The Main Phase – Magic: Toy or Game?

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Monday, September 29th – What I want to do this week is a little different from my past few articles, so please bear with me. The players at my local store and I have been kicking this around, and what I really want out of this article is for more people to join our conversation. I look forward to seeing other players’ opinions on this topic in the forums…

What I want to do this week is a little different from my past few articles, so please bear with me. The players at my local store and I have been kicking this around, and what I really want out of this article is for more people to join our conversation. I look forward to seeing other players’ opinions on this topic in the forums.

I want to begin this article with a simple question:

Why do you play Magic?

That wasn’t rhetorical. I don’t want you to just skim over that and move on, because I think it’s important, not only to this article, but also to know the answer for yourself. I actually want you to think about that question before you move on.

Why do you play Magic?

There are many reasons and you don’t have to pick just one, but odds are that (if you read this website or any other Magic strategy site regularly) one of two reasons supersede the others.

Reason number 1: you play to win the game. Herm Edwards would be proud. For many of us, winning is the single most important thing when it comes to Magic, much less any other game. And why not? There are tournaments, there is a ranking system, and in the end there is a winner and a loser. Competition is the main reason to play. In essence, these people look at Magic as a game.

Reason number 2: you play to have some fun. Sure, winning is nice, but if it’s boring, well… where’s the fun in that? It’s the card interactions and the social aspect of Magic that makes it worth playing. Entertainment is the reason to play. In essence, these people look at Magic as a toy.

So which is it? Is Magic a game, or is it a toy? Is Magic better for the competition or more for the lolz? You have probably decided one way or the other on this basic information, but let’s to go a step deeper.

Let’s assume that you think Magic is fun. By that logic, Magic qualifies as a toy. It is, after all, made by Hasbro, which is a toy company. So let’s say you have a toy. Maybe a Tickle Me Elmo or a baby rattle. Whatever it is, just imagine a toy. Typically, that toy comes with instructions. Attach part A to slot B, insert batteries here, hand rattle to baby, etc. Sometimes it even comes with instructions on how to play. Push the cart to make the balls in the plastic dome bounce, hit the buttons in differing orders to make different songs, etc. Do you know what’s missing? This is what separates games from toys: how do you end the toy? When do you know when it’s time to stop? It’s not in the instructions. You either get bored with it, or it breaks, or your mom calls you to dinner. But what about Magic? That’s the signifier of a game: there is an end to it. Games end (99% of them, at least) in one of two ways: someone wins, and then the game ends, or the game ends and then someone wins. I sunk your last battleship, I took your king, etc. A game of Magic ends when someone wins (or occasionally, when in the extra turns of a tournament, someone wins when the game ends). Therefore, by this definition, Magic is a game.

Okay, so we’ve established that Magic is a game first and foremost, and that the entertainment aspect is secondary, right?

Well, not so fast.

Let’s say that you are in the ‘game’ camp. It is, after all, made by Wizards of the Coast, which is a game company (yes, I realize I repeated myself). In every game, such as Monopoly or Settlers of Catan, there is an object to the game and that object it to win. If that’s the case, then there is no reason to play any other deck than the hands-down best build of the best deck in any given format… but that’s not you. For that matter, that’s not anyone (at least anyone I know). Everyone has a little voice telling them to play some giant animal or cast some ridiculous spell. People who are hardened gamers show up to FNMs with the strangest cards. Even the most grizzled veteran enjoys casting the occasional foil dragon. At the highest levels, players play some cards that look more fun than good too. For example, StarCityGames.com own Patrick Chapin is well known for his rogue streak, playing everything from Greater Gargadon combos to Nucklavees when the consensus ‘best’ decks instead ran Tarmogoyfs or Bitterblossoms. Something similar can be said about Alan Comer, Kyle Sanchez, Bill Stark, and many others.

Why? Certainly not because Magic is fun.

I’m not arguing that no one should be entertained when playing Magic. Clearly games are intended to be fun, but the point I’m trying to make is this: Is the fun in Magic more important than the competition? Is Magic, at its core, a game or a toy? What is more important to you: playing to have fun or playing to try to win?

