Wednesday, September 2, 2015

why magic sucks

Many serious Magic “issues” articles start with some feel-good introduction that reads something like:

“Magic is the greatest game in the world. Now’s our chance to make it even better.”

It’s written with the intention of being an easy crowd-pleaser, to get the audience on the writer’s side. Someone who’s so into Magic that they’re spending their day not just playing, drafting, and making decks, but reading meta-Magic pieces that don’t directly deal with the game itself are probably of the opinion that Magic is God’s finest creation.

I’ve always been rather offput by the “greatest game” assertion. First of all, it’s pretty obvious that people saying that have never played Gone Home. But it’s also contradicted by my experiences of all the ways that Magic sucks.

There are, of course, an equal number of reasons that Magic is great. I wouldn’t have put so many hours into it if that wasn’t the case. But I’m definitely alienated from the True Believers in Magic, as someone who puts Magic somewhere on the outer range of my top ten games, maybe, depending how I’m feeling that day about whether Elder Scrolls: Oblivion holds up.[1] These True Believers want to think that anything bad about Magic happens because of a Wizards misstep, or a development mistake, or something the community did, rather than there being any inherent weaknesses in the game itself.

[1] Totally does.

I am not among that crowd. There are bad things about Magic. So let’s discuss those.

magic sucks because: mana variance isn’t fun

One of my least-favorite player archetypes is the post-round tiltmonster, ranting to everyone in his vicinity (regardless of whether those people are listening, which hopefully they aren’t) about how he got so unlucky, couldn’t draw any land, mulliganed so many times, etc. Everyone who’s been around a group of Magic players for more than half an hour knows this type of complainer, and almost everyone learns to tune them out.

But doesn’t he kind of have a point?

Okay, sure, a lot of the time they just fucked up somewhere and didn’t see how. Maybe they kept a sketchy one-lander. But everyone’s lost games that were just mandatory losses by variance, because they couldn’t play any spells. One learns to stomach it, take the loss, and move on.

What percentage of games is it acceptable to lose just because of how Magic’s mana system inherently works? In online team-based games, one of the most commonly complained-about things is when a teammate spontaneously disconnects or AFKs in a ranked game. That happens about, if I had to guess, one out of every 20-50 or so games, depending on the title and the skill level of the players involved. This 2-5% of the time when basically no one’s play matters is a horrible experience.

Magic, on the other hand, probably has about 10-25% of its games completely dictated by one player not getting land to cast spells. And Magic designers like Rosewater defend this as a strength of the game, because it lets less-experienced players win sometimes.

Variance is a necessary aspect of games. Variance that imposes this game being one that you do not get to play at all, because you auto-lose or auto-win, really sucks. It sucks to make a phenomenal new deck for a tournament, show up, and lose the first two games because you mulliganed five times. It also kinda sucks when you have a fantastically competitive, back-and-forth first two games of a match with a cool opponent, and then the third game you win immediately because they never get more than two land.

Another online game analogy: you’re in a shooter game online, and at the beginning of the match, there’s a 10% chance that everyone on your team just does half damage. Fun gameplay! It gives the worse players a chance to compete!

This aspect of Magic sucking affects competitive more than casual. If you’re just throwing around cards with friends, sure, take that free mulligan. One game wasn’t close? Shuffle up immediately and only lose a few minutes of time. In a tournament setting, though, where one has to look for every possible opening to win, getting screwed by land is awful.

Magic has attempted to make some workarounds for this inherent weakness of the game, with things like Cycling, mulligans, and manaless dredge. When mulligans were found to not be enough, they became more powerful. But these workarounds don’t eliminate the problem in Magic, they acknowledge it. If Magic didn’t have this issue, mulligans wouldn’t be necessary.

Are the advantages to the mana system large enough to outweigh the percentage of games that just aren’t games? Probably. It’s very difficult to design a TCG without some card type that resembles lands without introducing even bigger issues in the process. The fact that practically every other attempted TCG has opted out of the lands-and-spells system, though, speaks to their desire to get rid of this problem.

magic sucks because: it’s horrifically expensive

Whenever a critic or newer player brings up Magic’s price, Magic’s apologists will jump in front of trains to downplay, make exceptions, give advice, and do everything but admit the truth.

“Just draft and you’ll get the cards.” Yes, if you spend $15 per play session, Magic swiftly becomes more affordable, because you’ve already spent the money.

“You can trade for everything you want.” You can exchange your $300 worth of cards for someone else’s $300 worth of cards, after you spend $300.

“Some decks are really cheap, you can play burn.” Magic’s introductory budget deck costs $100, which is only “budget” if you’re Montgomery Burns and cannot think of an amount of money below $1000, or you’re so ingrained in Magic culture that $100 for a single deck seems like a small amount of money.

“Just play cube, it’s free.” Yes, someone else paid for it instead of you. That doesn’t make it any cheaper. (Also applies to borrowing cards.) Good luck playing enough Magic for Vintage Cube to make a lick of sense without spending your entire bank account ten times over.

