Friday, May 13, 2011

It's the Magic: Censor/Control/Sludge/Bender/Blaze

Ever since I recently re-read Mark Rosewater's "When Cards Go Bad," for my Zombie CCG project, something's been bugging me. And since I write most of these blogs about a week (or two) in advance, you can figure that's been a longer time than it might initially seem. Mr. Rosewater mentioned in his article that Magic provides a sense of exploration; poor(new) players initially pick poorer cards over better ones and in seeing how they play out, they learn the qualities of a good card (it's mostly unsaid, but I think it's a reasonable interpretation). I get that. The exact question given is, why pay 1 mana to gain one life off of a spell, when you can do it for free?

However, if you put Crystal Rod and Kraken's Eye together, I think even a novice player can figure out which one is better. Then again, I'm not sure if the two were ever made side by side; Crystal Rod was printed from Alpha to Eighth Edition, while Kraken's Eye ran from 9th Edition to 2011 and Darksteel. Sure, this example doesn't really pan out, but I get that better players will learn that there are cards which are and aren't good. I like the Resounding Cycle, but realize it's only good in EDH and not all cards can work for some specific format.

The implication is, then, that new players don't know how to play the game correctly.

This seems intuitive enough that one might question how it garners its very own serious <p></p> of seriousness from me. Think about soccer. In soccer, your goal is to kick the ball into the opposing team’s net, but you can’t touch the ball with your hands (I do believe other countries are on to something by calling it “football”). Sure, there are penalties and conditioning and advertising and ticket prices, but that’s all official stuff. For your backyard game of soccer, you get a ball, find some guys, mark a net, and do it.

Now, a while back I asked people to pitch Magic. Did anyone say “card advantage”? Did anyone say “creatureless deck”? Did anyone say “removal”? I’m writing this before I even put the question up, but I’m sure most descriptions involved something about being planeswalkers and summoning creatures and castings spells to kill your opponents. Some of you may have even mentioned attacking with creatures and playing lands to pay for stuff. I’m positive that none of you mentioned punishing opponents for playing spells, preventing them from playing, canceling their cards, stealing their spells, or even the fun and flavorful “drive them mad.”

Edit - No one mentioned anything, making PIFC the blog equivalent of the SIDS train:
Actually, a less successful SIDS train.

Now, I don’t like these things in Magic, but I accept them as part of the game. It’s a massively successful CCG and it explores the avenues of that format to express itself in a variety of ways to appeal to a wide swath of players. I feel it’s stretched to the point that flavor is very, very thin on some parts of the game. That’s fine. I like Magic and I’m not going to pretend that cycling represents some wizardy concept when it doesn’t. That doesn’t make Magic bad; it means that it’s done what it has had to do to survive. How do you think it’s managed to stay alive while most of its colleagues are dead?

What I do object to is the fact that the game I wanted to play--the one where I’m a planeswalker dueling with another planeswalker in a test of magical ability--isn’t what I’m playing. That educational experience from the bottom of the novice tier to the top of the casual tier wasn’t so much about learning to tell good cards from bad cards as it was learning about divesting myself of the notion that I was playing one game about magical fantasy dueling when I was playing a different game entirely.

That game, Magic: the Gathering, is about card advantage, 2-for-1 plays, land/card/spell denial, removal, and, yes, powerful, mythic rare cards. That game is fun, but not so fun. It’s a fine game--possibly the best CCG out there--and I’ll continue playing for a while yet, but it’ll never be about “Jace Beleren” so much as it’ll be about how people will play $125 dollars for card that will help them keep someone else from playing a card, because that’s what other people on the internet are doing. It won’t be about “Chandra Nalar” as much as it’ll be about whether a deck can draw the damage/mana/card necessary to kill another deck before it stabilizes on turn four. 

I don’t mind that so much.

In that context, it’s not that those bad cards teach players how to play the game correctly; it’s that they teach them that they’re playing the wrong game. It isn’t until they take their knocks and lose to a few veterans that they start playing the right game, one distinctly different than what they were sold on.

That, I do mind.

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