Seeing the Forest For the Trees and Tapping It for Green Mana
This is the first in a series of posts about retraining myself in how I watch for trends and preferences in the gaming community.
Magic Commander product, 2011. Image ©Wizards of the Coast, used without permission (fingers crossed)
A little over a month ago I had a job interview at Wizards of the Coast for a position designing new products to fit into their line of Magic: The Gathering supplemental products (Commander decks, Fat Packs, etcetera). I went in with a pretty high degree of confidence that I would be a slam-dunk for the position, what with twenty-four years of experience playing Magic and seven years of making game products under my belt.
At the end of the process, the hiring manager, Mark Globus, told me that on paper my resumé looked about as perfect for the job as any manager could have asked for. Before he told me that though, he broke it to me that I would, unfortunately, not be getting the job. In a series of questions he had for me during a prior phone interview, he’d been looking at my read on the likes and dislikes of the greater Magic community and how they related to the current array of Magic products and components.
In an almost alarming number of those insights I’d given as examples, my read was completely out of line with what the consumer base felt. After 24 years of playing Magic, I’d shown that I was either entirely out of touch with other players…
OR — I hope — I had unwittingly fallen into a combo-trap of looking at sample sizes that are too small and not asking enough (or the right) questions about why people have the opinions they do about Magic products. If this is the case, it’s something I can fix. In the subject of Magic preferences, I had become a prime example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Without the self-awareness of metacognition, low-ability people cannot objectively evaluate their actual competence or incompetence. 
– Justin Kruger & David Dunning
In other words, I didn’t know that I didn’t know what people wanted, so instead I thought that I did. The hiring manager needed someone who instinctively picked up on these sorts of details and insights, and I hadn’t developed that skill properly.
In taking the time to give me feedback regarding why I’d fallen short of landing the job, Mark had done something to help me be better prepared the next time a position like the one I’d interviewed for opened up. It was one of those above-and-beyond things that he didn’t need to do, but I’m grateful for.
Obviously, missing out on the job was not the initial plan, so there’s a new plan. I aim to shore up the weakness Mark identified for the next time a job in that department gets posted. I have a muscle that needs exercise, and I’ve started in on a new training regimen to turn the weakness into a strength.
My first research poll on the Magic: The Seattling Facebook group
My first step was to go back and analyze the answers I’d given Mark in the phone interview. The second would be to find the answers the Magic hive-mind would have given.
In broad terms, Mark asked me for my opinions about a few existing supplemental Magic products and the components of some of those products. We talked about the Deckbuilder’s Toolkits, Commander decks, the Commander’s Arsenal, the From the Vault series, and a handful of others. He asked if there were things I’d change, improve, add, or remove from those products. I gave answers that came straight from my own opinions and experience, and reached back to opinions I’d heard from folks I frequently played Magic with.
The oversized and standard-sized versions of a Commander card
For example, when Mark asked me how I might improve the Commander products, I went with something I’d personally wanted to see more of: oversized foil cards that correspond to the commanders the decks are built around.
I’ve purchased nearly every Commander deck that’s been released by Wizards of the Coast. These products are 100 card decks meant to be played in groups of 3 or more players. Constructing a deck for the Commander format has special rules, one of which is that the deck must have as single card that the deck is built around, called the “commander” — hence the format’s name. One of the things I’ve always liked, from an aesthetic standpoint, is that the products are displayed at retail with a double-sized card of the commander for the deck showing through the packaging’s clear plastic facing. The card is big, the art is cool, the text is readable from several feet away, and if that wasn’t enough to catch your eye, the entire card is printed on a foil card stock that shines and glimmers and jumps right off the shelf. They’re the headliner on the box, and they’re a playable component of the game.
I love them. I love playing with them. As a product designer, I love how they “sell” the product with a combination of definition and style. Before I began this exercise, the only issue I’d had with them is that the assortment of commanders the oversized cards exist for only accounts for a small subsection of the greater game’s hundreds of possible commanders you can build a deck around.
This poses a problem for me though; I have a personal emotional stake in these cards appearing in the Commander products. I had let myself become skewed in my perception of the relationship between the oversized foil commander cards and the Magic players who buy the Commander products.
Almost every Friday night, I head over to a comic book shop a few blocks from my office to play Magic. While we wait for players to sign up for the draft event, several of the regulars will play Commander to kill time. Most of the decks that are played are built from scratch by the players. This means that most of the commanders chosen by the players who built those decks aren’t ones that come from the official Commander products, and therefore don’t have oversized foil versions to use. Instead, you see players who seek out other “upgraded” versions of the commanders for their decks — a commander deck is an extension of a player’s creativity, so “points for style” are widely appreciated. Some players seek out the standard foil cards, some prefer foreign printings, and others spring for altered-art versions.
My assumption: Oversized foil cards = points for style, ergo players who like style points like oversized foil cards.
The problem here was one of confirmation bias and Dunning-Kruger. Since other players never asked me why I use the oversized cards, I never thought to ask others why they didn’t use them. I didn’t even think about whether I should ask why others like or dislike using them, because I liked them, and the logic for my own preference was sound.
