I recently found myself participating in the Next Great Designer search for Magic the Gathering. I remember the day I got the email, 10 questions, all long form.
The first question cut straight to the point. ‘What’s the best current evergreen keyword on a Magic card?’ Easy, lifelink.
The reason I say lifelink is not necessarily due to its presence in the game, whether it be for flavor or gameplay. No, I find myself reflexively saying lifelink because of the effect it might have had on a game of Magic I lost one year ago, at my first ever GP. GP Atlanta.
It was a hastened experience as the timer went on the clock and everyone rushed to take their seats against their first opponent. I was ready for an epic showdown- this was the big leagues. I sat down across from my opponent in one of the first rows of the semi-crowded yet massive auditorium. I don’t remember his name but I do remember that he was your typical spike and he had come prepared. I knew what he was on by turn one. Mono-red. I mulled to 5 on one-landers twice.
His hand was pretty standard. 1 drop Bomat, 2 drop Khenra, 3 drop Crasher, at least I have a Fatal Push, we’re done here. It was awful. It was awful to lose a game not to skill or even much basic competency, rather, it was difficult to lose a game because of my land difficulties and well, if we’re being honest, pure luck. Of course, if I’m being completely honest I probably get crushed in that game either way. It was my first GP and in typical fashion I brought a black blue pirates deck that had 4-0’d several times before at my local FNM and so I felt as if I was as prepared as I could ever be. But this wasn’t FNM, a place where I’d finally beat that one Temur energy guy, ignoring the fact that he had gotten land screwed both games, and I had gotten my one The Scarab God out, something, something, meta-game, something, something good Temur matchup…
No, this was GP Atlanta. This was a place where the number one player in the world was playing. A world in which I’d be playing against guys with perfect decks who had meta-gamed yesterday, who had played 100 games of MTGO, yesterday, and who likely had a better understanding of the rules and nuances of the game then I did in my short year-and-a-half playing it. It was for these reasons- and the jank that I brought with me- that I was so roundly and unceremoniously bent over and spanked publicly in front of the 2,000 something people in the Georgia World Congress Center that day. I felt some reassurance in knowing that I wasn’t the only one.
Of course, I learned many valuable lessons about Magic from my first GP. I learned lessons about how card draw can sometimes be more important than life total- Ruin Raider (Bob), lessons about curve and meta-gaming- the classic my friend told me to take out my Fatal Pushes in game 2 against their Cubs. Listen to the hive mind culture, Ryan, hear what they have to say. I didn’t and I learned a valuable lesson and I ended up out before the second day and my friend didn’t. Overall, it was an amazing experience and I left the day proud. Proud of the way I had played- I think I missed one trigger- and proud of the lines I had taken. My deck left a lot to be desired, just Ixalan before even Rivals of Ixalan is out pirates isn’t a competitive deck, or at least, my version wasn’t, but I’m even proud of the way that I had walked through that door not with a mission to win a GP, but to break a format.
Which naturally brings me back to that mono-red match. A game in which I lost to a guy twice drawing the right 7 set of cards, as I barely struggled to find 5 playable ones while he makes the same 5 lines of play that he’s made 5,000 times before, and beats me for no other reason than that he got lucky and I didn’t or as some snooty modern player might say, ‘well that’s variance and you’re gonna like it!’ Well, I don’t like it and I don’t like the fact that Magic is too often a game that can be boiled down to such simple elements: turn sideways, turn sideways, you’re go. I don’t like that the mono-red archetype as we know it has devolved (or always been?) an archetype that can, especially for a control opponent, be decided upon the string of cards in succession rather than the game on the table.
So how do I fix Magic? Cards like Legion’s Landing seem as good a place to start as any. Magic should be a game where on turn 3 I make the economic decision to attack with 3 subpar creatures, choosing to lose one of my creatures in order to flip my Legion’s Landing only to have you then tap 2 mana and your Field of Ruin to destroy my flipped Legion’s Landing before I then respond to your Field of Ruin activation by tapping 3 mana and my flipped Legion’s Landing to create that one last vampire token, because either I don’t have a turn 4 play anyway, or cause VALUETOWN. Magic should be a game where instant speed interactions and a plethora of vertical decisions aren’t limited to removal spells, counter spells, and blue flash, flying creatures.
I’m not necessarily advocating for a lack of turn 5 wins. Although, I probably am. I am more so advocating for a game in which cards have more complicating elements to them and more ways of reducing unfair variance. More one mana cycling spells in archetypes that need them to reduce land screw. More discard a card triggers, graveyard matters, pay 4 life, pay 2 energy, and creatureland activations. More Boros Charms and Kolaghan’s Commands to give us options and ways to fight each and every angle of attack. And more ways to make sure 1-lander and 2-lander non-interactive games of Magic never happen, color pie be damned.
I understand the complications of what I’m asking. This WILL make the game more complicated. And that MIGHT make the game less accessible. But if we’re being honest, we still have plenty of environments, whether they be draft, prerelease, or cheap and marginally worse pre-con decks that don’t have to have such complicated elements to them for people to learn the game from. Not every card in every Magic pack needs to be a Legion’s Landing. But every competitive deck, red notwithstanding, sure should have more of them.
Magic isn’t a game that should be defined by extraordinary numbers on cards either. Maybe at its inception. But it’s been around 25 years now. Now we have deathtouch and lifelink, and crew 3 and tap 4 mana and, shove this creature on the bottom of the deck in order to take an extra turn cards. Magic has the potential to be a fairly complex beast, that’s a good thing.
I never did end up filling out the first list of questions to be the next great Magic designer. It was due in a week, and well, I had been playing Magic a year, and I honestly had no idea where to even begin. It was a game I was still learning, and as such, I felt it would be arrogant to suggest that I truly knew a game as complex as Magic is. Nonetheless, I found myself not knowing or convincing myself (I knew the odds of me being noticed were worse than the odds of me getting an Invention) that I didn’t fully know how to improve this wonderful game. But I’m lying to myself. I’m lying to myself because I know that this games issues aren’t with its wonderful flavor (a world of invention, yes, please), and Unstable, a crown jewel. It’s not with the art (maybe it’s the old ones, maybe it’s the new ones, maybe we need both) but I promise you that we’ve all loved some painting or some artist or some plane or some hero’s rendition along the way. No, Magic’s problems can be distilled to something much simpler. A separation of a complex world and HOLY maybe too complex story into a game that too often can be boiled down to the seven cards that he drew and the five cards that I didn’t draw catastrophe of epic proportions.
And so if I were to be the next great Magic designer then I hope that the Magic that we will create will be defined not by 20/20 game ending, nightmare inducing, creatures of the black lagoon blocks of ice. But I urge us to look at Magic as a game with greater complexity. A game where there are a greater number of decisions and triggers to be had. If Unstable has taught me anything- it’s this. Borders are for the un-initiated. Here’s to Magic the Gathering, and here’s to The Stack. May we forever be inclined to traverse your three dimensional wonderland.
Tags: Ryan the Goblin King
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