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It’s a Kind of Magic


Collectible card games have traditionally frightened me. If asked in a social situation, I’d say it’s because of the money sink involved, but in the quiet hours of the night, I admit that it’s because I fear the twisting complexity and compulsive collection that begs addiction. Where some might have a phobia of high places, speaking in public or clowns, I fear the vision of me rocking a shoe box full of cards, while lusting after an elusive rare that will complete my elaborately crafted deck.

It is for this reason that I have avoided Magic: The Gathering for so very long. The glamor of the game would fire the dopamine centers of my brain like tiny chemical artillery into the tattered remnants of my will every time I dropped a few greenbacks on a new booster pack. I would hold the foil, potentially full of great untapped mana and fantastic creatures birthed from elaborate imaginations, and I would taste coppery lust in the back of my throat.

Some people avoid alcohol, cigarettes or narcotics because they sense the precipice of crushing addiction. I avoided Magic. Or rather, I did until it invaded the precious space of Xbox Live Arcade.

It took ten editions, but they finally got me.

Duels of the Planeswalkers was, I admit, a tactical strike to any remaining barriers I may have harbored against the game. It was a one time download that required no additional purchase. It could be played solo in a safe environment. It is like an extended and elaborate tutorial for a fully fleshed world where layers of rules, concepts and terminologies would otherwise drown a new player in the deep waters of minutia.

Creating this single-player framework that rewards you with new cards by defeating computer opponents was, for me, the key that unlocked the gateway. I asked Elaine Chase, Director of the Magic: The Gathering brand at Wizards of the Coast if this was kind of the point, and she seemed to confirm my suspicion. “Our hope,” she points out, “certainly is that someone starts (or restarts) playing Magic through their Xbox, and then gets hooked and wants to experience more cards and more ways to play.” For me, it was mission accomplished. I was their ideal customer, and I had taken the bait. The delicious, tempting bait.

In a marketplace where countless collectable card games have come and gone, Magic: The Gathering has somehow remained culturally relevant since its launch in 1993. As a point of comparison, 1993 was the year video games saw the release of Doom, Myst, Day of the Tentacle and the Atari Jaguar.


How is it even possible that a card game released in 1993 can hold such sway more than 15 years later? Ms. Chase attributes it to the R&D, the organization of the play team and the business model. Having played the game now, I equally attribute its persistence in the zeitgeist and cultural lexicon of the executive nerd to a willingness to stay current where others might rest on a sleepy bed of comfortable laurels. Elaine puts it succinctly: “Our challenge is to keep Magic relevant to today’s digital gamer.” Apparently the way to do that is to plug the system into a format now closely tied with casual gaming, and make it seem harmless and approachable.

But, of course, the approachability of Duels of the Planeswalker quickly becomes its own handicap. It’s impossible to collect more than a handful of new cards. You can’t really do anything in the way of deck building. The strategies are handed to you, and you sense how dramatically randomness can thwart your efforts. That deck-building desire is never sated, and as quickly as you are through the gateway into the world of Magic, the door shuts behind you with a wild eyed mad-man version of yourself holding the key.

I asked Elaine about the decision to handicap deck building in the Xbox Arcade game. Couched in the safe and fair context of creating an understandable framework for new players, she points out, “When you’re ready for deck customization, there are other Magic offerings waiting for you in the form of the paper game or Magic Online.”

I have taken Wizards of the Coast up on their offer, and since moved on to Magic: The Gathering Online, where I bought my first Tenth Edition starter deck – or deck of any kind for that matter – along with a handful of boosters. It’s casual, a toe dipped into the icy waters with no intention to dive in for any length of time; or so I keep telling myself. But, if that’s true, then why am I wearing this SCUBA gear?

I have wracked up an impressive string of losses in casual play, and I know – I KNOW – it’s because I just haven’t quite put together a nice competitive deck yet. Maybe I’m relying too heavily on creatures when I don’t have enough artifacts to bolster my efforts. After all, I have these cards that give bonuses when I attack with only one creature so what I maybe need to do is reinforce based on that strategy. But, I don’t really have the right cards yet to execute that strategy.

Maybe just one more booster, then. Just to see.

Sean Sands is a professional writer and co-founder of He is also totally not going to get addicted to Magic, and is just hanging out at the games store because of the air conditioning.

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