Magic: the Gathering is a 20 year old behemoth. Each year, it seems to get more popular and make more money. Wizards of the Coast, the company that makes the game, must be doing something right, right?
It turns out they’re doing a lot right. But that doesn’t mean they’re doing everything right.
Magic is an extremely fun game, but it’s not perfect. A large part of its success comes from its position as the first collectable card game, a much loved and very profitable genre. That innovation made players willing to overlook some of Magic‘s less than ideal qualities.
Today, I’m going to take a look at one of Magic‘s biggest flaws and explain how I would try to fix it. In doing so, I’ll show how to approach challenging design problems and encourage you to take a critical, honest look at everything, even games you love.
Before I get into the details, I’ll cut the suspense: the problem I’m going to address is the land system, one of the fundamental pacing mechanisms of the game.
Magic is extremely popular, which is one of the reasons I’ve chosen to critique it. Almost all gamers know the basic rules, and many designers were inspired to start tinkering around with games because of Magic, so most readers should be familiar when I talk about it.
That said, many will get extremely defensive when I suggest that something they love so much could be improved, so I’m going to take a minute explaining myself.
First, this discussion will not change Magic. The land system is truly fundamental to the game, and while Wizards does occasionally update the rules of the game, they tend to only change fringe rules. Even then, they do so in the face of major public outcry. Changing core rules like the land system would drastically change the game, possibly requiring bans on hundreds of cards from Magic‘s history. Magic may not be perfect, but it’s good enough without these changes rocking the boat.
In fact, I know Wizards won’t address this problem because Wizards employees talk about the problem as a feature rather than a bug. They say the added variance is good for the game. While I agree that variance is important for Magic, I think these people, all very intelligent, are just towing the company line. Addressing the problem would be too much of a shock to the game.
Second, these suggestions are not tested. My goal with this post is to show how to identify a design problem, carefully analyze it, and brainstorm possible solutions to it. If I were really trying to fix Magic I would build prototypes to playtest.
Because the ideas are untested, some of them probably suck. That’s ok. During the brainstorming phase of design, you’ll come up with bad ideas. Never dismiss seemingly bad ideas too quickly. You never know when one that looks bad will test well, or when a dumb idea will inspire a good one.
Finally, if any of the solutions were adapted, Magic would be radically transformed. That might mean your favorite deck wouldn’t work any longer, which might upset you. Sorry about that. Every change has winners and losers, but that doesn’t mean that every change is bad. Sometimes, sacrifices must be made for the greater good.
The game of Magic is huge, involving tens of thousands of cards and an ever shifting metagame. But each game of Magic is quite short, usually 10 – 20 minutes. That said, some games are even shorter; these games are more frustrating than fun.
In Magic, there are two types of cards. One is spells. These cards actually do something, getting you closer to winning or hindering your opponent. But they can’t do it alone–you can’t play your spells without the other type of card, lands. Lands give you mana, which power your spells. But without spells, that mana is useless.
Neither lands nor spells do anything on their own. You need a mix of both for any hope of winning. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for your starting hand to be lacking lands or lacking spells. When your starting hand is all spells or all lands, you’ve pretty much already lost before the game even starts.
Magic does allow mulligans, so hope isn’t completely lost after you draw your starting hand. But the penalty is harsh: whenever you mulligan, you redraw one fewer card, and cards are one of the basic resources of the game. Hands start at seven cards, so mulliganing twice puts you at about two thirds the starting power of your opponent. Even with a better ratio of lands to spells, you’re still at a huge disadvantage.
My suggestions today will address this problem. No game should be decided before it begins; those games are not fun. But before getting into solutions, let’s look at what the land system does for the game.
Spoils of the Land
The Magic land system may have its problems, but it’s also fundamental to how the game works. Whatever solutions we propose, we want to make sure to maintain the following contributions.
Pacing. The land system sets the pacing of the game. Each turn, you can play one and only one land. Since each land contributes one mana a turn, and each spell requires a certain amount of mana, cheaper, weaker spells can be played earlier in the game while expensive, powerful spells can only be played later. Uncertainty about how many lands you draw also means you might not be able to play a land every turn, so you won’t know when you’ll be able to play expensive cards.
Since most actions (playing cards and sometimes using cards you’ve already played) take mana, lands also determine how many actions you can make a turn. While other games, like Dominion, make actions an explicit resource, actions in Magic are implicitly determined by land.
Consistency. At Magic‘s core is the color system. Each spell requires mana of one or more specific colors to play, and most lands produce mana of only a single color. Different colors have different strengths and weaknesses, so including cards of different colors in your deck tends to make it more powerful. However, it also makes your mana less consistent, since only a fraction of your lands produce each color. In this way, players have to choose between a consistent but weaker single color deck or an inconsistent but more powerful multicolor deck.
Lands set the pace of the game and help balance power and consistency–these are good things we’ll try to maintain. The problem is that lands do nothing on their own, and other cards do nothing without them, so hands with too few or too many lead to non-games. Here are some ideas that might keep the good stuff but eliminate the bad.
Less Punishing Mulligans. Simplest is to change the mulligan rules. Instead of losing a card each mulligan, perhaps a player would only lose a card every other mulligan (7, 6, 6, 5, 5… rather than 7, 6, 5, 4…). Or maybe instead of losing his or her whole hand, a player could discard any number of cards and redraw one fewer (for example, keep 2 cards and discard 5, but only redraw 4). Or allow players to use another resource (perhaps life?) to mulligan, rather than only losing cards.
In Game Mulligans. Another simple solution is letting players dig through their decks during the game. For example, if a player can’t play a land for the turn, let her draw an extra card (or draw and discard a card). Or at any time, let a player discard two cards to draw a card.
Less Variance in Starting Hands. What if a player constructs a special small deck, different from the usual deck, from which she draws her starting hand? There is still the potential for bad hands, but the variance would be much less.
Separate Land and Spell Decks. A friend suggested this solution to me. Players would have different decks for their lands and their spells and would somehow get a choice between the two when drawing. Alternatively, have a main deck with two smaller land and spell decks, and have some sort of penalty for drawing from the specialized decks. Maybe a player would have to pay life, or maybe there would be a delay in using a card from a specialized deck. Either way, players would be able to get more of what they need.
Multiple Card Uses. What if you could use spells to produce mana? Each turn, instead of playing a land, a player could place a spell from her hand in front of her. Whenever she wants, she could discard the card to get an extra mana. Only being able to use the card once is a real cost, but it’s better than never being able to use it.
If I were actually trying to fix Magic (or fix a game inspired by Magic), the next step would be to test these solutions. I would test the options that could be prototyped most easily first, starting from the top of the list and moving down.
Unfortunately, evaluating the different alternatives would be challenging because it’s unclear how much variance you actually want. Variance is crucial to Magic: it gives weaker players hope, it punishes greed, it adds suspense, and it keeps each game unique. But how much is too much? I believe that the current system has too much variance, but I’m not sure how much is ideal.
It’s possible that after testing all of the solutions, you’d decide that the current system is the best choice, as imperfect as it is. Either way, it’s worth exploring to find out.
Magic is one of the most successful and beloved American games. 20 years after its initial release, it’s stronger than ever. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.
If Magic could be better by examining part of its fundamental infrastructure, what assumptions are you making about your game that are holding it back?