“It’s not really expensive, because when you’re done with the cards you can just sell them back.” This is perhaps the biggest bullshit of them all. Magic cards are an incredibly illiquid good, if you want to get anything resembling “retail” price. They’re a physical object, so to sell them, you’ll probably have to list the item on eBay, pay for shipping (and maybe insurance), give eBay the cut, and wait for the money. And that’s the highest percentage way to get money.

I worked for Card Kingdom for a year and a half. If it was easy for players to buy and sell cards just from one another, no one would use online retailers’ buylists. But, as I saw firsthand, a shitload of people do. So do I, because anything else is a horrific amount of hassle.

At a more basic level, if Magic wasn’t ridiculously expensive, Card Kingdom wouldn’t exist.

What’s a reasonable amount of money to pay for a new game? People gasp over brand-new $60 games that cost millions upon millions of dollars to make, and those people are outraged if they get fewer than ten hours of gameplay for their $60. People cancel their MMO subscriptions because they can’t afford the $10-$20 per month, or they’ll grind in-game in order to get items to play without paying.

But you don’t get all of Magic just by spending $15, or $100, or $1000. You can buy one deck for one format for a few hundred, and if you find out that it just isn’t your style… well, better spend more money, trade, or learn to tolerate what you have already.

In most games, no matter what kind of gamer or what style you want to play, the price is the same: you pay for the game. If you’re a hardcore raider or a casual player in an MMO, it’s $15 a month. If you devote your life to the intricacies of Skyrim, you just pay $60 once (when it was a new game). With Magic, if you only have $100 to spend and like Constructed… hope you like burn. What if you’re a teenager with a meager allowance, and the early-game-oriented big-play aspect of Vintage really appeals to you? Fuck off, go back to your poverty decks until you have a job as a programmer.

Something I really like about League of Legends is not spending money on it. I haven’t spent a dime on it in many, many months, and I’ve been doing very little else other than playing it. And what happens over time? Instead of spending $15 per draft, I’m actually earning more champions as I win more matches.[2]

[2] To be fair, I did this on Magic Online, too. I borrowed an Elves deck from someone, then grinded daily events until I’d made enough tickets that I had bought my own copy of it. Wizards responded to this by making it substantially more difficult to grind Daily Events for a profit.

I would enjoy League substantially less if there were one or two uninteresting “budget” champions for $50 or $100, and the really cool, weird, or new champions are $300 or $750.

While brand-new games are $60, one Scalding Tarn is $80.

For the price of the cheapest Standard deck (Ensoul Artifact, $75), you can buy five complete Final Fantasy games on Steam, or basically infinite games via Humble Bundle.

For the price of a Standard Abzan deck ($250), you could buy a 3DS and a game.

For the price of Modern Affinity ($350), you could buy an XBox One, which comes with a game.

For the price of Legacy Delver ($3000), you could do that eight times and still buy some extra games. Or build a top-of-the-line gaming computer, then save the money to build a new one next year, then again the year after.

Why is it that people do this? Why did I ever do this? Is Magic exponentially more fun than other games, so people will buy one deck for hundreds of dollars?

Or are Magic players just so flush with disposable income that they don’t know what else to do with it?

magic sucks because: it’s a collectable

The above problems with price were written with the assumption that people want to actually play the game of Magic: the Gathering, and that the purpose of Magic game pieces is to play games with them. Judging by others’ responses to new releases, this does not seem to be a widely-held opinion.

If Magic was just a card game, and not a collectable card game, it wouldn’t have these problems. But a huge portion of Magic’s culture is wrapped up around its status as a collectable, and Magic cards’ relationship with the secondary market.

Look at what happens when new cards get revealed; specifically, when old cards get reprinted. The reaction to the Zendikar Expeditions lands can be summarized by a few thoughts:

“Will this affect the price of the old fetchlands?”

“How much will these cost?”

“Alternate art foils! Gimme!”

The financial angle of Magic has basically taken over the community. Whenever a new set comes out, one can’t go to a local draft without someone hoping to open a foil mythic rare. Not because they want to play with the card; they just want to have something valuable. Nearly the entire excitement around Modern Masters (both versions) was price-related, in how it might make that format “more affordable,” and how people would purposefully drop from an expensive Las Vegas tournament because they opened a $400 card.

Maybe it’s because my last job had me so immersed in Magic finance for so long, but I’ve become completely sick of this non-game-related discussion. It seems like people don’t even want to play games, they just want to get the value from opening something expensive, selling it, and doing something else. Then they’ll spend hours grinding the trade tables to make money off people with less knowledge of Magic prices than them.

