Is Old School Magic a good game?

Okay, okay, venturing out in the deep blue here. I know it may be dangerously shallow waters to try to sail, and I know it may not exactly be popular. I also know, that of course the question above cannot be answered in an objective way – everyone is free to define a good game, exactly how they wish.

But after my good friend, Canadian Highlander Connoisseur Robin, has mentioned it to me around 11.005 times, I have found myself pondering the possibility that maybe OS isn’t – in reality – a very good game.

Stay with me, stay with me! You know that I almost exclusively play OS. And every time I venture into other formats I quickly return to my decades old cardboard. No new card frames for me, no thank you. So I am certainly not here to dis my favorite format, but I still want to explore Robins claim a bit more.

Why bother?

“Why not simply dismiss his crazy illogical train of thought, when we all know and agree that OS is simply awesome in all aspects?”

Well, because there is evidence abound that it may not be as awesome as we are often led to agree. For example, there are more than 10 different sub-formats in a format that already has severe limitations because there are only around a 1000 different cards.

And from personal experience, I often find it more enjoyable to play with none of the restricted cards. Both as a challenge to my deck building skills, but very much also to make sure the games I play are more fun.

So basically, I want to look a bit into this because Robins claim has resonated somewhat with me, and I may agree on some of his points. When thinking about it, I came to a couple of conclusions on the game of Magic in general:

Magic has some flaws that would probably – if the game was invented today – be removed. Or be the cause of the games death. For example mana screw and mana flood. Things that both Hearthstone and Pokemon, and probably also a lot of the other newer games has found solutions for. The mana part about Magic may be its biggest genius move and the central reason why the game is still around. But the flood and screw are feel-bads and you can’t always avoid it even when you design the perfect mana base. And that leads us to the lack of deck manipulation and a shortage of ways to get out of tricky situations. Again things that other games has found solutions for.

The point here is that actually Magic has also found something resembling solutions for these design flaws. With time and a lot of releases.

If Alpha was released today, I am quite certain it would not catch on as much as it did back in the day. It is simply a too complex game, where there is too big a chance, that you will lose game after game for sheer lack of luck or variance (I will get back to this).

I think some of this is because things were different back in the early 90’s. Just look at some of the earliest Mario Brothers videogames. They are insanely difficult to play, and you would have to spend hours on hours just to get a couple of levels in. And you did not have the luxury of a save button. Let alone a quick save! It may have been because these games were not first and foremost designed for gaming at home but rather for pay-to-play machines where it was important for the owner to have you lose a lot. But it is still striking how insanely difficult a lot of the early videogames are, compared to today’s blockbusters of the genre.

I was brought up with unbeatable Mario games. I can handle Land Destruction…

Future citation on my tombstone

Okay, this maybe taking it down a wrong direction. We are talking about Magic being a good game or what?

Let’s dive into it…

What is a good game even?

Well, as stated in the introduction this is of course not for me to define. There are probably a host of definitions of good games, all valid. And seeing as Magic has been around and severely popular for more than 30 years as well as has inspired several other games looking a lot like it, all reason must state that Magic is actually a good game. I agree. It certainly is.

What is it that makes it so? Let’s explore what Magic wants to do – and does – to be a good game.

Magic, at its core, is a strategy game; a complex, fun, challenging game where skill (both deck building and play skills) are paramount, and where luck and variance are factors that will sometimes determine games. So far so good.

It is also a game where you have a great influence on how your experience will be, because you design the game yourself when creating your deck. This – I think – is one of the great strengths of the game and a central reason why Magic has been so popular for so long, and maybe even gains in popularity these years: within the rules, you can play the game almost exactly like you want.

I guess I am the only one wanting to play the game like this…

This is how the game was designed all those years ago, and I would say that this is still the core of the game.

And even though each player is to design their own “playing board” it is also to some degree a game where the physical playing field is pretty even: we all have access to the same cards. At least in principle. And this is one place where the skill really kicks in. If you are a skilled player and deckbuilder you can see interactions, builds and plays that other players may not. Even though they have access to the same base of building blocks.

Okay, I know, we have to go back to the “in principle” part. Because of course we don’t all have access to the same cards. It may even be stretching it, to say that we do so in principle. Everyone has different options for spending on cards, and almost no matter what format you chose to play, Magic is nowhere near free. But in Old School, the price for playing the best decks are completely ridiculous and only the very best off are allowed to play such piles. And that is one of the fundamental parts of Magic – and Old School in particular – that makes for feelings of having a bad time, and unfairness.

Old School specifics

This may be where we are at a turning point in this blogpost. Because this is where at least one of the arguments one can make against the format comes in. It is as close to a pay-to-win format you can get in Magic.

It is a game where you basically have no chance of a winning record, if you play unpowered in a powered meta. The playing field is not even. It is unfair. Will it always be like this in tournaments and competitive environments? No, I don’t think so. At least probably not. In professional badminton, for example, the extent to which you can buy your way to the top is a lot less clear. Even though I acknowledge that you can buy yourself many benefits – all the way from a good racket and great shoes, to a personal trainer or sparring partner. But the point is that in professional single badminton you are not allowed to buy an extra player to your team. Or break your opponent’s racket. It is a duel. One important thing about duels was that each duelist had the same tool/weapon. This is still the case in most professional sports and many other games (Chess for example) but not in Magic.

