Today I get to tell the story of one of my favorite things I did at Wizards of the Coast, and something that became an institution much larger than the sum of the people who built it. The final culmination, for me at least, is this one-of-a-kind card, though that'll make more sense in a moment:
Playing Magic at WotC in 2008
I started at Wizards as a straight up intern in 2008 (they actually paid me to talk about my first week here). When I started there were very serious rules about playing Magic with customers in the "real world." In fact, signs were posted all around the Pit, where new Magic cards get made, that read, "DO NOT CROSS THIS LINE OR YOU'LL BE BANNED FROM THE DCI." They weren't a joke: upon getting hired at Wizards on teams like Magic R&D (now called Studio X) you were actually banned from tournament play in service of the idea that it feels bad when a Magic player gets paired against someone who makes the game and then loses to them. It also led to some funny scenarios when that ban list was inadvertently revealed and people had to ask why someone like Zac Hill had gotten banned (not a villain, just a clerical error).
So there I was, fresh off a cross-country drive and several years of playing 40-60 hours of Magic a week chasing and sometimes catching the dream of the Pro Tour, and now I couldn't play Magic anymore outside of work. "That's okay," I figured, "because there's probably lots of opportunities to play AT work." That was true as part of the Future Future League, trying to break formats that would exist far in the future. But there were brand new sets now that I hadn't played, and I simply couldn't handle the idea of not playing Magic with real cards.
Side Note Story Time
The very first playtest draft I did at Wizards featured Alara Reborn. Mark Rosewater had asked to join the draft and be seated next to me. As a 20-something intern this was exciting because a Big Name knew who I was and wanted to see what I had going on. In reality, what Mark wanted to see was my reaction to opening the Alara Reborn pack, the first set in Magic history that featured ALL gold cards. I'm sure as a designer the aim was entirely to see that moment of recognition when I saw 15 golden cards for the first time and realized, "OHHHHHH, they're ALL like this!" Unfortunately for Mark I ruined it entirely because the playtest packs were all black and white stickers stuck to real Magic cards and I was so focused on drafting a competitive deck my brain didn't even pick up on the set's gimmick until deckbuilding. Sorry Mark, Alara Reborn was a dope set, and I would have caught on if the playtest cards had been printed in color back then.
I checked around with folks after settling in a bit to see what events existed. Someone named John Grant ran Prerelease events, but those only happened with a new set release (I got to work with John on a team later, and his Prerelease events were super rad). I happened to grab lunch with a group that included the winner of the first Great Designer Search, Alexis Janson, and she mentioned something she ran called "Draft Club." It was pretty simple: there was an Outlook folder called "Draft Club" and anyone could "dibs" a spot, up to 8, and the folks who signed up for a spot would draft. This was much closer to what I was looking for, a weekly gathering to battle real, in-print Magic cards, but Draft Club had some flaws: it didn't fire every week because if you didn't get to 8 people you didn't have a pod, and you had to pay for your own boosters if you weren't a full-time employee (FTE). Full-timers got employee points, you see, but as an intern back then I was not afforded that luxury (I'll talk about the awesomeness that is the employee store some other day, but I want to note: interns DO get that benefit now).
Thanks to Alexis' efforts I was able to get a portion of my fix in, and having an earnest intern cajoling people to sign up got drafts firing a bit more often than I think they were before.
Draft Club Phase Two
From 2008-2011 I was a contractor for Wizards. That meant I'd come in for a job with a specific purpose, complete it, and go off and do my own thing for awhile. That left me free to do event coverage on the Pro Tour, build TheStarkingtonPost.com, and even play competitively when I didn't have a seat at Renton HQ. Each time I'd come in for a contract, I'd have to fire up Draft Club again to get people showing up regularly. This was the birth of the unofficial motto of the draft group at Wizards: "Seven in the queue!" Truth be told, I had co-opted this strategy from a tournament organizer in the Midwest whose identity I've long forgotten. They had figured out if you asked people if they wanted to draft you'd get a ho-hum response, but if you announced you had 7 people in your draft queue, implying you needed just one more person to commit to fire the pod right that moment, you'd get folks to hop in. The trick was that you didn't have 7 in the queue, but you could get the number you needed by making folks think that and then you could fire the pod, which was the sole aim you were focused on anyway. I became notorious for asking folks if they wanted to draft, then meeting their explanation for needing to do other things instead with the legendary, "Oh, there's seven in the queue..." and a sad face. That got folks most of the time, and pretty soon Draft Club was firing a queue consistently.
Second Side Note Story Time
I'm not kidding when I say this was a powerful marketing tool. At some point a Pro event was happening at the office in Renton at the same time as our weekly draft night. This meant a whole bunch of professional Magic players were eating pizza and drafting. At some point I'm trying to fire a pod, chatting with Mike Sigrist, Brad Nelson, Matt Nass, and several others who were humoring me listening to tales while mostly trying to focus on dinner and playtesting. I shared the "7 in the queue" story, got a laugh, then said, "Anyway, I've got seven in the queue to fire the last pod. Any of you interested?" and got enough folks to get up to fire the actual half-filled queue waiting for bodies moments after I had revealed how the ruse works.
