Hard Project: Magic: the Gathering
I’ve had Magic: the Gathering in my life in one form or another since I was eleven. The Revised edition came out in 1994, and that’s when I started playing, scrounging up enough spare cash to pick up a couple of booster packs by mowing lawns (and occasionally bugging my parents for an allowance). It wasn’t the most efficient way to assemble a deck, and in fact was downright bad for making something functional, but the point is that I did it and I somehow even managed to win on occasion. To this day, I have no idea how.
Of course, for a game that’s survived this long it’s had a few video games, but for years there was nothing except a PlayStation game that was widely reviled as a biotoxin. Now we’ve got the annual Duels of the Planeswalkers games – which are just limited versions of the card game – and Magic Online, which is exactly like the card game right down to you spending money to buy virtual booster packs that include no actual cards. Why are we here with a game that’s been out for years with no games based upon the worlds and art and characters, just a series of digital recreations of tabletop games?
Why remake the game?
While not every Magic: the Gathering set is fit to burst with creative worlds, most are. It’s the sort of setting that could very easily fit a big RPG or something similar. But the peril of doing so is that you might wind up with Magic: The Gathering – Battlemage.
Essentially, Battlemage was an attempt to turn the usually turn-based affair of the game into more of a real-time strategy game. It was a complete pile of shit, partly because someone didn’t realize that it was being made by Acclaim when the rights were licensed, partly because the game still couldn’t decide if it was supposed to be an RTS version of the card game or a card game that had some RTS elements. The line between the two kind of blurred and went in strange directions, and the result was a game that was pretty terrible all around.
Of course, that raises the question of why you would want to make an entirely new game based around an existing game. Technically, you could probably make an RPG out of a game of Clue, but it seems kind of ridiculous when Clue is itself already a game. You don’t even need to do a whole lot of work in adapting it, the game’s right there, you just need to code it to work. It’s a lot less work than trying to port in a whole bunch of elements from a card game into a totally different game type, especially when you consider that concepts from one may not map well to the other. Is your RPG filled with wizards or creatures? Are you playing a creature? Do you just wind up spirited away at the whims of a planeswalker?
Buy and rebuy
Wizards of the Coast hit marketing gold when it first released Magic: the Gathering, then again when it started in on the Standard rotation. I say without any cynicism or bitterness that it’s one of the most brilliant business models I’ve ever seen. It’s a system wherein you buy the game, and then after a few months you have to buy the game again.
Do I have issues with some of the implementation from a mechanical standpoint? Yes. But it still works brilliantly and ensures that making more money off of a property is easy as heck. It’s also, I think, why the company has been eager to embrace a model of game wherein you buy the game and then buy another version again a year later, but this time with an upgraded card list. Like sports games, except slightly less tedious because you’re not playing multimillionaires throwing a ball.
It also works out nicely when people are accustomed to the idea that you can buy booster packs in a virtual environment where they’ll never be real and use them only there. Magic Online is not unfair in this regard – it’s as fair as any other way to spend your money, and while you can’t hold those virtual cards you also can’t lose your best card due to an unexpected spill or an over-eager cat jumping on the table. It does, however, mean that the people in charge have plenty of reason to continue pushing games which work out via this service model and keep you paying more money.
And why shouldn’t they? Cheap entry and small expenditures over time are a model that works and has worked for a very long time. And look, here’s a game that specifically plays into that. Why would you make a game that doesn’t play into that idea when you could just embrace it?
Lore and play have a tenuous connection
A lot of lore swirls around the average Magic: the Gathering card set. Obviously, there’s enough lore there to provide a novel’s worth of story, although whether or not it’s a novel worth reading can be debated. But what can’t be debated is that said lore does not always map nicely into what people know from the gameplay, just by the nature of the game.
What do I mean by that? Well, let’s look at Knowledge and Power. What kind of spell is that? What does it look like? What sort of form does it take? What is actually happening outside of the realm of card play? How do you even begin to decide what the heck this spell looks like in the format outside of “this is a card you can play in a certain sort of deck?”
I’m not begrudging the designers for this, obviously; the game is a card game, and not everything necessarily lends itself to an obvious spell effect. Not to mention that a lot of the things that wind up being more abstract still have cool names or concepts going on behind them. But the nature of the beast means that there are iconic elements that aren’t easy to make clear outside of the card game, leaving you with the question of how many mechanics even a non-card video game would want to port over from the card game. Heck, would the game even feel right if you didn’t have the five mana symbols derping around?
So why take on all of those problems when you can just release another incarnation of Duel of the Planeswalkers that does the same thing but with new cards? I sure can’t think of a reason.