The Mary Sue Interview: Wizards of the Coast’s Kimberly Kreines and Melissa Li on Magic: The Gathering
Howdy, gang! We’ve got a special treat for you today. We recently had the opportunity to interview two of the creative leads over at Wizards of the Coast about their work in Magic: The Gathering. We talked to creative designers Kimberly Kreines and Melissa Li about Magic: The Gathering, its diverse worlds, the creative process, and if they had any advice for women who want to enter game design.
Jessica Lachenal (TMS): How did you both get into Magic: The Gathering? What drew you to the game specifically?
Kimberly Kreines: I have always had a voracious appetite for strategy games, from Risk, to Settlers of Catan, to Diplomacy—I can’t get enough. So when someone in my Board Game Group introduced me to Magic, I was instantly hooked. It was the game that kept giving.
There were always new cards, new mechanics, new stories, and new strategies to master. The constant evolution and ever-changing challenge are the things that drew me to the game, and the reasons I kept playing for so long. They are also the reasons that I love designing the game, worlds, and stories now.
Melissa Li: I first got into Magic back in middle school. I remember at that time the primary appeal of the game was the visuals and the glimpses into wildly imaginative fantasy worlds. Years later, I took off some time playing a lot of computer games as I started being interested in hardware. By the time I came back to Magic again a few years ago, my reasons for playing changed. On top of the beautiful visuals that had drawn me in in the first place, now it was for the social experience.
A lot of my digital gaming experiences tended to be opponents or teammates I’d play with for a half hour or so then never hear from again. Playing Magic, I found people that I could meet and get to know face-to-face. It became a way to meet new people, or to just hang out with old friends. It helped a lot that my friends and I loved building things, and decks was just another thing to build.
We’d get together for 1 on 1 over coffee, or form a big group and head to prereleases (with the team t-shirts we’d made), or hang out at a bar or something and lovingly talk-trash to each other over speculations on the settings and stories. There’s something deeply personal and memorable for me about these tabletop experiences that stick with me.
TMS: What about the world? What was the point at which you both decided to dive into the lore and background of the game?
Kreines: I dove in right from the start. I’m one of those people who reads the flavor introduction to every board game I play; I want to know what it really means to be a settler of Catan, or why the people of Germany need power from the grid. I could feel the weight of Magic’s lore coalescing around me from the moment I opened my first booster pack—I was jittery with excitement, and I wanted to know everything I could, everything that was out there to know. I was not disappointed.
Li: Mirage. Mirage was a Magic set based loosely on African legends and introduced Teferi, one of the game’s first big Planeswalker characters. That world and the images that went with it were so striking and different than anything else I’d ever seen in most fantasy properties before.
TMS: Magic: The Gathering has a really strong history of well-rounded and diverse characters, especially when it comes to women. How important is that to you personally?
Kreines: As a consumer, I love to see diversity in all forms of entertainment, from games, to TV shows, to movies and books. It just makes for more real, more fun, and more meaningful worlds. As a designer and writer, I’m thrilled to be working for a brand that is actively pursuing more ways to create diverse characters and worlds.
Li: When I started playing, I was a pretty shy pre-teen in a mostly white school trying to figure out myself and other people. I’m pretty sure a lot of people at that age don’t feel like they belong, regardless of their background. But for me, feeling and looking different was a big deal. I was reading a lot of fantasy then, and at the time most of the characters there were Western, Tolkein-esque men. I liked the stories but I identified as an observant reader instead of the active protagonist.
But when I saw my first Magic cards, there were traditional Western elves and dragons, but alongside them were a lot of different faces I hadn’t seen in fantasy before. There were people of all different shapes, genders, ethnicities, roles, and mythos all together. And the mix wasn’t just in the character art, it was in the mix of male and female illustrators who created Magic’s art.
