Flow of Ideas - Topical Blend #1: The Day Magic Died
By now, I'm sure you've all heard the news. It's been a crazy few days. Some people were stricken by initial disbelief, but for most people it seemed to signal an eBay fire sale as collections sprung up everywhere at ludicrously low prices, hoping to take advantage of a buyer before they heard what was happening. Hard-to-find cards like Fact or Fiction, Yawgmoth's Will, Mox Opal, and, even some of the Power Nine still around went in auction lots for a fraction of their former cost.
I must say, I was in the former group. One of those so struck aback that it was hard to do much of anything that day except wish people held candlelit vigils for this kind of thing. Even in retrospect, I'm happy holding onto my cards – I know they'll always have value to me, and it's likely that some people will try to preserve the game in some capacity. As soon as she's old enough, I'm still going to try to teach Crystal how to play.
But for all intents and purposes, Magic as we know it is dead.
I can't help but wonder, “Where did we go so wrong?” I suppose that, in the end, as designers, we can't blame anyone but ourselves. After all those years working in R&D, I honestly felt like the magic of Magic would never cease – and I wasn't alone.
I'd walk past the Pit every day, and everyone would be smiling and playing games, and then occasionally some laughter would break out as Zac Hill would tell a ridiculous story that, despite his many years in R&D, we'd never heard before. We were more than just co-workers: we were (and still are) lifelong friends. I can honestly say it was the best place to work in the world, and adjusting to “normal” office life during the past half a year has been a difficult task.
Though the environment never deteriorated, we all knew there was a problem when the company started laying people off en masse about six months ago. Even so, I honestly couldn't say I saw this coming. I'm sure things only became worse after most of us in R&D were fired.
But the real question here for you might be why did I come back to StarCityGames.com in a time when other writers are jumping ship? Why did I want to write this one, last article?
Perhaps it's out of a sense to duty. I loved writing for SCG, and I missed having my weekly column after I left to work at Wizards. Perhaps it's out of a sense of commitment to tell you what was really going on behind the scenes. There are some things you may have not considered that we had to think about every day.
But most of all, I think it's out of a sense to leave a trail. To analyze the final pieces and put together the puzzle so we can leave a message of both truth and warning for those who may pave the game industry ahead in the future.
First, I want to address the concerns that have been springing up on forums like MTGRevolution.com so I can help clarify what was not the reason Magic died.
Many people still vehemently cite the price of mythic rares as what caused the downfall of Magic. After all these years, people are still rehashing the same old argument. Yes, I think it's awful when you have a couple of mythic rares that reach astronomical prices. Planeswalkers like Kelm Issar were never intended to reach the prices they did. (Remember when people though $100 for a Jace, the Mind Sculptor was a lot?) However, in the couple of years after Jace, we made a conscious decision to try to make sure that didn't happen again. Eventually most mythic rares leveled out to make sure good cards were reasonably obtainable by everyone.
Yes, sets still had their thirty or forty-dollar mythics, but with few exceptions (Kelm, Jace, Skullmane Sphinx) they didn't hit completely unreasonable amounts for a single card. Furthermore, the price of normal rares was significantly reduced to the point where it really evened out over time. It just felt worse to the player because instead of buying four different ten-dollar rares you were buying one $35 card and three $1.25 rares.
Even when older mythic rares like Lich's Mirror suddenly became good and universally played after the release of Cypricar block, they didn't start commanding a ludicrously high price. From all of the data we collected over years of mythic rares in circulation, they didn't actively drive a majority of people away from playing in tournaments. Whether they complained about it or not is a different story, but at the end of the day tournament attendance only went up after the introduction of mythic rares.
Other people, usually disgruntled pros, like to cite the changes we made to the Pro Tour two years ago.
First of all, in my completely honest opinion, I'm not even sure those changes were a net negative for pro players. I actually really liked the new mulligan rule, and the reconfiguring of Pro Tour payouts and invitations seemed pretty beneficial for pros on the whole. No, you didn't get a Pro Tour back – but for someone who was able to travel for free to exotic places like New Zealand (still my favorite Pro Tour stop for the record) and play cards to win money, there wasn't a lot of room to complain.
