Removed From Game – Lessons From Elsewhere, Part 1

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Tuesday, May 19th – ‘Blimey Harry, yer a wizard.’ Yes, it’s yet more groundbreaking journalistic action from Rich as he takes you into a world of Hogwarts, Hermione, and Harry, with a look at the Harry Potter TCG. Why? Because it turns out you can learn a lot about Magic from playing (gasp) something else. Lessons from Elsewhere. In this case – Scunthorpe.

Life gets busy, at least for most of us. Even those of you lucky enough to play nothing but Magic eight hours a day find that there’s still stuff that gets in the way. Maybe it’s a little thing like school, or college, or (heaven forbid) a job. Perhaps you’re a little bit older, and your other commitments involve things like parents, wives, girlfriends and children. Or perhaps, deep though your love for the game is, there are times when you just make the decision to do something else instead, like go watch the new Star Trek movie, eat a pizza or — most heinous of all crimes — play a different game.

Whatever the reasons, there are times when life and Magic don’t mix, and if we’re committed to getting better at the game, that’s a pity. Thing is, if we’re prepared to see Magic through the prism of our daily lives, or indeed other gaming experiences, we can continue to grow our understanding of the game and what it takes to succeed. This series is therefore designed to look at Magic in terms of what we can learn from three very distinct activities.

Neatly, there is a generational thread weaving through the triumvirate. First up, we have the Harry Potter Trading Card Game, brought to you by Wizards of the Coast in association with my seven year old daughter, future Pro Tour Champion and Hall of Famer, Elizabeth Rose Hagon. The middle part will look at the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game, brought to you by Upper Deck Entertainment in association with thirty-seven year old me, current Pro Tour sage and wit Richard Paul Hagon. And our third instalment will look at the world of Professional Tennis, brought to you by the Lawn Tennis Association in association (associatively) with my seventy-five year old mother, Patricia Anne Hagon.

As we weave our way across three lifetimes of experience, we’ll look at the ways these games and sports share similarities with Magic. We’ll examine what core strategies are at work in all the games, and what that teaches us about the things that never change, no matter what the packaging and flavor may be. The final part of the series is likely to be somewhat misleadingly titled, since it will be the lessons about Magic we can learn from, er, Magic. I’m currently teaching a friend to play, and it’s been absolutely riveting watching his journey of discovery about the nature of the game. By the end, we’re going to have found an awful lot of things that underpin our understanding of Magic, and which are at the heart of being successful at the game.

And so, to business, and the wizardly-themed TCG, Harry Potter. The game wasn’t in production for very long, which on the one hand is disappointing, since the card pool is now finite. On the plus side, the reason it didn’t last very long is that it wasn’t as successful as it might have been, and that means that you can pick up entire boxes of boosters at unfeasibly cheap prices if you know where to look. As an example, a typical 11 card booster was retailing for around $3 when they were current, but if you turn up at assorted gaming conventions you can often take entire displays of 24 boosters off the dealers for as little as $5-10. That’s a lot of game for almost no money.

Quick rundown of the game. One versus one. Two wizards, trying to defeat the other. On your turn, you play lesson cards, which belong to various ‘suits’ (Care of Magical Creatures, Transfiguration, Potions and so on) and then use them to cast either spells or creatures. The object of the game is to deck your opponent, and every one damage dealt forces them to turn over the top card of their library into the graveyard. When they can’t draw a card, i.e. they deck themselves, they’ve lost. Each turn, players have up to two Actions they can perform. As long as they have the right number of lessons, they can use both Actions to play spells or creatures up to their lesson limit. In other words, if they have six mana, they can cast two six drops in their turn. There is no concept of tapping or exhausting resources… They’re just there, representing an upper limit of casting availability.

Once a player has drawn a card, their creatures attack the opponent. All attacking happens automatically, and you can’t attack the opposing creatures. If you don’t want to lay a lan…lesson (sorry), or cast a spell or creature, you can use one or both your Actions to draw an extra card. Spells are pretty much always cast on your own turn. There are some Items in the game that broadly function as artifacts, most often as some kind of mana acceleration, and also Adventures, which require the opponent to jump through various hoops (discard X cards, skip X draws, sacrifice X creatures) in return for a Reward (almost never exciting.) Oh, and one other thing. You get to start the game with a character from the books in play as a sort of team captain, like Ron Weasley, or Hermione Granger, or maybe a character that only nerds like me remember, like Hannah Abbott. Each character has their own unique ability which impacts the game, and also deckbuilding for Constructed. Think that about covers the rules. Now let’s see what we can learn.


