March 14th, 2007

geekier than thou

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.

Collapse )

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.

Collapse )

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.