Monday, January 3, 2011

MTG: The Origin of Species

Magic: The Gathering was a reoccurring force during my formative years. It was one of the strongest uniting factors between Alex, Jason, Josh and I through High School, a time when the four of us might have otherwise grown up in different directions. It kept us grounded in the catacombs of sci-fi geekhood and casual cerebral competition, both of which we've since maintained in our lives in our own ways.

(I'd like to take this moment to thank MTG for giving us something to do during those summers away from college before we'd turned twenty-one. Oh, and also for all the vocab it taught me.)

Once our college years ended, Magic was no longer the dominant time vortex into which disappeared our time spent together - thanks to booze, drugs, smash bros, and other similar mind alterants - and yet magic never completely went away for some of us. Jason found more casual board games and a career, while Josh found Street Fighter and Japan, but Alex and I kept playing MTG here and there.

(Sure, the fact that Magic: The Gathering continues to refurbish old ideas and reprint old cards in new sets for the sake of renewed profit is annoying, and it cheapens the competition of it, but it's also what kept us coming back. Rotating tournament legality is a money drain on fans, but so is having to buy this year's EA Madden, or this season's WoW expansion set, which isn't necessarily any cheaper.)

Back in the early days, we played by the rotating rules provided by Wizards of the Coast, but we also played by our own guidelines, banning everything we had determined to be "too cheap". Nobody was allowed to burn opponents for more than half their lives, and I'm pretty sure land destruction was considered illegal in the house of butwinks.

By the end of college, however, MTG shifted from casual to competitive. This was due to a multitude of causes, including:

- Alex discovered the tournament scene, which spelled the end for the usual "combo" and "theme" decks we'd constructed up to that point, because, quite frankly, Alex had become too good at constructing decks that were designed to win.

- Alex recruited Ian into the world of Magic: The Gathering. Ian harbored a naturally aggressive competitive streak bred in part by real-time strategy games. Naturally, he constructed decks for the purpose of winning.

- We'd all started playing Texas Hold'em, which only added fuel to the "win or bust" fire, and bolstered the idea that, for a game to be fun, something must be on the line, whether its money or pride. This is a paradigm that has taken me years to overcome.

- It had to escalate to stay fun. You know, like necrophilia.

This period of competitive games taught me that I was much more of a sore loser than I would have guessed, and that goes for every game we played during the early Canfield years. But it also taught me that end-game Magic: The Gathering is actually pretty damn fun, too, and I soon overcame the frustrations and the fall from (casual gameplay) grace to very much enjoy constructing tournament-level decks with Alex, as well as deck-testing and nurturing advanced strategy.

It's something that Alex and I continue to do to this day, here and there, via Magic Workstation, this blog and sharing various links to Magic-related articles online.

In reality, though, recent years have dialed back the competitive tension. Casual games have become more and more popular between Alex's and my mutual friends even to the point of completely innocuous parlor games like Apples to Apples and that telephone-drawing-game-that-nobody-knows-what-to-call. Again, the reasons are many:

- Some new players have been added to the scene, like Luke, David, Jules, among others. When new players are being introduced to the game, ruthlessness isn't very helpful.

- Open-ended social circles keeps everyone friendly and dampens the nerd rage. When it isn't only the same three dudes competing everyday, competition doesn't have to escalate.

- Both Alex and I have long-time significant others, and taking pointless games too seriously has a habit of adding stupid tension to otherwise happy and stable relationships.

- We're older and wiser maybe!?

The effect on magic is obvious, and thanks to Wizards of the Coast, it's even official. The new game format, known to fans as EDH, is an alternative play-style to Magic: The Gathering that Alex has previously discussed.

I haven't played that much EDH yet, and to be honest, I am not quite finished formulating an opinion on the format (I plan to write a review of the EDH format from my perspective later). However, I do find the gameplay style of EDH pretty interesting as the next step of MTG's evolution in my life, because in all honesty, it is kind of the culmination of everything that has come before it.


- "Combo" and "Theme" decks are back. In high school, we'd create decks based on one card all the time. Then we discovered that when that one card is then nullified (come on, don't disenchant my Land's Edge!), the deck is nullified. In EDH, however, you are more or less required to do exactly that.

- Multiplayer is the name of the game. While I'm sure Alex and Luke play one-v-one, EDH simply feels more like an MP format. This is partly due to longer life spans, which keep unlucky players from dying within the first few turns, and because certain common spells are no longer as crippling, which means that people have less reason to complain that they are being ganged up on.

- All sets are legal. While there are limitations for fairness, EDH does not limit decks to using only the last few Magic sets. This means that all those cards Alex and I used to use in middle school are fair game again, and some of them might even be useful. This also means we are less at the mercy of Wizards of the Coast, which is probably the format's greatest virtue.

- "House Rules" are partially back, because even though EDH has an official rule set, I've noticed that Alex and Luke are keeping away from particularly cruel strategies like infinity combos and too many board wipes. (And most of this is due to EDH rules themselves, because the highlander limit of only one of each card prevents most of the worst.)

- Due to the open-endedness of the format, and because players don't die as quickly, the idea of "playing to win" is no longer the power-gaming buzz-kill it used to occasionally be. Even if Alex and I read a hundred strategy articles on EDH and constructed the vilest tournament deck possible, a harmless theme deck would still have a chance (albeit remote), which is something that would never be the case in standard magic rules. The EDH format is kind of like a buffer against MTG's rougher edges, a soft cushion against "cheap" gameplay.

I am not saying that EDH is the solution to all of Magic's problems. I am just saying that, right now, it makes sense that EDH is the game of choice, because that's what fits into MTG's evolution according to my personal timeline. I'll be interested in seeing how Magic and/or EDH evolves over the course of 2011. And I hope it's still around in 2012.


  1. Its true though, one of the many reasons I'm not as competitive anymore is being with Luke. Testing and PTQ grinding is a lot of work and it means less time I can be with Luke. Plus having so many new players around means that even our casual decks have gotten less competitive. Although I would be lying if I said I wasn't constantly trying to fight the temptation to put Wildfire/Destructive Force/Sundering Titan in my Bosh Deck.

  2. I understood most of this article. Well played, sir.

  3. I find it hard to imagine Alex as a ruthlessly competitive gamer given the influence he's had on me in learning to take games less seriously. I think we've mellowed each other out.

    As to the evolution from all-or-nothing gameplay style to the emphasis on "innocuous party games," I vividly remember the first time that I hung out with Canfield as a group for a game night, I brought over part of my healthy collection of "party games," such as Taboo, Outburst, etc. Jason immediately compared my collection to that of a teenage girl's. This was the first time I truly made the realization that there is a world of difference between strategy and parlor games, and I began my own slow shift towards the strategy-game direction.

    I guess that was kind of a non-sequitor. Essentially, your post is interesting in that I think gaming nerds, or at least we as a collective gaming nerd group, are constantly evolving in terms of what kind of nerdery we're drawn to. And I like that.

  4. "Ruthless" is a relative term. When everyone is playing at the same level, and at the same competitive edge, then being "ruthless" makes the game more fun. It's when there is an imbalance that problems arise.

    A good example is Bucket. It's such a fun game when all players invest equally (whether all players are extra intense, or all players are extra casual). Bucket always caused problems at Game Night when less intense players became caught up in the crossfire.