Price knowledge is ubiquitous among Magic players in a way that’s honestly really sad to me. When I would go to tournaments and buy cards for work, I’d have to use our database to look up the price on basically every card, because I couldn’t keep that enormous spreadsheet in my memory. But there is a huge population of Magic people (I hesitate to refer to them as “players”) with a mental database of every card’s price, foil and nonfoil, in retail, TCG player mid, and buylist price. They see Magic as a sort of secondary job, something they do in their off-hours instead of playing the stock market.

The other side of that group, of course, are the people who actually spend huge amounts of money on cards. When the foil judge promo Force of Will came out, it was close to $1000 for reasons completely unknown to me. People want things like that, and NM Power Nine, for… collecting, or something. The Force of Will didn’t even look good. It’s just… a Force of Will, and it’s foil, and extremely scarce. Therefore, expensive, because that’s how Magic works.

A NM Alpha rare is never ever going to go in a deck again, so it might as well just be a slip of paper with a smiley face on it. It has become completely separated from anything resembling Magic, other than technically being a Magic card.

Even in the realm of collectables, Magic is ridiculous. Alpha Lotuses can easily go for over $20k in top-notch condition. For comparison, there are only a handful of vinyl records I can find evidence of ever selling for that much, and those are things like 1958 records by The Quarrymen. Even famous “lost” albums that exist in quantities in the low double digits rarely go up to $10k, and that’s as expensive as record collecting can possibly get. Even in the famously-outrageously-competitive realm of collecting hardcore punk records, the most expensive ever was just over $6k. That’s about what a NM Beta Underground Sea goes for, and that’s not graded, not one of the Power Nine, and the third most-valuable printing of that one card.[3]

[3] Behind Alpha and the actually-scarce Summer Magic.

And think: a collectable LP is something one might actually, theoretically, listen to. You can frame it, too, if you want, whereas an Underground Sea is actually not that aesthetically pleasing.

A lot of these “collectables” aren’t even that scarce, which to me, would seem to defeat the purpose. Even while Wizards was actively printing more Modern Masters, a foil Tarmogoyf was hundreds of dollars. Because… foils are more expensive. Because they just are.

Sure, this might seem to be a complaint not against Magic as a game, but against the playerbase. And in some ways, it is. But really, the “collectable card game” is not a harmonious entity. The “collectable” aspect is in eternal conflict with the “game” aspect, in that people with little interest in playing make things more expensive for people that just want to play games of Magic. It’s fine for Wizards, of course, because the money goes to them no matter what.

magic sucks because: it’s old

This is a topic I’ve touched on in Kill Reviews. But it’s time to address it head-on.

Magic was one of the most influential games of the early 90s. Card games can be very easily grouped into pre- and post-Magic, with extremely evident Magic influence all over the latter games. Magic shrugged those imitators off in the best way possible: by continuously improving.

There’s a clear line of design quality improvement going from pre-block expansions to Ice Age to Mirage to the Rath Cycle. Then the game stumbled around for a couple years, retreated inward, and came out with the absolutely phenomenal Invasion. Then the cycle repeated, with some middling-to-bad blocks, until a new top-down vision of Magic block design led to its creative peak with Ravnica and Time Spiral blocks. Then another retreat inward, more updates on the formula, and we have New World Order design and the conservative era. Since then, Magic has just… kept going.

What has Magic really innovated in the last seven years? What are the great leaps forward that Magic design has made since 2008’s Shards of Alara? It’s kept making sets, it’s kept selling well, but it’s just been going through the motions.

Creators have their ups and downs as their careers progress, but for many artists, the first ten or so years of their output is what they’ll always be remembered for. Lou Reed wrote more classic songs that came out on The Velvet Underground & Nico than in the last 20 years of his career put together. Sure, every medium is different (writers are known to have long careers, and late-career classics are common), but creative people are more likely to create something innovative and brilliant in their first half of their career than in the years after.[4]

[4] Imagine, please, the world’s largest collection of caveats and exceptions amended to this sentiment. Instead of writing to me about how your favorite band is still great 79 years after they started, instead listen to the 2012 live album We Rose From Your Bed With The Sun In Our Head by Swans, a band intermittently active since 1982.

I feel like a similar thing has happened to Magic, if you think of Magic’s creative hivemind as though it was one creator. It had its early spark of brilliance, a steady improvement, and we’re in the middle of its creative decline.

It’s not that Theros or Khans or the upcoming Battle for Zendikar are bad. It’s that they have nothing to say. There is no innovation in a way that would make non-Magic designers sit up and take notice. Magic sets exist exclusively for people already playing Magic, they exist to make money, not to break new creative ground.

And that’s the main idea that’s inspired these Kill Reviews: that Magic has basically burned out. So have I.

magic sucks because: only wizards makes magic

I’ve referred to Magic design as art. An important aspect of an art form is that other artists can make new takes on one anothers’ art; one might be inspired by Jackson Pollock, Wire, and Nabokov and use those influences to draw dicks on the side of buildings. If you’re inspired by Magic, though, you have little recourse when it comes to making your own Magic-related things: you can be a collage artist of sorts and design a cube with extant Wizards-sanctioned cards, or you can get hired as a designer at Wizards, or you can work on other games, or you can design Magic cards that no one will ever play with. Making homebrew Magic sets will be low-popularity at best, because Wizards has a monopoly on the art that is Magic design.

