Board Games! And How They Can Help You In Magic

Adam Prosak reviews some popular, strategic board games that Magic players everywhere love. How does looking at other resource-based board games teach you important lessons in Magic?

While this article will not be for everyone, I wanted to share my experiences with board games. I don’t expect most readers to be familiar with the majority of the games I will discuss in this article, and I will try my best for this to be an introductory article.

I am relatively new to board games, and I feel I have far more expertise playing Magic than any of the individual board games. However, I have noticed a significant impact on my thinking process as a result of playing and thinking about various board games. This changed thinking process has had a very beneficial effect on my ability to play and think about Magic.

I would even argue that playing games of Puerto Rico and Power Grid (among others) has been more helpful than grinding out Caw-Blade vs. RUG Pod matches, or testing for whatever upcoming tournament. If you simply test for a specific event, you are in search of a fish. If you play a variety of games (I would include alternate Magic formats such as Cube as well as other board games) in order to expand your thinking capacity, you are searching for a fishing pole. The man with the fishing pole will end up with far more fish than the man with a single fish.

When I talk about board games, I am not referring to Monopoly, Risk, Apples to Apples, or any game you are likely to pull out during family night. I am generally talking about the “Euro” style of board games, generally with healthy doses of both wooden pieces and strategy. If you are more interested in board games, boardgamegeek.com is like a turbocharged hybrid of StarCityGames.com and MagicTheGathering.com. BGG is truly the one-stop website for all things board game related. Many of the games I will discuss rank highly on BGG’s list of top games, which you can find here. As I go through the various games, I’ll try my best to explain what each game is about, and what each game has taught me to think about when playing Magic.

Deck Building Games

Dominion (Board Game Rank: 9)

Ascension (BGR: 253)

Both of these games are very similar and probably among the easiest to jump into if you come from a Magic background. In fact, Ascension is a recent game (hence its low BGR—newer games are rarely ranked highly) made by some pretty good Magic players, like Brian Kibler and Rob Dougherty.

In both games, each player starts with a ten-card deck of crappy cards, drawing five cards a turn. During your turn, you play out your cards, which result in earning money (or money and attack power for Ascension) that you can use to buy new cards that make your deck better or to earn victory points (or both!). In both games, you build your deck on the fly, and the composition of your deck will change turn by turn. However, it is also important to keep the structural integrity of your deck in mind. You always have to be aware of what your deck is capable of, on the fly.

Dominion is a very combo oriented game. It is very possible to draw your deck every game; however, your end goal is victory points—not ability to draw your deck. During the course of the game, victory points are dead cards (for the most part, expansions can change that slightly) and actively hinder your ability to do “cool stuff.”

One of the easiest traps in Dominion is the action trap. Every turn, you can only play one action, unless you play an action that gives you more actions. If you buy too many action cards that don’t give you your action back, you can get stuck with 2-3 actions in your five-card hand, without the ability to play all of them. In addition, you can get so caught up with getting your infinite action combo going that you forget to buy coins, and therefore you are late to the Victory Point party.

Since Victory Point cards are worthless in your deck, you want to build a deck that can handle drawing blank cards. This is like building a Limited deck. You need the lands to function, but drawing lands past a certain point is like drawing a blank card…unless you do something about it. Like Dominion, Magic has plenty of ways to put an extra land to use. It’s up to you to find those cards.

With Dominion, the best card in the game is Chapel, a cheap action that lets you remove up to four cards in your hand from the game. The ability to remove your starting deck from the game is immensely powerful, as every card you buy will be better than the cards in your starting deck.

Ascension amplifies this problem, as the starting cards are truly terrible, and it is not nearly as easy to get rid of them. Also, it’s more difficult to combo off in Ascension, so each individual card must have more of an impact. Lauren Lee wrote an article about Ascension here, where she claims that Arbiter of the Precipice is the best turn 1 card to buy in Ascension. She is right, but the principles behind the card are interesting.

The banish effect is important, as I’ve discussed, but I’d like to expand upon that. It’s much like how playing 56 cards is better than playing 60, but it’s bigger than that because you actually see your entire deck multiple times each game! On top of that, the Arbiter accelerates this process by drawing two cards, so that you will see your best cards more often—one of which is the Arbiter!

It’s not uncommon to see the person who early picks an Arbiter of the Precipice have a deck without any starting cards by the end of the game, which almost guarantees a victory assuming decent play.

With Magic, the effect of thinning your deck of unwanted cards is not nearly as important because of how differently a Magic deck operates from Ascension. For the most part, you see any given card in your Magic deck about .4 times per game (assuming you see about 40% of your deck in any given game—obviously you can adjust this based on how many card manipulation spells you play). Therefore, using a fetchland to thin your deck of a land or Elixir of Immortality to increase the spell concentration of your deck has a very small impact on the number of times you see a certain card.

