Magic for Non-players: A Concise Primer

Feature Article from Steve Guillerm
Steve Guillerm
4/9/2012 9:32:00 AM
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Leggi la traduzione in italiano di questo articolo, a cura di George Gavrilita: Magic spiegato a chi non lo conosce.


This week my article isn't for you. Oh, you'll read it; you'll send it to your friends; and I'm guessing you'll even send it to some family members. However, you'll find no strategic tips, no decklists, no hot new technology for your Magic deck. That's because today, I'm explaining what Magic: The Gathering is, and why Magic players love it so much. If I've done my job right, the next time someone says, “What the heck is Magic: The Gathering?” you can save yourself some time, and just answer, “Hold on, I'll send you a link to an article online.”

So, what is this “Magic” thing, anyway?

Magic: The Gathering (often “M:TG”, “MTG”, or “Magic”) is the first of the genre of games known as Collectible Card Games (CCGs) or Trading Card Games (TCGs). Premiering in 1993, the game is nearing its nineteenth birthday, and has seen stronger sales in the past few years than ever before. It is produced by Wizards of the Coast (“WotC” or “Wizards”), a subsidiary of Hasbro.

Magic is a card-based game of strategy, played by two players by default, but commonly played casually by three or more players. Within a game, players each assume the role of a powerful wizard, with the aim of defeating the opponent through means of powerful sorceries, enchantments and artifacts, or by summoning creatures to do battle. The cards portray a variety of fantasy worlds that mix classical fantasy (elves, orcs) and mythological (centaurs, sphinxes) tropes with original creations to create a world unique to the game. However, despite this vivid setting, players most often see the art as the “icing on the cake,” and - especially at higher competitive levels - Magic is no more considered a fantasy game than Chess is considered a war game.

When I'm asked what Magic is, my default answer has often been to describe it as a cross between Chess and Poker. Chess is a deep game of strategy and positioning, but has no element of randomness. It is a game of perfect information. That is, there is nothing hidden from either player. Poker, on the other hand, is completely about randomness and hidden information. Despite this, while any given hand could be won by a given player, skill generally wins out over the course of a night or a tournament, and being able to read your opponents' strategies and bluffs are the key to victory.

Lately, however, I've come to see that Magic actually has a surprising similarity to Scrabble. Scrabble is all about doing the best you can with tiles that are drawn randomly, and attempting to eke out positional advantages on a shared board without creating an opening for the opponent. Difficult decisions must be made in consideration of future plays (“Should I use this U now, or save it in case I draw the Q?”), and occasionally sheer luck will swing the game (“I can't believe that guy drew J-N-X when there was an I next to the Triple Word Score!”)

A game of Magic can last anywhere from five minutes (likely a lopsided victory) to over forty-five minutes (a long, drawn out game of attrition more closely resembling Chess). An average game will take roughly fifteen minutes, and in tournament play, players are granted fifty minutes to complete a best-of-three match.

Magic tournaments range from casual events such as local-store-run Friday Night Magic, in which the top players earn Magic packs or store credit, to premier events such as the Pro Tour, in which the top players earn thousands of dollars. In a tournament, players play a set number of rounds of Magic in “Swiss pairings” (a Chess structure in which no player is eliminated), and then typically a Top Eight is determined, based on record. From there, the Top Eight play single-elimination matches, and a winner is determined.

Though Magic is a game of skill, there is inherent variance; each turn, a player draws a random card from their deck. The game contains enough variance that matches are played best-two-of-three, and such that single-elimination is generally not preferred as a tournament structure. Because every game plays differently, players remain interested and excited, and it is generally the case that any given player has at least a small shot at winning against the best in the world, a feature that games such as Chess lack. This same “randomness factor” has been a source of frustration for players who find themselves defeated by players who they believed should not have been able to win. Despite the randomness factor, certain “pro” players continue to post impressive results, and it is rare for a true “unknown” player to win a tournament, confirming the skill factor inherent in Magic.