I really wish this wasn’t the case. When an art form drifts in a direction some group of people are unhappy with (and this will always happen), people can just make different art. When rock music got too flowery and slow, people made punk. The collapse of punk led to a worldwide explosion in post-punk, hardcore, experimental music, synthpop, and a million other things.

What am I supposed to do if I don’t like a Magic set? Play with older sets. Play a different game.

I don’t want that, though. I want experimental punk Magic, but it’s logistically impossible to get people to play anything other than what Wizards makes.

[This article was originally written for supporters of my Patreon.]


Amarsir said...

As a corollary to your financial points, Magic really taps into a gambling vibe. Not only are we spinning for a random jackpot every time we open a pack, but it's synonymous with competitive play.

I would like to know how far I can pilot my constructed deck in a large tournament. I don't care to pay $40-50 to find out, no matter how big the prize pool is. I'll pay a small fee for overhead and then the prize should be a certificate. That's not ideal for everything, but "State Champs" should be the epitome of this. It doesn't feed anything and no one would travel far to play. But it had to get juiced up to attract the money-drafting gamblers, to take more money in at the front end.

And if you DO win, much of the prize for a lot of tournaments is product. Congratulations, you win a job as a retailer. Go sell for us.

This hurt my perception of Magic as an affordable hobby. As much as you're correct about the ludicrous value of money cards, at least there is something there and a resale potential. Tournament structure is pure gambling.

Juicebox360 said...

you should play dota, jesse

Petter Nordal said...

I have friends who go to tons of tournaments, win sacks of boosters and then promptly sell them off or use them to pay for drafts because "opening boosters is losing money". Sure, it's the savvy thing to do, but then what's the point? Magic has turned into such a money game that I catch myself thinking "I should just sell everything while I can" each time I get a deck out of my backpack to play. It's to the point where I almost don't want to play Magic anymore since I can't afford to play the decks I want anyways.

Charles O'Connor said...

Great article. I think you hit on some points that are very true, and hard to answer. If you argue, like you have, you're kind of like the kid saying the emperor doesn't have any clothes. Good piece, thanks!

Rob W said...

"Magic has burned out" seems to me an absolutely false statement. (Innistrad flip cards, Gods, triple Khans draft, Ashiok...) "I have too" seems very authentic. So... Why are you still doing this?

Matthew Zaabadick said...

Good article. One thing I wanted to mention is how nobody realizes that Magic is only the "greatest TCG" because the TCG market at large is such trash. Magic is kind of the best just by default. The game has nothing to really compete with, so what game can really say its better? Games like Pokemon, Yugioh, Cardfight Vanguard are all complete shit and are way below the industry standard. Realistically Magic is a slightly above average game. If there was better competition on the market I would not see Magic as on top as it is now.

Jason said...

The only problem with this article is how true it is.

plutonium lab said...

Did not see one convincing reason on his list, regardless of whether he was being facetious or playing devils adcovate or whatever.
(magic sucks because: mana variance isn’t fun) If you can't make a land base that provides you with playable hands the majority of the time or can't mulligan properly, its a problem with you not the game.
(magic sucks because: it’s horrifically expensive)
Maybe if you're a student or impoverished that's the case. Anyone with a normal paying job can afford to play magic. The reality is you can get a good standard deck for the price of an iphone, and if you want to play other formats you can do so on MTGO for less money.
(magic sucks because: it’s a collectable)
This point is just nonsense. Any card game is going to have an economy and you don't have follow it closely to enjoy the game.
(magic sucks because: it’s old)
Richard Garfield who created magic all those years back is notoriously bad at playing the game itself. There have been immense changes front to back and new elements are introduced several times a year. Magic sets come out once every 3 months, so the newest set (which is self contained for limited) is probably going to be newer than the most recent video game you bought. To say that the games storied history is a detrimental aspect to it when the game is evolving and changing every day is absurd.
(magic sucks because: only wizards makes magic)
Give me a fuckin' break.

plutonium lab said...

Did not see one convincing reason on his list, regardless of whether he was being facetious or playing devils adcovate or whatever.
(magic sucks because: mana variance isn’t fun) If you can't make a land base that provides you with playable hands the majority of the time or can't mulligan properly, its a problem with you not the game.
(magic sucks because: it’s horrifically expensive)
Maybe if you're a student or impoverished that's the case. Anyone with a normal paying job can afford to play magic. The reality is you can get a good standard deck for the price of an iphone, and if you want to play other formats you can do so on MTGO for less money.
(magic sucks because: it’s a collectable)
This point is just nonsense. Any card game is going to have an economy and you don't have follow it closely to enjoy the game.
(magic sucks because: it’s old)
Richard Garfield who created magic all those years back is notoriously bad at playing the game itself. There have been immense changes front to back and new elements are introduced several times a year. Magic sets come out once every 3 months, so the newest set (which is self contained for limited) is probably going to be newer than the most recent video game you bought. To say that the games storied history is a detrimental aspect to it when the game is evolving and changing every day is absurd.
(magic sucks because: only wizards makes magic)
Give me a fuckin' break.

