A Magictation by Mikeal Basile
“Magictating” is defined as getting into the zone with your Magic the Gathering collection–thinking, planning, organizing, reminiscing about past games, and imagining future games. It is a combination of hard thinking about the game and calm meditation, reveling in the joy it brings you.
If you’ve read my column for any length of time, then you know it’s possible I’ve been playing this game as long as some of you have been alive (perhaps even longer). The reason why is simple—Magic: the Gathering is the greatest game ever. No, really, Magic offers it all: enduring long-running game groups akin to D&D campaigns, Black Jack style pick up matches that are over in under a minute, and everything in between. Magic is a game of skill and luck, story and substance, and it speaks to us all in various tones and whispers that draw us back time and time again. With all of this in mind, I tend to wonder what type of Magic players are most prevalent today? What keeps us coming back and will the old guard and the new guard be similar or different in their approaches? Can Wizard’s continue designing a game that provides enjoyment on so many levels to so many people?
The short answer—yes! Yes, the game designers, play testers, art department, and everyone who combines in that beautiful cauldron of creativity that is Wizard’s of the Coast (owned by Hasbro…I know, I know) has been killing it the last couple of years. The sets are amazing. The risk taking is grand, unabashed, inspiring, infuriating at times, and key component of what makes them all such a great blend. They are key to creating new players, and keeping the enfranchised bought in. But, that’s the boring short answer. Let’s dive into what makes modern Magic (no, not the format), so great.
The Blessing and Curse of the Information Super Highway (the internet)
It always seemed odd to me that people were willing to “net deck” and build someone else’s deck in order to win, but I wasn’t grinding tournaments and trying to beef up my DCI rating (Planeswalker Points today?). From reading books and articles I have surmised that this was basically, and still is, an information war at heart. The newest innovations and designs are what keep you ahead of the competition. You need to assess each local meta-game, consider the meta of the larger field, and then plan and execute accordingly. You need lots of practice and dedication. Let’s be honest about that end of things; there aren’t many that can be that dedicated for an extended period of time. I’m not saying players don’t return, but they take breaks, and they’re often longer than shorter. Burn out in tournament land is real, and those that don’t are amazing individuals, but they are not the majority. They inspire, but they do not constitute the majority of players. So, when I was playing in the beginning there wasn’t much of this type of thing going on. Decks and strategies traveled a bit more slowly, and there were only one or two websites that actually discussed Magic. It was a Wild West of tournament builds and competition. Those days saw strange and wild deck lists the world over. I contend that those types of experiences are what has kept many players playing despite the years of increased information influx. The rapidity at which deck lists travel and the speed with which the format can adapt is truly amazing. Hours can go by and the sharpest pros will have already changed their lists and played several matches with the latest tech (Tormod’s Crypt to stop Golgari Grave Troll…I’m kidding).
Magic’s original base of players, the ones that’ve been around for multiple decades, have been here because they are builders at heart. Most of the long-time enfranchised players just can’t stop building new toys, and that’s been a big part of what has kept them in the game so long. The problem with this is that the very innovations that keep them coming back have long been a barrier for new players. Is there an inherent problem with how we are kept in the game, and does that lead to a different type of Magic player in today’s world? The enfranchised keep coming back to mix the new with the old. We are drawn to new mechanics and how they interact with old strategies. New synergies form when old and new are thrown together. Chain of Smog and Professor Onyx is just one currently popular example of this old and ugly meets new and spicy to make a super mix. This is pretty exciting, but also presents problems.
The newer a player is the less likely they are to have these older odd-ball cards. Now, their local game shops may very well have these cards in stock, and so the accessibility issue is instantly solved for those that have a reliable and dependable shop or two at their disposal. For those that don’t have this luxury they are pushed to the online market. That’s fine, but it can make some newer players salty that they can’t get the older cards for as cheap as the newer cards. I personally don’t think that’s a problem. This is often just one more lesson about the depth that Magic now boasts. There are ultra rare collectible cards called Mythic Rares, but there are older and even rarer cards that don’t even have set symbol color coding to clue you in to its inherent worth. This is a collectible game, and so older pieces ought to be a bit more, dare I say, collectible? I guess you don’t expect it when you’re new, and that’s just another piece of the puzzle that newer players are forced to learn, weather, and ultimately gain ground from. The longer they stay in the game and watch their cards appreciate, then the more they are rewarded with perceived value.
I use perceived value, because until you actually sell those cards you haven’t gained any actual value. You have to actually liquidate your assets in order to gain their value. My cards are worth basically nothing to me, because I’ve no plans to sell them. That’s not to say I don’t smile a bit when I find out one of my reserved list cards has climbed in value yet again. It makes me a bit happier, but I’m not watching the prices ready to unload once a certain price point is reached. My wife is always quick to point out to me that the cards I just got for a great deal aren’t really worth any more than I actually paid for it. Frankly, she tells me they’re worthless now, because she knows that I’ll never part with the cards I’ve amassed. That’s alright, because the perceived value of your collection can really just be another way in which you are able to appreciate your cards (pun unabashedly intended). It’s ok to take pleasure in your card collection being worth more than what you paid for it. It can be exciting to snag misprints, reserved list rarities, special collector’s pieces, or fancy foil etched treatments to add more perceived value to your collection. Collecting adds another enjoyable facet to your hobby aside from merely playing with your cards. Embrace the challenge of amassing a collection and you will be rewarded with the fine art of balancing finances with pleasure. It can be delicate dance, but cardboard crack does give back in ways beyond the initial rush of acquiring the cards.
