Why Competitive Magic: the Gathering Doesn’t Work

Magic: the Gathering is one of the most enjoyable games ever created, but moreso as a casual game than as a competitive game. While a large competitive scene undoubtedly exists, it exists because the base game is so enjoyable, not because Magic’s game design lends itself to a rewarding competitive experience. As a former competitive Magic player, I want to examine why I found competitive Magic unsatisfying.

Before I go further, please do not confuse competitive with desire to win. Most people desire to win even when they play casually. When I speak of competitive gaming I’m talking about the desire some players have to formally prove their skill (via tournaments or leaderboards) or earn money.

Designed For Casual Play

Absurdly broken cards in early sets prove that Garfield did not design Magic for competitive play. Richard Garfield has famously remarked that he and the other early testers were aware of the brokenness of cards like The Power Nine, but didn’t see it as a problem because they imagined that few copies of these cards would exist in any given play group. In other words, Garfield didn’t expect Magic to become anywhere near as popular as it did. He did not seem to envision people going out of there way to create the best decks possible in order to conquer the local scene.

Proving that Magic was designed for casual play is also significant because I don’t want anyone to accuse me of disparaging Garfield as a designer. He is one of the greatest game designers of all time. My claim is not, “Garfield tried to create a competitive game and failed,” but rather, “Garfield created an incredible casual game that did not translate into a satisfying competitive game.”

That Magic isn’t a satisfying competitive game is, of course, my own opinion, and one that many people will vociferously disagree with. That’s fine, but no one can accuse me of lack of experience. I won my fair share of tournaments and enjoyed the experience as much as anyone. I spent unknown thousands of dollars in the game over twenty years. I believe I’ve earned the right to make a negative assessment.

Casual Game Design Success

  • Excellent theme, art, story, and atmosphere. Magic is unparalleled in this regard, in my opinion, and its hard to find another high-fantasy universe that is more satisfying and compelling.
  • Combat system. Simple yet deep, without any randomness. For that reason, countless games have borrowed Magic’s combat system.
  • Resource system. Magic uses a resource called mana to cast spells and a mechanic called tapping to extract this resource from cards. The simplicity and effectiveness of this system is nothing short of brilliant.
  • Easy setup and tear-down. While shuffling can get a bit tiresome with certain decks, there’s no doubt that Magic scores a home-run in this area compared to other tabletop games.
  • Short games. Most games last less than ten minutes, which perfectly fits with the adage that a designer should always ensure that his game ends before players tire of playing it.
  • Strong player interaction. Many tabletop games, even those developed by acclaimed designers, suffer from the problem of feeling like “multiplayer solitaire” due to their lack of interaction between players. Magic is the opposite.
  • Great for two players. While some people prefer games designed for three or more players, the focus on two-player play allows it to be played more frequently.
  • Collectibility. The thrill of opening new packs of cards in hopes of getting a prized rare is addicting to many players, since it is basically a form of gambling.

Competitive Game Design Flaws

  • Too much luck. This is undoubtedly its greatest flaw. The luck factor is larger than many players realize, because it affects the game in three significant ways:
    • Whoever goes first has a massive advantage. Many games of Magic are decided in five turns and in that time frame, one player had 25% more turns than their opponent.
    • Drawing from a randomly shuffled deck. Given the small hand-size and card-draw infrequency in Magic, this results in too many or too few of a desired type of card being drawn.
    • Deck matchups. When you play in a tournament, you are randomly assigned who you will play against. If your opponents happen to have decks that strongly counter your deck, you’re at a huge disadvantage without any recourse.

      I have seen some professional players offer numbers as low as 10-15% to describe the “luck” factor in Magic. I suppose this is because they don’t want to admit that their competitive success has more to do with the absurd amount they play and less to do with their skill (although they are no doubt skilled). In my estimation, the luck factor is at least 25%, which means that a quarter of the games you will ever play are basically outside of your control.