By the standards of Magic, creatures in Harry Potter are utter garbage. The vast majority are vanilla creatures, which is to say that they have no special or activated or even triggerable abilities. They have a power and toughness, and that’s about it. Mana costs in this game are significantly higher than in Magic. You’ll often get a 1/1 for 2 mana, a 2/2 for 4 mana and a 3/3 for six mana. Trust me, the common Vicious Wolf as a 6 mana 3/3 is one of our favorite monsters to open for Sealed play. Because there’s no blocking, there’s no need for evasion, and there’s something quite fun about playing a game where you know the red zone is an altogether more polite affair than MTG. It’s a safe, sane, and consensual world, where your turn belongs to you and only you, and your attacks belong to you and only you, and there are no instant speed surprises lurking around the corner.

This is crucial, because it means that you have a huge amount of locked-in information to plan with. I’ve mentioned before that Quentin Martin, when writing his Limited Information column for the mothership, suggested that a baseline requirement for solid Limited skills was to know every card in the cardpool and what each and every one did, or could do (Path to Exile your own guy to get the land, you know the kind of thing.) In Harry Potter, most games come down to races, because you know that your motley assortment of monsters will do precisely the printed amount of damage unless your opponent can do something about it in their turn.

Not all monsters in the game are hideous, but just like Magic, the good ones have a drawback, most often in the loss of lesson cards from play. Hagrid’s baby dragon Norbert is an awesome beast, since it weighs in at 5/3 for 4 mana, somewhat dwarfing the Boa Constrictor at 2/2 for the same cost. The trouble with Norbert is that you have to sacrifice two Care of Magical Creatures lessons, which much of the time means all of them. With a forty card deck, you can see that Norbert can get the job done pretty swiftly, and opponents scramble desperately to deal with him, since there’s no chance of blocking him of course.

Most of the genuinely good monsters kick in from six mana upwards, and in our experience top out at a flat-out ridiculous 12 mana for the delightfully-named Fluffy, which watchers of the films or (gasp) readers of the books may be familiar with as the three-headed dog guarding the Philosopher’s Stone. Fluffy has 12 power and 21 toughness. Now that’s a big badass right there.


By and large there are five types of spells in the game. First up, you have Removal. These very simply get rid of opposing creatures, regardless of their size. It really is a case of opponent picking up their monster and putting it in the bin. We’d generally call this Point Removal, since it simply aims and pulls the trigger. Because the standard of monsters is relatively low, holding onto Point Removal is really key, since you die pretty quickly to Norbert and chums.

Then you have Damage Removal, which relies on the opposing monster being sufficiently flimsy for 2, 3, 5 points of damage to send it packing. Unlike Magic, you can get a second crack of the whip, since damage remains on creatures as long as they’re in play, which in flavor terms at least makes a ton of sense. Creatures that get into red zone scraps six turns running yet still untap in peak condition are one of the more glaring unrealities of Magic.

Some Damage Removal spells can also be aimed direct at the opponent, while another set of cards, particularly from the Quidditch Cup Expansion (like you care) are specifically designed to set opponents on fire. So these are our Direct Damage or Burn spells. In Magic, most Direct Damage is despised if it only aims at the opponent, since controlling the board is such a crucial part of the game. Here in Hogwarts land, that’s less of an issue, since an annoying monster across the table won’t stop yours from piling in turn after turn. In this scenario, Burn takes on a higher value, because it changes the math of the Race. More on this later.

Our next type of spells are all to do with Healing. Yes, we’re talking lifegain. One of the great received wisdoms in Magic is that lifegain sucks, and whilst there are exceptions that prove the rule, that’s because the rule is essentially true. The times that lifegain gets round this is by being either (a) something more than just lifegain (think Absorb) or just a fabulous amount of lifegain (Pulse of the Fields, Martyr of Sands). In Harry Potter, Healing is King. It’s just awesome. Based firmly in the Potions lessons, Healing cards allow you to shuffle a varying number of non-Healing cards back into your library. While Healing spells will often put back somewhere in the region of 6-8 cards, a typical attack will often be for 3-5. In other words, a Healing spell generally equates to a double Fog effect, or a Flashback Moment’s Peace. However, Healing spells are vastly more powerful than just their ability to put cards back. They’re incredibly valuable because they put specific cards back, ones of your choosing. Towards the end of the game, you can have built even your Sealed deck in such a way that the bottom dozen cards of your library are nothing but good stuff, either for finishing off your opponent, or their monsters.