B. Moser said...

Right, I think it's fundamentally wrong to think of MTG as a "game". That implies you have control, but once you're in a game there are very few decisions to make. (Especially if you draw a "You lose the game" and have to instantly resign.) All of the game part happens while making a deck.

Fundamentally, it is gambling using a surrogate nerd currency. And that currency MUST constantly change, since should you ever reach the day every nerd that plays the game has four copies of everything, that currency becomes worthless.

The white male nerd with disposable income thing has always been something we've been very, VERY uncomfortable talking about. It's easy to joke about a MTG tournament looks like the nerd stereotype: scrawny nerds with tiny arms or debuman sized... But really think about it. If you're not there solely for the gambling, then you're there for face to face human interaction. It's like paying money to make and keep friends. It's an ugly kind of thing, like subscription MMOs.

And yeah, anything will get old after you've input hundreds of hours into it. Playing another game is exactly what you're supposed to do. Would you watch Ghostbusters on a loop 400 times, or do you maybe give other spectral incarceration crime dramas a chance? And if they don't exist, input the 10,000 hours to make one and you'll never want to think about Ghostbusters again in your entire life.

B. Moser said...

>> If there was better competition on the market I would not see Magic as on top as it is now.

No, it doesn't matter. Coca Cola tastes like shit, but it still gets the job done so it's still #1. Being first is an incredible advantage.

momo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
momo said...

Oblivion only belongs on a top 10 lost if Morrowind is above it.

momo said...

Oblivion only belongs on a top 10 lost if Morrowind is above it.

B. Moser said...

I mean seriously. You get a booster. What's the worst thing you can do? OPEN IT????


anthony harris said...

The lcg market however is great look at Netrunner and Ashes: rise of the phoenixborn

anthony harris said...

Have you tried the competition? Have you played any of these titles?
Cosmic encounter,
Android Netrunner,
Terra Mystica
Mage Wars
Mage Knight?

John said...

I second Anthony's recommendation of Netrunner. Instead of treating lands as the varying resource and 'one draw per turn' as a fixed limit (until you have spells), Netrunner gives you a fixed amount of actions per turn, and unlimited options for what to do with it. While there are still frustrating deck configurations, the ability to suddenly draw four cards in a turn (albeit doing nothing else) in order to get that one type of card you need is a lot more pleasing than the good ol' 'draw-go.' (and not the blue mage kind). As an additional bonus, the LCG model means that you get whatever cards you want-- no randomness, no paying a billion dollars for cards or decks. It allows for matches and tournaments to be a lot more cerebral, because everyone has the exact same access to cards as anyone else.

But, then again, I hear you on League of Legends. That game is an addiction in the best possible way, especially if you have people to play with.

The Mormegil said...

I agree on all your points. However:

1) Netrunner, Doomtown: Reloaded, Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn, Game of Thrones LCG - these four are excellent titles that are very much "Magic not by Wizards". Netrunner can also be drafted (IDK about the rest). The rules are freely available online, and you should check them out. I will note that the quality levels are much higher than '90s CCG competition - especially Netrunner, the new edition is SO MUCH better than the CCG.

2) Board games can compete with MtG. A new board game costs between 40 and 60 bucks, with some small card games going down to even 10$. There are multiple boardgames that can compete with the feeling Magic gives, and investing in a new game is much less costly than investing on a new deck. I recommend the Dice Tower Network for more information, including various top 10 lists.

If you want drafting, there are multiple excellent drafting games (Seven Wonders, Fairy Tale, Sushi Go, Medieval Academy, Among the Stars, Seasons...). If you haven't yet, you should try the deckbuilding genre too: it aims to replicate the deckbuilding aspect of CCGs while making THAT the core of the gameplay (Dominion, Thunderstone, Star Realms, Marvel Legendary and many more...).

Finally, I DEFINITELY RECOMMEND LOOKING AT BATTLECON. Just look up the rules online, if it intrigues you, make a post on r/BattleCon and we'll help out. :)

Timo Koriseva said...

It's important to acknowledge the faults in things you like, because it's incredibly easy to just be blind to them. It certainly does not make it wrong to like that thing if you think the pros outweigh the cons. You also shouldn't be angry to people pointing out negative things about things you like, but it's also important for them to acknowledge the positive aspects that make you like what you like. The title of this post is incredibly volatile in that regard when you take into accord the target audience.

