As some of you may know, I rather like (and can be rather snobby about) board games. Mostly I like the so called “designer” games from cool European countries (well, mostly Germany) that I’m always quick to explain how they are so much better than the games you’ll typically find in Wal-mart. Which I suppose makes me the asshole that complains about playing Monopoly, and when I absolutely have to I’ll then insist on playing by the actual rules (no, Free Parking is not an actual rule but a house rule that funnels money back into a game system that is designed to take the player’s money away and thus makes the game length even more interminable). I’ll point out that Sorry! would be better with a hand of five cards, Clue would be better without the random movement, and Uno would be better if we had never started playing it in the first place.
So yes, aside from occasionally ruining a well intentioned “non-designer” game night with snobbery, I really do like board games, and Magic the Gathering is one of the first “real” board games (I’m lumping “card games” in with “board games”) that I was introduced to. It is a game where each player assembles their own deck of 60 cards from over 10,000 possible cards. So there is a unique “deckbuilding” aspect of play (full of its own strategic decisions to be made before you even start playing) to go along with the actual game play where you pit your deck against the deck your opponent designed. I have to say that Magic the Gathering is actually a pretty great game–as long as you play it the right way that is; because as great as it is, it is also an extremely flawed game.
I want to start by taking a look at the biggest of these flaws: Magic really is the money sink everyone tells you it is. It is a Collectible Card Game (CCG) which means that you build the 60 card deck you play with out of cards that are sold in random packs of 15 cards for around $2.75 a pop online ($3.69 retail). A new player would probably need to buy a box (36) of boosters for $80 (again at online discounted price) just to be able to make a couple decent decks.
Of course once you’ve assembled a deck full of magic cards from random boosters you start to realize that your deck would be better if you had more cards to work with, and this, as they say, is “where they get ya”. Most decks could always be “improved” whether just by replacing some cards with more powerful versions (the most common complaint against CCGs) or just improving the consistency of a deck. Each deck can have four copies of a the same card as part of its 60 cards, so if you want to have the best chance of drawing a key card for your deck, you will need 4 copies, something that a newer player probably won’t have.
But, as long as you are ok with just getting a consistent deck and are willing to fore-go shelling out the money to buy the most powerful cards you can still enjoy everything there is to enjoy about Magic. Magic will still be expensive, but with smart buying (something that it would be necessary to have an experienced player help you with) you could probably get a decent standard collection to build from and have a five or so good and consistent decks to play with for around $100 with any future decks you want to make costing about $5 in extra cards you still might not have. Still expensive, but not nearly as bad as it could be.
The second major flaw is the rock paper scissors aspect of the different types of decks you can build. Some types of decks will naturally beat other types of decks, and are in turn be beaten by other decks, etc. In the professional tournament environment (yes, there are professional magic players…I know) this is actually an interesting aspect of the game, the “metagame” as they call it, in that you need to design a good deck but also know how it fits in to the current “metagame” (if you know people have been playing scissors a lot lately, you might want to go with rock even though paper is your favorite).
However, this becomes a problem in casual play when your friend brings a deck over that they just made and even if you might be playing decks of roughly the same power level you quickly realize that it is a matchup where one deck always has the edge. Maybe your opponent is using a deck that destroyed land cards to hurt you. If you were playing a deck that needed lots of land you would probably lose, but if you were playing a deck that didn’t need much land you would probably win.
This flaw doesn’t have much of a solution. In a game where you build a 60 card deck out of a card pool of over 10,000 cards, the different possible decks you can build are going to have wildly different outcomes when played against each other. If it were a game with only two possible decks, the designer could make sure that one deck doesn’t have an unfair advantage assuming they were both skillfully constructed. In Magic…this is not the case, but I suppose that is the nature of the game. And truthfully, extreme cases of imbalance are not that common…most decks play at least fairly well against each other without a great deal of bias.
But this flaw is just the drawback of any game that involves deck design. And the design your own deck aspect of Magic is to many people (myself included) one of its most interesting features. So the imbalance of many of the deck matchups is just a flaw that I have learned to accept (though, still part of the reason I don’t play nearly as much Magic as I used to…I have tons of boardgames that are just as fun but also well balanced).
The final, and probably most serious flaw of the game is the simple fact that despite being able to be played without buying the best cards, whoever spends the most money still wins (in most cases). It’s like playing a modified game of poker where you and your opponent each used your own deck and you had to buy the cards you put in your deck. Aces would be the most expensive card since they beat everything while 2s would be the cheapest. If you both spent the same amount of money on your decks you could have a good game, but if your opponent spent twice as much money as you (let’s say you are playing with 2-7 and they are playing with 7-Ace), no matter how well you play they are going to have an edge.
While this is related to the first flaw (magic being a money sink), I’m looking at it separately since, like I said, it is entirely possible to play the game without spending astronomical sums of money (though, it is rare to find a nerd that doesn’t have a bit of the collector in them, so avoiding the siren call of “just buying a few more cards” isn’t easy). But let’s the example from above where you stop after getting your modest collection and assembling a couple good fun decks. If you take your decks out to play against someone who has spent twice as much money on their deck, you might get a few wins, but you will be playing at a major disadvantage.
This is a serious flaw since it means balanced play is only possible if both players are willing to spend 100’s of dollars a year to keep up with all the best cards. It goes from a rather expensive game to an exorbitant hobby.
There is a workaround to this, but it is a fragile solution: you and your opponent have to agree to play subpar decks. This actually isn’t as bad as it sounds, most magic players know what the “good cards” are, usually any card that costs $5 or more if you aren’t sure, and it is just a matter of knowing that everyone you play with won’t be spending the money to get a playset of the best lands or most powerful creatures. It is more a matter of knowing the people you play with and building decks of roughly the same monetary value as everyone else. If you play with a bunch of casual players who just have a few “fun decks”, sure you could stomp them by dropping the money to fill your deck with all the best cards…or you could get cheaper cards that do the same thing as your initial deck idea, just without as much power. The fun of building a cool deck that works well is still there, but now you can also have a good match with your friends and not have to spend a ton of money.
I say this is a fragile solution because there are no set boundaries on what cards you should play, and it is easy for “power creep” to work its way into any casual playgroup as players add more and more powerful cards until finally one player realizes that they are getting creamed because they are unwilling to spend as much money as everyone else has put into the game.
Still, I feel that if you have played the game for long enough it is easy to know how powerful of a deck you have made. You could even use powerful cards, just not in abusive ways. I doubt anyone would complain about me trying to “out-money” them if I threw a Black Lotus (one of the most powerful cards ever made) into my Elemental Augury, Reef Pirates deck (the deck would still suck). So it is a matter of self control and avoiding creating what you know is a deck that abuses powerful expensive cards. It might feel like not playing to the best of your abilities, but Magic is all about creating the best deck you can with the cards you have…it’s much more satisfying to try to do that without just using the best cards or the latest tournament level deck lists. I personally love to take a crappy card and find some way to make it work in a deck.
So if you play with these things in mind, Magic can be pretty great. It’s an overcomplicated (I have played hundreds of different games and I really think only Advanced Squad Leader is more complicated) money-sucking mess, but there really aren’t any games like it out there. Well, except for all the games like it that came out after it did, but Magic was the first…and, more importantly, the one I have the most cards for, so…it’s still my favorite!