Monday, December 17, 2012

Combating Stagnation in Magic: the Gathering

Why do players of competitive games just copy the strategies of professional players, instead of utilizing their own experimentation and creativity?  How can designers encourage experimentation and failure when competitive players want to win at all costs?  Max uses Magic: the Gathering as a case study and proposes some solutions.

What is Magic: the Gathering?
Magic: the Gathering was the first ever collectible card game (CCG).  Created by Richard Garfield and distributed by (then unheard-of) Wizards of the Coast in 1993.  The game almost single handedly put Wizards of the Coast on the map and has to date sold billions of cards.  For those of you who don't know, Magic (and most copycat CCGs) function by allowing players to buy packs of random cards to add to their collections, many of them different, with different rarities and special abilities.  From their collections, players construct decks of cards specially built so that the cards within each deck work well together.  Finally, players meet in matches where two or more players (each with their own deck) compete to bring their opponents' life totals to zero.

Over the past 10 years, over 10,000 different cards have been printed and are available to build decks with.  Because the older ones are sometimes very expensive and hard to find, many tournaments limit the cards allowed to the most recent cards printed (roughly 1100 cards), in order to make the game more accessible to new players.

Each Magic deck usually utilizes somewhere between 15 and 25 different cards.  For a large tournament, there will be thousands of players, each choosing around 25 cards out of the available 1100 to construct their decks out of.  You would expect, then, that every opponent would have a different and original deck for you to play against.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  Just take a look at the decks of finalists in a recent tournament: here's a list of the decks that placed 1st through 8th at a pro tour.  The main thing to note here is that in 8, there are really only two different types of deck—five of them are based on a card called Snapcaster Mage, and the other three are based on Huntmaster of the Fells.

The Catch 22
Some people would say, "Homogeneity in top scoring decks isn't a problem! It just shows that the decks represented there are the best, the ones that rose to the front of the pack."  The problem with this concept is that it rests on one central assumption: that all decks (or at least a great variety of decks) were represented.  If only a few types of decks are being played in a given tournament, then all that can be said is that the top eight decks are better than the other decks in the competition. The truth is, it's really hard to build a competitive Magic deck.  Not only does it often take lots of money and creativity, but it also takes an extreme amount to testing to see whether the deck you've come up with is going to be able to win.  Because of this, a vast majority of players take the easy way out: they copy (or slightly modify) decks that have been proven successful.  And where do they find successful decks?  Why, the top eight decks of previous tournaments, of course!

This creates a catch 22 that crushes creativity in building Magic decks.  The decks that make top eight are the best of the decks that are popular and are being played.  The decks that are popular and are being played are chosen from the top eight decks of previous tournaments. (This process is called "netdecking"—copying a deck from the internet).  And lest you don't believe me, every few months someone comes up with a brilliant new deck that shakes up the format by being unique among very homogenous top eight lists.  Then what happens?  The next tournament's top eights become composed of four copies of the new deck.

This kind of fallacy exists in all sorts of games, even in competitive sports, where often players only do what has been done to win in the past.  When someone does show some creativity and experimentation, sometimes it turns the sport upside down.

 Why This Sucks
 Having a vast majority of decks either be netdecked, or conform to a known archetype has several drawbacks from a gameplay perspective.  Most obviously, one of the best parts of Magic (for me at least) is building innovative decks.  Because anyone can copy a deck that is good (although not necessarily the best) from the internet, amateur deckbuilders simply cannot compete with the majority of their opponents' decks.  It's also just more fun to play against "rogue" (original) decks.  Not only is it fun to see how they function, but doesn't feel terrible to lose to an opponent who designed a clever deck herself, and played it well.  It does feels cruddy, however, to lose to someone who copied his deck off the internet two nights before.

Fixing this problem is not an easy task.  A version of it occurs in nearly every competitive game out there; from Pok√©mon to League of Legends, playstyles, strategies, builds, and choices become tiered as to what is believed to be "best" by the community, and then players are pressured into using only those standard choices and not being able to experiment for fear of losing.  How do we redesign Magic's system that inspires creativity while preventing homogeneity?

