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An elder reacts to Magic: The Gathering

A word of explanation for the blog title. My children have brought to my attention the YouTube phenomenon of videos entitled "(social grouping) reacts to (meme)", e.g. "teens react to Flappy Bird". It consists of watching the expression of a member of these social groups watching the meme on YouTube. They also get asked questions about it. I thought about recording my own "I react to (social grouping) react to (meme)", which would consist of me with a puzzled expression on my face as I really don't see the point of watching someone else watching YouTube. However I thought it made a good title for this post. The elder is me, because my children tell me I'm old.

Magic: The Gathering has been around for over 20 years and at some point in the past few years I became aware of it as some sort of trading card game. Recently one of my children has bought a set of cards and so I can play it too, after a fashion.

It's a fantastically complicated game, almost resembling Calvinball. The full rulebook (which you don't need to read to start playing) has over 200 pages. A turn consists of 5 steps, according to the beginner's guide, each of which may have up to 5 sub steps. At its heart it's a battle game, where some of your cards are creatures which attack your opponents creatures. It also involves drawing from a shuffled deck, so has elements of chance. Crucially you don't exchange cards with other people, so you go away with all your cards intact (though in early versions of the game you would put up a card as an ante). This is partly because the cards are collectible, with some being worth much more than face value.

What particularly interests me is the business model behind it. There's a core set each year plus quarterly updates. There are sealed booster packs where you get a selection of semi-random cards. One of the tournament formats involves everyone opening several of these booster packs. So a keen player may buy new cards all the time. (The advantage of this format is that it provides a more level playing field, rather than some people having great decks with the best, most expensive cards.) I'm not saying there's anything wrong with this (there's no reason why you can't play with older cards with friends, or in some of the tournament formats) I just find it interesting how the company (owned by Hasbro) makes its money. Pictures of all the cards are available online, so there's no practical reason (although it's illegal) why you can't print out pictures of cards. I suspect if you played with an obviously printed out deck you would get sneered at.

I guess one of the reasons why the rules are so complicated is because new cards need to have new rules, or they're not that interesting. Here's a random example:
Whenever an enchantment enters the battlefield under your control, put a 2/2 white Cat creature token onto the battlefield. If that enchantment is an Aura, you may attach it to the token.
I'm impressed with the ability of the card creators to come up with new stuff all the time, and also of the experienced players who can play without spending 5 minutes every turn trying to work out what they could do.

It's a bit like backgammon where there's a mixture of luck and skill, where you need to play several games to see who is really a better player, and where a beginner has at least a chance of beating a better player.

Other notable features, which I won't go into, are the quality of the artwork (although if you're expecting something other than standard fantasy illustration you'll be disappointed), the back stories that are available if you want them, the art of "deckbuilding" and the fact that children can play.


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