Justin Gary — Taking the Path Less Traveled, The Phenomenon of “Magic: The Gathering,” How Analytical People Can Become “Creative” People, Finding the Third Right Answer, and How to Escape Your Need for Control (#687)

Illustration via 99designs

“It can be way worse to win the wrong game than to lose one that you actually enjoy playing.”

— Justin Gary

Justin Gary (@Justin_Gary) is an award-winning designer, author, speaker, and entrepreneur. He is CEO of Stone Blade Entertainment and creator of the innovative and award-winning Ascension deck-building game series. Prior to designing games, Justin was the youngest ever Magic: The Gathering US National Champion. He has studied creativity and applied the principles of design to create dozens of products over his 20 years in the industry for brands that include Marvel, World of Warcraft, and the Wharton School of Business. Today, he designs, consults, and teaches creativity around the world as a digital nomad.

Justin is also the author of Think Like a Game Designer: The Step-By-Step Guide to Unlocking Your Creative Potential and host of the Think Like a Game Designer podcast.

Please enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Podcast Addict, Pocket Casts, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Amazon Musicor on your favorite podcast platform. You can watch the interview on YouTube here.

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The transcript of this episode can be found here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

#687: Justin Gary — Taking the Path Less Traveled, The Phenomenon of “Magic: The Gathering,” How Analytical People Can Become “Creative” People, Finding the Third Right Answer, and How to Escape Your Need for Control

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Want to hear another episode with someone who makes games for a living? Listen to my conversation with Doom co-creator John Romero in which we discussed developing 13 games in one year, hyperthymesia, early innovations in 3D gaming, designing games with movable and removable parts in mind, the ups and downs of starting a new gaming company, and much more.

#681: Doom Legend John Romero — The Path to Prolific Innovation and Making 130+ Games, How to Find the Soul of the Work, Audacious Ambition, and Building in Monk Mode

What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.



Website | Twitter | LinkedIn | Stone Blade’s Instagram | Stone Blade’s Discord


  • [07:43] An origin story steeped in Magic.
  • [11:23] A debatable past.
  • [16:38] The life of a full-time Magic competitor.
  • [18:24] A philosophy major.
  • [19:45] Monopoly lessons learned from a family of lawyers.
  • [23:28] Innovations that made Magic an instant success.
  • [26:40] Magic game balance considerations.
  • [30:06] Justin exits his Magic career with an altered mindset.
  • [36:43] Too cool for law school.
  • [41:34] Risk is relative.
  • [43:39] From playing games to designing games.
  • [46:10] A Whack on the Side of the Head.
  • [49:53] Surfacing our assumptions.
  • [54:47] The core design loop and effective brainstorming.
  • [1:00:20] Brainstorming tools.
  • [1:02:01] Prototyping.
  • [1:06:26] The value of ugly first drafts.
  • [1:09:37] From company man to entrepreneur.
  • [1:15:45] Fear-setting and contingency planning.
  • [1:18:13] The early stages of startup life.
  • [1:24:05] TTP.
  • [1:25:21] Taking the company to the next level.
  • [1:31:43] Gaming GAMA and other trade shows.
  • [1:37:02] Eliciting feedback at the playtesting stage.
  • [1:42:32] Ascension debuts at Gen Con.
  • [1:47:04] The finances of game production.
  • [1:51:27] The pros and cons of selling a game to another company.
  • [1:53:54] Favorite failures.
  • [1:59:17] Maintaining relationships through failures.
  • [2:00:45] Lessons learned through trial and error.
  • [2:03:39] Putting the rule of three to work.
  • [2:05:21] Why Justin’s team communicates via Discord.
  • [2:07:49] How a trip to Thailand helped Justin escape his need for control.
  • [2:11:25] Justin’s billboard.
  • [2:12:49] Parting thoughts.


“Cultivate comfort with uncertainty and impermanence.”
— Justin Gary

“It can be way worse to win the wrong game than to lose one that you actually enjoy playing.”
— Justin Gary

“Deadlines are magic. It doesn’t matter if you have no idea what you’re doing, you have a deadline.”
— Justin Gary

“Most of the times we take risks, we’re not jumping off cliffs or into burning buildings. It’s just your career takes a different path or you’re behind in school or whatever. It’s a very low cost.”
— Justin Gary

“There’s nothing that differentiates a creative person from a not-creative person other than process.”
— Justin Gary

“It’s actually net negative for you to invest in making something ‘pretty’ early on in the process.”
— Justin Gary

“If you really, really think about the worst case scenarios, 99 times out of 100, they’re totally recoverable within a year. It’s often way less.”
— Justin Gary

“Imagine you’re building a house, and before you’ve even laid the foundation, you’re worrying about the paint color on the walls and where the furniture goes. You’re not going to get very far. You’re wasting a lot of time. Make sure you’ve got a solid foundation first. Worry about the paint color later. I think a lot of designers start by worrying about the paint color being wrong and they’re never going to finish a house that way.”
— Justin Gary

“Nobody knows what they’re doing. I cannot know what I’m doing at least as well as anybody else. This idea that the difference between a leader and somebody else is not that they know something or that they have some special access. It’s that [they’re] just willing to make some assertions and own the consequences. That’s it. That’s the difference.”
— Justin Gary


The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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2 Replies to “Justin Gary — Taking the Path Less Traveled, The Phenomenon of “Magic: The Gathering,” How Analytical People Can Become “Creative” People, Finding the Third Right Answer, and How to Escape Your Need for Control (#687)”

  1. Hey Tim and Team,

    This was fascinating, particularly the breakdown of the core design loop. Your efforts in curating these incredible interviews are deeply appreciated. For many of us, accessing the wisdom shared would be otherwise impossible – it’s an invaluable gift.

    In return, I’d like to share an incredible story about a 14-year-old boy named Kevin Cooper and recommend his book, “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t,” written under the pen name Cole Summers. Regrettably, he has passed away since, but his story remains a testament to entrepreneurship and inspiration. It’s a moving account that I believe you (and perhaps Neval) would find truly impactful.
    If you’re concerned about another influx of recommendations, I encourage Team Tim Ferris to consider checking it out on his behalf. I promise you’ll find it as moving as I did; you might even be able to persuade him! (The article where I first learned about Kevin was called “America’s most remarkable kid died in Newcastle, Utah” by Daryl Gibson).