Thanks to Cyberpunk 2077 people are again questioning how games are reviewed, and the conditions under which they’re played. And this comes after 12 months where so much traditional wisdom has been challenged, with many games (indies in particular) struggling to cut through the chaos of 2020.
One area that’s really been hit is board games and card games, although not in equal proportions. Board game publishers have really struggled, not just from the loss of marketing through conventions closing down, but shocks to the global supply chain bringing manufacturing to a halt.
Card games have been hit too, although in a very different way. Take Magic: The Gathering (MTG). Playing Magic in person — passing booster decks around, physically turning cards to attack, counting mana by hand — is as much part of the experience as the cards themselves. That community that exists within the confines of the game store? It’s also a mini economy, helping sustain years of not just Magic, but other card games, board games, and countless friendships.
So those crammed in Friday Night Magic sessions, even in the relative safety of Australia, have gotten a little more complicated. And with the upcoming Viking-themed Kaldheim due to launch, that created a bit of a PR problem.
You won’t usually hear about promo events, because for the most part they’re pretty low key. People gather at a bar, muck around with some Magic boosters from the latest set. It’s not organised to the same degree as a pre-release event or a proper launch, because not everyone will have a MTG.
Sometimes you get people who have played before. Some people have played casually. And some (like me) have had some competitive experience in the past. So it makes sense to just grab the starter decks, have people sit down, chill out and just unwind for a little bit.
They’re often not really “review” events as such — it’s more just an informal gathering for people to reacquaint themselves with MTG. And that’s what was originally planned, until the Avalon cluster kicked off.
COVID has thrown all kinds of wrenches in all sorts of plans. So courtesy of Sydney’s mini-COVID wave, playing MTG in Sydney’s only Viking pub was off the menu. That’s a shame — Mjølner has always been excellent, even if you’re just enjoying the food and shots at the truncated bar menu.
So what followed ended up being one of the more unusual Magic sessions I’ve experienced. It’ll also probably be the last time something like this ever happens.
If you can’t invite people around for a meal, then why not send the meal to them? Like most high-end restaurants trying to stay afloat during the pandemic, Mjølner created a take home menu. But instead of just shipping you some entrees and meals and hoping they arrived at your door quickly enough to not be bone-cold, Mjølner’s offering was all about recreating the feast, instead of just eating it.
Inside the box was enough food and components for a three-course meal: two entrees, a main with two sides, and dessert. All we had to do, ideally before our MTG games began, was put it together.
Usually, a Magic event comes with a box of boosters or starter packs. This one? Seeded mustard. “Pear & Soup”, which actually ended up being a poached pear in a thick, blackberry slush. There was shaved broccoli stems (more on those later). Yoghurt. Sour cream. Sour cream with chives. Gravlax, which is basically cured salmon. Dill. Parsley. White radish. Red radish.
“This is easily the coolest night of Magic I’ve had in a long time,” I said to my partner as we sorted through the labels.
Underneath all that was a sheet of paper with a QR code. This was the real magic: the instructions on how to turn all of this into a competent, coherent meal. I’d argue that you could actually get by just fine without the instructions if you’re competent in the kitchen. Mjølner’s par-cooked most of the ingredients, so you just need to make sure things don’t burn.
It’s a clever menu, though. It’s designed so your oven stays at 200c the entire time. No fretting about swapping temperatures or worrying about potentially scorching the living fuck out of some tiny vegetables. The timings are also pretty straightforward.
And considering re-learning all the new mechanics and threats in a MTG deck is hard enough as is, it was nice to not have to think about too many combos.
As I was putting the first entree — roasted carrots, or pre-roasted carrots that I was about to roast some more — it became clearer why I wanted to write about the experience, and not just the Kaldheim set. For one, Mjølner’s take home feast isn’t even available anymore. It was a creation borne from survival, a response to a pandemic that nearly decimated not just the customer base of Australian hospitality but its talent.
And while things haven’t returned to pre-pandemic normals, there’s not quite the same urgency around survival. And that’s before millions of vaccinations have gone out in Australia. So, inadvertently, the Kaldheim MTG set ended up providing an opportunity to do something that may never happen again.
Sure, Sydney and Melbourne might have third or fourth or fifth waves. But the hassle of arranging a three-course menu, sorting out ingredients into individual containers, getting everything printed onto a sheet, making sure the QR code is right, that’s a nightmare.
The Avalon cluster also shifted the highlight onto another program: Magic Arena.
Magic Arena has been around for years now, although its suite of cards and content has grown significantly since 2019. The interface is a smoother, more refined version of the Duels of the Planeswalkers spin-offs. It’s still not a full replacement for the older Magic Online (MTGO), which is still being updated concurrently alongside Magic Arena.
Magic Arena doesn’t have the same wealth of older sets in it. Missing more than a decade of MTG releases means a lot of the game’s more intriguing formats — Commander, Legacy, Modern, or even Vintage Cube which lets you draft some of the game’s rarest and broken cards — simply aren’t available.
Of course, you don’t really care about that if you haven’t jumped into Magic for years or decades. Someone picking up Magic Arena on Android — an iOS release is due out sometime this year — isn’t going to have years of digital cards that they’re wedded to. So Arena‘s wealth of tutorials, draft formats, ranked and unranked modes, sealed formats and various challenges will be enough for most people.
