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What Magic: The Gathering Can Teach Us

December 17, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

In the midst of the collectible card game craze taking over the social space in the success of Cygames' Rage of Bahamut, Will Luton examines the original collectible card game, Magic the Gathering, and the important lessons it has for today's video game designers.

Magic: The Gathering has undergone a revival lately. The game's current card set, Return to Ravinca, is widely regarded as one of the strongest in its 19-year history, with retailers running low on supplies worldwide.

MTG alone invented and defined the CCG (collectible card game) and its revival -- which coincides with developers racing to build gacha-fusion card battlers in the mold of GREE and DeNA's Japanese hits such as Rage of Bahamut and Doriland -- has made it Hasbro's top IP, as well as the most popular CCG in the U.S.

Richard Garfield designed the game in the early 1990s -- after Wizards of the Coasts rejected his idea for a board game. Although impressed with RoboRally, Wizards wanted something portable and low-setup that could be played in the downtime between other games. Garfield returned with the concept of a CCG, and the game launched under his guidance in August of 1993.

Magic's core concepts are pretty simple: Use land cards to generate mana, use mana to cast spells and summon creatures, then use those to attack and defeat the other player. The complexity, however, comes from the emergent strategy generated by both these base rules and the over ten thousand unique cards that could potentially make up a deck today.

All physical games can inform us, as video game makers, through the insight provided in learning and arbitrating the rules normally hidden by their digital equivalents. However, MTG is able to offer more than most, thanks to its depth in balancing, limited resource control, and variable reinforcement. Alongside what can be gained in design are the lessons in marketing, visual design, and community management.

Magic is a treasure trove of learning, and as a relapsed MTG addict and a designer, I'm going to share with you the top five things we can all gain from its success.

Lesson 1: Emergent Strategy

Chess is a classic of game design due to its emergent strategy. The base rules of the game are relatively simple and uninspiring by today's standards, yet the complexity that arises from the movement and counter-movement between two players is beyond what could be mastered in a lifetime.

The human mind can't comprehend the complexity of cause and effect in chess, so it goes about seeking patterns in order to model and understand it. When the mind uses these models to apply a strategy that generates a win condition, it provides a sense of satisfaction and exhilaration as a reward.

Designing for the sort of emergent strategy found in chess is elusive, if not impossible. You are far are more likely instead to discover it in an early form and then build upon it, as is the case with Magic. Indeed, chess itself has evolved to its current form over 1,500 years.

In Magic, players control creatures that have two stats: "power" and "toughness". When in play, their controllers may assign them to attack and, in response, defend against attacks. This simple rule provides a good deal of MTG's core strategy.

For example: It is player A's turn and they have a "Grizzly Bears" creature on the battlefield, whilst player B has control of two "Spirit" creatures.

Grizzly Bears has a power and a toughness both rated at two (depicted as 2/2), meaning it will deal two damage to a player or any defending creatures, yet will be killed when two damage is inflicted upon it. Meanwhile Spirits have power and toughness each of one (1/1).

Player A declares Grizzly Bears to attack player B. In response player B three options: Do nothing and take the damage from the bear, assign one of the Spirits to defend or assign both Spirits to defend. Below is a matrix of outcomes in each scenario:

Assign no blockers

Assign one blocker

Assign both blockers

Player B loses two life points (10 percent of life total).

One Spirit dies.

Both Spirits and the Grizzly Bears die.

A player's decision in this situation is likely affected by multiple other factors, including the other cards in play, their hand, their deck, and creature abilities. For example: The Spirits have the ability Flying, so Grizzly Bears (which do not have Flying) cannot block them, meaning they can attack unchecked for two damage next turn.

Also in consideration are the remaining mana and cards in each player's hands, due to the potential to play "tricks". For example: Player A has declared attack with Grizzly Bears and has in hand, unbeknownst to Player B, Giant Growth.

Giant Growth is an instant card that can be played after attackers and blockers are declared, bolstering a target creature's power and toughness by three. With Giant Growth applied to Grizzly Bears, it can do five damage and dies after taking five damage. Below is a matrix of outcomes for this new scenario:

Assign none

Assign one Spirit

Assign both Spirits

Player B loses five life points (25 percent of life total).

Spirit dies.

Both Spirits die. Grizzly Bears survives.

Player B, however, may have a Cancel card, which would counter Giant Growth and so be played accordingly. Possibly, both players expected to come up against each other's abilities, and built their decks around them with many spells or counterspells.