The answer isn’t that easy.

I bring this argument about because over the past year in particular Magic has made strides in assigning itself the ‘toy’ role rather than that of a ‘game.’ It seems to me that this is the one overriding quality of everything Wizards has done in the past year or so when it comes to Magic: to transform Magic’s image as a game into an image of being a toy.

A good example of this is the genesis of the preconstructed deck over the past few years. Not long ago, they lined game store shelves and were at the forefront of Magic’s campaign for more players, what Wizards now calls ‘acquisition.’ Self contained and no deck building requirements needed, precons are a good example of Magic as a game. They teach the basics of a particular strategy and show off the capabilities of that strategy, particularly when matched up against other preconstructed decks, and get new players interested in improving upon that strategy by adding cards from booster packs that they could buy separately.

Then came the ‘Elves versus Goblins’ decks. Less worried about getting new players interested in game mechanics or competition and more interested in getting them into the flavor, pitting two of fantasy’s oldest rivals against one another. Adding outside cards like precons of old is of course possible, but if they happen to not have the word ‘elf’ or ‘goblin’ in the title then they detract from the essence of the total package. The joy of ‘Elves versus Goblins’ isn’t in winning or losing but more in the aspect of being one with whichever imaginary race you happen to be battling with.

The current iteration in this line is the Intro pack. Intro packs, for those of you that have not yet seen one, come with 41-card deck (including a Johnny-riffic foil), a pack of Shards (so you can know the sheer elation of opening singleton pack), a strategy insert and a ‘Learn to Play’ guide (LTP, n00b). What does this mean? It means that you can’t actually play a legal game of Magic with the cards you get in an Intro pack even if you shuffle all the cards you get in your one booster into your deck. While clearly this is intended to get the players interested in the game, it’s being marketed much more like a toy than any other Magic item I have seen.

One could argue that the next evolution of this is ‘From the Vault: Dragons.’ Even the most grizzled veteran enjoys casting the occasional foil dragon, and this box set gives you fifteen of them… and no actual deck. Not concerned with the game mechanics at all, ‘From the Vault’ is the final step towards being a toy. How do I know? Because there is no winner at the end of, ‘From the Vault: Dragons,’ because, without outside support from other cards, it is a toy.

Another example of this transformation is in the introduction of Mythic rares, a la Yu-Gi-Oh and the like. While Mythic rarity could in fact add fun to the game, I don’t think anyone would argue against the fact that the spells with the orange symbols are more toy-like than those for the hardcore gamers.

I think that at this point I would like to point out that so-called “scrubs” are the best thing for Magic. Not in the ‘terrible at Magic and at life’ sense, more in the ‘I’m the smartest person I know, check out my insane Elf deck’ kind of scrub. Back when people wrote rebuttal articles, there was a really good rebuttal to a Mike Flores article. Unfortunately I forget the article’s author’s name, but the gist of the article is that scrubs, not pros, are the best thing for Magic. They’re the kind of guy that just knows they’d be better than Bucher if they just had the bank roll. So they buy as much stuff as they can, from boosters to singles, and keep the economy of Magic flowing. Pros don’t buy much compares to those folks I call scrubs. Trust me, I pretend to be one so I should know.

This isn’t to say that being a ‘toy’ company is a bad thing for someone that makes trading cards game. Upper Deck Entertainment has made it clear that they intend to be a toy company. World of Warcraft has become very successful based on it being a toy more than it being a game. Sure, WoW has a decent tournament following, but the folks who really drive that gravy train (with the biscuit wheels) are the people who like to have fun with the game. And UDE has rewarded them, with Raid decks, Epic rares, etc.

I don’t really know what else to add here without retreading all the thoughts I’ve already hashed out, so I open it up to you. Should Magic choose between being a ‘game’ or being a ‘toy’…? If so, which should it choose to be?

I look forward to your response in the forums.


Reuben Bresler
Reubs in the forums
AIM: CleverMonikerMan
email: [email protected]