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The Magic of Magic


Recognize this? Of course you do.

I started playing Magic: The Gathering when I was in 5th grade.  Like all things from that age, it was a fad, and quickly faded behind the next hot toy.  However, I have been amazed with the frequent resurgence of the game in my life.  Multiple times, I have witnessed people with little in common admit that they were fans of the game, usually reluctantly or in jest, only to see enthusiasm snowball until a community has formed around the game, happily dishing out large sums of money for the latest cards.

Magic has survived for more than fifteen years, and shows no signs of dying or even slowing down.  New sets are released several times a year, and with them celebratory events.  A serious competitive community exists around the game that spans the globe and is vibrant enough to support professional players.  While its appeal is probably more limited than games like World of Warcraft, it certainly has a powerful niche appeal, and will likely remain the prototypical collectible card game for the foreseeable future.

What makes Magic so appealing, and what gives it its lasting power?  The short answer, of course, is good design, in combination with good marketing and good timing.  For the rest of this article, I will take a closer look at some of the high level design features of the game that I think have made it the phenomenon that it is.

While the rule system in general is well thought out, I’m only going to discuss one feature of it: its openness, and how the designers have mitigated potential dangers associated with this feature.  Though the game’s rules are rigorously defined, there is a limitless number of potential cards.  This is a good thing, because it means that the game can always grow.  However, it also can overwhelm and confuse players.  The design team takes care of this by following loose rules that guide card design and player expectation.  For example, cards in the game are divided into different colors, and each color has its own personality.  Take blue, which has lots of tricky cards, or green, which has lots of big monsters.  By sticking to these boundaries, players learn to expect certain things from certain colors, even though the particular way cards fulfill those expectations can vary wildly.

Another key characteristic of the game is the tradition of frequently releasing new sets.  Every year, at least four new sets are released, and depending on the format players are playing in, these new cards have lifespans of as little as a single year.  Call it marketing genius or the epitome of corporate greed, this feature of the game plays an indispensable business function, ensuring that the game’s makers always have new sources of revenue.  However, it also plays the important game design function of keeping the game fresh, analogous to expansion packs to games such as Civilization IV or World of Warcraft.  There are always new, exciting cards to explore, whether you are a hard core player that has been keeping up with the game for years, or a casual player just looking to spend time with friends who are also into the game.  Additionally, sets help limit the openness of the game, as each set introduces a few new rules.  The designers will focus on exploring these new rules to their fullest extent, but need not worry about how they’ll interact with older, outdated cards.

Along the same lines, some cards are more common than other cards.  Generally, the less common the card is, the better and more interesting it is.  From a business perspective, this means that people will be buying lots of cards (since cards are generally sold in packs with lots of common cards but few rare cards), even when they don’t want most of those cards.  But this also ensures that local economies develop around the game.  This is important financially for community centers where people gather to play the game, since they can sell rare and popular cards, but is also a good way to keep the game exciting.  Many communities will only have a handful of rare cards, so each community will have a local feel based on the rare cards it has.  They also stimulate transactions between players, which everyone knows is fun from playing Settlers of Catan.

Finally, and most importantly in my opinion, comes the creative element of the game: deck building.  Before you could choose your avatar in World of Warcraft or choose your race in Starcraft (ok, but not before you could create your own character from scratch in Dungeons and Dragons…), players had total control over their decks in Magic.  And deck creation affects a game of magic in a more fundamental way than most other games: not only do the cards in your deck determine the way you play the game and therefore your in game personality, but all of the game pieces in a normal game of Magic are determined exclusively by the cards in the players’ decks.  No other structured game that I’m aware of offers players so much creative control of their own games.  And with hundreds or even thousands of cards to choose from, depending on the format you’re playing, players have an almost limitless set of possible decks to explore.  This gives players much more emotional investment in the game, because they’re playing with their real creations.

Obviously, these four fuzzy qualities of the game are not all that has made Magic the force it is today, but I think they do a good job capturing the heart of the game, what allows it to flourish after fifteen years of bringing joy to kitchen tables across the world.  What do you think?  Did I miss anything important?

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