This second-guessing of a player's actions and card selection is known as the metagame -- a big part of all tournament play. The range of abilities attached to creatures, spells, and lands gives any player thousands of options in any game. Each set, of which there are four per year, usually provides one or more new ability to the game; this creates a constantly shifting landscape for players.

As in chess, building mental models and applying them for success triggers the brain to provide a sense of satisfaction. However, unlike chess, MTG's emergent strategy is somewhat forced by the printing of these sets -- building out the options for a player which the community will find, as a hive mind, the best ones.

Players then build, play, and refine decks over the months as sets are released. The strongest prevail, with supply and demand economics making many rare cards (known as "chase rares") valuable. When another player builds a stronger deck or a combination of cards that defeats the strongest decks, the economics shift.

Magic teaches us to design a game which is basic at its core but gives players a multitude of meaningful options in play, even if that is somewhat forced. This provides a game that has a learning curve -- one that will keep players striving as they discover and apply strategy.


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Comments


Jean-Michel Vilain
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And not only on mobile do they rage, but also on PC like this one www.faeria.net

Luis Guimaraes
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And Spectromancer.
Not collectible, almost no randomness, pure player skill and no optimal strategy.

Jean-Michel Vilain
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Yes Spectromancer is a good game but I really missed the deck building.

Luis Guimaraes
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You can select your deck primarily in the sense of picking your cards. But you can't build your deck in the sense of having cards the other players don't have (except for choosing a different class).

There are 10 cards for each discipline and you must choose five, plus choosing you class, which is what defines your 5th discipline (1-4 being Fire, Water, Air, Earth). In the end everybody has 20 elemental cards (5 of each element) and 5 special cards, out of 10 that compose the discipline of the class.

The fact it's not collectible is one of the reasons I think it's the best. As "collectible deck" is the "leveling up" of card games.

Curtiss Murphy
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Nicely exploration. Emergent behavior is so powerful, and yet... so hard to get right.

Will Luton
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Yes. WotC have had a bit of time to push it though. They have a fantastically dedicated and taleneted R&D team.

Luis Guimaraes
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Specially hard because all games that don't have emergent behavior already failed at it.

Trevor Cuthbertson
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I think the biggest lesson learned with card games: Card games are all about people.

Jason Lee
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Great article. I myself have fit into every Bartle Type at some point or another while playing this game, and at a certain point if you can make every element (exploration, socialization, competition, and achievement) strong and fun, you've got Magic (haha) on your hands.

Fredrik Liliegren
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Love MTG, it and DoTA was ahuge inspiration for our game Kingdoms CCG. http://www.kingdomsccg.com/ that we are planning to ship to iPad early 2013.

Will Luton
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Looks great. Let me know if I can be off help to you.

Terry Matthes
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Magic is a great game but it can be very expensive. Its common place for single decks to be worth $100-500. If you want to win its going to cost you. I've played since the expansion "the dark" which was out in 1994.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Will Luton
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Yes. This is certainly an issue, I spend a great deal and I know many players feel a sense of frustration, especially around Mythic Rares in Standard.

Kevin Carpenter
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I've tried time and again to get back into Magic, but you've either got to be willing to put in a lot of cash to guarantee that you've got access to the good stuff, or just get lucky. It ends up being a hideous time and money sink. I enjoy the game, but I guess I don't enjoy it enough to justify that kind of outlay when I compare to what my entertainment dollar buys elsewhere. It makes miniature wargaming look positively affordable by comparison.

Lewis Pulsipher
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Magic is also the original "pay to win" game - buy more cards at random, have a better selection for deck-making - though many tournament versions overcome that limitation.

Will Luton
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I think this is true to a point, but once you reach a threshold of available trade, tradees and network who will lend the game comes back to skill: In play and deck building.

Alexander Symington
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Indeed. The article does an excellent job of outlining what Magic does right, but, in this respect, Magic also is an example of what not to do. Rage of Bahamut and similar games unfortunately mainly copy the weaker aspects of Magic, such as having poor balance due to significant pay-to-win elements, while not capitalising on its deeper strategic strengths.

My favourite mobile card game right now is Kard Combat (I think this may be a port of Spectromancer, mentioned above(?) ) It learns from Magic in its deep combat design, yet combines that with the balancing and pacing advantages of the 'games as products' model. Excellent UI/controls, also.

Will Luton
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@Alexander Symington: MTG's rules are pretty much too complex for a mobile title. Luckily it benefits from being well played in the paper world so that carries over, but you would expect many mobile players would bounce from it quickly. I'll check Kard Combat out - thanks for the tip.

