Appreciating the Game Design of Magic: the Gathering

We moved our home office this past weekend1, and in the cleanup I came across a binder two decades old with a treasure trove of Magic: the Gathering cards. I got into the classic collectable card game (CCG) back in elementary school, and this was the one game that defined and pushed the genre for all these years. Looking back, spending a few hundred bucks on buying card packs was no small feat for a kid still in school, particularly in 1990s dollars.

The game itself is pretty convoluted and the rules got complicated fast. This was both its strength and weakness: a complex system kept the game fresh and interesting for expansion after expansion, but that design principle alienated all but the most fervent fans of the game. Recently the folks behind the game seem to be reseting the strategy, and are now prioritizing simplicity and accessibility2, though that has in turn angered the hardcore fans.

As I was thumbing through the cards (some of which may hold a little value, but at least the art is mostly cool), I started to remember how much old magic cards broke from standard gameplay rules, moreso than almost every other game I know. There are cards that create mini-games within the game, cards that contradict – and supersede – how the turns play and possible winning conditions, cards that completely lock down the game and turn subvert 90% of other players’ strategies3.

These elements make for some innovative strategies, but better yet they allow for a much wider universe of gameplay styles that has proven to persist through the years. All games develop new mechanics over time; the difficult work is in balancing the new stuff with existing content. Magic got around this by establishing a core set of cards, and rotating older cards out as new expansions get released. The meta-game therefore continues to shift controllably, and the old cards start to become truly collectable relics that don’t see that much play.

I see this “keep things fresh by layering on game-changing mechanics over time” design pattern in other games as well, most notably DotA. There, the complexity comes from the addition and modification of heroes and hero abilities and item, and how these combinations interact with one another. That DotA itself is coming on 12 years of strong play speaks to the tangibility of this type of iterative game design.

  1. What they say is completely true: the true cost of home ownership is in maintenance, and it comes in the form of both money and time.

  2. As I get older and have less idle time to keep up with evolving multiplayer-focused games, I also appreciate the emphasis against esoteric mechanics appeasing to an established fan base. Hearthstone has been awesome in this regard.

  3. There was even a card that permanently exchanged ownership of cards. No surprise it’s banned pretty much universally.

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