Darwin Kastle is a Magic the Gathering Pro Tour Champion, Magic Invitational winner and a member of the Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame. He is also the lead designer and art director for the deck-building game Star Realms, as well as the lead developer and art director for Epic Card Game. Darwin also designed the games The Battle for Hill 218, The Battle for Sector 219 and Space Station Assault. In addition, he has worked as a designer and a developer on games such as Ascension, VS. System, Epic TCG and Battleground: Fantasy Warfare.
Darwin answered many of our questions last week about Magic, The Pro Tour and his gaming company. Here is what he had to say.
Paper Champion: How were you first introduced to Magic: The Gathering?
Darwin Kastle: When I was a senior at Syracuse University in 1994, my local comic book dealer tried to get me to try it, but since he described it as “addictive”, I decided to hold off while I finished up school. That summer, an ex-girlfriend also sang the game’s praises and gave me a rulebook. I read the rulebook cover-to-cover and knew I had to buy some cards and give it a try. The first several people I played with were all friends that I taught to play, but once I discovered the Boston Magic scene, my life was never the same.
PC: In 1996 you participated in your first Pro Tour event in New York. What made you believe you had what it took to succeed at a relatively untested game?
DK: By that point, I had become one of the more successful players in the New York/New England area, winning large 1K events and designing the deck that won North/East regionals. At the time, I was totally addicted to the game and to high level competition, and the Pro Tour seemed like the best thing ever.
PC: The early years of professional Magic, there were many larger than life personas like Mark Justice, Olle Rade, Hammer Regnier and yourself. What was it like being a well-known Magic player?
DK: Being a MTG celebrity has always been kind of weird. When you’re at a MTG event, people sometimes want your autograph, your opinion, your advice and your friendship because of what you’ve accomplished, but outside of events, most people have never heard of you. Back then, I didn’t really understand it, but it was incredibly flattering.
PC: You won the 1998 Pro Tour Invitational in Rio de Janeiro. Explain what that experience was like.
DK: That was awesome. It was my first invitational and I prepared extensively for the constructed formats, determined to show that I belonged there. I went undefeated in Extended and then I loaned my deck to a young Jon Finkel and he won the Extended Grand Prix that was being held there while we were competing in the invitational. While many players specialized more in limited or constructed, the fact that I was strong in both really helped me in an event with so many formats.
PC: By winning the Invitational that year, you were awarded the card Avalanche Riders. Please go through step by step, the process of making your own card.
DK: Nekrataal was one of my favorite cards and my other favorite color was Red, so I decided I wanted to make a card similar to Nekrataal for Red. Like Nekrataal, it was originally a 2/1 for 2 red and 2 colorless. Instead of first strike and killing a creature, it had red abilities: haste and kill a land. The designers of the set were introducing Echo at the time and decided they wanted to give it echo, so that’s why it ended up a 2/2 for only 1 red and 3 colorless. The only debate between me and the designers was about the name. They were concerned that the name was too evocative of snow, but I assured them that you didn’t need snow for an avalanche. Since it was the first such card, I had no idea I was going to be in the art. Edward Beard did a great job using a bad photo of me they gave him and I was totally shocked when I opened my first one.
PC: Avalanche Riders made it into many of my land trash decks over the years. Have you ever been ironically beaten by an opponent’s Avalanche Rider during a game?
DK: Yes, more than once. People used to love saying, “I Darwin you.”
PC: Wizards has stopped making custom cards for Invitational winners. Do you wish players were still rewarded with these custom cards?
DK: From a purely personal standpoint, the fewer there are, the more special mine seems. Looking back, it was a better prize than most pro tour cash prizes would have been. Big picture, it does seem a bit sad, because it was really cool seeing friends and rivals in MTG card form and even playing with them.
PC: What are some noticeable differences between large events in 1996 and today?
DK: There are two big differences. The first difference is that there aren’t any “chumps” anymore. Thanks to MTG online and all the Internet strategy sites, there are just way too many solid MTG players out there for Pro Tours or Day 2s of GPs to have many, if any, bad players in them. So while the best players now might not be much better than the best players then, the average player is much better now.
The second difference is specific to the Pro Tour. Changing from the traditional one format events to being both constructed and limited at every event, means it takes way more preparation to have a good chance of winning. It also means being really good at draft is no longer enough to win a PT, since the top 8 is always constructed now. It also means that it’s hard to compete at a high level at a Pro Tour if you’re not a full time player.
PC: What are some mistakes casual players make when attempting to take their game to the next level?
DK: Most casual players underestimate how much time and effort it requires to take their game to the next level. If you’re the best at something like sports, business, or whatever, you don’t get there and stay there by taking days off or giving less than 100%. MTG is more competitive than ever right now with little margin for error. Making it to the Pro Tour and being successful there requires countless hours of practice, research and preparation.
