The Value of X

Posted in Serious Fun on July 24, 2007

By The Ferrett

Let X = the perfect casual game. Now there's a variable that's tough to define.

It's X Week at, and X has a lot of meanings attached to it. X is a shifting variable that mutates from equation to equation. X marks the spot. X is the unknown.

What I'm going to talk about today involves all three.

This column will no doubt a little esoteric for some, since it involves no decks and no Magic strategy... but given that this week is devoted to a cryptic letter, I think now's as good a time as any to talk about the nature of casual gaming.


This X-ly article arrives courtesy of Matt H., who alerted me to an internet forum discussion on "defining casual." The goal of the thread is to define, for once and for all, what is meant by "casual" when people get together to play a game online.

The value of a fun "casual" game is X.

If we could all define X, then we'd have a clear vision on how to get together like-minded Magic players. Once X was set in stone, we could all say, "All right! I'm going to meet up with some people I don't even know... but because it's an X game, I know just how much fun I'll have!"

Defining the precise value of X, in other words, would make the world a lot more entertaining.

Now, I try not to whip out my credentials on all y'all too often, but the truth is that I have been an editor-in-chief of a major Magic site for over six years, and I've been playing Magic casually since the day The Dark was released. In other words, I'm a greybeard who's seen 'em come and seen 'em go.

The question of "How can we define casual?" is something that's been hotly argued since long before I came on the scene. It's inspired countless essays on and other independent Magic sites, fueling forum threads a-go-go, and I'm here to tell you:

I don't think you can define X.

I think the definition of what a "proper" casual game, like the idea of what a "proper" romantic relationship is, is something that can only be hashed out between individual people.

But let me explain why.

How To Win A Magic Game

One of the most interesting books on game theory out there is David Sirlin's Playing to Win. In it, David talks about gaming in general, and discovers something odd:

At its core, almost every competitive gaming scene is like every other.

That sounds crazy, but the kinds of guys who are drawn to, say, competitive chess or Street Fighter championships tend to have the same essential components to their personality. After all, they're all taking a game that gets you absolutely nothing in real life, and applying a fair amount of their time and energy to get good at it, and hoping to win The Big Prize.

I watched Word Wars on DVD, and it was bizarre: I'd met all of the people on the competitive Scrabble circuit. There was the unwashed genius who had no social skills yet would talk your ear off about theory, and the slick jock who was trying to make his reputation here, and the ice-cold killer who plays silky-smooth and never makes a mistake, and the geeky stoked guy who's always talking about that amazingly cool play he pulled off once in 2002.

I knew them, but their names were different; I'd just met their Magic dopplegangers. And even in Scrabble, there are "cheap" tactics and people complaining bitterly about tile screw. (If your first seven tiles are XKCDZYS, good luck winning that game.)

But what David goes on to say is that an omnipresent debate in any gaming culture is the subject of "cheap" wins. You have not-very-skilled players complaining that people "shouldn't use" those moves in Street Fighter, because it's just too easy to win with them. But David, breaking it down, says this:

"Doing one move or sequence over and over again is a tactic close to my heart that often elicits the call of the scrub. This goes right to the heart of the matter: why can the scrub not defeat something so obvious and telegraphed as a single move done over and over? Is he such a poor player that he cannot counter that move? And if the move is, for whatever reason, extremely difficult to counter, then wouldn't I be a fool for not using that move? The first step in becoming a top player is the realization that playing to win means doing whatever increases your chances of winning. That is true by definition of playing to win. The game knows no rules of 'honor' or of 'cheapness.' The game knows only winning and losing."

What David is saying cuts straight to the core of any game: "winning" may not equal "fun."


As anyone who's been to a PTQ knows, winning a Constructed tournament is not always a bag of warm kittens. There's a lot of repetition in playing the same deck over and over again to master its format, playing against the same decks repeatedly to hone your game. You often wind up facing the same matchup several times in a tournament that lasts ten hours or more, getting exhausted, frustrated, and angry.

It's not all roses, folks.

The best play is not always the satisfying play. David says that if you have to throw someone twenty times in a row to win the game, then that's what you do if winning's important... and he's right. Why should you switch a strategy that your opponent cannot beat when you goal is to beat him?

If you had a deck that no one else could beat, and you were competitive, of course you'd bring it to a tournament. It wouldn't matter whether it was a particularly enjoyable deck, because "enjoyment" isn't necessarily on the agenda. Getting to first place is.

But at casual games, where "having fun" is the main factor, then how do you define "fun"?

Right there is the tension at the heart of every casual vs. competitive game: winning is not always enjoyable. Not for the loser, certainly, but sometimes it's not even particularly satisfying for the winner (aside from the grim knowledge that you've beaten one more opponent).

Come on. Are your most memorable games always the ones you've won?

Winning isn't the main goal of a casual game. "Fun" is. But at the same time, winning is a significant part of fun. If you disagree, then perhaps you should play "Russian Roulette" Magic, wherein you all draw from a hundred-card deck consisting of nothing but lands and one creature. The first person to draw the creature plays it and wins.* Whee!

