Friday, December 17, 2010

Tweaking the System: Magic: The Gathering, Campaign-style

Hello again! Today's topic is the next in the series of challenges we are doing with our friend who does the Cool Factor 5 blog. Make sure that after you read this, you check him out. The link follows the post. Today's topic is a way we play a game that varies from the way the rules state.

Magic the Gathering Card Game Deck Builders Toolkit

Magic: The Gathering. Every gamer you know has an opinion on it. Love it or hate, it's probably the most profitable game out there and has a strong following that should ensure its persistence for years to come. But my first impression of the game wasn't great.

A skeptical start

I first encountered Magic as a teenager. A friend had a couple decks and we played a few games. It was interesting, the art was fun, but it really didn't capture my imagination. A few years later when I was managing a coffee shop, a couple fellow employees decided to try it out. There was a comic shop down the hall and we decided to each grab a starter deck, and then only expand when we all decided to pick up a booster to keep it fair. By this time, I had already written the game off as a "rich kid wins" game, but was willing to play around to pass an hour every now and then on slow nights. It was okay... I'm not sure we played more than a few times before getting bored.

So... the early experiences weren't stellar, and I made it a point to avoid the game. The people I knew who played spent a lot of cash on it, and that never seemed like a great idea. And so a decade passed.

A new beginning

Recently, my wife got hooked on the XBox 360 game Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers. One thing led to another and pretty soon she harassed me into picking up a couple premade decks and play. Grumbling, I eventually conceded and tried it out. She and I have played fairly regularly for the last year now. This past year, we decided that since we mostly just played each other, we could come up with an ongoing game with some persistent elements that carried over from game to game... sort of a campaign.

Campaigning, Planeswalker-style!

For those of you unfamiliar with Magic, the premise is that you are planeswalking wizards fighting for supremacy. You win by either attacking your opponent and depleting his hit points (the basic game starts you with 20) or depleting their deck (referred to as your spellbook). Decks are usually 60 cards and assembled with cards that (ideally) synergize with one another. Our variant had us starting out as novice planeswalkers. We started with 10 hit points, a hand size of 5 (instead of 7) and had a pool of 90 random cards to assemble our decks. As we played, we both gained random cards and had the option to spend cards to increase hand size, hit point total and gain other benefits that extended beyond the present match. The mechanic we used was that we spent rare cards to gain these benefits. I'm not going to exhaustively go through the exact mechanical details, but we loved this format. In particular, it helped me learn more about the art of building decks.

Magic the Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalker Deck - Teeth of the Predator
Anyway... I hope this encourages you to look at the games you currently own and try something new. Angie and I had a blast with this, and I expect we may try a new campaign at some point in the future. What are some variants and house rules you have tried or would like to try for games you like? Tell us! And visit Cool Factor 5 to see what he's trying. And to give credit where credit is due, that guy gave us some ideas for how to structure our campaign. Thanks, Julian!


  1. That really does sound like a fun variant, Randy. I wonder if it could be adapted to be 3 player. It would be fun to try it out some time.

  2. I'm sure it could; multiplayer with this format seem like it would be pretty easy to swing. We'd just have to make sure that we're all getting our cards from the same pool, and that we make sure we only play to advance when all players are present. Angie and I discussed ending our current campaign at some point and starting again. Since we haven't actually played this for a few months since Angie is student teaching. I'd totally be willing to start again.

  3. This got me thinking a bit.

    Here's some quick notes for a MtG campaign using Civ4 to give it an actual "world".

    1 Civ tile = 1 mana card

    Civ tile base terrain type – mana colour
    Coast – blue
    Plains – white
    Desert – none
    Ocean – none
    Ice – none
    Grassland – none

    Civ tile terrain feature type – mana colour
    Hills – red
    Floodplains – white (big cities and lots of healing needed to avert the negative health of floodplains)
    Oasis – blue
    Jungle – black
    Fallout – black (black is encouraged to make nuclear war)
    Forrest – green
    Ice – none

    Note that terrain features occur on base terrain tiles and the overlap can make one tile hold two different coloured mana.

    In Civ4 the duel maps are 24 tiles n/s by 40 tiles e/w for a total of 960 tiles.
    So after generating a few quick maps I come out with the following ratios per map.

    ~25 jungle
    ~25 hills
    ~50 plains
    ~50 woods
    ~125 coast

    That's not too awful from the old two and a half other cards per mana I used as a general start before tuneup.
    That's potential for up to 100 card decks for red and black, 200 card decks for white and green and 300 for blue.
    Of course, it'd be awfully difficult to get every tile of a certain terrain type within working radius of cities and I'm thinking that in a “campaign” a citizen working a tile activates that land for use as mana.
    The rule would be that you can't play a mana w/o a citizen working a Civ tile of the matching terrain type.
    Simpler still would be to allow any tile in the cultural borders to be tapped.
    This adds another wrinkle to the early scouting and settlement phase of Civ.
    I'd probably let players look at their Civ start before building their deck but the built in editor would make it easy to give each player an ideal start for their capital city as well.
    One could even skip the scouting and show the whole map from the get go.

    I'd use a great person to represent the players on the Civ map.
    Generally I'd keep the Civ combat as representing the national armies while encounters between players great persons on the Civ map would resolve as MtG duels.
    When Civ Units are also in the stack with the players great persons I'd let the Civ game handle its Units combat and let the surviving players Units subtract 1 Life each against the opponent before starting the MtG duel.
    I'd use the editor to destroy those Units as I assume that dealing that 1 Life to such a powerful magic user is pretty much a kamakazie mission.

    Obviously I couldn't hope to address all the different card types and how they would affect the Civ map here but I think there's enough to it that something like this could work with a little creativity and Civ4 is pretty highly moddable which makes it easier to smooth out major wrinkles.

    I got to admit though, when people started spending money to get specific cards I quit messing with this one.
    It was one thing to grab a few boosters now and again but when the comic shop started carrying rare stuff and a few of the folks I was playing with started dropping big bucks, including some stuff specifically meant to go against my decks, I saw the writing on the wall and left the gathering.
    So I'd take this with several thousand grains of salt.

    1. This looks like a great campaign style! I like the idea of combining a videogame with Magic. Very interesting. If you decide to revisit this, you may want to build a common card pool like we did. That way, you have an idea of what's in there and if something has been a problem in the past, it can get cut. Awesome! Thank you for sharing!