Magic Design: A Decade Later

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By Richard Garfield (written 2003)

Magic and the trading card game industry have undergone a lot of changes since the time I wrote those design notes. In the meantime Magic has grown stronger with each successive year—as the game itself is improved, and more people are brought into trading card games from products such and Yu-Gi-Oh!.

It is difficult for people these days to appreciate how little we knew about the game design space we were entering in the early nineties. My design notes failed to mention what in my mind is the strongest sign of that—after describing the concept of a trading card game to Peter Adkison I concluded with the cautious statement “of course, such a game may not be possible to design.” It is hard for me to imagine that state of mind today, in a world where trading card games have reached every corner and are a part of almost every major entertainment property. This is a world where trading card games have left their mark on all areas of game design, from computer games to boardgames; and where trading card games have directly inspired games ranging from trading miniature games to trading tops games. This is a world where Jason Fox, from the comic strip Foxtrot, complained that a deck of cards coming with only four aces was some sort of ploy to get people to buy expansion kits.

That could be left as the end of the story; Magic was designed—as the design notes of a decade ago portray—and 10 years later it was still going strong. But this leaves out a large part of the story, since Magic was anything but a static game since then. The changes and improvements to Magic warrant design notes of their own.

First and foremost—a game

One thing that may look arcane in my notes to people who know something about the game market, is my reference to the form of game that Magic launched as a “trading card game,” rather than a “collectable card game.” I still use TCG rather than CCG, which became the industry standard despite my efforts from its earliest days. I prefer “trading” rather than “collectable” because I feel it emphasizes the playing aspect rather than the speculation aspect of the game. The mindset of making collectables runs against that of making games—if you succeed in the collectable department then there is a tendency to keep new players out and to drive old ones away because of escalating prices. One of the major battles that Magic fought was to make it perceived principally as a game and secondarily as a collectable. Good games last forever—collectables come and go.

This was not merely theoretical speculation—Magic’s immense success as a collectable was severely threatening the entire game. Booster packs intended to be sold at a few bucks were marked up to 20 dollars in some places as soon as they hit the shelves. While many people view this time as the golden age of Magic the designers knew that it was the death of the game in the long run. Who is going to get into the game when it was immediately inflated in price so much? How many people would play the game if doing so was wearing holes in some of their most valuable assets? We might be able to keep a speculation bubble going for a while, but the only way Magic was going to be a long term success—a classic game—was for it to stand on its game play merits, not on its worthiness as an investment.

During “Fallen Empires,” the fifth Magic expansion, we finally produced enough cards that the speculative market collapsed. The long-term value of Magic could perhaps thrive—but it wouldn’t immediately price itself out of the reach of new players before they got a chance to try it. There was an inevitable negative patina that Magic got for a while, and “Fallen Empires” still has, but from this point on Magic was sinking or swimming on its game merits. Fortunately, Magic turned out to be a strong swimmer.

Binding the unbounded

The part of my notes, which I believe, reveals my biggest change in thinking over the last decade is the statement that in the future we would publish other games with mechanics similar to was referring to is what became “Ice Age” and “Mirage,” two expansions for Magic. Why did I think these would be entirely new games, rather than what they ended up being—expansions for the main game?

We all realized from the start that we couldn’t just keep adding cards to Magic and expect it to stay popular. One reason for that is that each successive set of cards were a smaller and smaller percentage of the entire pool of cards, and so would necessarily have less and less impact on the whole of the game. This was illustrated vividly by players of “Ice Age” talking about how the entire set introduced two relevant cards to the game. One can imagine how the designers felt—working for years to make “Ice Age” a compelling game to have it boil down to a mere two cards. Another, perhaps more important reason, is that new players wouldn’t want to enter a game where they were thousands of cards behind, so our audience would inevitably erode.

Initially we saw two solutions to this problem:

  1. Make cards ever more powerful. This is a route many trading card game makers followed—and one I greatly dislike. It feels like strong-arming the players to buy more and more rather than really providing them more game value. But it would bring new players in, because they wouldn’t need the obsolete old cards.

  2. Eventually conclude Magic: The Gathering, and start a new game—Magic: Ice Age, for example. I advocated this approach, because I believed we could make exciting new game environments indefinitely. When one set was finished, players wouldn’t be forced to buy into the new game to keep competitive, they could move on if they wanted a change—and new players could begin on equal footing.

When it actually came time to do “Ice Age,” it was absolutely clear that players would not stand for a new version of Magic, we had to think of something else. Additionally, we were also worried that fragmenting the player audience was a bad idea; if we made a lot of different games, people would have a harder and harder time finding players.

The solution we found was to promote different formats of game play—many of which involved only more recent sets of cards. Today there are popular formats of play which involve only the most recently published cards, cards published in the last two years, and cards published in the last five years, in addition to many others. While this does fragment the player base—since you may not be able to find players who play your format—it is less draconian than different games since you can apply your cards to many different formats over time. This was a far more flexible approach than the first—as it didn’t command players to start fresh—it allowed them to, and allowed new players to join the game without being overwhelmed.