What's that? There's no skill involved? You mean winning at random isn't fun, either?

So what you want is a challenge. But not an overwhelming challenge, where the strategies are so limited that you either play Deck X and win or you play some other deck and lose. You want a challenge where it feels like you had a chance to win, and your own choices helped to make that happen.

In other words, you want a challenge that, as Goldilocks says, is "just right."

You want X.

Okay. So now we've defined what most players want out of their casual games: a good, but not overwhelming, challenge. But this is a two-axis chart: there's just "Pure random wins" on one side and "Win at all costs" on the other.

There's another set of factors we have to consider: Play skill and time.

How Much Time Do You Have?

The problem with throwing in Street Fighter is that it's pretty easy to do against novice players. They don't know how to break out of a throw, and so you can throw them twenty times and win.

Try that against an experienced player, and you'll be eating your hat.

Experienced players know how to block a throw, and to counterthrow. In other words, they know how to counteract the "cheap" strategies and to turn them around.

I get emails from Magic players every week that tell me their group considers mass removal like Wrath of God to be "cheap." Why? Because they don't have a good answer to a deck that packs multiple board-sweepers, and they always lose to it.

But me? I know how to beat multiple Wraths. Play creatures that come back. Play with end-step token generators that can attack before they can play their next sorcery-speed destruction spell. Play combo. Play with indestructible cards like Darksteel Colossus or Darksteel Gargoyle. There are a ton of ways to work around Wraths.

So is a deck with a lot of board-clearers "cheap" or is it merely "a valid strategy that can be beaten with the proper approach"?

The glory of Magic is that there is no unbeatable deck. If you create a deck that continually beats your group of players, I guarantee you there's a counterdeck to it that smashes it flat. That's just the way Magic works. You might have to spend some dough to get the right cards, and maybe your smash-the-big-deck will lose to everything else, but "building a foil" is a long-honored tradition.

Ah, but there are two hidden problems with that:

1) How much time do you want to invest in this game? After all, to beat a good strategy, you have to be good. But you might think of Magic as your root-beer-and-pretzels fun night—as something you do once a week. You don't actually want to work at it.

That's fine. There's no crime in a low attachment to Magic. But it means that there are always going to be some strategies that you won't be able to defeat, just because you never spend the time building the skills required to foil them.

2) How much do you want to warp your metagame to face this problem? One of the things that frequently happens to Magic groups is the Combo Catastrophe. Someone brings a combo deck and wins a few times with it, his other friends realize they want to win so they build combo decks, and soon enough everyone's struggling to go off on turn four and it's not people playing against each other any more—it's people racing against time.

Those groups usually break up pretty soon afterwards.

Wizards went out of their way to ban Affinity in Standard—not because it was unbeatable, which it wasn't, but because people weren't having any fun playing the decks that did beat it. Some folks complained, but that was a wise decision on Wizards' part—"fun" has to be some part of tournaments, and if nobody's enjoying themselves then why should anyone bother?

Just because you can make a deck that beats something doesn't mean that you should do it. That's why some cards get the banhammer.

So now we have a couple of charts where X is like this:

X is in the middle. Put them all together into one chart, and we're starting to look at a tesseract. (Shades of Camazotz.) There's a whole spectrum of preferences to be hammered out.

But did you spot the problem? Take a closer look.

Ah, you did see! As an experienced casual player, the effort that it takes me to break a given challenge is a lot less than it is for a novice player.

Let's say that Janice has a mono-black Pox deck (which are very nasty in casual play) that just wrecks the table. It might take me a week or two to figure out how to break Janice's Pox deck, but that same effort might take Greg the N00b months.

In other words, if my scale is this:

And Greg the N00b's scale is this:

...then the exact same deck scales extremely different for two separate players, even though we're in complete agreement on how much effort we want to put into beating some metagame-warping deck. His unbeatable challenge is a weekend's work for me. And so we either:


  1. Ban the Pox deck and satisfy Greg, thus leaving me feeling as though there's a distinct lack of challenge at the table, because I could have beaten it. This also leaves Janice feeling distinctly unrewarded, because she built an awesome deck and now she can't play it.
  2. Leave the Pox deck in to satisfy me and Janice, but leave Greg feeling helpless as he spends months trying to work up some counter-strategy (and quite possibly gives up and leaves).

How can you scale one definition to accommodate every level of players? I don't think you can. Then let's give another idea a spin:

There will always, always be "cheap" strategies.

The Problems With Banning

When I played Invasion Sealed deck with a friend of mine, we both opened up a set of cards. My friend beat me 6-3 in test matches, proving that his cards were clearly superior to mine.

Then we switched card pools and built new decks. He then beat me 7-2 in matches, using the same cards that I'd been unable to beat him with. The lesson was clear: given the same card pool, players of superior abilities will build better decks.

Sure, you can ban certain cards to prevent all-out broken behavior. Wizards does it on occasion. But you can't create a "casual" setting by banning every card that's good, because the good players will always gravitate towards the best possible cards. Ban Skullclamp? Well, someone will find a way to break something else.

