Is Magic: the Gathering Realistic? December 16, 2008Posted 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:
- Flying - Creatures with flying are hard to intercept (block) unless you also have flying, or unless you have some special exception, such as having a giant spider web (reach).
- First Strike - Creatures with first strike are quick, so they can attack first.
- Forestwalk - Some creatures live in the forest and know how to sneak around in it.
- Trample - Large creatures won’t be easily intercepted by small ones. They can just walk over the small ones without taking much of a notice.
- Regenerate - Some creatures might have some kind of self-healing power.
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:
- Madness - If you discard the card, you can play it. Fun idea, but I see no connection to reality. As I throw away a spell book (or spell scroll) I am expected to imagine that the spell can be cast? Sorry, I don’t get it.
- Flashback - If the card is in your graveyard, you can play it. This is very similar to madness, and it probably shouldn’t have been introduced in the same set. However, it does offer some very fun interactions. Again, this ability has little to no connection to reality. Wait a minute. Most spell books get trashed after you cast a spell out of it. I’m not sure if this makes much sense either. I suppose some spell books might be able to be trashed twice before being rendered useless.
- Morph - Some people live inside of crazy insectoid monsters, but they can eventually “hatch” out of them. Sorry, but this is absurd.
- Equipment - This would appear to be “realistic.” I thought of this mechanic before it ever existed, but I realized that there was something very unrealistic about it. (I assume that Wizards also invented this idea years before they put it into use, but thought it was too “unrealistic.” Couldn’t a person use a magic sword? Sure, but the actual rules the the ability are silly pants. You can equip a lion with a Scimitar. You can equip ten or more pieces of equipment to one organism. (e.g. ten pieces of armor can be equipped to one birds of paradise.) In order for equipment to be realistic, they would need a ton of rules, and Magic would start to look like Dungeons & Dragons.
- Arcane - Some spells are “spirity.” Ok, that’s fine. But isn’t it meaningless? In fact, the whole spirit synergy in Kamigawa was pretty arbitrary. “If you play a spirit, you get a goodie!” Why? This kind of synergy was made just to have synergy. Arcane represented an even further move away from realism (and towards of a view of the game as a logic game) because “arcane” technically does nothing. It was one of the first keywords to have absolutely no meaning other than be used for an artificial “forced synergy.” Wizards probably thought, We know that people will make use of “arcane” because some cards say, “If you play an arcane spell, something neat happens!” This interaction is void of flavor because it is not even based on “what cards do.” In other words, madness at least required somethig normal in the game to happen (you must discard a card), but “arcane” only existed for its own sake. Arcane only does something because theymade cards specifically say, “Hurray! Arcane finally does something because I say so!”
- Tribal - The tribal synergy found in Lorwyn was the same thing as the spirit/arcane synergy in Kamigawa. Actually, the fact that some cards have “tribal” in the supertype is even more silly. Some spells are elves and goblins? Why?
- Planeswalkers - When we play magic we are planeswalkers. We have twenty life, we play spells, we control monsters, etc. How can Garruk and Ajani also be planeswalkers? They don’t have 20 life, they can’t play spells, and so on.
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:
- If you give a creature first strike in response to first strike damage being on the stack, the creature will still deal damage. But a creature with first strike can’t deal damage during the normal damage step! Exactly, but in real life a “fast” creature that missed out on its ambush/surprise attack would still deal damage as normal.
- If you remove a creature’s first strike ability with first strike damage on the stack, it won’t get a bonus attack during the normal damage step. But creatures without first strike deal damage during the normal damage step! Exactly, but in real life a creature wouldn’t get a bonus attack after we make it slower.
- Equipment that are also creatures can no longer equip a creature. Why? Because then you could attack with a creature than has a scimitar in one hand while the scimitar stays home to defend the fort.
- Equipment cannot equip to multiple creatures. Why? Because one scimitar cannot be used by several creatures at the same time. (Of course, I can imagine some kinds of equipment that could be equipped to multiple people, such as a catapult or battering ram.) The same rule applies to enchantments. Auras cannot attach to multiple permanents.
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.