Den of the Cyphered Wolf

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Magic Primer: Metaconcepts

So about halfway through writing "Getting Back in the Saddle" I realized that nobody was going to have a clue as to what I was saying, unless you played Magic The Gathering. After thinking about it a bit I thought I should revisit an old idea and create a bit of a primmer on Magic The Gathering so that when I talk about it on this blog, which I will at length, people have an idea or at least an article about what I'm talking about. Eventually I'll get to the rules and even some advanced concepts but I thought a good place to start would be metaconcepts, not how to play the game but what the game is.

What Do I Mean By Meta?
For the purpose of this series I'm breaking things up into three groups. meta-concepts, rules (which by the way will have multiple sub-posts) and advanced concepts. Meta concepts are things that in my mind you don't need to know in order to play the game, or even play the game well, but tend to be discussed in Magic circles.

What is Magic the Gathering?
Magic The Gathering is one of the first, if not the first trading card games. Before Duel Monster, Digimon, Pokemon, Chaotic, or even the franchise TCGs like Dragon Ball Z there was Magic. In the game you play the role of a planeswalker or wizard dueling depending on how, deep you want to roleplay. I'll get to what exactly a planeswalker is later. It's complicated and weird, but for now lets just say multiverse traveling wizard. 

Whenever I'm going to tell and epic Magic the Gathering story at somepoint or another it's going to devolve into flavor. Well what is flavor. Imagine a videogame. Now let's pretend you had no graphics. Well that's okay because all the animations rely on math to tell them what to do. The death animation occurs when you guy's hit point number reaches zero. But you don't say, "The life counter reached 0" You say Link died.

Flavor represents sort of what's taking place in the minds eye. For instance while I won't get into what in terms of the rules the card does when you play the card Lightning Bolt, you think.

Also flavor represents the lore of the game. For instance a lot of cards may reference events,places or people in game lore, such as Coalition Victory, representing the Dominarian victory of Phyrexia.

Expansions and How Cards Are Released
Wizards of the Coast, normally, Lorwyn was weird, releases an expansion block and core set of Magic each year.

Core sets
In general the core sets are designed to provide players the basic no frills tools they need to play the game. They tend to have simpler more easily understood cards then expansions, largely because they are expected to be teaching tools for new players.  While Wizards of the Coast, position has changed slightly recently, generally the core sets were relatively consistent. Recent core sets have surprised a lot of players because a lot of the cards that they took for granted were going to be there forever have been replaced by newer ones.

How the main sets are referred to can be weird so here goes. In the beginning, '93ish Richard Garfield released this new game. This was alpha the first core set. The game sold like hotcakes so he printed up a second printing, which is referred to as beta. These have mostly the same cards and can be thought of as same set, which together is referred to as limited. Mostly these sets are known for two things, creating the foundation of the game, and a lot of "early installment weirdness". Mainly insanely broken, or overpowered cards that for the sake of game balance are no longer in print.  Conversely these sets also had a lot of mainstays that remain player favorites.

After that wizards mostly stuck to naming editions based on how many there had been before, but in 2010 they decided to start naming them based on the year so the current set which will be playable in Standard Format through most of 2013 is called Magic 2013.


Expansions sets are released to keep the game fresh. Typically three of these that share a setting and theme are released each year. Together they are called a block. Normally blocks are named after the first set of the block so the current block will be called Return to Ravnica after the first set. 


The way I think of format is as sort of commonly understood addendums to the rules. The most common "addendum" is a restriction on the cards you can play. When I was in high school I had a hard time getting my friends into magic because they were intimidated by the thousands of potential cards they had to deal with. One of the most common formats his standard which restricts cards to only those printed or reprinted in roughly the last two years.  You also have formats that dramatically add to the rules like Commander, and Archenemy.

So often times you will hear player refer to casual or "casual formats." What do they mean. Well it's weird. Wizards of the Coast has a lot of organized play. But it's generally accepted that that's not where everybody plays the game. Think of it like this. You had your high school basketball team who had coaches, refs and nice gym lines, and then you had everyone else who would play a quick pickup game after school in the driveway. The differences are similar. The rules are enforced not with a ref who has a 2 ton book, but by the players themselves. The stakes are lower if you loose who gives a damn. You didn't have to pay an entrance fee.

Oddly enough the lack of format has become a format.  You'll hear people all the time referring to casual format. Or formats when talking about things like Commander. Since casual generally has lower stakes causal players are more willing to play cards that are fun but won't necessarily win them the game.

The Metagame
The quickest way I can explain the metagame is the as the expected strategies and cards in any given environment.  Let's pretend we're talking about race car driving. You're driving a few hours after it rained. So you know damn near every driver who knows what the hell he or she's doing is going to put on tires that have better grip. You can also probably predict how they will adjust they're driving. This is all information you can use to mentally prepare yourself for the race.

Same deal. Let's take standard. Because of the limited card pool there are generally only 10-15 tournament level competitive deck archetypes in that format.

Deck Archetypes
I'll talk alittle more about this later, but deck archetypes are basically acceptable strategies. While every now and again someone will come out with a "rogue deck" most viable strategies in the game have been tried before. Learning to recognize the pacing and cards that make up a given strategy can be a huge advantage. While I alluded to it earlier magic can be an information cancan. Meaning it can get into I know you know I know territory.

Player Archetypes
While not crucial to the game player archetypes are interesting.  Wizards of the Coast, I'll just call them Wizards from here on in, when designing cards tries to categorize who the card is for by splitting players in to three well four if you count old Vorthos, into mindsets.

Vorthos - Plays the game for flavor. This is the guy who will try his damnedest to make a Weatherlight deck work, ride the dragon, and invent or play as character who's slinging his spells.  Radha badass Keldon Warlord, commanding a mighty host.

Timmy - Likes big splashy things. Timmies tend to be the guys who will overlook how hard it is to make a card work for the sake of it being cool.  Who cares if you'll win only 1 out 4 games. The one will be superspecialawesome.

Johnny- Likes things that are bigger than the sum of their parts and thus is willing to play cards that don't do much on their own, but in concert can do awesome stuff. I like to think of Johnnies as clock masters. Most people would look at a screw and throw it away, not Johnnies. They'll try to fit that screw into a monster clock that will mop the floor with you.

Spike - Just likes to win and judges how good a card is based on that criteria. How likely is this card going to win me games?

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