Category: Magic: The Gathering

Weekly, I write a column about Magic: The Gathering. Either a deck I’m playing or a mechanic I like or a lesson I learned from it. This game has been part of my life now for going on fifteen years and I’d like to share the way the game has impacted me.

MTG: Custom Rarity

Hey, why do we put rarity on custom cards?

Seriously.

Do you build your game to think it’s draft? Do you make cards for cube? Why do you try and position your cards as some rarity or another? It’s interesting that often, rarity is presented as a reason for a card to justify power – cards that are probably too good are excused with ‘it’s meant to be a rare’ or ‘it’s meant to be pushed,’ and that’s always funny to me when you consider how few people are actually making things based on rarity.

Not nobody mind you.

Now, my answer to this personally is that rarity is another form of proper design of magic cards. They have constraints, and they’re reflective. If you make a card that should be a common, you should have the design sense to do that. And that can mean sometimes, a card that’s a weird oddball that only works in niche spaces winds up being rare.

As a pragmatic matter, rarity ‘only matters’ for draft. But we can, as amateur designers, get a good handle on rarity as it matters for draft. If a card could bust a draft environment open like Vengevine, it needs to be Mythic Rare to ensure it doesn’t ruin every pod. If a card is just the intersection of keywords and creature types, French Vanilla and nicely costed, it can live at common.

Yet, we often talk about Rarity as if it’s a list of four when that’s a sneaky lie. There are four Rarity expresions (well, there’s more, but bear with me); the symbol will show common, uncommon, rare or mythic. That’s not even all the basic categories of rarity, though.

There are seven basic rarities you can give cards:

  • Common. Commons are often good cards that do one thing, in a few words. Common cards can still be exciting and fun to design, because being common doesn’t mean you’re bad. Commons are also some of the best places to show off keyword mechanics, because there’s nowhere for a mechanic to hide on a common. One reason I beef about amateur-designed keyword mechanics is that many times, the common of them gains nothing from just having the keyword.
  • Uncommon. Uncommons are the siren of the casual designer because that’s where we tend to feel it’s okay to push something we like a lot, as long as we can justify it as being a bit bad in some way. I think Eternal Witness is my all purpose comparison card – casual developers would often print Very Strong Effect on a 2/1 and suggest it was okay because it wasn’t giving you a very good creature.
  • Rare. Rares can have a lot of words on them – something like 50 words, for a comparison. Rares can have multiple mechanics that interact on them. Rares are also a place where you can show off what a keyword mechanic can do, pushed.
  • Mythic Rare. Rares, but which are even more distorting to limited environments.
  • Special Inclusive rarity, like Timeshifted cards, where the rules of this expansion give a reason for a Bonus Rarity. These are a fun thing to think about – it’s also the place that Innistrad’s Double-Faced cards kinda lurked.
  • Special Exclusive rarity, like the starter deck cards or Commander cards; ie, it’s never meant to show up in a booster draft, but players can jam it in cubes or constructed formats. These are also odd because their rarity is literally only meant to represent specialness and complexity.
  • Basic, cards that are extremely common and yet also extremely available.

This is what I sometimes call invisible ink. Players sometimes don’t even realise there are more rarities – I’ve seen players say there are only ‘really’ three rarities, and Mythic rares are a subtype of rare.

Anyway, just a thing to think about.

MTG: Designing Tokens

Here’s a thing I’m working on.

If you play Magic: The Gathering, you’ll know that some cards create tokens – which are kind of cards that aren’t cards. Basically, a token is a thing that a card can create that isn’t represented by a card. If you don’t know Magic, this is probably a bit boring. Feel free to go elsewhere.

Anyway!

Continue reading

MTG: It’s Not Gacha

I try not to shoot from the hip on matters like these.

I try not, generally speaking, to do long-form articles about important topics where the subject matter is high impact and there are well-intentioned people who look uninformed to me. It’s a sure-fire way of wading into a complex situation where I contribute no actual value, just noise.

Plus, this is the intersection of Magic: the Gathering, game development, and human incentive systems, which I’m sorry to say I’m rapidly doing things that make me kind of expert on, even if I shy from being considered an expert. There’s a whole gulf of information between where I sit and where a lot of other voices on the matter sit, which can make me feel like I’m either talking over them (because they don’t know what they’re talking about, and don’t realise that) or that I’m getting into an extremely contentious fight (because they know what they’re talking about, and are presenting falsehoods and do not care).

