Metagame and Magic


Last updated 5/14/2024 at 10:37am

Since the article came out where I introduced game theory in terms of rock-paper-scissors at Sisters Athletic Club, Wade has become more smug when he throws rock to my scissors. Between games, mutual acquaintances question him about my article, and he talks smack about me. And during a match, we goad each other with the specter of public humiliation.

The article changed our metagame, and the metagame is really 99 percent of what rock-paper-scissors has going for it.

At Wizards of the Coast in the early 1990s, Richard Garfield and his fellow designers explained the metagame concept to me as the activity surrounding a game, and I’ll expand upon it in future articles. The Wizards team elaborated the concept from various academic game-theory papers published in the middle of the Cold War, and they incorporated metagame support into every aspect of “Magic: The Gathering,” a card game now regularly played at Paulina Springs bookstore.

In the game’s story-level rationale, or conceit, “Magic” players are dueling wizards who draw on the specialized powers of five basic land types to cast spells. Forests represent fecundity and rejuvenation; plains, healing and purity; swamps, the restless dead and blight; islands, illusions and mind-control; and mountains, fiery artillery and explosive effects. Land cards produce the currency of the game, called mana, used to play spell cards specific to the types of land. It’s important to include just the right amount and variety of land in your deck so that you generate no more and no less mana each turn than you need. Land types balance each other much like rock beats scissors, scissors beat paper, and paper beats rock in rock-paper-scissors. Some cards summon creatures that become units in an army; others affect the state of play with short- and long-term effects.

In addition to reprints of a few hundred base cards, known as the “core” set, Wizards continually releases all-new sets of cards with a special theme and new mechanics. Though many of the sets follow original storylines, Wizards has produced tie-in Magic sets for popular media properties like “The Lord of the Rings,” “Doctor Who,” and the post-apocalyptic video game “Fallout.” These new card sets are released in limited runs, with some individual cards being printed more than others, according to Common, Uncommon, Rare, and Mythic Rare scarcity. Given the rarity of certain cards and that some combine well with others for popular strategies, Magic has a strong collector’s metagame. Many cards fetch hundreds or thousands of dollars apiece, and a few much more. A single mint copy of the original-set Black Lotus sold for over half a million dollars at auction in 2021, while in 2023 the unique One Ring card, from “The Lord of the Rings” set, went for over $2 million!

“Magic”’s story conceit supports the game both during play and between games. Each card has art and descriptive text that gives it flavor, and helps players understand the card’s function. Being able to imagine an unfolding narrative facilitates strategy and tactics. Magic is a strategy game, not a roleplaying game. In a roleplaying game, like “Dungeons & Dragons,” the rules support the story. In Magic, the story supports the rules. Between games, players can share anecdotes of a Magic “match, or “duel,” as a stand-in for the game’s mechanics: for example, the statement “I hit all his goblins with a Fiery Confluence spell, and then attacked him with my giant spiders,” may just seem like narrative from a fantasy adventure, but it actually communicates a very mathematical situation, where instead of choosing to directly score a couple of points against an opponent, the player eliminated multiple blocking pieces. Unlike, say, chess, the battle metaphor is consistent and concrete, and allows players to master not just half a dozen different game pieces, but hundreds to thousands.

While players can buy preconstructed decks to use right out of the box, the core appeal of “Magic” lies in the metagame of choosing cards and building custom decks. In a draft tournament, this metagame becomes a formal extension of the game itself, as players choose cards for their decks, much like owners and coaches in a sports league choose players for their team. They then have a limited time to build their decks before play, which is like choosing which players to field. Unlike in sports, fielding all your players at once — that is, putting all your cards in your deck — is usually allowed, but it’s a very poor strategy.

Paulina Springs Books hosts “Magic” draft tournaments every Friday. Each player buys three five-dollar draft packs for a total of fifteen dollars, and in each of three draft rounds, players form a circle, open a pack, choose a card from it, and then pass the pack to the person next to them, repeating selection until the cards are gone. Drafting well requires skill, because players must seek a balance of card types and generally a deck theme of only one to three colors — not because the rules say so, but because their deck will not be playable otherwise.

After playing a mystery-themed set called “Murders at Karlov Manor”, I asked three players — Coale Wilde, Caleb Eigner, and Ethan Schneider — what strategies they brought to the draft. Coale said that the first card he chose, Warleader’s Call, determined all his subsequent draft picks, because it combines well with cheap creatures, especially the so-called “token,” or non-card, creatures generated by card effects. Caleb said that he had no preconceptions going into the draft, but he too picked a creature that influenced his subsequent picks: Kylox, Visionary Inventor, which allows a player to sacrifice other creatures on the board to cast cards out of the deck for free. He tried to use it with cards that sacrificed magical mechanical items, called artifacts, but ultimately didn’t get the combos to work during play.

Ethan came with a general strategy based on prior knowledge of the set, and that got him to the finals. He looked for spells that removed other cards from the board until he could cast high-value late-game cards. There was one card that influenced his draft picks a bit, Lamplight Phoenix. It returns after being killed if the player has enough cards already in their discard pile, or “graveyard.” To support the phoenix’s special ability, he needed to make sure he would be discarding early in the game, so he needed to draft one-shot spells and disposable creatures.

However, his deck ultimately lost to one that prevented his creatures from attacking while his opponent built up a flying army.

The owner of that deck decided ahead of time to pick white and blue, because players don’t draft those colors as much. Metaphorically, he bet they’d draft rock, so he threw paper, and it paid off: he got an uncontested pick of cards.

The winner, whom I won’t name, admits he’s probably a weaker drafter, deck-builder, and player than Ethan.

He leaned hard on the metagame.


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