The Strategy of Audacity IV

In the last entry in this series I offered Grant’s 1863 Vicksburg Campaign as a military history textbook classic (ah the irony) of “Thinking Outside the Box.” Here I would like to examine a brief game design example that illustrates how designers set up a system of conventions and then offer players the ability to bend and twist the rules and pull off the unexpected. Magic The Gathering is considered to be the Granddaddy of modern collectible card games. The system is relatively simple but the game play variations are exceptionally complex. I have to embarrassingly confess that I’m really not very talented at them. I’ve only ever played Magic Online and usually just the “leagues” that they offered for a modest buy in. I never won a single prize. I don’t know how it is today but since I broke the habit several years ago it used to be that you could win something just by placing in the top half.

For me the joy of playing Magic was the mental exercise of putting all the system pieces together into different combinations. Magic for me is a little puzzle box. I’m going to assume that you are familiar at least with the basics. If not please DO NOT go and try the game out without getting some addiction counseling before you break the seals on your first boosters. Magic as a system has different components that operate on a geographical identity principle much like areas on a board game. You have your deck, your resources area, your playing field area where you deploy your agents (summoned monsters to do your bidding), and your graveyard. I’m going to focus on the graveyard. Just by naming this a graveyard, the designer (presumably Mr. Garfield chose this) implies that this is a place where dead, used up cards go. It’s often also called a discard deck in some games. The assumption is that spent cards do not rise from the grave. Well, not exactly because this is a card game about powerful wizards hurling spells at each other so Necromancy seems like a natural. And sure enough some “black” cards let you reanimate cards by moving them from the grave yard back to your hand or even the playing field.

This is some light out of the box thinking. The conventions of the name would have you typically think of something in your graveyard as gone especially if you are playing a non black deck. The blue color’s theme ability to send cards back to a player’s hand is sort of similar. The obvious thing to do is destroy cards not give the player a second chance to deploy them. But just by sending a key card or two back to your opponent’s hand you can really take control of the tempo of the game. Besides being annoying it can be deadly.

This is all well and good. But game designers often invent ways to really push the envelope on thinking outside the box. Now remember, I don’t mean the game is designed so that only a Ulysses S. Grant is going to notice the designers’ hint and use the tools to cut a hole in the box. That only happens in real life. In a game system, the designer wants to make the door outside the box relatively easy to find. Finding it and enjoying it is the whole point. One of the doors I found that really tickled me was a card called the Ichorid from the Torment Block.

Ichorid The Rampager

The clever twist on this card is that it dies every turn but reanimates back onto the playing field by consuming other cards already in your graveyard. Yes, it’s just a variation of some type of reanimation technique. But it’s very clever in my non expert opinion. Your first instinct is to shy away from it because it’s so destructive. It permanently removes other cards from your graveyard to fuel its vengeance‚Ķgone for ever and not to be of use again. That’s scary to most people. It seems like a card that let’s you make a death ride. And in my experience it was a very powerful death ride that not only won games but frustrated the hell out of your opponent (Why won’t you just die!).

Of course the card can’t go on the death run by itself and the designers made sure there were helper cards to build some momentum. Here is one that I liked to use:

In Dreams

This card let’s you deal out some damage and clear a path for old Icky. The two cards were made for each other because Icky is coming back and if he took some of his own friends with him he’ll get a snack or two and some return appearances.

Love That Joker

This guy is also a nice combo. Need to feed Icky and get some card advantage? There you go. Of course you need to do the modestly unconventional thing and play it on yourself.

These types of card “combos” are nothing new in the CCG world but the mental stimulation of putting them together in unique ways that let players pretend to be thinking a bit outside the box, is one of the reason the genre is so fun and stimulating.

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