Seth Owen
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Magic: The Gathering is one of the seminal games of the gaming hobby, right up there with Tactics, Diplomacy, Panzerblitz, Dungeons & Dragons and Settlers of Catan. It created an entirely new category of gaming, collectible games, when it came out in 1993, as as such, it's worth at least having a passing acquaintance with for any gamer.

And it has been very successful, being one of the few game designs to make it's designer a fortune. Although it's now more than 15 years old and and spawned several imitators and inspiring many other collectible games, it's never really been surpassed.

I think this is a testament to a very sound basic game structure that has proven to be very robust.

For those who don't know, the basic sequence of play is straightforward.

After starting with an administrative "upkeep" phase, a player draws a card and then plays cards during the "main phase." There are literally thousands of different cards, but two of the most common are "lands" and "creatures." A player can place one land into play per turn and then "tap" (use) that land and any previously played lands to generate points of "mana," which is the currency of the game. Mana comes in five colors and playing non-land "spell" cards costs varying amounts of mana in color specified on the card. One of the most common kinds of spells is one that summons various creatures. If a creature summoning spell makes it into play (there are cards that can head it off) then it becomes a creature with an attack and defense value. During the main phase a player can dispatch any creatures that have not just appeared to attack the opposing player. The defender can send his previously played creatures to block the attackers. Each fight is resolved by comparing the each attacking value to each defending value. No dice are involved. Unblocked creatures attack the opposing player costing him or her one point of "life" for every attacking point. Players start with 20 life points and are defeated when reduced to zero. After combat concludes, the main phase resumes, allowing the phasing player to play more spells, if desired.

All of these activities can be affected, modified, cancelled, enhanced, disrupted, etc., etc. and etc. by various cards and the timely playing of the cards is a big part of the game. Perhaps an even bigger part of the game is the pre-game deck-building activity, as a player selects from his available cards to create the most effective fighting force.

Because the game explicitly features combat between dueling foes, it bears a resemblance to wargames and might be expected to appeal to wargamers, or at least those open to non-historical themes.

There are, however, significant obstacles for wargamers who might think about dipping into the pool of Magic: The Gathering players.

Magic: The Gathering is more than just a game. It's a deeply absorbing hobby in itself. Indeed, in order to be a serious Magic player there's really little time, money or energy left for anything else. A wargamer who made a serious effort to get into Magic: The Gathering would, by definition, cease being a wargamer and would become a Magic player.

It's similar to the problem casual chess players face whenever they ponder getting "into" the serious chess world. The fact of the matter is that becoming a mediocre rated player, let alone a master-level chess player, takes dedicated effort and e=intense study. Magic is the same, but with an added dimension of cost. One simple illustration is looking at the top-rated tournament decks listed on the wizards.com Web site. Looking at several dozen of them one sees that there's hardly a basic land card in the bunch. Nearly all of them feature 20 or so specialty land cards which are more efficient in play, but also are in limited supply as rare cards. Acquiring the cards alone means buying many boosters or purchasing the cards as singles at a premium from dealers.

Fortunately there is an option for those who might want to try the game out without going crazy. Wizards of the Coast generally offers pre-constructed decks. For example, currently there is a duel set that pits two set pre-constructed decks against each other in one $20 package. This provides a way to have a fair game between two players and is roughly comparable in price and value to standalone non-collectible card games. While not usable for tournament play,. these decks can serve as a useful primer. Similarly, a more casual player can take part in the tournament scene by playing in "sealed draft" tournaments, where all the players have access to the same boosters and they draft cards to build their decks. Experienced players still have a significant edge in this format, of course, because of their better understanding of the game, but it's less pronounced than in constructed deck play.

One major advantage of Magic: The Gathering is that it is very popular and well-supported, so finding opponents is easy. There's hardly a burg big enough to have a post office that doesn't have a store offering Magic: The Gathering organized play within an easy drive.

Still, while I can see value in a wargamer picking up a couple of decks to try the game out, I can't recommend going much further than that. Playing Magic: The Gathering to a satisfying level of success will require such a big commitment that a player will probably have little time for anything else.

While featuring play that resembles combat, any prior wargame experience won't be all that useful because Magic is, at root, a card game, not a combat game. Knowing the Principles of War and being skilled at maneuvers or planning will be of little use. The hand-management skills of a good Poker player are much more relevant.

My overall recommendation is to dabble in Magic: The Gathering if you can restrain yourself from getting sucked into the maelstrom of organized play. It is a good game, basically, and worth having a couple of decks on hand for casual play when the mood strikes. If you're a competitive player , however, be forewarned that success requires going whole hog. You may have fun, but you'll be an ex-wargamer.

For more game reviews and comments check out my game blog at http://pawnderings.blogspot.com
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ketchupgun
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well done.
I'm a recovering Tourney player...and when I got into MTG, I thought it was a battle game..which is how it always starts. But the more you go into the "scene" you learn the pro game is not about evading and tactiacal combat decisions, but about efficency, effectiveness, trimming fat from you deck (yes 60 cards is a minimum deck size, but 61 cards is generally wa-ay too many!), figuring out how to draw extra cards (ie: getting a "drawn engine online") and disrupting your opponent's tempo. This alos goes for tyring to ciucumvent the rule (only one land per turn does not mean only one mana source per turn).

And if you decide to play the Vintage Type 1 scene, you may never even see a creature to do battle with ... as you may very well lose by the 1st to third turn.