Second, there was always a tricky give and take when managing pro play. No matter what we chose to do, we were yelled at for it. (Or rather, no matter what an entirely different section of Wizards chose to do, the players yelled at R&D members for it – but that's another topic altogether.)
In any case, the Pro Tour made up such a small portion of Magic players that even if every single one of them had stopped playing, it would've only been a blip on the Magic radar. They liked to think they were near the center of the Magic universe. I should know – I was one once. In reality, they might have been Pluto. At its peak, Magic was thriving off of players who never even went past FNM, if that. Yes, it was important in some sense that the Pro Tour dream was alive and people could say it existed – but the changes weren't going to stop people from acknowledging that, or even watching the Pro Tour unfold at home.
There are a lot of coincidental small things people have noted as potential issues that I can dismiss as well. Mark Rosewater's retirement is one that is constantly brought up. (Granted, usually with a winking emoticon after it.) However, to be honest, it was really like Mark never left. He'd still drop by the office once a week or so to see what was going on, as well as drop his opinion in on design. (The running joke in the Pit was that his retirement was really just a schedule change.)
Some have said that a card game is outdated in today's age. They claim that modern games are played online, and in a much more quick-paced form. They might say that our attention spans have shortened, and it's much harder for the average person in Magic's target audience to get into the game. However, I disagree. While I think that's an interesting claim, people still crave being social in this second digital wave. There's a reason why we leave the house and go to see people. Sports still exist and thrive. Poker stills exists and thrives. Dungeon and Dragons is even having a record 24-month period. There's no reason why Magic died when all of those still existed.
On the other hand, some have complained about Magic Online's larger prominence in the game and how we moved the program onto an Uplink compatible setup. In my opinion, that was only a plus for Magic. It certainly didn't hurt our core market and players at all.
Another popular argument is running out of ideas. That's not true at all. We had fresh ideas for blocks far beyond today planned when the first major batch of R&D was laid off. Innovation in Magic will never end. It's the kind of game where anything you can think of can exist. Much like writing, cooking, and filming, Magic could've lasted forever.
Other people who look at design from another angle complain about power creep. While that's maybe the most valid common argument, I don't believe it's the case. We have had more powerful cards recently, yes, but the power level of sets fluctuates up and down. It's all contextual. I don't think anybody would argue that Kamigawa was weaker than Mirrodin, or Eburul was weaker than Culvion. If anything, I think some of the most recent formats were some of the most diverse of all time. In the end, I think that only promotes playing Magic, regardless of power level.
What killed Magic was another sort of creep. It started innocuously. I've traced it back, looked at the sets we made and the path we forged, and I think it all started with a card nobody reading this would expect: Travel through Darkness.
The issue with Travel wasn't its power. It was pretty far on the other end of the scale, seeing no Constructed play and being a role player in Limited decks. The issue with Travel was its complexity and how much confusion it caused at common. First off, it interacted in strange ways with a number of other common cards. And not just any common cards, but ones with a major keyword in the set!
For example, it always felt especially awful when you explained the Travel-Fleshdancer interaction to someone for the first time. You could just see their eyes quiver because they felt they were being cheated. In a sense, it wasn't far off from what happened when you cast Diminish on a creature that had been Giant Growthed that turn, but at least that was easier to explain than the interaction between Travel and the impale mechanic.
But moreover, Travel just had so much text on it for a common. By the time a new player went through all of the work of navigating the intervening if clauses, the two targets, and the actual effect of the spell, you had already lost them. It was too confusing. To make matters worse, the flavor didn't make any sense at all! What is the relation between travelling through darkness and dealing damage? The card just didn't work on any level.
Travel through Darkness broke those three huge design rules. Let me go into each a little more in depth.
First, and by far the most important, is that cards, especially commons, should be simple. The game needs them to both ease players in, and to help ensure board states don't become too complex. The experienced player wants to be able to work every strategic aspect in his or her favor, and that's great for them. However, putting too many cards like that into Magic is not good for the game. It creates analysis paralysis: there is just so much going on, so many variables, and so much happening at any given time that the new player doesn't find the game fun. They're scared away.
