This post has been a long time coming.
Many Magic: The Gathering fans loudly proclaim that their beloved card game is the best card game (if not the best game) ever made, and that every other card game is subsidiary to it, at least in the sense that Magic came first (25 years ago at this point) and served as the foundation for all others. I had only started playing Magic somewhat recently – about two years ago – and my initial interest was mostly charitable and academic. By that, I mean firstly that I picked it up to appease a work friend who is part of our LOTR playgroup, but I was also interested to play the game that first created the framework and mechanics that have been relied upon by practically every other customizable card game since, including LOTR. I was interested to see how the five colors worked, and how that was connected to the spheres of influence in LOTR, etc.
My Magic journey seems similar to many others who still play the game: “kitchen table Magic” leads to interest in Standard, which leads to burnout on competitive Magic and the inability to financially keep up with a competitive meta, which leads to more interest in Limited and Commander/EDH, which leads to more financial burnout at the prospect of purchasing cards ranging from $3-$20 a piece for a 100 card deck, which leads to, “Yeah, I play Magic – well, I only play Commander with friends.” The ideas below have fermented over those two years, and I think I’m finally ready to report back and share them with the LOTR community in a critical (though hopefully healthy and not demeaning) format (after all, I still play Magic . . . ).
Telling a Story
The most obvious and immediate aspect of Magic that turned me off and nearly prevented me from even giving it a chance is its lack of story-focused gameplay. The mere fact that it has its own characters, heroes, and places makes it more story-oriented then, say, poker – but the story elements of the game are really just there as decorative trappings and marketing tools for a 45 minute to an hour exercise in math skills. In general, two players face off in a duel in order to reduce their opponent’s “life” total from 20 to zero through attacking, direct damage, and other in-game actions. There can be fun card interactions upon which players could in hindsight superimpose the rudiments of a story, but storytelling is not the purpose of the game. Furthermore, while there are now Magic: The Gathering books and short stories, and even action figures (I may or may not be looking at you, Ajani, standing on my desk), the game does not exist to allow players to explore the world of Magic. The game’s fan base has certainly gotten to a point where its players anticipate a new set due to the desire to explore a new “plane” (Magic-jargon for “world”) and the characters and creatures that call it home, but the mechanics of the game are not primarily philosophically based on storytelling.
By contrast, LOTR is almost more like a role-playing game than it is a traditional customizable card game. The game is primarily story-centric. When players sit down to play, they are creating a story that takes them on a journey through the stages of a quest. Experiencing and creating the story is actually the primary motivation for playing, not winning! In fact, winning actually consists of completing the story. This is the fundamental difference between LOTR and Magic, and you will see me refer back to this often as I dive into more specific points, as most of them derive from this basic concept.
If LOTR is more like a role-playing game than a traditional CCG, what makes it different from just being a role-playing game? Some of the answers here should be obvious. Any game with physical game pieces is by nature more concrete and finite than the open-ended imagination of an RPG. It presents players with a more closed system than an RPG offers, which some players may find frustrating and prefer less. The ability to create custom cards does make our game more imaginative than it otherwise would be. However, the key difference for me comes down to physical representation. What I love about board games that I find so lacking with video games are the physical components and artwork. I prefer being able to see and hold a physical manifestation of an imaginary hero that I love, and to have the story play out on physical objects in front of me rather than in my imagination alone (we are physical beings too after all). Physical “tokens” like cards also provide something to collect, which is another appeal for me.
The reason I started playing card games when I was young (but this holds true today too) was because I first loved the story being told and sought out a structured way to physically create and recreate new stories with those characters and places (and to own and collect physical representations of those elements). Whether it was the Star Wars CCG, Star Wars TCG, or Star Wars LCG – the Star Trek CCG – the Lord of the Rings TCG and now LCG – I loved the worlds of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Middle-earth. They gave me a metaphor for refocusing and understanding things in my own world – things like good and evil, love and sacrifice, courage and tyranny – and these card games gave me and continue to give me even as an adult a means of expressing that metaphor back into my own world.
Magic: The Gathering is primarily a card game with a subsidiary story created in order to disguise the game’s math-based mechanics and to sell new cards. No one is reading the paperback fantasy books about the Weatherlight and deciding that they just have to pick up the game to recreate the adventures of its crew. The story is subservient to the game mechanics. In that sense, it is frankly more akin to poker than it is to our LCG. In LOTR, the game mechanics – in fact, the entire framework and philosophy of the game – is subservient to the storytelling. This is why, I think, Magic players get bored with their same old decks game after game, while I keep going back to LOTR week after week.