With that out of the way, I'd like to provide a few points on your points. :)

1) Mana variance is not fun, I agree. Even if you craft a statistically perfect mana base, there is no 100% guarantee that your mana wont screw you up some time. And when it does, it sucks. I personally think that this con is outweighed by the pro of those incredibly interesting and tense matches of MtG you sometimes witness.

2) Magic being expensive is kind of relative. A kitchen table player can be happy with his $5 deck, whereas a pro player can borrow most if not all the cards he/she needs. But if I look at it from my perspective, I tend to view MtG cards as "sports equipment" of sorts. Good equipment cost money. Sports licenses and insurances also cost a lot (take ice hockey or football played competitively). Any sport can be cheap or expensive. But the beauty with LoL and the like is that they pretty much cost the same for everybody. E-sports is really so different a beast that I think it might be good to leave it out of this conversation entirely.

P.S. I'm an IT professional with (almost) shitloads of cash ;)

3) I see where you're coming from with the collectable argument, but the impact of collectors to the cost of Standard legal cards for example is highly debatable.

4) "Magic is old". Don't fix something that isn't broken I guess? MtG being old can also be one of it's great advantages. A huge player base, parents playing with their children. The mechanical elements of the game have not changed for a while, agreed, but I disagree that MtG is not changing: new block structure, new types of story telling etc.

5) Magic really is more than a game at this point, but I think it's good that the core game is being controlled by this benevolent dictator WotC. It would be incredibly easy for an outsider to upset the balance of the game, and after that it would be a downward spiral. At least the people working on the game change time after time.

TL;DR All the things you said are mostly true, but I also would like to rant.

Dan Cunningham said...

As far as your last point goes the m15 core set had some cards designed by outside parties. ( look at aggressive mining) These cards were well received. I'm sure wizards will ask outside parties to design cards again and who knows maybe even sets.

Carl said...

Try a different competitive card game - there are so many good ones. It takes some effort to find them, because MtG is so pervasive. And you'll need a friend or two.

I like MtG too, but I see these same issues brought up over and over again. They've been solved. There are options. But even well-read articles, by avid players, (like this one) seem to compare it to video games (apples to oranges) because that's the only other type of game the bulk of MtG players play.

There are games with variance and luck that don't have mana-screw. There are competitive customizable games that cost $15 and that's it. Some have been listed here - go try one.

Android Netrunner,
Terra Mystica
Mage Wars
Mage Knight
Blue Moon
Ophidian Wars

Paul Houser said...

Interesting read! Maybe I'm just too much of a newb at both to have a valid opinion, but I actually don't mind the variance and occasional mana screw/flood. Particularly because I find the hearthstone alternative where you get your mana crystal for free every turn pretty boring, and the complexity of deckbuilding plummets without the tension of having to balance reliable mana base with being greedy and trying to play a 5-color monstrosity that stuffs good cards. Though in reality, I think the bigger issue with the MUCH lower level of complexity in hearthtstone is not free mana but the lack of the color pie, and I'm not sure how to have colored mana without lands...granted I am no game design expert.
The cost question and the "magic is old point" seem extremely salient to me however...and don't even touch on the issue of power creep aka "lets make this card more exciting by making it strictly better than X card previously". Granted I only started playing in earnest around innistrad, but looking back through older sets the power to mana ratio has clearly changed dramatically, not to mention the disappearance of upkeep costs.
But back to the cost question...I do have to say though, as someone who has tried for 2 or 3 years to just build quasi-competitive decks with cards I have opened, traded for or 1-2 dollar budget can only do that if you are happy with coming away from an FNM with a 1-3 record. It seems like the only options are to actually sink some cash into a winning deck (and even if you want to try to brew your own, it seems that there are a handful of cards in each set that are just strictly the best cards. Siege Rhino, anyone?) or just do prereleases and drafts and hope that once in a while you crack a foil worth money and the event pays for itself. if you are lucky enough to have a group of friends who like to play kitchen table magic with janky combo decks magic is amazing...but otherwise shell out cash or just play limited seem like the only two options.
What I think the article doesn't address is the fact that, fundamentally, magic is a form of gambling. Unless I'm much mistaken, the original rules called for an ante system where each game was played with specific cards as an "ante", and this was axed because of gambling laws. But the only possibly explanation for why people enjoy cracking packs so much is the thrill of maybe opening that foil goyf..only to get another 20 cent bulk rare. Also I don't know that it is fair to compare paper magic to computer games. Because the reason I am willing to fork out the money is that magic can actually with reliability be played in person even if you don't have friends locally who play. For better or worse Wizards has the market cornered on CCGs with a big enough fan base to reliably be enjoyed in person. I look at it more like a night out bowling or perhaps a trip to Dave and Busters (or a casino)- and it definitely comes out cheaper than any of those.

Sanctaphrax said...

Magic isn't expensive unless you want to play competitively. You can play forever with a ten-buck intro pack, or with the cards you find leftover on the table after a draft.

