Basic Instincts

Posted in Serious Fun on May 4, 2010

Magic is a game. That statement is both true and descriptive: players use the same set of rules, with the same functions on the same available cards, to engage in an interactive event. However, the "rules of the game" are not the only governing force over a player when they sit down. Different players have their own ideas that drive their thought processes and deck building, the cards they like and the cards they don't enjoy, and the ways they want games to play out. Magic is a game, but each player is unique.

    Head Games

Let's consider two very straightforward cards: Essence Scatter and Doom Blade. What do these cards do? Essence Scatter stops a creature from entering the battlefield (countering it and sending it to the graveyard instead), Doom Blade kills a creature already on the battlefield (destroying it and sending it to the graveyard). In both situations, the creature ends up in the same place, the graveyard, but in very different times and ways. Essence Scatter is proactive —saying "No" upfront—but isn't effective once a creature is already down; Doom Blade is reactive—saying "No" when it's time—but lets creatures have a chance to land.

While there is a lot of philosophy and discussion available between just the merits and drawbacks of those two cards, as well as the reasoning for why one uses which card, I chose them in order to highlight the difference in feel that different spells can create.

Some spells, like Essence Scatter, are more immediate and direct about stopping things from even happening. Those spells are like individuals who interrupt your train of thought, preventing you from finishing what you had started to do or distracting you from what you were trying to do. It can be a jarring, uncomfortable experience if it was something unexpected or new. The Doom Blade type spells are those that wait until a moment has triggered the player holding it to use it. Those reactive types of spells are like individuals who argue with you: you have your chance to say what you wanted to, but ultimately it may not matter at all, as they have a different, perhaps stronger, conclusion. Creatures will die, though, and it's not an uncommon event for a creature prowling around to take a dive for team.

These types of spells feel very different, both in terms of experiencing the business end of one as well as why you would use it yourself. It's not a matter of "this one is better than the other," but of the different experiences you seek to have fulfilled. Fun is a relative, personal feeling which has very different circumstances to be fulfilled dependent upon the person. Odds are good that you know someone who is absolutely thrilled by roller coasters, someone who is petrified of them, and someone else who likes them okay but doesn't go out of the way to get on one. Magic is no different in that everyone has slightly different expectations and desires to achieve "fun" through playing games. Understanding how you and your friends, family, or local players approach the game can head off a lot of unhappiness.

    Goblin Game

Have you ever played someone who seemed to do a lot of really annoying things? Maybe they played a lot of Rampant Growth effects and always had bigger, badder creatures. Perhaps they seemed to have every card with "Counter target spell" printed on it in their deck. Maybe they ran so many cheap creatures they always had more damage in faster than you could handle. Whatever their deck was, it was the deck that trounced yours. It was painful, unexciting, and unfun to play—for you. Their deck was probably something they found pleasant, thrilling, and enjoyable to play. They did what they had come to do.

So where is the problem? Is it the deck your opponent brought to play, or the deck you brought to play? Is it cards you don't enjoy being used, or the cards you enjoy not seeing play?

The problem isn't in any one item, but a result of all of us being individuals.

It's easy to sweep up everyone and group them with generalities like "Everyone loves hot chocolate on a cold day!" and "Everyone loves a birthday cake!" but there are those of us who don't enjoy either hot chocolate or birthday cake. Exceptions to the rule exist (almost) everywhere, and in Magic those exceptions are the folks you see week in and week out, some of the only ones you know who play, or the ones who taught you about the game to begin with. Fun comes in all shapes and sizes, and it doesn't make much sense to try to hammer triangles, squares, and rectangles all through the same round hole—you wouldn't like it; why would they?

So what do we do? We can't change what those around us like or don't like, but we can change the rules to the games we play.

Yes, I just heard the collective sound of "Huh?" across the Internet. It travels.

We can change the rules. In fact, players have been changing the rules since the game was first released, and haven't stopped as the game passed through years of minds and hands. Magic is a living, breathing game driven by the players. What players want or enjoy, players go for and, if it doesn't exist already, create of their own accord. Magic itself changes its rules: in most Draft and Sealed Deck (Limited) events, you may use any number of a particular card you have, in contrast to the Constructed rule that you may only play four copies of a card. EDH, Godzilla as explained last week, and Planar Magic (see Planechase) all modify and "change the rules" by which players play the game.

What this has to do with you and your friends is incredibly important. Working to find a balance of variety will end up keeping everyone happier. If you haven't checked it out recently, you can actually find locations near you to play and one great way to meet a lot of new players is at Friday Night Magic (FNM). Week to week, the FNMs I have attended have varied the format played between Sealed, Draft, and Standard, but also generally offer some sort of alternative outside of the main FNM attraction. That is to say, when "everyone" is bringing a deck to play Standard, you can count on finding a few players who want to draft instead.

While your kitchen table might not be FNM (unless you have some sort of table with room for 20!), having options and stretching to try these different things is something to consider. Do you just open booster packs as soon as you can grab them? I have been trying recently, with limited success, to fight the "crack the packs" urge in order to sling a little cardboard with my Limited-loving friends. Of course, I still have some EDH decks handy, an Ally deck I'm still tinkering with, as well as my Cube, but having packs on hand has been handy, to invoke the pun, and I've enjoyed adding more Limited to my arsenal of Magic.

    Mesa Chicken

If you're not familiar with the Unglued and Unhinged side of Magic, Mesa Chicken is a card you can compare the above process to: with a little humility (and probably hilarity), you can have a pretty solid creature for just two mana. I'm not talking about popping your bubble or completely changing the way you play, but stretching to reach a little outside your usual boundaries can lead to some awesome discoveries. Exploring Magic is one of many excellent ways to get everybody on board with trying something new.

A few weeks ago, before all of the Rise of the Eldrazi excitement began, I covered layering different ways of playing Magic to create something bigger than its components; the intriguing synergy between Two-Headed Giant and Sealed has kept it a fixture at many of the big regional Prerelease Events. Unique but engaging game play is what brings a group back together every week; for my local troupe it's actually two formats: the Group Game Draft and the "Fabled Format"—a democratically decided specialty variant or format that runs for two months before switching to something new. From time to time we will revisit formats—like Godzilla which is an excellent fit to all of the Eldrazi running around—and even if neither of the premium offerings are what you're after someone invariably has their Planechase cards or a random spare deck. Those who enjoy something often bring enough to share with others.

Which brings me to the ultimate point: You have to be willing to try new things. Leading by example not only lets you see what someone is so excited about but builds a factor of trust: a critical element if you're going to try bringing your own flavor of fun to someone new. At one point EDH, Cube, Godzilla, Group Game Draft, and every other way to play I've mentioned today was new, foreign, and probably quite strange (100-card decks with only one copy of each card? Huh?) but have become part of the ways I love to play.

How have you learned to play recently? Every week I receive new submissions for variants and formats—some of which have only a few rules and restrictions and some which have so many dozens of rules that they look almost completely unlike Magic was we know it—and each one is shared in the same excited way. You guys know what you find fun; your challenge is to discover what others find fun. Show us what you've got in the forums, and share your love of the game with more than just me!

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