The final group of spells are broadly Utility spells. That’s a little bit of a cop-out, since there are in fact quite a few subgroups, but I don’t want to overburden things. Basically, all the usual suspects are here — a little bit of Land Destruction (or Lesson Discard if you prefer), the odd Counterspell, Disenchant and so on. One thing there isn’t much of is mass removal. If there’s one thing the TCG industry has learned from Wrath of God, it’s that Wrath of God is a proper pain in the backside for design space purposes. How good do monsters have to be before a four-mana-everything-dies spell doesn’t render them useless?

Let the Lessons Begin

So that’s a brief summary of some of the key ingredients in the game. But how about specific lessons that we can take from this deceptively simple ‘Magic light’ into our own play? Here’s some of the things Elizabeth and I have discovered…

The Race

Elizabeth loves math, which makes correctly identifying who’s winning at any given point something she loves to get involved in. It sounds obvious, but so many players I see, even at high level events, fail to work out whether they’re ahead or behind. Yes, it’s time for Who’s The Beatdown to rear its head once more. As the discard piles grow, it’s easy to see who’s winning, and that tends to determine your priorities when it comes to those cards that could kill a monster or go straight to the dome. Which? Answer Who’s the Beatdown and you have the right choice every time.

Cylian Elf

Poster child and lightning rod for much customer dissatisfaction, even in Magic, (where creatures are vastly superior to Harry Potter), Cylian Elf wins games for you. So often we’re busy looking at internal deck synergies, ways to gain tiny edges, looking at tribal issues, whether a card passes the ‘Terminate test’ and so on, we neglect to look at some of the most crucial pieces of information on the card. In a typical Sealed deck, you’ll play somewhere between 14 and 18 monsters, and between 5 and 10 spells. It’s extremely rare to find a Sealed deck with more spells than monsters, and ever more rare to find an example where this was the correct choice. If Cylian Elf is the last monster alive when the dust clears, you’re going to win with Cylian Elf. Sometimes, there’s a reason vanilla rhymes with thriller. (Connections with Drusilla are not apparent at this time.)


In Magic, a Wall of Denial can really put a spoke in your wheels. In Harry Potter, Wall of Anything doesn’t exist, and that means that a Tempo start to the game is really difficult to derail. Factor in the relative paucity of Mass Removal, and the precious nature of Point Removal for the big bombs coming down the road, and you can see how little 1/1s and 2/1s for 2 and 3 mana can absolutely wreak havoc on the opponent. This takes us to…


Coming from a Magic background, it’s easy to undervalue the smaller monsters in Harry Potter, especially as they have no redeeming bonus features. Therefore, it was tempting to build decks with only the more expensive creatures in them, the ones that actually packed a legitimate punch. As we discovered, although you can cast multiple expensive spells in a turn, thanks to the absence of tapping, the need for a genuine curve was still very much there, and the decks that came out best in Sealed play were ones that paid attention to the early game. That’s as true now in Limited Magic as it’s ever been, since Alara Reborn is full to the brim of tasty two-drops waiting to turn sideways very, very quickly.

The Fun of Fat

Elizabeth loves fat monsters, and before you say it, yes, I can see the joke ‘which is why she loves you, Rich.’ Her eyes widen in one of the most recognisable tells ever seen when she actually draws some enormous Mountain Troll or, guaranteeing paroxysms of delight, Fluffy himself. If this keeps up, I may give her an Autochthon Wurm for Christmas. Nothing beats the fun of turning an utterly humungous beefcake sideways and putting half the opposing library in the bin at a stroke. At that point in the game, she doesn’t care whether she wins or not, since that simple pleasure of utter carnage is enough on its own. Given her delight, I feel kinda bad about squashing it so ruthlessly. However…

Tarmagoyf. Huh.