In Ascension, things are much different. With a natural reshuffling mechanic built into the game (you shuffle your graveyard into your library when it is empty in Ascension, whereas in Magic, you just lose), you see a card upwards of 6-7 times in a game of Ascension! The impact of exiling a single undesirable card is often akin to drawing 3-4 cards for free (assuming your starting card is worth about half of a purchased card—it’s often less).

Compared to Ascension, deck thinning is nearly trivial. I see many Magic players use a fetchland to thin their deck, and I would argue the vast majority of the time, the life point is far more valuable than the thinning aspect.

In addition to the deck thinning principles that Ascension has taught me, Ascension is very good at teaching people how to focus. It’s generally stupid to have a balance of attack power and money in Ascension; you will never buy the expensive cards, nor fight the biggest monsters, each of which offers the greatest rewards.

Much of Magic is the same.

If you try to get your deck to do everything, you will often end up with a deck that does nothing. The jack of all trades, if you will. I see many players simply add a bunch of removal to their deck for no real reason at all. This is particularly bad with decks like Valakut, which need every piece of ramp they can get. I see so many Valakut decks without the ability to win unless they attack with a Primeval Titan. It’s a deck that kills people simply by playing ramp spells! Play as many ramp spells as you can! Don’t buy money and fight cards!

The Granddaddy of Resource Management

The Settlers of Catan (BGR – 67)

The Settlers of Catan is generally credited with being the first Euro Board Game, and is nearly as old as Magic itself. Settlers is best described by looking at the board. The hexagonal tiles are always randomly distributed, and the numbers along with them are semi-random. Players roll dice to collect resources and then use those resources to build settlements and cities, increasing their ability to collect resources.

As a Magic player, I found it strange that I could enjoy a game that depended on rolling dice and Monopoly style trading (you can trade resources with opponents). This inherently chaotic game actually has quite a bit of predictability to it. While you don’t exactly need to know the math behind the game, it is fairly simple to skew the “random” results in your favor.

While the dice rolling aspect of the game means that superior strategy never guarantees victory (Sound a bit like Magic?), you can do far more than it first appears when it comes to beating the randomness of Catan (Also much like Magic).

The most important thing that Settlers has taught me is to take advantage of undervalued resources. In the basic game, sheep* is easily the worst resource, making the sheep trading port (this allows you to trade sheep for other resources) the most valuable port.

Take a game of Magic in a matchup where life points are not valued very highly (say, a control mirror). There is an opportunity to ignore your life total in favor of winning the battle where your decks are strongest—card advantage and mana advantage. Even if your opponent knows what battles to fight, it is always important to know the relative importance of each resource you have (mana, cards, life, etc.) to the match at hand. Just like in the Settlers of Catan, it’s also important in Magic to notice what your opponents do not value and take advantage of that.

*Yes I am aware it’s wool, but the resource has a picture of a sheep on it. Therefore, Sheep.

Worker Placement Games

Agricola (BGR: 3)

Le Havre (BGR: 6)

Caylus (BGR: 9)

As you can see, Board Gamers rate worker placement games extremely highly. From a personal standpoint, Agricola is easily my favorite board game, and the other two are extremely enjoyable as well. All three games are somewhat difficult to learn strategically (Agricola being the most difficult), but all three games are well worth the effort it takes to get past your first few games.

All three games are based around the concept of worker placement. In each game, you get a set amount of moves per turn, and there are various resources you can collect OR actions you can take, many of which require resources that you have collected. The interesting thing is that once a space is taken, nobody else can take that space. Agricola and Caylus have the additional complexity of the Starting Player space, where you can use a move in one round to give yourself the first action of the next round.

The biggest leap in my Magic play comes from the crucial skill learned from these games. ANTICIPATE YOUR OPPONENT’S MOVES. Think of what your opponent’s options are and what their best moves are based on what you do. Do this BEFORE you make your moves, as you can plan your next move accordingly. This works equally as well if you are considering whether your opponents want to move the Provost (Caylus), use your Shipping Line (Le Havre), or race your Primeval Titan (uhh Magic).

Plan for your opponent’s capacity to do something that will disrupt your plans. If you and your opponent are both angling for the same action spot, you have a few ways to adapt. Either beat him to the spot—collect the resources you need faster while denying your opponent or find another way to beat your opponent that concedes the fight for a particular action, while you make up the ground elsewhere.

