A little while ago, board gaming’s answer to Hunter S. Thompson, Michael Barnes, gave us a list of his ten “essential” games to own. This isn’t going to be a list piece or some commentary on his choices, but one of his selections was that ubiquitous CDG Magic: The Gathering and the ensuing discussion of his picks reminded me that this was a game about which I have terrifically complex feelings. Complex enough to be worth an article, I suspect, since those issues touch a great deal at the heart of why I’m a board gamer rather than any other kind of gamer. So here they are in a sort of semi-review of the game. There’s little or no rules discussion here if that’s what you’re after: more the thoughts and feelings that have been engendered by the highs and lows of a good ten years or more on the M:tG circuit.
First, a little history. I first got in to M:tG around about the transition between 3rd and 4th edition. For a while when it first took off it seemed like everyone I knew was playing it, and I mean everyone. The guys I lived with at the time used to play a lot of continental playing card games like Tarot, Swiss Jass andSkopa and they switched to M:tG without missing a beat. People I used to play RPG’s with became so obsessed with the game that we’d play a half-hour desultory role-playing and then someone would sheepishly suggest playing M:tG instead and there would be sighs of relief all round as we all broke out our latest decks. Even the cool-dude surfer lads we knew in the house opposite seemed to be playing it every time we went round. It was everywhere. And it was great fun.
Then it dawned on me one day, who knows when, that a lot of the RPG people playing would regularly own my decks simply because they had a lot more cards than I did, which seemed a shame but it was still fun to play. What was less fun was the fact that I would regularly own the decks of my card-playing friends and the surfer dudes across the road simply because I had more cards, which was a bit embarrassing. And then, after a while longer, I realised that I had so many cards that deck building had ceased to become imaginative and interesting because there were just too many possible card combinations to choose from: it was information overload and it was easier to just pick and choose from tried and trusted patterns. And at that point the game lost most of its appeal for me, and I sold most of my collection for rather less than it cost me to accumulate. I kept three decks, a green Thallid deck to annoy people with which I eventually split up and gave away when it become too annoying for everyone else, a black discard deck for 2-player games and a blue/white “don’t tap” deck for multi-player. And those two decks have served me well for the rare times I’ve played it since. And I’ve always played for ante, which brings back some of the visceral thrill of those early days before we all become too obsessed by collecting to play like that any more.
The strange thing about my attitude to M:tG is that unlike all of the past phases of my hobby game obsession, it left me with a really bitter attitude toward the game. After Magic I moved back to my earliest love, Warhammer Fantasy Battle and even though it ultimately cost me a lot more, forced me into playing at organised clubs rather than with my friends, and was unarguably a poorer design that Magic as a game, I look back on my days playing that with a particular fondness, and indeed I still have my two armies packaged neatly in the loft in stark comparison with the manner in which I shed my Magic cards are rapidly as possible. Why?
The big answer is that I no longer feel it’s terribly interesting to play a game where your ability to win is dictated largely by your financial circumstances. That rankles, badly. Gaming is a co-operative activity but ultimately, of course, it’s about having fun. Being beaten by a lucky opponent in a game is just part of the ride and might leave you with a fun story to tell your friends. Being beaten by a superior opponent can be an eye-opening experience from which you might learn a great deal. I’ve even managed to keep a smile on my face when I was beaten into 4th in a Warhammer tournament with some impressive prizes because I couldn’t paint quite as well as the guy that came third. But in Magic, being beaten effectively because I didn’t earn enough was a step too far. There’s no luck and no skill involved in that, and loosing time and time again to nerds who’d spent so much money on their cards that they couldn’t feed or dress themselves properly was no longer fun, it was irritating.
Many people complain to me that my attitude is unfair. They point out, rightly, that there are lots of other fun ways to play Magic. You can have a long-running sealed-deck tournament with your friends. You can limit yourself to decks made entirely out of common cards and lands. You can proxy - stick a Mox Pearl sticker (or whatever else) to the front of an existing common and make up whatever decks you want that are still fine for friendly play. And this is all true, of course, but it misses the essential point that each and every suggestion takes more time and effort to organise than a standard Magic game and, more importantly, that they undermine one of the most vital aspects of the games’ appeal: collectiblity.