Are We Friends?
The next most obvious difference between LOTR and Magic (okay, maybe the most obvious thing to most people, but not necessarily the most important difference to me, which is why I’m putting it after storytelling) is that Magic is a competitive card game whereas LOTR is cooperative. I shouldn’t have to explain what this means to anybody already reading this far into this blog, but it’s the implications of that difference that are worth discussing here.
Magic is at its core about winning. There’s nothing wrong with that. Games in general are in some way or another about “winning” – about beating your opponent or accomplishing a set of predetermined objectives within the rules of a certain framework. It just so happens that Magic in general is more concerned with the former, whereas LOTR is most concerned with the latter. Again, this isn’t necessarily bad or wrong, but it can lead to some frustrating experiences.
Every experienced Magic player knows what I mean by a “spike” – an ultra-competitive player whose only goal, above making friends at the gaming table, is to win as big and as often as possible. Such an individual may have extensive knowledge of archaic and subtle rules interactions and tournament format regulations, and he or she will not hesitate to take maximum advantage of such knowledge against you should you slip up. To many, the term “spike” carries no negative connotations. These folks in fact view themselves as spikes, and often whine and complain when any negative stigma is associated with them. Obviously, everybody else – including most new and casual players – dislikes interacting with such individuals, and they run the risk of being turned off to the game by such cut-throat experiences.
The point I would like to make is that Magic by its nature encourages players to develop into “spikes.” The game is about winning. Winning doesn’t really have anything to do with the body/mind/spirit/soul thing sitting across from you at the table, other than serving as the object to suffer crushing defeat at the hands of your ultimate victory. Magic only exacerbates this with its incredibly powerful card pool and swingy plays, but more on that later. As a game, it can easily lead one down the road of being so consumed with the game and with winning (i.e., dominating whatever meta you’re playing in with the top-tier decks) that winning itself takes precedence over interacting with and forging friendships with the other players at the table.
The cooperative nature of LOTR is unlike any other game experience I have ever had (though I know there are other cooperative games out there). Some of my closest friendships have come from our weekly playgroup gatherings. The game provides a forum for teamwork and camaraderie as well as just an opportunity to chew the fat and hang out. If we lose, there’s nobody to really get mad at. Losing doesn’t stir up any feelings of bitterness or jealousy towards the other players – in fact, losing can even bring you closer together as a playgroup, as you work together as a team to figure out how to beat a challenging quest.
I cannot say the same about Magic. Unless two players have a fairly similar card pool in terms of power level, or agree to balance their decks when playing each other, two players playing Magic on a regular basis (weekly, daily even) put themselves in a very good position to start damaging their friendship. In Magic, when you lose, you often lose hard, or unexpectedly, which repeated game after game can start to bring up bad feelings towards your opponent. If you’re only playing your same friend (or group of friends) game after game, it can take real work to make sure your friendship is not negatively affected. For this reason, if one is going to play extremely competitive or high powered Magic, it is almost better for the sake of your friendships to play at game stores and big tournaments, rather than at home on the kitchen table.
Before moving on, I wanted to make a brief note about constructed formats in Magic. Magic is more of a system of gameplay than it is a specific game, as its card pool spans thousands of cards over 25 years. The flagship “format” of Magic: The Gathering is called Standard, in which players are only able to legally use cards from the most recent number of sets. Thus, Wizards of the Coast has to be extremely careful about what cards get printed/reprinted and put into standard, because with such a small card pool, it is easy to warp the format around a few powerful cards.
Modern is, while not technically the flagship format of the game, probably more popular than Standard. It uses cards released from a given set on, so cards already legal in the format do not “rotate” out of legality as they do in Standard.
Vintage and Legacy are some of the more exclusive formats. Each allows cards from any era of Magic’s history, though each format has its own banned and restricted lists. These are the fastest, most competitive, and also most expensive formats Magic has to offer.
Pauper stands on the other side of the spectrum, being a format played entirely with cards printed at common. The catch, however, is that cards are legal that were printed at common in any point in Magic’s history (including online), so there are actually some really powerful old cards at the common level. Many proponents of the format (myself included) like to think of it as “Legacy-lite.”
And finally, outside of the spectrum altogether lies Commander, or Elder Dragon Highlander (EDH), a special multiplayer format probably most often played with three to four players, that also allows cards from any era of Magic’s history with a relatively small ban list. Commander is by far my favorite format, and probably the biggest in terms of popularity. The multiplayer aspect of it balances out many of the criticisms I have to level against Magic in general, and it is the friendliest, most “casual” format that Magic offers.
