Dear Mr. Garfield

Posted in Serious Fun on March 4, 2008

By The Ferrett

Dear Mr. Garfield,

First off, let me thank you. If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't have the awesome job I have today. After all, if you hadn't invented Magic: The Gathering, then Pete Hoefling never would have started as a place to publish articles on how to play Magic. Without Magic, I never would have started writing articles on playing politics in multiplayer games. And without both of those factors coming into play, Pete wouldn't have hired me full-time to edit all the Magic articles he received, enabling me to quit my other job.

So really, you were the one who rescued me from a life of drudgery at a Dunder-Mifflin-style paper company. * I owe you a hug.

That said, a lot of people have been emailing me about some old articles you recently had republished on this site, particularly the one where you said this:

"In my opinion, team Magic rules over free-for-all play.... Eventually, any play advantage that stems from a better understanding of strategy will be overshadowed by how everyone treats you. After that point, gaining further knowledge is worth far less than becoming everyone's friend. If I still like the game, I change the way we play so that the politics are diminished. Another option, of course, is to get a different game and begin the journey of exploration again."

Now, how can I put this delicately?

You're wrong.

GainsayOkay, that's funny to say, but it's also not true. You get more enjoyment out of team play, which for you provides a "better understanding of strategy"... And it is worth noting that in 1997 when you wrote those words, Wizards didn't provide rules support for multiplayer anything like what it does now—multiplayer games really were the Wild West. But for me, the lack of politics leaves me cold and it seems depressingly obvious. The great thing is that neither of us is right or wrong, because the great thing about gaming is that enjoyment is subjective. There's enough room for preferences of all kinds!

However, like George Lucas before you, I think that you don't quite understand all the reasons why your brainchild Magic succeeded as well as it did... and the fact that you see politics as lessening the strategy in the game confirms that for me. I don't think you understand why Magic appeals to my style of gaming, so I'm going to try to explain why I think politics does not lessen the overall strategy.

What Is Strategy?

First off, let's take your phrase here: "Any play advantage that stems from a better understanding of strategy will be overshadowed by how everyone treats you."

That kind of makes it sound as though that "strategy" is a very narrow realm of skills directly involved in Magic. In other words, you may have won via correctly anticipating the reactions of groups of other players, but you didn't win using Magic strategy. Which is a covert way of separating skillsets into two groups: a valid "Magic" strategy and a non-Magic strategy that doesn't count.

But that's not true, Mr. Garfield! In fact, every serious tournament player has to play a game where they have to read their opponents and make a game-changing decision before they even show up.

We call that game precisely what it is: the metagame.

When someone goes to a tournament, they may have the most awesome deck in the world. Objectively speaking, maybe Dredge is the most powerful deck out there, capable of obscene wins. But if everyone at the tournament knows that and they're all packing maindecked anti-Dredge tech, that player may lose merely by dint of not guessing properly what people are thinking.

That is a form of politics, and you could easily argue that the metagame is a skill-lowering factor. After all, the best player might show up with the strongest deck and lose just because everyone in the room decided to pick on his choice. That keeps the "best" player from winning due to circumstances beyond his control.... and how is that all too different from folks dogpiling the guy in the lead in a multiplayer game? You lost because a group of people thought your deck was too powerful.

Heck, in a game of multiplayer, you can at least try to talk someone out of attacking you. You can't get someone to remove their pre-boarded hatred for Dredge!

Yet I don't think too many people would seriously argue that beating the metagame involves no strategy. Sure, the metagame isn't as predictable as folks would like... but there have been too many times where, say, Zvi showed up with "The Solution" or people have dusted off that long-forgotten Affinity deck to steal a win from nowhere. Though it seems random if you don't know how to do it (and there are certainly random factors that nobody can account for), players can beat the metagame.

In fact, I'm willing to bet that you, Mr. Garfield, probably think the metagame is a part of "proper" Magic strategy. But why? Maybe you think that reading some class of people is a part of Magic because it involves deck building, while reading another class of people is not a part of Magic because it doesn't.

