I no longer play Magic the Gathering (MTG), and have struggled for a time to articulate what it is that bothers me about it. Like most detractors I put it down to a combination of the business model and high level of in game randomness – but that doesn’t explain why the cards I already own and can make reasonably consistent decks with are gathering dust. I finally found the answer in an unexpected place – Super Mario Maker (SMM).
Much of the online discussion surrounding Super Mario Maker has centred on a particular conundrum – the automatic curation system is dominated by level designs that are antagonistic to the player on the other end, either requiring no input at all to complete or being somewhere between unfairly difficult and literally impossible. Levels can be rated on a 5 star scale but there are no real guidelines or goals, no attempt to reward designers for making a ‘fun’ player experience. The problem isn’t that Super Mario Maker can’t be used to make good player experiences, it’s that doing so is neither easy nor incentivised.
MtG, like Super Mario Maker, isn’t actually a game in the broader sense. The process of collecting cards and building decks has no proper goal, no way to win or lose. It is a game design toolbox where the combination of player decks is analogous to SMM’s levels, except the result is a competitive game rather than a solo challenge – and therein lies the fundamental issue with the games MtG creates. MtG incentivises both ‘designers’ to create a game that is as little fun as possible for their opponent/design partner, resulting in games that are rarely enjoyable to play. MtG games that are fun or interesting more than a handful of times are mostly the result of luck unless you specifically agree to try and create them. The only format that allows the use of (almost) every card, Legacy, is rife with decks that practically ignore their opponent or simply seek to prevent them from doing anything, ever.
Wizards of the Coast understand this, I’m sure. It’s why they produce specifically designed entry points to MtG like Duel Decks and the digital Duels of the Planeswalkers series, and why most competition occurs within restricted environments they design to increase the likelihood of interesting games. Player-designed “Cube” environments are becoming increasingly popular and I suspect part of their appeal is the ability to construct a set of cards free of the immediate need to make something unfair. These all seem like bandages to a fundamentally broken incentive system though, and I don’t see myself ever returning to MtG or any of its collectible card cousins.
Image credit: Magic: The Gathering