When Magic Lost It’s Magic

Most that know me know that I’m an avid gamer.  I play video games, board games, card games, puzzles, pretty much anything I can get my hands on.  Because I like puzzles and strategy games, I’ve regularly been asked what I think the most strategic game I’ve ever played is, and I’ve gotten more than the occasional odd look when I don’t respond with “Chess” or “Go”, but with “Magic: The Gathering“.

Magic: The Gathering, hereafter referred to as “MTG” or simply “Magic”, is a collectible card game (CCG) wherein you assume the role of a wizard battling one or more other wizards.  You do battle by drawing and playing cards from your customized deck and battle against other players with their own customized decks.  I consider Magic to easily be the most strategic game I’ve ever played based on the sheer number of possible card combinations and card interactions alone.  Individual cards represent spells and are categorized by one or more colors of magic, white, black, red, green, blue, or colorless, each with it’s own specialties and weaknesses, as well as spell type which affects how it is cast and affects play, whether it be an immediate but transient effect, a lasting effect, the summoning of a creature to do battle with, etc.  Without getting too detailed, each card essentially has it’s own rules and game mechanics printed directly on it alongside artwork, icons relating to how it is cast and it’s properties, and “flavor text” which more often than not is simply hilarious.  With all these variables, and the number of cards printed to date, the combinations are about as close to infinite as your likely to get.

I got pulled into the world of Magic in it’s earlier years, just after the Legends expansion but before The Dark.  I actually have a complete set of The Dark, which at one time was worth quite a bit of cash…  Back then near the beginning Magic was considered to be a Trading Card Game (TCG), and people regularly played with decks created from the entire pool of available cards at the time.  Because the company that created the game, Wizards of the Coast, was a start-up, print runs were limited and rare cards were sought after like prized jewels.  It was not uncommon to trade upwards of forty or fifty individual cards to someone to get one really rare and powerful card like a Mox or a Chaos Orb.  Obtaining and using these rare cards in your deck was not necessarily the path to success as a player, however, as the really respected and revered players were those that could devise the most subtle, useful, or devastating card combinations for use in their decks and actually be able to pull them off during play.  Combinations such as the decimating Channel + Fireball, or my personal favorite of all time, instant infinite life points via 4 Nether Shadows + Life Chisel could completely destroy or demoralize opponents when you laid down the appropriate cards.  I consider this to be the Golden Age of Magic, and for years I spent many a weeknight and weekend at various comic and game shops competing in, and occasionally hosting, Magic tournaments and casual play.

So when did Magic lose it’s magic for me?  About the time that Magic shifted from being considered a TCG to a CCG.  As Wizards of the Coast grew, fueled by their financial success found in Magic, to the point that they even acquired TSR, the creators and IP holders of the most infamous role playing game of all time, Dungeons & Dragons, they began to pump out more and more expansion sets to the game and the print runs of those sets got bigger and bigger.  It used to be that rare cards were actually rare and not just indicated as rare by gold-colored icons on the “rare” cards in an over-produced set, essentially making rares as common as the commons of old, and commons literally a dime a dozen.  No longer do you need to trade with other players, nor do most consider trading a productive use of their time, to get your rares or complete your sets since nowadays you can just pick through a shop’s card box or display case and buy your way to what you want for much less out of pocket than it would have cost you to employ the same strategy back in the day. This is a direct effect of the over-production of cards, just ask anyone that remembers the avalance of cards that was Fallen Empires, but also an effect of a second factor… re-prints.

As the expansion sets grew in number and the overall card pool exploded in size, Wizards of the Coast realized that ensuring the balance of card combinations and affects among this ever-expanding card pool would be impossible.  To mitigate this, they created different game types that essentially defined what cards were allowed to be played within the type.

  • Type 1, now called “Vintage” is essentially every card ever printed with a short “banned and restricted” list, banned cards being outright disallowed in play and restricted cards being limited to one per deck.
  • Type 1.5, now called “Expanded” is essentially the same as Type 1 but with an expanded banned and restricted list.
  • Type 2, now called “Standard” allows only cards from the current main card set and the most recent three expansion sets.

Every so often Wizards of the Coast will also release a new core set, currently Tenth Edition, within which they will retire certain cards from the core set and add others in.  Their decision to begin to reprint cards from the older expansions in the core set both destroyed certain cards’ rarity and monetary value but also decimated much of the lore and community aspect of the original game which centered around trading for these highly sought after cards and their use in play.  There are still a few cards that they have not reprinted in the core set or a subsequent expansion, but since most officially sanctioned tournaments and players now focus exclusively on Type 2 games, you can’t use them in play most of the time anyway.  When you then add in the Magic: Online version of the game which utilizes virtual instances of the cards, some of which you can move from the virtual to the real world, there’s very little concept of “rarity” or “value” left.

I do understand why Wizards of the Coast moved to this game architecture, because being able to pick and choose from any card ever made to construct your deck, which you really can now do because most of them have been reprinted multiple times, you can create some insanely efficient decks at destroying your opponent.  Because of the sheer number of unique cards and the impossibility of actually balancing the Type 1 card pool, an alternative was necessary.  Unfortunately that alternative and how it was achieved destroyed a lot of what I enjoyed about the original game.

I still play both the Online version as well as the tabletop game on occasion, especially if I can find someone willing to play Type 1 or 1.5, but it just doesn’t hold the same attraction for me anymore in this Type 2-centric era.  This has resulted in my not playing often enough to keep up with what the theme of the current Type 2 sets are, or what the current Type 2 killer combos are, etc., which in turn further prevents me from playing very often.  The pace at which new expansions come out foster this, and it’s a self-perpetuating cycle.  Magic is now more of a lifestyle than a hobby and it demands all the attention and devotion of your average MMORPG to keep up with and learn the intricacies of all the new cards.  Wizards of the Coast has however super-simplified Dungeons & Dragons with their recent 4th Edition, so perhaps I’ll go play that.

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