It might not sound like much, but it was really important for me growing up to see people like myself being successful and fitting in. Personally, the crowd of people that I’ve played Magic come from a lot of backgrounds. They’re women, men, scientists, engineers, club DJ’s, actors, writers, a professional Poker player, web developers, graphic designers. I’d hope to give each of them some characters or actions that felt like they similarly helped them feel like they belong.
TMS: At what point do you consider a new character design “done”? Is design ever done?
Kreines: Just like any piece of art, the design for a new character is never really “done.” The more time we spend thinking about a character the more they evolve, the more complex they become, and the more new aspects of their personality we learn. But at some point there is a deadline—the work has to go out, so that’s when the character is “done.”
Li: One of my favorite parts about working on the story team is getting to watch our characters grow and develop over time. In Origins we first got the “back story” to our five most prominent characters—our Planeswalkers. Then in Battle for Zendikar and in Oath of the Gatewatch, we get to watch them interact with each other and that’s been a lot of fun to be part of.
In general, we try to have our characters be consistent with their histories. But we do believe that like real people, our characters should be able to learn and grow while we watch them. In a lot of ways, the lack of “done-ness” on these characters is what makes them so much fun to make stories about.
TMS: You both come from what most folks call “hard science” backgrounds. Has that helped or informed your work at Wizards at all?
Kreines: Absolutely. I spent many years studying math, science, and engineering. My statistics and engineering background have proved to be invaluable for game design and game theory/strategy, as has my research background. I’m willing to try just about anything as a card mechanic; that’s what a researcher does. I come up with the craziest design, develop a hypothesis about gameplay, test it, and then refine and iterate.
Sometimes my designs have to be tossed, other times they just need a little polishing and they become gems. Either way it’s a lot of fun to test them. My hard science approach to research has also helped to inform the way I build worlds.
My first step when starting a project is to scour the internet, libraries, and external sources for as much information I can find relating to whatever it is I want to create. I have spreadsheets filled with documentation about various cultures, societies, ecologies, and architectures. All of the information I find informs the way I build the fantasy world, it’s my source of inspiration.
Li: Absolutely! The reason that I (and a lot of my scientist/engineer friends) love Magic so much is that it provides an expansive fantasy that had an underlying structure and logic we could interact with in meaningful ways. We give people game pieces that can fit together in all kinds of interesting ways, and then allow them to create their own stories and experiences from them.
A couple years ago at my old lab, I was sitting through a lengthy, perfunctory meeting during preview season for the newest card set (Khans of Tarkir). I was browsing my phone for preview cards when I get a tap on the shoulder from the guy sitting next to me. I look over, ready to be apologetic, and I realize he’s looking at the same set of previews and he’s indicating that the card I’m staring at is totally sweet. True story.
TMS: Do you have any advice for women or girls who might want to get into creative writing or game design?
Kreines: My advice is: Do it! Just start doing what you love. If you love to write, start writing. If you love to design games, start designing. Do it in your spare time. Don’t do it for money, do it for you. And don’t give up. Ever. Really. Never. It took me over a decade to get this job. A decade of late nights and early mornings writing, a decade of studying craft, a decade of throwing out hundreds—actually probably thousands—of pages, a decade of “no’s,” failures, and tears.
But through it all I never once stopped. Sure, there were times when I considered it, but I never let that little voice of doubt win out. Don’t stop trying. Ever.
And finally, even when you get “there,” know you’re not really “there.” I am still faced with daily challenges, failures, and the desire to always improve, to hone my craft, and to personally evolve.
Li: This one’s a tough question for me to address. Doing creative work for games is something that I’d always dreamed about, but until recently I never thought it was something achievable. It was my experience that having a widely varied background as well as keeping a formal portfolio of your creative work was a large part of this.
But as with any job, the biggest part is simply being at the right place at the right time. If you’re looking for work, it’s much easier when you are able to be patient and watch for opportunities that might arise.
TMS: If you could live in any of the worlds either of you have built, what world would that be?
