I have been playing a little in the online Shadowmoor Release events, and playing some paper Magic. I have also been thinking about what Wizards can do to pull more people into the game — both in paper and online. To figure that out, I want to look at why Magic is not like other games.
For comparison, I’m going to go back through the games I have, at various times, played a lot. I will also look at the different type of game players. All of these can teach us something about how Wizards can make Magic appealing, and what challenges they face.
Looking back over my gaming history, I can remember being heavily involved in several different genres and categories of games. I started out playing wargames, and once was heavily involved in Advanced Squad Leader and so forth. I played chess in college, to the point of being ranked in the top ten or twenty speed chess players in the city, then dropped it. I played every roleplaying game in print at one point, and ran AD&D campaigns for years.
I have never enjoyed playing Poker or Blackjack, and the only time I was ever interested in a Roulette wheel was while investigating methods of rigging them. I’m not a gambler.
I think that is the significant difference between players that people have misidentified as “casual verses competitive.” Gamblers are players for whom winning, and prizes, are the primary motivating force. Gamers are players for whom the game itself is the reward.
The gamers to gamblers continuum is just that — a continuum. No one is at either end — no one is totally one thing and not the other. Practically everyone who plays Magic has a mix of gambler and gamer in their genes — the difference is in the amount.
Here’s a simple test — would you spend a couple hours playing the 2000 World Championship decks against each other? They are the decks used by four players in the Standard portion of the 2000 World Championships. That format will never be legal in any tournament again, and playing Tinker against Static Opposition will hardly teach you anything that can translate into winning sanctioned tournaments. For that matter, how interested are you in playing multiplayer EDH for a few hours?
For pure gamblers, there’s no point in playing if you cannot win. For pure gamers, there’s no point in playing the lottery, even if the odds are stacked in your favor.
However, most Magic players are not at either end of the spectrum. Earlier this year, I saw some serious pros playing the 2000 Worlds decks, just for fun. Every Magic player is both a gambler and a gamer — to some extent or another.
Maybe looking at this as a continuum is the wrong approach. Maybe these traits can be better described as characteristics; of the kind that are used in role-playing games. Instead of STR, INT, WIS, CON, DEX and CHR (showing my age or what?), these stats are GAMER, GAMBLER, and some others.
On characteristic that is clearly relevant is WINNER. By WINNER I don’t mean how well the person does, but how important winning is to their desire to play (or do anything else.) I know some people who believe with a deep and unshakable conviction in Vince Lombardi’s statement that “Winning isn’t the most important thing — it is the only thing.” For other players, the social aspects of the game are important, as it keeping everyone happy. Personally, I like winning, but I enjoy the game more when everyone is equally happy, which usually means that everyone wins in about equal amounts. I don’t really think that’s can be called a SOCIAL trait — SOCIAL has a different meaning. Let’s call the other end of WINNER something like EMPATH — the ability to empathize with your opponents, and the desire to ensure that everyone is having fun.
SOCIAL is clearly a stat worth considering. It is the extent to which the interaction with friends and others is an important part of the whole Magic experience. This may vary between players: for some, Magic is a way to spend an evening with friends. For others, the social aspects may not be in the games directly, but in meeting with friends for the preparation and post game celebrations. (I’m thinking about the pro players for whom the games themselves are completely cutthroat, but who love the Pro Tour because of the people they meet there.)
Actually, I just noticed that the other stats are all descriptive of a person — Gamer, Winner, Empath. That means that SOCIAL should probably be SOCIALIST — something that should make my American readers unhappy. The U.S. has a highly perverted definition of the word SOCIALIST. As Inigo Montoya would say to my U.S. friends “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” But I digress — and I should add some actual Magical content to this article.
This deck made it through Northern Regionals without losing a single game all day.
- 4 Mogg Fanatic
- 3 Nantuko Husk
- 4 Shadow Guildmage
- 4 Greater Gargadon
- 4 Mogg War Marshal
- 4 Magus of the Moon
- 4 Marsh Flitter
- 3 Furystoke Giant
Stuart Wright creation lives on.
Back to the stats concept.
I think there is one more stat — but I’m not sure what to call it. It’s something I saw more in certain role-players — a combination of desire to win at all costs, to show off their knowledge and to puzzle out loopholes in the rules. It’s what some of my playgroups referred to as “rules rapists.”
Perfect example from my Squad Leader days — at one point, the scenario-builder rules said that you could add paratroop capability to any “regular or elite non-motorized unit.” The rules allow paratroop cavalry — a completely impossible concept, but one which will win certain DYI scenarios in a blowout.
The skill to identify and exploit loopholes and synergies — let’s call it LAWYER, for want of a better word — is also the core of deck design. Finding the tricks and cool interactions is a big part of any game, whether that is developing a new/unusual opening in chess, optimizing a character build in an RPG or tuning a control deck in Magic.
