On the Virtues of Magic
I’m going to need to build a bunch of Magic decks soon.
I don’t know if it’s a Millennials thing, or maybe just a product of being one of the first members of the Information Age, but as my generation gets older and starts having kids, we’re putting a lot of thought into the problems every parent faces. How am I going to raise my child? What do I want them to Value? How do I teach those values? And what parts of my own childhood do I want to pass on to my son or daughter? For some people, it’s a specific college or university; for some, it is adherence to a particular sports team. For many Millennials, it’s games.
And, speaking only for myself, games begin and end with Magic: the Gathering.
I first started playing Magic when I was 13, and I haven’t really stopped since. It’s an incredible framework upon which has been hung a variety of different and interesting experiences. At its core, Magic is about, well, magic: you take on the role of an immensely powerful wizard called a planeswalker, someone who can travel (“walk”) between universes (“planes”), using the pages of their spell book (AKA your deck) to vie against another wizard of equivalent power (your opponent). It’s a simple premise, but the execution makes it stand out.
First off, the cards themselves. There are two basic kinds of cards in Magic: Lands and Spells. Lands can be “tapped” to produce one “mana”, a form of magical energy, every turn. Spells consume mana to accomplish something — summoning creatures to fight for you, creating artifacts and enchantments to strengthen your powers, weaving sorceries and instants to interfere with your opponent. Spells have increasing mana costs equivalent to their power. Here’s the rub: you can only play one new land a turn. This at a stroke slows down the game: whatever your most powerful spells are, they probably don’t cost only one mana, so you can’t play them until later.
Second off, the cards themselves. Land and spells in Magic come in five colors: White, Blue, Black, Red and Green. Each color stands for a philosophy, or perhaps an ideology, which determines what it is that color can and cannot do in terms of gameplay. Let’s take Blue as an example. Blue is all about intellect. Blue wants to create perfection by pursuit of knowledge. Blue cares about logic, reason, knowledge, research, facts, science, technology; it believes that Truth is the ultimate creator of prosperity. As such, Blue’s play style is very analytical. It has a lot of counterspells, which allow you to take a look at something your opponent is doing and then decide that, actually, you don’t want them to do it, so you’re going to stop them by playing a counterspell. Blue also lets you draw extra cards, since knowledge is power. On the other hand, Blue is very reactive; it can stop a problem after they happen, but not before. It has a lot of ways to stop itself from losing, but not as many ways to win. The tools it has for winning are very powerful, because Blue is the kind of color that wants to end wars with one well-placed punch, but they’re also very expensive in terms of mana costs. (They can also be very expensive monetarily, as Blue has historically been the most powerful color of the five.) If you want to play Blue, you have to play the long game, biding your time and waiting for your opponent to over-extend. Duncan Sabien already did a brilliant article dissecting all five colors of Magic which you should read, but if you’re in a hurry, the other colors are, roughly: White wants to create peace through law & order; Blue wants to create perfection through knowledge and progress; Black wants to achieve satisfaction through ruthlessness and power; Red wants to create freedom through action and emotion; and Green wants to achieve harmony via acceptance and interdependence. There are relations between colors that are complex and incredibly interesting; it’s not a surprise that Sabien’s article is about replacing the Myers-Briggs with Magic’s colors, which is probably nerdier than the MBTI but could scarcely be less scientific. And is definitely more fun, because Magic color theory is fascinating.
The reason this makes for good gameplay is simple: It means every deck has weaknesses. Every color has things it’s good at doing and things it’s bad at doing. Blue and White, for instance, share a common element of reactivity; if you have a threatening creature, Blue counters it reactively with counterspells, whereas White has all these spells which act like handcuffs — they shut your creature down, but can be removed again — or which deal with the creature permanently but only after it has thrown the first punch (White’s obsession with fairness outweighs its desire to not get punched), or which can be proactive but give the creature’s owner something of equivalent value (White and Blue also share a love of rules). Black and Red, on the other hand, don’t hesitate; Red has lots of fireballs and lightning bolts, and Black has a spell that is straight-up called “Murder”: “Destroy” (IE kill) “target creature.” What did it do to you, Black? Nothing; it just happened to be in Black’s way. Now it’s not. (But Murder costs more mana than the lightning-bolt spell, so Black really has to commit.) And Green doesn’t go for proactively taking out creatures at all; instead, it just makes do with having bigger creatures, the biggest around, that yours can’t get through. Each color has completely different ways of solving their problems… and, even more than that, certain problems that it just flat-out can’t solve. If you’re playing that color, and your opponent presents you with that problem, you’re in trouble.
“Is it possible to play more than one color,” you might be asking, and the answer is, Yes. You can play as many colors as you want. Two-, three-, four- and even all-five-color decks have been created, and have gone on to win major tournaments (well, maybe not so much the four-color decks; those are only really prominent in EDH. But I digress). The problem there goes back to what I said earlier about mana. Lands in Magic produce colored mana: Plains for white, Islands for blue, Swamps for black, Mountains for red and Forests for green. If you’re playing a two-color deck — say, red-black — what’s the odds that your hand is filled with Black spells, which require black mana, but also Mountains, which only produce red mana? What’s the odds, in other words, that you draw a hand which is 100% completely unplayable? Well, the God of Random Numbers is, to put it bluntly, an asshole, so it’s higher than you think. The more colors a deck has, the higher the chance that math can screw you over.