See it’s fun enough to play one of these minor variants but in the final reckoning it has to be said that the collection aspect is what makes the game work. The fact that you’d see different decks from your friends than any you could construct just because they had different cards. The thrill of making the best that you could out of what you had. The excitement of opening a new pack of cards to see what was inside. Magic, in other words, is one of those unfortunate games in which the thing that makes it great also makes it awful. The lack of collectibility is why the new and otherwise admirable concept of the LCG is never going to be as popular. It’s why Dominion, however wide-ranging and interactive it becomes, will never rival Magic as a hobby-changing craze. You have to take the rough with the smooth. Because as long as you retain the collectibility aspect you retain the differential card values and with it the economic edge and the buying and selling of individual cards where the value is based on their deck utility which, ultimately, comes full circle and kills the collectibility aspect in a nasty self-defeating ouroboros-style cycle.
One answer to this is to keep things small. Magic got out of hand because it became too big for anyone to track unless they focussed all their hobby energy and money, exclusively, on keeping their collection ticking over. But if the player base and card base are smaller, a CCG has a much greater chance of avoiding that fate and settling into a satisfying balance between collectability and playability. Such is the happy place into which some of the less well known but widely touted CCG’s such as Jyhad have found themselves. But it’s a dangerous place to be, because celebrating these sorts of games leads to more people playing them which leads to more danger of scope-creep. The other potential answer is to not make too much of a tie between the rarity of a card and its power. But that’s a difficult balancing act to maintain, and becomes more so as more cards enter the mix, and it requires the person who owns the design to sacrifice quite a lot of potential income because obviously, if players can build satisfyingly powerful decks out of common cards, they’ll be less likely to buy more cards. I know of no CCG that’s managed to stay on the straight-and-narrow when it comes to that particular balance.
Magic is, again unlike most CCG’s, very much a lifestyle game which is likely to consume most or all of your hobby time. This is in contrast to board games where we don’t dedicate ourselves to one game but spread the love around and sample a variety of different styles. However, one of the most impressive things about Magic is how it has managed to remain a viable and strategically interesting system off the back of relatively lightweight rules and through edition after edition and expansion after expansion. When you sit down and leaf through a deck of cards and note the effects you’ll see how many different aspects there are to game-play: balancing attack and defence, crucially important timing issues, resource management and the ultimate goal of wearing down the enemy whilst keeping yourself healthy. If you play the game multi-player there’s even a form of meta-game for you to enjoy. I know of no other game to have managed this feat: most other lifestyle games have to have other strings to their bow - such as miniature painting and modelling - to support the main game and keep it interesting. And yet ultimately it’s the sheer scale of success in this regard which is part of what killed the game for me. It became able to support such a wealth of different effects that I became unable to track them and keep inventing fresh and interesting decks simply from memory. In contrast with board games you do, ultimately, get far more genuine variety. The variety offered by Magic and, frankly, most other lifestyle games is a cunning sham to keep long-term players interested, and my choice to get into board games was partly to get away from that sort of false promise.
The other problem with the open-ended nature of the game is that personally, I came to find the constant need to update intensely irritating. As new release after new release hit the shelves, there came a kind of arms race where opponents would use new cards to beat down the combinations you’d come up with and you, in turn, would find yourself drawn in by the possibilities offered by the newer cards. I much prefer to have a game, in a box, and for that to be the end of it. That way you’re getting what you expect to get and there’s no need to continually go back to the base set to tinker with it - you can simply carry on exploring the strategic and social possibilities of the game until they’re worn out for you. Okay, one expansion if you must but even two is pushing it for me. And of course in a board game the “arms race” is only in your head in terms of strategy and tactics: there’s no need to respond to your opponents buying an expansion by buying one yourself. CCG’s generally are far worse in this regard than other lifestyle games. I could pretty much unbox my 6th edition Warhammer armies, plonk them down and play 7th edition and remain competitive.
Magic has turned out to be a game which pushed all my buttons for annoyance and irritability and in which its greatest triumphs have turned, for me, to ashes in my mouth. But the bottom line here, which we shouldn’t forget, is that it’s a game I played almost exclusively for two years, and which in spite of all my criticisms I continue to play on rare occasions. That alone is a vastly impressively achievement, as is the manner in which a game designed by a nerd, for nerds, managed to turn into a global phenomenon which garnered the designer millions of dollars. Magic may not have the punch it once had. It may even be on the wane. But love it or hate it it’s destined to be with us for many years yet.