So, we have our stats. If you want to make a Magic player, get 3d6 and start rolling.
Wizards of the Coast has a very well-tuned marketing program aimed at the players with high Gambler and Winner stats. It’s called the Pro Tour. It offers prizes, prestige, and high-level competition. For those players without quite a high a level of skills — or without enough luck, to date — Wizards also has PTQs, Regional and National Championships, and now City Champs.
For the players with a high Lawyer stat, Wizards should be able to keep them interested by printing new and interesting cards.
Where Wizards has a challenge is in attracting the players with high Gamer and Empath stats. These players are not highly motivated by prizes or pure competition. They tend to want interesting, long-lasting, and competitive games. Often, these players like multiplayer games best.
Imagine, for a minute, that you are a Wizards employee charged with attracting these players to a store. What would you offer them?
You can’t really offer them a classic tournament, like FNM or City Champs. If you offer significant prizes, you are going to attract the Gamblers and Winners — and having a lot of those players is not going to produce the sort of games that the Gamers prefer. Gamers are going to want a high proportion of play time to the time spent waiting for the next round to start — and gamers are not going to be all that interested in losing fast matches to tuned net decks. In short, decent prizes are almost certainly not going to motivate the Gamer crowd.
In theory, you could have a tournament with prizes designed to appeal to Gamers. In theory — but in practice I can’t figure out how that would work. What would you give players in a tournament that would get Gamers to attend, but not attract the Gamblers? That’s tough. Even Gamers don’t much like bad cards.
I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that the best option might be to support stores or other groups that play in public spaces, and play weird formats — especially multiplayer — for the fun of it. These groups should advertise their games — after all, the point it to get new players to attend — and, in return, they get some support from Wizards. I don’t know what that support might be: I do remember the “Guru” program, which rewarded some players with special lands. That program crashed very quickly, when all the collectors, gamblers, and traders signed up, instead of the real gurus — the people who actually taught Magic to new players. Once the rewards became significant, many people started signing up just for the rewards, not because they wanted to do whatever was being rewarded.
Wizards does have some employees dealing with this exact problem: they are trying to support groups that make their play sessions open to the public. I’m glad I’m not one of them.
Wizards has an even harder time motivating people like this to play online. Online play is convenient as all get out, but a lot of the social interactions are lost. Even without vertical chat and the other v3.0 problems, MTGO is not all that great an option for those with a high Socialist stat.
Playing to Win
From the perspective of a Gamer and Empath, Magic has another “problem” — it is played to win. Each match has a clear winner and loser. It is like chess in that respect. Wargames, too, have winners and losers, but Empaths can have more fun creating huge set piece battles or recreating historical engagements, where the emphasis is on watching the battle play out, not in who eventually wins. Wargamers can recreate historically close battles, like Midway, Camerone, or Gettysburg, and not feel too bad if you cannot reverse history.
Roleplaying games, of course, are not played to win. Roleplaying games are all about the story, and the battle, and not about “beating” the players or the game master. Even in a pure combat session, a good game master can challenge a party without wiping them out. I remember one of the most satisfying games I have ever ran ended in a huge battle which ended with one player still standing, at 3 hit points, and that player killing the last giant with his very last spell. The players survived, but it was a very close-fought battle.
A good game master can tweak results enough that games should be very close, but that the party survives and triumphs.
Magic, on the other hand, has a clear loser, every time, and it is not possible to “tweak” games to create more satisfying outcomes, at least without those “tweaks” being obvious.
Varying Power Level
Actually, having a winner and a loser is not necessarily a bad thing. Even in role-playing games, sometimes the party loses. Without loses, wins don’t mean as much.
What is less fun is being involved in a foregone conclusion — where the game is so lopsided that it will take a miracle for one side to win. I once had a game master attack our third level party with a full-grown red dragon, and the party was slaughtered instantly. Nothing about that session was memorable, and I have never played with that GM again.
Far too often, however, I see the same sort of thing happen in Magic games. A new player brings in his deck and tries to play, only to find a huge difference in power levels. They quickly find that their Craw Wurm deck does not beat Faeries. More than that, they discover that the Craw Wurm deck has no chance of winning even a single game against Fairies.
This is not fun.
The problem is that pick-up Magic games at stores or gaming groups start out with player verses player (PvP) battles — and often one-sided ones at that. That is a problem. Online games have also wrestled with this sort of thing. Early online games, like Everquest, had problems with higher level characters making a living by hiding near spawning points and killing and looting any new player when they appeared. Online games redesigned to solve this problem — they created areas or servers that do not allow PvP battles. I play GuildWars online, partly because it has both PvP and no-PvP areas, and the two are clearly defined and separated.
Again, player verses player games are not bad, provided both sides are fairly evenly matched.