Compounding my misread were comments from other players that, in retrospect, only painted a partial picture of the problem. Just a few days earlier I’d heard one of the Friday Night regulars mention that they’d “love to see Marchesa wind up in an official Commander deck”. He was referring to a card that’s popular among those who play the format, one that can be used as a commander for a deck, and that has not yet been featured in a Commander product release. Without asking any further questions, I took this to mean that he wanted an oversized version of the card. Why else would he specifically want a card that already existed outside of the Commander products to be featured in one?
To me, it was a given that players wanted the oversized cards. I saw that there was a very simple reason they couldn’t use them. I didn’t question whether they wouldn’t. I understood a small part of why oversized foils weren’t used more often, but I didn’t understand all of it, and I didn’t look for deeper reasons.
When Mark explained to me that the market research Wizards of the Coast had done indicated that players really didn’t like oversized cards, I had a little bit of whiplash. I’d given an answer to an interview question that I thought was on point. Presented with a question I hadn’t anticipated, I gave an answer based on my own experience and the data I’d collected through informal and incidental observations. It turned out that those observations weren’t as complete as I’d needed them to be. If I ever wanted a second shot at joining Mark’s product design team, I’d need to change that.
Since then, I’ve been asking around at the stores I play Magic at. I’ve picked the brains of people I work with and have played Commander with in the past. I’ve begun posting polls in a Facebook forum with a strong community of Seattle-based Magic players. I wanted a definitive, broadly sourced take on whether players liked the oversized cards, how frequently they saw play, and why players might prefer to not use them.
I went back and talked to the guy who wanted Marchesa to be featured in an official Commander deck. His reason had nothing to do with the lack of an oversized card. It was entirely because the MSRP for an entire Commander deck is around $30-35, whereas buying a single standard-sized foiled copy of the Marchesa card will set you back nearly $60. Seeing Marchesa reprinted as a featured part of an official product would give him a functional duplicate of the shiny card he wanted at half the price. If the oversized Marchesa came along with it, he’d probably still only use the standard-sized one.
But why no love for the oversized cards in general?
It has a lot to do with basic logistics. The cards are, as should be obvious by now, bigger than conventional Magic cards. This means that nearly all of the secondary accessories — particularly card sleeves and deck boxes — aren’t compatible with non-conventional cards. Nearly all players already have a supply of sleeves and boxes to store cards and decks in, and those sleeves and boxes weren’t built with oversized cards in mind.
Official Commander decks come with a paperboard deck box included; these boxes are made to reliably hold the 100-card deck plus it’s corresponding oversized card(s), but they’re not as durable as the plastic deck boxes most players use. The paperboard boxes have a basic top-and-bottom two-part form, which can easily open up accidentally if a player throws it in a backpack — which is the most common way players pack their decks for transport. They’re not deep enough to hold the 100 sleeved cards, and since so many players won’t play their Magic decks without sleeves, this alone makes the paperboard box functionally obsolete.
Sidebar: From a visual design standpoint, the paperboard boxes have no markings beyond general coloration as to which deck belongs in them. It’s not an important detail on a retail shelf since the oversized foil is packaged in front of the deck box, but when you’ve put all your boxed decks on a shelf, it can be difficult to remember which deck is which without opening several boxes.
When it comes down to it, the single largest factor that makes the oversized cards unwanted by players has nothing to do with availability, it’s keeping them safe. Without a way to prevent them from getting destroyed while traveling to and from places where people get together to play, the best way to maintain them is to leave them in a closet at home.
Third-party accessories for protecting oversized cards do exist, but they’re something of a specialty item, and not many Friendly Local Game Stores keep them in stock. Oversized sleeves can be ordered online, but they come in counts that far exceed most players’ needs. Deck boxes that can accommodate oversized cards are available as well, but again, they’re not generally stocked in large quantities by brick-and-mortar retailers, and players aren’t as likely to invest in one when they can just use a box they already have and leave the oversized card at home.
I store my Commander decks differently than the majority of players; I keep them in their native state, unsleeved and in the paperboard deck boxes that come with the product. When I travel with them, I carry multiple decks in a larger cardboard box that I once received some other Amazon delivery in. This entirely gets around the issues that other players have, and functionally made those issues invisible to me. Moving forward, I need to be mindful that the things that shape my own opinion of a product or component may not line up with the factors that shape those opinions for the greater community.
There were a handful of other reasons I heard from people regarding their disinterest in oversized cards, most of which came down to the ergonomics of actually having them in play (or out of play) in an actual game setting. Some people talked about their tendency to curl more than standard-sized cards. One person I spoke to did cite unavailability of their favorite commanders as a reason they didn’t play them, but before I could feel any vindication, they instead showed me the alternate-art standard-sized card they’d had custom-made for the deck they’d recently playing. It was gorgeous. I couldn’t blame them for being entirely satisfied with what they had.
My eyes are open. I just need to remember to open mine wider, and to use other peoples’ more often.
 Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David (1999). “Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. American Psychological Association. 77 (6): 1121–1134. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.64.2655 . doi:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1681. PMID 10626367. Citation reprinted from Wikipedia Commons.