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Magic: The Gathering is Sesame Street

Why I Love: Voyageur developer Bruno Dias says that 25 years on, the collectible card game is transitioning from a popular product to a cultural fixture

Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This column was contributed by Bruno Dias, designer of the mobile sci-fi RPG Voyageur and a writer on Dim Bulb Games' upcoming Where the Water Tastes Like Wine.

When I signed up for this, I didn't realize how hard it would be; this article has been kicking my ass for a week. It turns out that writing about something with unambiguous positivity is difficult and fraught; there's a vulnerability in being a fan of something that isn't there, thankfully, in being a critic of something.

Magic: The Gathering seems to be talked about in two modes: With a layer of ironic detachment, or in the devotional tones of an enthusiast. The former, to me, wouldn't be honest (or germane to the point of this whole column series). But the latter wouldn't be truthful either; I don't really play Magic any more, even though I keep up with the game. Of course, I straddle the line between critic and developer and that just makes it all the more uncomfortable. Still, this is why those kinds of pieces seem necessary to me; because we're living with this discourse that prizes detachment and punishes vulnerability.

"Most tabletop games run on common sense; Magic is too big, too ancient, for common sense"

I bury my lede and say all this so I can be clear about how difficult this unambiguity is: I love Magic: The Gathering. I really do. And like all loves it's complicated; it's not a single, easily explained thing. Explaining your love for something doesn't lend itself easily to writing, because love doesn't have a throughline, or much of a point. It just is. So I have to pull this thing out of myself and turn it this way and that so you can see all the angles and facets of it. I won't look cool while doing it. Here goes.

I love Magic's unabashed complexity. Most tabletop games run on common sense; Magic is too big, too ancient, for common sense. Its rules have been honed to a degree of sharpness and precision that is impossible for other games to achieve. The time it takes to become a fully qualified Magic judge is longer than the lifespan of most games. Mark Rosewater, Magic's head designer, likens the complexity in Magic to a raging fire that Wizards of the Coast works to keep under control.

And as a designer I fully empathize; I know how bad complexity is, how easily people disengage and stop having fun the moment they don't understand something. I know what a difficult task it is to balance deep strategy against mechanical clarity. And yet. And yet, as a player, I want it to be complicated. I want the minutiae, I want those baroque rules. I know they're bad, but I still want them. I couldn't bear more than a few hours of Hearthstone because I felt like I understood everything that was possible in that game and all that was left to discover was a laborious climb up Mount Metagame.

I've been playing Magic on and off since 1999 or so and I still don't understand how the most terrifying corners of the rules interact. Magic will happily let you have Opalescence and Humility--two enchantments that read "every enchantment is a creature with power equal to its mana cost" and "every creature has 1 power"--next to each other on the table. I can look up judge rulings online to see what happens under those circumstances, but it would take about an hour to explain why. Any sane designer would call this a problem, a rough edge, an unfortunate artifact of Magic's age, complexity, and less-than-rigorous rules in its earlier days. But I can't help loving it; Magic contains genuine mysteries, in the original, religious sense of the word. People had to sit down, presumably in a conference room in Renton, WA, and figure out how Opalescence and Humility interact. Maybe several times over the years, as the rules get readjusted. To me, that's perversely fascinating.

Magic constantly threatens to go off the rails, to fall apart under the weight of its own complexity, to explode with unexpected possibilities. This past season, players were up in arms over an oppressive deck that won by attacking with an arbitrarily large number of cats. There are decks that win by playing 10 or 20 cards in a single turn, chewing through their deck with free mana and card draw until they reach their payload, a card with the Storm ability that causes their effect to scale with the number of spells cast on the same turn. There are decks that do nothing on their first turn so they can discard a card at the end of the turn (Magic enforces a maximum hand size of seven), because they play the game from their discard pile and not their hand. This kind of weirdness isn't the norm, but it's present. Magic entices with the possibility that the system can be broken, that the game can be tricked into doing things that were never intended.

