What Magic: The Gathering Can Teach Us
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What Magic: The Gathering Can Teach Us
[Design]

December 17, 2012 Page 2 of 3

# Lesson 2: Compulsion Through Variable Reinforcement

Imagine it is your birthday, and all your friends each bring you a wrapped present -- yet you can't open them until you call a coin toss right twice in a row. If you call one wrong, you get another go, and keep going until you win.

Now imagine the same proposition, but instead of presents being wrapped, they are open for you to see -- things like socks, books, and DVDs; some things you want, some things you don't. Which is the most compelling?

In the second example, the coin toss feels like a chore, whereas knowing you're going to get something but not knowing what it is makes the coin toss more (if not very) exciting.

This is called variable reinforcement, and leads to repetition of an action much more consistently than a fixed equivalent.

In MTG each player draws a card from his or her deck each turn. It is possible whole games could be won or lost on a single draw. This gives playing the game an addicting quality in the short term, which marries with the strategy of deck-building, plus the game's goals (see Lesson 3) in the long term. It also provides the game with somewhat-affectionate nickname "Cardboard Crack."

This same theory can also be applied to the addictive nature of sealed packs of 15 semi-random cards known as booster packs. Boosters feature a set ratio between common, uncommon and rare (or mythical rare) cards, plus a land and tip card or token. With each pack you know how many cards you are getting when you buy it, but you don't know which cards you'll get.

The scarcity of each card is actually printed on it, and the ratio of cards in boosters breaks down as follows:

 Rarity Makeup Common 71.4 percent Uncommon 21.4 percent Rare 6.3 percent Mythical rare 0.9 percent

With 15 mythical rare cards in Return to Ravinca (the latest set), it means if you wanted a Jace, Architect of Thought -- one of the strongest mythical rare cards in the game -- you have a 0.06 percent (or 6 in 10,000) chance on a single card, 1 in 120 per booster, or less than 1 in 3 per booster box (a pack containing 36 booster packs).

These numbers, anecdotally, stack up very similarly to many gacha-fusion card battlers. Each purchase has the potential to deliver an "epic pull" -- a card that is so powerful it can stack games in the favor of the player -- yet the likelihood is against it happening, encouraging players to repeat the action.

Magic even has it own tournament format that utilizes the compulsion of opening boosters. In booster drafts, players bring three booster packs. Each player opens one at a time, taking a card and passing it on to the next player, who also takes a card and passes it on.

This continues until the pack is depleted; then, the next one is opened, and so on. When all boosters are depleted, each player has a stack of cards with which to build a deck that is used in a tournament.

MTG is possibly one of the best examples of using variable reinforcement in both play and at retail. The probabilities of rarity for each purchase and the thrill of the draw each turn make it an incredibly addicting experience.

Playing Magic will help you to understand the subtleties of variable reinforcement, whilst applying the theory to your own games will likely heighten both player enjoyment and retention, whilst also balancing out skill and chance.

# Lesson 3: Retention Through Goals

Variable reinforcement is not the only way Magic inspires lifelong dedication and spending from a great many players. It achieves these aims via a series of explicit and derived goals that satisfy and retain a number of different player types.

These mechanics can be applied to offering possible appeasement through play to the four Bartle Types of Achievers, Explorers, Killers, and Socializers.

Explorers: World, Strategy, and Theory

Explorers like discovering and mapping worlds. Whilst the cards of Magic tie in with a narrative based around the "Multiverse", and there are novels and other fiction available, the majority of explorers in MTG enjoy organizing and sharing their discoveries of the game itself.

The web community on Wizards of the Coast's own is host to a great deal of strategy and theory, with videos and articles on deck construction and gameplay techniques. The cards already provide explorers with a lifetime of possible combinations and categorization, but the constant release of new sets expands this indefinitely.

Killers: Tournaments

Killers like the buzz of triumph over an adversary. MTG as a zero-sum (one winner, one loser) game provides this thrill over the kitchen table, yet the popularity of casual and official tournaments put on by DCI, Magic's tournament regulating body, provide much more opportunity for the aggressive Killer.

Wizards boosts the popularity of tournament play by offering cash prizes and prestige to winners of the official Pro Tours, who become celebrities of the game. This legitimatizes the long-term goal of becoming a Pro Tour champion for any dedicated player, driving them to be continually loyal to the game.

Achievers: Planeswalker Points and Collecting

Achievers like clear indications of their progress. Planeswalker Points are a system for players of DCI-sanctioned tournaments provided by Wizards of the Coast. The points tick up for doing ancillary things like joining guilds, but primarily come from playing in tournaments. DCI maintains league tables of local players, which encourages them to continuously engage in competitive play, stay in the Magic fold, and improve their decks through the purchasing of new cards.

Additionally, each set is accompanied by a player guide which lists each card in print on a checklist. This targets a subsection of MTG players who perhaps aren't even players at all: collectors.