Still, it’s April, it’s my month, you’re here on my blog so sit down, shut up, and learn why every time people compare Gacha to Magic: the Gathering I roll my eyes so hard it makes my skull ache.

Continue reading

MTG: Tiny Cube

Let’s assume you’re familiar with Cube.

Okay, no wait, let’s not assume. The basics of Cube is that it’s a pool of cards and you draft them and play Magic: The Gathering with what you’ve drafted. An in-depth discussion can be read here.

Now, let’s assume you’re familiar with Winston Drafting.

Wait, no, that’s a bad idea. Winston Drafting is the idea of a format for drafting cards between a small number of players – two or three is the usual numbers. You Winston draft by slowly generating piles that become more and more desireable. You can read an in-depth discussion about that here.

Now, let’s talk about Tiny Cube.

Continue reading

MTG: Tapping Out

I’m not going to write regularly about Magic: the Gathering this year.

There are a few reasons for it, but the basic one is that it’s neither easy nor fun any more.

When I started writing articles about Magic: The Gathering the plan was that since I was playing Standard, Modern and Commander, I’d just post the deck I played that week, give it a little twist, and move on, or maybe talk about new sets when they came out. This would build on my old work on Starcity Games under the heading Tact or Friction. I think about that column from time to time – a year spent writing, for money, about Magic to an audience of thousands. I think about it because I think it was such a colossal, embarassing waste.

I wanted, in my heart of hearts, to make the kind of content that FNM-fan Magic players could enjoy. Things that could help the new players step up, avoid the pitfalls of chasing expensive junk rares. I thought I could talk to the design of the game (and in many ways, I was right, a fact I hold to my heart as tight as I can in these moments of despair), and I wanted to try and make the game better and more fun in the ways that I thought it could be. And as justified as I was, I’ll still always be that guy who submitted a spiteful, angry ill-thought out screed and it got paid for.

I know I could do better now.

I wanted to work on Magic: The Gathering content, which has three basic forms that are easy to work with, using my new direction of not being a total asshole. First, there’s talking about a deck, or a deck piece. The second is responding to new releases, doing things like set reviews. The third is to respond to current events, things like big public events, like when I wrote about the data release problem two years ago.

Well, the big events thing ran into a problem in that there wasn’t a lot of happy news around Magic: The Gathering to respond to. People I liked left the company, which was a bummer. The story went directions I didn’t enjoy. There was a boycott of worlds, moments of commentators being total dicks about things, at least one sexual harrassment scandal, and the classic reddit spiral of ‘jackasses saying the same wrong stuff about the game.’  There was an endless maw of news, but it was always spiteful, and tired, and ignorant.

As far as releases go, they were dreadfully uninspiring. I literally forgot to do a set review for Hour of Devastation, back in 2017 and my review of Ixalan was so negative that I actually revised it to be nicer to the set because I know people worked hard on it. I just skipped the set reviews since – I found myself not wanting to say much that was nice about Rivals of Ixalan, which reflected in my ‘set review.’ I barely bothered for the remaining sets of the year – Core Set 2019, I mean jeeze.

Oh, and of course, there’s the importance of Nicol Bolas. I don’t care about Nicol Bolas, I don’t like Nicol Bolas. He’s not a compelling villain (to me), and the way he’s brought in to be behind everything feels like a DM’s pet NPC (to me). He’s had something like six cards in the past two years and every time we get a New, Different Nicol Bolas, he’s eating the space that could be used by something I care about. We could be exploring new mysteries or building new villains or just dealing with something other than more of Nicol Bolas’ plans, but seems that no. No, it’s much better that we keep going back to the well of an omnipresent, eternally important character whose defining trait is well I already thought of that like you’re playing lets-pretend with a little kid.

Over the course of the last year, Standard has been an environment about waiting for it to change. Dominaria was full of promise, but mostly spent its time reminding me how bad Magic used to be. Ixalan promised an exciting new place and insight into Vraska, but no, that’s just another Bolas plot. Guilds of Ravnica promised to return to beloved guilds and plane, but no, turns out that’s also a Bolas plot and also the guilds I liked look awful.