I would be remiss to point out that all of these formats are able to be played as “two-headed giant,” where a team of two players takes on another team of two players. The point I want to make about cooperative gameplay, however, is that the very existence of “formats” in the game can make it difficult to find people with which to play. Modern may be big in your area, as it is in mine, but if you’re only into Pauper (because you can’t afford modern), and there are no players around, you can’t play Magic. The cooperative nature of LOTR, on the other hand, means that I can take my deck with me wherever I travel (Austin most recently, where I got to play with Beorn) and meet up with local players, without concern for “format.” Yes, you sometimes have to worry about overlapping unique characters, but it’s far easier and cheaper in this game than in Magic to assemble multiple decks to take with you, and in the end, it’s a cooperative game – if you want to pretend your ally Arwen is really named Marwen, because you aren’t carrying another card on you to sub in – who cares?
Who’s Here to Have Fun?
The last observation I have to make (okay, it’s a lot of points packed into one heading), is that LOTR is consistently fun. What does that mean?
Magic: The Gathering is a game with many unfun cards and swingy plays. There is no rule against infinite loops, in fact some formats (like commander) frequently rely on exploiting broken, infinite loops as a deck’s win condition. Other cards actually prevent you from playing your own cards. These can be in the form of “counterspells,” or they can literally be cards that stay in play and prevent you from playing your deck’s specific staple card for the rest of the game.
Imagine if you’re the encounter deck in LOTR, and the player plays A Test of Will. Now imagine if that’s the player’s move turn after turn, for almost the entire game, until they can muster enough characters to smash through to victory. That’s a thing in Magic! And that doesn’t really sound fun when it’s stated that way.
When Seastan developed his decks that removed the entire encounter deck from the game by exploiting Into the Wild, etc., FFG issued errata, because everybody acknowledged that led to an unfun game experience of basically not even playing the game. Such a strategy would be encouraged and sought after in many Magic metas.
Perhaps more frustrating than counterspells, some Magic decks employ a strategy of resource denial. This can take the form of forced discard effects, or more drastically, mass land destruction. In Magic, the equivalent of resources is called manna. You use lands that you play each turn in order to generate manna. Entire strategies revolve around destroying your lands so that you have no resources to play your cards, and you’re literally stuck at the table for the duration of the game watching your opponent play a one-sided game (whoever said Magic wasn’t played solo). Magic is the only game that I know of that allows a strategy like that, that leads to one player’s victory through forcing the other player to not even play the game. Other games have checks and balances to prevent unfun experiences like that. In LOTR, for example, you’re always going to have at least three resources per turn with which to play cards, unless you lose a hero.
In Magic, there are actually cards that reset the entire board. Some cards just destroy all creatures in play, others actually remove all cards in play from the game – as if you start over with your current life totals and your current cards in hand and in your deck. Is that supposed to be fun? You spend 30 minutes incrementally assembling your plan and building board advantage, only to have it all done away with one card. Magic as a game thrives on swingy plays like that. Nothing is ever safe. No advantage is ever ultimately secure, unless the other person is a terrible deck builder and didn’t put enough emergency outs in their deck.
Some players may find that style of gameplay fun, but after two years of playing Magic, I am not really one of them. In fact, I have a theory that the whole enterprise of Magic: The Gathering is built upon exploiting a gambling urge inside its players. I believe that this is true both in the way the product is sold – “randomized” booster packs that entice players (especially new players) to buy more and more in the hopes of scoring a sweet “pull” (finding a highly valued rare or mythic rare) – but also in the way the game is played.
Unfun cards and highly swingy plays means that often when you win, you win big, and often when you lose, you lose hard. It’s difficult to predict the outcome of a game, due to its swingy nature. Thus, when you topdeck the right card and “go off” with your infinite loop, or play your board wipe and destroy everyone’s creatures, you experience an emotional high akin to scoring the jackpot. This feeds an inner gambling appetite that urges you to try again and again, in this case play again and again. If you can have such emotionally charged victories, then you surely will also experience crushing defeats that will make you want to flip the table over and write off Magic forever. The goal is to provide just enough of the swingy wins to keep the player hooked through whatever losses they experience to play another day (and buy another card). It feeds off of an inner drive we all have that is the same urge upon which gambling feeds. No one really questions that opening booster packs feeds on that same instinct – but I believe that the actual gameplay and game design of Magic: The Gathering also feeds on that instinct, especially when it comes to formats that have a larger card pool.