3. Limiting Information
This is the worst solution to the problem, because it is impossible to implement.  If deck lists from top eights, and indeed full lists of cards in print were not possible to obtain, then it would be much more difficult to copy others' decks, and also to even know what resources were available to build decks.  For example, a few years back Mark Rosewater wrote about how when he was first learning Magic, his instructor told him to always "keep my cards spread far apart from one another. When I asked why, he explained that he had heard of a card that destroyed any card it touched. He had never seen it, but word had spread of its infamy." By limiting access to information about cards, players would have to make do with what they have, which although not necessarily desirable, would indeed force creativity.  Of course, this isn't a solution at all because the advent of the internet necessarily prevents inhibiting the spread of information.  Maybe after the zombie apocalypse Magic decks will be more original, but not right now.

2. Limiting Access to Cards
Printing fewer of each card has the potential benefit of forcing players to make do with more unique decks, as they would not have the rare and powerful cards necessary to to copy someone others' decks.  I promise that if you visit any junior high school and observe the decks being used there by children just learning to play Magic, you will find a much greater variety of decks than in competitive play, mostly due to the fact that they can only really afford to make decks with the cards they have opened from randomized booster packs.  As an interesting thought experiment, what if the same number of Magic cards were printed, but each one was split into four or five different variations?  On a Magic card, often times what makes it powerful are its abilities--how it changes the fundamental nature of the game when it is played.  Other things that make them powerful can be things like their "power" and "toughness" which are how much damage they deal, and their hit points respectively.  Finally, the cards' "mana costs" are important because this number dictates how early you can get them out on the field.  What if instead of printing a card with a particular ability, fixed power and toughness, and fixed cost, the power, toughness, and cost varied among printings?  They would have to be balanced carefully, of course, but you could find a card with "Ability N," 6 power, 6 toughness, and 6 cost, but also a similar card (with the same name) with "Ability N," 1 power, 2 toughness, and 2 cost.  This would have two effects.  First, it would limit access to the version of the card used in top eight decklists, forcing players perhaps to diversify.  Second, it would allow for greater creativity.  If you put the 6 cost version in your deck, you are casting it for the ability, and for its power.  If you put the 2 cost version in your deck, you are using it primarily for its ability.  One card, then, has two very distinct uses in two very different decks.

Of course, I predict that again due to the internet, the "right" versions of every card (ones used in winning decks) would be highly sought after, and their prices would rise with no real gain in creativity at the competitive scene, although there might be a rise in creativity in the casual play scene.

1. Self-Limiting Use of Cards: Budget Magic
This has all been leading to a possible solution, and the concept is quite simple:  Using an official price list of the average market value of individual card, the sum total real money cost of a deck to be played in a tournament is limited to $X.  I would find it particularly fun to play with decks that cost less than $20 in real life Magic, or $5 in Magic Online (in which all the cards are cheaper), but there could be multiple price brackets.  Although the concept is simple, it has several profound effects on building decks because card prices are reasonably based on supply and demand: as a card becomes popular its price rises.  First, deck builders must achieve a balance in their decks between cards that are very powerful (and thus expensive), and cards that are less expensive.  This encourage use of a greater range of cards.  Second, this highly encourages finding "hidden gems," cards that have the potential to be powerful, but have not been widely used yet.  Third, whenever a deck wins a tournament, the demand for its cards will go up, and many of those cards will no longer be viable because they will cost much more.  This causes a limit to the percentage of players in tournaments that can be using one archetype of deck, because eventually the demand for the cards in that deck becomes high enough to disqualify the deck.  It has the added benefit of increasing variability even among decks that are similar to a winner's decks.  Often times rising prices will force players of a copied deck to choose between one expensive card, or another.  Whichever card they choose to cut, they will have to creatively decide which cheap card to replace it with.

This solution has several drawbacks, but none of them is essentially insurmountable, and most are technical.  In order for "Budget Magic" to work, there would have to be a centralized price list.  This would require Wizards of the Coast to designate official seller(s) from which this list can be drawn.  Players would also have to be able to know card prices well ahead of tournaments, and would have to be sure their deck won't be disqualified at the last minute due to price fluctuations.  To deal with this, Wizards of the Coast would have to take a snapshot of card prices around a week before each tournament and release it as the price list for that tournament.  Policing adherence would not be particularly difficult, as big tournaments already log lists of deck contents, and in small tournaments players would probably be able to spot cheaters, especially if the winning deck was always checked.  Of course, it would suck to have your deck disqualified due to price changes between tournaments, but if the price threshold is kept low (like $5-$20), very little would actually be lost.  Most of these problems would be a lot easier to solve in Magic: the Gathering Online where the program could handle enforcement, and prices are cheaper.