Second, Travel through Darkness was not intuitive to play. As I mentioned above, nothing feels worse than doing something that you feel should work only to fall into a technicality issue. A lot of people might think design is an exact science. However, that's a far stretch from the truth.
For a bunch of math and science majors (and, okay, me, Zac, and Mark with a writing background), we surprisingly didn't stand around with scalpels and proofs trying to decode every region of a card. A huge part of design is how something feels. When you notice something feels “bad” or feels “good,” that's very, very important. No matter how well designed a card is in theory, if it's unfun to play for each player group, leads to bad experiences in game play, and causes way too much tension, it's bad design.
Obviously when you're beating your opponent down it's not really supposed to feel good for them, but there's a large difference between beating your opponent down with an 8/8 Skyscreecher and not allowing them to play spells with Iona, Shield of Emeria. With the former, your opponent still feels like they have a chance. They can still play the game. In the case of the latter, they just don't get to do anything. Which one sounds more fun to you?
Travel had all of these problems.
Strike three was the flavor. First of all, it made no sense. No matter how much sense in might make on the plane, as the creative team felt, to a random player who opens the card in a pack, it's not going to be grokkable, let alone flavorful. Next, the ability to change its targets if it's countered by having an illegal target on resolution makes absolutely no sense in flavor terms. Maybe if the card were called Trial and Error it'd be easier to see working, but on Travel through Darkness? Not at all.
I was working on the set that designed this card, and I wish to this day we could've pulled it out. The problem was that we didn't figure it out, and neither did any of the core people we relied for on feedback. I don't know if our external testing group that worked with new players didn't figure it out, or if they missed it too. I don't have access to that data anymore.
Regardless, we fell into a problem. The card was very popular among us because we knew how it worked and liked it in Limited, and it was popular among the vocal majority because they knew how it worked. It was a very Spike card to play in Limited, as long as you knew how. Despite its popularity I don't think it was actually much fun – but I digress. The point is, we missed our most important audience somehow. The card was good in Limited, which also meant it was going to see play across the kitchen table.
Of course, we might have been able to get away with this one mistake if we hadn't let it spread like a virus. (Or, perhaps, a Bieber-roll.) Even most kitchen table players won't quit due to one thing. We even put Travel in a theme deck, which certainly didn't help either. But the bigger issue is that a precedent had been set, and the information we had pointed toward it being the right one. More cards in a similar vein began to be printed. One popular mistake causes a landslide of repeats. More offenders continued. Gaea's Lament, Interfere, Keeper of Sunsmorn, just to name a few.
Before we knew it, they began creeping into every aspect of the game. Just a few each set was enough. The game became more complicated and less fun as it became about juggling card interaction rulings in your head. Players started leaving, and the rug was quickly pulled out from under us.
I wish it hadn't happened. I wish I could go back and change everything.
Magic pulled so many people together. It was more than a game. It could be as moving as the best moments of any film, as cheer-inducing and tear-causing as any sport, and have as tight-knit communities as a high school. Since I was ten years old, I'd been playing the game. It's going to feel weird not having it as a constant in my life. It's going to be weird not having to explain the game to people when they ask me what I do for fun on the weekends. I'll never forget how I followed my dreams all the way from when I was twelve years old and I asked Randy Buehler how to get a job in R&D to sitting here now, a married man with a beautiful wife and daughter, sending the final chapter on Magic in. Magic has made me the person I am today.
Thank you for everything.
If you have any comments or words to say about the article, feel free to post in the forums, tweet at me at GavinVerhey, e-mail me at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com, or send me an Uplink request at U4IE36. I would love to hear from you and listen to your feedback.
Good luck in the future, everyone, and thank you for the memories.
Rabon on Magic Online, GavinVerhey on Twitter, and Lesurgo everywhere else
(Closing note from the author: This article was the result of a topical blend contest I ran where readers voted on two subjects, one Magic and one non-Magic, to hear about combined into one article. The two winning topics were “How is Magic going to die?” and “Time Travel.” If you enjoyed this article, please let me know in the forums, and I will definitely run more of these in the future.)