Collectors stay focused on the self-appointed goal of completeness and the checklist is a measure of their progress. The human mind instinctively focuses on a scarce resource or deficiency (often money or companionship, but sometime the blank tickbox) and then formulates ways to rectify this lack.

Collecting is a strong goal set in lots of games, from alternate costume unlocks to gamifaction badges. It works either with finite (cards) or infinite (Planeswalker Points) resources.

Socializers: Building a Network of Friends and Teams

Socializers like interacting with people. Whilst Magic dictates that the players need at least one other person to be able to play, committed players will seek out a large roster of potential opponents.

The community around Magic is absurdly strong at local, national, and international levels. Wizards of the Coast's activity starts through local organized play sessions like Friday Night Magic, which are run in conjunction with local retailers (often comic shops) and also through the internet. There are other sites that unsurprisingly offer forums, chat, and articles, as with so many other games, but Wizards as developer-manufacturer provide an unusually large amount of community reinforcement.

Furthermore, competition level players (Killers) rely on teams of people filling various rolls, including collectors (Achievers) and deck builders (Explorers), for their success. This further increases the social element and fosters a community around a game makes it a hub for a player's life.

Players with multiple friends in a game are more likely to stick with it for longer than those that have no social connection, making it an important decision for marketeers and designers. If your game can connect and bring people together to have fun it is likely to have a loyal and active fan base.

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Game Designer Tribal Wars (m/f)

 Jean-Michel Vilain
And not only on mobile do they rage, but also on PC like this one www.faeria.net

 Luis Guimaraes
 And Spectromancer. Not collectible, almost no randomness, pure player skill and no optimal strategy.

 Jean-Michel Vilain
 Yes Spectromancer is a good game but I really missed the deck building.

 Luis Guimaraes
 You can select your deck primarily in the sense of picking your cards. But you can't build your deck in the sense of having cards the other players don't have (except for choosing a different class). There are 10 cards for each discipline and you must choose five, plus choosing you class, which is what defines your 5th discipline (1-4 being Fire, Water, Air, Earth). In the end everybody has 20 elemental cards (5 of each element) and 5 special cards, out of 10 that compose the discipline of the class. The fact it's not collectible is one of the reasons I think it's the best. As "collectible deck" is the "leveling up" of card games.

 Curtiss Murphy
Nicely exploration. Emergent behavior is so powerful, and yet... so hard to get right.

 Will Luton
 Yes. WotC have had a bit of time to push it though. They have a fantastically dedicated and taleneted R&D team.

 Luis Guimaraes
 Specially hard because all games that don't have emergent behavior already failed at it.

 Trevor Cuthbertson
 I think the biggest lesson learned with card games: Card games are all about people.

 Jason Lee
 Great article. I myself have fit into every Bartle Type at some point or another while playing this game, and at a certain point if you can make every element (exploration, socialization, competition, and achievement) strong and fun, you've got Magic (haha) on your hands.

 Fredrik Liliegren
Love MTG, it and DoTA was ahuge inspiration for our game Kingdoms CCG. http://www.kingdomsccg.com/ that we are planning to ship to iPad early 2013.

 Will Luton
 Looks great. Let me know if I can be off help to you.

 Terry Matthes
Magic is a great game but it can be very expensive. Its common place for single decks to be worth \$100-500. If you want to win its going to cost you. I've played since the expansion "the dark" which was out in 1994.

 [User Banned]
 This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

 Will Luton
 Yes. This is certainly an issue, I spend a great deal and I know many players feel a sense of frustration, especially around Mythic Rares in Standard.

 Kevin Carpenter
 I've tried time and again to get back into Magic, but you've either got to be willing to put in a lot of cash to guarantee that you've got access to the good stuff, or just get lucky. It ends up being a hideous time and money sink. I enjoy the game, but I guess I don't enjoy it enough to justify that kind of outlay when I compare to what my entertainment dollar buys elsewhere. It makes miniature wargaming look positively affordable by comparison.

 Lewis Pulsipher
Magic is also the original "pay to win" game - buy more cards at random, have a better selection for deck-making - though many tournament versions overcome that limitation.

 Will Luton
 I think this is true to a point, but once you reach a threshold of available trade, tradees and network who will lend the game comes back to skill: In play and deck building.

 Alexander Symington
 Indeed. The article does an excellent job of outlining what Magic does right, but, in this respect, Magic also is an example of what not to do. Rage of Bahamut and similar games unfortunately mainly copy the weaker aspects of Magic, such as having poor balance due to significant pay-to-win elements, while not capitalising on its deeper strategic strengths. My favourite mobile card game right now is Kard Combat (I think this may be a port of Spectromancer, mentioned above(?) ) It learns from Magic in its deep combat design, yet combines that with the balancing and pacing advantages of the 'games as products' model. Excellent UI/controls, also.

