'Magic: The Gathering' Has Quietly Transformed Into a Serious Card Game

It was never a fantasy game.

Flickr.com/Concerned Reader

The sounds of pre-competition nervousness — squeaking chairs, the snap of a three-ring binders, the soft buzz of cheap lights — gave way suddenly to the static crinkle of tearing foil as thousands of "Magic: The Gathering" booster packs were cracked. The cards spilled out by the thousands. By the end of the Grand Prix, some 150,000 cards, segmented into evocative images and significant numbers, would be shuffled into decks. If they had been laid end-to-end, they would have created a 1.5-inch-wide path away from Atlantic City, a place defined by gritty realism and the evidence of a storm entity's passing rage. 

With the gargantuan statues of flying fish hanging from the ceiling and a stately row of flags flapping outside, the AC Convention Center still does a decent impression of a major venue with major tourist potential. Likewise, the 1,655 competitors in attendance for the May Magic tournament did a decent impression of their own, posing as dragon-loving fantasists and fawning over undead thaumaturges. But Atlantic City isn't a boomtown and Magic isn't a downtime activity for LARPers — not really. The obsessives the game attracts now spend more time thinking about probability than the finer points of The Silmarillion. Beneath that elves-and-dragons veneer lurks a poker-chess hybrid worthy of serious-minded, if sartorially unimpressive, competitors. 

That's the game people had come to play.

"Magic: The Gathering," has been putting out cards longer than any of its trading card game competitors and it hasn’t beaten the odds by chance. Luck has been a factor, sure, but game's architects were long on cleverness. Magic’s math shines in the probability of deck-building and drawing cards. Players accumulate resources called lands at a rate of up to one per turn, a built-in clock that allows more powerful cards to be played later in the game — a concept that might seem simple in 2015 but was groundbreaking in 1993. Here’s where the rubber hits the road: The odds of drawing four lands by turn four depend in a 60 card deckrange from a 25 percent chance with 16 lands, a 44 percent chance with 20, to a 75 percent chance with 27. With some 14,000 different beasties, enchantments, and spells shuffled into the Magic universe, strategies get arcane quickly.

The nearly infinite iterations possible are what keeps the robust community of Magic players — 20 million strong, according to Seattle-based Wizards of the Coast — excited; well, that and the updates that arrive every few months. In Atlantic City, the average enthusiast was a young male (estimates that women make up 5 to 10 percent of the competition seemed about right), somewhere between the Dread Pirate Roberts and Robert Baratheon on the fitness/grooming spectrum. The players hunched over their cards in row upon row of banquet tables in the center of the room while, in a ring around the hall, hawkers sold Nerf battle axes, comic books, foot-long Pixie sticks, and rare Magic cards for $150 a pop.

The buzz at Magic tournaments is very real, which is unsurprising given just how like-minded the crowd can be. Such an atmosphere, says Vyasar Ganesan, who’s played Magic for about a decade, is often what pushes players to take the game more seriously. People like to leave saying, as he puts it, “I got crazy cards there, plus met crazy people.”

In the corner — past the guy in a muscle shirt with Spider Man's logo inked into his deltoid — stands Matt Nash, a 20-year Magic veteran (though he's more of a casual player these days) who is professionally obligated to meet crazy people. He's manning the "Channel Fireball" booth.

"Channel Fireball" is a dream team, card store, and content creator rolled into one. Nash sells cards featuring the game’s greats, their heads crowned with horns or eyes sparkling with arcane power. He has a fan’s tendency for careful elaboration — he’s out of LSVs.

What’s an LSV?

“Luis Scott-Vargas.”

Luis Scott-Vargas, it turns out, is a Hall of Fame-inducted Magic player with slicked-back hair and a surprising tolerance for journalists.

“I should make Top Eight,” he said before proceeding to do just that, finishing in a respectable sixth place.

LSV is no stranger to the paradox of trying to make a living through modern Magic. A player at the top of his game, he said, would be lucky to win $30,000 in a year. Since he started playing in 1994, LSV’s winnings total $273,055, but he's had to diversify over the years. That’s in no small part due to the Internet, which offers a vast wealth of Magic analysis, tips, podcasts, livestreams, and deck-building guides.

