What Magic: the Gathering Gets Right and Wrong

Despite its numerous design flaws, Magic: the Gathering’s first mover advantage helped establish its dominance in the trading card game genre for over 25 years.

Magic: the Gathering is the probably the most successful tabletop game ever created. Its profits are undoubtedly larger than every other CCG combined. As of 2019, probably hundreds of billions of cards have been printed. Some of the earliest cards in mint condition are worth over $100,000. Wizards of the Coast, the creator and manufacturer, has made countless millions more dollars from digital versions of Magic as well. Obviously, if a product is this successful, it follows that the game gets more right than it gets wrong. This is true, but I’d expand this point to say that Wizards of the Coast got more right than it got wrong. Much of their success is due to their business decisions, not the quality of Magic.

What Magic Gets Right

  1. Five-color pie. Hard to deny that Garfield did a fantastic job of fitting all sorts of high-fantasy flavors within a pentacolored scheme.
  2. Combat system. Simple and effective. For that reason, countless games have borrowed Magic’s combat system.
  3. Resource system. In Magic, mana is produced by a particular types of cards (“lands”). While having the right amount of land is not guaranteed (as I will complain about later in the section on luck), the actual mechanic of “tapping” lands for “mana” (the currency within Magic) is quite brilliant.
  4. Beautiful art. Industry-standard and absolutely gorgeous.
  5. Consistent quality. Having been around for so many years, Wizards knows how to produce a consistently enjoyable product that will give players the experience they’ve come to know and love.
  6. Easy to setup and teardown. While shuffling can get a bit tiresome with certain decks, there’s no doubt that Magic scores a home-run in its ease of of setup.
  7. 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.
  8. Collectibility. Everyone loves looking at old, valuable, and/or interesting cards. Collectibility has its cons, as will be discussed later, but you can’t help but fall in love with the rush that comes from opening a pack of cards as a kid and seeing a $20 rare to show off to your friends or trade for anything you want.
  9. Strong interaction between players. Dominion is one of my favorite card-games. Unfortunately, it suffers from the rather enormous design flaw that you aren’t actually playing with other players as much as you’re simply racing against other players to see who gets to a certain number of victory points the fastest. While Magic does allow for strategies that require little interaction with the other player, for the most part its a game that requires constant interaction.
  10. Great for two players. Many board or card games feel awkward and clunky without three or even four players. Magic is no such game. It is absolutely fantastic for two players and this allows for it to be played competitively, unlike many other great games.

What Magic Gets Wrong

  1. Too much luck. This is undoubtedly my biggest complaint about the game, so I’ll start with it first: given a relatively equal playing field in terms of player skill and deck quality, a solid 25% of games are still won or lost by dumb luck, whether its related to who goes first (which is hugely advantageous for certain decks) or what cards get drawn. While some might call it personal preference, I think this is unacceptable for a game that wants to offer a serious competitive experience. While every game has its frustration, its a problem when that frustration is next to guaranteed.
  2. Pay-to-win. From a business perspective, this is not a design flaw at all, but a design success. Indeed, Magic’s pay-to-win model birthed the entire Collectible Card Game (CCG) genre. From the perspective of competitive play, however, there is no doubt that those without financial resources are going to be at a constant disadvantage, particularly in formats where the meta changes regularly. Most seriously competitive players spend thousands of dollars every year on the game without blinking an eye.
  3. 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 some joke about their early days learning the game, completely misunderstanding some rule such that certain card becomes ridiculously overpowered. 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.
  4. 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 in Magic include a) 60 cards minimum in a deck, b) 4 copies of a single card per deck, c) 7 card maximum hand size, d) 1 card drawn during draw phase. My opinion is that fewer ad hoc rules in fantasy-themed or war-themed games is always superior.
  5. Annoying deck archetypes. The dreaded “permission” deck is less powerful than it used to be but the archetype is still generally present: don’t make any proactive plays, instead react to all of your opponent’s plays with removal or counterspells until you’re in a safe position to deploy your own threats. These decks are boring to play with, against, and to spectate, but since they’re strong in certain metas, players bent on winning will play them anyway. The idea of a more defensive or controlling archetype is fine, but not when it comes at the expense of the game’s enjoyment (much like early UFC matches between Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialists were painfully boring to watch).
  6. Difficult to spectate. Perhaps the single biggest reason that Magic isn’t more popular is that it is difficult 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 casuals, this is a daunting task. Moreover, the text on the cards themselves is too small to read during a live match. The solution used by Wizards of the Coast is to use a pane to regularly display close-ups of cards in hand and in play. While it helps, it doesn’t remove the significant amount of work that goes into spectating the game as a casual players.

I do not think the creator, Richard Garfield, was oblivious to some of these design flaws. I think he just didn’t care too much because he didn’t expect Magic to blow up like it did. Proof of this relates to the “broken” (overpowered) cards from the first set (a.k.a. the Power Nine). He noted that he didn’t think their brokenness would be a problem, since most playgroups would have so few of these cards. More proof is that Magic originally had a rule that players would play for ante, meaning the loser would lose at least one card at the end of each game. It appears that Garfield did not expect Magic to be played competitively, but casually. By the time it became highly competitive, the base rules and card design were too entrenched to merit a change.

Another claim is that these flaws are essential to the game. This is not true at all; Wizards of the Coast has made strides to simplify its rule system and reduce the frustration of unlucky draws. Moreover, many Magic spin-offs have been created that successfully solve some of the problems inherent to Magic, such as its frustrating resource system. These games fade quickly, however, since Wizards has done an excellent job of polishing a mediocre product that was first to market. The lore is top-notch, the art is the best in the industry, and the reseller and tournament network is vast. Moreover, a game that takes some of Magic’s best design elements, such as its five-color system, is going to get slammed with “intellectual property” infringement.

The only Magic-ripoff that came close to challenging Magic’s dominion was Hearthstone — or so it would seem. On the surface they might seem like direct competitors, but this is not the case. Hearthstone’s creator, Blizzard Entertainment, wisely knew not to challenge Magic in its own genre so they effectively created a sub-genre of collectible card games. In particular, Hearthstone uses much simpler rules and exists only in digital form, thereby creating a sharp distinction between it and Magic. In that sense, Hearthstone actually was first to market — first to digital market, anyway.1 The fact that Magic and Hearthstone have grown side-by-side is evidence, I think, that they do not directly compete.

Let me conclude with a takeaway for aspiring entrepreneurs and game designers: You can succeed with mediocre game design if you can carve out your own sub-niche and provide top-tier polish. Magic: the Gathering is proof of that. No matter your passion or your funding, you’re wasting your time trying to be an upgraded version of someone else’s established business. The proof is in the pudding: clones of Magic have cropped up time and time again but wither away soon after.

Footnotes

  1. Magic: the Gathering Online existed well before Hearthstone but had such a horrid user interface that it could not seriously be considered a competitor to Hearthstone. To anyone who insists otherwise, let me rephrase my statement: Hearthstone was the first CCG with a gorgeous UI to digital market.