This article originally appeared on the sadly defunct Zug.com
Magic: The Gathering is Fight Club for stamp collectors. The same dedication, group mentality, and dedication to annihilating every one of your colleagues, with only slightly less damage to your physical condition. It’s one of the most famous card games in the world and more profitable than poker. Because in poker at least one of the players still has money when they’ve finished playing.
Players buy cards containing magic spells to turn their love of reading and math into heroic battles. Wizards of the Coast turned my childhood dreams into a business plan (and that sounds like the plot of a book I would have read back then). But I’ve always avoided the game, because Magic is responsible for more people losing their lives to a fantasy land of endless murder than Game of Thrones. And profits more from their disappearance than the survivors in Game of Thrones.
More person-hours go into Magic than the space program, so I’m launching myself into this world like a human Curiosity: venturing into a strange new land, learning a lot, and I’ve just realized that this analogy implies I might never come back. Magic is also known as “cardboard crack.” It makes World of Warcraft look like Farmville. This is by far the most dangerous experiment I’ve ever undertaken, and I once tried to set myself on fire from the inside out.
I’m going to play Magic Online Standard non-stop for an entire day. Longtime players tell me this is fairly normal, so I’ve already learned something: playing Magic screws up your idea of normal.
Registering on Magic Online, I chose a name that showed I was an expert card player and totally knew what I was doing.
My first financial warning signs came before I’d even downloaded the installer.
It’s kind of amazing. You wonder how they’re going to get away with selling packs of cardboard in a completely online game, and they do it with more bare-faced cheek than a Sumo nudist colony. And similar levels of subtlety. And like a charging rikishi, there’s an awful unstoppability to their momentum now that they’ve gotten started. It turns out that removing those last wafers of physical reality only made it easier for them to flaunt their all-dominating dick moves in full public view.
Downloading the installer you realize that this collection of cards contains more data than the Library of Alexandria. And would be more expensive to fully assemble. The official installer direct from the Wizards website is three quarters of a gigabyte, and there are already over five thousand updates for it.
There are more rules for this game than for the real universe. After waiting half an hour for it to download you get another half hour while it updates itself. It’s an initiation where the game makes you prove that you’re willing to give up all your time. (When I logged in again the next day, there were another 17 updates. This game updates more often than your own memory, and more people care.) Once installed, it’s as welcoming to beginners as the Neurosurgeon Freemasons. Registering an account doesn’t send you an activation link, they send you a 32 digit code you have to copy across yourself. On the grounds that since you’ve just started playing Magic you clearly aren’t going anywhere. The game doesn’t have a “NEW BEGINNER START INSTANTLY” option for the same reason bomb disposal training doesn’t.
The first step is opening the packs of cards you bought. It actually plays a sound effect of scrinching plastic as you unwrap it, which might as well be mp3s of their accounts department laughing at you. They could only take the piss more electronically if they transported you to a TRON toilet. But I’ve unwrapped my pretend painted cards, by far the least exciting thing I’ve ever used the internet to pretend I was having, loaded up a standard beginner deck, and now it’s time to start playing.
You know those crappy wooden swords they give you at the start of adventure games? Well forget them because they’re actually capable of killing enemies, and therefore nothing like a beginner deck. My first twenty games were the boardgame equivalent of the Hellraiser movies: bizarre things appeared out of nowhere to dismember me, and although I was learning more about the puzzle with every brutal death, all I was doing was unlocking the route to losing my soul forever. Because it’s brilliant fun.
I’ve just undergone four hours of electro-magical masochism and I’m begging for more. All I need is to add a brooding vampire and I’ve got a bestseller. But I can’t do stupid things like “writing more” or “earning millions of dollars”: I’ve got more Magic to play!
I’m playing the Magic: The Gathering card game for a day to see what the big deal is. My use of that pun only proves I’m already losing the ability to interact with normal people. In Magic players take turns to play (place on the battlefield) and tap (use, and turn sideways to show they’ve been used) their cards. All your cards untap at the start of your turn*.
*Unless your card says otherwise. A card can undo any rule in the game at any time. If a card said “Gravity does not count until EOT” the players would float until the next turn.
