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March 14th, 2007
05:35 pm
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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.

Current Location: ~calorg
Current Mood: disappointeddisappointed
Current Music: Lisa Loeb, "Stay"
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(19 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:March 15th, 2007 08:10 am (UTC)
Which is one of the reasons I don't play anymore, the other being I liked playing for fun but the guys here want to play to win all the time :(
[User Picture]
Date:March 15th, 2007 09:30 am (UTC)
As far as I can tell, these days Magic is mostly a kid's game and as such, all of those things are features - lots of kids take great pleasure in the sort of complex rules-mastery necessary to use (what is to many adults vastly overly complex &) complicated games. Teens love to optimize and work with rules. Thus, Magic remains a success because teens love it.
[User Picture]
Date:March 16th, 2007 12:02 am (UTC)
Half-agreed. The complex rules mastery is definitely a feature, not a bug. But it seems to me that the optimization of a well-balanced game ought to give number crunchers an advantage -- not an instant win.

The system has gotten too top-heavy and there are too many ways to entirely break the game now. Infinite combos that immediately kill everyone or permanently prevent you from losing should be a bug, and should be addressed and removed (or not allowed in the first place).
[User Picture]
Date:March 15th, 2007 10:48 am (UTC)
Er, dude, it's been like that for years. That's why I got out over a decade ago.

Oh, and there's a lot more 'fun' factor in de-optimized decks, and NOT playing 1v1. When it's a 5 player 'free for all', you get a lot more milage out of the game because you go into a combo and everyone else smacks you down.
[User Picture]
Date:March 15th, 2007 11:56 pm (UTC)
I got out a decade ago. I've tried coming back in. It may be time to leave again.

Magic has always had flaws, yes. But if I had to pare down my complaint, it would be this: Game-ending combos have gotten too cheap. It's all about the "WIN switch" that turns a deck literally unstoppable in an instant.

It wouldn't have mattered how many people were at the table when my opponent pulled out his turn-4 nuke. (I even had some damage cards in reserve, and managed to kill one of the three creatures he spawned that started the combo; but sacrificing is quicker than damage death, and so no amount of retaliation would have been able to halt his plans.)

As much as I complain about the elf deck, it has a merely ridiculous (rather than unstoppable) ramp-up rate. It is vulnerable to sustained fire, but powerful enough that in four-player games its win rate is still over 50%. But anything that can generate infinite mana can instantly kill as many players as are sitting down (just pipe it into a fireball and pay the target-split cost).

Ten years ago, it was the spoiled rich kid with nothing but rares that had a deck with that sort of power. The rest of us fought half-hour battles in which we had to make strategic resource decisions and balance short-term gain and long-term build-up. Yesterday, my opponent pulled out three infinite-combo decks from his box and we played three games in 20 minutes. There's nothing strategic about that.
[User Picture]
Date:March 16th, 2007 12:13 am (UTC)
Well, democratization of PWN isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Best CCG out back then was Shadowfist, though. MUCH fun. Oh, and the Pirates one is fun now.
[User Picture]
Date:March 15th, 2007 11:45 am (UTC)

That's absurd. I'll never buy Magic cards again.
[User Picture]
Date:March 16th, 2007 12:08 am (UTC)
My bad, "indestructibility." Valid against everything but removal from game and toughness being reduced to 0.

Double strike tweaks me just as badly. There's a piece of equipment that gives that ability to a creature at a cost of (I believe) 4 colorless. They entirely banned the first edition card "Berserk" (which did roughly the same thing until end of turn) over 10 years ago.
[User Picture]
Date:March 16th, 2007 07:21 am (UTC)
Berserk stacks in ways that Double Strike doesn't.

Note on Double Strike- it's always better to have a First Strike creature with twice the power, unless you start enchanting the creature in a +something/0 way, which doubles the benefit of the enchantment.

The "removal" and "toughness to zero" gotchas of indestructibility are significant, since the number of cards that lets you remove something from the game has skyrocketed- probably as a direct result. (It used to be a rare effect. Now it's a common in every set.) Also note that a lot of cards can be dealt with in ways that don't involve the graveyard: can't activate abilities, permanently tapped, can't attack, can't block, etc.

I think indestructibility was undercost in the Mirrodin block where it was introduced. I do think Stuffy Doll got it right, though- it's a lot more vulnerable than "Indestructible" might seem, and the rules text is hysterical.

Stuffy Doll: {3}
Artifact Creature--Construct
Stuffy Doll is indestructible.
As Stuffy Doll comes into play, choose a player.
Whenever Stuffy Doll takes damage, it deals that much damage to the chosen player.
T: Stuffy Doll deals 1 damage to itself.

I like the game, and I agree that combo... game over decks aren't very fun. Lots and lots of people agree with that. That's why I don't play in the "Anything Goes" casual room, I play in the "Casual Play" casual room where people usually have decks that are actually fun. Silly combos and ridiculous synergy- like Hivestone, Slivers, and Thallids. (It never works, but it's lots of fun to try.)

In serious play, the average Standard game is over in four to six turns, unless someone's playing a successful control deck; Extended is three to four, Vintage (what you're playing: all non-banned cards legal) is usually over in one or two turns. Vintage is dominated by insane combos and expensive cards- and that's not a good thing. I don't play Vintage, unless it's just casual.

I agree the game's gotten too fast because there are just too many cards that work too well together; combos are too synergistic.