Johann Lim
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Agreed, up to the threshold of having 4-of every kind of card available in any particular format you want to play in. You can think of it as the "cost of entry" to play competitively.

@Alexander Symington: Kard Combat has Richard Garfield (the original designer of Magic) on its team, hence the improvements.

Jeremy Reaban
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F2P (and some not F2P actually) companies have certainly adopted its "gambling box" model, of selling packs of random items that may or may not be valuable.

At least with M:TG and most physical based games you are guaranteed to get X amount of items of a certain rarity, it's not totally arbitrary like online gambling boxes are, where you don't know the odds

Will Luton
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Yeah. This is commonly known as Gacha from the Japanese toy capsule machines. The rarity ratio is very similar to that described in my piece. However, you're correct that there's a level of guarantee in MTG which some card battlers don't do, with the exception of special events.

Alexander Symington
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In response to this problem, services such as GREE and DeNA that run the networks supporting these games in Japan have formed a self-regulatory council that, in theory, requires card games to display the contents and percentage chance of different card rarities for real money gachas.

Unfortunately, with virtual items there is no real means for the player or regulator to verify the accuracy of this information without access to the game's source code and database, and there is some evidence that it may be falsified in some cases. For example, last month the Bravely Default social game accidentally displayed debug data in the commercial client seemingly indicating that the content of paid gachas actually varies depending on factors such as the time of day. Buyer beware...

Mark Venturelli
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Great write-up! Thanks for posting

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Will Luton
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"Patterns breaks" is an interesting terminology. You're right - cards change the ruleset is what forces MTG's strategy.

Jeremie Sinic
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Great article! But let's be honest: current Japanese card battlers have not much in common with Magic apart from using cards.
(Below is an article I wrote just to say that)
http://www.ethicalvideogames.com/2012/12/13/lets-be-clear-rage-of
-bahamut-is-no-magic/

Garrick Williams
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These "lessons" do not necessarily make for a fun game. Like Dr. Pulsipher mentions, game designers can be compelled to exploit Lesson 2 to make a "pay to win" game. I personally lost favor of Magic because of lands and the Mana Curve. At best, trying to calculate your mana curve is the least fun aspect to designing your deck. At worst, you can get completely gimped by a unfortunate shuffle. This method of resource gathering and management is rather tedious and distracts from the more fun aspects of the game.

It wouldn't be so bad if other games didn't blindly follow Magic's mana mechanic without considering its weaknesses. However, I'm impressed when I see games find alternative methods of resource systems to actively combat those weaknesses.

That aside, this is a great article. It successfully shows how deep Magic is, what lessons it teaches, and how it continues to engage players after 20 years.

Will Luton
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I agree there's a pay-to-win element at low-level play. But once you get beyond that skill becomes the deciding factor in both deck building and play.

Personally, I really like deck building, particularly working out a mana base and curve (sorry to be contrary). It's part art, part science. Whilst there's lots of theory, practice often proves it wrong, so the need to tweak-build-tweak and start to solve problems with a limited set of tools. This mirrors a great deal of game design.

However, for casual players I'm sure that sucks. They just want to sling some cards and being mana or colour screwed isn't fun. MTG is very inaccessible for a lot of players.

The goal of the article was less how imitating Magic makes a fun game, but what playing it can teach us as designers. Swapping cards in out of a deck is about the quickest rapid prototyping you could do.

Maxime Binette
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What is also great about MTG's metagame is similarities with poker, like bluffing and odds. Attacking a 1-3 with a 2-1, purposely keeping some mana untapped, pretending to have a giant growth. Or the high risks/rewards based on the chances to draw a land or a certain card on the next turn.

I understand how profitable collectible cards are, but I still don't understand why no one make the ultimate card game and grab all the players. It's simple : collectible card game with virtual money. I don't mean microtransaction, but earned by playing and trading. I don't mind to pay 60$ for a good card game that isn't pay to win but still have some deck building and collectible elements.

Doesn't 97% of CCG players stopped playing because it was either pay to win or uncustomisable? It's an extremely fun genre, just a stupid greedy buisness model.

Will Luton
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I'm conflicted on this. Whilst rarity drives the economy it also adds an enjoyable chance element to opening packs, plus makes trading part of the community. There are LCG (Living Card Games) that dispense with boosters, but none yet have enjoyed the same success.

Maxime Binette
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I didn't know about LCG, but I agree the game needs an economy. I would just like it to be a virtual money economy. Winning/gambling by playing the game instead of spending real cash. Collecting and trading is primordial, but spending thousands of real cash isn't.


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