Three reasons why I quit Magic: The Gathering

When I was a teen, and for many years afterwards, Magic: The Gathering was one of my favourite games. Every week, I would meet in a local shop to play it and it would be rare for me to go more than a couple of days without building a deck or thinking about it. And yet, despite its enduring popularity, I no longer play it with any regularity.

COST

Magic is the most expensive game I’ve ever played. In fact, it may very well be the most expensive game I’m aware of. Despite being fully composed of cards, it requires an investment unmatched by any other title, even those that require highly detailed miniatures. A typical deck can cost more than 1000€ and paying 20, 40 or 90€ for a single card is commonplace.

You can reduce that price by playing in environments where only the newest cards are legal, but that’s more expensive in the long run. The price impacts the entire experience of play. Better cards are more expensive than weaker ones. Experimenting in deckbuilding comes with a hefty price tag and mistakes are punished, not just in game terms, but economically.

Even the community is worse for it. Magic players are constantly scared of having their cards stolen and indeed theft is not an uncommon occurrence. Some older players cheat children out of their good cards in trades and speculate on booster boxes like an unregulated stock market. Expensive “foil” cards act as status symbols, a nerdier equivalent of jewelry and conspicuous consumption.

The cost actually drove me out of the game when I was younger. I had been playing the same deck for years to an end, not because I wanted to, but because I couldn’t afford another. And, when it ceased to be legal in tournaments, I was left with no deck to play. My attempts to move to another hit a financial wall as I found myself unable to afford the expensive pieces of cardboard I needed to compete.

Even then, it’s never a matter of buying one deck. There are always new cards you need to buy, be it because they are more powerful or because you need to spice up your strategy. Each time you change your deck you must ask yourself if paying 6, 10, 50€ for just one card is worth the fun you’ll get from it. The whole game is filtered through your wallet at every step.

There are some ways to reduce the cost of the game. One can stick to unpopular cards, never play in tournaments and ask your friends to never spend more than you do. But that only highlights how damaging the price is to the experience. Magic players are so used to it that they struggle to recognize that fact. Ultimately, I decided to cut the knot and left the game entirely.

RANDOMNESS AND DEPTH

Still, even if Magic wasn’t so pricey, the truth is that I still wouldn’t play it anymore. Despite its large influence in the art form, Magic is heavily flawed as a game. Burdened by poor design decisions since its birth, it’s heavily dominated by luck. Games often boil to who drew the right cards and a large number of them don’t even give a player a chance.

To play your spell cards you need to draw lands. If you don’t, it doesn’t matter how good you are, you won’t be able to do anything. Conversely, if you draw too many lands, you won’t have enough spells to compete and you’ll also lose. This effect, known as mana screw can cause you to lose up to 20% of your matches through no fault of your own.

This is a well-known issue with the game, but it’s far from the only problem. A well-timed discard spell, mass removal or the wrong matchup can also create one-sided games. For years, I defeated opponents who couldn’t do anything to stop my combo decks and folded to those that could. That’s no longer fun to me. I seek games that are more interactive and meaningful.

About a third of Magic matches aren’t matches at all. You can have such an overwhelming advantage or such bad luck that your decisions cease to matter. Beginning a game only to not be able to do anything is no longer an acceptable use of my time. While I can still enjoy Magic casually and even like drafting it, the number of non-games is too high for me to partake in it with regularity.

OTHER GAMES

Lastly, I found other games that I liked more than Magic. Abandoning the scene and selling my cards allowed me to get deeper into board games. I discovered Cosmic Encounter, The Republic of Rome and Innovation; all great games that now sit amongst my favourites. While I don’t regret my time with Magic, I have more fun now than I did before.

Above all, setting Magic aside allowed me to explore other card games such as Android: Netrunner and Legend of the Five Rings. Not only were these amazing designs with an unsurpassed level of depth, they were also cheap. Part of Fantasy Flight’s series of “Living Card Games”, each 13,5€ expansion came with a full playset of every card which means you could deck build without breaking the bank.

After so many years of playing these games and even competing in their tournaments, I can’t see myself going back to Magic. Even if I could afford to play it, it no longer satisfies me on a strategic level. I need games that push me to improve, that make me think about tactics and where I can show off my skills. Magic, while fun, is not the best game for me to do that.

Still, I can’t deny it occupies a small place in my heart. As a farewell, I built a “Cube”, a handpicked Magic set to draft with my friends with my favourite archetypes and cards. It has a low mana curve to prevent non-games from happening and its designed to be a more interactive experience. Building it has been a great experience and now I can keep a small bit of the game for when I feel nostalgic.

2 Comments

  • Haha, I hate loving this game! Wall of text incoming!

    The blog “Killing a goldfish” had a good post about WOTC’s business model, Magical Capitalism (and also a bunch of good reviews for older sets!). It’s not just stupidly expensive, but WOTC has also created a load of bad incentives for itself. For them, classics, sleeper hits, long sellers really aren’t a thing. There’s only perpetual hype for the next thing. Original Innistrad shows up on everyone’s list of best draft sets. If they were a normal game publisher, they would be rewarded for that by selling it over and over for a long time because people want to check out what the fuss is about. But doing that would upset the actual customer base. As it is, they can make a bit of money from the people who can tolerate Magic Online, by running flashback drafts on there sometimes.

    I want to defend the land system a bit. It needs some little hacks (scrying, cycling, stuff like that) to be bearable, but there’s something that would be lost without it. Most TCGs are very rigid about the factions you play in one deck, but Magic lets you combine as many colors as you want. You can just play the best stuff from all the colors, but you have to dedicate some amount of cards in your deck and game actions to make that work. (And money, let’s not forget that! All the good dual lands must be rare because they’re so widely useful. Sigh.)

    I like it especially when drafting a cube or the Kaldheim set from earlier this year. I just find it a really interesting choice to pick between a spell that helps me win games, or a piece of color fixing that broadens my options.

    • The land system is terrible, but it’s very hard to replicate some of its benefits without drawbacks. I’m alway surprised nobody has translated Magic to a better resource system. There are patches, like getting one “land” per turn but none that are truly better.

      Funnily enough, I also like drafting lands in cube or in Kaldheim.

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