Tournaments can get pricey, but if you travel for a tournament your hotel and travel costs are probably higher than your deck costs. And even then it's cheap by sports standards.

So it doesn't make much sense to complain about deck prices, to me.

Also, recent sets have plenty of interesting stuff going on.

But I agree with your little rant about the collector/speculator side of the hobby. Those people have their thing, and they seem to enjoy it, and it funds the continued growth of my hobby, but even so I kinda wish they'd go away.

betazed said...

You don't like Magic? Fine. There are card games that address some or all of your points that would love to have more players. The Spoils actually addresses both the "horrifically expensive" and "mana variance" points.

It uses a threshold/resource system combined with activated draw/resource ability as a core mechanic. You even start the game with two colored resources from your deck (counting toward the threshold of their color) If you have resources open at the end of an opponent's turn, you can pay to draw a card, or pay to play a resource at the end of his turn. Any card in your hand can be a resource so that eliminates not only mana variance (aside from meeting threshold) but you can put cards you can't or shouldn't play face down as resources, thus clearing dead cards from your hand. Therefore "mana screw" is far less common though it is still susceptible to "mana flood", I find that is often due to player error more so than natural variance.

I encourage you to check it out. It doesn't rotate as fast as Magic and it still has very powerful synergies that Magic has been shying away from. It is, however, creature/combat centric. It combats the "horrifically expensive" point by having super long print runs. As I recall, the oldest set still out, 2nd Edition, is still in print and all subsequent sets (which includes a Modern Masters-style reprint set) are still in print and still in the "Current" format. They also strive to make it so that the functional versions of cards i.e. the pack versions are inexpensive. An in-print Spoils card is considered expensive at $20 for a regular version and that basically tops it out. Foils and promos are of course special cases and can fetch decently large sums. Overall, Spoils is more skill-based and the player basically makes or breaks himself but it is still a lot of fun and well balanced in constructed and draft.

If you want more details or find it interesting check them out at

KillGoldfish said...

i don't and i don't

Victor Lavialle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ruvyn said...

A) Mana Variance is fun /to a degree./ I think an important part of the game is not knowing if you're going to get all the mana you want, and having to work to plus or minus. That I actually like. But I also agree that when you lose a game because your deck has plenty of lands but you don't see any until you mulligan down to 3 it's just kind of stupid. The thing is, while mana screw is mostly unique to magic, high variance is a natural part of any card game. Sometimes you just lose and there's nothing you can do about it.

B) I don't understand why people are saying magic isn't expensive. This isn't about questioning whether it can be afforded. It's about comparing it to other things at similar prices. If you want to tell me you can afford a playset of Scalding Tarns, that's fine. That is a thing you can do. Hell, I have some high-cost magic cards myself. But if you want to tell me that the four pieces of cardboard that are Scalding Tarns are /actually worth/ the $320 they're being sold for, I have to counter that you can play an MMO for two years on that money, or you could buy like six other games. Now, I play magic. It's clearly not so expensive that I won't play... but I play Standard and complain about prices, because the older formats are straight up ridiculous.

C) The collectible aspect... I like. It's fun. I try to get certain things, many of which are rare and hard to find, and as long as the thing I'm looking for isn't the same as what's super potent in a tournament, I don't really have a problem. If blue hurricane is going for 10,000, that's fine. I only need a regular green one to actually play with it. Foils and special printings are something that can easily be opted out of. Now, with things like fetchlands, that's an issue, and the fact that the ancient out of print cards are top tier is why I'll never play the oldest formats, but most of it is easy to ignore.

D) I understand that you've gotten burned out on magic over the years, but I don't really think Magic's showing its age. I thought Innistrad, Theros, and Khans block were all new and unique and showed me things in the game I hadn't seen before and in new ways. Sure, some sets are crazier than others, but there's plenty of innovation left for magic.

E) The monopoly on magic is a problem I understand. D&D has long had the OGL, allowing anyone to make D&D products. This means that if Wizards isn't providing me with what I want, I can easily find other things that are 90% D&D but with tweaks and patches. Pathfinder is pretty much "D&D 3.7," and that overtook real D&D in popularity. The big benefit here is that these things can be mixed and matched with D&D. Magic just isn't like that. There's not a fix for this, though, as long as you want a game where you can still have tournaments. It's a symptom of it being a competitive game that got big and popular. Any game that got popular enough would result in a similar issue.

Unknown said...

" . . . Magic has basically burned out. So have I."

I hear ya. You definitely need a change. From reading your blog, it seems you've never done creative work as your profession (some Magic articles aside, since that income was likely to be inconsistent or pitiful or both, I imagine). Yet you consistently value creativity very highly, you have finely honed critical skills, and you speak passionately--rhapsodically, even--of fine, novel, innovative work.

Find your calling before you become embittered. That's my unsolicited advice for the day. Peace! B-)

MadTown Hoops said...