I love random conversations between Magic players about the best Expansion ever, the best Block deck, the best Deck name, Hall of Famer, that kind of thing. When it comes to choosing favorite creatures, I’m afraid that’s where I draw the line. See, all those other conversations can have competing viewpoints, whereas everyone knows that Ophidian was the best creature ever made, because it went in a deck with Force of Will, Counterspell, Forbid, Capsize, Whispers Of The Muse, and Masticore (which everyone knows is the second best creature ever made, because it went in a deck with Force Of Will, Counterspell, Forbid, Capsize, Whispers Of The Muse, and Ophidian). Incidentally, Bottle Gnomes is of course the third best creature ever made, the reasons for which I trust have by now become apparent.

But now, seriously (or for Grey’s Anatomy fans, srsly) Tarmagoyf is a fantastic creature, no arguments here. But it dies. I don’t have the complete list of Point Removal from the history of the game, but has there ever been a ‘destroy target non-Green creature’ that means Tarmagoyf doesn’t die to every single one? [Soul Reap and Death Rattle want a word with you… — Craig, amused.] Oh wait, I know, Rend Spirit doesn’t work. Oh no. But as Elizabeth is discovering to her discomfort, I’m relatively sanguine about seeing Mountain Troll or Fluffy or even Norbert on the table, because I don’t expect to be seeing them for long.


There’s a natural progression to Magic. Turn 1 is a land, and either a little guy or no guy. Turn 2 is a second land, maybe a first attack, and a guy. Any time you get to break the Summoning Sickness rule, you’re doing something properly warping to the natural flow of the game, and any time you can do that, you’re almost certainly doing something to your considerable advantage. With no Haste in Harry Potter, you can only pray for a topdecked burn spell to change the math on the last turn. One of those watercooler conversations I enjoy is about the best Keywords, and Haste is high on my list. You certainly miss it when it isn’t there.


Talking of things that we miss, it’s only when you play a game like Harry Potter that you realize just what an immense word that is in Magic. Giving your opponent the minimum time to plan for what you’ve got in store is just huge.

The Joy of Discovery

I’ve never read a complete set list for Harry Potter. There are no two-week previews of cards in the forthcoming set. Steve Sadin will not tell me whether passing Avifors is a signal that I’m not in Transfiguration. Jacob van Lunen will not tell me that Lumos is an uncommon choice enough to be worth spending a portion of our budget on. I cannot wait for Manuel Bucher to bring me news of the Positive EV on Fluffy. There is no Black Sirius, no Starkington Delivery Owl, no Harry Potter Show with Evan Erwin, and no amount of money will buy me Next Level Potter by Patrick Chapin. Actually, Next Level Potter by Patrick Chapin is almost certainly something that an amount of money could buy me, but I just don’t know what that amount is. Yet.

You see where I’m heading. Since we’re not attempting to be world beaters, Elizabeth and I can go at our own pace. As we open each booster, we are genuinely finding brand new cards, and will often sit for twenty minutes just talking about that single new card from the booster, looking to see what it might be useful for, and whether it’s likely to be strong enough to fit into a Constructed deck, or even be a springboard for one of its own. It’s entirely possible, or even rather likely, that we’re not playing optimally, or at least that I’m not. There are probably cards we haven’t seen that would utterly cause us to re-evaluate the cards in our collection. Maybe there are plentiful Wrath effects in Diagon Alley, a set we’ve not picked up yet. I could find out, but I’m not going to. In a small way, I feel like I’m getting a taste of Magic as it was originally envisaged, a game of constant discovery and new horizons, and it’s awesome.

Two Words — Organized Play

I’d like to conclude with this. It’s human nature to moan about the things we don’t have, and I believe that the primary Magic demographic of smart young men is perhaps more susceptible to this than most. Truth is, Organized Play is something so spectacular we should be abasing ourselves on a near-daily basis in thanks for its existence. There are certainly Harry Potter players out there, and doubtless stacks of Norberts and foil Harrys sitting in long-forgotten cupboards around the world. Thing is, I don’t really know how to find them. I certainly won’t be attending a tournament this weekend. I won’t be planning my deck for Regionals. I won’t be playing FNHP. I won’t get to play in my National Champs, nor qualify for a World Championships where I will be flown at the organiser’s expense to play for $40,000. Nor will I succeed to the extent that I am paid to attend events like this all over the world. It may not be the Acropolis or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, but when we get to the Coliseum at Worlds in Rome, it’s worth pausing for a moment and considering that Organized Play is (in our own small way) one of the real wonders of the world.

As ever, thanks for reading…