Gamasutra is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
What Magic: The Gathering Can Teach Us
View All     RSS
September 28, 2020
arrowPress Releases
September 28, 2020
Games Press
View All     RSS

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:


What Magic: The Gathering Can Teach Us

December 17, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

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:




71.4 percent


21.4 percent


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.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Related Jobs

Remedy Entertainment
Remedy Entertainment — Espoo, Finland

Senior Cinematic Scripter
Deep Silver Volition
Deep Silver Volition — Champaign, Illinois, United States

Senior Technical Designer
Insomniac Games
Insomniac Games — Burbank, California, United States

Lead Level Designer
Airship Syndicate
Airship Syndicate — Austin, Texas, United States

Mid to Senior Worldbuilder - Unreal Engine

Loading Comments

loader image