The past two years of Magic: The Gathering have been very much Not For Me, even as I appreciate and am glad to see the new technological developments and improvements the designers have had access to. I genuinely find that exciting. But the environments they’re creating and the ensuing play experience has just not appealed to me, and it has slowly but steadily driven the kind of content I can make, leading to things like the pet cards (which I really liked doing) and the Kamigawa revamp (which was fun, but exhausting).

I’m going to keep playing the game. It’s still a great game. But it’s a game I don’t want to play every week. It’s not a game whose content churn is pleasing to me, nor do I want to be part of.

MTG: Kamigawa Revamp, Part 5: Betrayers of Kamigawa

Wizards of the Coast Employees, this article is going to feature custom card designs.

Goodness me, this project took some time. The opening documents you’ve read so far have all been done, weeks, no, almost months in advance, but as I sit here and pen this, it’s only two weeks before it goes up – and my goodness it has been a time to get this project finished.

First, let’s introduce you to the cards, and then we’ll talk some afterwards.

Continue reading

MTG: Kamigawa Revamp, Part 3: Legendary

Wizards of the Coast Employees, this article is going to feature custom card designs.

We’ve talked about the structural problems of Kamigawa 1.0, but just to recap, the whole set is about six conflicting factions – five mono-coloured groups against the five-coloured omnishambles that is the Spirit faction. With that problem ‘examined’ last time, it’s time to attack the next structural problem: Legendary.

Continue reading

MTG: Kamigawa Revamp, Part 2: The Kami War

Wizards of the Coast Employees, this article is going to feature custom card designs.

When you want to dismantle a set and fix it, it seems to me you should want to get down as close as possible to the basics of what went into that set. Strip it down, examine the central principles, and see what you can do to fix them. You need to find the things that made the set feel the way it did without, hopefully, carrying forwards the things that made it feel bad. Which means that you want to represent the same general factional struggle and strife, you want things to broadly still have the same boxes they can land in and in Kamigawa that means addressing the big flavour underpinning the whole thing:

The Kami War. Continue reading

MTG: Pet Cards XIX, Amonkhet Block

I guess… this is the end?

The most recent set to cycle out, the most recent set I can think of as having ‘gone’ from Standard. A set I played a lot, with my fistful of change, a set I watched streamers drafting. A set that I really did like.

I might go back and look at Odyssey block again, because, I mean surely I should? But I’m going to enjoy digging into Amonkhet in the coming weeks, to play with it out of standard, to see what casual modern feels like in the MTGO playrooms.

Continue reading

MTG: Karador and the Decisive Combo

Some Commanders create a robust structure around them, a sort of general-purpose space where you can use them to construct a solid but not unreasonable deck. Sometimes a Commander is a back-up plan, who can come in to bat clean-up after your deck has done its thing. Sometimes a commander enables a slow, grinding playstyle and sometimes they are the sword which you plunge into other players’ hearts.

Maybe we’ll talk about some of those soon.

Anyway, one of my favourite Commanders, a commander who helped really crystallise me as a Commander player on MTGO, is Karador, Ghost Chieftain.

I may just be a sucker for playing dudes with antlers.

Continue reading

MTG: Pet Cards XVIII, Kaladesh Block

When I started this series, it was on a whim, and I did not map it out at all. I picked an arbitary start point (I mean, Odyssey was legal when I started, why not start there? I played Extended, why not reach back to the start of that? I play a lot of cards that predate myself, etc etc) and just kept going bi-weekly. I wasn’t aiming to be relevant or timely. I try to avoid that!

I didn’t realise Kaladesh and Amonkhet would have just rotated by the time I got to them.

Kaladesh is a bit too fresh, and it was in part something that edged me out of Standard, even as it pushed me into playing with my cube a lot. This set had one of the first mechanics I’ve ever seen that made Fox – Fox! – actively happy about the way a limited environment played. It had a huge cultural importance, I got to watch the rolling waves of cultural imposition, accusations of mistakes, cultural insensitivity and the fascinating question of what respect to faith in this context.

And also, a bunch of busted, busted cards.

