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'Magic: the Gathering' lead designer gets industry honors amid massive 'Lord of the Rings' crossover

Art of card "Gandalf, Friend of the Shire," by Dmitry Burmak, from the newly-released "Tales of Middle-earth" set. (Courtesy of Wizards of the Coast)
Art of card "Gandalf, Friend of the Shire," by Dmitry Burmak, from the newly-released "Tales of Middle-earth" set. (Courtesy of Wizards of the Coast)

It’s a big day for the world’s first trading card game, “Magic: the Gathering.”

It’s officially releasing a massive crossover product with “The Lord of the Rings” on the same day that head designer Mark Rosewater is getting inducted into the Hall of Fame for the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design

“This is my 28th year making magic, so it’s nice to get some recognition from the larger game design community,” said Rosewater. “While I’m the person getting inducted, it really is because of the work of so many people. I want to thank all those people because magic is a collaborative effort. It’s not a thing made by any one person. It’s made by hundreds of people.”

Along with “Dungeons & Dragons,” “Magic” accounts for a huge share of owner Hasbro’s profits — so much so that it recently became the company’s first billion-dollar brand

It’s not all sunshine, however. Hasbro’s stock price has pitched up and down over the past few months, following analysis from Bank of America that claimed that “Magic” was “killing its golden goose” by overproducing cards and “destroying the long-term value of the brand.” The move also came after backlash to a product tied to the game’s 30th anniversary, which many fans thought bore an outrageous price tag at $999. 

Mark Rosewater, head “Magic: the Gathering” designer, (Courtesy of Mark Rosewater)

But that outrage was the exception, not the rule, as recent releases have enjoyed favorable reviews. “Shadows over Innistrad Remastered” introduced some old favorite cards to the digital “Magic: the Gathering Arena.” April’s “March of the Machine” delivered a multiverse-spanning climax to years of storytelling. And the brand-new “Tales of Middle-earth” offers a lavish reinterpretation of the classic Tolkien books.

“‘The Lord of the Rings’ is the foundation of modern fantasy. A lot of what ‘Magic’ is borrows from things that Tolkien did many years ago,” said Rosewater. “As a geek all my life it was so neat to join together two different geekdoms into one.”

3 Questions with Mark Rosewater

How influential has “Magic” been?

“‘Magic’ came out in 1993 and it was, out of the gate, kind of a phenomenon. Richard Garfield, the man who created it, expected it to be the average, normal game. And literally for the first couple of years, we couldn’t print cards fast enough. I remember when I was a fan, I would have to sit outside the game store the day it came out, because if I wasn’t in line that day, I would not get any. ‘Magic’ has just grown and grown. I mean, we’re 30 years in and our last year was the best year we ever had.”

How much creative space do you have to make new cards?

“If we were building a house, the metaphor is I and my team are the architects. We are doing the blueprints and there’s a whole bunch of other teams that then have to build the house and make sure that everything is what it needs to be. So a lot of my job is to keep coming up with new and different ideas. One of the great things about the game is that it keeps reinventing itself. And so one year, you know, we’re doing fairy tales, the next it’s Greek mythology. Recently, we started doing what’s called ‘Universes Beyond,’ where we’re taking other IPs [intellectual properties] like ‘Lord of the Rings,’ and we’re bringing that to ‘Magic’ so that you can take the game of ‘Magic’ you love and you can experience not just ‘Magic,’ but other IPs within ‘Magic.’”

Do you ever worry that players may burn out over the increasing pace of “Magic” releases?

“One of the things we’ve learned, and this is one of the biggest challenges of being head designer, is lots of different people play for lots of different reasons. When we make ‘Magic,’ what we’re doing is making a whole bunch of new cards that people can pick and choose what they want from it so they can play the way they would like to play. And so that’s one of the big challenges is we’re not making one game for one group. We’re making many games for many people. So the way people don’t get overwhelmed is, look, you just pick the things you like. The things you don’t like, don’t play with them.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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