Trading card games are not boardgames

I used to believe that trading card games were far more like boardgames than they are. This is not surprising, since I had no trading card games before Magic to draw examples from, and so was forced to use the existing world of games to guide my thinking on TCGs. A lot of my design attitudes grew from this misconception. For example, my second trading card game was designed to be best with four or more people, and took several hours to play. These are not bad parameters for a boardgame, but trading card games really want to be much shorter—because so much of the game is about replaying with a modified, or entirely new deck.

In a similar vein I used what I saw boardgame standards to be when it came to rules clarifications. It was common in boardgames to find a different group played a slightly different way, or had house rules to suit their tastes. With boardgames different interpretations of the rules and ways of play were not a major problem because players tended to play with fairly isolated groups. This led me to be quite anti-authoritarian when it came to the “correct” way to play. It turned out that a universal standard for a trading card game was far more necessary than a boardgame, because the nature of the game form made the interconnectivity of the game audience was far greater.

This meant that we had to take more and more responsibility for defining the rules and standards of play. In some ways this is analogous to being forced to construct the tournament rules for a game. The rules to Bridge are not that complex but when you write out the official tournament rules—really try to cross the Ts and dot the Is you have a compendium.

I had also hoped that players could moderate their own deck restrictions. We knew that certain card combinations were fun to discover and surprise someone with, but not fun to play with on an ongoing basis. So we figured players would make house rules to cover those decks and the responsible cards. The highly interconnected nature of Magic made it unreasonable to expect that, however, since every playgroup came up with a vast number of restrictions and rules, and they all played with each other. This meant we had to take more responsibility in designing the cards and when necessary, banning cards that were making the game worse.

The Pro Tour

All this precision invested in the design of the rules and cards made Magic a surprisingly good game to play seriously. We began to entertain ideas of really supporting a tournament structure with big money behind it—big enough players could, if good enough—make a living off of playing Magic. This was a controversial subject at Wizards of the Coast for a while—the worry being that making the game too serious would make it less fun. I subscribed fully to the concept of a Pro Tour—thinking of how the NBA helped make basketball popular and didn’t keep the game from being played casually as well.

The Pro Tour had an almost immediate effect. Our players rapidly became much better as the top level ones devoted time to really analyzing the game and as that game tech filtered down through the ranks. Before the Pro Tour I am confident that I was one of the best players in the world, now I am mediocre at best.

Now there are thousands of tournaments each week, and many players have earned a lot of money playing Magic, some in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. At the last World Championship there were 56 countries competing. There is a never-ending buzz of Magic analysis and play as players attempt to master the ever-changing strategic ground of Magic. I believe this is a major part of Magic’s ongoing popularity, if even a small group of people take a good game very seriously, there can be far reaching effects.

Magic Online

Online Magic didn’t come into its own until last year. For a long time I have wanted to see an online version of Magic that duplicated real life Magic as closely as possible. That is, the online game would connect people, run the games and the tournaments, and adjudicate rules—but little else. At first we tried to form partnerships with computer game companies to do this—but our partners always had other ideas about how to do computer Magic. Eventually we hired a programming studio to do it our way and now we have Magic Online.

One of the striking things about Magic Online is that we use the same revenue model as in real life. Despite exhortations to use a subscription model, we chose to sell virtual cards, which you could trade with other players online. This allows players to buy some cards and then play them indefinitely with no further fee—as in real life.

It was important to us that we not make it a better deal playing online than off—we wanted it to be the same. That is because we feel the paper game contributes a lot to Magic’s ongoing popularity, and it could be threatened if many of its players go to the online game.

For this reason one of the prime targets for the online game was going to be lapsed players. Many studies had been done on how long people play Magic and why they leave the game, and for the most part they didn’t leave because they were bored with the game; they left because they had life changes which made it more difficult to play—for example, getting jobs or having kids. These players would potentially rejoin the game if they could play from their own home on their own hours.

Magic Online is still a bit to young to be sure about, but it appears to have acquired a dedicated sizeable audience of players without hurting the paper game. Many of the players are formerly lapsed players, as we had hoped.

The next ten years

Who knows what the next decade will bring? Ten years ago I had no clue at all, it was an exciting time and we were riding a roller coaster. Now I am more confident—I believe that Magic is fairly stable, and that there is every reason to believe that it will be around and as strong in another ten years. At this point it is clear that Magic is not a fad, and as many new players are coming in each year as are leaving the game.

Certainly Magic has stayed fresh for me. I get into the game every few months; joining a league, constructing a deck, or perhaps preparing for and participating in a tournament. Every time I return I find the game fresh and exciting, with enough different from the previous time to keep me on my toes, but enough the same that I can still exploit my modest skills at the game. I look forward to my next ten years of the game.

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Game Design Workshop. Designing, Prototyping, and Playtesting Games
Game Design Workshop: Designing, Prototyping, & Playtesting Games (Gama Network Series)
ISBN: 1578202221
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2003
Pages: 162

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