Continue reading

MTG: Halloween Commanders, Part One

This started out, at first, as an attempt to make a Halloweeny Commander deck. Then it became an examination of two Halloweeny Commanders side-by-side. Then four. Then six. Then I realised that I have no business trying to make decks for all these, certainly not in a month.

So instead: let’s look at some commanders and grade them by their Halloweenyness.

Continue reading

MTG: Pet Cards XVI, Khans Block

The best block of modern MTG history is the block with the single biggest structural mistake in it and it’s a structural mistake because there is basically no meaningful way to have course-corrected or changed it. Making this mistake was 100% reasonable in the way that Magic sets are crafted and in a way it’s good that the structure that bound Khans and ruined Tarkir died here. It was doomed before Tarkir was made, but it seems fitting perhaps that a design dragon – the needs of small sets to serve larger ones – was slain in the lands of Tarkir.

What I’m talking about is that Khans of Tarkir is, without a doubt, one of the best sets of modern Magic. It is one of the best worlds, and its cultures represent something we both haven’t had much of and were finally able to put conception to. In most faction sets, the factions include a few duds – most people can appreciate an element of a faction or two, but most people who like the MTG factions will like one or two of them. Tarkir howerver put this on its ass because all the factions are cool, and have something about them to recommend (except the Sultai, who make up for their moral and narrative failings with grotesque power). Tarkir was great and it was cool and it had this interesting post-apocalyptic feel thanks to the absence of Dragons, but it didn’t hurt for them. Without dragons, the game had to make do with other big things that crashed through defensive lines.

Then, the fiction told us, we went back in time (a bad sign) and changed things to bring back dragons. Which could have been cool, but it meant all those noble, interesting, exciting khans we met, and grew attached to were now all losers subservient to a bunch of dragons, who were also now emblematic of the death of The Thing We Liked.

How were Wizards to know that we’d love their Khans? How were they to know we’d like Khans way better than their dragons that sucked? Dragons are consistantly some of the highest-polling cards in the game!

Continue reading

MTG: Pet Cards XV, Theros Block

Oh man, I remember this set! I got to draft this set for the first time in years. We sat down and did an in-home draft with a friend’s box, and it was super interesting. There was a wide variety of skill levels, and I lost – hard – to a runaway lifelinker with my mono-black aggro devotion deck. It was a lot of fun to play, though, and I remembered feeling that it was time to reboot my online account and get back to playing.

I have quite a few staples from Theros block. As with Charms, and Cluestones and Gates in Return To Ravnica, there are plenty of perfectly good cards in this set to build around or to always have on hand, and the Gods of Theros represent some of the better bulk mythics you’ll fine.

Except Keranos, weirdly.

You’ll never be wild about using Temples in your mana base, but you’ll also never be that unhappy with them compared to most of the lesser alternatives. You’ll not always be able to make the best use of cards like Heliod and Pharika, but having them around as potentially useful cheap threats in midrange and control decks works out well.

Oh, and Content Warning: I will show a card with a spider on it. Sorry!

Continue reading

MTG: Vintage Turning Room

I talk about materiality of games, and I’ve talked about how Magic: The Gathering has this invisible materiality that impacts how the games get designed. Now in some cases, this materiality is things like deck size and tournament duration and things that keep players shuffling and interacting with the material object. I’ve said that Commander, the format is transformed in terms of speed if you simply ban every single card that says search’ and ‘library,’ or roughly 600 cards. No land-out-of-library based ramp, no more tutors, no more repetitive gamestates.

There is, however, another type of materiality that Magic: The Gathering tries to make invisible, and that’s cost.

Magic isn’t, despite what you may hear, an actually expensive hobby. It can be – you can spend a lot, but to play the game itself has a lot of really cheap venues. Digital versions of the game can be played at the highest level of access for literally nothing, for example, and then there’s MTGO, where cards’ values are largely deflated, so if you want to play (for example) a deck with Bayous, there’s a marked price difference: Continue reading

MTG: Pet Cards XIII, Innistrad Block

God, I love this set. I love Innistrad for its flavour and its aesthetics, and also because it sort of represents the reality I understood of the world growing up. Trust the masters, trust the pastors, because they know what’s going on. Outside is dark, outside is lonely, do not go outside, do not risk the night.

There are wolves.

And they will make you one of them.

Continue reading

MTG: Hallar Great

So, there’s this enby.

