Friday, November 11, 2011

Magic: The Gathering

I was the first guy in my group of friends to buy a deck of Magic cards, back in the summer of '94 or '95. I bought them at a pet store! I remember the way they smelled when coming out of the deck box, a wonderful smell of cardboard and special inks that quickly became associated in my mind with excitement and discovery.

I played a lot during high school, but didn't sink a whole lot of money into the game, and went for about 10 years without playing much at all.

But recently a friend of mine has got into it big time, partly spurred on by the Steam games, and he now has about a dozen different decks. It didn't take me long to dig out my old boxes and put together some Legacy decks with my old favourite cards. Now we've got a whole league thing going on with an A group and a B group. Fun stuff for sure.

A lot of things about the game have changed, I've noticed. The rules have been refined considerably of course, especially the timing component; the game is now simpler to play but still allows for complexity and deep strategy. Abilities that used to take a whole card full of small print have been condensed into a word or two. The art and design of the cards have improved considerably as well.

But the problems with the game are still there. The biggest problem for me is the money: if you don't spend a lot of money on new cards, your decks won't win. Simple as that. The power of some of the rare cards dwarfs the cards in your average deck, and no matter how well you play a deck with a mythic rare will win. This takes some of the fun out of the game. The league we have set up mitigates this loss quite a bit though, since there is no expectation that a B group deck will beat an A group deck, and so the competition is at a different level and facilitates a different style of play.

This problem, intrinsic to the nature of all CCGs, was the main reason I started designing Thief. In Thief, all the cards are created by you the player, therefore any card's value is determined not by its rarity but by its in-game power and usefulness. A card that always helps you out in a sticky situation is just better than one that doesn't, no question of rareness or *shudder* dollar value.

Of course there are a whole host of other problems that come about when you allow your players to start creating cards, and the rest of Thief's development cycle was about trying to solve these problems. What happens when too many cards are added to the deck? What can you do with cards that are so powerful they unbalance the game? What about feature-creep, or in this case, Option-creep?

Thief is balanced now, and though it doesn't have the same level of strategy that Magic does, I still think it's a better game. Sure Thief has uber-powerful cards like Magic does, but someone will always find a way to undermine that power. They don't have to go out and buy 50 booster packs to find the card to match it, they can just create it on their own during the game. The ebb and flow of power in Thief, over the long term, make it a much more interesting game than Magic can ever be.

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