Finally Trying Out Magic: The Gathering

Magic: The Gathering (MTG or Magic) came to my attention when it was first being advertised in the early 90s. Being the first trading card game produced (according to Wikipedia), the game mechanic wasn’t immediately obvious from TV commercial spots. Still, I was intrigued — but not intrigued enough to give it a try. It’s taken me over twenty years for us to be introduced.

Because I’d always been Magic-curious, when the show Spellslingers came out, I started watching to get some idea of what the game was like. It was interesting: attacks, spells, counter-spells, counter-attacks, artwork, competition, socializing, and whatnot. I was willing to give it a go, but, not being much of the socializing sort, this game seemed out of reach as it doesn’t lend itself to IRL solitaire playing.

I’d signed up to the game service Steam a while back to play an unrelated game. On a whim, I did a search for Magic games. Lo, there was Magic Duels available for free. Some research revealed that it was well suited for the new player, what with it having tutorials and providing hints during play which weren’t annoyingly hand-holding about it. I grabbed a copy and started playing.

Magic Duels gameplay

It’s been a couple of weeks, and after lots of play against the computer (as I said, I’m not so much with the social) I have to say that I’m still ambivalent about the game. In general, it’s enjoyable. It has the sort of randomness and strategy that I think most games benefit from. The games are relatively short, and the rules are (mostly) not so convoluted that you need to consult a reference every few minutes.

That said, I do have issues with a couple of things: some of the game mechanics and especially the economics. In terms of the mechanics, the same randomness I praised above is also a profound weakness. I’ve had a couple of games where, after some creatures were destroyed and none left in my hand, I only drew land for the rest of the game (basically I was gaining tons of money but had nothing to spend it on). It’s frustrating when you can’t break out of that somehow. I’ve learned that if you start off badly positioned, the rest of the game is probably lost — and you’ll know it. Still, it’s seldom enough that it’s not a deal-breaker for me.

The economics, however, are a problem. According to the always accurate Wikipedia, as of February 2015, there have been 14,728 unique cards produced with 600-1000 new ones added each year. Needless to say, these real-word cards cost money. If you acquired them solely via 15-card booster packs and had “magical” luck in receiving a minimum of duplicates, that means it would take no less than 982 booster packs to get one of every card (which, at about $4.00 USD per pack comes out to $3,928). Just the yearly updates would cost a lucky minimum of $160-267 per year. Of course, no one is that lucky. This is why you can buy anything from sets to single cards. It’s really a brilliant Gillette-style model that ensures that Wizards of the Coast continues to generate income.

Even in the free game you come across the core of the problem: some players will have cards you don’t have access to unless you pay — in the case with Duels, you have the option of winning at least ten games to get a booster of six additional random cards. (What if poker worked this way? How much would a high-roller pay to add an Emperor or Twelve-of-all-suits to their deck?) While there are variants in place for various competitions to lessen this sort of advantage, the intrinsic ability to gain advantage ruins the spirit of general game play for me, and it is the biggest factor keeping me from wanting to do more than dabble on the fringes for the time being.

So where does that leave me? I’ll continue to play Magic Duels solo. I’d consider buying some cards if I had someone I personally knew locally equally interested and in it for the joy of the game more than the win, but that’s not currently a realistic option. I would definitely recommend Magic to others. While some amazingly convoluted combination of moves can happen, for the most part the game is very straightforward and not that difficult to learn — even the jargon isn’t too bad and is easily referenced on the web. I’d strongly recommend downloading the free edition of Duels and watching some games online if you are a total newbie to the game — it helps.

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