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What Magic: The Gathering Can Teach Us
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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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