There are, broadly speaking, two categories of games in existence – those who make use of randomness and those who don’t. This goes for both traditional board games as well as for computer games. In a game like chess or connect 4 there is virtually no random element to be found (except for maybe who begins) while any game with cards or dice has inherent randomness. Traditionally, games with a low randomness factor are much more suited for competitive play than those where the roll of a die can decide whether you win or lose.
There are few things more annoying than playing a game for a reward of some kind (say, in a tournament) and simply losing to no fault of your own. Imagine you had a commanding lead in a game of risk and then simply got a series of bad rolls, losing all your troops to essentially no opposition. Or imagine playing World of Warcraft PvP back in vanilla. Your team is much better than the opposing one, but then their enhancement shaman gets Windfury hits on each attack with his Unstoppable Force for a while and your whole team bites the dust.
Common wisdom would therefore tell you that making a competitive game would require you to minimize the impact of randomness on game results. This view is very one-sided though, as it only takes the side of the better player in a confrontation. Sure, the better player winning is what competition is all about – but games are all about players having fun and competitive games are also about giving a show to the audience.
Magic: The Gathering embraces the former factor, allowing all players to have fun while playing. If you already knew, going into a game, that you don’t have a chance to win then you probably wouldn’t even play. The randomness of a card game, however, always gives bad players a chance to win games as well. The better player will, on average, still win much more often than the other one, that is obvious for any game that includes more factors than just randomness. Worse players can still always hope to draw the right cards (or getting lucky with crits, or whatever random element you have in your game) and have fun playing the game. If they do win they can tell everyone about how the beat this and that incredibly strong player.
Losing to an inferior player on the hand is of course frustrating, but there are mitigating factors. For one, most games include some kind of buffer for these events. Magic matches are usually played as best-of-three, meaning that you can lose a game to randomness and still win the match without repercussions. Also, most tournaments are not single-elimination, meaning you can even lose a match or two and still have a shot at winning the whole thing. This system is what allows the best players to emerge on top time and time again while still giving us the unknown sensation from time to time – a not-so-great player simply mowing through a tournament and winning. The chance of such events greatly increases the draw to tournaments in general.
The better players will play in so many tournaments anyway, that losing badly once in a while isn’t all that bad. I’ve been playing a format on Magic Online called “Momir Basic” which is incredibly random. For those of you who don’t know anything about the game, it is enough for you to know that the creatures that players get to fight with are chosen at random. Often this will lead to total blowouts because one player will simply get the better creatures or a really unfair one and win. Even here though, better players win more. Personally I win two out of three matches in the format, allowing me to use it to fuel my other Magic Online-related gaming interests. (You need a little above 50% win percentage to break even on Momir Basic. If you have a higher percentage you gain tix, the currency for cards in Magic Online.) Obviously I lose embarrassing games to players who are far worse than I am, but that is alright. Sure I would prefer to always win against those people, but that would mean that they wouldn’t even play and I’d make even less profit (and get to play less) in the long run.
Then there’s the problem of making a show for the observers, especially in e-sports. Unless you are really deep into chess, watching chess is quite boring and I don’t really know any people who do. There are a lot of players on the other hand who watch poker tournaments – with the main difference between the two games being the randomness factor. Ridiculous upsets (and the players’ reaction to them) simply make for so much better entertainment than cool and planned out play.
Even in a game like Starcraft 2, which has very little obvious randomness, the same rules apply. Especially when players hide certain buildings in places that they hope the other player will not check, a lot of interesting situations can ensue. Removing the “fog of war” would greatly favour the better players by removing all possibilities of being surprised, but it would also make the games way less interesting to watch.