2018 was a remarkable year for Magic. Wizards of the Coast celebrated the 25th anniversary of the game with a crowded schedule of product releases, a major restructuring of its professional play program, and a fuller realization of its digital potential with the launching of the Arena platform. Player engagement was deeper than ever, as many controversial corporate decisions led to cycles of outrage, fuelling interminable public debate. Despite this constant upheaval, or perhaps in part because of it, some voices have called for a return to the game’s fundamentals. The most notable of these was its designer, Richard Garfield. In the rulebook of Garfield’s most recent game, Keyforge, he wrote:
“In the early days of trading card games, they were played in many ways – and some of my favorite ways disappeared over time. Among those were sealed deck and league play… I have often wondered if I could get back some of that really exciting play, which was characterized by tools that weren’t universal. Each player had treasures no other player had, but also had less powerful cards that needed to be used in clever ways to get the most value. One’s sealed or league deck was never ideal – but it was unique, and there was a great deal of skill in getting the most out of it… When trading card games first came out the feeling was like exploring a jungle – and as the cards became more like commodities, it became more and more like an amusement park.” (Keyforge rulebook, p. 13)
TLDR: Garfield opines that constructed Magic has become stale because of commodification and net-decking; and, conversely, sealed league is both the true test of a player’s skill and the best format for introducing a sense of discovery and wonder back into the game.
Personally, I didn’t require much in the way of convincing. Indeed, Garfield’s words came as something of a vindication for me, as I’ve been running a sealed league at F2F Montreal since Battle for Zendikar, and at other locations for years previous. I’ve extolled the virtues of the format repeatedly over the years in this very column. And most recently, I’ve entered the vodcasting realm with co-host Lee Bond for our new show Magus of the League, focusing exclusively on league-related matters:
Thus I certainly sympathize with Garfield’s sentiment. He wants his game back, in some form or another, and for it to be as anarchical as he originally intended. I say anarchical because the commonly-used phrase ‘Magic as Garfield intended’ is, in itself, a paradox. In an August 2018 interview with Vice magazine, Garfield commented that:
“It is certainly not what I expected or intended, which is the point, but on the other hand it is exactly what I intended in that I wanted it to extend into places which I didn’t intend.”
While I don’t feel like Keyforge is necessarily the realization of this vision, or is in any way a replacement for Magic, Garfield’s musings do raise an interesting point about what kinds of games are the best in terms of player experience. For who should ultimately determine the way we play our games: the game designer, or the community at large? Should we aim for open or closed rules systems and gaming experiences? Is a designer or a community more likely to generate optimal forms of gameplay?
In another Vice interview in February 2014, Garfield implied that a game like Magic, because of the wider context in which it is played, is more in need of standardization than a game like Monopoly, which is often played in-house, and frequently differently than its rulebook prescribes (that is, the popular but unofficial ‘Free Parking’ variant). There’s a famous scene in the Sopranos which directly addresses this issue, and demonstrates quite well the frustrating experience of intending to sit down and play one game, when in actuality the other players turn out to be playing some other format. For our purposes, only the first minute or so of this following clip matters, wherein this exchange occurs:
Tony: Six. Community Chest. “Pay hospital $100.” Fuck me.
Bobby: What are you doing? It goes in the bank.
Carmella: We play the Free Parking rule.
Bobby: What Free Parking rule?
Carmella: Money from Community Chest and Chance goes into the middle. Whoever lands on Free Parking gets the money.
Bobby: You show me that in the rules.
Carmella: Technically it isn’t in the rules, but a lot of people play it that way. It adds a whole new level of excitement to the game.
Bobby: I don’t agree with it.
Janice: Bobby, when we were growing up in our house, this is how we played.
Bobby: You know, the Parker Brothers took time to think this all out. I think we should respect that.
Janice: Fuck the Parker Brothers. Just play the game.
Bobby is the rules purist, or ‘formalist’, in this situation. He considers Monopoly’s ruleset to be authoritative, and that in deviating even slightly from the ruleset, the game of Monopoly is itself no longer being played. For him, the imposition of previously unannounced house rules violates the implicit social contract made between players at the point they agreed to sit down and play, and thus constitutes a form of disrespect for other players, as well as the very institution of the game.
On the other hand, Janice is playing the pragmatic, or ‘conventionalist’, role here. She’s relying on the fact that most people never even actually read the ruleset, and are instead taught the game verbally and informally, to ground her belief that the game mainly consists of (or at least largely relies on) a series of social conventions for its continued existence. For her, whatever is socially accepted by most players is authoritative, and focusing on the ruleset itself is missing the point of the game.
Between these two extremes, what Garfield has done with Magic is to give us a living game whose own pieces break or overwrite sections of its own rulebook, defying a strict adherence to formalism. He has offered us a robust game operating system, or a family of games, which is perfectly capable of sustaining several formats within itself, each of which possesses divergent rules and even unique value systems and conventions (compare the etiquette of Commander to the rigor of Modern). Thus the practice of Magic gameplay as we experience it today can be thought to transcend the formalist-conventionalist divide, giving us new possible positions on the Bobby-Janice continuum to occupy.
So: what is ‘Magic as Garfield intended’? Garfield’s intention is that you live out your own set of intentions within the framework he provided, some of which he could not possibly have anticipated when he designed the game. Garfield’s recommendation, alternately, is that you play the format that best helps you immediately form intentions, as an immediate reaction to the pressures of experiencing a scarcity of intralusory resources: the ‘jungle’ of sealed play. Thus Garfield recommends that you try league.