As with any card game, some cards are naturally more powerful than others, and thus more sought after. The advent of the internet and global, online shopping, however, has turned Magic into a pay to win game. The best decks are always the most expensive decks, even if not originally, once a deck takes over the meta, the prices of purchasing singles skyrockets. Decks for standard alone (the cheapest format, next to pauper – did I mention, I still like pauper) can cost hundreds of dollars. Modern can cost hundreds to over a thousand dollars, as can commander (though commander can also be cheaper, one of the advantages of a multiplayer format is that lower powered decks tend to have a better shot at winning than in one on one, because the powerhouse decks get targeted by the entire table). Vintage and legacy can have astronomically huge prices in the thousands to tens of thousands of dollars.
The problem isn’t necessarily that there are top decks – every game has top decks. The problem is that the highly competitive nature of the game often means that losing can sometimes only be corrected by buying more expensive cards. True, a monkey with a top tier deck will probably lose to a highly skilled player with a lesser deck – but at a certain skill level, the only way to consistently improve your win percentage is to invest in higher dollar cards.
In Magic, partially due to the size of the card pool, and partially due to the nature of the game, there exist cards that do almost exactly the same thing, spread across rarity levels. The catch is that the rare or mythic rare version of the card probably costs less manna and has less drawbacks. The common or uncommon version of the card probably costs more manna and might have some drawback (dual lands that come into play tapped versus untapped, for example). You could have plenty of fun playing with the cheaper versions of the cards with your friends, but if you want to play competitively outside of your friend group, you’re going to need the higher rarity cards that do basically the exact same things but faster. And guess what – they cost more money! Magic is all about speed, even more so than other games. Certain vintage and legacy decks, and even competitive commander decks, can win on turn one, before the opponent has even had a chance to play a card. Is that really fun? I play a game to actually get to play a game, not sit at a table with some person who only views me as an object of his or her victory. I play to test my skills in deckbuilding and in-game decision making – not to test the commitment of our financial resources to some pieces of cardboard.
For those who got to watch Team Covenant’s live stream of the FFG In-Flight Report at Gen Con 2018 (or who will get to watch it on YouTube later), they announced a new game called KeyForge, designed by none other than Richard Garfield himself! And guess who they brought on stage to reveal the new game? Richard Garfield himself! As the original creator of Magic: The Gathering, who was brought in on designing a recent set actually, I feel like Mr. Garfield speaks from a position of some authority on the subject. What was his sales pitch for KeyForge? In not quite the same words, he basically wanted to create a game that was what Magic was intended to be in its earliest days, before netdecking and online purchasing. In its original form, he intended Magic to be a game where your deck was completely different from your friends’ decks. In other interviews, he discussed the concept that he wanted players to sit down at the table and be surprised by their opponent’s deck, because it had cards they’d never even seen before. Thus, randomized booster packs. Unfortunately, over time, randomized booster packs now serve the purposes of playing limited formats (like draft and sealed, which are admittedly much closer to original Magic than any other Magic format today) and driving sales through exploiting players’ gambling instincts. What is the state of your game if its revered creator went on to create a new game 25 years later that he believes is closer to what he was originally trying to accomplish? Magic has changed over the years, and it’s a journey that each player goes through himself/herself from the kitchen table to the tournament scene. I for one am quite excited for KeyForge, and while I’m sure it won’t replace my love of LOTR, I do think it stands a strong chance of dethroning Magic in my hobby commitments.
The beauty of the LCG model, where packs are sold with pre-set and published contents, is that in the age of the internet, anybody with a moderate financial commitment can build and play a top-tier deck. Except for some core set staples, purchasing singles just isn’t a thing. The LCG model takes the game out of the realm of being a pay to win experience and ensures gameplay is about skill in deckbuilding and gameplay decisions. It also means that there are no intentionally bad cards published. Wizards of the Coast actually admits that some of its cards, especially those printed at the common and uncommon level, are bad (check out Tolarian Community College’s YouTube video on the Tolarian Scholar). I don’t think Caleb is designing intentionally bad cards – maybe cards that require more specialization and thought to utilize, but not intentionally bad cards.
I may be coming across as overly negative here, but my intention is not to prevent people from playing Magic, and I do not myself hate Magic or intend to stop playing it. I love playing pauper, and I love commander, though I do not particularly see myself adding much to my collection at the moment. I merely wanted to point out some of the differences between Magic and our beloved LOTR for those who know nothing about Magic, and hopefully to give those who do know something about Magic some things to think about. Feel free to let me know in the comments below whether you disagree with some of my assessments, or whether this has given you something new to think about. This post may have been a little off topic from the usual, but I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and as always, thanks for reading!
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