If you play an Ancestral Recall it is almost similar to buying yourself an extra player in badminton. If you Mind Twist your opponents’ hand away, you could just as well have broken his or her racket.

Some cards are just not fun – or fair. A lot of the most unfair cards are restricted. Some of the unfun are too. But there are still a lot of unfun cards in the non-restricted pool of cards: Armageddon, Black Vise, Blood Moon, The Abyss, Ankh of Mishra, Winter Orb, Stasis, Moat etc.

So who am I to deem these cards unfun? No one is exactly who I am, but it is interesting that several of these cards have not been printed for a very long time. Exactly because they are deemed unfun – not by me alone, but by the player base and not least by the creators of the game, Wizards of the Coast.

Today even a two-mana unconditional counterspell like… Counterspell… is deemed unfun. Or at least too good. It is the same with cards looking like Stone Rain (which would be a four-mana-card today, if printed at all!), and I am pretty sure no unconditional two-mana land destruction spell has seen print since Sinkhole. Personally I think this is taking it a bit too far, but I was also brought up with the unbeatable Mario games. I can handle Land Destruction…

Old School being a non-rotating format means that we will never get rid of these unfun cards, unless we ban or restrict them. And I don’t think many of us would actually want this. Most of us wants as small a list of restricted cards as possible, to be able to play as many of our beloved spells and creatures as we can stuff into our decks.

But there is a risk that the abovementioned cards will make the game of Old School Magic a worse experience for the players.

Variance! That is also something that defines a lot of games in Magic. And more so in Old School than in many other formats I believe. Why? Because of two things: The power level differences of cards in Old School is on such a massive scale that it is almost incomprehensible. The best cards in the game – still! – was printed in Alpha. But I assure you that some of the worst was also printed back then.

Even though each new set also has a vast difference in power level from the best mythic rare to the worst common, it will never compare to the difference between Ancestral Recall and – to mention one – Tunnel. And Tunnel is even Uncommon!

When there is such a strong difference in card quality, variance really hits hard sometimes. Even the best players with the strongest decks are sometimes blown out of the water by this specific part of the game. Just look at any tournament report and you will find entries like “I drew a Mind Twist off my Timetwister, removed his hand and won.” Or something along the lines of “I played a bunch of restricted cards, and he could not catch up.” It is very hard to play through an entire Old School tournament without experiencing this at least once.

The other thing that makes variance more prevalent in Old School than in most other formats is the fact that there are so few draw and filter spells. You have no Brainstorm, no Ponder, no fetchlands no nothing. It is difficult to draw cards. It is rare you get to filter or even shuffle your library. This means that the chance of seeing that one card you really want against whatever, is smaller. Sometimes you have it – often you don’t.

And just to add to this, some colors have next to zero ways of getting rid of problematic cards on the other side of the table. A black or red player has to outrun a resolved Underworld Dreams, because they have no way to remove enchantments. Similarly, green is very short on creature removal. And I can tell you that blue would kill for any card with the words “destroy target” written on them. All of this can add to a sense of the OS game being bad or unenjoyable – unbeatable, just like video games back then.

Variance is not, in and off itself, a problem, nor does it necessarily make a game worse. I think variance is very important to the game of Magic. But the variance is just very high in Old School. Sometimes too high.

So why do we keep playing it?

If Old School really is a bad game, why do we still play it? Why is it possibly one of the most thriving formats? Is it because of the much-hailed community? It is probably a part of it, but the community really doesn’t need to have anything to do with the cards or the format – we could all just meet over something else.

Nostalgia and appreciation of the old art then? Again: Not really enough to merit using thousands upon thousands of Euros and finding free hours or whole days or weekends in full calendars to play a game we find to be a bad experience.

What then?

Of course the two reasons above have a lot to do with it, but I think the appeal – at least for me – is also something else – it is the storytelling.

The really truly great games of Old School Magic are the ones we remember for that crazy play, that insane draw or that weird mistake. The game where you won against all odds, and you beat your opponent to a pulp using some hilariously bad card or interaction that would only work once in a thousand games, but in that game it did! But also the game where your opponent just played a handful of insane restricted Alpha cards and you lost.

The ones we remember are the ones that told a story. Storytelling is always a part of Magic The Gathering – remember that it is, after all, two wizards battling, what could be more flavourful than that.

But to some extent, storytelling is all that matters when we play Old School. In most newer formats the storytelling has taken a backseat – I think the true nostalgia of Old School lies in the storytelling.

And exactly because of the great variance you will sometimes lose to an opponent with a broken racket. Simply because even a broken racket sometimes hit the sweet spot – or at least get the ball just over the net where you can’t reach it. And that is a great story! Both for you and for your opponent with the broken racket.

Of course it is not just variance that forms the basis for great stories. The stories would be so much worse without the community: the games are only half the fun, the rest is what happens in the room, what you do between rounds and what is going down on the neighboring tables. And not least the sheer joy of experiencing the cards, decks and insane brews you encounter throughout the day.  

We all like different stories, of course, but we don’t really play for valuable prices, we don’t play for advancement on some arbitrary list. We play to tell and experience stories.

So yes, Old School is a good game – it is just not a card playing game, it is a game of storytelling.

And tomorrow I am going to make a whole host of new stories, when I am going to battle At the Mountains of Madness V! Saturday June 17 will be all about storytelling and slinging powerful spells in great company!

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