A good Magic example I could give is a Valakut mirror. Both you and your opponent are going to try to play the first Primeval Titan. Either you can beat him to the spot (generally turn 4 on the play) or you can sidestep it and try to find a way to beat your opponent if he has a turn 4 Titan. Joraga Treespeaker/Lotus Cobra might help give you a turn 3 Titan; Tumble Magnet might stop the Titan from attacking; or splashed Memoricide might strip the Titans first. Any of the options are viable to different degrees; you just have to plan your strategy accordingly.

Once you’ve determined your opponent’s probable course of action, if they do not take that course of action, think of why they didn’t do so. Certain small changes might be the result of a misplay (a Splinter Twin opponent untaps their own land with Deceiver at the end of your turn), but your opponent generally has a thought process for what they are doing. It might not be a correct play, but there is a reason they did what they did.

From a personal standpoint, the multiplayer aspect of these games was new to me at first. As any group-game EDH player will tell you, multiplayer games offer a different dynamic from two-player games, and most worker placement games function similarly to a multiplayer game of Magic. You have to account for multiple game plans to coincide.

Back to the point I made with Settlers of Catan, it is often best to find a plan that does not clash with the other plans at the table. I am certainly not the most experienced multiplayer Magician out there, but I can still translate strategies from one game to another.

Other games

Puerto Rico (BGR: 2)

Power Grid (BGR: 5)

These are the final two board games that I’ve played, and both are very interesting and very fun. For whatever reason, these are probably the two most popular board games with the Phoenix Magic crowd.

Puerto Rico, Gerard Fabiano favorite game, involves six different available jobs. Players take turns picking one of the jobs, and each player does that job in order.

There are two important keys to success in Puerto Rico. The first is not allowing your opponents to gain too much benefit from your job selections. If your opponents want to build a building, then you should take something else, forcing your opponents to build. Alternatively, you should position yourself to take advantage of the jobs your opponents are likely to choose. In this way, Puerto Rico has much in common strategically with the worker placement games.

The other important skill in Puerto Rico is the important of timing. If you pick the first job in one round, you pick last in the next. If there are four players, the first eight jobs are chosen in the order of ABCDBCDA. Player A gets the first selection but doesn’t get to choose again until the final pick of the second round. There are also a few other timing aspects to master, like at the start of the round, a dollar is placed on each job not taken previously. If you can time your jobs correctly, you often get some bonus money with your selections.

In Magic terms, this is more or less equivalent to The Fundamental Turn, outlined by Zvi Mowshowitz here. It’s important to understand how each deck develops, and what they are capable of as the games go on. For example, five mana is a dangerous point for a Caw-Blade deck to reach. If there is a creature in play, you have to guard against a possible Sword of Feast and Famine. Gideon Jura is always a possibility at five mana. The possible timing of these plays is important to play against. It’s much better to let your guard down when Caw-Blade has potential access to four mana than it is five mana.

The same goes for Valakut, only the important mana threshold is six, for Titans and Traps. Against Splinter Twin, any time they have 1UR available on your turn, you could die if you leave yourself unprotected. Each deck has some sort of rhythm to it, and various plays become available on various turns.

Power Grid is basically a giant math problem. Money is always the scarce resource, and you can do nearly anything in the game given enough money. You compete for everything—power plants, fuel for the power plants, and cities in which to power—with money. Every mistake you make costs you some amount of money.

Power Grid is interesting in that you always want to be in last position, but last position means that you are currently losing. It’s an interesting dynamic to play in the game, and there’s often quite a bit of gamesmanship. Oftentimes it is clear who needs to be stopped, although unclear who it should be. It is often to your personal detriment to directly compete (for cities, or a fuel type) with a leader, but if nobody does, then that person wins the game easily. You always hope someone else will do it, but sometimes you have to do it to have a chance at winning.

I’m sure there is a good multiplayer Magic lesson here as well. Playing Power Grid is akin to playing a game of Magic where one resource trumps all. The best example I can give is a non-interactive combo mirror, where the only thing that matters is speed. If you can’t interact with your opponent, you are simply looking to goldfish at a faster rate than your opponent. Everything is money, or in this case, goldfish speed.

I recommend each and every one of these games, plus a few others I haven’t mentioned such as Carcassonne and Race for the Galaxy. I am also picking up new games when I can. I recently purchased a copy of 7 Wonders, which has had insane reviews from everyone that I know. I haven’t had the opportunity to play with it, but I’m sure I’ll reexamine how I draft Magic decks after drafting some 7 Wonders.

Regardless of your game of choice, I strongly recommend that you try a different game, if only to get a better perspective on Magic.

Adam Prosak