In short, having deck power be limited by price demand of cards--what I'm calling Budget Magic--has the potential to require creativity and experimentation in decks.  In Budget Magic, nearly every deck you play against will have to be unique.  Because of this, everyone will get to try their hand at creating competitive decks.  Losing won't feel as cruddy, since you lost because your opponent beat you due to their own cleverness, and you'll get to see something new.  And finally, as an added benefit the game will be cheaper to play due to hard limits on deck costs!

That said, grafting this mechanic onto Magic as another play format may not be the right solution.  Instead, perhaps this calls for a new trading card game built around the budgeting system!



Van Melikian said...

Pretty interesting read, actually. However, here's my take on the whole thing:

As someone with a whole lot of competitive experience in games (not just Magic, but Starcraft, DotA, LoL, and WoW), innovation is something that is always important for me to keep track of. That said, as Max points out in the article, there is actually very little incentive for me to actually innovate anything drastic.

Generally, in competitive play, if you are not one of the best players and your main goal is to win, the optimal way to do that is to use whatever is working. I've netdecked plenty of times. I've also come up with my own ideas, tried them, and seen 2 weeks later that there is a very similar deck idea online that did what I thought of better than I did it, and I adjusted accordingly. The reason being that it's largely about time. Pro players in MTG and other games spend more time testing things. I played MTG while I was in high school doing a bunch of other crap, so I didn't have time to test every combination of everything. The most innovative I had time to be was, "How do I make a new aggro deck" because it dealt with most problems in the same way, so testing wasn't necessary.

I'm also not sure this is a problem. For one, this is how pretty much everything in society works. For any sort of advancement, you always have innovators, early adopters, most people, and then late adopters. I don't feel like everyone being an innovator is necessarily a good thing, because it forces a larger time commitment to be that innovator. I don't have time to play enough LoL to test every crazy build possibility on a champ to find the next AP Amumu or similarly accidentally broken thing. I can see when these sorts of things are discovered and adjust accordingly, but I don't have time to innovate, nor am I good enough to know what is necessarily good, or what worked because of skill discrepancies. In a lot of ways, this problem is unsolvable because part of what being the best means is understand the game at a better level, which lets one innovate stronger decks.

In Magic, the lack of card variation within a given format is also not a huge problem because not every card is meant for every format. Most cards in a set are actually designed to be used in limited. Because limited tends to be a much slower format, cards that are simply "too slow" for standard become great in limited, because now you have time to play them (big fat green monsters being a prime example). It would simply be a bad business model for Wizards to have there be competitively viable T2 or even Block Format decks comprised entirely of commons, or even commons and uncommons. The interesting and brokenly powerful cards need to be relegated to the rare/mythic rare slots, which leaves most of the cards in the packs much more playable in limited. There are also cards that may be terrible in one format, but given another format where more cards are available, become stronger. Dragonstorm, when it was reprinted in Time Spiral, is a great example of this. It sucked in block constructed, but in Standard it became stronger as it gained access to cards to combo with and cards to set up the combo.

I would say that, if you want variation in Magic, try playing a lot of draft, or just play casually. Competitive play is not for everyone, especially if the game you are trying to play isn't the "how do I build an optimal deck to win given the tournament constraints," but rather, "how do I build an optimal deck using my own personal constraints and this cool idea that I had."

Max Seidman said...

I agree that this lack of creativity isn't NECESSARILY a problem given that it saves time. It's just that we have plenty of games (and in Magic, we have plenty of competitive formats) for people who want to play the "how do I do well given my own personal time constraints" game. I'm not saying that the Budget Magic system is inherently better than any Magic competitive format, merely that it should exist as an alternative, whether that means as another format of constructed Magic (or MTGO), or as a different type of CCG.

I love playing casually because it allows me to play fun and funny decks that are built with my favorite constraints: using cheap cards and innovative strategies. But I also enjoyed playing competitively because a competitive format gives you strict rules to ensure people are on a generally level playing field. Budget Magic would marry the two, and is not for people who don't enjoy the deckbuilding part of CCGs a ton. That said, while Budget Magic would make the average time to build a deck longer, it would make the time to build and test an innovative deck shorter, make the decks cheaper, and significantly more fun to play against. In addition it wouldn't wholly remove netdecking, it would just lessen its impact and inject some creativity into nearly every netdeck.

While variation is part of the problem and decks from drafts are indeed more varied, they cannot make adequate use of cool synergies and all the cards deemed "unusable" by competitive magic.