Why are card games so popular? Games like rummy and poker are easily accessible, taught to us at a young age and importantly they start out free. These games rely on chance and skill for the players to win but what if we introduce another factor?
Magic: The Gathering is by its very tag line, a “collectable card game”. Sometimes its easy to forget this when playing one of the worlds most popular games. Many of us learn as children and come back to it, or maybe get into boardgames as a young adult before realising the sophistication of Magic. Unfortunately this is why we forget that unlike rummy, Magic is a business. Wizards of the Coast need to make money (because where else can they afford to pay for d&d updates?) and thus flock to those with disposable incomes or at least their parents to make profit. Mark Rosewater even discussed openly that sets rely on both “good cards” and “bad cards” as it gives different kinds of players revelations when they discover the purpose for a card. This doesn’t make them evil although the first taste is usually free.
But when one matures further into the darkest realms of the real world, money begins to rear its ugly face on the horizon of our lives. We suddenly become disgusted that a pro tour deck is worth hundreds of dollars or that a single card can be worth thousands. Perhaps that even disillusions us from paying entry to FNM or makes us think twice about the next prerelease, but lets look at this closer.
Pro Tour decks are one of the main factors that drives up the cost of cards. These events showcase cards that are popular and competitive which in turn encourages people to rush out to put similar cards into their own decks. However, the notion of ‘pay to win’ is not completely accurate. Firstly we all have access to these cards, each booster pack has the same slim chances of pulling a ‘money’ card and thus we are essentially on level pegging.
However, a Pro Tour deck might indeed cost a few hundred dollars in cards but not everyone is paying for those directly. People with vast collections of high cost cards often aren’t buying the cards as singles, instead they are simply attending events. Regularly drafting, or winning boosters at FNM’s often fills a players binder (even if those ‘wins’ are a last place spoon prize) and a huge part of the hobby is trading, making deals to obtain sought after cards.
Over the 20 years of Magic, Wizards of the Coast has thoroughly researched it’s gaming demographics and they understand completely that some people want to battle for top 8 and others want a level playing field. It’s this desire that has led to the creation of limited formats such as draft or sealed. These styles of game are explicitly designed to balance the monetary costs of each players input and while chance still plays a large factor in opening a pack, strong deck construction skills are wildly important.
But let’s say that we have chosen to buy our cards as singles, perfecting the deck by purchasing ‘good cards’. Firstly, there is no such thing as ‘good’ cards, each is designed for a different game type or play style, although objectively some are more versatile than others (Mind Sculpt - Mill 7 for 2 mana vs. Breaking//Entering - Mill 8 for 2 mana with an additional fuse spell). In constructing this deck though, one has had to carefully plan each card, perhaps using both Mind Sculpt and Breaking//Entering as they have different titles. The key is in the deck construction.
New players typically buy intro decks, pre built construction and perhaps splash some boosters into the mix. More advanced players learn to go beyond this and begin to understand that buying boosters (though fun) will likely give them more dredge than the cards they desire and it becomes more cost effective to instead just buy the cards they want. With a better understanding of the game, and by extension the sets themselves, players want to skip directly to the cards they want. Buying singles then, normally begins when the player has a better grasp of the game, of deck construction and, as highlighted by my local sealed league recently, the best players are those with the best deck construction skills but these are usually players who would invest in ‘good cards’ anyway. This is why skilled players can be veiled with a ‘pay to win’ mystique.
Top level competitive cards are not always the winning answer, often they are just the most optimal elements of a play strategy. In casual play a player with a better grasp of the game will normally win against a lesser player in a mirror match but give a casual player a pro deck and a pro a casual deck and the pro will still probably win. Why? With the better deck, comes a better understanding of play. It’s not just the winning cards that make the player better, it’s the knowledge of how to play them.
So if your worried about ‘pay to win’ forget about it. Shock lands for example are a costly part of any pro deck but if you cant afford them, run guild gates, they might be slower but in a casual game it wont make much difference. An advanced player might question running something suboptimal as it’s against the very nature of the games mechanics but in the end you don’t need to pay to win, unless your paying in research time.
Have fun and good luck.