Finally, the cards themselves. A standard Magic deck consists of 60 cards; 18 to 24 of them will be Lands, and the rest will be Spells. You get to design this deck. It’s not like chess, where you only get to choose whether you go first or not; in Magic, there are three more colors, and each color has a completely unique roster of troops. As of this writing, the game is 27 years old and has released over twenty thousand unique cards, not to mention thousands of cases where an old card (IE that good old Red lightning bolt) was reprinted a second time. That’s a lot of options. So: how do you want your deck, yours personally, to win? Are you going to go “Aggro” and focus on introducing your creatures to the opponent’s face? Will you go “Control” and do the thing where you stop your opponent’s threats and delay until your own comes up? (Yes, Blue is the best at this, but every color can participate.) Or will you build a “Combo” deck that exploits unforeseen card interactions to create explosive, and hopefully overwhelming, amounts of resources? You have a chance to build a deck that is completely unprecedented, winning through means no one has every attempted before in the history of the game. You have the chance to put your mark on the multiverse. Or, at the very least, to do something that is uniquely you.
(Of course, you probably don’t have all 20,000 cards. You probably don’t even have 20,000 cards total; and some of the ones you do are probably duplicates of each other. You certainly may not have enough copies of this one card that, ooh, would be just perfect in the deck you’re trying to create right now. And there’s, on average, 800 new cards released per year. All of this just means one thing: you’ll want to buy more cards. Which Magic’s publisher, Hasbro subsidiary Wizards of the Coast, isn’t exactly complaining about.)
All of this combines with the previous point about the colors. You can design your deck to do one thing — to win in a particular fashion. But you can’t design a deck that does everything. Eventually you have to embrace the fact that your deck is going to be good at certain things and bad at others, and then work to sharpen its strengths, to make it even better at the one thing it’s meant to do.
These three elements — the mana system, the color wheel, and deck design — are what make Magic, in my opinion, the best game ever made. I mean, I’ve played hundreds of hours of StarCraft; my wife and I love us some Splendor; I’ve written an article about Heroes of the Storm; my son’s first video game will be Chrono Trigger; and let’s not even talk about Final Fantasy Tactics. (To quote a Kotaku article: “Saying Final Fantasy Tactics is your favorite Final Fantasy game is like saying Jed Bartlet is your favorite U.S. president. It is at once obviously correct, and obviously cheating.”) But the absolute best game in history? Magic: the Gathering. No contest.
And I want to make sure my son shares my love for it.
It’s not just pride or fandom, is the thing. I’m sure Mara and I will introduce Shiloh to many games over the course of his life (my wife hails from a clan that collects board games; if I need to prove the point: the two of us, her brother, and his girlfriend bought a mutual copy of Gloomhaven). But in my opinion, making sure he’s good at Magic will lay some critical foundations for his personality going forward.
- You learn problem-solving. In Magic, you have limited resources — the cards in your deck, and to a lesser extent the cards in your hand — with which to solve a problem (“Defeat my opponent, typically by reducing him from 20 life to 0”). If your deck is running smooth and unopposed, it can typically do this well… but inevitably you’ll come up against a situation you never dreamed of. “He played what on my creature? And now this other thing happened… Ugh. How do I win now?” I dunno, buddy. How do you win now?
- You learn good sportsmanship. I’ve designed a number of decks myself, some of which are not very good, some of which are very good, some of which are very silly, and one of which I don’t play anymore because it’s too good. (It uses some of those Splicers from New Phyrexia to get cheap artifact tokens on the board, followed by a Shape Anew, followed by exactly one copy of a Darksteel Colossus. Playing a Turn-11 card on Turn 4 is typically enough to cause a scoop.) My stated goal in designing these decks is simple: I want my opponent to have fun playing against it. He — well, she; my most frequent opponent is Mara — may win, she may lose, but either way I want her to enjoy the game. That is, literally, secondary to winning as far as I’m concerned. (Which is why I describe that deck as being “too good.”) I think that this value — prioritizing fun over victory; the idea that losing isn’t the worst thing that can happen; the idea that there is, in fact, something more important than winning — needs to be a great deal more present in American society.
- You learn to lose gracefully. I’ve mentioned the effects of the Random Number God on your opening hand: having too many spells, having not enough land. This can happen no matter what deck you’re playing. There are some ways around it: not just the mulligan rule, but having specific cards that offset a lack of lands, from Once Upon A Time to Fetch Lands to the Power Nine. The problem with those specific cards is that they can be very, very hard on your wallet. They help you circumvent a weakness that’s built directly into the game: because your hand is random, it’s always possible that your deck simply won’t function the way it’s meant to. Every deck is obliged to lose sometimes, not because its opponent necessarily did anything right but because the deck was condemned, by luck, to do everything wrong. This sucks… and it’s an incredibly valuable lesson for anyone seeking to spend time in that arena called “real life.” (And, like real life, this issue can be defrayed by simply throwing money at it.)
