Lesson 4: Balancing and Resource Control
Balancing and the control of limited resources are important skills for designers, with small tweaks having massive implications for F2P economies. In Magic, building decks teaches a player these skills through the rapid iteration of taking cards in and out, making them conversant in these skills as players, not designers.
Mana, of which there are five types, is produced by color-specific lands at the rate of one per turn once in play. To put a land out the player may play it from their hand, again at a rate of once per turn. Spell cards, however, may be played from the hand without limit, but only if a player can provide their mana cost.
These restrictions, along with a starting hand of seven and drawing from the deck once per turn, form the basis of Magic's balancing mechanics.
Whilst a deck must consist of at least 60 cards, it may have as many or as few lands as the player chooses, which gives rise to a surprising amount of strategy and consideration.
Too few lands and the player will have great hands full of spells but no land with which to bring them in to play (this is known as being "mana screwed") whilst too many lands means the player is able to play lots of spells but their chances of drawing them is lessened (this is known as being "mana flooded.")
This is further compounded by the effectiveness (or power) of a card being designed to correlate with its mana cost (or how many lands must be used to cast the spell). Low cost cards can be played quickly in the early stages before the opponent is in a position to defend, whilst high cost cards can be played later in the game to dramatic effect.
If the player plays only low mana cost cards in their deck, they will be in a position to play multiple cards in the early stages of the game, but the single draw per turn will throttle their progress as they run out of cards in hand, picking up only low cost, low effectiveness cards that have little impact on the game's outcome.
Therefor the player must consider their mana curve (how many of each card they have at each mana cost) for building an effective deck. If the deck has enough of the most effective cards at each mana cost for the first five turns then it will generally play well, with powerful options always available.
Many sites and smartphone apps exist to help the deck builder analyze his or her mana base and curve, but, whilst helpful, balancing complex systems is near impossible from statistical analysis alone. Small, overlooked elements and subtleties can have massive implications as they begin to interact.
As such, Magic players have devised a method known as "goldfishing", in which they play against an imaginary opponent who does not respond (e.g. a goldfish), counting how many turns it takes to win the game.
From this, and understanding the underlying theories of mana screw, mana flooding, and mana ramps, the player will set about refining by adding and removing cards, adjusting their land-spell ratio and mana ramp for the most effective play.
Goldfishing is very close to the analytics we know in modern video games: the recording of how a system, or more specifically a system under human control, performs. Physically swapping cards in and out takes seconds and drastically effects how a game plays out. This can help a designer plan around the cause and effect in a system too complex to comprehend.
Magic has a second lesson for us here: Pinch points. A pinch point occurs when a resource is so scarce a change in availability has huge knock-on effects to its market price. Chase rares, as described earlier, fuel the economy around Magic. These cards become valuable because of the supply being artificially low, whilst the demand grows thanks to their success in tournament-winning decks.
As booster packs are the only source of these cards, players and resellers open them in the hundreds or thousands, creating huge demand for the packs.
Limited resources define economies; if you are too generous with them, then making money is difficult in F2P. But scarcity's desire-generating effect isn't only applied to IAP economies -- think equipment in an MMO and points in a shmup. Both act as major driving factors for return play.
Lesson 5: Presentation
You may have heard the adage that any good game is still fun with text and box graphics. Whilst true, presentation is a key function of delivering an experience and sets a sense of quality and value in the mind of a player; all great games look great.
Humans are drawn to other human forms, especially eyes. Wizards of the Coast use key cards, specifically Planeswalkers, to showcase human characters that provide players with an emotional reaction. They become emblems across products, both physical and digital.
However, not just Planeswalkers but all cards have strong character imagery. For example, a modern printing of Mind Rot features a striking image of a character praying with the top of his skull collapsed whilst Switcheroo depicts a dragon facing off to a turtle. Both, as with all cards, tell a story of their function.
The artwork of the cards has its own fandom and many collectors take more interest in it than the game itself, with original artwork exchanging hands for vast sums.
Moreover, Magic is an information-rich game and the border color and character artwork makes cards distinctive between each other, and so creates a mental association between the physical object and its function. Watching high-level players play is an incredible experience, especially when considering the sheer number of cards they play against with checking card text.
A flash of the Mind Rot artwork informs an opponent that they must discard two cards whilst the functional placement of a card's mana cost, type and text are laid out to make interpreting them easy for players less familiar.
Furthermore, supporting artwork of card borders and packaging drive the brand of Magic as a whole as well as the characteristics of each set. Clearly care is spent to create a sense of quality that pervades almost all of the modern Magic products: Shiny boosters, foil cards, and nicely fabricated boxes make opening a product an exciting event over and above the random chance of rare cards.
The game would not enjoy its success today had the cards been crudely drawn and printed on flimsy paper. The world it sets and the quality it presents, as with any game product, comes from the physical and the visual.
In video games we've long been good at visual fidelity, but now within F2P we need to pay more mind to how we create a sense of quality that makes making a purchase and playing easy and exciting for the player.
It is common for characters to be uninteresting or IAPs and menus to be drab because we concentrate so hard on the quality of game mechanics, yet presentation can create a sense of quality whilst character artwork tell us stories. Both build a player's emotional response to the game, which increase their likelihood to continue playing and spending.
Gathering the Lesson
The success of Japanese gacha-fusion card battlers derives very clearly from the mechanics of Magic as the father of all CCGs. Yet the game can teach all of us lessons beyond the function and design of these games.
Playing it can give young designers the theory to create emergent strategy and ability to problem solve and balance resources to create a fun, optimized experience that ramps correctly.
It also gives us clues for building variable reinforcement through random chance in both play and purchase, whilst using community, collections and tournaments to satisfying Bartle types and keep players in the long term.
Finally all of these can be bolstered by providing a sense of quality via the visual and physical representation of a product to create value in the player's mind.
Magic: the Gathering is a unique game that sits alongside Dungeons & Dragons and Fighting Fantasy in its impact to the world of games and potential lessons for its players. I highly recommend that you got out and buy a couple of decks (any of the Duel Decks are great starting points) and set about understanding it.
It will be the most enjoyable design class you'll ever take.