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Is Magic: the Gathering Realistic? December 16, 2008

Posted by James in : all, random, game rules, theory, reviews, design , trackback

Originally the creators of Magic prided themselves on making the game at least somewhat realistic. Here the word “realistic” does not refer to reality as we know it, but any sort of reality. Alternate dimensions where “magic” is real, for example. Originally Magic was fairly realistic insofar as it was based on a kind of fantasy world. Pieces of cardboard placed in front of us is sufficient for us to imagine the creatures “attacking” and “blocking.” This is a revolutionary concept when considering that other games involving combat, such as military simulation tabletop war games, requires us to position the characters in a spatio-temporal area much like battle would require in reality. Also, consider how a lot of the abilities were made in order manifest realistic attributes:

However, there is nothing about the nature of a collectible card game that insists that it be realistic. Card games throughout history have had the opposite extreme: no relation to “reality” whatsoever. Card games such as poker and black jack are nothing more than computational/logical probability games.

Magic: the Gathering tended to have a strong bent towards realism for several years, but eventually this became a hindrance to the creative minds behind the game’s development. “Why allow realism to stop us from making completely new abilities and mechanics that have little to do with reality?” Magic was very strongly based on realism until Odyssey. It was then that we found some of the most innovative mechanics and abilities, but they also lacked realism. It was then that Wizards of the Coast most severely changed how they view the design of Magic. Consider some of these less realistic mechanics:

With all of the new unrealistic mechanics I see the game as a different game than I used to. Now I see it as the computational/logical probability game. However, the rules of Magic still support the “realism” perspective to some extent. I discussed some of these rules already in another article. Consider some of these rules to prevent “unrealistic” situations:

I do not wish for Wizards of the Coast to completely restrict themselves to realistic abilities. Some of the most innovative game-changing ideas are not realistic, such as morph, planeswalkers, and equipment. I wouldn’t want to restrict the creativing of Wizard’s design team too much. However, being somewhat realistic should remain in the list of priorities. Some people don’t understand Magic at all and I suspect it is because they can’t “see” the realistic stuff going on. They see an arbitrary mess of cards on the table rather than monsters attacking, artifacts under our control, and spells ready to be cast. This kind of realism helps us conceptualize the game and makes it more fun.

My next article will be posted December 19 2008.


1. michael - December 16, 2008

Arcane is the magic of the Japanese Kami (spirits or gods). It isn’t any more or less realistic than D&D having several types of magic.

Flashback does have a way to make it realistic. Imagine that you cast a spell from a scroll. It vanishes after being cast. Later you have total recall and remember exactly how to play the spell.

Madness is similar to that, only as the scroll is being destroyed you quickly cast it.

Planeswalkers are buddies that you call on to help. They have 3 activated abilities which are like their spells. Instead of life, they have loyalty and if you make them angry (casting spells they don’t like to cast, not defending them) they leave.

You didn’t mention Double Strike for creatures that are super fast…it has the same combat weirdness as First Strike.

Other than that, I can agree with the weirdnesses.

2. James - December 16, 2008

Arcane doesn’t make sense in this sense: Why does it do anything special when it is usually meaningless?

Why do Madness and Flashback spells have that property? Flashback in particular can only be remembered until you play the spell again or until it is removed from the game. I suppose you can try really hard to try to make anything realistic, but it is still pretty strange.

Planeswalkers are still nothing like players, who are planeswalkers other than the fact that they can be attacked. How do they play spells without land? Why require loyalty to play the good spells? Because it is a new card type entirely different from players. In other words, they aren’t really planewalkers.

Double strike sounds pretty realistic. What is weird about it?

3. michael - December 16, 2008

Arcane was a flavorful decision. Kamigawa block is at war with Spirits vs non-spirits. Since the spirits are from a different realm, the so call spirit magic got the Arcane tag to let the player know that this is not magic of the earthly kamigawa plane, but of the spiritual side.

Madness and Flashback…can’t really think of a reason why they would have that property other than Madness makes you like the Hulk and you can cast the spell anyway. Maybe flashback is like a spell that gets imprinted on your brain when you cast it, thus allowing it you to cast it again but only once.

Planeswalkers are very much like players, but they are busy doing something else. You bribe them to help you and they are only available to help you in specific ways. The boosted loyalty are things they want to do anyways, and the lost loyalty are things they have to go out of their way to do.

The only reason I mentioned Double Strike is that it has the same rules weirdness that First Strike has…giving a creature double strike after the first strike damage step has no effect and making it lost double strike before first strike damage just makes it do normal damage.

4. James - December 16, 2008

What you are saying about planeswalkers sounds like what it is like being a planeswalker in the game, but not a planeswalker as a player. Yes, you can explain exactly what a planeswalker is “supposed to be,” but the fact that they are not like players is quite obvious. You say that they are much like players, but you then talk about bribery and stuff instead of how they are really like players. As a player I would not have a loyalty meter, and in any fantasy storyline any loyalty is usually enough to “give it your all.” Especially considering that your life is on the line. If you want to join a battle, you don’t do it half-heartedly.

5. Recoculous.com: Magic the Gathering Articles » My Top 10 Articles of 2008 - January 16, 2009

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