Kreines: One I can’t tell you about yet! Actually, it’s true, all of the worlds I have built are still in the pipeline. But if I could live in one of Magic’s released worlds, it would be Zendikar. I LOVE hiking and I want, so badly, to hike through the vastwood, climb onto a floating waterfall, and jump off one of the cliffs into the Halimar.
Melissa: Well I’ve joined fairly recently, and we tend to spend a couple years or so between the creative development of a world and its release to the public. But as far as current known worlds that Magic’s produced, it has to be Kaladesh—no question! This is a world that we saw in Origins, and it’s filled with intricate machines and brilliant inventors.
It reminds me so much of hanging out at a Maker Faire, or some of the exoskeletons at the lab I used to work at, and some of the people who trained me in machine shops. Again, I feel like they’ve captured part of my experience in a set of images.
TMS: What books are you reading right now? Comics?
Kreines: I’m on a Brandon Sanderson kick right now. After reading Steelheart and Fireflight, I started on the Mistborn trilogy, which I’m now on the final book of, and I have Elantris for when I finish that. I’m also reading Armada, by Ernest Cline (author of Ready Player One), The Aeronaut’s Windlass, by Jim Butcher, and The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. I’m not happy unless I’m reading at least three books at a time.
Melissa: I started reading Nimona when it was a webcomic and just picked up the TPB so I could distribute it to friends (the feels in that book are so, so Real). I also picked up some stuff by Chip Zdarksy, in large part because I already followed him on Twitter (he’s an amazingly funny and sweet individual). I love Pretty Deadly for its innovative narrative style and some really breathtaking artwork.
The Fables series still captivates me after a number of years. Beautiful art and such an epic fantasy storyline that spans expansive swatches of time and space. In general, the growth of comics and graphic novels over the last ten years has been nothing short of astounding.
I’m so delighted to live in an age where I’m surrounded by amazing art and writing. I’m mid-way through reading Gardens of the Moon, but I have a terrible weakness for tearing through Terry Prachett novels too.
TMS: Kimberly, Magic: The Gathering has an incredibly rich, long-running history. What was it like to dive into that sandbox?
Kreines: It was like getting ten years of holiday and birthday presents all rolled into one. By that I mean it was uber exciting, and also incredibly overwhelming. The richness provides endless fodder for creating, but it also carries with it the need to be handled with care and diligence.
We are holding decades of lore on our shoulders. This isn’t something any of us take lightly. We want to do the past justice—for our fans and for ourselves (we are huge fans too!). And at the same time we want to create the best future possible. It is a challenge, but one that we all enjoy.
TMS: Given your long history of writing, how different is it writing for yourself versus, say, writing for Wizards? Is it different at all?
Kreines: The actual writing isn’t very different. I’m still crafting stories, characters, and worlds that I care about and pour my heart and soul into. But what is different is that I get the privilege of working on an amazing team of some of the most creative and inspiring minds I have ever met. This is more awesome than I ever thought it could be. It means that I never have to worry about getting writer’s block, or getting stuck with a plot or character.
If I’m having trouble, all I have to do is turn around and ask my team. Collaborating with them is one of my favorite things about my job. Everything we do together is infinitely better because we all worked on it.
TMS: Are there any characters that you find yourself particularly attached to? Why them?
Kreines: I will forever love Narset. She was the first character I got to really dig into and make my own. She is a lot like me… like, a lot.
TMS: What about storylines and arcs? Anything that resonates in particular?
Kreines: For me, it’s Zendikar’s arc in [Battle For Zendikar]. I’m an unabashed environmentalist, I care deeply for the world and all of the creatures that live here, and it hurts me deeply when I see something threatening it.
There was a lot I could relate to in the BFZ storyline as Zendikar is threatened by the Eldrazi. There were times when I just wanted to write: “and then the Eldrazi left and everything was going to be alright.” But of course nothing is that easy. Not in real life, and not in stories. We have to work to protect and save the wonders all around us.
TMS: You said that your favorite thing about working at Wizards is that you get to spend your time thinking about storytelling with your team—in your opinion, why is storytelling important? Is it something that the world could do better?
