An Interview with Modern Masters 2015 Lead Developer Tom LaPille

You started working for Wizards 7 years ago. Why did you want to work on Magic, and how did you get a job at Wizards?

I started wanting to work on Magic in 1998 when I realized that someone probably got paid to make it and that sounded cool. For a long time I put that idea away, but it came back near the end of college when nothing I did during the summer for work seemed fun enough to make a career out of. I decided that if I didn’t make money from playing games I was probably going to turn out to be a terrible degenerate, so that was when I started trying to get a job at Wizards.

When I chose that goal during the summer of 2007, I was basically a nobody in the Magic world. In order to become a someone instead, I started what I think was the first Magic strategy blog, got picked up by StarCityGames, used that writing credential to interview Aaron Forsythe at the 2007 World Championships, and afterward asked him if they had any jobs coming up. They did, I applied for it, and I got it.

A major part of why you were hired by Wizards included your work on building a Cube in a time when Cube was essentially not a thing. Where did your fascination with Cube come from? Does this fascination still hold, now that Cube has become a mainstream format and you can play it as much as you want?

The first Cube I ever saw was the one that Gabe Walls brought to Grand Prix Salt Lake City in 2006. The games looked fun, but what I really loved was the obvious amazing time that the other players were having with it. Gabe had created something, shared it with others, and made them very happy. I wanted to do that same thing, and that’s really the core motivation for every game designer that I enjoy working with. Cube was a very easy way for me to start doing that without passing through any gatekeepers, so I started doing it. Cube conveniently turned into a great brand for me to use to help get into Wizards, but that part wasn’t intentional.

I haven’t been as enchanted with Cube now that I’m a game designer by trade. Instead of sharing my games with 7 of my friends, I get to share them with hundreds of thousands of people all over the world. Working on my own Cube feels wastefully low-scale to me now, so these days I focus on playing competitive formats as I attempt to get back on the Pro Tour.

You started a development internship at Wizards in June 2008. What was that like? How did you expect it to be, and how did the reality differ from your expectations?

At the beginning, I played a lot of Magic, built a lot of decks, and made a lot of suggestions, which was the way I thought it would be. I must have done a good enough job, as they saw fit to keep me around. As I grew in experience, I led more and more game projects, like Archenemy and Masters Edition sets for Magic Online. Once that started going well, my job evolved into more human-based directions. I managed Sam Stoddard, Ian Duke, Ben Hayes, Adam Prosak, and Gerry Thompson while they were contractors, and I also did things like push the Modern format through Brand and Organized Play at Aaron’s behest.

As a developer you worked on Magic 2010, Magic 2011, Worldwake, Mirrodin Besieged, New Phyrexia, Innistrad, Return to Ravnica, and Khans of Tarkir. That means you were responsible for the reprint of Lightning Bolt, made the Titans, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Stoneforge Mystic, Batterskull, Mental Misstep, Green Sun’s Zenith, Blightsteel Colossus, Snapcaster Mage, Liliana of the Veil, and Treasure Cruise.

What. Were. You. Thinking?!

I helped make a lot of Magic cards. Not all of them are perfect. We do our best, just like everyone does, and most of the time it works out all right. Sometimes, though…

You were on the design teams of the aforementioned sets. But the sets that you had control over as head developer—Dark Ascension, Born of the Gods, Dragons of Tarkir, and Magic 2012—are relatively tame. There are a bunch of sweet cards in there, but nothing that ever threatened to break any format. Were you extra-cautious about your design leads after experiencing so many busted cards firsthand?

Some people who have worked on Magic really enjoy pushing the power level of individual cards. I don’t enjoy that as much—my favorite Magic formats are the ones that are balanced, with lots of ebb and flow, and with a top power band that’s very tight. Huntmaster of the Fells is the card I’m most proud of. It won the Pro Tour and is a totally sweet design, but was very close in power to the rest of the top cards at the time. I’d rather create a fun overall experience than a few spikes in power.

You should give me credit for Lingering Souls, though. That one is probably the pushiest card in any of my sets. How I wish that flashback cost were 2B instead of 1B…

Another thing that seems to be almost a leitmotif in your career at Wizards is you working with lots of reprints. You had your hands in all the M-Core Sets, you worked on the MTGO reprint sets Masters Edition III and IV, and you were the head developer of Modern Masters 2015. Is putting sets together from existing cards something that you are particularly good at, maybe due to your experience with building Cubes?

That may be a skill I have, but I developed that skill because of how much fun I have doing it. I get a huge kick out of recontextualizing things that someone thinks they understand. In Masters Edition III, red and green are the flying colors and Riven Turnbull is a pretty good card. In Masters Edition IV, the land slot contains the Urzatron lands instead of basics and you can actually draft a Tron deck. Magic 2012 contains Smallpox, Grim Lavamancer, and Zombie Infestation, which all seed Innistrad’s graveyard themes. Finding the perfect reprint always gave me a lot of joy.

