have benefits later in the match because your opponent will underestimate you in your future plays. You might be able to make that attack that looks like you’re making a mistake again but you have a card in your hand that makes it bad if they block. Sometimes, you can turn it to your advantage as well.
Bernie: Ok. So, right now Magic the Gathering seems to be going back to their roots. Their most recent one was Return to Zendikar or Battle for Zendikar. Do you like that? Do you like that they’re going back to their roots? Or, would you like them to do something else?
Rob: I like the theme. I like re-exploring worlds that they’ve been to before. Frankly, I took a year off of playing the Magic professional events because of my baby. She’s now a little over 1, she’s 14 months old. I just went back to my first Magic event. The thing that really shocked me was the cost of cards now. If you look at historic Magic decks, for example, the madness deck from back in the day, that was mostly common and uncommons, and maybe a rare or two. The re-animator decks I played that were chock full of commons, and all the various decks that I top-8ed with had rares in them, but they also had a solid number of commons and uncommons and such. Magic introduced this new mythic rarity a while back and initially they said were just going to play weird cards in this rarity. It’s not going to be everything you need to play competitively. But, the deck I just played with in the Pro Tour didn’t have a single common between deck and sideboard. It was half mythics, a ton of rares, and a couple (a sprinkling) of uncommons. If you look at the cost, if you look at the Pro Tour winning decks, most of the decks are TCG median like 500, 600, 700 bucks, 800. The cheap deck, the one deck that had a bunch of commons in it, the really, really cheap one, was 400 bucks TCG median cost. A good standard Magic deck used to cost $100 or $200, you’d get some for under 100 bucks. A couple of them would be over 100 or maybe up to 200 bucks. But for $1,000 decks, that was Type 1 or Legacy, or what-not. Now, basically, they just are using rarity as a power structure. So, if a card is really good it’s going to be mythic, if it’s pretty good it’ll be rare, if it’s OK it will be uncommon, if it’s terrible it will be common. And that’s pretty much the rule they use across the board. So, of course, if you’re building a constructed deck it’s going to be chock full of mythics because they’re just better for the casting cost than a card that’s not mythic. And that was not historically the case in Magic. Cards like Wild Mongrel or Lightning Bolt, like many of the best cards in the game were commons. Now, you have a really awesome 1 drop, like the Warden, he’s going to be mythic. If the card’s really awesome, and this is a staple I need for this at this cost, it’s Mythic. And because everybody who was playing that color wants four of them, they’ll probably be hard to find because they’re mythic. They’re $30, $50, whatever, for an individual card. The prices are crazy right now and I honestly don’t know how Magic is going to continue to keep their flow of incoming players. Because if I was a new player, and I played some drafts at a store, and I went to play Constructed and I got my butt kicked and I looked online to see what I should be playing, and I priced it out, I’d be like, what? $700? Like, really? For one deck that I’m going to play in Friday night Magic? And if I decide I want to change my mind and play a new deck, I can save some of the lands from that deck and I’ve got to come up with another $500 to change my deck. That’s insane! So, basically, I love the theme, I don’t like the pricing structure they’re moving to and the rarity-based model. I feel like it’s going to be a big barrier for player retention and I hope they move away from it, but who knows? I think they’re making more money now than they ever have, so probably not.
Bernie: Let me ask you this? How would you see the future? You said you wanted to change it. How would you change Magic the Gathering?
Rob: Magic, initially and for many years, did not use Rarity as a power item. Magic really impressed me when it first came out. When it first came out, they didn’t think people would be buying that much. They thought people would spend $20 on the game. There would be a few people who spent $20, they’d play together and they also had this concept where cards would move around through the anti-system they had. So, basically, the rare cards were just intended to be weird, you know, different stuff. There were some things like Shivan Dragon which were relatively powerful, but there were commons and uncommons that were on par with that. And there were cards that could be really broken in multiples. For example, the Moxies and the Black Lotuses, etc., but Richard Garfield never thought those cards would be used in multiples because they were rare. What were the odds of someone having four of those, spending $20? It was near zero. So, they used rarity to take things that would be bad in multiples and they put it at that rarity to prevent that from happening. But, people obviously spent lots of money. They bought tons of cards, and were willing to trade with each other and go through all kinds of hoops to get multiples of cards so that rarity structure didn’t have the play effect they thought it would. So they took those cards out of the game. I was very used to power creep in games where a game would come out, and then an expansion would come out, and the cards would be made a little more powerful than that, so people would sort of be forced, if they wanted to keep playing the game, to buy the expansion and I always found that disappointing. But, Magic did the opposite. They were like, oh man, these effects are too good, too powerful. We’re taking them out of the game, we’re toning things down. So, all the broken parts, like the Power 9 and such (they’re from the first set of Magic), they took them away as they realized, oh wait, people are playing the game this way now. We need to tone things down. They basically kept powerful cards and all the rarities and it made things more accessible, more interesting, and while trading card games were expensive, the prices didn’t go crazy. I would really like to see Magic go back to that. Just because a card is mythic doesn’t mean it’s more powerful than a common. The casting cost should determine the power of the card, not the rarity stamp. That’s just a way to milk money out of people. So, I find that a little disappointing. But the game is still great. If you have the money to buy all the mythics so that you can play on the same level as everyone else, you get some awesome game play. But, those particular elements are really hard to find. I don’t like that element. I do love that they’ve been doing a great job with the card design and the themes. I love what they’ve done with the pre-releases in the stores. So, they’re doing a lot of really cool stuff that I like a lot. I’m just worried about what the current rarity structure’s going to do for the life of the game.
Bernie: Ok. This just kind of came to me. What do you think of the books that are based on the lore of Magic the Gathering? Have you read any of those?
