So. My one hundreth post. Since this is supposedly a momentuous occation showing that this blog was a project I did not abandon, I’d like to do something special. Like writing about a game that captured my mind. A game I have played more or less actively for nearly a decade now. A game whose mechanics have influenced pretty much my every design decision. A game called Magic the Gathering.
Curiously, I was introduced to the game by my sister’s female friend, one of the two female players I can recall having met in real life. As a young and simple teenager, I was captivated by the mythos of the game: The concept of mana and their colourful, mystical symbols, the presence of elves and monsters and powerful magic spells you cast as a mighty wizard. Soon I bought my first starter set with my friend and began playing. I made my first black deck (ooh, edgy) and remember distictly sucking at the game. It was fun little distraction you could take to school and play at lunch time. It annoyed the teachers too, so that was a plus. But still, it was a competitive game and I wasn’t any good at it. My interest began to wane. Then Mirrodin struck.
My first favourite card was Timesifter. It was a card that gave extra turns to the player who had more expensive (mana-wise) cards in their deck. It was a quirky card that my opponents dismissed. It wasn’t good. It was expensive and relied on expensive cards which made the whole deck unplayable. It was a card no-one wanted. I guess I felt sorry for it, which probably says something about my character. And the moment I made a Timesifter deck sparked the beginning of my fascination with cards no-one wanted. As most of those cards were… difficult to utilize, I delved into one of the most fun (relative) sides of Magic: Combos. Taking some strange and weak cards and making them work together to form an infinite amount of mana, an impenetrable defense or instant victory was a true puzzle. How can I take this insane drawback and make it into an insane weapon? Seeing a scruffy underdog combo deck win a soulless and sleek blue-black control deck that uses only the best cards brings always a cheer to my heart.
This required me to know more about the game rules. How do things interact with each other? In what order do things happen? What happens if I have two Timesifters on the table? As I researched deeper and played other games more, I began to appreciate how Magic handles itself. Many tabletop games tend to be ambiguous about things. A good example is the Gandalf Card mechanic in Lord of the Rings Boardgame: You can buy a Gandalf card at any time. Can you buy it after drawing an event tile but before resolving it? Are the tiles meant to be played immidiately after they are revealed? These questions might seem petty and inconsequential, but I think having the players make assumptions about rules is bad design. What if two players form conflicting interpretation of the rules? Those kinds of situations tend to escalate into arguments, especially in a competitive games. I’ve seen it many times, unfortunately.
Magic does not have ambiguity. Magic hates ambiguity. Every action the player takes is carefully defined in the comprehensive rulebook (which is nearly 200 pages long at the time of writing), and every possible situation is covered in the rules. If they aren’t, they will be in a moment. When two decks with lots of Instants (cards you can play outside your turn) and funky effects square off, the players will know exactly what to do and in which order, and can plan around that. This clarity can be attributed mostly to the most ingenious mechanic of the game: The Stack.
A brief definition: The Stack regulates the order in which cards are played. On every phase on your turn, you can play cards and abilities first. If you play a card, it goes to the Stack. Then your opponent(s) can respond by playing their cards. If they do, the card they play goes on top of your card. Then you can respond to their card. This goes on until both players pass. Then the topmost card of the Stack is resolved, meaning that the effect in the card happens. Then the active player (whose turn it is) can play a card again. And the opponent can respond to that. Again, if no-one responds, the topmost card resolves. This enables things: Assume you have a card that deals 3 damage to a creature and an opponent has a card that increases a creature’s Toughness by 3. If you shoot an opponent’s creature with your card, intending to kill it, he can boost its toughness as a response, enabling it to tough out your damage. And if he boosts the creature in order to deal more damage or to avoid it, you can shoot the creature before it receives the boost as a response.
This might make the game feel like very, very heavy. But the thing is, it doesn’t. In normal play, the Lightning Bolt/Giant Growth-scenario described above is pretty much the extent of the complexity in it. Most turns take only a minute: Untap your things, draw your card, play a spell, attack with a creature, see if opponent blocks, pass turn. Like any other reasonable game. But in the case there is a card combination that can blow up in your face if you play it wrong, there is an extremely detailed process you can fall back to. You won’t have to make any guessess about the rules, except possibly against advanced players who wield crazy decks. (ahem)
This clarity and focus is what inspires me. The game is simple, yet allows for complexity. When designing rules and especially processes, I always look back and ask myself “How do I explain this in Magic terminology?”. And even when I specifically avoid clear-cut mechanical processess, like in Spy, I still ask “What exactly are the rules allowing me to do?”. So here’s to Magic: The Gathering. May your quality stay as high as possible!