Saturday, July 6, 2013

Do You Believe in Magic?

I played a game of Magic: The Gathering today. My ex-roommate's boyfriend has been trying to get me to give it a try for a while, so I agreed. (Buried lede: I made an outside of work friend. Take that, kindergarten "doesn't play well with others" assessment.)  If, like me, you're not familiar with the basic mechanic of the game, it goes something like this: (details after the break)

Each player comes to the game with a deck, and deals themselves seven cards. They roll to see who goes first, and highest wins. Each round, a player takes a card from their deck, and can play one energy/mana/land card, if they have one. Your other cards consist of various creatures, spells, and so forth. You can play any of them, but only if you've got enough mana already in play. For example, my Sufferin' Seraph cost two white energy and one wild card energy. So once I had at least that many on the go, I could summon the Seraph into my main hand. Catch is, you have to wait a round before you can attack with something raised. And whatever mana you've used to raise them can be used again, but not until the next round.
Now, once you've played your mana, and summoned the creatures you want to summon, you can attack. Each creature has two numbers associated with it, an attack and defense. And each player starts with 20 HP.  Sufferin' Seraph has, say, 4/3--an attack of 4 and a defense of 3. So if I attacked with him (and we'll thus pretend he's gotten over his one round of "just summoned" tummy ache, the other player could either take 4 damage directly, or send out their own sufferin' seraph (or whatever creatures they have active) to defend. That SS (wait, that's not a good abbreviated form.) takes 4 damage and dies, because it can only take 3, but it also stops my seraph from dealing any damage directly to the other player. My seraph, in turn, takes 3 damage, so if the opponent attacks with anything else, my seraph's pretty screwed. And now I that I used the seraph, I can't use it to defend me for a round. Once I'm done attacking, it's my opponent's turn. Keep going till someone's health goes to zero or they run out of cards.

Sounds simple? It is not. One of the many, many complications is that there are multiple colors, each with their own bizarre themes. Red creatures and effects focus on doing damage, blue do weird status effects, and white is all about healing and so forth. Then you get into the economy side of things: Wizards of the Coast, the game's publisher, is out to make a profit. So, they have to constantly produce new cards, and encourage players to buy these cards, without devaluing the existing cards and alienating players who have already invested substantially into a winning deck. It's a rather complicated design balance to meet. I'm probably neglecting many rules in my own account; feel free to consult the official 200 page Magic: The Gathering Rules for more details.

At any rate, we played two rounds. For the first game, I was lent an angel-based white deck, with creatures that specialized in things like giving me health equal to whatever damage it does during an attack, which is a nice bonus if you can get it to attack regularly. I think he used the same deck both times: a green/red mix whose special was rampage. (Actually, it was specifically NOT rampage--it was some synonym of rampage that he kept correcting me on when I called it rampage, because rampage did some other thing.) Rampage meant that the damage the defender failed to defend splashed over even after their death--for example, in the fight above, if my sufferin' seraph had rampage, after he defeated the other seraph, he'd still have 1 damage left over, which my opponent would have to stop with either more defenders or take the damage himself. And when I say my opponent, I mean me, because in the first game, I was the one taking the rampage damage, and it rampaged me right into the ground. My sufferin' seraph's suffering was complete.

In the second game, though, I played with his another his specialty decks, which focused on some high-powered angels and a lot of low powered humans. The key was, though, that my humans were very low cost to summon in terms of mana, and they all had various bonuses. There was this paladin figure, for example, who cost a single energy to raise, and only has a 1/1 attack/defense, but every time I activate another human figure, both abilities increase by 1. And I had two of these guys out fairly quickly. I also had out some knight dude, whose thing was that once you attacked with it and two other creatures, it gained a first strike ability. What's first strike?  Well, in my sufferin' seraph double fight example above, both seraphs attack at once, so the attacker dealt four, and the defender 3. But if that attacker had first striker, it would deliver that damage before the defender could attack, so it wouldn't have taken any damage at all--the defender died in that first hit. Handy, eh? And I had a frontline medic out, whose thing was that when it attacked with two other creatures, all of your creatures are invincible, which not only negates first strike but seems rather overpowered. I guess that's why my opponent took it out so quickly. Anyway, my humans were amassing at a regular basis, which meant my paladins were pretty damn tough at this point. But I never got more than three energy, so I got in a few early hammerings, but I could never unleash my high level angel type characters. Meanwhile, my opponent was putting together his not-rampage team, and his not-rampaging was raging holy hell on my team. I was about one round away from utter destruction when I lucked into a magic spell thingy (long-time magic players love it when you refer to a card as a thingy) that either dealt an automatic 4 damage, made my creatures in play invincible for a round, or gave one creature a double attack for a turn. So I did that four damage, attacked with all I had left, and pulled a win out of near failure.

It's an odd game. There's a bizarre mix of skill, luck, (through the randomized drawing of your deck) and deck design, which is a combination of skill and having lots of cash to get the best cards. I feel like there's more than a little slant to this final element, to be honest. On the one hand, in almost any other context, a game where a veteran could lose to an utter greenhorn like me just because I had a nicer deck would suggest that the "buy your way to the top" element is stronger than it should be. But I didn't just win because I was playing with an expansive deck--I was playing with a deck my opponent had assembled himself, and so in a way, he was basically a victim of his own design skills.

Even taking that into account, that economy behind the game is my main issue with it. I wouldn't mind playing again, but I couldn't see myself getting my own deck, to be honest. The pressure to buy new cards is just too much for me. It's not everything in the game, but it's one of the driving forces. You need to continually buy new cards, continually refine your deck to stay competitive. And a financial element that blatant makes me feel rather uncomfortable about buying in. Now, I realize that other media products aren't that different. And I'm not disparaging those who participate in the game. If anything, my issue is that, when it comes to continually shelling out money for a hobby, I've already got Sweet Lady Videogame for all my needs.
Mmm. Graphics. Oh yes, 40+ hours of game play. Sorry, Mom, I can't talk to Grandma, I'm in the middle of a speed play. How much is an Xbox One now? And a PS4? And how many times can I play $60 for another AAA game starring a white male shooting people in the face? Wow, that many? Thank you, Sony.  And thank you, Microsoft. You're so good to me.

EDIT: I should probably add that I'm grateful to the friend for giving me a chance to play. And I can't even say that Magic isn't my sort of thing, because it absolutely IS. I just feel very unsettled about the blatant collector side of things, even though my own media choices do the exact same thing, just in different ways.

Later Days.


Aaron said...

I feel like you are using improper terminology specifically to frustrate me. Power, toughness, trample, summon.

What you should probably do is get one or more of the Duels of the Planeswalkers games on Steam. They use preconstructed decks, and you can unlock more decks and some extra cards to tweak them by playing. Especially if you don't care about the collecting part, it's an easy way to play relatively balanced matches without needing to pour through 20+ years of cards.

Person of Consequence said...

Trust me, if I was trying to get it wrong, I probably would have been a lot more accurate. That's a good idea with DotP. I learned to play Pokemon with my little brother by playing the digital game. Same principle, I think.