Why it’s hard to improve Magic: The Gathering’s resource system

by jimphd

Magic is a great game.  It’s enduring popularity is a testament to that.  It created a new genre and continues to inspire game designers.  We can see the influence of Magic in collectible card games, boxed set card games like Netrunner, and deck-building games like Dominion.  However, there are a few aspects to Magic that frustrate players.  In Magic, players have a pre-constructed deck that’s about half resource cards (or “lands”), which generate mana, which is used to play cards in the game.  Not drawing enough lands (“mana screw”) or drawing too many lands (“mana flood”) can decide games.  Many of Magic’s followers have sought to revise the resource system.  Even Magic’s creator, Richard Garfield, abandoned the land system for subsequent card games he designed.  If you’re interested, Mark Rosewater, the lead designer of Magic, wrote an article discussing the virtues of Magic’s resource system.

One of the things Mark Rosewater discusses is how the resource system in Magic adds variance to the game.  Drawing the right mix of lands and other cards is good, and even one or two missing or excess lands can mean the different between victory and defeat.  From a game design perspective, creating a system with luck like this helps beginning or less skilled players defeat better players some percentage of the time.  For experienced players, it creates interesting tensions in whether to play cheaper, more reliable cards or more expensive, but riskier cards (risky because you can be defeated before drawing enough lands to play them.)  Often games try to remove the luck of drawing lands by giving you an additional resource each turn (e.g., Hearthstone), letting you play any card as a resource (e.g., The Spoils), or giving you a fixed number of resources or plays each turn.  Other games, like Dominion, give players a greater control over the resource composition of their deck.

These fixes mitigate the luck factor, but sometimes move the variance to another place.  If drawing resource cards isn’t where the luck is, then it becomes more important to draw the right card one after another.  In other words, if I know I’ll have one resource turn one, two on turn two, etc., it becomes more important to maximize those resources.  So removing the variance in drawing resources doesn’t always eliminate luck; the real source of luck isn’t in mana, but in the cards themselves.  Although it would be possible to design a card game without luck, most card games involve shuffling or randomizing the cards a player has access to.  If it’s not important to draw resources, it becomes important to draw something else, and because the cards are randomized, there are better and worse draws.

Additionally, when gaining resources is probabilistic, like in Magic, the “difficulty” of playing cards is not linear.  The difference in difficulty between playing a 1 and 2 mana spell is less than the difference between a 4 and 5 mana spell.  When resource gain is linear, like in Hearthstone, then the difference in difficulty is the same.  Practically speaking, this means that the more expensive cards in Magic should be relatively better than in Hearthstone.  This ties into the next thing, the psychological impact.

The worst part about the mana system in Magic is that it feels bad to lose when the cards don’t go your way.  Although in some of the other games I’ve discussed, like Dominion, you can still lose to suboptimal draws, but it doesn’t feel as bad because you still get to execute your game plan.  Often the advantages your opponent is accruing over time in Dominion aren’t really visible until the end game when you get crushed under a pile of Provinces.  Magic has some advantages too though.  Because the mana system is probabilistic, you can have powerful end-game cards because they have substantial risk.  These cards are quite exciting.  They have powerful effects in the game, and can often turn a losing position into a winning one.  This is basically Mark Rosewater’s point number three.  The probabilistic resource system creates tension and drama over time.  Are you going to draw that last land to play the game-winning dragon, or while you die amongst your puny goblins as the trolls attack?

So, I think a lot of designers try to eliminate the feel-bad aspects of Magic’s resource system, but don’t appreciate what it does.  Eliminating luck in one place in a card game often doesn’t remove the impact that the randomized deck of cards has on the game, it just moves luck to a different place.  Furthermore, it also can remove some of the fun tension and risk/reward from Magic.  Balancing risk and reward is a skillful activity, and even if you were to remove luck, it could also reduce skill.  I’d like to write another post sometime about the luck vs. skill (false) dichotomy, so that discussion will have to wait until later.