Monday, May 14, 2012

Magic: Cost, Fun, and Balance

Back in the April Update I offered that anyone could take some time and talk about something related to gaming. One of my friends, Chris, took me up on the offer.  Chris and I played games in college, but he has a fairly different gaming history than I do.  I won't spoil too much, just know that his words are well thought out, and unedited.
A couple of weeks ago, David and I were talking about games and other stuff when I suggested to him that it might be fun to hear from people who play tabletop-style games other than boardgames.  To my surprise, he remembered that I have played Magic: The Gathering for some years now and invited me to write a guest post on trading/collectible card games (TCG/CCGs).  Since Magic is pretty much the only TCG I’ve played I’ll write about that, but I’ll try to make general comments about the genre and relate the discussion back to the theme of BoBG, namely boardgames.
For those unfamiliar with Magic, it is a collectible/trading card game published by Wizards of the Coast.  The premise is that two (or more) players take on the role of dueling “Planeswalkers,” drawing on the land to cast spells represented by the cards in their decks.  The last Planeswalker to avoid exhausting either lifepoints or cards in their deck wins.  So far, except for the mention of decks this could describe any boardgame just as well as a TCG.  The obvious difference in the two genres comes from the fact that boardgames are typically completely encapsulated in one package, whereas TCGs are purchased in packs containing quasi-randomly distributed cards.  The consequence of this game model is that, relative to the boardgames I have played, Magic (and I suspect most all TCGs) features far more dynamic gameplay.  
What I mean is that since the game designers don’t know what elements will be present in any given game, the cards in the game establish many of the rules.  Some readers may be thinking of Cosmic Encounter at this point, and for good reason; Cosmic was one of the major inspirations for Magic.  However, Magic goes further than Cosmic in that the entire setup of the battlefield will change over the course of a game of Magic, whereas the landscape is essentially set at the beginning of a game of Cosmic.  To prevent a game of Magic from changing uncontrollably quickly, players are given a lot of freedom to interrupt each other and a player’s turn is therefore far less sacrosanct than in a boardgame, which tends to induce a lot more player interaction.  Control of the way the game changes and hampering opponents’ actions (two sides of the same coin) are therefore really the heart of the mechanics of Magic.
Now, while this setup makes for some of the most enjoyable gameplay I’ve experienced, it has some rather deep pitfalls.  The first is that, to be quite honest, Magic is an expensive hobby.  Coming in at about $4 per 15-card pack, it takes a moderate amount of money to build up a collection of decent cards.  Singles can be purchased, but they are typically more expensive for the good cards.  To make matters worse, about once every two years all the cards currently on the market cease to be tournament-legal.  That means that a player is either reduced to playing informally with friends or must start over and build a new collection (one reason, I suspect, that people sometimes refer to the publishers as “Wizards of the Cost”).  I personally never play in tournaments for this reason and because I like to play with many of the old cards, but this cuts me off from a lot of the Magic-playing community.  This also explains why I have only ever played Magic among all the TCGs out there: it is simply too expensive to purchase the cards needed to play multiple systems.  
The other major downside to Magic is that it is pretty complicated.  There are quite literally hundreds (if not thousands) of rulings to pore over if a player wants to learn the nuances of the game, and every expansion adds more to the mix.  This means that a new player must invest a substantial amount of time in achieving fluency in the game mechanics in order to construct a superior deck.  Achieving a sufficiently wide knowledge of cards is also necessary to understand what is possible.  These are significant barriers to TCGs in general and I suspect commonly prevent people from playing these games.
What may surprise some people is that I actually like almost everything I’ve written here about Magic (except for the price).  I like learning complicated systems, and I like that the strategy of Magic relies on both constructing a good deck and having a deep knowledge of the rules.  Many times I have seen a bleak situation turned into a win and vice versa by knowing (or not knowing) the details of a specific rule.  That strategy and knowledge goes into building a deck before ever playing, and the creativity it allows is incredibly satisfying.  
For better or for worse, this becomes the standard against which I often judge other games I play, including boardgames.  Often when I find myself consistently unable to meddle with my opponents’ plans my enthusiasm for a game begins to cool.  Similarly, when I begin to perceive that a game doesn’t allow for innovative ways to achieve my ends, I find my interest waning.  David once quipped that I never win at Cosmic, and he’s right, but that’s because at some point I start to grow disinterested in merely winning: I want to find out just how many ways it is possible to win.  Often enough my strategies fail, but if I get to try something new then it’s enough for me.  Are there other mechanics that make it fun to play games?  Certainly; finding traitors in one’s midst (a la Mafia/Werewolf) is a good example, but even without these mechanics I will happily keep coming back for more as long as a game continues to let me innovate.
I think this is a good point to wrap things up since this post has already become longer than I had intended it to be.  Clearly I cannot convey the actual experience of playing Magic here, but I hope that anyone reading this has at least found some interest in seeing boardgames through the eyes of someone who primarily has played TCGs.  Big thanks to David for letting me ramble on his blog, and happy gaming.

Thank-you Chris for taking the time to write thoughtfully about an often debated topic in the gaming world.

No comments:

Post a Comment