Welcome, brave adventurers of unknown ability, to the sadness that is my bedroom floor. If you’re well-eyed, or just very good at reading headlines, you’ll note these are cards from Magic: The Gathering, a collectible card game created by Richard Garfield in the 15th or 16th century. It feels that old, anyway.
A little less than a year ago, I
got back into got into Magic: The Gathering. I want to say “got back into”, but I never dived into this paper-handed gentleman’s sport with the gusto needed to declare it a pastime/hobby/obsession. Sure, my parents bought me some Alpha edition booster packs when I was a tinyling, but messing around with a bizarre assortment of sub-optimal cards including Time Walk* and Ancestral Recall*, configured in such a way that I was just as likely to draw an ace of spades as I was a basic land, is not what I’d call “playing the Magics with skills”.
I gave up on collectible card games a long time ago, after somehow shedding my addiction to the most excellent Legend of the Five Rings, which, I maintain to this day is a superior game to Magic. If it wasn’t for the former’s learning curve, shaped much like a vertical slab of never-melting ice, that made it difficult to entice new players, I’d still be injecting it into my eyeballs today.
So yes, a year ago. A group of friends had started playing regular games of Magic and I joined in on the fun, borrowing a deck as I was, embarrassingly, deck-less. Fun was had, but part of my enjoyment of any game is mastery — understanding the systems so completely that any loss or failure is a result of my lack of skill, not knowledge. This is something I simply could not obtain playing with decks strapped together from booster packs, missing playsets and compromising on efficiency.
It’s at this point I jumped online and sunk a few hundred dollars into buying singles. My credit card sat huddled in a corner as I tried desperately to tempt it into my hands, where its embossed numbers could be transferred from eye to finger and converted to electro-credits, the universal currency of the internet.
The next time I rocked up (about two weeks later), I was sporting a shiny “Red Deck Wins”. The idea behind the deck is that it runs cheap “burn”, or direct damage, spells, along with a bunch of super-cheap creatures. We sat down, the four of us, and I was looking forward to seeing the distraught faces of my soon-to-be vanquished opponents.
I was the first player out. My existence was ejected harshly from the battlefield faster than you can play a Lightning Bolt.
“What the hell?”, I yelled mentally, staring at my deck. Sure, I net-decked (copied from online) the crap out of you, but come on! This combination of cards had won tournaments, recent ones too. How could it have failed so utterly?
The thing is… tournaments are one-on-one affairs. Not one-on-three. To put it crudely, I disgorged my package prematurely, haphazardly zapping monsters and players until I was top-decking (drawing the top card of my deck into my empty hand and playing it immediately), leaving me with nothing to play in retaliation. My opponents had little to fear — my hand did not exist. All I had was what was in front of me. And it was weak, man. Weak.
Subsequent plays of the deck revealed a massive flaw: it lacked staying power. And so, dissatisfied, I returned to the internet and converted another hundred or so dollars into coloured bits of cardboard. This time around, I decided to build my own deck and I purchased the most powerful, yet reasonably priced, cards I could find.
The end result was an “Infect” deck. It was a piece of work, that deck. It was an anti-social construct, a fun-sucking compilation of fantasy entities designed to do one thing: tear players new ones.
What’s this Infect thing? Essentially, it was a new rule that circumvented the tired-and-true system of attrition built into Magic: hit points. Instead of eating away at a player’s hit points, Infect dispensed “poison” tokens. Once a player had accumulated 10 of these tokens, they lost. There was no way to easily remove these tokens and they were dealt the same way combat damage was.
Bluntly, it’s a shit mechanic.
For me, it meant I’d gone from one extreme to the other. While I didn’t outright win a lot of multiplayer games with this Infect deck, I did take people out in an uncomfortably speedy fashion. Our group didn’t enjoy the deck and I didn’t like slaying their fun in such a clinical fashion.
One might say “Stuff your friends! If they can’t hack losing, that’s their problem.” I’d respond by saying fair enough. But casual Magic is not competitive Magic — it’s not easy organising a bunch of people with different schedules to get together, socialise and play a few hands of a CCG.
As a competitive player, I was at first annoyed I couldn’t build soul-crushing decks, lest I be ostracised by my friends. But, slowly, I began to see it as a challenge, to build a deck that was both fun to play and play against.
Have I built this magical deck? Not just yet, but I certainly have plenty of cards now to have a crack at it.
* I’m joking. These cards are probably the most powerful ever printed. They’re worth THOUSANDS of dollars today.