Draft Club was growing, and we stumbled into a new problem: having more than 8 people who wanted to play consistently. At this point I was pretty much running things as Alexis was focused on her career being a lot higher up in the company than I was, so I made the call to expand the group to anyone who wanted to participate. This coincided with being converted to a full-time employee in 2011, meaning I no longer had to leave the company and rotate back in giving me a bit more ability to keep a stable play environment running consistently, and anyone who has organized a regular event knows consistency is absolutely key.
In addition to being at Wizards full-time, I also now had access to employee points, which meant free packs. Getting booster packs as a contractor felt like this scene from "Three Amigos":
While FTEs were casually tossing aside the booster pack equivalent of a full canteen of water in the desert, contractors and interns had to scrape 'em together however we could. With product points and the occasional generous pitying from folks like Aaron Forsythe, I vowed to instill a new policy: contractors/interns would have packs provided, but FTEs had to bring their own. Such is the spirit of the folks who work for Wizards that pretty soon, FTEs were actually bringing multiple draft sets to play so they could cover someone who didn't have access. Drafting had taken on a life of its own at Wizards, and that life was centered around community.
Before long, people were asking if I could get pizza so I started ordering, and paying out of pocket, for pizza from chain pizza restaurants. It was $5 to eat, and I had to keep an elaborate system of "IOUs" in my wallet to make sure I was covering my expenses when people forgot to bring cash to pay. My wife wasn't pleased that Draft Club was now costing us money, but it wasn't much and everyone came through to pay in the end for the most part. Then on my drive in to work one day I passed a sandwich board sign for a new pizza place that said, "Medium pizza, $5." It was a local shop called "Pizza Dudes," and I pulled over to inquire about their menu. I reasoned that if I ordered mediums, while technically worse pizza value math overall due to geometry, I only needed a single person to pay their $5 to cover my costs on each pizza. That got Draft Club back to cost neutral, and Mrs. Stark back on board with me coming home late one night a week.
Draft Club Becomes Draft Night
All the work on Draft Club had grown it into a real thing. After a year or two we were getting 30-50 people every week, a sizable percentage of the total population of Wizards at the time. Most of the work had kind of been happening silently; I was new to the company, so it didn't occur to me to ask executives or HR about getting support, and they weren't watching what was happening in the big meeting room on our weekly drafting night after hours. Eager to keep growing I kept asking new people if they wanted to draft, and someone pointed out they thought they weren't allowed to. Flabbergasted, I asked why and their response made it apparent how important branding is: "It's called 'Draft Club,' and I'm not in the club, so I thought I couldn't come." A simple name had led to reduced participation because people thought they weren't allowed to play!
That necessitated a change, so henceforth "Draft Club" became "Draft Night," and numbers really took off. At this time I got a note from a director and mentor of mine in R&D named Mark Globus to come talk to him about Draft Night. I was worried I was going to get in trouble for causing distractions at work by asking people to come play, so I had mentally prepared all my reasonings behind why Draft Night was important and why I should be allowed to keep it going. Of course it turned out the opposite was true: Mark didn't want to stop Draft Night, he wanted to serve as the official sponsor of the event and get the pizza and boosters provided. I was ecstatic! The leadership team had been paying attention to what was going on, I was just oblivious. Suffice to say, growing Draft Night became even easier once the food and packs were provided, and it grew into the institution it is today. At one point our top attended event had 1/4th of the entire company on hand, a sign of how passionate we were about playing our games in addition to making them.
I never got hired to build an internal play event at Wizards. Not once was it ever in my job description. But it was something I was compelled to do to solve problems I saw, selfishly at first, but it grew thanks to some awesome people into something great, and drove real value for the organization. It became the primary testing ground for new products, whether they're future draft formats or even event management software like Wizards EventLink and Magic Companion. It also became a key social gathering on a weekly basis that helped, in my opinion, defray some of the political-minded operational tendencies of Ballmer-era Microsoft devotees who floated over to other companies in the Puget Sound area. It's really hard to fight political battles with someone you've had fantasy battles and pizza with over 40-card decks. Finally, as such a large consistent gathering it became a key messaging vehicle to help other groups grow by spreading the word through the "sneaker network," and driving attention to other things happening in an organization. This is tough to do in corporate structures generally, as anyone who has ever tried to get a large business' employees to all read an email has experienced.
Draft Night is one of my favorite things, and I can't possibly do it justice in a single story about it, nor do I have the space to include every single one of the awesome people who helped make it great (I appreciated each and every one of you!). Imagine my surprise when I got my final employee points product shipped to me after leaving Wizards and found a hand written "Thank You" card in it this week. Inside was a custom playtest card from the team, designed by Bryan Hawley with art by Ovido Cartagena, cleverly memorializing the work done to grow Draft Night.
No comment on how dusty the room got when I opened it, and no, it's not for sale.