Compared to most of my friends, I’m not that much of a gamer.
There’s no one particular reason for this. Certainly, lack of time has been a factor since I became a college student; my class schedule is overloaded much of the time, and my extracurricular schedule is even worse. Also, as with anything that becomes a part of your identity, being a gamer is in a lot of ways about community, and I never really found a “gamer community” in meatspace that I clicked with on an interpersonal level. Finally, a lot of “hobbyist” games (of all kinds) require a significant investment of patience, which isn’t something that I have all that much of (at least not for games). The upshot is that when I have some time to relax, I’m more likely to spend it reading or messing around with code than gaming.
There is, however, one game that I’m pretty heavily into, that I try to make time for even when my schedule is tight: Magic: The Gathering.
I was first introduced to Magic in the summer of 2004. Except for a break that lasted most of the year 2007, I’ve been following the game ever since. In high school, I introduced several of my friends to the game and ultimately established a group of players that included nearly twenty people at its height; this was much of my social life then. We met every week at the public library to play (it was a small town and that was the option as far as meeting spaces were concerned), and had great fun with it. That group is now lost to the mists of time, but I still maintain contact with many of its members, and I still play whenever I get the chance to do so with friends.
The timing of this post is deliberate. The first release of Magic was on August 5, 1993—exactly twenty years ago today. And the game has thrived over that time; they’ve been cranking out four new expansion sets (on average) every year for two decades. One does not achieve this level of success and longevity without doing something right. Something, perhaps, that other game developers—or anyone creating something meant for people to enjoy—might do well to learn from.
What is it, exactly? I’m not sure; probably a lot of things. But it would be good to find out. So, in honor of the game’s twentieth birthday, I present this list of twenty reasons why Magic is my favorite game:
- Customization. Not without reason has this long been the game’s first and foremost selling point. My favorite part of Magic has always been deckbuilding, because I enjoy the puzzle of figuring out how to fit different components together to design something unique. But there’s an even more important role of deckbuilding: it gives every player the power to determine what they want their experience to be like. Like fast decks? Slow decks? Silly combo decks? Decks centered around a particular card, or type? Decks that don’t win in the conventional way but do something else instead? Decks where every card is made into a reference to the movie Back to the Future, and the first letter of each card spells out the movie’s title? This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. The possibilities are, for all practical purposes, infinite.
- Customization doesn’t end at deckbuilding; it extends up to the next meta-level too. Even before deckbuilding, Magic isn’t just one game, because there are so many different ways to play: casual (which is how I do it), tournaments, multiplayer, Limited, variants like Commander. And those are just some of the widely supported ones; there are others like Stack (one of my favorites), and people make up new formats all the time.
- This diversity of play experiences isn’t just incidental; it’s actively supported. Wizards of the Coast’s support for tournaments is of course legendary, but they do a lot to help out casual players too; my high school public library group got plenty of mileage out of the free promo cards they sent us. And they make supplemental products for all different audiences: Commander decks for aficionados of that format, Duel Decks for those who want a fun self-contained game, the From the Vault series for collectors, and most recently, Modern Masters for tournament players (and anyone else who likes really powerful Limited games).
- It’s not just a game; it’s a community, or rather a giant interconnected network of communities. The Magic community has been online for its entire history, which is remarkable when you consider that twenty years ago the Web was in its infancy. Tournament players live and die on this, of course, but you can also find people sharing casual decks, swapping variant format ideas, discussing the storyline, designing fan-made cards, speculating wildly about upcoming expansion sets, plumbing (and finding ways to improve) the intricacies of the rules, applying experiences from the game to psychology research, or using the game’s mechanics to construct Turing machines.
- Magic lends itself to interesting metagames. Obviously this is highly visible on the tournament scene, but I find the consequences of this in casual groups to be even more interesting, because there are more variable factors—like what kinds of decks people like to play (regardless of whether they’re the best option or not). It’s fun to watch people react to a new deck that stomps all over the old ones (literally, in the case of a monogreen Stompy deck that I remember fondly from high school).
- Everything is changing, all the time. Every year brings a new block with entirely new themes to build around. This past year was about two-colored cards; the year before that was about the graveyard and tribal effects, with a Gothic horror motif. Next year they’re doing something with enchantments based around Greek mythology. The beauty of this is that it offers an opportunity that traditional games generally don’t: rediscovery. The joy of learning new things about the game isn’t something that happens just once with Magic; it happens every time a new set comes out.
- It constantly pushes the envelope. In my opinion, they’ve gotten better at this in recent years, questioning many of the fundamental assumptions about what can and can’t change—such as the assumption that cards have to have backs. But this ethic of risk-taking isn’t just used to make a splash. Returning to Ravnica, probably the most beloved setting in the game’s history, doesn’t seem like an especially large risk—until you consider that to make it work, they had to introduce a new block structure that had never been used before, including a small set with eleven different keywords.
- It makes use of old things as well as new things. This is also something that has improved noticeably in recent years. Obviously it means bringing back elements from the game’s past that were well-liked, such as everyone’s favorite old creature type (the Slivers) in the most recent set, or last year’s Return to Ravnica. But it also means things like digging up an obscure alternate win condition that hadn’t been supported since 1997, revamping it to play better, and making it a central theme, which is what they did with poison in 2010.
