Magic is probably the greatest game currently in existence when you take into account gameplay, complexity, professional opportunities, and the ability to hold players’ interest. In fact, Magic’s success in recent years should surprise exactly no one. But—and there is a but, one so big Sir Mix-a-Lot could write his comeback song about it—Magic isn’t perfect. In fact, in a number of ways, Magic is quite bad.
Now, I’m not saying that Magic is a horrible game; far from it. What I am saying is that it, like all games, has significant weaknesses. I want to go into the weaknesses of the game in the hopes of presenting solutions and potentially encouraging discourse. I will do my best to keep this article from being simply an outlet for complaints by presenting as much of a solution as I can think of for each issue I bring up.
Keep in mind that my focus is specifically the competitive Magic community, so the issues I discuss may not be relevant to players who aren’t trying to play Magic on that level.
This is a big one, not going to lie. Gideon has been in the $30-40 range since his release. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy hasn’t dropped below $60 for at least a month now. Ugin recently spiked to just about $40.
That’s a lot of money to pay for cards that, at least in the case of the first two, are usually playsets, and sometimes played together. And Standard is by far the least of the offenders (although the fact that it is a rotating format makes it pretty bad). Tarmogoyf, a Modern and Legacy staple and a card that is almost always a four-of, is above $140 apiece no matter which edition you want to buy, Liliana of the Veil is up to $90, and a Revised Underground Sea, one of the most-played dual lands in Legacy, is a whopping $230.
Now, Modern and Legacy are non-rotating formats that reward deck familiarity more than most other skills, so past the initial investment there isn’t a whole lot of financial burden for upkeep, but the initial investment is quite large, often thousands of dollars. In contrast, while most Standard decks require an investment of less than $800, Standard rewards being able to predict the metagame more than knowledge of a single deck, so the top players often switch decks relatively regularly. And once rotation happens, the majority of the rotating cards lose tremendous amounts of value.
I’m not entirely sure about a solution for this one, mostly because I haven’t studied business and economics a tremendous amount. The Reserved List in Legacy helps protect people who do make the investment from losing value, but at the same time it prevents prices from dropping in any meaningful way. As far as Modern is concerned, we need reprints that actually make significant impacts (thanks for very little, Modern Masters). Standard needs to not just be about Gideon, Jace, and Ugin (Atarka Red and Temur Black, you’re the real MVPs).
Basically, Wizards needs to start taking steps to reduce the barrier to entry for multiple formats. Legacy is probably a lost cause, but Modern and Standard are still thriving (in terms of quantity of players if not quality of format).
Stop taking away our toys, Wizards. Legacy isn’t supported by the mothership, Standard is becoming underpowered, and Modern is stuck somewhere in between. Elvish Mystic and Day of Judgement are too powerful for Standard? Really? And in Modern, we have to deal with Serum Visions instead of real cantrips and the best white two-drop is Qasali Pridemage, while aggressive players get to cast all the Lightning Bolts they want and combo players are casting turn two Primeval Titan or turn three Karn Liberated. The best control deck in Modern has turn-four infinite combo. If that isn’t a signal that the control cards in Modern aren’t powerful enough, I don’t know what is.
Underpowered formats are bad for the game. The more land drops you have to make as a control deck to function, the fewer keepable two- and three-land hands exist. The more dependent your midrange deck is on haymakers rather than synergy and tight play, the more your game is going to be about topdecking rather than sequencing. The less powerful and balanced the format, the higher the effects of in-game variance or the pairings lottery.
The solution for this one is pretty simple: embrace power creep. Acknowledge that Standard is getting more powerful, and don’t try to avoid it. Continue to make dynamic, engaging, skill-based formats that care more about how you play your cards than which cards you draw. And for Garfield’s sake, unban Ancestral Visions and Bloodbraid Elf. Modern needs a power transfusion.
Draws are the worst, both intentional and unintentional, but we can’t really do anything about unintentional draws without damaging the game. Intentional draws allow players to play one or two fewer rounds of a tournament than they’re supposed to, and often make tiebreakers just as important as actual wins. I’ve been X-1 going into the last round multiple times and have been paired down and forced to play it out when every other X-1 was able to draw into top 8. Intentional draws disrupt the purity of the game by forcing some players to play more matches than others, often even among players with the same records.
The problem with intentional draws is that there’s very little in the way of solutions. You can’t ban intentional draws because it’s difficult to differentiate them from unintentional draws. You can’t extend the round time and then ban all draws because that ends up making events longer and creates more work for judges and organizers.
What about not posting standings going into the last round of Swiss? If standings aren’t posted, it means only the players who are X-0-1 can draw in and not the players who are X-1. If the players who are X-1 try to draw in but there are too many of them, or there are players with unintentional draws earlier in the tournament, players who try to draw into top 8 could draw themselves out of top 8 instead. I’m not a judge, and I haven’t made a serious inquiry into this so I don’t know whether it’s possible, but if it is it could be very good for the game.
Prize payouts are very top-heavy in Magic. Now, this would be fine if the game didn’t have any variance, like chess, but because a significant number of a player’s wins or losses can be due to luck, there are many situations where the player who made the highest-EV decisions overall still misses prize due to variance, or gets much less prize than the player who made the next-highest-EV decisions. But spreading the payout more becomes problematic, because making top 8 is most definitely an achievement that should be rewarded. This issue is at its worst for Starcitygames IQs and Pro Tours and not quite as bad as most other tournaments, but I still think that it’s significantly harder to get top 8 of a Grand Prix four times than it is to win one once, but those payouts are identical.
Again, this is difficult to fix, but one possibility is to increase the entry fee for tournaments such as SCG Opens and Grand Prix and then use the extra money to make the payout slightly less steep. Because the majority of the expenses for those types of tournaments come from travel costs rather than entry fees, raising the entry fees slightly in exchange for a better payout would probably not be an unpopular proposal. SCG IQs are already priced badly for stores and players alike, because SCG needs to make a profit on them, so there’s not much wiggle room there, and the Pro Tour is free, so even if the prize payout is sub-optimal it’s not like players are committing a tremendous amount of money in travel or entry fees. It just seems unfair that the current structures reward being in the right place at the right time over the consistent application of skill.
There are many great things about Magic. Variance keeps it entertaining to play and to watch, and the fact that formats shift and rotate and new sets are constantly being released helps with that as well. It’s also a game that manages to be fun for new and experienced players alike. But it isn’t without its weaknesses, and only by acknowledging those weaknesses can it continue to grow and thrive.
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