I guarantee you that you could reduce the entire Magic card pool to two cards, Hill Giants and Shocks, and someone would be complaining that Shocks were buh-roken.**

"Power" is a relative term, and the better players will always be fetching the better cards out of whatever pool you hand them. Given time, after being beaten enough by the same cards repeatedly, you'll say "enough!" And thus we have one more chart for X:

A lot of people just don't want to see the same cards over and over. That's a preference. Me, I don't mind always running into Pernicious Deed, 'cause it's a powerful card; I expect people to play it. But others will groan if the same powerful card shows up twice in an evening, because that's just lame.

(None of this is wrong, incidentally. It's all down to personal opinion.)

"Diversity in approaches" is a strategy. You can help it, as Wizards has, by allowing for a card pool that has answers and new strategies to everything... but the fact is that if Akroma, Angel of Wrath is the best multiplayer finisher out there, some people are going to use her until you tell them not to. And when you ban it, some people will think it's lame that they can't use the good cards.

Whither Casual?

So in the end, defining a casual game that would work for everyone would require a rather complex matrix that:

  1. Gives both experienced players and novice players the exact same challenge.
  2. Satisfies both the people who enjoy ferreting out the most powerful decks in the format and those who just want to play the sixty cards they threw together.
  3. Allows strategies that are beatable by both novices and experienced players.
  4. Rewards players who put in a lot of time without penalizing those who don't want to bother.

...Yeah, that's gonna work.

I'm not saying that you can't create a good casual game. But that game involves putting a bunch of like-minded people together and asking them what they want. You can't create a format; you can only create a culture.

You can't define "casual" because there is no casual.

A universal X is an illusion.


There are formats that skew towards certain types of players. Elder Dragon Highlander, for example, is a very random type of Magic featuring singleton cards where every game is different and it's hard to build a deck that does consistently well. But on the other hand, you frequently see the same good cards and/or Dragons popping up in EDH, and so the "frequency of cards" thing doesn't matter.

Mental Magic, on the other hand, almost always involves the same cards at first, and there are classic strategies that work consistently. It's a much more competitive casual format.

In other words, you can create the sorts of environments that attract the right styles of players. But an all-in-one X that says, "THIS IS CASUAL"?

There is no casual. There is no X. There is only what you like, and what your friends like, and hopefully it lines up.

The reason everyone wants to define X is because they want to have some sort of short-hand to gather people about them... And that's lovely. Knowing what your X is (and what the X of your local group is) helps to define exactly what you do or do not want out of Magic.

But one man's "cheap" strategy is another man's challenge, and so it always shall be. So my advice? Stop trying to come up with an all-in-one label. There are probably ways to define what you like, but it's not going to be global.

The more specific you can be, the better. Tell people what sorts of decks you like to play, and watch their reactions when you tell them. If you tell them that Skullclamp is unrestricted in your group because you like to keep it casual and their eyes light up because they can break Skullclamp again, well... They may not be for you.

It might be possible to come up with a set of standards to define the many flavors of Casual. But like potato chips, there's no one kind that satisfies everyone.***

Thus endeth the X musings for the day.

A Brief Note

Alas, The Compendium closed less than a month after we moved stakes there. Now we're looking for a new place in the Cleveland area. In the meantime, if you think you'll be in the area on a given Wednesday, feel free to email me at—or if you have a good place to suggest for us to play late into the evening, shoot it at me!

Poll results from two weeks ago were this:


In my multiplayer group...
Someone occasionally brings a combo deck in to see if they can blow us out, but usually it's non-combo decks. 1596 33.7%
Combo decks are a healthy part of our multiplayer metagame, and you need to be prepared to face them, even if they're not dominant. 1498 31.6%
I don't currently play multiplayer, but I sure do like to fill in polls. 1077 22.7%
We never face combo decks. No one ever plays 'em. 427 9.0%
Our group is almost exclusively combo decks facing other combo decks, and it's a race to see who can go off first. 138 2.9%
Total 4736 100.0%

Neat. It's good to see that combo decks are around, since, like Kellog's Frosted Mini-Wheats, they're a balanced part of a nutritious metagame.

Now let's ask another question:


In my multiplayer group... We outright ban any strategies and/or approaches we define as "cheap."We frown on someone who uses "cheap" strategies, and will kick someone out if he consistently uses them, but whipping some broken deck out occasionally is fine.We'll groan good-naturedly if someone brings a cheap deck, but it's all fun.Anything goes in our group; there are no cheap strategies, only insufficient players.We are held hostage by someone who keeps using really cheap strategies, but we don't know how to kick him out so that we can have fun.Boy, I don't play multiplayer, but I hate to be left out of a poll.

* All right, you nitpickers, we'll say that nobody loses by getting decked. Wisebutt. [back]

** To be fair, they kind of would be. [back]

*** I prefer salt and vinegar. But I can't eat them, because my frickin' gums haven't healed yet. Bleah. [back]

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