Based on my first four hours of play, the three basic card types are:
This game has more sophisticated rules for screwing each other than corporate law. Movies and other games say that you can defeat an army of nuclear tanks with nothing but a knife. Playing Magic teaches you how attacking a nuclear reactor with a cutting implement would actually go: you’ll die horribly, and won’t even understand the mechanisms of why. Because your enemy won by building things before you ever turned up. My first opponent countered my ghoul with a Grave Titan, and the great thing about fantasy names is you don’t even need to know the rules to figure out how that went.
The second destroyed me with a swamp-powered Mycosynth/Phyrexian perpetual motion machine. The third was allowed to take my cards before I was. The fourth had three cards which were nuclear weapons, and the fourth strode through the blasted ruins of an empty table to eat my face. The fifth had something which burned my cards faster than actual fire. I’ve learned to fear tapping cards more than oncoming traffic.
Never mind the Large Hadron Collider, if scientists really want to solve reality they should sell a card game based on particle physics. Release new results as extra cards, improved theories as updates to the rules, and we’ll have a Grand Unified Theory before the end of the week.
And everyone was lovely about it! I thought brutal killers were only nice before they were killing you, but these guys were antimatter Mr Rogerses: friendly and helpful even as their every touch annihilated me. No-one has taught their victims so much before hacking them to pieces since Obi-Wan Kenobi.
And just like Darth Vader, I was ready to turn to the dark side. My only victory was with a black deck, a collection of dark spells and necromantic creatures and oh god I’m already getting addicted, because I’ve got ideas about how to improve it. Black works well when you have lots of creatures in your graveyard, and a strategy based on “the enemy constantly killing everything you have” fits my current playstyle perfectly.
So I opened the deck editor and suddenly it’s dark outside. It’s amazing. It’s a Rubix cube, strategy game, forty interlocking fantasy novels and a Sudoku-of-slaughter all locked into one. This is the secret: Magic is a single player game. The other players are just random encounters. You could play this game forever with only one match a week, which is exactly what people used to have to do.
That’s why I’d lost so badly. I’d been trying to fight Big Ben by jumping into the gears. Other players were setting up beautiful clockworks of slaughter while I’d been bringing my own face to a combine harvester fight. These players put more work into Magic than every sorcerer in history, and their results work better for attacking other people. I needed help. I needed ludicrous overanalysis by people who’d dedicated their lives to minor entertainment. Luckily that’s exactly what the internet is for!
After an hour of research I learned that Magic is a game of infinite strategy, and every one of those strategies is “buy more cards.” It’s a solid plan and one Wizard are doing well with. Please note that every time I spent real money on a virtual version of a painted piece of cardboard from here on, I knocked back a shot of tequila. That way it might be the stupidest thing I’ve done today, but nowhere near the stupidest thing I’ve done on tequila.
New cards come from buying booster packs in the same way Superman’s abilities coming from yellow sunlight: as long as you accept this one stupid thing they become utterly invincible. Buying booster packs is the easiest way to get more cards in the same way buying a gym membership is the easiest way to feel better about your body: it’s expensive and doesn’t guarantee that you’ll actually improve.
Booster packs sell 15 cards for 3.99 and they’re utterly random. Forget finding specific cards, you might not even find the right color (most players focus on at most two out of the five, so half of all random cards are guaranteed to be useless). Then you think “aha, I will run multiple decks using all the colors!” and at that precise moment you’re caught in the Wizard’s money-making Inception: every new idea you have only drags you deeper under their control.
I got 2/15 black cards. That’s one less than you’d statistically expect. Understand: 87% of these cards are useless to me, and the couple of cards I can use are WAITAMINUTE
Unholy shit (which will be composed entirely of my enemies consumed by my horde), I can’t wait to play that! Let’s see, I’ll want lots of zombie cards – in fact, I’ll need lots of weak ones to prime my graveyard, but some heavier hitters in case I don’t draw this and oh god if this article stops right here please somebody send help and save me.
And that’s how it works. I just paid four dollars for a single card and I could not be happier. I’ve got a new buzz, strategy, goal and desire for new cards all at once. Wizards of the Coast have studied the human brain and know more about reward circuitry than a slot machine technician. And I don’t care, because I’m taking this to the next level.
I’m spending a day playing Magic: The Gathering, and I’ve already learned that the most powerful card in the game is your credit card. And I’m about to win.
I bought a theme deck because it was a great bargain compared to the random booster decks (but absolutely insane compared to the real world.) I went Relentless Vengeance not because of the zombies, which the internet has made even more tired than you’d expect sleepless corpses walking for all eternity to be, but because it was the perfect army for my core card.