I agree, and I also agree with the comments from others about gambling. Magic stimulated my gambling addiction by playing into feelings of isolation and love of fantasy. Eventually I came back to the game after poker became unsustainable. I was able to "kick" my habit not because Magic helped, but because it IS GAMBLING. Nostalgia aside, I think it's messed up that WotC specifically markets to children. When you combine that with the monopoly control and locking down alternatives like Cockatrice, you can argue Hasbro is one of the most evil companies in the world.

As for NWO, it was stupid to limit design so thoroughly when complexity is the appeal of the game. Magic is dying, voluntarily, and it won't get better until they cast off MaRo's projecting ass.

Davide Celletti said...

You are wrong because you are looking at Magic from the wrong point of view. Magic it's not about tournaments, professional playing, re-selling business etc.. Magic it's about the joy of discover new and forgotten spells, dreaming about ancient worlds and Gods, enjoying a travel in your chillhood and a trip in parallel, beautiful worlds. To play for winning moneys or prizes is just the best way to ruin the magic in Magic. It's ok, sometimes, to have some fun this way, but Magic isn't a sport or a job. For the children, it's a beautiful game of discover, for the adult it's a great emotion deliver. Ps. If you don't like variance in games, just play sports, chess or videogames. I'll be glad to continue my dreaming discovering and collecting ancient cards, and building my personal decks to have fun at my kitchen table, enjoying the game that for me is the best for it's artistic relevance. :)

Chandler Walpole said...

I think Magic stopped billing itself as a "game" around the time of the first Pro Tour. Magic the "game" only costs about 50 dollars, because that game consists of a couple of intro packs and boom, you're done. And those packs are good for the same amount of times you would play your average board game, if not more. Board games aren't re-configurable, neither are the intro packs.

Magic as an "event" is where you get into things like FNM. You aren't going to play a game, you are going to participate in an event. Here it becomes less of a buy in for a game and more of the ticket price for a concert. Instead of paying the cover charge at the bar (conveniently the same price as a draft at the most popular music spot in my town), you are paying for 4-6 hours of an event. It's a trade off.

Then you have magic as a hobby. This is the collectible aspect. I fall into this category almost exclusively. I built a Modern deck when I was managing a game store some years back. Since then, I tweak it, and am trying to get signed foils of all the cards. Not for playability, but because it is a hobby. Some people collect spoons. Some people tinker with their car. I know a guy who spent over 100k building his dream motorcycle from scratch. I kind of view that the same way. He needed the bodywork to be just right, some people need an Alpha lotus in their collection. I didn't "get" his motorcycle. It was pretty, sure, but I didn't get why he spent that much money and time on the thing. If I ever showed him my Faeries deck, he would probably never stop laughing at the amount of money I had spent making it the way I want.

Then you get into Magic as a lifestyle. This is the hobby level amplified to its maximum extent. These are people who choose magic over larger things. There are people who play hockey, who buy all their equipment to play in their league. You have people who play video games, have every system, and buy every new game that comes out from some publishers. My ex-roommate had over 1000 games on his shelf, with every system he had ever owned proudly displayed. It was his pride and joy, and every paycheck had a portion put aside for adding to the collection. This is the level of the person who goes to Magic Grands Prix in other states just for the opportunity to be around other people who share their lifestyle. The kind of people who will read and then reply in depth to this article (oops, I may skirt this line sometimes). For this person, they aren't playing the game for the game, but participating in the community that it brings in. Some people tithe 10% to their church, and this brings with it a group of friends and a sense of community. Magic brings, if anything, a greater sense of community at these larger events, and I can absolutely see people spending the same amounts of money on this "game".

So yeah. Magic as a game? Not that great. High costs, high barrier to entry, and Wizards is a terrible company that keeps making boneheaded moves that alienate people. but people stick around because it

Gene Ramblewood said...

Have to vent since Wizards Orc's warned me for "disrupting" the chat. I am finally fed up with mtgo. I took a month off due to constant weird mana issues when drafting. Thought it was a fluke, boy was I wrong. I logged on to a origins draft and just tried to enjoy it. Great RB deck with 4 two drops 10 three drops, removal, act of treason and nantuko husk and a couple finishers 10 Mountains/7 Swamps. I won the first game each round, nicely played out games then lost last two from mulligan hands or land issues. First 7 cards example; 2 Swamps, all red cards, mulligan down to six; all spells, mulligan down to five; 3 Mountains 2 Black Cards. Another first 7 cards example; 2 Mountains a three drop, 3 four drops and a reave soul. Draw into 3 more three drops before hitting the next land. Concede then draw out my deck and hit 9, yes 9 lands in a row! I realize this happens in paper magic but this has been a constant issue and I refuse to support a client that Wizards is unwilling to fix. Hope this is read by fellow players that get so frustrated and are looking for answers. You are not alone and need to leave mtgo behind. FOR GOOD.

Gene Ramblewood said...
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