Kimberly: Storytelling is what allows us to explore our feelings, connect to other people, and strive to understand who we are—and therefore endeavor to become better people. Storytelling is the glue that holds humanity together. It is by sharing our stories with each other that we learn, and constantly redefine, what it means to be alive.
I believe that any chance we get we should be telling stories—sharing with others our struggles, our fears, our triumphs, and our hopes and dreams for the future. And we should do this in an honest way; if we open up to each other, if we see each other for the wonderful, beautiful human beings that we all are, I do believe the world will be a better place.
TMS: Melissa, I’m told you’re a fairly recent addition to the story team. How has it been getting acquainted with the folks on your team?
Li: Story team is a collection of some exceptional people, both personally and professionally. I’ll be honest, when I first got in I was kind of (really) star-struck. Discussing stories and world building with people whose work I’d been consuming and following on social media felt so surreal!
A lot of the experience has been reminding myself to play it cool and to be confident in my own work instead of feeling intimidated. But the entire team has been wonderfully supportive in helping me move forward as a writer, and I feel like I’m getting my footing as I go.
TMS: Your fandom is readily apparent by your incredible cosplay work. What is it about cosplay that interests you the most?
Li: Thank you! Like my love for Magic, a lot of my interest in cosplay is very social. When I’m in costume at conventions I get to meet so many different people who are into the same fandoms and who want to collaborate on making fan-art photography pieces, hang out, play games, or who just want to say ‘hi’. It’s a way that I get to involve other people with the worlds and characters that I see in my head, and to pull them into reality. Normally I can be pretty nervous and shy around new people, but the feeling of adopting a familiar but different character’s persona can feel very empowering.
Another aspect of cosplay is that, like Magic or science or engineering, there’s a lot of specificity and logic that’s involved in costume-making. You’ve got to design pieces to work in real life, schedule out your workflow, test materials, and build prototypes.
When I started building lighted costumes I learned how to use the same microcontroller that I later used when I worked on medical diagnostics. It’s a great way to learn a lot of practical skills while sharing your progress with friends.
TMS: What makes you want to cosplay a character? What draws you to them?
Li: The characters that I find most interesting to cosplay are ones that I feel personally connected to in some way—the process is such a labor of love that you can’t risk getting tired of whatever your subject is! I love doing gender-swapped cosplays. It’s often a non-literal translation, so it gives me a little space to customize the costume as I’d like to.
(via Zeze Photography)
Given the history of male actors cross-dressing into female roles, it feels wonderfully subversive to adapt male costumes to be female adaptations. Finally, I’m a sucker for any character with lighted costume elements. I first learned about hardware from my Dad when I was building a computer as a teenager, and put all kinds of silly lights into the chassis. I’ve been hooked ever since.
(via Undiscovered Photography)
The big glowing dragon head I made for Sarkhan was my primary motivator for doing that costume!
TMS: I’m told you like making stuff; is there a dream “build project” that you’d like to get off the ground? Anything you’ve thought about but never got the chance to work on?
Li: One of my favorite parts of Magic is its vast store of inspirational art, so there’s lots of aspirational material to build out there! I’ve gotten started on a big new one, and hopefully it will come to fruition sometime this coming summer.
As far as actual Magic goes, I’d love to have more multiplayer products out there. Multiplayer is my favorite format because it encourages more complex interactions between players (aka. “shenanigans”) and often involves a lot more discussion time.
TMS:Is there anything you can share about some of the projects you’re working on right now? I know you’re working on some unannounced stuff, and I can only imagine what it’s like to have to stay quiet about things!
Li: I’m excited to be the creative lead for an upcoming set that is slated for release around 2017! Though sadly I can’t say much more at this time. I’ll have some writing and additional work that will appear in Shadows Over Innistrad, but I’ll have to keep most of the rest of it under wraps at this point. I can’t wait until they are announced to let people know!
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