      If anyone needs proof of the massive impact of luck on the game at the competitive level, look no further than placements in top tournaments: they are rarely the same people and frequently full of no-name players. Notably, of Magic’s 26 world championship winners, you will see only a single recurring name from the sole player who has won the championship twice. Contrast this with chess, in which it is common to see the same player go on half-decade or decade long championship winning streaks. I am not claiming that a good competitive game must allow for such dominance by a single player, only that Magic goes too far in the opposite direction. The result is that the highest echelons effectively award participation and not just raw skill.
  • Pay-to-win. The most competitive decks in any given standard format meta usually cost 200 USD or more, and the meta changes every few months. Those without financial resources are at a constant disadvantage. Most serious competitive players spend thousands of dollars every year on the game without blinking an eye. This means we might never see the Srinivasa Ramunajan of Magic — he’ll never have the spending power to start playing seriously in the first place.
  • Complex rules. The rules in Magic are not so complex that you can’t have fun at your kitchen table with friends, but the chances that you’re misplaying cards by not understanding the rules of the game is quite high. I think every Magic player has a story about how they lost a game due to not grasping some intricacy of the rules. The simple existence of not only a judges guild but the different levels of judges is proof of how complex the rules are even for serious players.
  • Ad hoc rules. Ad hoc rules exist not because they have any intrinsic meaning in the game’s story or theme but because their existence is necessary to keep the game balanced. Ad hoc rules are effectively bandaids over problems in the basic design of the game. Examples:
    • 60 cards minimum in a deck
    • 4 copies of a single card per deck
    • 7 card maximum hand size
    • 1 card drawn during draw phase
      It should go without saying that fewer ad hoc rules in fantasy-themed or war-themed games is preferable.
  • Boring deck archetypes. This isn’t a problem like it used to be, but in the past, certain permission, hexproof, and combo decks greatly reduced player interaction or relied on passive strategies that resulted in games being both boring to play and watch. Particularly awful was the permission mirror matchup, which reminds one of the famously unexciting early UFC matches between BJJ specialists.
  • Hard to spectate. Enjoying others play Magic requires a certain level of familiarity with the cards — sometimes hundreds of them, since cards rotate out of formats once a year. For casual players, this is a daunting task and one that Wizards of the Coast will probably never find an answer to in the standard video streaming format.
  • Easy to cheat. Cheating is a huge problem in competitive Magic. The temptation is there because there are numerous ways to cheat in the game of Magic and many of them do not require a lot of effort, whether it be manipulating the game state through sleight of hand, stacking one’s deck, or creating illegal deck lists (e.g., including more than four copies of a card or more than fifteen sideboard cards).
  • Hard to balance. Never mind that Magic’s business model prevents wide-betas on sets before they’re officially released: the fact that cards never change makes the game difficult to balance. It limits balancing to either outright banning cards or printing new answer cards. The result is ugly either way: money wasted on irrelevant decks or power creep, both of which annoys competitive players to no end. Even then, stale metas still occur in which only one, two, or three decks are viable, and players have no choice but to play said decks until the next set rotation.
  • Hate cards. Tying in with the last point: the consequence of Magic’s design philosophy of making numerous archetypes feel powerful is that certain decks hard-counter other decks. To remedy this, Magic creates hate cards, which are cards that exist for no other reason than to counter a particular archetype. This further cements the luck factor of competitive Magic because in some games, failing to draw a particular hate card (or deal with an opponent’s hate card) is almost a guaranteed loss.
  • Netdecking. My cousin Sam made an interesting observation that netdecking, which is the logical consequence of competitive Magic, is antithetical to the creative spirit of the game. In other words, competitive Magic encourages players to play a perverted form of Magic in which the hallmark of the game, deckbuilding, becomes meaningless. Skill can literally be copied and pasted, bought and sold.

The Sad Reality Of Professional Magic

Does Magic have a large and thriving competitive scene? If you were to look at individual player earnings in isolation, you might think the answer is ‘yes’. On the other hand, what if I told that although the competitive Magic scene has existed over 2.5 decades, has over 35 million “active players” worldwide, and has generated billions of dollars for Wizards of the Coast / Hasbro:

  • Not a single player has made a million dollars in earnings playing Magic?
  • Most professional players support themselves through content creation, not winnings?
  • The best players often leave Magic for “real” jobs or to play more lucrative games like poker?
  • The best players have only 20-40k Twitter followers?
  • Wizards of the Coast is constantly criticized for cost-cutting measures related to tournaments, whether reducing pro player appearance fees, lowering production quality, or moving tournaments to digital?

Contrast this with games like Dota 2, which have pumped out millionaires left and right in the past eight years despite having far fewer players. Even chess produces millionaires. Do these top players create content? Many rarely even stream on Twitch. What they spend their time doing is practicing so that they can win more. The reality is that professional Magic isn’t lucrative in proportion to the popularity of the game itself. Magic’s competitive scene doesn’t generate profit for its publishers because few players care about it. The only explanation is that most players implicitly agree with my assessment that Magic is a great casual game but not so great as a competitive game.

Final Thoughts

If people enjoy the grind of competitive Magic, more power to them. I am not going to chide anyone for playing it competitively. Personally, I’ll never stop playing Magic, especially now that Magic Arena exists, but I’ve hung up my competitive hat for good. I want to play Magic casually, whereas games like Dota 2 and chess I want to spectate.

The problems I have with Magic’s design also prompted this question in my mind: what if a game combined some of the best elements of both Magic, Dota 2, and Chess? Is it possible to have a tabletop game that is both casually and competitively satisfying? I’m not sure if such a game can exist, but I’m going to try my hand at creating it.