Monday, December 15, 2008

Reviewing collectible games from a wargaming perspective: Magic: The Gathering

Magic: The Gathering is one of the seminal games of the gaming hobby, right up there with Tactics, Diplomacy, Panzerblitz, Dungeons & Dragons and Settlers of Catan. It created an entirely new category of gaming, collectible games, when it came out in 1993, as as such, it's worth at least having a passing acquaintance with for any gamer.

And it has been very successful, being one of the few game designs to make it's designer a fortune. Although it's now more than 15 years old and and spawned several imitators and inspiring many other collectible games, it's never really been surpassed.

I think this is a testament to a very sound basic game structure that has proven to be very robust.

For those who don't know, the basic sequence of play is straightforward.

After starting with an administrative "upkeep" phase, a player draws a card and then plays cards during the "main phase." There are literally thousands of different cards, but two of the most common are "lands" and "creatures." A player can place one land into play per turn and then "tap" (use) that land and any previously played lands to generate points of "mana," which is the currency of the game. Mana comes in five colors and playing non-land "spell" cards costs varying amounts of mana in color specified on the card. One of the most common kinds of spells is one that summons various creatures. If a creature summoning spell makes it into play (there are cards that can head it off) then it becomes a creature with an attack and defense value. During the main phase a player can dispatch any creatures that have not just appeared to attack the opposing player. The defender can send his previously played creatures to block the attackers. Each fight is resolved by comparing the each attacking value to each defending value. No dice are involved. Unblocked creatures attack the opposing player costing him or her one point of "life" for every attacking point. Players start with 20 life points and are defeated when reduced to zero. After combat concludes, the main phase resumes, allowing the phasing player to play more spells, if desired.

All of these activities can be affected, modified, cancelled, enhanced, disrupted, etc., etc. and etc. by various cards and the timely playing of the cards is a big part of the game. Perhaps an even bigger part of the game is the pre-game deck-building activity, as a player selects from his available cards to create the most effective fighting force.

Because the game explicitly features combat between dueling foes, it bears a resemblance to wargames and might be expected to appeal to wargamers, or at least those open to non-historical themes.

There are, however, significant obstacles for wargamers who might think about dipping into the pool of Magic: The Gathering players.

Magic: The Gathering is more than just a game. It's a deeply absorbing hobby in itself. Indeed, in order to be a serious Magic player there's really little time, money or energy left for anything else. A wargamer who made a serious effort to get into Magic: The Gathering would, by definition, cease being a wargamer and would become a Magic player.

It's similar to the problem casual chess players face whenever they ponder getting "into" the serious chess world. The fact of the matter is that becoming a mediocre rated player, let alone a master-level chess player, takes dedicated effort and e=intense study. Magic is the same, but with an added dimension of cost. One simple illustration is looking at the top-rated tournament decks listed on the Web site. Looking at several dozen of them one sees that there's hardly a basic land card in the bunch. Nearly all of them feature 20 or so specialty land cards which are more efficient in play, but also are in limited supply as rare cards. Acquiring the cards alone means buying many boosters or purchasing the cards as singles at a premium from dealers.

Fortunately there is an option for those who might want to try the game out without going crazy. Wizards of the Coast generally offers pre-constructed decks. For example, currently there is a duel set that pits two set pre-constructed decks against each other in one $20 package. This provides a way to have a fair game between two players and is roughly comparable in price and value to standalone non-collectible card games. While not usable for tournament play,. these decks can serve as a useful primer. Similarly, a more casual player can take part in the tournament scene by playing in "sealed draft" tournaments, where all the players have access to the same boosters and they draft cards to build their decks. Experienced players still have a significant edge in this format, of course, because of their better understanding of the game, but it's less pronounced than in constructed deck play.

One major advantage of Magic: The Gathering is that it is very popular and well-supported, so finding opponents is easy. There's hardly a burg big enough to have a post office that doesn't have a store offering Magic: The Gathering organized play within an easy drive.

Still, while I can see value in a wargamer picking up a couple of decks to try the game out, I can't recommend going much further than that. Playing Magic: The Gathering to a satisfying level of success will require such a big commitment that a player will probably have little time for anything else.

While featuring play that resembles combat, any prior wargame experience won't be all that useful because Magic is, at root, a card game, not a combat game. Knowing the Principles of War and being skilled at maneuvers or planning will be of little use. The hand-management skills of a good Poker player are much more relevant.

My overall recommendation is to dabble in Magic: The Gathering if you can restrain yourself from getting sucked into the maelstrom of organized play. It is a good game, basically, and worth having a couple of decks on hand for casual play when the mood strikes. If you're a competitive player , however, be forewarned that success requires going whole hog. You may have fun, but you'll be an ex-wargamer.


  1. Hi Seth, nice overview for those who have no idea of what MtG is.

    I was whole hog into the Magic scene years ago and had to get out when the money I was putting into it was getting a bit out of control. It has, since I've left, been very rationalized in terms of its design intents and card design -- the postings on the main WOTC site by the designers are fascinating.

    A more economical alternative is the Online version of Magic what allows you to have a virtual collection of cards on their servers. At first this idea seemed to be ridiculous, especially since there would be no discount for the virtual versions. However, given that you can play at all times of the day and that your cards are always with you if you have an Internet capable computer it turns out to be a good deal. Dabbling in Magic Online basically can be just playing in a month long "closed league" where your card pools are limited or some of the special "highlander" or "peasant magic" variants (peasant=common cards only and very very cheap to trade for online).

    Will I ever go back to Magic given my current "addiction" to ASL and wargames? Never say never but I can't see it as more than "dabbling".

  2. Gotta agree w/scrub on this one. The money:fun ratio is disproportional. I spent over 1,000 of my hard-earned summer lawnmowing dollars on the game over the 2 years I was addicted to it in 6th and 7th grade.