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The Gathering

30 September 201305:08AMrants

It was Saturday night. We were two rounds into a game of cards, and Haydn had just been the target of a Filibuster card, requiring him to talk, for one minute, on the topic of 'The Positive Aspects of Magic: The Gathering'

"Well," he began, "It brings people together. In a way which is truly, uh, unique."

(Haydn hated Magic.)

"It is truly, a most effective, method, of increasing the speed with which time passes, and has many strong, social aspects. In conclusion, it can be seen that it really does bring people together."

"You still have half a minute left."

"Aw, crap."

In true filibuster fashion, he managed to continue on much the same tack until his time was up without really saying anything else. He won the points, to not-insignificant applause.

It was not an easy task, by any means. It's difficult to see the positives from outside. From outside, Magic is arcane and impenetrable, a game of silence and stares and intense concentration. From the outside, it looms over conversations, a groaning bastion of jargon and theory and dense meaningless rules, which grinds through time and money like a the kind of very angry overpowered fruit juicer you see advertised on late-night television.

Having spent almost exactly 3 months playing, I can confirm that from the inside it's pretty much the same. And its redeeming qualities, while definitely extant, are not easy to articulate.

The appeal of Magic is the appeal of solving a puzzle. It tickles the same weird part of our monkey-brains that goes crazy for Tetris or jigsaws.

Except instead of playing with blocks, or pieces, you're playing with rules. Every card is a tiny, discretised chunk of rulebook, which interacts with other rules in ways which are not entirely predictable, and often not even known until you pick them up off the top of the deck, or they come out of your opponent's hand. It presents you with an entirely new puzzle space, and an entirely new set of possible solutions, and it does this every single game.

It's a game that understanding strategy and paying attention to details. It rewards the intimate knowledge, not just of your cards, but which cards the opponent is likely to have, given your cards, given their cards, ad infinitum. Above all, it rewards this deep, almost intuitive understanding of the rules and how to plot an optimal path through them.

Historically, this is not something I've been very good at.

Solving Magic optimally just might not be that fun to me. Not least because after a little while it starts to look an awful lot like work. Games are this consequence-free, interactive, richly themed environment. Maybe I prefer to play in them, not solve them. Maybe I'd rather explore something which plays interestingly, or has a cool theme.

And it's not that you can't play Magic like that. It's just that if you do, it's very difficult to actually get anywhere, let alone win.

Here's an example for you. A staple of Magic is including 'answers' in your deck. Like, 'can your deck answer creatures? can it answer counterspells?'. Which, to me, is missing the point. I don't want to have the right answer. I want to face an interesting question, and solve it using the resources at hand. There's a subtle difference.

I want interactivity - I want to be able to do stuff. An answer doesn't afford you anything. There's no choice there. Not for you, and usually not for the other guy. You just answer, and nothing happens. And that's a bit boring.

(Not least when your Gothic-themed Doom Blade is mixed up with a motley assortment of jellyfish, anime girls and weird looking space rocks. I mean really. What's the point of playing if you aren't going to do it with style?)

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