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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?

About the author:  Teale is a PhD student hailing from Fairbanks, Alaska. His interests include content generation, artificial life, and educational games. Read more from this author

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  1. Posted September 18, 2009 at 10:53 PM | Permalink

    Wow 5th grade.. I was in my 20s when it came out. Good updates I think have made the games so success. Keeps a good base.

  2. Posted September 19, 2009 at 12:43 AM | Permalink

    I think the key to Magic is the variable ruleset that you mentioned: every game of Magic with every different player will be different depending on their deck. There’s a discovery of new cards and new ways for the game to unfold each and every time.

    A game of Halo 3 will always go the same way, but there’s always a pang of excitement when you see a player use an exploit or tactic you’d never seen, although this is few and far between after just a short amount of playtime. Magic can continue this joy of discovery ad infinitum, as long as they keep churning out new cards and new ideas.

    I would hazard that Pokemon is a very limited version of this idea: each battle will go slightly differently depending on what Pokemon lineup your opponent has, but you lack the differing rules, as well as the thrill of discovery: most Pokemon players know all the Pokemon and their abilities well up-front.

    This is perhaps why Magic holds on, and why TCGs inside video games are popular, because we simply haven’t found a way of implementing such varied rulesets within video games yet.

  3. Posted September 19, 2009 at 3:13 AM | Permalink

    Excellent analysis but I think you missed a basic mechanic that is at work in making magic endure: the primal human instinct to collect things. Pokemon exploits this effect as well, but boy scout badges compare equally well. This, as you mention, allows for personalization and expression but also affords status since some cards are difficult to obtain and provide better game performance.

    Keep up the great posts! Enjoying your blog very much..

  4. Teale Fristoe
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 9:55 PM | Permalink

    I think you bring up some excellent points. Merely toying with the idea of creating a digital system as expandable as Magic has proven pretty difficult for me. I haven’t really tried many games with TCGs in them, but one of Magic’s real strengths is that its designers can write whatever they want in those boxes below the pictures, and humans will interpret the words. It’s a bit more difficult figuring out how to represent such a vast array of possibilities so a computer can interpret them.

    I think another reason TCGs are popular in this regard both in physical and digital forms is that they are inherently slow paced, and reading is expected. Many computer gamers expect fast paced gameplay, and much to my dismay loath reading anything. As I plan on discussing in a future blog post without a currently scheduled date of writing, teaching players how to play a game is a serious challenge, and in a universe with thousands of possible game pieces, it is almost inconceivable how to do that without concise and written explanations somewhere.

    I think you hit the nail right on the head there. Just like some Pokemon are more difficult to catch than others (and you have to buy multiple games to get them all), Magic has its rarity system to ensure that you can’t pick and choose your cards to get them all. And how great does it feel to be the only person in your community with a deck featuring only rare cards? Good enough to spend a lot of money to get to that point.

    I was telling a friend of mine about this blog post, and she asked me why I wrote it about Magic instead of say chess or hopscotch. The question took me by surprise. I guess the easy answer is that Magic supports a lot of designers, where those other games are fairly well defined and static. However, I think the real answer is that I hope that aspiring game designers can appreciate that Magic was developed by a handful of individuals less than two decades ago, and continues to be played around the world. Chess, hopscotch, and all of the other myriad games that everyone knows developed over long periods of time organically. Ultimately, I would guess that both chess and hopscotch have more lasting power than Magic (even if I would argue that hopscotch is a far inferior game… but that’s probably because I’m not a part of its target audience), but I find the game and its designers personally inspirational, and hope that the analysis helps others appreciate it in that way too.

  5. Posted September 23, 2009 at 7:03 PM | Permalink

    Well said. Except…

    “No other structured game that I’m aware of offers players so much creative control of their own games. ”

    Really? How does Magic compare to other CCGs? What lets it give them more creative control? What about Mage Knight, a collectible miniatures game which lets players bring armies, equipment and terrain features? What about Mechaton, another miniatures game, one in which you make all your figures with Legos, and set your own objectives?

    I love Magic, but I guess I wanted to know more about how qualified I should take “that I’m aware of” to be.

  6. Teale Fristoe
    Posted September 24, 2009 at 2:20 PM | Permalink

    You bring up some excellent points.

    First, my own breadth of knowledge is fairly limited, so I really appreciate others bringing up games or ideas I may have missed.

    Second, my claim was too general. Magic is in many ways the prototypical CCG, but CCGs in general share Magic’s openness (though likely have much smaller card pools, given how long Magic has thrived). However, there are other games, like the table top miniature games you mention, are at least as open as Magic, and possibly even more so. But I would argue that Magic is more accessible to more people than those games, even if it isn’t a casual game by any stretch of the phrase. So for many people, a game like Magic is their best bet to have so much creative control over their play experience.

    I would also argue that classic role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons allow for much more creative control than Magic, but their lack of structure puts them in a different class of games.

  7. Posted September 29, 2009 at 12:21 PM | Permalink


    Thanks for writing about Magic here, I think it’s a completely upsettingly complex game that makes me rethink everything i know about video games.

    I’m working right now on some specific elements that continue between games, eg reverse/undo/reset/restore systems and character/experience and while most games have only one or less things to say about the element, magic has like 12.

    I’ve been really tempted by the colors, as if they mattered, but I don’t think that they have the same meaning that they did when i was in 5th grade. There’s all this combined stuff, and single color decks became the rule from which all interesting things must depart, as I understand the history.

    Also “open” is kind of a misleading word. This is not a sandbox game. There is combination and configuration among the thousands of existing cards, yes, and the game is always unique because of that, but it’s also alot of the same, buffs on will o’ the wisp, goblin decks, etc. It actually reminds me of Total Annihilation (i loved that game! an RTS just before starcraft i think) where they came out with new units and people started making units on their own. Open? Sort of. But still basically the same stuff going on.

    For me what I see in Magic is the translation of many many mythologies (Norse, Greek, etc.) into units defined by technical specifications. They are database ready, and this is the basis of Firemox, MTG Forget etc: a card is just a picture, a casting cost, a type & maybe subtype (artifact, creature, goblin) set of abilities, attack/defense strength, and a few more things. But, see, I was also into reading the Tome of Magic for D&D, even though I barely played the game. Technical units, permissible if they don’t ruin play balance. (Some harder to get than others, yes. But the computer implementations can make that irrelevant – exception is wizard’s own MTG online).

    Final comment: Hasbro owns Wizards who bought TSR. Damn. ps, do you think they’ll make a movie.

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