Monday, January 06, 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.

Fire Imp (Portal, 1997)

Ah, Portal.

Magic is a complicated game. If you've never played, it probably seems like Greek. If you have played, you remember how hard it was to learn. There's a steep curve: once you figure out the basics of turn order and the stack, it's not so bad, but from the very beginning there is such a bewildering variety of card types and possible actions that it's amazing anybody gets past their first game. This is especially true considering that, not to put too fine a point on it, I've seen experienced Magic players try to explain the game to newcomers. It can get pretty ugly pretty fast.

Portal was an attempt to fix this problem by creating an entry-level set with pared-down complexity. Everything any card does is spelled out in precise terms: you will notice that this creature's power / toughness (the amount of damage the creature can deal and receive before dying) has little sword and shield icons next to the numbers. The rules text also clearly states that Fire Imp does the damage regardless of whether or not your opponent has a creature in play. This is important, because this is an example of the ways unwary players can hurt themselves: if there are no other creatures on the board when Fire Imp enters the battlefield, he will kill himself because the two damage he deals has to be dealt to something. If the card was meant to only deal damage to your opponent's creatures, or if the two damage was optional, it would say so explicitly. Magic rules text is very precise, and if it doesn't specifically say you can do something, you probably can't. This is problematic for new players because the idea of one of your own cards working against you if you're not careful is quite counter-intuitive. But that's part of the strategy.

The rules for the Portal sets (three in total) were streamlined considerably. Interestingly, some of the simplifications introduced by Portal were later incorporated into the rules for "real" Magic. One of the biggest hurdles in old-school Magic used to be the order in which spells resolved. My first year playing Magic, for instance, I had no idea what order conflicting Instants or Interrupts resolved themselves. This was simplified immensely a few years later when a rules change created the concept of the stack. (That the stack shares a name with the computer programming term is no coincidence, since both features are responsible for ordering inputs correctly.) If you're new to the game, it's still pretty complicated, but it used to be even worse. Honestly, the only way I picked up on some of the rules intricacies was to play Magic Online for a few years, where the computer resolves all the spells in the precise order at all times. I think I have a better idea of how these things work now because I know how the computer does it. Anyway, Portal didn't have Instants or Interrupts (Interrupts don't exist in the game either anymore, incidentally), so spells could only be cast during the main phase of the turn when Sorcery-speed spells would normally be cast. (Instants can be cast at any time, when you have priority [another counter-intuitive rule ], and Interrupts used to take precedence over Instants. I think.) Except for a handful of spells that said they could be cast at unusual times. Which is probably complete gibberish if you've never played the game before.

Magic streamlined their new player outreach in 2009 by creating a less complex version of the game (Duels of the Planeswalkers) for XBox and Playstation. It's apparently done a very good job, since the game, both online and in the physical world, is currently bigger than it has ever been.

Anyway. The takeway from this is that Magic rules are complicated, and we know this because even after the game has been simplified multiple times over the last twenty years, it's still pretty fucking complex. You can see just from this explanation why the game attracts a certain kind of player. Perhaps, shall we say, a kind of player with whom social interaction is completely unpleasant, because they will take every opportunity to be as pedantic as possible about the precise meaning of the rules in every situation. If you're interested (and God help you if you are) you can download the comprehensive rules here, in the form of a 200 page (single spaced!) PDF file. That's not even counting the banned and restricted lists for various different formats. Or tournament rules. Or the online Oracle which has updated, streamlined, and corrected rules text for every card ever printed. (Usually they try not to change the meaning of card text after it is published, but there are many examples of "functional errata" that do change the card's function for various reasons.) Basically Magic is not a game that anyone should ever play for any reason, is what I'm saying.

Which brings us back to this guy here. I like the art. Magic has never steered away from humor (they've even made a couple of intentionally humorous sets), and this guy is a great example of the kind of humor at which the game excels. I love the look on this guy's face: he doesn't seem too bright. His nose is on fire and he appears more or less OK with that. He definitely seems like the type of dude who would accidentally set himself on fire because he doesn't know any better.

Strangely, this guy is actually pretty playable. Two damage to an opponent's creature for 3 mana with a 2/1 chump blocker on top of it is pretty decent. He's not going to be lighting up the board in any constructed tournaments anytime soon, but he is a rare example of a pre-2003 creature you can see them reprinting in a contemporary Core Set without too many problems. I can think of many worse cards I've had to play in Limited.

1 comment :

Henry Swanson said...

I'm loving these posts, Tim. Speaking of the stack, remember when damage went on the stack? That really confused me for a while. I quit playing from 2004-2010, and when I came back they had removed that to the current rule where you can't stack damage. Then I had to get used to that step not being there, but I think it's much better that it doesn't stack now.