Archive for August, 2018


Getting Back Into Magic

It was not my expectation that my Magic: The Gathering cards, circa 1994 – 2001, would be worth much in the future when I bought them.  Mostly, I played because my friends played, and because in addition to the competition aspect, there was that little gambling-type thrill when a pack of cards was opened.  Did it contain X cool card?  Would it be a foil1 card?  Could X cool card be the that last piece of a deck that would crush my opponents’ hopes and dreams?  The answer to these questions and others like them was mostly – no.  I didn’t buy the volume of cards or spend the kind of money on individual cards required to construct decks that would compete at tournaments other than the ones played at my kitchen table or my friend’s basement.  My friends and I did attend the odd tournament or two2, but we were “casuals”, who gave ourselves the dubious team name, Team Raging Bull Sligh. This name was the ultimate in inside jokes, because we never registered in a team tournament, so no one (except us) that played Magic could know about it to be amused3.
Anyway, in college, I spent less and less time playing.  During grad school, my cards sat somewhere in my parents’ house in a couple boxes.  Eventually, sometime around when my parents moved, the boxes were posted to me here on the west coast, where they sat unmolested until about May of this year.  Prompted by a conversation with an old friend, I decided to look into selling my cards, or at least the valuable ones.  Somehow, Magic: The Gathering is still a thing.  I say “somehow” because almost every other card game from the 90’s era isn’t published anymore, and the average card game seems to stick around for a few years and then dies out4.  So, I organized the cards, pulled out a few hundred that were worth something, and sold them for north of about a grand – a considerable and unforeseen profit on my initial “investment”.  Yay for hobbies.
So why is the title of this post “Getting Back into Magic”?  Well, the old friend I mentioned still plays a bit, and there’s an online version of the game now, so I figured, why not?  And it turns out there’s a reason the game has lasted this long: it’s a really good game.  Yes, there’s an upfront cost to getting into the game, and yes, the company that owns the game and publishes new sets of cards every few months has a clear motive for you, the player, to buy more and more cards.  Compared to other strategy card games, the cost is pretty average, but compared to something like go or chess, well, there is no comparison.  A more apt comparison would be to something like poker, where probability, in addition to skill, is a factor.  There, the cards are free (well, almost), and games can be played for free or for money.  Magic can also be played for free or for money, so why play the game where you pay for cards?
For me, it’s two things: deck building and interaction.  On the deck building side – because Magic has so many cards, there are a lot of different ways to build your 60 card deck.  Your opponent can build a completely different 60 card deck.  There’s strategy in picking cards that work well together in your own deck, and there’s a strategy in preparing for certain types of cards (or even specific cards) that might be in your opponent’s deck.  However, that is not the only strategy in the game.  Once you start playing, there’s the interaction between your deck and your opponent’s.  In something like poker, there’s a lot of skill in knowing when to fold, when to bet, how much to bet, how much to raise, how to bluff, etc, but you as a player have little ability to directly affect what your opponent is doing within the game itself.  Magic, on the other hand, is not only about your own strategy and when, how, and what to play during the game, but also about having cards that disrupt your opponent’s strategy.  Some cards counter others.  Some cards can’t be affected by other cards.  Some cards make other cards irrelevant or weaker.  Certain combinations of cards, when played in the proper order, can create infinite loops that lock out your opponent’s best cards or win you the game.  Some cards are designed to break up those infinite loops.  There’s even a bit of bluffing, feigning the possession of certain cards in your hand so that your opponent has to decide either to play around it or call your bluff.
At its best, Magic is the kind of game where, even when you’re losing5, you can sit back and admire the beauty of the thing that is beating you into submission.  Because new cards are added every few months and because there is a vast library of older sets of cards to pull from, the strategic landscape for deck building and gameplay is a crazy, kaleidascoping affair that tends to savage strategies that don’t evolve right along with the game itself.  Magic is 25 years old this year.  Here’s hoping for another 25.

1 Foil = shiny.  They looked cool, were worth than the non-shiny version of the same card, and could be traded to collectors for more useful cards.
2 Mostly “sealed deck” tournaments where everyone started with a randomized assortment of cards instead of bringing their own decks.  Perfect for cheap (er, frugal?) teen-aged players like me.
3 I will attempt to explain the joke succinctly: Sligh is a Magic deck type that originated in the mid-90’s.  It played a lot of aggressive, cheap cards (in terms of resource cost to play onto the board, not money).  Raging Bull would be a very suboptimal card to play in a Sligh-type deck.  Thus, the team name was at once a way to indicate that we knew something about the game but self-deprecating regarding our skill.  This was quite amusing, trust me on this.
4 For example, Guardians, a card game that I bought a little of back in the late 90’s, which was mostly known for its high-quality (as well as occasionally juvenile and/or titillating) artwork.
5 I may have experience in this aspect of the game that is both very broad and very deep.