Why Magic: The Gathering struggles to stay relevant to casual players

Why Magic: The Gathering struggles to stay relevant to casual players

Magic: The Gathering is a game that, at the tournament level, has no small measure of self-seriousness. A little over a decade ago, judges at professional tour matches decided to carve out a space for more casual players. At the outset, they were just looking to unwind after long days of micromanaging the rules of this complex and expansive collectible card game. (Even the official “basic rulebook” is 36 pages long.) And since they like Magic, “unwinding” meant playing more Magic. That day, the “Elder Dragon Highlander” format was born.

The judges were probably sick of seeing the same cards over and over—at tourneys, where winning is obviously the paramount goal, players will stick with tested strategies when they build their 60-card decks rather than experimenting or exhibiting too much individual flair. So in this after-hours session, the judges eschewed the usual hyper-competitive, hyper-calculated approach and built behemoth 100-card decks not fit for tournament play, following a loose set of guidelines they concocted on the fly. Each deck was focused around one of the Elder Dragons, a group of vintage creatures that tournament players rarely used, as they take a long time to bring into play. Then the judges made a rule that you could only have one of a given card in a deck, as opposed to the usual four. (Hence “Highlander”—“there can be only one.”) Finally, the ad-hoc design team decreed that this ruleset would be a multiplayer format as opposed to a one-on-one affair. This meant longer games and plenty of time to socialize.

Elder Dragons Highlander, now an officially sanctioned format called “Commander,” honors the game’s 20-year history by allowing pretty much anything onto the battlefield. It’s formulated so that traditional powerhouse cards aren’t as effective, letting lesser-used, resource-intensive cards shine. Plus, the personality of a deck and the individual playing it can be more closely linked: Flair is no longer a liability because statistically engineering a deck is almost impossible.

EDH is dorky and fun. It has evolved into a format where any special creature from Magic’s vast menagerie, not just Elder Dragons, can lead your little army into battle, and poker-like camaraderie (read: trash-talking) is a given. It’s the main reason I’ve come back into Magic after many years away, as all my old cards are legal, and there are plenty of kind people who are eager to foster a community. But ironically, EDH is in danger of transforming into the same kind of serious, streamlined structure that its original creators wanted to avoid.

Wizards Of The Coast, the Hasbro-owned company that produces Magic, took note of Commander’s popularity and have provided a gift—or at least what appeared to be a gift. Starting in 2011, Wizards released cards especially for Commander, designed to encourage multiplayer and, when cast, can shake up a game with the ferocity of a paint mixer. In other words, these cards were playful add-ons to any game. Twice, including last month, Wizards released five pre-made decks that included Commander-specific cards, mixed with old standbys. New players now could pick up the format with one purchase, and experienced EDH-ers had access to new toys. In 2012, Wizards also delved into the game’s history and cherry-picked a bunch of cards they felt players should generally include in every Commander game, putting them in a set called “Commander’s Arsenal.”

I’m sure the designers at Wizards Of The Coast had good intentions, but the gift has proven to be a Trojan Horse (or, to put it in Magic terms, an Akroan Horse). By attempting to expand the casual-verse, Wizards recreated the “everyone has the same optimal deck” problem that exists in competitive formats. Now there are cards created just for Commander that are inarguably better than their counterparts, and their inclusion in the pre-made decks implies you really should think about picking them up. And the reasoning behind the Arsenal—the notion that some cards are Commander must-haves—has spread across the Internet. A Google search for “EDH staples” brings up countless sites poring over the virtues of Sylvan Library, Skullclamp, Necropotence, and Vampiric Tutor—older cards, banned in most other formats, that have retained play value (and monetary value) because of Commander.

Now, Magic isn’t chess. If you want to play without the equivalent of a rook (a $50 Wasteland card, say), then you can go right ahead. But if you’re not going to use these optimal cards, you’d better get ready to play against them. It’s a decision-making process known as the “metagame.” Finally: a game I don’t want to play, wrapped around a game I do.

The metagame of Commander has largely been dictated by the collector marketplace, which itself is largely dictated by a card’s demand in non-Commander settings. Wizards essentially connected the dots when they decided to allow cards only found in the Commander decks, intended for casual play, into Magic’s most fervent and cutthroat format: Legacy. So if a particular card is merely decent in Commander but a powerhouse in Legacy, players with no interest in a casual game of Magic will snatch up Commander decks and scrap them for parts. The recent slate of Commander releases contains one particular deck, Mind Seize, with a card that exemplifies this strip-mining phenomenon: True-Name Nemesis. This card plays directly into the Legacy metagame and has skyrocketed in value to roughly $30. As it happens, 30 bucks was the suggested retail price of the Commander decks, but because  True-Name Nemesis is so coveted, it’s now impossible to find “Mind Seize” for anywhere near that amount.

The problem in this case isn’t the basic economics of supply and demand. The problem is that because one card is likely to appear in Legacy tournaments, casual players are denied access to the other 99 cards in the Mind Seize deck unless they break the bank. Other decks in the Commander line have seen their prices rise, too, and some members of the Magic community have tried to push back. Ryan LaFlamme published an essay at the game news and commentary site The Cardboard Republic that made a plea to get the decks from Target or Wal-Mart, as those stores always sell Magic wares at the suggested retail price and thus won’t feed inflation in the collector’s market. The crew at Wizards isn’t ignorant of the problem, either: A note from the game’s head designer, Mark Rosewater, promised that Commander 2013 will not be a limited-release product.

Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to avoid falling prey to collector-pocalypse. Wizards is the only company that makes
Magic; it’s not like the game allows third-party cards. So if people somewhere are willing to pay $80 for a Mind Seize deck, or $30 for True-Name Nemesis, that’s the price. The barrier to entry for Commander has become almost purely financial. The whole of Magic has developed its own metagame, a dull one that entails obsessively refreshing websites to snag preorders of potentially lucrative new sets. 

A few weeks ago, when the news broke that someone paid over $27,000 for a first-edition Magic card called Black Lotus, some commenters wondered just what made it so powerful. Well, I had this happen to me a dozen times or so when I started playing in 1995:

Me: “I draw a card and play a forest. Your turn.”

Them: “Draw a card, play a mountain, play a Black Lotus, sacrifice it, play Channel for 19 mana, play a Fireball for 20 damage. You’re dead.”

Me: “Draw a card, play a forest, and…”

Them: “No, no. It’s over.”

Me: “Oh.”

I hardly even needed to show up.

By feeding Commander product into the collector-driven sludge pot, and by emphasizing the inclusion of cards that are absolutely better than others, Wizards and the Magic collector community threaten to make this format just like all the others. There’s no all-powerful Black Lotus equivalent in Commander, but there are plenty of infinite combos made all the more accessible using so-called staples, and there’s an increasingly competitive metagame that favors brutal victories. I’d love to say that everyone should round up a bunch of friends and start their own game club, but often it’s local game stores that provide a place force fellow Magic players to “combo out” on you and your fellow players on turn four.

In a few years, maybe some Commander judges will stumble upon something else to do with their time off, and players who want a laid-back, social game will be able to enjoy it for a little while. Until then, I have an EDH deck that is, by most accounts, pretty horrible. It doesn’t have staples (like Jace, The Mind Sculptor, or Oblivion Stone) that have become borderline obligatory. But it is fun to play.