But if so, then what else falls into the nebulous realm of "Magic" strategy? After all, there are a lot of things that go into Magic that also don't, technically speaking, have a lot to do with Magic specifically. Good card shuffling technique is something that also applies to other card games... so can that also be good Magic strategy? It may not be, but if you don't know how to sufficiently randomize your deck, you're in trouble.

Aven_WarcraftWhat about Jedi mind tricks? Observing your opponent closely to make sure he doesn't cheat? Those aren't part of Magic proper, since they're also a part of many other games.

If you 0-4'd a tournament because you had superior skill at the "relevant" elements of Magic but failed to shuffle properly, brought a deck that everyone anticipated, and fell for people's silly mind tricks, would you argue that your Magic strategy is superior....

....or do all of those elements combine to make you better at Magic, and thus each of them should count as a part of an overall Magic strategy?

My point is that I think it's an arbitrary distinction you're making here. You're separating "politics" from "Magic" as though politics can be handwaved away as "Well, you may have won because of it, but that's not Magic strategy you used."

Whereas as far as I'm concerned, anything that helps you to win Magic games is Magic strategy.

To me, it doesn't matter whether I'm not playing Chameleon Colossus because I think I can win this game without it and I don't want my opponent to sideboard against it in Game 2, or I'm not playing Chameleon Colossus because I know that Phil and Ted would overreact if I played it and come after me in a way that I'm not quite ready to withstand yet.

Yet only one of those factors matters in a duel. And since duels are the default for Magic, "mind games" have fallen under the umbrella of "proper Magic strategy" while "politics" has been left out in the drizzle.

I'm not sure that's fair.

The Nature of My Enjoyment

It's often said that the creator never truly understands why his creation is successful. (Calling Mister Lucas again—Jar Jar who?) And I don't think that you fathom the full extent of what I like about Magic, so let me try to explain my love to you.

My favorite game manufacturer of all time is Cheapass Games, manufacturer of such awesome enjoyments as "Unexploded Cow" and "Devil Bunny Needs a Ham." Cheapass Games has an interesting niche market: to save money, they assume you already have tokens and Monopoly money hanging about. So they print only bare-bones games that cost about $5 to $8 apiece and come in inexpensive cardboard boxes, leaving you to provide the dice and glass beads.

The great thing about Cheapass games is that you can buy three of them for a sawbuck, and play through them quickly. You don't feel bad about playing them only once or twice. And you know what I've discovered?

The first game is invariably the best game for me.

I love the challenge of trying to dope out what strategies are optimal before I fully understand the game. I like looking at a hugely complicated mass of rules and trying to ascertain what the correct path to victory is.

Once I play the games two or three times, the best strategies generally become clear... and then it becomes boring to me. I can refine those strategies, sure, but it's not as fun as looking at a seething mass of options and pondering, "Is it better to go on an all-out grab for as many resources as I can get, or to spend my efforts getting only the best resources?" There's something that just hits me right about trying to snort all of the instructions into my brain and then calculating which path is correct.

You know what else I've noticed? The people who are good at winning first-time Cheapass games also tend to be very good at winning multiplayer Magic.

Magic is awesome for me because of its randomness. I hate Constructed, because playing the same cards over and over again bores the heck out of me. The games are designed to be very similar; redundancy is the goal of a Constructed deck. But I adore Limited, because every game plays out differently.

Every game of Magic for me is like a Cheapass game, because the optimal strategy changes in every game. That's where your game hits my hot button.

And the harder it is for me to find the correct path to victory, the more unknowns in my path as I try to divine the right route that will lead to a win, the better I like it.

That's why Magic is made of awesome—it fulfills the needs of so many different players! If you enjoy testing your pure, random-free skill, then tournament Constructed's your bag, since it very much rewards planning, crystal-clear objectives, and minimizes the randomness. But if you get a charge out of what I do, plucking the relevant choices out of a sea of possibly-unrelated factors, then Limited and multiplayer Magic are for you.

I don't think you fully appreciate that aspect of the game, though. My suspicion is that you're a Constructed guy (after all, you built Magic as a Constructed game) and tend to see the other forms of enjoyment as just noise.** But they aren't! They're just as skill-intensive—if anything, they're often harder because you have so many other factors to consider that a wrong step can doom you!