In fact, Scott-Vargas makes his Magic living less by playing than by designing games and writing for Channel Fireball, providing the sort of tips that make it harder for him to guarantee victory. In a subversion of the secrecy with which, say, an NFL team guards its playbook, pros like LSV are responsible for the smarter competition that makes winning tougher.

What does he think of Magic's cultural shift? Well, he digs that today's players love the game for the game.

“I like the art on the cards,” he explains when asked about his 21-year-long enthusiasm for the game. But he describes the distinction between a goblin and a dragon as “not particularly relevant.” He sees an Agony Warp as two-for-one card value in the way that a poker player sees a Jack as an eleven. Look at a dragon long enough and it stops being impressive.

What is relevant to LSV are things like hypergeometric distribution calculations. Such calculations help him determine the odds he'll see, say, an island card by turn three. He's also the type of guy who can look at the state of a game and calculate how to win in six turns or four. He is, to put it lightly, good with numbers.

Math plays two roles in Magic. It draws people in — getting a player from 20 to 0 life, via a creature or spell that does damage N sounds easy enough — then confounds them.

Richard Garfield, when describing the creation of Magic, notes that there are two ways games are designed: You can set out to make a game based on a theme, say, about intergalactic space truckers or monsters destroying Tokyo. Or you can focus on the mechanics — you know you want to have a game that involves cards, but each deck could mutate between games, fashioned out of a collection of baseball cards (there are fewer atoms in the universe than there are theoretical Magic deck combinations). Magic was a mechanics-first game — it would take a fair bit of development time before he glued the fantasy theme to his mechanical foundation. The drift away from its fantasy trappings, the dawn of Magic’s Moneyball era, is really just a hunt for its roots.

By 2008, Magic's designers had started to worry that the game's complexity was a barrier to new players. It was about this time that they began cultivating the sinister-sounding New World Order of Magic. It was, like many things in Magic's history, an elegant solution to a tricky problem. The crux was to tone down the difficulty of the most common cards, saving the majority of complex beasts for players who revel in that sort of thing.

Here's Dead Ringers, which has confused the hell out of players since 2001:

Fifteen years later, a spell with a similar goal — offing enemy critters — looks like this. One sentence, more numbers:

Magic has streamlined its the art, too, pivoting away from the bizarre and abstract. Demons are back, having taken a hiatus after a mid-’90s bout of anti-occult hysteria, but the second generation is closer to World of Warcraft monstrosities than Iron Maiden album covers. Pentagrams and topless angels are nowhere to be found (though improbably busty warriors remain a Magic mainstay). The visual vehicle come-on to Dungeons and Dragons players has taken a back seat to new themes: Gothic horror, Greek epics, Japanese mythology. 

The net result of all these changes is an uptick in the number of serious players. Average attendance at Grand Prix, the most competitive events short of a Pro Tour, has been on the rise:

With a more sizable player base comes more media attention — though much of it can't escape a focus on "zombie elf" flair. In some sense that's because, as spectator sports go, focusing on the mechanics is a tough sell. An exclamation of "Was that a Sidisi?!" after an LSV play is presumably more dramatic if you glimpse Sidisi's rotting snake face, but the barrier to entry remains high.

Magic, as a child of the early '90s, was born before ESPN's poker crusade made watching card games an acceptable pastime. And how could Garfield or any of the other designers know that it would sit by digital games on Twitch? Online natives Hearthstone and League of Legends dominate the competitive scene, netting pros up to a million dollars a year. Next to the swift action of a multiplayer battle arena or even Hearthstone's sparkles, the text and intricate art of Magic suffers on a screen. (Magic Online's user interface can be a brutal affair, at times reminiscent of early-aught Microsoft Word.) It's a game better suited to ESPN, but it comes with all that fantasy baggage. 

It may be cool some day, but, for now, it's just a very well-made game.

What the New World Order can't save, and what the game stands to lose if tournaments inflate with self-seriousness and an Internet-fueled race to the new best deck, is Magic's dorky glee. Sure, Magic is a game where "its complexity is simple and its simplicity is complex," as Ganesan says, adding, "It's fun to turn cards sideways and build stupid decks."

Magic's simple pleasures still matter.