Baxil (baxil) wrote,

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What's wrong with Magic (The Gathering)

Over a decade ago, in the mid-1990s, I started playing a card game that was just then starting to gather some popularity among geek circles. It had a strategic element that at the time was extremely innovative: Both players would assemble their own decks (of any size, and in any combination, within certain limits) out of accumulated cards they'd purchased. Gamers were used to being limited to a preassigned deck that could only produce a limited range of effects, and the ability to almost infinitely tweak one's resources (focusing on certain elements of the game and ignoring others) drew a lot of interest.

Its name was Magic: The Gathering, and it was the "collectible card game" that spawned an entire industry.

The frenzy began quickly, and I rode the wave. I got in early enough to collect, trade, or otherwise acquire some cards that are reasonably valuable; I spent what seemed at the time to be a lot of cash (probably about $500 all told). Many an afternoon at the high school library -- and later, many a night in the college dorms -- passed by in duels of a rather arcane nature. (The double meaning is entirely intentional. If you've ever studied the rules, you know exactly what I mean.)

In an effort to keep the game fair, the game's manufacturer tweaked the rules, removed overpowered cards, limited others, and generally tweaked the card set as the game grew. This broadly improved the game, but had the secondary effect of creating a collector frenzy. (Most of the top-dollar cards I own today are those that were discontinued early on, such as dual lands.) Magic players with lots of spare cash jumped into the collector market, picking up Black Lotuses or Moxes (now worth $1000+ mint); the rest of us ignored them and went on having fun.

Then Wizards of the Coast, the small Seattle company that rode the game into superstardom, decided that this fun and quirky little game was a good thing, and therefore more of it was a better thing. The basic card set led to some very predictable deck-building patterns; certain strategies were optimal and certain cards were overused (even after all of their tweaking). The solution to this? Obviously to release new cards, with new powers, new strategies, and new mechanics! People who continued to rely on one "optimal" strategy would discover that new cards could easily sabotage their best efforts, and would need to adapt and expand their card base in order to keep producing winning decks.

... In international politics, this is generally called an "arms race."

In the collectible card game market, though, it found a welcome audience. "Expansion sets" gradually trickled onto the scene -- Arabian Nights, Antiquities, Legends, The Dark -- each one opening up new horizons, establishing new themes, offering more possibilities for deck construction.

For many of us, it was as if we'd just discovered that Disneyland didn't end at Main Street USA. Suddenly, there was an entire, limitless world out there -- we could all strike out into our own territory, return with our own unique finds, play combos that no other player would discover. Every game was a journey into a vast unknown. Every time an opponent tapped some mana and laid a card down, it could be anything.

For a time.

But I, and my fellow Magic players, started to realize what every other victim of unrestrained capitalism eventually discovers: The game favors the winners. Those who started play with a few handfuls of cards and a merely color-coordinated deck would inevitably lose to those who had invested a bit more and bought/traded for cards that worked well together. Who would, in turn, lose to the people who bought/traded for a few "overpowered" and expensive cards that made more efficient use of resources. Who would, in turn, lose to the people who had invested so heavily in the game that their decks consisted of the most powerful cards cherry-picked from each of the expansions.

We ignored this as long as we could. The expansion called "Fallen Empires" came and went, leaving in its wake a trail of merfolk and token creatures; we made some casual purchases. Then 1995 rolled around.

In June, "Ice Age" popped onto the scene. Many of us went out and bought its card packs, assembling new decks, tuning up old ones ... only to find that while we were sinking our cash into this new expansion, another one had already come out. "Chronicles" hit the shelves in July -- before us normal, non-obsessed players had even seen all of Ice Age's cards. For long-time collectors, this was pardonable; Chronicles contained only reprints. But then we found out that "Homelands" was due in October.

Several hundred new cards, and another glut of old ones, in the span of four months.

Players unwilling to make a serious financial commitment to the game were faced with a flood of cheap new powers from their opponents, and no good way to respond. Even players who were willing to invest were burned out by the aggressive pace of it. Magic faded out of favor, and our college gaming group packed up our boxes and returned to tabletop roleplaying and computer consoles. (The decision was helped along by the collectible card games fad hitting its peak; a ridiculous number of games trying to cash in on Magic's success were in stores at that time too.)

However, it's awful hard to stop a juggernaut*. And M:tG kept on rolling.

Flash forward ten years, six moves, and two careers.

