I’ve been watching a lot of Magic: The Gathering play recently. It’s pretty much replaced Starcraft as my strategy game of choice to watch right now. It started with Loading Ready Run, but I’ve since also moved on to watching a couple of competitive players who live-streamer on Twitch (I like Samuel Black and Joel Larsson, in particular). Unlike Starcraft, I’m actually considering making the jump over to playing. So I want to spend a couple of entries talking about what aspects of the game I find appealing, and what is keeping me away (beyond just my usual introversion).
I was in junior high back when Magic enjoyed its initial burst of popularity. I was intrigued by it, but what held me back was, essentially, the constructed format, which was the only game in town back then. This is where you come in with your pre-built deck and play against someone else with their pre-built deck. As it turns out, the reasons I didn’t like the format back then are still pretty much the reasons I don’t like it now. First of all, it’s effectively a quest to break the game. The goal is to come up with some incredibly powerful, synergistic combination of cards that other decks just can’t deal with. While this encourages bursts of creativity, it quickly leads to a fairly stable metagame with only a handful of viable decks, which in turn also means that the crucial cards in those decks end up becoming expensive, turning the game into a highly unappealing money-sink. Furthermore, a lot of these decks seem to revolve around countering every little thing that the opponent does, and, particularly when two of these decks meet, it leads to these really dull, degenerate games where there’s very little in play, and any time anyone tries to put something into play, it gets immediately killed by the other player. I just don’t find this interesting.
What I do find tremendously interesting, and have only been made aware of recently is the limited formats, particularly drafting. These are formats where you open up packs of cards and make your deck on the spot from only the cards that happen to be available. Drafting, where you’re picking one card at a time out of a pack to go into your deck, and then passing the pack along to another player. Limited formats constrain the deck-building optimization problem in an interesting way. Drafting adds in a fascinating imperfect information effect too, since you don’t know what cards are coming around the table to you, or what is going to be available in future packs, but you can infer some things based on what cards other players appear to be taking. Sure, there’s a chance you get screwed because other players may get lucky and get access to better cards than you do. In return, though, limited formats, and drafting in particular, present this sequence of really interesting, demanding choices, and then, through playing out the actual matches afterwards, let’s you observe and evaluate the effects of these choices.
I’ve really liked seeing how different players approach drafting and playing. Some decide really quickly what they want their deck to look like and then are good at sticking with that plan. Others keep getting tempted away by powerful cards that don’t fit their plan. There are players who get really excited in a draft, feeling like the deck they’re building is going to be awesome and unbeatable. There are times when the deck just looks like junk. It’s amusing that there’s only a weak correlation between these expectations and the actual performance of the deck. Some of this is due to ignorance of what decks other players have, some is due to the inherent randomness involved in actually playing out the games. There are board games that have inherited some of these mechanics – 7 Wonders and Dominion, most notably – that I enjoy, but I think I find this separation of deck-building and playing even more interesting.