House rule: Combo Burnout. No infinite loop can run more than N times (for some value of N, usually 6), even if there's no way to intentionally stop the combo. All future attempts, for the remainder of the game, by that player to activate that combo with any set of identically-named cards will fail. Functionally equivalent cards of different names are not identical and allow another N loops.

I really wish we could play with Combo Burnout 6 on Magic Online in the casual room, but I'll have to settle for using it as a house rule when I get paper opponents together.

As for my playing Magic Online- I like the Limited formats, where you have to build your deck out of the cards your'e given. Wizards of the Coast loves it, of course, becasue players are forced to buy new sealed booster packs just to play... hence why I don't play Limited games all that often!
Date:March 15th, 2007 03:06 pm (UTC)
I found myself turned away more by the profiteering than by the broken mechanics. If I ever returned to such a card game, I think I'd do it like one of my friends does... find an obscure game whose cards can be bought cheaply, assemble a bunch of themed decks to give out temporarily to anyone who wants to play, and play entirely for fun.
Date:March 15th, 2007 04:48 pm (UTC)

There's the sealed-deck variant

Of course, that's pricey. But it goes back to the original fun concept. You know, you open your box in real-time and then each of you gets a little time to look at it and then you play. I do this sometimes at cons. Not for tournament, for fun.
[User Picture]
Date:March 15th, 2007 09:16 pm (UTC)
Yup. That's why there's a proliferation of people who do not play constructed decks, only drafts.
[User Picture]
Date:March 16th, 2007 12:09 am (UTC)
Then what do you do with all the accumulated cards? (Sell them to the constructors?)
[User Picture]
Date:March 16th, 2007 03:17 am (UTC)
Yes, or build constructed decks that you just play for the fun of it rather than the competition.
[User Picture]
Date:March 16th, 2007 07:24 am (UTC)

On selling draft cards

I've done some calculations- at least playing in Magic: The Gathering Online, the cards from a draft, when sold off, average about $2 short of enough to buy in to the next draft. It's a distinct improvement over $14/draft, which is the cost otherwise since boosters are up to $4 each and there's a $2 fee to cover prizes- and winning even one match in an eight-player draft wins a sealed booster pack, enough to cover the difference.

Unfortunately, I have a (slightly stereotypical) tendency to hoard things, so I just let my collection grow- and I have fun with it, in casual games where it's okay if my deck doesn't really do much or if its "combo" is utterly infeasable, because it's fun.
[User Picture]
Date:March 16th, 2007 01:45 am (UTC)
Somehow, the whole CCG thing passed me right by. Almost entirely.

Some of my friends and I got into Illuminati: New World Order. We played it cutthroat, and would congratulate each other on a good bit of treachery - we managed to not really care about "winning" most of the time. And that is my entire experience of CCGs. Maybe I was just too broke when Magic hit the scene. I dunno. By the time I started hearing people talking about it they were already bitching about it turning into 'whoever spent the most wins' so I stayed the hell away.
[User Picture]
Date:March 16th, 2007 06:02 am (UTC)
I remember the days of Magic, I recall having a blue deck, that wasn't about winning (yes, I had a show-stopping combo or two, that involved one or both leviathans I had in my deck), but that was it. If neither of them came up, it was straight strategy.

It's one of the reasons why I don't even play D&D much anymore - for in RPGA, you need to min/max to survive (if you play in Gran March (living greyhawk), and you barely survive, then your DM isn't doing his job). I finally got so sick of it that I developed my own RP game to take it's place. Much like a friend of mine developed a whole card game to replace Magic. (which, oddly enough, is a really fun 2-6 player game full of alliances that last as long as a fart and wars that last all night long).
[User Picture]
Date:March 16th, 2007 07:29 am (UTC)

The ultimate adaptable card game

1. When you get 100 points, you win.
2. If you play a card that is completely blank, write on it, then shuffle it into the deck.
3. On your turn, play a card, then draw a card. (If you play a blank, you do draw a card after replacing it.)
4. For your first game, the deck starts out with ten blank cards (halves of index cards work well- without encouraging insanely long cards).
5. Everybody gets 5 cards to start.
6. When the deck is played out, add 10 blanks, then shuffle the discard pile.
7. At the end of the game, add 10 blanks, then use the deck for the next game, whenever that is.

This game can get very out of hand, very quickly.

There's actually a slightly more restricted rules framework for it- players can't be described by "out-of-game" and unchangable attributes, there are 'table cards' that stay in front of you instead of being discarded, 'action cards' that act like sorceries (no mana costs, unless you add them to the game!), and 'interrupts' that act like instants in Magic (including the stack) except when you play out-of-turn, you don't draw a card to replace it (if you have no cards on your turn, just draw a card and play nothing; this is the only time you can pass). But you don't really need any of those rules; you can just agree to make a reasonable game (which stops the first one, and discourages "Gain 100 Points" cards) and let action/table/interrupt rules sort of evolve naturally.

Some of my classmates and I spent hours playing this my freshman year...

All the insanity and unpredictability of a CCG, but the only expense is index cards, and if it becomes an infinite combo arms race y'all only have yourselves to blame, especially since everybody uses the same deck!
Date:March 16th, 2007 09:41 am (UTC)

Re: The ultimate adaptable card game


That sounds an awful lot like Dvorak, only different. Is there a document for it anywhere?

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