What Magic is not

Despite over eighteen years in the public's consciousness, Magic has yet to become a truly mainstream game, and a lot of misconceptions have persisted despite having absolutely no foundation in reality.

First and foremost, Magic is not in any way connected to the occult or supernatural. It is not a form of Worship or Divination, has no connection to tarot cards, and Satanism is right-out. Though angels and Demons do exist within the game, they are part of the fantasy setting, alongside dragons, elves, goblins, and humans, with jobs ranging from wizard to farmer.

In a similar vein, Magic is not a role-playing game (RPG), nor does it have anything to do with live action role-playing (LARP). I've played RPGs, and plenty of my friends do so as well, but hamming it up or role-playing within a game of Magic will earn many an eyeroll.

Magic is not a form of gambling. At least, not any more. In the very early days of Magic, games were played for “ante,” in which a random card of each player's deck was set aside before the game started, and the winner claimed both cards. This practice lasted for maybe the first two years at most, but was discontinued both because parents were concerned that their children were gambling, and because the collectible value of certain cards had spiked. The days of gambling on Magic are long-gone, and WotC frowns upon it as a practice. In fact, if a player is found to be gambling upon a sanctioned game of Magic, they may find themselves disqualified from the event, or even banned from sanctioned play (tournament participation) for a short while. Due to varying legal statutes around the world, WotC works hard to Dispel the notion that Magic is a form of gambling.

Though I've known players as young as 8 - and have been thoroughly defeated by those as young as 12 - Magic is not a “kid's game.” Magic is simple enough to learn that children can grasp it by age 10, on average, but it is rich with strategic complexity, and even fully grown adults often struggle to play optimally. With so many decisions to make, even the greatest players in the world will make mistakes, and it's been posited by theorists that it is nigh-impossible to play absolutely perfectly, given how many variables must be considered. Easy to learn, difficult to play, impossible to master. Why play then? Well, simply because it's so much fun!

When tournament Magic is discussed, inevitably the prize structures intrigue and amaze. Magic Grands Prix are open tournaments, run 40 times per year in cities worldwide, and have a prize pool of $40,000. First place earns $3,500! Magic Pro Tours are invitational tournaments, run 3 times per year, often in exotic locations like Japan or Hawaii, and have a prize pool of $250,000! High-level professional Magic players can earn appearance fees on top of that, just for showing up and being awesome.

You will not get rich playing Magic. No way, it will not happen. The most winning Magic player in history is a German player named Kai Budde, who earned over $350,000 in his lifetime of playing Magic. Active from 1999 through 2004, his earnings average about $60,000 per year, which is a lot for playing a game, but not spectacularly more than an office job that might also come with insurance, a retirement plan, etc. Simply put, if Kai Budde didn't get rich playing Magic, no one will.

What Magic is

Magic is surprisingly popular! Magic enjoyed a resurgence of popularity upon the release of the XBox game “Duels of the Planeswalkers” and has a following among even celebrities. Wil Wheaton (actor, “Star Trek, the Next Generation,” “Stand By Me”), Jason Alexander (actor, “Seinfeld”), Patton Oswalt (comedian, “The King of Queens”), and Chris Kluwe (football player, Minnesota Vikings) are all avowed players. Poker stars Eric Froehlich and David Williams espouse a motto of “Poker for work, Magic for fun.” Internet comedy group Loading Ready Run (“Desert Bus for Hope!”) recently produced a short comedy series about teaching one of their own how to play.

Magic is enjoyed internationally, printed in 11 languages, and Grands Prix have been hosted on every continent save Antarctica. Through Magic, I have personally met friends from Costa Rica, Brazil, France, New Zealand, and many other nations. I've played games against people where Magic was the only common language. The game really brings people together.

Magic is for everyone. Despite the fact that it's not a “kid's game,” children are very welcome at Magic events, and people will go out of their way to be sure that kids don't get lost in the shuffle. Whether it's donating unwanted cards, or helpful strategic advice, Magic players remember when we first started, and want to help kids get into the game.

