If you click on a link and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. Learn more.

How Magic: The Gathering’s biggest fan landed the role of a lifetime as its head designer

Mark Rosewater on discovering the card game, working with Richard Garfield and balancing his professional and personal passion.

Mark Rosewater is someone who brims with passion. Speaking to him in person, he’s a fount of enthusiasm that seems to overflow and sweep up anyone standing nearby as he runs through aspect after aspect of the trading card game on which he has worked for almost a quarter of a century: Magic: The Gathering.

Rosewater’s passion and personable nature has served him well as the most public persona of Magic: The Gathering. Every day, he answers questions from fans on social media, runs polls, produces web comics, posts articles on the trading card game’s blog and records a podcast on his drive to work. (At least until the recent lockdown, that is.) On Fridays, he works from home and writes Making Magic, the regular behind-the-scenes look at the game’s creation that Rosewater has penned regularly since 2002.

That’s just the Mark Rosewater seen by the outside world; as head of MTG’s design team, internally Rosewater is the current custodian of the venerated card game and responsible for the direction of its sets - including the four major yearly releases for the Standard format - and cards. His days are largely taken up by discussions with different MTG design teams, several of which he leads, to lay out the vision for the game’s future and explore potential gameplay and themes for upcoming releases. Then there’s the meetings with other parts of Wizards of the Coast - the division of toy and game giant Hasbro responsible for both Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons - to keep the rest of the company up to speed with the game. Somehow, Rosewater usually finds enough time to still squeeze in a couple of daily playtest matches of the next set.

“In-between it all, I’ll monitor social media and post a thing or two or twelve,” he adds.

Rosewater’s championing of Magic: The Gathering goes far beyond professional obligation. Before he even leaves the house in the morning, he’s typically replied to messages on social media, answered questions on his Tumblr blog, Blogatog, posted the ‘Tales from the Pit’ photo comic and conducted the daily Head-to-Head poll on Twitter while getting ready. During his drive home, he often listens to the podcast recorded on the way to the office. At home, he responds to questions on his blog while his family are doing other things, almost up to the moment his head hits the pillow. When he wakes, he does it all again.

“I am so thankful to have a job that I love so much,” Rosewater says. “I believe that the secret sauce to doing my job well is having such a close bond with the players who tell me what they want out of the game.”

The secret sauce to doing my job well is having such a close bond with the players.

Rosewater’s understanding of Magic: The Gathering’s players and their attachment to the trading card game comes from his own lifelong adoration. Introduced to tabletop gaming at a young age by his father, who would often play party games along with the rest of his family, Rosewater was gifted a copy of Dungeons & Dragons for his bar mitzvah by his first-grade teacher. Rosewater’s childhood love of tabletop games led him to take a side job in a local game store while working as a runner and, later, writer in Hollywood during the early nineties. (Rosewater’s credits include two episodes of US sitcom Rosanne.)

“I was going stir crazy writing alone in my house - I was a television writer in Hollywood at the time - and knew I needed a part-time job that let me interact with people,” he recalls. “I chose a game store because I was passionate about games.”

It was while working at the game store that Rosewater was introduced to Magic: The Gathering by customers asking about the then-brand new trading card game, released just weeks beforehand. Intrigued, he sought out some cards from the game’s first print run, known as the Alpha set.

“My first game of Magic was at a game convention in Los Angeles in late August of 1993,” he says. “I’d finally found the game on sale and bought enough to play with. I was then taught how to play by someone else at the convention. He didn’t do the best job and my first game was a totally confusing experience. I then spent the next week going through the rulebook and playing games against myself.”

Magic: The Gathering trading card game cards
Rosewater has worked on Magic: The Gathering as a designer since 1996, contributing to dozens of sets and thousands of cards.

Soon enough, he was hooked. After reading the first issue of The Duelist, Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: The Gathering magazine, in the autumn of 1993, Rosewater began writing a puzzle column for the quarterly publication. It was while writing for The Duelist that Rosewater first encountered Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield, who was familiar with Rosewater’s name from reading his column.

“I first met Richard at a trading card game convention in San Francisco called Mana Fest,” Rosewater says. “He invited me to join the board games that were going on in his hotel room and I was beyond ecstatic to get a chance to play with Richard.”

Rosewater’s work on The Duelist eventually led him to write and contribute to articles and books on Magic: The Gathering, followed by freelance work for the game’s internal research and development division. In 1996, Rosewater joined the Magic: The Gathering team as a designer under the guidance of Garfield.

“He would go on to become my mentor at Wizards and teach me a great deal about game design,” Rosewater says. “He left the company many years ago, but I try to get him to freelance on a Magic expansion every once in a while. The last set he worked on was Dominaria.”

Magic: The Gathering Magic World Cup players
The Pro Tour - now called the Mythic Championship - helped codify the competitive Magic: The Gathering scene.

Alongside then-brand manager Skaff Elias, Rosewater played a key role in launching the Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour in 1996, the tournament series now known as the Mythic Championship that lay the foundation for the game’s thriving competitive scene.