- The mana system is really well-designed. I’ve played other trading card games that didn’t have anything like it, and this frequently resulted in problems as they tried to expand. If there’s no notion of cost in each card, or only a crude one, then it becomes difficult to create new cards that are different enough from the old ones to be worth buying. What frequently happens is that the new cards are simply more powerful, and power creep spirals out of control. Trading card games need to have resource management systems, and the more fine-tuneable, the better. Magic’s mana system is simple enough to be intuitive while providing all the levers the developers need to create lots of different interesting cards at a reasonable power level.
- The concept of color adds a really important dimension to the game’s mechanics. It means the game has different kinds of cards, and you have to choose which ones you want to use, so you can’t just build a deck by running all the best cards. At the same time, different colors are good at doing different things, so there are major advantages to being able to draw on multiple colors. Without both of these factors, Magic would be a much less interesting game. The tension between them also makes deckbuilding that much more of a puzzle.
- The brilliance of the Magic colors goes beyond mechanical differentiation. The notion of dividing the universe based on some kind of philosophical and/or metaphysical alignment system is well-established in fantasy, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better execution of it than in Magic. Five is the perfect number; instead of winding up with a bunch of opposites (good vs. evil, order vs. chaos, fire vs. ice, etc.), it lends itself to a far more interesting system of allied and enemy colors. Instead of axes (which have the danger of feeling arbitrary), you have viewpoints. Colors don’t see each others’ actions and perspectives in reverse; they see them at an angle. You know, like real life. And not only does all of this stand on its own, but it maps perfectly onto the game mechanics, because that’s what it’s designed to do.
- The storyline, though it has its ups and downs and is prone to continuity snarling, is built on top of a solid core: the multiverse and the planeswalkers. These constants allow the game to tell whatever kinds of stories make sense while simultaneously having everything be interconnected. Since the game’s mechanics are all about doing exactly this on a gameplay level, having the same thing happen in the storyline works really well. Also, the kind of chaotic, limitless multiverse where Magic is set is fairly common in science fiction, but in fantasy it remains rare. More often you see orderly cosmologies like the Great Wheel (from 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons), which I don’t think are anywhere near as interesting.
- Speaking of storytelling, the game has definitely come to play to its strengths in that area. Grand, complicated plots don’t work all that well in a trading card game, so it relies less on those nowadays. Worldbuilding, on the other hand, is where it really shines. What’s it like to live in a world-spanning city ruled by the machinations of ten guilds? Or in a world where the human populace is besieged by vampires, zombies, and werewolves? These are the kinds of stories that Magic tells—and they make it more than just a card game.
- The art is just gorgeous, and in all different ways. Here’s one of my favorite recent pieces; it’s simple, but it works really well.
- Flavor text is used to great effect. I remember how fascinated I was as a new player, reading each little window into the world of the game, trying to understand what it was like. Even now, when I can get much more direct knowledge of the story from the website, I still recognize the power of flavor text for worldbuilding. Then there are lines like “Not to be. That is the answer.”, or all the goblin jokes that never get old. Even the occasional terrible puns are enjoyable, if you can bear them.
- Although Magic is very skill-driven, there’s still a significant element of randomness. Yes, I consider this to be a good thing. I find games that don’t have any randomness or hidden information, like chess or Connect Four, to be rather frustrating. The possibility of something unexpected happening makes a game more enjoyable. And anyone who says that incorporating randomness reduces the amount of strategy involved in a game doesn’t understand math.
- Complete and total backwards compatibility. You can find cards from 1993, shuffle them up with ones from the latest expansion set, and they work just fine with no problems, thanks to the existence of the Oracle online database, which contains up-to-date rules for every card ever printed.
- Wizards of the Coast (the company that publishes Magic) is just all kinds of awesome. It’s become a cliché now to talk about “engaging with your audience”, but there’s that and then there’s what Wizards does. Every week there are multiple articles on Daily MTG talking about what goes into making the game. The head designer has a Tumblr where he answers people’s random questions about the game. The Organized Play system has undergone several major changes over the past couple of years after extensive feedback from the pro player community. I’ve known very few companies that have this level of back-and-forth with their customers, and it shows.
- Wizards’s customer service is also top-notch, and has been since the olden days, long before I started playing, when packs frequently had printing errors and people had to send them in for replacements.
- Magic has twenty years of history. Gatherer lists 119 sets (including supplemental products) sprawling over all different themes, and there are over 13,000 unique cards. Daily MTG has been producing content every weekday for over eleven years, and other sites have collectively produced far, far more than that. There’s just so much there, and it makes the game that much better, because it’s built to scale. Plus, twenty years of experience means that Wizards has gotten really good at making it.
Looking over the list, one theme seems to pop up again and again: variety. Build in the tools to support variety, and you can make something that will delight people and stand the test of time.
When I go back to school in a few weeks, I’m going to try to get a regular group together; I’d certainly like to get the opportunity to sit down and shuffle up more often.
Here’s hoping for twenty more years!
 My first set was Fifth Dawn. To this day, it is still my favorite set, even though it’s not very well-liked by many other players.
 Mark Rosewater, Magic’s head designer, is fond of an analogy comparing games to hash browns. Discovery of the game is like the crispy part.
 On occasion they put too much mana fixing in the environment, and then you can build a deck this way, and people do this, and they win tournaments, and it’s annoying. But most of the time that’s not the case.
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