- You get good at doing a lot of math. Math is actually a fundamental skill of the game because it determines how creatures function in combat; and attacking (or defending) with creatures is typically the main way a deck reduces its opponent’s life total and/or maintains its own. The reason the math gets complicated is that, while creatures have starting stats in “Power” (how much damage it can do) and “Toughness” (how much damage it can take), these stats can become changed, both temporarily and permanently, by in-game abilities. An incredibly funny show-match between noted Internet personalities Sean “Day9” Plott and Jesse “OMFGcata” Cox shows this happening; Plott has a creature which starts the fight at 1/1 (basically the smallest that a creature can be), but by the end of it has become a 5/3. Learning to keep track of that many rapidly-changing variables is good mental exercise.
- You learn to prioritize. Like I said, every deck is good at something specific and bad at something else. So when you’re tinkering with your deck, you’re asking yourself about priorities. “I have this one card — say, Naturalize — that I need rarely, but when I need it it just wins me games straight out. The problem is that I need it so rarely. Most of the time it just takes up space in my hand. What can I replace it with?” This is really a second form of Point #1. “How many copies of it are in the deck?” The rules of the game state that unless the card is a basic land — one of those Plains, Islands, Swamps, etc I mentioned earlier — your deck can only contain four copies of it. “Do I need that many? If I removed two or even one, I could free up space for something else. Or, is there a version of the spell that is somehow beneficial even if I don’t need it? Say, it has Cycling, which lets me pay 2 mana and discard it to draw another, presumably more useful, card. Or what if I just cut it out entirely and put in this other thing that doesn’t do what the original card does, but instead just helps the deck win. What if I double down on my strategy instead of building in safety valves?” There is no single right answer to this question — the correct answer depends on a lot of things, like, “Who am I playing against”; “How often do I need to solve that particular problem”; “How screwed am I, really, if I can’t solve it” — but learning to figure out the answer is an excellent way to build critical thinking skills.
- You learn to prioritize. As mentioned previously, the game’s objective is to reduce your opponent’s life total from 20 to 0; as mentioned previously, the main way most decks accomplish this is by attacking with their creatures. Creatures attack en masse, but the defender gets to assign their own creatures as blockers on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes you will need to sacrifice a creature to do this — like if something with 4 Power is on its way, but your only creature would die if it blocked, but you would die if it didn’t block. At that point, it doesn’t matter what that creature is or how it’s meant to fit into your larger game plans, whether or not it’s meant to do something else than die in a fight; you let it die in the fight. But earlier in the game, when you still have all 20 Life? Do you have to throw away that creature that has other purposes in the context of your deck? Should you? What, genuinely, is the most important right now: your life total or your long-range plans for victory? Because you can’t have both. So choose one.
- You meet a lot of people. Magic is a hobby that crosses all walks of life; I’ve played it against my wife, against strangers, against classmates, and once against the CEO of my company. (He kitbashed together an impressive Bestow creature that ran away with the game.) This puts you in social situations you might not have otherwise entered into… and that’s always good practice, even if it does mean you’re liable to have a few stumbles on the way.
- You learn about your own strengths and weaknesses. Playing Magic will inevitably put you in situations that you weren’t prepared for, which is the first step to preparing for them next time. There’s also the fact that certain colors will inevitably appeal to you more than others do, because they’re consonant with how you want to live your life when you aren’t a planeswalker. (Many of my decks revolve around gaining life and using that as an impediment to my opponent — not just because I’m staving off defeat via lifegain, but via cards that say things like, “When you gain life, you can make your creatures stronger” or “When you gain life, you can deal damage to your opponent”. I like it when my victory is a byproduct of simply strengthening my own position. Yes, Green is my favorite color, why do you ask?)
- It’s a vehicle for self-expression. My gift to Mara for our first wedding anniversary was a themed deck. Her maiden name (Barrett) means “bear,” and mine means the number 5, and she hyphenated, so I built a deck that revolves around five different kinds of bear. It is, unfortunately, not very good — bears, by long tradition, cost two mana apiece, so on Turn 4 she has a maximum of 6, maybe 7 Power on the board, whereas that one “too-good” deck I mentioned has 11— but she really liked getting it, which is part of what matters. And the cool thing about Magic decks is that you can always tinker with them to make them better!
- It’s relatively cheap. Even if we buy a box, 540 cards, once per set (which are released every 3 months), that works out to about $400 a year for a lot of useful tools that can be combined and recombined into new and interesting decks between the three of us. And in today’s economy, where cable companies are withering because their services are simply too expensive for most people, something which entertains all of us and doesn’t cost a lot of money could be a godsend.
But most importantly, it’s something the three of us can do together. It’s a form of fun and entertainment we can all share. And I think that’s what matters most. After all, I can’t teach Shiloh anything if I don’t spend time with him.
Now to just wait the three or four years until he’s ready. I can’t wait to get started!