 Will Luton
 @Alexander Symington: MTG's rules are pretty much too complex for a mobile title. Luckily it benefits from being well played in the paper world so that carries over, but you would expect many mobile players would bounce from it quickly. I'll check Kard Combat out - thanks for the tip.

 Johann Lim
 Agreed, up to the threshold of having 4-of every kind of card available in any particular format you want to play in. You can think of it as the "cost of entry" to play competitively. @Alexander Symington: Kard Combat has Richard Garfield (the original designer of Magic) on its team, hence the improvements.

 Jeremy Reaban
F2P (and some not F2P actually) companies have certainly adopted its "gambling box" model, of selling packs of random items that may or may not be valuable.

At least with M:TG and most physical based games you are guaranteed to get X amount of items of a certain rarity, it's not totally arbitrary like online gambling boxes are, where you don't know the odds

 Will Luton
 Yeah. This is commonly known as Gacha from the Japanese toy capsule machines. The rarity ratio is very similar to that described in my piece. However, you're correct that there's a level of guarantee in MTG which some card battlers don't do, with the exception of special events.

 Alexander Symington
 In response to this problem, services such as GREE and DeNA that run the networks supporting these games in Japan have formed a self-regulatory council that, in theory, requires card games to display the contents and percentage chance of different card rarities for real money gachas. Unfortunately, with virtual items there is no real means for the player or regulator to verify the accuracy of this information without access to the game's source code and database, and there is some evidence that it may be falsified in some cases. For example, last month the Bravely Default social game accidentally displayed debug data in the commercial client seemingly indicating that the content of paid gachas actually varies depending on factors such as the time of day. Buyer beware...

 Mark Venturelli
 Great write-up! Thanks for posting

 [User Banned]
This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

 Will Luton
 "Patterns breaks" is an interesting terminology. You're right - cards change the ruleset is what forces MTG's strategy.

 Jeremie Sinic
 Great article! But let's be honest: current Japanese card battlers have not much in common with Magic apart from using cards. (Below is an article I wrote just to say that) http://www.ethicalvideogames.com/2012/12/13/lets-be-clear-rage-of-bahamut-is-no-magic/

 Garrick Williams
These "lessons" do not necessarily make for a fun game. Like Dr. Pulsipher mentions, game designers can be compelled to exploit Lesson 2 to make a "pay to win" game. I personally lost favor of Magic because of lands and the Mana Curve. At best, trying to calculate your mana curve is the least fun aspect to designing your deck. At worst, you can get completely gimped by a unfortunate shuffle. This method of resource gathering and management is rather tedious and distracts from the more fun aspects of the game.

It wouldn't be so bad if other games didn't blindly follow Magic's mana mechanic without considering its weaknesses. However, I'm impressed when I see games find alternative methods of resource systems to actively combat those weaknesses.

That aside, this is a great article. It successfully shows how deep Magic is, what lessons it teaches, and how it continues to engage players after 20 years.

 Will Luton
 I agree there's a pay-to-win element at low-level play. But once you get beyond that skill becomes the deciding factor in both deck building and play. Personally, I really like deck building, particularly working out a mana base and curve (sorry to be contrary). It's part art, part science. Whilst there's lots of theory, practice often proves it wrong, so the need to tweak-build-tweak and start to solve problems with a limited set of tools. This mirrors a great deal of game design. However, for casual players I'm sure that sucks. They just want to sling some cards and being mana or colour screwed isn't fun. MTG is very inaccessible for a lot of players. The goal of the article was less how imitating Magic makes a fun game, but what playing it can teach us as designers. Swapping cards in out of a deck is about the quickest rapid prototyping you could do.

 Maxime Binette
What is also great about MTG's metagame is similarities with poker, like bluffing and odds. Attacking a 1-3 with a 2-1, purposely keeping some mana untapped, pretending to have a giant growth. Or the high risks/rewards based on the chances to draw a land or a certain card on the next turn.

I understand how profitable collectible cards are, but I still don't understand why no one make the ultimate card game and grab all the players. It's simple : collectible card game with virtual money. I don't mean microtransaction, but earned by playing and trading. I don't mind to pay 60\$ for a good card game that isn't pay to win but still have some deck building and collectible elements.

Doesn't 97% of CCG players stopped playing because it was either pay to win or uncustomisable? It's an extremely fun genre, just a stupid greedy buisness model.

 Will Luton
 I'm conflicted on this. Whilst rarity drives the economy it also adds an enjoyable chance element to opening packs, plus makes trading part of the community. There are LCG (Living Card Games) that dispense with boosters, but none yet have enjoyed the same success.

 Maxime Binette
 I didn't know about LCG, but I agree the game needs an economy. I would just like it to be a virtual money economy. Winning/gambling by playing the game instead of spending real cash. Collecting and trading is primordial, but spending thousands of real cash isn't.

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