I love making commander decks. Even the ones that get stomped a fair bit. It’s kind of hard to call a commander deck good, or bad, because Commander 1v1 is such a swingy format with nonsense flying around. It’s like a slightly more splashy vintage where the early turns don’t tend to matter quite as much. You can sometimes just get infinited out by a god draw that the other deck is never planning on actually doing.

What’s more, there are usually a lot of different ways to build a commander deck – my Wasitora for example is nothing like the Wasitora’s I’ve seen online, where I made a value Jund deck and other people make a dragon tribal removal-heavy deck. I’ve been looking

Hallar, the Firefletcher is my latest passion.

Continue reading

MTG: Notstalgia

Look, I know it’s Magic: The Gathering‘s 25th birthday. I know that it’s a year when the game is going to do a massive victory lap for its own persistence. I don’t mind that. I celebrate that! I love that this game has shown that its particular combination of components and concepts has underneath it all, longevity and excellence in design. I love that I can show my students this game and they can come up with whole games that just use one of the mechanics in Magic. It’s a dizzyngly deep game, and it deserves to spend some time thumping its chest.

There have been, in this year three major dips into the well of nostalgia, between Masters 25, Dominaria, and the hype of returning to a Core Set, yielding Core Set 2019 with a headline of classic Elder Dragons. Woo, 1995!

One of the all-purpose lazy content vehicles you can get out of Magic: The Gathering is the set review. I liked doing them back in the day, in part because new cards excited me but also because I had a gimmick that not many other folk I was reading did: I ignored a lot of cards. There were a lot that weren’t good enough to play with in a deck in the formats I liked.

Since doing this on my blog, however (and I have been doing it now for a bit over a year), I realised I kind of don’t want to do these set reviews in a big part because I don’t want to be too negative. I like Ixalan’s flavour, but my set reviews of it yielded a disconcolate grumpiness, a dispassionate disinterest in the cards themselves. I’ve since shifted a little bit on Ixalan – I certainly regard it more fondly than I did at the launch, and there are still cards from Ixalan I haven’t played with yet that I wanted to.

Yet here I am, looking at the now of Magic, that’s focused on the past of Magic, and remembering that I’ve been there. That wasn’t great. I wanted to leave.

It’s just awkward. Right now, a lot of Magic: The Gathering is about reverence to the past that I hold in disdain. Even my favourite set of the time, a home of some beloved cards, cards that are out of even modern for being Too Something, Onslaught block, has been shown over and over to be full of mistakes. It would make me happy to see the cards of Onslaught brought back to thrive without the pressures of Psychatog, Counterspell, Astral Slide or Goblin Warchief, and yet, those aren’t the parts of the past we remember.

Then again, they brought back Goblin Warchief from that block.

It reminds me of Time Spiral, a block about the history of Magic. A block where we were told we could see anything, see anywhere, we could get a glimpse of Magic’s future, and I hated it because it didn’t show me the future we are in now. I didn’t get to see things like Bestow, or the mindset behind the creature removal of Murder, or the new, interesting and fun ways games can be about stuff other than the draw step.

It’s weird. I love this game but the things of the past five years have shown me greater and more fervent love than anything before it.

I guess what I’m saying is Khans rule.

MTG: Pet Cards XI, Rise of the Eldrazi

After the discomfort of Zendikar, a set I never realised I disliked, I figured Rise of the Eldrazi would be suitably bothersome. After all, it had one of the worst creature combat mechanics of all time in Annihilator, it wanted to clog up the board, it filled the world with little 0/1 tokens and was hard to approach. Not to mention that it introduced us to The Eldrazi, or MTG’s response to Cthulhu, Just Please Without The Racist Baggage.

That the Eldrazi were imprisoned on a plane populated by humanoids who were chalk white is kind of funny in hindsight.

Yet despite this, when I went to get a list of pet cards from Rise I was shocked, shocked to see how many cards there were in this set that I loved. So much so that I felt like I could do a pet card from this set for each major mechanic in the set.

Continue reading

MTG: Why We Cut

You ever spoken to an actual card sharp?

These days you’ll mostly only know that kind of operator as a person who does tricks. Not the people at a bar who knows a trick or two. I mean an honest to god magician, someone who actually knows how to do actual card tricks, the kind of things that you keep well and clear away from card games, because if anyone knows you can do something like that, you destroy the ability of people around you to trust what you’re doing.