I'm not the only person to have been hit by the nostalgia bug. Turns out that my friends in the Sacramento area have gotten together a M:tG gaming group to get some more mileage out of their old cards (not buying any new ones, just trying to get back to what made the game fun). Here in Grass Valley, my role-playing group also plays, and we've spent a few off weekends with the game. A few folks here at work also maintain decks. But those latter two groups have much newer collections.

Us old-timers, unfortunately, forgot all about the continuing arms race.

Magic now has over 8,400 separate cards.

The sheer number, by itself, isn't so bad; it slows down games when everyone has to read the rules for everything that hits the table, but most folks have long since given up on collecting.

What does take the fun out of it is that there are only so many ways to juggle and combine the same set of statistics and powers. They have to keep upping the ante in order to justify the new expansion sets they continue to release. And in their efforts to keep coming up with new mechanics, the power level has surged so far as to make older cards irrelevant.

There are now such things as Spirit creatures -- they can't interact with normal creatures. Throw a few into a deck and your opponent literally has no way to block them unless they've done the same. Creatures can now be given "double-strike" -- they deal their damage TWICE each combat round. And let's not forget the creature ability called Invulnerability. This works as advertised: The creature is immune to all damage, from all sources. WHA?

It's not just creatures. There are now spells that attach to other spells -- by paying a small cost you can cast them while retaining them in your hand. This reusability makes the one-shot instants of old pointless (especially since many of the new spells do the same thing at the same cost). And there is a new type of artifact called Equipment; it provides ability or stat boosts, you can move it from creature to creature at a minor cost, and it doesn't die when the creature does. So much for creature enchantments! But, hey, if you don't like a new effect being used agaginst you, play a card that lets you go through all your opponent's cards and remove all copies of that target spell from the game. Again, WHA?

I just replaced all of the Shatters (common instant, casting cost 2, destroy one artifact) in my red deck with Echoing Ruins (newer common instant, casting cost 2, destroy one artifact AND all other artifacts in play with the same name). I keep playing things like Iron Star (uncommon artifact, casting cost 1, you may pay 1 mana to gain 1 life whenever someone casts a red spell) only to have opponents with newer decks play Dragon's Claws (newer uncommon artifact, casting cost 1, you may gain one life free whenever someone casts a red spell). About half of the cards that I own have now been rendered entirely pointless by newer cards that do the same thing for cheaper, or better. Granted, a few of my cards are a little more valuable, due to their effects having been toned down in subsequent sets. (Gee! Awesome! I can use Lightning Bolt to do 3 damage rather than Seal of Fire's 2. That'll sure help against those completely invulnerable creatures.)

My main complaint against the arms race, though, isn't in the individual cards' power levels. It's in the way that the gameplay itself has changed.

M:tG has always had cheap combos, yes. There are many deck strategies that let you tie together multiple effects to create something unstoppable. But new decks seem to revel in this. Dropping invulnerability on a creature that prevents you from losing the game (!!) is just the most egregious example.

Today, I played three quick games against a guy here at work with a few hundred bucks' worth of newer cards. His red deck outpaced mine (thanks mostly to the aforementioned reusability). Then he pulled out a red/green deck and, within four turns, had dropped a combo that let him use an infinite feedback loop to generate creatures, tap them to untap lands, and sacrifice them to generate more creatures, etc. Needless to say, the game was over. Then we switched decks and the only reason I beat his blue/red deck was because he overconfidently attacked with a creature that would have given him another infinite-mana combo by cloning the effects of two cards in his hand. (I killed it with a card boosting creature defense, and pinged him to death the turn before he would have gotten another one out of his deck.)

The elf deck of one of my gaming buddies is similarly ridiculous -- elves that summon others from the deck, untap each other, prevent you from blocking attackers, boost each other, etc., such that once the first two or three elves hit the table it's unstoppable.

All of these newer decks -- frankly, almost every one that I've seen -- have two settings: Off and WIN. The first person to get their Super Combo out on the table sweeps the board.

I'm reminded of bradhicks' recent post on Starcraft multiplayer games; he had much the same lament. There's a breed of players that likes to see how they can optimize their forces, build up some staying power, and reach a meaningful victory indicative of their skill ... and then there's a breed of players that just wants to win, as quickly as possible, and turn the game into an all-or-nothing blitzfest.

The top ranks of Magic players -- the serious, tournament types -- have always been all about the blitzes. Time was, that didn't affect the rest of us. But if what I've seen as a longtime player is any indication, the entire tone of the game has turned that cheap.

And that's not a game that I have any interest in playing.

* Unless you've got a red deck. Then lightning bolt the thing.
Tags: geekery, roleplaying

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