Strategy, Schmategy That's why I love multiplayer Magic. Learning to play the other players is what makes it fun for me—especially since you can't play the same player the same way twice. People evolve as you play with them, and a psychological strategy that worked last week might not work this week. And trying to guess how the table thinks in conjunction is even harder.

It adds more chaos to the game, yes! But that doesn't mean that the game degenerates into chaos. I heard that you told Randy Buehler once that "who wins multiplayer Magic is completely random, so just bring any deck," but that's not true. Heck, give a bunch of newbies some Magic decks, and they'll tell you how Magic is random, because they don't understand what factors go into winning the game.

Multiplayer Magic involves thinking on so many levels that you're adrift in a sea of seemingly unrelated factors. But politics is not random. It's controllable...

...but only if you treat it as a valid strategy.

Like the novice Magic players who go, "Man, it all comes down to who draws the Craw Wurm first" and throw up their hands to say that Magic's just luck, it's easy to write off multiplayer Magic as being so needlessly complex that there's no logic involved in winning it. But I think that's the wrong approach.

Yes, the kingmaker strategy can get irritating. Particularly in games like Settlers of Catan, which has the problem of players building up a lead that no one else can overcome, the kingmaker element is almost overwhelming.*** Thankfully, Magic is fluid enough that people almost always have an out, unlike the clogged endgames of Risk.

Rather than dismissing the kingmaker as an inevitable consequence of playing, however, I choose the strategic bent of isolating how kingmakers can be used. "How can I sway the kingmaker to my side?" I ask. (And I often do.) Or, better yet, I ask "How can I play to knock the kingmaker off his perch? What's the best way to foresee when someone is going to be kingmaker in a few turns, and how do you head him off at the pass?"

That to me is just another layer on the cake. And I can't dismiss it as radio chaos theory. To me, that learning to play the sub-games is what makes it fun, whether they are (or are not) a part of Magic.

You may disagree. But I think brushing it off because it's not "a better understanding of strategy" misses the point of what strategy is.


Political_TrickeryYou are right about one thing, though; politics isn't always fun. I agree with you that too much politics can encourage players to be passive, and that's why I try to encourage gaming cultures where aggression isn't frowned upon. Sometimes, you have to give up a little strategy for a little fun.

And some people just don't enjoy politics! Thank God they have other formats to turn to. Magic's a big field thanks to your phenomenal design, Mr. Garfield, and there's so much room for players of all kinds to stand around and go, "Wow, that part of Magic sucks, but the rest here is awesome."

You created a great game. There's a lot of space for us to stand in. But just as some claim that Rock, Paper, Scissors is purely random and others claim there's a lot of strategy to it (I won a game recently by noting my wife's hand position on the upswing), I claim that there are valid strategies to political games. They're just harder to isolate and verify.

Also, you say a lot more in many fewer words. That's the sign of a true master, sir. I took nearly twice the number of words to say what you did in a thousand, and my verbal logorrhea makes me seem drooling compared to you.

With love and affection,
The Ferrett

P.S. – Please tell Wizards to make more "Ferret" cards. It's an underutilized tribe. They don't listen to me.

P.P.S. – If you like webcomics, you might want to try checking out my new comic "My Name Is Might Have Been," co-written with World Fantasy Award-nominated author Catherynne M. Valente and illustrated with some of the most awesome art you'll see in a webcomic. It just started this Monday!

* – I bought pens. Yessiree, nothing makes you want to get up in the morning more than going, "Wow, I'm going to buy 144 cases of the Sanford B-1398 model today!"

** – Though I can't be sure on that. RoboRally, which you also designed. has a strong element of playing with chaos, so I'm a little loathe to say that for sure. Plus, Magic was not designed with the four-of rule in mind—who knew it would be such a success?—so early games tended to be a lot like Limited.

*** – Fun trivia fact: In our first game of Settlers of Catan together, my wife played kingmaker when I and another player were in the lead. I'd pissed her off sufficiently that she chose the other guy. Husbands, don't assume your wife is on your side!

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