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What Magic: The Gathering Can Teach Us

December 17, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3
 

Lesson 4: Balancing and Resource Control

Balancing and the control of limited resources are important skills for designers, with small tweaks having massive implications for F2P economies. In Magic, building decks teaches a player these skills through the rapid iteration of taking cards in and out, making them conversant in these skills as players, not designers.

Mana, of which there are five types, is produced by color-specific lands at the rate of one per turn once in play. To put a land out the player may play it from their hand, again at a rate of once per turn. Spell cards, however, may be played from the hand without limit, but only if a player can provide their mana cost.

These restrictions, along with a starting hand of seven and drawing from the deck once per turn, form the basis of Magic's balancing mechanics.

Whilst a deck must consist of at least 60 cards, it may have as many or as few lands as the player chooses, which gives rise to a surprising amount of strategy and consideration.

Too few lands and the player will have great hands full of spells but no land with which to bring them in to play (this is known as being "mana screwed") whilst too many lands means the player is able to play lots of spells but their chances of drawing them is lessened (this is known as being "mana flooded.")

This is further compounded by the effectiveness (or power) of a card being designed to correlate with its mana cost (or how many lands must be used to cast the spell). Low cost cards can be played quickly in the early stages before the opponent is in a position to defend, whilst high cost cards can be played later in the game to dramatic effect.

If the player plays only low mana cost cards in their deck, they will be in a position to play multiple cards in the early stages of the game, but the single draw per turn will throttle their progress as they run out of cards in hand, picking up only low cost, low effectiveness cards that have little impact on the game's outcome.

Therefor the player must consider their mana curve (how many of each card they have at each mana cost) for building an effective deck. If the deck has enough of the most effective cards at each mana cost for the first five turns then it will generally play well, with powerful options always available.

Many sites and smartphone apps exist to help the deck builder analyze his or her mana base and curve, but, whilst helpful, balancing complex systems is near impossible from statistical analysis alone. Small, overlooked elements and subtleties can have massive implications as they begin to interact.

As such, Magic players have devised a method known as "goldfishing", in which they play against an imaginary opponent who does not respond (e.g. a goldfish), counting how many turns it takes to win the game.

From this, and understanding the underlying theories of mana screw, mana flooding, and mana ramps, the player will set about refining by adding and removing cards, adjusting their land-spell ratio and mana ramp for the most effective play.

Goldfishing is very close to the analytics we know in modern video games: the recording of how a system, or more specifically a system under human control, performs. Physically swapping cards in and out takes seconds and drastically effects how a game plays out. This can help a designer plan around the cause and effect in a system too complex to comprehend.

Magic has a second lesson for us here: Pinch points. A pinch point occurs when a resource is so scarce a change in availability has huge knock-on effects to its market price. Chase rares, as described earlier, fuel the economy around Magic. These cards become valuable because of the supply being artificially low, whilst the demand grows thanks to their success in tournament-winning decks.

As booster packs are the only source of these cards, players and resellers open them in the hundreds or thousands, creating huge demand for the packs.

Limited resources define economies; if you are too generous with them, then making money is difficult in F2P. But scarcity's desire-generating effect isn't only applied to IAP economies -- think equipment in an MMO and points in a shmup. Both act as major driving factors for return play.

Lesson 5: Presentation

You may have heard the adage that any good game is still fun with text and box graphics. Whilst true, presentation is a key function of delivering an experience and sets a sense of quality and value in the mind of a player; all great games look great.

Humans are drawn to other human forms, especially eyes. Wizards of the Coast use key cards, specifically Planeswalkers, to showcase human characters that provide players with an emotional reaction. They become emblems across products, both physical and digital.

However, not just Planeswalkers but all cards have strong character imagery. For example, a modern printing of Mind Rot features a striking image of a character praying with the top of his skull collapsed whilst Switcheroo depicts a dragon facing off to a turtle. Both, as with all cards, tell a story of their function.

The artwork of the cards has its own fandom and many collectors take more interest in it than the game itself, with original artwork exchanging hands for vast sums.

Moreover, Magic is an information-rich game and the border color and character artwork makes cards distinctive between each other, and so creates a mental association between the physical object and its function. Watching high-level players play is an incredible experience, especially when considering the sheer number of cards they play against with checking card text.

A flash of the Mind Rot artwork informs an opponent that they must discard two cards whilst the functional placement of a card's mana cost, type and text are laid out to make interpreting them easy for players less familiar.

Furthermore, supporting artwork of card borders and packaging drive the brand of Magic as a whole as well as the characteristics of each set. Clearly care is spent to create a sense of quality that pervades almost all of the modern Magic products: Shiny boosters, foil cards, and nicely fabricated boxes make opening a product an exciting event over and above the random chance of rare cards.

The game would not enjoy its success today had the cards been crudely drawn and printed on flimsy paper. The world it sets and the quality it presents, as with any game product, comes from the physical and the visual.

In video games we've long been good at visual fidelity, but now within F2P we need to pay more mind to how we create a sense of quality that makes making a purchase and playing easy and exciting for the player.

It is common for characters to be uninteresting or IAPs and menus to be drab because we concentrate so hard on the quality of game mechanics, yet presentation can create a sense of quality whilst character artwork tell us stories. Both build a player's emotional response to the game, which increase their likelihood to continue playing and spending.

Gathering the Lesson

The success of Japanese gacha-fusion card battlers derives very clearly from the mechanics of Magic as the father of all CCGs. Yet the game can teach all of us lessons beyond the function and design of these games.

Playing it can give young designers the theory to create emergent strategy and ability to problem solve and balance resources to create a fun, optimized experience that ramps correctly.

It also gives us clues for building variable reinforcement through random chance in both play and purchase, whilst using community, collections and tournaments to satisfying Bartle types and keep players in the long term.

Finally all of these can be bolstered by providing a sense of quality via the visual and physical representation of a product to create value in the player's mind.

Magic: the Gathering is a unique game that sits alongside Dungeons & Dragons and Fighting Fantasy in its impact to the world of games and potential lessons for its players. I highly recommend that you got out and buy a couple of decks (any of the Duel Decks are great starting points) and set about understanding it.

It will be the most enjoyable design class you'll ever take.


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Comments


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

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

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

Luis Guimaraes
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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
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Nicely exploration. Emergent behavior is so powerful, and yet... so hard to get right.

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

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

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

Jason Lee
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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
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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
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Looks great. Let me know if I can be off help to you.

Terry Matthes
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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]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Will Luton
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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@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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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Great write-up! Thanks for posting

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

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

Jeremie Sinic
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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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