Evenly matched is the key.
Ranking the Power
Back in college, I was part of a large role-playing group that met every weekend. We all had multiple characters, in multiple game systems, and many of those characters played in the “D&D Open World.” This was shorthand for characters that had no home campaign and were available for any one-off game anyone was willing to run.
The power level of those characters varied widely. So did the scenarios that the GMs ran. I remember running one adventure where I really challenged players with just a handful of orcs, two of which had bows. I also ran “the Lich Dungeon” for anyone wanting a challenge at a different level.
Rooms in the Lich Dungeon changed, but I used the same trap to open the scenario several times. It was a sort of “fair warning — this is the real thing.” The first room was a staircase, 100 meters long and tilting up at a 10/12 slope. When the players are halfway up, the ends are sealed with walls of stone backed by walls of force. Decanters of endless water open, and flood the stairwell. Then a simulacrum casts passwall on the top walls, casts polymorph to change the water to iron, then casts heat metal on the iron. The players are basically encased in searing hot iron which extends into their lungs (assuming people were breathing.)
I think I ran the Lich Dungeon twenty times before players finally killed the lich. I ran the staircase trap a half dozen times. It never killed anyone. Not one.
When I ran the Lich Dungeon, I would tell people that this was intended for the highest level open world characters — and people understood what was expected. The highest level open world characters were generally 20+ level characters who had been played by highly experienced players who had earned those levels, and whose characters were generally massively equipped with sick artifacts.
The point is that GMs could tailor games to particular character levels, and could let players know what was expected. I could announce a scenario as “for 4th to 6th level, low Magic characters” and the players would know what I expected. I could also read their character sheets before the game, and know whether I would have to tweak the scenario, or even ask the player to change characters.
In role-playing games, you can get a good example of the capabilities of a character or the threat level of an encounter. The exact terminology may vary — “a 2000 point army,” “level 2-4 characters” or “attacks in the 90 point range” — but they clearly have a meaning to both players and the GM.
Magic has some trouble with this. Sure, I can say that my deck is Vintage legal — but what does that mean. Precons – at least the older ones — are Vintage legal. So is the latest tech out of a Stephan Menendian article, but that does not mean that matching the two will be a fair fight. Even a definition based on the largest format in which the decks is legal — the Precon being a Block deck, not Vintage, does not guarantee a fair fight. Block precons do not match up well with the Block decks making Top 8 at Grand Prix: Birmingham.
Magic decks have a number of factors determining their power, over and above the skill of the pilot. Magic decks — and this is especially true of Constructed decks — are collections of synergistic cards. Some synergies are more powerful than others. That’s okay — and that can be true of other games as well. In a wargame with design-your-own scenario capabilities, you choose units that work well together, and that makes for better forces. In role-playing games, character design is important. Choosing the right set of skills is critical, and can make or break a character. In that respect, synergy is universally a part of games.
Where Magic varies is that your deck does not earn the synergistic elite skills or upgrades over time or with experience. With Magic, players can buy their “levels,” with cash. If you have the cards, your deck can be powerful. If not, not.
After all, you can build a synergistic Faeries deck without any rares. It just is not on the same power level with a Faeries deck that has Bitterblossom, Mistbind Clique, Scion of Oona, and a good manabase.
In Magic, three factors define how powerful a deck will be in a certain match: the skill of the pilot, the quality of the cards, and the skill with which the deck was built and tuned. None of those are immediately apparent to an opponent when you sit down to play. You can get some approximation of some of those — the player’s rating and the deck’s legality in various formats are both partial indicators. However, they do not reflect critical factors. The pilot may have a good rating but be totally unpracticed with a deck, or be an expert who does not like sanctioned tournaments. In the same vein, knowing the format a deck was built for says something about a deck, but not a lot. The term “net deck” generally says more, because a net deck is generally a tuned deck with all the appropriate rares and synergies.
Generally, when someone sits down to a Magic game, picking up the opponent’s deck and flipping through it is frowned upon. Without being able to do something like that, however, players always run the risk of being blown out in any given game or match.
One of the reasons that newer players tend to like multiplayer, and especially formats like big deck singleton or EDH, is that these formats protect the players, to some extent. In a multiplayer match, weak decks live longer, because people concentrate on threats. Singleton formats also help, because they are generally slower, and the singleton restriction means all decks look more like Timmy’s Craw Wurm deck.
Magic needs a better way of having players ask for games. Online, people may scoff at requests for “no net decks,” but it may be the best method of trying to get a match without just being blown out by decks against which you cannot compete. Magic does not have a better way of asking for a fair fight. Magic really needs a better method of ranking deck power. Unfortunately, I can’t think of one.
In the meantime, newer players will continue to find themselves punching way outside their weight class at times, and not enjoying themselves. I just hope that we can work around that.
“one million words” in MTGO