Monday, April 07, 2014

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Scryb Sprites (Alpha, 1993)

This is another example of a strange coincidence. Just last week we had another green Faerie from the game's early days - way back when Faeries were primarily in green and not in blue - and this week Gatherer spits up another green Faerie. Most of what I said last week still applies here: Faeries were eventually moved out of green primarily because, with a few small exceptions, green doesn't do flying. In fact, green is the color that dislikes flying the most. Green doesn't have a lot of direct damage or creature removal, except in response to flying creatures.

Other than that, the most interesting thing about this card is simply the fact that it was one of the first Magic cards ever printed. This card hails from Alpha (AKA Limited Edition Alpha), the very first Magic set. Magic premiered at the Origins Game Fair in 1993. The game saw wide release in August of that year. Although Richard Garfield originally believed that the first printing would be sufficient to last a year, the had to return to press in October of 1993 - meaning that Magic sold out of its original print run in two months. People who were around in the game's earliest days describe the release as an overnight panic: one day there was no such thing as Magic, and the next people were driving hundreds of miles between comics and game stores in search of any stock that hadn't already blown out the doors. This is one major reason why quality control was so patchy in the game's first years. The demand for the first collectible card game was unprecedented, and the need for new product trumped the fact that they still barely understood what in the newborn game worked and what didn't.

I didn't start playing - the first time - until 1995, after the release of Fourth Edition. That was the core set on sale at the time I began. Ice Age was released around then, and Homelands was everywhere cheap and plentiful. (For that matter, Homelands is still cheap and plentiful.) I didn't really understand the game very well. I fell in love with the Lord of the Pit / Breeding Pit combination. On paper it's an elegantly simple combo, but in reality the intricacies of the game were simply beyond me, as I usually died well before being able to actually implement the strategy. My dirty secret - well, it's not so secret, since I've mentioned it before - is that I am actually terrible at most games. Even after I returned to Magic a few years back and played regularly (including a number of obsessive Magic Online binges), I just wasn't that good.

Part of this has to do with the fact that I simply refuse to invest the money necessary to be a good player. It's easy to believe - at least for a little bit - that you can still be a competitive player (at least in casual formats) without being willing to drop $100 on a playset of every new Planeswalker. But the reality is that in my experience "casual," at most stores and among many Online players, means something a bit different from what the world "casual" means to most people. You've got people test-driving expensive decks for tournaments, wannabe tournament players, and scrubs. I was and am a scrub. My favorite format was always League, which evens the playing field by restricting each player to a small pool of cards, but also enabling a short-term metagame to develop between different players with vastly different pools of cards. (In theory, I also like Commander, but in practice have never been able to find the time for games that can stretch out to two or three hours.) Since I've been in grad school I haven't had the time to commit to hanging out at a game store (even though there are two in Davis), and I deleted Magic Online off my computer because it enables compulsive and addictive behavior. There is an element of Magic that leans dangerously close to gambling, and for anyone with even a whiff of addictive behavior in their genes (such as myself) it's probably a good idea to avoid the game altogether.

Since the invention of the Mythic rarity in 2008, the game has reached new levels of popularity. It's hard not to see the two developments as connected: Mythic rares appear only 1/8 as often as normal rares, making them even more expensive on the secondary market. The cards printed at Mythic rarity are invariably the best cards in the game. People need to buy more cards now, it's as simple as that. Although the game had encouraged compulsive collecting since the early days (no different from sports cards in that respect), the addition of a higher rarity was like throwing gasoline on a bonfire. If you want to be competitive in most formats, you have to be willing to spend the money to make yourself competitive. No amount of skill can make up for the fact that the person opposite you is much more likely to win if they have four of each Planewalker in their deck. That's too bad, because the game at its heart is one of the best.

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