The other big key is having the best possible players to practice and work with. If the people you play with aren’t really good, it will be especially hard for you to level up. Early in my MTG career, anytime I met someone as good or better than me, I immediately tried to befriend them. Like most things, the three most important factors are how hard you work, who you know and how well MTG is suited to your skills.
PC: What is something you wish you could change about Magic: The Gathering?
DK: I wish Mythic rares had never been invented. I understand that it’s financially good for WOTC and that’s usually good for the health of MTG, but I hate what it’s done to the secondary market and the cost of deck building.
PC: Death has challenged you to a best of three duel. What deck do you play to save your soul?
DK: Recur/Survival. I dominated multiple GPs with it and it was complicated enough that I even owned mirror matches with it. It was skill based enough and versatile enough that I didn’t really have bad match ups.
DK: What are casual decks? *laughs*
DK: Not really. Although I got the impression Gerard was important to the Weatherlight…
PC: What other games or hobbies do you currently enjoy?
DK: I am currently Creative Director for White Wizard Games. As such, I’m head of design and development for our games. We have two games in stores already (one is available as a digital app), with multiple other games in the works. As a result, it’s rare for me to have time to play games other than the several I’m working on for my company.
Digitally, I primarily play Star Realms, Carcassonne, Word Baser and Words with Friends. The Epic Card Game is the primary physical game I play. I like to think that my love for MTG shines through in the games we make and I find that MTG players usually love our games, especially Epic.
PC: What has been keeping you busy lately?
DK: In addition to doing design and development for games like Star Realms and Epic Card Game, I’m also the Art Director for all of our games. So, I’m staying extremely busy. I try to squeeze in the occasional MTG Pro Tour here or there, but unless it’s close by, it’s usually hard for me to justify it, especially since I don’t really have time to prepare for them. While that makes me sad, I love my job and I’m excited about the success of my company.
PC: You mentioned Star Realms. Tell us more about it.
DK: I designed the award-winning deck-building game Star Realms and my good friend and fellow MTG Pro Tour Hall of Famer Rob Dougherty was the lead developer. It combines the fun of a deck-building game with the interactive combat style of a game like Magic. It usually takes 15-30 minutes to play and everything you need for two players comes in a $15 box.
I’ve played it literally thousands of times and I still love playing it. The amount of gameplay you get per dollar is unmatched, with the possible exception of our newest game, Epic Card Game. Epic plays more like a TCG and it scratches some of the same itches as MTG, but with simpler timing rules and without mana. In my experience, it’s easier to learn than MTG, but harder to master. Epic also comes in a $15 box and it contains over 120 unique cards. There are an incredible number of formats you can play with up to 4 players over and over, out of just one box, so it might even deliver more gameplay per dollar than Star Realms!
DK: When Star Realms came out, there was already lots of deck-building games on the market. The key thing that makes it different is that you are attacking your opponent’s space stations and their authority score directly, using your own spaceships and bases. Once one player’s score reaches zero, the game is over.
Most other deck-building games have a much more arbitrary end point and you often can’t tell who’s winning until you take the time to tally up each player’s score at the end of the game. Also, most other deck-building games feel a lot like competing games of Solitaire, while Star Realms is much more interactive.
With Star Realms, you get a fast-paced game of futuristic outer space combat that you’ll want to play over and over. Fortunately, there is also a digital Star Realms app that you can download and play for free on Android, PC, Mac and Apple mobile devices.
PC: What is the strangest experience you have had while playing at an event?
DK: In the Top 8 of PT New Orleans in 2001, I was playing Kai Budde. I had him dead on the board with him having no cards in hand and only five mana in play and nothing else. The only card he could draw to avoid losing was Illusions of Grandeur and he had three left in his deck. He draws one and plays it to gain 20 life. I attacked for enough to make him dead on the board again. He used 2 or his 5 mana to pay the upkeep, leaving himself with 3 mana and no cards in hand. He drew for his turn with Donate being the only card that could help him. He had already lost 3 of them, meaning there was exactly one card in his still rather large deck that could save him. With nothing to lose and the camera watching his every move, without looking at the card Kai windmills it onto the table saying, “Donate!”. As impossible as it seemed, it was a Donate and since I was stalled at 3 mana, I lost right away.
PC: What is something you have always wanted Magic players to know about your days as an active player?
DK: Many people probably don’t realize how much of my success is due to my skill at deck design. When I first started playing, there wasn’t much of an Internet to speak of and Magic strategy was transmitted by word of mouth and printed magazines which were quickly outdated. If you weren’t an excellent deck designer, the only way to be successful was to be close friends with one. Deck design was my favorite thing about MTG and probably one of the reasons I like draft so much. It’s also one of the reasons I’ve been successful at game design and development.
These days you can get quite far without being a good deck designer. For a PTQ or a GP, you can often win using a deck from the Internet. There are also big events you can win that are Limited only. Just keep in mind, that if you make the Tour, you’ll need to be prepared to design a deck for a format using a brand new set, so don’t neglect deck design.
PC: Thanks Darwin. It was a pleasure.
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