It' not to say vintage games are lightning fast...just less turns. The same 60 minutes can be eaten up in 4 turns, as opposed to the Type 2/Standard game,s that run a set hour and play out 15-30 turns...with creatures!

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the VS. system is more combat oriented.
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Seth Owen
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I haven't played VS, so I can't comment on that one.

Everything you say is, of course, true. Indeed, I've been blown off the table in a Vintage game in the second turn by one of those decks you allude to.

This is one reason why I don't think the WOTC practice of retiring decks is an altogether bad thing. It does provide a way to fight against degenerate decks,

My description is, of necessity, very cursory. There are some very extreme decks out there. Several of the championship decks listed online in the vintage formats have hardly any lands at all. One has just two! I'm not certain how the whole concept worked, but the deck did include quite a few "0" mana artifacts.

 
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Wendell
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Good review. I played M:TG a little when it first came out. It is a fine game. But the collectible aspect ruined it for me. I don't like games where the amount of $$$ somebody puts into components materially affects their ability to compete.

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Seth Owen
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wifwendell wrote:
Good review. I played M:TG a little when it first came out. It is a fine game. But the collectible aspect ruined it for me. I don't like games where the amount of $$$ somebody puts into components materially affects their ability to compete.



Playing in sealed drafts and the like can mitigate this, but it's clearly a problem with constructed formats. There's no way to compete without spending a lot. It would be like playing in chess tournaments where pieces made of gold or silver were more powerful than ordinary pieces.
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Gregory Stephen McCallum
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MTG is what you make it. You can spend as little or as much as you like and still enjoy the game. You just need to make sure the people you are playing with are spending the same amount...or then things can get a bit unbalanced.
I am about to make my own Cube for drafting with friends (we'll all draft from the same cards). I'll add to it when/if I want. I'm going to put a $50 limit on cards that go in it at first and see how it plays. It should be kind of fun.

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Andy Van Zandt
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the vs. system is more combat oriented, but the combat is more straightforward, there's a lot less nuance to it. it's basically just doing an odd math problem in your head.
 
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Guy Riessen
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Grrr, I studiously avoid thinking about MTG for years and then you have to go and write a review that gets me hankering to play again. One nice thing about MTG, is also the availability of 24/7 online play. I know they recently released a revamp of the game (version 3) and I'm not sure of the status of all the formats, but I used to quite like the Leagues. You basically buy a base pack plus a couple boosters and then get a booster per week for 4 weeks. You play as much as you like in that leagure during that time. League winners (which I never was because I never can devote enough time to really learn enough!) get booster prizes.

The caveat being of course that you have to be able to accept paying full price for digital product--I never had an issue with it because it is the card play that's fun and the access to players around the clock (important when you have a new baby, which I had last time I was playing) more than made up for the lack of physical cards. The leagues were constantly starting up (they had a player limit of 100 or something IIRC). And the benefit was, if you joined a league that was starting when you were awake and wanting to play, there would always be players at that same time because they also were awake and joining then--making the time-slots a self-selecting group attribute.
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stephen
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Good review of MTG. While it may be the case that to play seriously you need a lot of cards and the game needs a great deal of study, its not the only way to play by a long way.

You can have a lot of fun playing magic with very basic cards, the odd starter and a few boosters. It does not have to be a life encompassing behemoth of a game unless you really want it to. Common cards can be acquired for very little outlay and are perfectly playable.

As a game MTG is great fun, but a lot of people instantly dismiss it due to the myths that the only way to play it is to spend masses of money. We are currently enjoying a bit of a magic revival here playing with my old fourth edition cards, nothing new has been purchased for years and its still fun having a duel with friends. If you dont want to spend much money treat it like a board game, spend an amount you feel comfortable with and then stop, then use and re-use what you have. MTG is a great game to tinker with, so feel free to experiment.
 
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(The Artist formerly known as) Arnest R
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re: costs

There is little to stop you from using proxies if you want to play "full-blown" decks with your friends...
 
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wargamer55 wrote:
Several of the championship decks listed online in the vintage formats have hardly any lands at all. One has just two! I'm not certain how the whole concept worked, but the deck did include quite a few "0" mana artifacts.



That's probably "2-Land Belcher" ...

when you activate the belcher, you deal LOTS of fatal direct damage, the fewer lands you reveal...so if you reveal no lands...GG! ... no creatures necc.

My favourite deck, to this day is Blue Red Landstill. It abuses "Standstill" to create a draw engine, and never needs to play a creature, because all of its creatures are not "spells" .. they are lands!





I just watched Scott's review of Cosmic Encounter...a game I hear Richard Garfield was influenced by ... I'm REALLY looking fwd to trying this oldie out!
 
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Randy Gee
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MTG is apparently a combination of Cosmic Encounter and Titan (2 of Garfield's favorite games while at UPENN).

As a long time MTG player (clean now), I can see some similarities between Titan and MTG. I haven't picked up Cosmic Encounter yet.
 
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Seth Owen
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Yuengling12oz wrote:
MTG is apparently a combination of Cosmic Encounter and Titan (2 of Garfield's favorite games while at UPENN).

As a long time MTG player (clean now), I can see some similarities between Titan and MTG. I haven't picked up Cosmic Encounter yet.


Cosmic Encounter pioneered the idea of a game where the cards allowed you to "break the rules."

It's kind of funny that most people these days are probably exposed to the idea of "rule-breaking" special powers through Magic: The Gathering and other collectible games and Cosmic Encounter probably seems fairly ordinary to them.
 
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