I love Magic's engine for defining identity and character. Magic's colors are not factions or character classes, they are collections of themes, mechanics, philosophical principles. Blue isn't a collective of ice wizards, it's an overarching idea that humanity is perfectible, that progress is possible. The open-ended identities of the colors allow them to reinvent and realign themselves with every new world Magic visits as its hops across its multiverse. They allow players a degree of unabashed identification that would be distant and mediated otherwise. You might play Horde, or Protoss, or Pharah, but you are Blue, or Red, or Green. Magic's escapist fantasy is amplified a thousand times by being grounded in concepts that relate to the audience's own lives and experiences; something that most fantasy games would do well to think about. The colors are constants that act as a stable foundation for the ever-changing world of Magic, basic truths that remain even as everything gets rearranged around them.

Magic balances on this razor's edge between change and constancy, between comfort and novelty, between complexity and accessibility. Sometimes it totters this way or that; 25 years of refinement have gone into keeping this up.

Imagine what an avid, omnivorous gamer might have gotten in 1993: A Monstrous Manual for AD&D 2nd Edition; a copy of Myst on CD-ROM; Star Fox for the SNES; a few packs of first-edition Magic cards. The Magic cards are the only thing that would not only still be usable today, but still be actively supported by the company that made them. You can put your first edition Birds of Paradise in a deck with Carnage Tyrants from the Ixalan expansion that came out in September. They will work together fine, and you can take this deck to sanctioned tournaments and play it. Magic is Sesame Street; it has always been here and, gods willing, will always be here. We are reaching the point where players who grew up with Magic will be teaching it to their kids. We are reaching the point where Magic transcends being a product and becomes a cultural fixture on the level of Chess.

But the ultimate reason I care so much about Magic, a game I can't find the time or money to play any more, is the radical transparency Wizards has developed as their way of talking about the game to their audience. On Wizards' own website, Mark Rosewater has been writing weekly about the minutiae of designing Magic card sets since 2002. And he writes about it explicitly for his own audience, not for other game designers; this isn't on Gamasutra, it's side-by-side with preview information about the next set and articles about game strategy. A lot of people in this industry can trace their careers to the moment where they realized that people work in games and that making games is something they could do. How many people got this from Rosewater's column?

"Magic is an ancient thing that survives by making itself anew every few months; by constantly shedding its skin, it allows itself to grow"

If they weren't a regular thing when Rosewater started, development diaries are commonplace now, of course. But the particularities of Magic make his column different. Magic operates on a fixed release schedule, putting out four sets of new cards every year. In all its existence, it has never missed a release date, which is in itself astonishing. Rosewater writes from the perspective of someone who has spent 20 years honing and refining a very specific craft. The workflow, methodology, scheduling, and terminology of Magic design is something that people who follow that game closely have become conversant in. As a working game designer, not a lot of what Rosewater talks about is directly applicable to my own work. He is, after all, operating under some very special circumstances in a very particular game. But the most important thing that he brings is a certain point of view and attitude that I find invaluable.

He's willing to let himself be a fan of his own product without believing his own hype; Rosewater will willingly talk about the times Magic has failed in some way. He's unabashed about making his own tools, devising terminology and concepts to talk about and reason about his own work. He's willing to take that position of authority over his own work without it curdling into arrogance. His bouncy, hyper public persona is an oddly good complement to the inherent pulpy silliness of Magic itself. It contrasts against an industry that, at its worst, can be obsessed with cool at the expense of warmth, and more concerned with appearing smart than with actually understanding others.

There are game design texts that are more useful, or theoretically rigorous. And of course the role of those articles is as much to excite the audience about upcoming sets, and thus sell booster packs, as anything. But they were a way into understanding how to think about games for me, and I'll always appreciate them for that. And I still try to read most of them; like the game itself, it's still going. There are always cards to talk about, of course, but more than that: the way Magic gets made is also constantly evolving along with the game.

Magic is an ancient thing that survives by making itself anew every few months; by constantly shedding its skin, it allows itself to grow. This is the paradox at the heart of that game: Magic's continued existence and popularity are one of the few constants in the games industry, but it achieves that by changing constantly.

Upcoming Why I Love columns:

  • Tuesday, December 5 - Lightseekers' Ana Steiner on World of Warcraft
  • Tuesday, December 19 - Last Day of June's Massimo Guarini on ICO
  • Tuesday, January 2 - Evangeline's Nicholas Laborde on Rainbox Six: Siege
  • Tuesday, January 16 - TaleSinger's Chris Payne on Ultima Underworld

Developers interested in contributing their own Why I Love column are encouraged to reach out to us at

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