That said, at this point I think it’s realistic to say that I’m one of the most skilled people on Earth at creating new Magic experiences out of existing cards. I did it for two years before I got to Wizards, and have done it quite a lot since then. I’ve discovered thanks to Twitter that not everyone agrees with my taste in Cube, but I think most people are designing their Cubes for their friends and themselves as opposed to a mass market, which leads to different decisions. My last publicly released Cube was the Khans of Tarkir update, and I liked that list very much.

Your last large project at Wizards was the development lead of Modern Masters 2015. The card choices for Constructed seem very obviously driven by card availability for Modern. However, the other card choices were probably mostly driven by the desire to create an awesome Limited environment. What were your goals for Modern Masters 2015 Limited? How did you decide which kinds of draft strategies to put into the set?

Modern Masters was distinctive in that its strategies were very defined and very linear. Many of the less experienced players in Magic R&D loved that, as they had an easier time finding something to do in a draft that worked to a satisfactory level in Modern Masters than they did in our mainline booster expansions, which tend to have more subtle synergies that are more challenging to execute on. I found that aspect of the set frustrating at times, as there wasn’t as much room to explore as I would have preferred.

Erik Lauer’s design vision for Masters Edition 2015 was to retain the strategic accessibility that Modern Masters offered while also creating lots of more subtle synergies. I found that vision compelling, and adopted it through the development process. Our execution of proliferate is my favorite example of this, as the proliferate cards synergize with charge counters on artifacts, -1/-1 counters from wither creatures, and +1/+1 counters on graft creatures. A green/black token deck might notice that it has two Aquastrand Spiders and a Gnarlid Pack, and take a Grim Affliction higher than it would have otherwise. I think that proliferate was under-utilized in Scars of Mirrodin block, and I’m glad to have given it a chance to shine here.

Which of the draft strategies that you put into Modern Masters 2015 were the easiest to design, and which did you have the most trouble with? What is your favorite draft strategy in the set?

The easiest strategies were the highly linear ones. Black/white Spirits and arcane, blue/red Elementals, and blue/white artifacts didn’t leave a lot of room for creativity outside of figuring out where to put certain cards to get the power levels right. Thief of Hope and Inner-Flame Igniter, for example, bounced around between common and uncommon while we tuned the power levels of the different strategies to match, but there was no doubt that those cards would be in the set.

I had the most trouble getting the green/red domain decks to work. Part of this was that the deck wasn’t obvious at all to lower-level players, and part of it was that some of the cards for that deck are strange. It’s also easy for that deck to not make you want to extend into all 5 colors, which was what made the deck distinctive to me. Putting Dragonsoul Knight at common and Worldheart Phoenix at uncommon was what finally made that deck work.

I most enjoy the 5-color red/green decks. I like decks that give me some open-endedness in what cards I play and what direction I go, and decks that play 5 colors give me lots of flexibility to do many things.

The original Modern Masters was probably the most complex Limited format ever, and yet it was highly successful. How did this success influence the development of Modern Masters 2015? Did you try to go even deeper, and allow for even crazier decks, or do you think that Modern Masters showed the upper complexity limit, and beyond that lies madness?

On an individual card level, I don’t think going more complex than Modern Masters is a great idea, or even necessary. I do think, though, that going more strategically complex is absolutely possible and worthwhile, and I hope that the set ends up being more complex in that way. My goal was to use as many cards as possible that had many applications and synergies. Wings of Velis Vel, for example, is more powerful than normal on graft creatures and also triggers Thief of Hope. Smokebraider can cast Nameless Inversion. Skyreach Manta and bloodthirst creatures can be proliferated. The network of interactions should be deep enough to be interesting for quite a long time, but we didn’t have to add more any words on the cards to achieve that.

Modern Masters was a great experiment for Wizards. The only product in existence that is conceptually close is Chronicles. That was 20 years ago, and not well received. At which point did you believe that Modern Masters would become a huge success? When did you decide that you wanted a followup, and who makes such decisions?

We decided to do it again pretty quickly, and Aaron Forsythe is the guy in R&D who decides that kind of thing.

After more than half a decade at Wizards you quit your job at Wizards. When did you decide it was time to move on and why does anybody quit their dream job anyway?

I had made all the Magic cards I felt like I wanted to make, I missed the Pro Tour, and I wanted to try to make digital games. Between those three factors, Wizards had stopped being my dream job. If at some point I feel like I’m done with competitive Magic, though, it wouldn’t surprise me if I ended up back there in a role that wasn’t front-line Magic design.

Thanks for having me!

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