Rob: I read a little of them way back in the day. But, I have not read any of them recently. I wasn’t a fan of any of the ones I read. I did like some D&D books, you know D&D fiction and such, but the Magic fiction didn’t really do it for me. To be fair, I have not read the recent stuff. It could be awesome. I don’t know.
Bernie: Speaking of mystics, is there a planeswalker that you like? People often have the argument of this one’s better, this one’s better. Is there one that you’re just like, yeah, this is an awesome planeswalker?
Rob: I think they’re just talking pure power. I think the new Jace is just insane. The card is very, very, very good. It’s so easy to flip into planeswalker mode. I don’t particularly like it as a game designer, in that I feel that it’s just a miscosted card. That card should not be a blue and one. It’s way too good for that. But, as a player, that’s awesome.
Bernie: I thought it was kind of cheap, too. I was like, wait a minute, you get all of that for this cost? No. They must have misprinted this one.
Rob: And then for the straight planeswalkers, the non-flipping guys, I like the Gideon card a lot, currently. I love the flexibility of being able to make tokens or cash in for the +1 +1 emblem. That card’s pretty cool.
Bernie: Yeah, Gideon, He’s one of these cards where you’re kind of half-tempted that when he comes on to the table, you’re like can we just call it a game? ‘Cause I don’t know how to deal with this. One thing that I thought was kind of interesting was Liliana, how you flip her. When a creature dies you can flip her. That’s too easy. Everybody’s going to die. Something’s going to die on turn two. I was like, that’s broken. It might just be me. If anything dies, you flip Liliana. I was like Wow. I can see why Liliana and Jace are priced so high because it’s so easy to get ‘em out.
Rob: Yeah, very frequently, people would play Jace, and on the first activation, he would flip. Because, you know, they were playing with sac lands, and they were playing some spells, and they get to discard when they use him. Getting to his minimum is very easy, and of course, Liliana is a very easy flip as well. So, yeah, those guys are intentionally designed to be awesome. They’re definitely designed to be above curve in their power level, and it shows.
Bernie: So, let me ask you this. There was a rumor that they were making a Magic the Gathering movie. Yes or no?
Rob: Are they doing it? I have no idea. It could be really cool. The story behind the game is neat. They’ve got obviously 20 years of backstory that they’ve been doing. If done right, that could be awesome.
Bernie: I think that’s the biggest thing….If done right.
Rob: There’ve definitely been some tragic movies based on games that weren’t done right.
Bernie: Yeah, that’s one thing that kind of scares me, because like you said, there’s 20 years of history in the Magic the Gathering story line. Would they take all 20 years and put it all together into a 2 or 3 hour movie. And I was like, no you’ve failed. You’ve already failed when you came up with this movie. That’s 20 years in 3 hours. That’s not going to work.
Rob: Yeah. What you really need is for HBO to pick it up and make a series out of it.
Bernie: So, Game of Thrones/Magic the Gathering? [Laughter} Speaking of which, is there a TV show that you like to watch where you’re like, oh wait, Sunday at 8pm, I gotta watch this?
Rob: So, my current favorites are Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, Better Call Saul. Those are the top of the list, I guess.
Bernie: That’s where you’re like, everybody stop! I gotta watch my show.
Rob: Well, actually, it’s on DVR, so whenever there’s time. No reason to interrupt the game. We can keep playing. Then I can watch it without commercials.
Bernie: That’s what the whole idea of DVR…watching your favorite shows without commercials. So, is there anything else you do when you’re not gaming? Do you go camping or hiking or anything like that?
Rob: So, I have a lot of kids, so doing stuff with the kids is sort of a constant activity. I enjoy biking and such. But, between the family and the games, that keeps me pretty busy.
Bernie: So, what do you think of the new Stars Wars movie?
Rob: I haven’t seen the latest trailer, but I’m pretty excited about the new Star Wars movies. I grew up on Star Wars. The first Star Wars movie came out when I was a kid and I sort of grew up on that. I love Star Wars. The three prequel movies were OK, but a little disappointing. I was very excited when Lucas Films sold to Disney because for Disney Star Wars is a huge moneymaker. They’ve got so many licenses, etc., they are going to hire whoever it takes to make the best movies possible. George Lucas obviously had a great vision with Star Wars. If he has a plot line or story that he wants to tell and it’s no good, who’s going to tell him no, you shouldn’t do that. That’s bad. But, with Disney standing to make billions of dollars off of this, you know they’re going to make sure the stuff is good. I am predicting that the movies are going to be awesome at this point, but I could be wrong. I really hope I’m not wrong.
Bernie: So, are there any other fandoms that you like? Like Doctor Who or Gotham, or Firefly?
Rob: So, I’m not current on Doctor Who, but I loved it when I was a kid. I was a big fan of Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica and Firefly. I liked Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Angel, that Joss Whedon stuff from back in the day. Currently, I really love the Marvel Universe in both movies and TV.
Rob: Yeah, the Avengers movie and the lead up to it was a masterpiece. I never thought they’d be able to pull off a good Avengers movie but that was great.
Bernie: Ok. For a last question. What are you planning for Halloween? Anything special?
Rob: Yeah, we’re going to be doing trick-or-treating. All the kids are picking up various costumes and such. We’ll be out there with our costumes and bags of candies.
Bernie: So, are you dressing up?
Rob: Yeah, I’m going to be dressing up as Rick Grimes. And my son is going to be dressing up as Carl and my girlfriend is going to be dressing up as a zombie.
Bernie: That’s very cool. Well, thank you very much for your time. I am Bernie and that was Rob. And thank you very much and we’ll see you next time.
Rob: Thanks guys!
Note: A special thanks to Bernie for recording this awesome podcast, you can find it here, and to Barbara for taking the time to transcribe this podcast. If you liked this content, let us know in the comments, and we will transcribe other cool podcasts in the future!