Want to Be a Game Designer? Play Magic

Not only that, you should be playing many games. Playing one game or a limited set of games will not enable anyone to come up with something truly great. Sure, you can make clones of the games you are playing, but creativity isn’t magical. It requires something to build on. Creativity is about finding new ways to combine things you already know. Therefore, the more you know, the better. To acquire this knowledge, play games.

On the other hand, if for some inexplicable reason you had to choose one, choose Magic: the Gathering.

It Has a Long History

The first product, now commonly known as Alpha, was released on August 5th, 1993. The game itself had been in development for a couple of years before that. That’s well over 20 years of continuous progression.

Sure, they still make mistakes, but that’s part of the process. They need to push things, or otherwise they would just repeat themselves and the game would die. Pushing things means occasional mistakes, but we can live with that. After all, the mistakes won’t hang around for that long (in Standard, anyhow).

Learning from your mistakes is key, but you can ease that by learning from the mistakes of others. Understanding the history of MtG (and MaRo will be glad to help you with this on his columns, podcast and blog).

It Manages to Keep a Huge and Diverse Audience

Last I heard, the game had 15 million players in the world. Its been growing steadily for years now. There have been huge downward spirals at times, but its now more popular than ever. If the movie comes out, the popularity will probably spike again.

Why is it so popular? Because it has the tools to appeal to all sorts of crowds. They acknowledge this in their design as well. They put players into three categories, Spikes – the ultra-competitive, Johnnys – the ones who enjoy finding neat and unique ways of using cards and winning, and Timmys – who just want to play big creatures, and they make cards for each group (hoping to hit the triple-crown of being able to make cards that appeal to everyone).

The same cards and the same rules allow for all sorts of formats, which are pretty much games onto themselves. For example, there are very competitive players in my hometown, who are fond of Mini-Masters. That’s a format where you open a booster pack (without looking at its contents) and shuffle some lands into it and then you play. Then there’s the perennial judging community favorite, EDH, where you play a hundred card deck and you can only play one copy of any card in the deck.

Then there’s the draft where you open a pack, choose a card from it and pass it to the guy next to you. You receive another pack from the other direction and pick a card from that as well. You go through the whole pack and repeat the process with two more packs. Then you build a deck from the cards you picked. Its very skill-intensive and also very popular (because you don’t need a collection of cards to play).

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. You can find exactly the kind of format you want. (Of course, you might not find other players for that particular format, because different areas and gaming groups seem to have very different focuses).

The Creative and the Art Direction Is Excellent

Although it isn’t necessarily very visible in the gameplay, the flavor of the game is very important. Especially for marketing purposes. Even though I might only be vaguely familiar with it, there’s a whole story behind every set, which is written by professional writers. They always see to it that there’s a link between what the world is about and the set and that the set is a good representative of the world. Sometimes this simply means choosing certain kind of art for the basic lands, sometimes a card is named properly, has a very descriptive art and has a flavor text to boot (although often the best flavor comes from the rules text, if done properly).

Sometimes they get to be funny as well.

They aren’t afraid of making social commentary either. Its hard for them to be topical, because their development cycle is so long, but you can see taking their shots at different institutions. Of course, they won’t officially attack the churches or anything, but the Orzhov on the plane of Ravnica seem like a pretty strong anti-organized religion message.

Then there was the world police sentiment of Kamikawa, where the main villain wanted to bring order to whole world forcibly, while still being white (often seen as the color of good, but in Magic the good people are often white, but not all white things are good).

In Magic, Being Female Is Not a Defining Character Trade

This is largely a continuation of the last part, but I felt this is big enough to warrant its own chapter.

Remember Smurfette? The only female in village of males. That was the 80s. Its sad that still, in year 2015, there are characters in many franchises, who have characters that are defined by the femininity. For example, Angry Birds. We have the generic red bird, a bigger red bird, an explosive bird, fast bird, a bird that is actually three birds, a bird with a big beak and a bird who happens to be female (or a chick, as in this case that probably wouldn’t be considered sexist). This is obviously stupid, but apparently something people can’t get over.

Not in Magic. In Magic you can find female warriors, sages, monsters, leaders.

The most revered hero in game is a woman, as is the most interesting villain. They don’t need romantic links to male characters justify their existence. Neither do they need to adhere to stereotypes. And you know what? They are half of the population. Just like they should be.

Of course, it doesn’t stop there. There’s plenty more where that came from. In Magic, they aren’t afraid to depict transgender characters. There’s a leader of the Mardu clan in Fate Reforged known as Alesha. She was born a male, but according to their clan traditions, you can choose your name after you have earned it in battle. She chose a female name and thus a female identity. And the clan is fine with it. After all, she is their leader.

If You Don’t Like Magic, Why Would You Want to Design Games?

Building your deck is a small game design exercise in itself. You need to get things to a right balance to make them work together. You need to understand the environment and how your cards work in that environment, as well as with each other. Its a complicated task with plenty of problems around it, but you can scale it to your needs.

If you don’t enjoy that, why would you be interested in making whole games?

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