I didn’t want to get distracted while chewing through the possibilities so I went to the bathroom. I was pretty tired after eight hours play so I washed my face. Then I grabbed a drink on the way back and put on some music because I’d be sitting together with it for the next while. Which means I not only freshened up for this box of Magic cards, I went on a full date with it. And since this also involved the sound of taking the plastic wrapper off the box before getting fully into it, I not only went on a date but I scored.
This deck uses both black and blue, which got me thinking about those previously useless blue cards from the booster deck, which got endorphins flowing as I worked things out even though those things had been very carefully set up for me to work out by experts. I’m a rat in a behavioural science maze built out of cards I’m paying them for. And I don’t care. Give me the next pellet, Wizards, because I’m taking the deck into combat. This game might as well play the level-up noise every time it processes your credit card.
But no matter how I tweaked my deck there was one card I needed to get. It was time to start buying from bots. I knew this because I knew there had to be underground trading, because I’d seen the ads, and because every single player who’d beaten me had helpfully recommended I start buying from bots. This market is less underground than webcasts from the International Space Station.
The classifieds feature more bots carrying advanced magical weaponry than a Terminator/Lord of the Rings crossover (and Hollywood, I have that screenplay ready.) I added a few bots recommended by an opponent, but because any “player” can only have one trade session open at a time you have to keep clicking the popular ones to catch them in the microsecond they’re available between trades. That’s how I spent twenty minutes late at night repeatedly calling a cycle of dealers, trying to get what I needed, and realizing that an actual drug addiction would actually be seen as less pathetic.
But then I found an open bot and oh my god. You’re a kid in a candy store where every sweet is the death of your enemies. And this is where Wizard actually outpace the US Mint, because they not only get to print money, they get to keep it.
The trading economy is based on “event tickets”, which are technically used to enter tournament events, legally in no way used to enable a vast game-dominating card market, and absolutely used to give Wizards all the money from that market. I’m not saying that Wizards have blatantly written a fantasy novel where they get to keep real cash, but their tickets are worth exactly one dollar. That’s a 1:1 exchange rate from reality to a world where tickets are bought and used up faster than gasoline. I’m not criticizing Wizards. This is amazing. People buy tickets from Wizards so they can “beat” Wizards by skipping straight to the cards they want. It’s genius.
And I didn’t care about any of that, because I finally got the card I wanted.
It’s not like games where you get better weapons by playing more. It’s not like those fun flash games where you can skip playing to buy the “Cannon of Automatically Winning”, or even those stupid Farmville games where you skip the idea of having fun as well and pay to skip volunteer chores. In Magic you genuinely feel like it’s your idea even though Wizards specifically designed and released every part of it first. And it’s okay because the cards are still based on synergy and skill, so it’s not like someone can just buy their way into victory with a few…
No, wait, dammit, they can. There’s a type of card called “Planeswalkers,” because calling them “Darth Vader with a machine gun” would cause to copyright issues. These things are insane. They act like little extra players on your side in a 2-player game. They don’t just use their abilities for free, they use their abilities for free to get stronger and destroy you simultaneously, shielding their owner all the while. These planeswalkers are scattered throughout the normal booster packs and ahahahahahah sure they are, right between Wonka’s golden tickets and the Turin shroud. There are entire companies based on selling these things alone. Sure, the “company” is just someone not wearing pants at a computer, but as long as you’re making money that’s what counts as an online business these days. (I can personally vouch for that.) Planeswalkers can cost up to twenty bucks. In other modes they go over fifty.
There’s a whole stock market for them.
It’s like going through an armory of sword, spear, AK-47, polearm, and insisting there’s an even selection of choices. It’s very clear: if you play Magic for longer than a day and don’t start buying expensive cards, you’re taking a job as “Unnamed Attacker #1.”
It’s amazing, because I know all this, and still the only reason I haven’t bought that Sorin card already is that I’ve used up the expense account for this article. And even if I got him, they’d release new cards, or ban old cards, or change the ruleset, and I’m despite all that I’m still having to actively resist replaying this game at least once an hour. As soon as I submit this article I’m deleting the install, going outside, and will probably act out the middle scene of a romantic movie where the guy mopes about losing his new love.
If you want a game to absolutely replace your life, I recommend Magic. If you want to achieve anything at else at all before you die, run like hell.
UPDATE: Thanks to all the cool cardomancers coming from the MtG Reddit!