Game designers should play Magic

Ever heard of Core War? It’s a computer-moderated game where two players create programs that fight each other. The first one to crash loses.

I admit: I’m a nerd. So this sounded like a lot of fun, but definitely in the category of “never be able to do that”. Though, recently, I realized that I had been playing a similar game for a while now.

That game is called Magic: the Gathering.

From one angle, I guess you can consider this to be a report on the ongoing addiction. But, really, it’s some thoughts on my current relationship with the game and why I think that people interested in game design should spend some time playing Magic: The Gathering.

When I first started playing Magic, it was for the theme. I was interested in a duelling wizards’ game, and then someone came out with one, which saved me the trouble of having to create one myself. (I love when that happens.) And, honestly, one of my growing disappointments in the game at the time was how it was gradually diverging from that theme. The original cards represented effects that could be easily visualized, like Fireball. But as time went on, the effects became more exotic, as did the theming. I mean, what’s a Megrim, anyways?

Also, as time went on, other collectible card games came out that weren’t so reliant on the “buy lots of boosters” strategy. For example, I still maintain that Netrunner was the best designed CCG of the lot, especially because it involved more intricate gameplay than Magic.

So, slowly but surely, Magic faded from my gaming life.

Though, recently, I picked it back up again. Blame it on the mini-decks that were in the GenCon grab bags. I found myself reading through the cards and thinking, “You know, this was a lot of fun….”

And it’s fun once again. Yes, the theme really is just pasted on. (Read this in your best Eurosnoot voice.) Now, the game is fun for a different reason.

Magic took the game development cycle and turned it into a game. Therefore, Magic is the perfect game for game designers to play.

Think about it like this. Each Magic card is essentially a little rule. Therefore, each Magic deck is a system of rules that are supposed to work together in a synergistic fashion. You know, kinda like a game. Then, when you sit down to play, you are actually pitting your rules system against your opponent’s rules system, a la Core War.

But that’s not all. While each duel is a competition in itself, it is also a playtest for your deck/system. A wise player is keeping mental notes of what did and didn’t work. Then, in between duels, he refines his deck, trying to achieve superior elegance of design to produce the desired effects. Then he duels again.

Isn’t this simply iterative design?

On top of this, the very nature of the game requires players to consider complex emergent behavior as the result of simple rules interactions. The Magic development team has done a great job of refining the timing rules of the game, which were a bit fiddly when the game first released. Nevertheless, there is still the need for players to see how timing and independent effects interact in the game. Honestly, part of the skill of the game is exploiting the system, either through deck design or through clever play.

Playing Magic is partly about gaming the rules themselves.

All of this is good for game designers. By playing Magic, you are exercising the mental constructs and thought processes that are necessary for quality design and playtesting. Plus, it’s fun!

And, at this point, you should be able to spend $40 on eBay and buy more than enough cards to keep you in business for quite some time.

So, if you are a game designer, be it a novice or veteran, you really ought to learn to play Magic. It’s worth your time.

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4 responses to “Game designers should play Magic

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