I’m serious.

There is a lot of playing a game with cards that rely on a sort of shared fiction of randomness, and most of the time you’re dealing with random enough. There’s a reason people are prone to blaming ‘the shuffler’ on MTGO – quite a lot of people aren’t used to actual randomness, stochastic patterns of what can actually happen when you let a machine run the math that your wobbly human hands of meat and bone can’t quite get done elegantly.

And what damages that even more is learning just how much control someone else can have over a shuffle.

Thanks to my odd backgrounds, there’s a part of my life where I did learn The Olde School of Magicke And Illusion. Not cool stuff with pendants, witches and fishnet tights. I mean the stuff with top hats and coloured wands and fishnet tights. Part of this skill set was a lot of is thiiiis your card nonsense. I was not great at it, and having my cards confiscated multiple times for potential demonic summoning was kind of a damper on practicing. Also, nobody cared to watch as I learned and practiced. But you know one skill that’s really important to that skillset that never goes away once you learn it?

Trick shuffles.

This here is a Double Undercut. It looks like a reasonably natural shuffle. The top card of that deck is the Jack of Hearts, the card cut into the centre. This is not only doable, but this is doable with other shuffling forms. You can make more loops, put the card from the middle to the bottom to the top to the bottom to the top again, over and over again, with a great deal of confidence. You can do this with a riffle shuffle if you know how to reverse a deck. It’s really not hard once you know the techniques, the rest is just practice.

I make a big show of how I shuffle. People tend to be impressed with how I do it, because I riffle shuffle, and I do it faster than they do. I don’t tend to lecture people or show off how to do trick shuffles, because I don’t want people thinking I’m going to do it. It’s important to me to play fair, and to always play fair, and even if I’m not cheating, knowing that I can cheat – in a way other people can’t – is really distressing.

And that’s legitimtae! That’s a really real concern!

There’s another type of player who don’t like seeing you know how to cheat, and that is cheaters.

I chatted with a card sharp this weekend, at a convention. I appreciated their skill, and we talked a little. I was selling card games, he was getting paid to show off his card skills, and it was a fun little conversation. One thing we both agreed on, though, was how many people who play cards leave themselves wide open to be cheated.

You probably already know some basic tricks to protect yourself from cheating in Magic: The Gathering. Cut your opponents’ deck, every time. When you shuffle, offer your deck to be cut, every time. When they shuffle, and don’t offer to cut, interrupt them, explain what you want to do, and do it, every time, even if it annoys them.

The important thing is you make this a rule. You always do it.

If you always do it, even this very modest anti-cheating measure, you remove the ability for anyone to feel singled out. People can’t complain that you’re showing them a lack of distrust.

You set up these gates, and you make it a rule, not because everyone cheats. Barely anyone cheats. Almost nobody cheats. But when you do this, you make it clear to the players who do cheat, who can cheat, that you’re not going to give them the easy ones. You’re going to discourage them from trying.

Are you going to catch everyone with this mindset? No, not at all. Should you do it anyway? Yes. You should do it, and you should do it with your friends for the same reason you should get vaccines. It’s there to protect you and your friends, it’s about the people who make it necessary. And if you’re a streamer or playing in public with your friends? You should do it then, too – because you’re trying to spread the idea that this is a thing you should always do.

MTG: Pet Cards X, Zendikar And Worldwake

Zendikar block! One of the ‘great’ periods of Magic history, a ‘beloved’ set that featured ‘classic’ cards with a ‘challenging’ draft environment, with ‘interesting’ mechanics!

What struck me going back to Zendikar was the general antipathy I had towards it. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t draft it, or maybe it was because this was the era I saw an actual in-the-flesh Magic deck that was worth as much as a car, but maybe it’s also the period of Magic’s history where the wheels came off the Planeswalker experiment in the first big way.

I thought for a while there that Zendikar was a really great set I was misremembering, and I kind of do still like some of the things it did, with the quest mechanic and the small creatures that became bigger threats late in the game. Yet when I go back to look the set over I’m reminded by how much of the set was built around fetchlands and mistakes, and it just kills my enthusiasm for it.

Continue reading