“The creation of the Pro Tour was one of the most important decisions that Wizards ever made as a company - hats off to Skaff Elias for that,” he says. “While there is much more to Magic than just tournaments, I think it’s wonderful that we’ve found a way to let a lot of players tap into their competitive side. It also led to our robust organised play scene, which is one of the backbones of the game.”

One of the things I loved about MTG was I felt like I got to be a game designer because I was given so much ability to shape how I played.

1997’s Tempest saw Rosewater serve as lead designer on a Magic: The Gathering set for the first time. The following year, he was responsible for the first experiment Un- set, Unglued, which played with MTG’s simple gameplay by introducing cards that wouldn’t be legal in tournaments due to their inventive bending and breaking of the rules. Since then, Rosewater has been involved with dozens of sets, including more than 28 on which he has served as lead or co-lead designer.

“Before Wizards of the Coast, I was a game player that dabbled in game design as a hobby,” Rosewater says. “Magic came along and captured my attention because it was such a fascinating game.

“One of the things I loved about it was how it hit so many of the buttons that game design had always hit for me. I felt like I, the player, got to be a game designer when I played because I was given so much ability to shape how I played. I could choose my cards. I could choose my mechanics. I could choose my theme. Eventually, I could even choose my format. Once I started working on Magic, I felt protective of that element of the game and worked hard to make sure that Magic always allowed the player to guide their play experience. In some ways, my progression from being a player to being someone behind the scenes was just having even more impact in how the game was played.”

Following Garfield’s departure from Wizards around the turn of the century, Rosewater took up the mantle of head designer for Magic: The Gathering in late 2003 - a position he has remained in since. While his position has been unchanged, the game’s growing popularity and expansion beyond the tabletop into digital app MTG Arena, spin-off board games and even an upcoming Netflix series means that Rosewater’s involvement has shifted since he was part of the five-person R&D team that helped bring it to prominence two decades ago.

“As Magic has gotten bigger, R&D has become more specialised in what we do,” he says. “Back in the day, I would work on most parts of the product, but today I’m much more focused in my area. This does mean that I end up making less finished Magic cards, but having designed thousands that have seen print, that’s okay. I love focusing more on the bigger picture.”

Magicthegathering-cardgame-documentary.jpg
MTG sets are created with a specific theme or gameplay element in mind, ranging from dramatic story arcs to inventive rules.

Although Rosewater has less of a hand in individual cards today, he continues to play a key role in the overall concepting of upcoming Magic: The Gathering sets, which are often created with a central theme or gameplay mechanic in mind.

“I’ve actually been very vigilant about staying with the part of Magic design I enjoy the most which is what we now call vision design: the part of the process that takes a blank page and creates the initial blueprint of what the set’s going to be about,” he says. “Many people are scared to death of the blank page, but I’m invigorated by it.”

Many people are scared to death of the blank page, but I’m invigorated by it.

Last year’s Throne of Eldraine, inspired by the legends of King Arthur and other classic folk and fairy tales, was a theme close to Rosewater’s heart that the designer waited for over a decade to bring to the table. Although he naturally has other ideas in mind for future sets, Rosewater refuses to give anything away for the time being - even if they take another decade to emerge.

“I can’t say [what they are]; some because I’m doing them and others because I haven’t given up the hope that one day I will,” he says. “If you ask others in R&D what my greatest strength is as a designer, some of them would say my stubbornness.”

Rosewater’s personal attachment to Magic: The Gathering has helped the card game to continue pushing over the years and made his involvement with its success a dream role: “It’s meant a lot to be a part of the game I love.” The designer’s place in MTG hit an emotional peak with the inclusion of a card named in honour of his nickname, Maro, in 2005’s ninth-edition core set. While Rosewater’s passion for the game burns just as brightly 20-plus years on, like many jobs that blur the separation between work and home, there have been moments made that much harder by his intimate connection.

“My job is more than just a job, so sometimes I find I bring the emotions of my work into my home life,” he says. “There have been many times where I was frustrated at home and just realised it was actually a frustration carried over from the latest design I was working on.”

Despite his close involvement with Magic: The Gathering for so many years, Rosewater remains seemingly unexhausted when it comes to ideas for where to take the game next and new experiments to try.

“I believe that game design improvement is much like game design in that it’s done through iteration. I design a set. I learn from that set. I design another one applying the things I learned from the last design. Continue that loop for, so far, 24 years,” he says.

“Because Magic has so much history built into it, as it’s a game that’s been evolving for 26 years, a lot of the lessons I learn from other games have to be adapted, but there’s always new things to try.”

Magic: The Gathering trading card game holographic cards
Rosewater has arguably become the face of modern Magic: The Gathering, taking over from his mentor and the game's creator Richard Garfield.

Whether behind the scenes or in conversation with players, it’s clear that Rosewater remains fully dedicated to the card game that has occupied most of his life. At some point, it’s conceivable that the designer may need to consider passing the baton to a new face to ensure Magic: The Gathering’s future, moving into the next stage of his long-lasting relationship with the game. For now, though, that bottomless well of passion doesn’t look to run dry.

“I’m sure there will come a time when I step back from my current role. I’m not sure if it will be a full retirement or just a shift into a less time-intensive role, but that time is far off on my radar,” Rosewater says. “I love doing what I do and I have no plans to slow down anytime soon.”