But there’s some key social features that, really, a social game like Magic Arena needs. One of the most powerful assets in the Counter-Strike community are the private lobbies available through third-party matchmaking services. Sure, you can get a group of ten people together in Discord and arrange a private match by yourself, but being able to have a walled off, permanent hub — not unlike a Discord server — is a huge boon for streamers, competitive players and certain regions.
Magic Arena doesn’t have anything of that sort right now. So while players can add each other and issue direct challenges, you can’t join a party and do a draft together. There’s no in-built system for mini tournaments. Wizards has tried to fill that void with regular events, including online alternatives for people who can’t visit their local game shop on a Friday night anymore. So while a group of friends at a store can all jump into a global event, there’s no way for them to really replicate the experience among themselves just yet.
But humans are a creative lot. Gamers have been particularly filling in the void of their beloved titles or platforms whenever they could, whether it’s through various mods, homegrown optimisations, or creating their own documentation to help newer players with the onboarding process.
In this case, cooking came to the rescue. It helped provide an extra degree of connective tissue that papered over the lack of contact. I knew some of the others taking part in the event, and we couldn’t share a drink, but I could message them beforehand and ask how their entree was going.
My partner and I challenged ourselves. She’s vastly better at the Masterchef sauce smear, as it turns out. But we had fun experimenting in our own right. With two trays already in the oven (for the potatoes and the meat), I figured we could use a nearby air fryer to finish off the charred broccoli. After all, who was going to stop me?
“This might be more fun than actually playing Magic,” I muttered aloud to myself.
It’s not, of course, that playing Magic — or the latest expansion Kaldheim — isn’t fun. There’s always a wall with Magic, though, one that climbs with each set that passes. Hearthstone, Gwent, Duelyst, Yu-Gi-Oh, it doesn’t matter what the card game is, they all require a regular commitment, not unlike an MMO.
But that bar is always a little bit higher with Magic. There’s the infinite combos, token generation, seventeen varieties of “counterspell”, the various combos that can completely break an opponent in two. Magic has been developing these for almost three decades. And while Magic Arena might not have access to the full suite of unadulterated, pure bullshit cards, the complexity of those ideas and tricks have never gone away.
Sometimes they take a break for a year or two. But like the Kraken, that labyrinth of options always lie beneath the surface; just partially obscured by RNG, your financial commitment or spare time. And you’ll either hate Magic or love Magic for it, even if you stop playing for years.
You can’t functionally review a Magic set, at least not in the same way you might a video game. Such evaluations are only possible after weeks of competition and deliberation. And the purpose of the exercise wasn’t to review Magic Arena either, although the release of Kaldheim was neatly timed with the game’s launch on Android, which certainly helps.
Of course, that only served to annoy both me and my partner, who deeply wished the game was available on iPad instead. Arena works better on Android than it has any right to, but half the game is in the deckbuilding — and it’s there where you really miss the extra screen space.
So what was the point of the exercise?
It depends who you ask. Consider Wizard of the Coast’s perspective: I’m hardly likely to be the only person who has enjoyed or loved Magic, but fallen off for one reason or another. Regular reminders are always a good opportunity to bring players back into the fold, especially if programs like Magic Arena are vastly better platforms than the old Magic Duels games.
From my perspective, it’s an opportunity to be completely honest. If games writing is to have any form of value, it has to be open and transparent about it all. I’m not a podcaster; I’m not a streamer. You don’t have my voice, nor my face to attach the same kind of physiological faith that humans put into each other. So the best I can do is at least expose myself, my connection to it all, and how I got there. The cards are on the table, so to speak.
My Kaldheim experience has left me with a few thoughts. Firstly, I miss drafting. There’s really no experience quite like it, even if it can become a bit of a money sink. And more video game food nights — tied to MTG or anything else — are a great idea. Pick a game, pick a theme within the game, it doesn’t matter. Playing co-op Deep Rock Galactic? Everyone makes a dinner with beer as a component. Multiplayer Crusader Kings? Everyone does a historical dish, shares it around on Discord or something.
There’s no absence of ideas afoot. Sure, if you hate cooking, it’s not going to work. But my partner and I do, and the organisation involved in getting the food ready? That was just as much fun as the deckbuilding itself. So it might as well be a regular thing.
As for Magic itself? Well, I have one memory that might help.
It was my birthday recently. My partner and I were sitting down, enjoying some wine from the region I grew up. We’re watching an episode of Cheap Eats in the background. It’s cheeky, irreverent, and it goes down well with the ginger pork soup we’re having.
My partner asked me: “Hey, can we play some Magic together after?”
Not against each other. But together, sharing the same device, playing together against strangers on the internet. We looked at standard decklists; we listened to a Spanish streamer as they raged about RNG.
We played some basic unranked matches. One game ended in a win quickly enough, with my partner having effectively built a tournament-capable deck within minutes. The second ground to a halt, as the opponent continually milled our deck into oblivion. “Fuck this,” my partner fumed.
“Now that’s the kind of deck I like to play,” I laughed.
Maybe more Magic dinner parties should be a thing.