While acquiring cards is a long-term goal, it also creates an initial problem for newbies. The problem seems to crop up around newer players getting into the game. This game is complicated. There are over 100 expansion sets, over 20,000 unique cards, and more rules than can easily be included in a 100 page rule book. That’s daunting for even the most seasoned board-gamers. The trick has long been to remove a few of the barriers to entry for newbies. You get people started by giving them a deck. You give them some cards, and you play through some games with your hands open and your gums flapping endlessly. Explaining this phase and that phase and then attacking and block and then passing and then doing it all over again. It can be a tick overwhelming for people, but the promise of mass multiplayer madness and wild plays that leave the table moaning and groaning, cheering and jeering, is exactly the type of thing that we all want to take part in. It’s fun to play. It’s fun to win. It’s fun to lose, and get revenge. Today’s modern players have so many excellent on-ramps to Magic that it seems like we are bound to create a whole new generation of Magic players that will surely be as enfranchised as those that first started in the early to mid-nineties.
Will the new base be different from or as long-standing as the old guard? Unlike other people, I don’t wear my age as a badge of shame, but feel proud of the wisdom that experience has brought me. My wrinkles and my regrets are markers of all that I have to share with others. Scars, both mental and physical, are merely bookmarks for lessons learned. I’m sure all players have stories about the terrible trades they’ve made: Gaea’s Cradle for the cool Berserk or perhaps that set of Alpha Lightning Bolts for this beat up Wrath of God playset. I guess the lesson learned here depends on which side of the trade you were on! I recall paying it forward many years later. I decided to help flip the script on this type of thing, and I would often trade an entire deck to a kid for a single rare land. Double or triple the value in the casual Dragon deck for a $5-10 rare. I look back at those trades, and I’m a little sorry I made them. I’m not sorry that I gave more than I got, but I’m sorry I gave too much.
I gave too much in the form of giving them a deck that was well-oiled. It ran smoothly, and it worked really well. When the Eldrazi came out I built a deck using Cryptic Gateway (it was $1-3 for a playset back then) that pumped Eldrazi out on turn 4 or 5 for free at instant speed! It was possible to be attacking with Ulamog’s Crusher, Artisan of Kozilek and Nest Invader on turn 5! That’s nasty for a casual deck. I traded away at least three of those decks. They were under $20 to make at the time, and I just traded them away like hot cakes! My point though, is that by giving away entire decks I may have actually been doing a disservice to newer players. I equipped them with an entire deck. It ran like clockwork. It was upgradeable, sure, but it wasn’t theirs. It wasn’t something they had struggled and grown with. By taking away the productive struggle of deck building I was enabling them to lean on me and other sources for deck building. I have begun to suspect that this is actually not a good way to help build enfranchised players.
Enfranchised players keep coming back, because they love to mix the new with the old. They have an understanding of the old (or older in any case) cards because they’ve had productive struggles with those older decks. They have struggled to make their older decks, and through trial and error they have developed decks that they can say are truly theirs. This leads to players that eventually want to keep tinkering. They want to build new toys and upgrade their old ones. The problem is, that if they never built their own toys, then why do they care as much about it? They probably don’t. It comes across as more of a game piece or in video game lingo a cartridge, and it isn’t an extension of their own creative minds. That’s why I’m not truly convinced that pre-constructed decks are the best way to create enfranchised players. The argument exists that it’s not to create enfranchised players, and perhaps it’s just to help people start. However, when you only ever have preconstructed decks, how do you get started brewing your own decks? Chances are you might not actually do it.
The idea of building a deck from scratch can be daunting to many players. I know players that have been playing for decades that always reach out for help. That’s fine, but I always wonder if maybe they are overly afraid of failure. It’s OK to fail, and theirs no shame in it when we learn from it. Learning from our failures makes us better at everything we do. Failing to build a well-oiled machine of a deck is fine as long as you recognize that you can keep making it better along the way. I worry that pre-constructed decks have set up an unrealistic standard for some newer players. I think that one way of fixing this is having a Magic mentor.
A Magic mentor is someone that makes suggestions, offers advice, and generally helps other players get better. You might even call them a Magic guru if you know what I mean. These teachers of Magic offer insights that pre-cons don’t give. No insert can easily explain the synergies and concepts behind a player’s favorite synergies. It takes another player to point out to us that we often seem to enjoy a particular strategy. It’s may seem counterintuitive, but mentors provide us with the guidance we need to truly know ourselves and what makes our Magic brains tick. These guides help newbies figure out what they like and then try to steer them into building decks that fit with these observations. The dearth of experience the older player has often enables them to easily help a future enfranchised player find the path to longevity. Perhaps its big ramp into big green creatures, or its using Doomsday to combo off. It doesn’t matter; it’s the guidance that does.
We make our own future. There is no fate but what we make. We, as a community of players, make the future. When new players arrive we need to help them not only select a starter deck, but build their own decks. We need to provide play guidance and deck building assistance. We need to give them tools and knowledge of how to build decks, but not merely build them for them. When we can help acquaint players with deck building theory, then we are able to equip them for a lifetime of building. Give a player a deck and they play for a few years, but give that player the knowledge to build their own deck, and that player will play for a lifetime! I hope that wherever you are on the spectrum from newbie to life-time enfranchised player you are able to play your role well in the great circle of Magic life. Until next time, my fellow magictators, may the cards be ever in your favor!