Magic has traditionally been a boy's club, but recently it has been getting better. Strangely enough, it's surprisingly rare to find the text “his or her” on materials from other games, but from the very beginning, Magic cards implicitly assumed that the player could be female. Magic culture is informed in part by fantasy gaming, poker, and other male-dominated cultures, but strong, intentional strides have been made toward addressing gender issues in Magic. We have seen more strong tournament showings by women in the past year than the previous 17, and this is just the tip of the Iceberg. These women are inspiring other women and girls to step up their game, and female tournament attendance has been noticeably higher this year than ever before.

Magic players truly are a community. We are very supportive of one another, and bullying is quickly tamped down. Recently, a player was suspended for 18 months for taking pictures of random players with hurtful captions and posting them on Twitter. That is 18 months of “we don't want you showing up to tournaments.” Another player received a lifetime ban for “joking” about wanting to rape a WotC employee as Retaliation for an unpopular policy. Joke or not, such behavior is completely intolerable within our community, and his expulsion from the community is laudable.

Magic can be educational. First and foremost, Magic teaches lateral thinking and requires a mental flexibility that can serve one well in other endeavors. Math skills are not required to play Magic, but they are rewarded. Furthermore, Magic invites the curious player to the world of literature and poetry. Magic cards often have “flavor text”: a sentence or paragraph that helps set the tone for the card, but has no bearing on the card's function within the game. Snippets from authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, and William Shakespeare have adorned cards, enticing players to discover what else awaits.

Magic can be a route to later success. Hall-of-Fame players Rob Dougherty and Brian Kibler joined forces with professional player Justin Gary to create the hit board game Ascension. Hall-of-Famer Jon Finkel and many others have found that the brainpower that served them well in Magic was applicable to the investment world. Still others have found jobs within WotC itself, working on Magic or other games.

Magic can be expensive. As I write this article, I glance upon many of my own cards that are worth over $20 each. The most expensive card in Magic is a card called Black Lotus, and is worth over $1000, at minimum. Therein lies the “collectible” part of “CCG,” as the Black Lotus is a very rare card, printed only at the start of Magic, and never again. Magic cards are expensive partially because they are treated as commodities, with a robust secondary market. The demand for the best cards ensures that even if you do not want to play with your $20 card any more, you can find someone else who wants to buy your card, or trade you a similarly priced card. For those curious, damage to cards does affect the value of the card, and plastic “sleeves” are used to hold valuable cards during games to prevent damage to the cards themselves during shuffling and play.

Magic can be cheap! In fact, Magic has only gotten cheaper, adjusted for inflation, than it used to be. In 1995, a Starter Deck (60 cards) cost $8.95, or over $13 in 2012 dollars. An Intro Deck today costs under $12. If each player buys an Intro Deck, that's all they need to be ready to play.

Ultimately, the cost of Magic is similar to that of many adult hobbies: quite cheap if you dabble, and quite expensive if you're a fan. While a Magic deck can cost over $500, remember that golfers can spend that much on a single driver. As I understand it, one can spend more than that on a single pair of fashionable shoes!

The Takeaway

At this point, if I've done my job well, you have a better understanding of Magic, and perhaps you'd even like to learn how to play! Perhaps the best way to learn is the “Duels of the Planeswalkers” game, available on XBox, PS3, or PC. The in-game tutorial does a great job of breaking a complex game down for the new player, and succeeded at teaching my wife how to play after I'd previously failed. If you'd rather learn with a friend with physical cards, WotC has been giving out free “half-decks” to teach new players. These are given out for demonstrations at conventions such as last weekend's PAXEast or the San Diego Comic Convention, and most Magic players shouldn't have too much difficulty finding a couple for you if you ask.

If you decide that Magic just isn't for you, I hope you've at least gained an understanding of why others might play the game. It's more than just a game: it's a community and following, similar to sports fans or viewers of a TV show. Everyone has their interests, and ours happens to be a card game.

I hope I've covered the important points, but please add a comment if you have a question!

Steve Guillerm
@SteveExplosion on Twitter and Magic Online

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