I’ve been playing some Magic Online recently and spent even more time watching videos of pro players playing on Magic Online. While I gave up paper Magic ages ago, the game still has a dear place in my heart for various reasons. One is the sheer amount of possible combinations of cards you can have in play at any given moment and the complexity and interesting decision making that leads to. Modern computer games simply fail to match that, which is a shame.
The best example here is the fluctuating value of individual cards depending on the game state. Even the worst cards available tend to have certain situations in which they will be useful or even win you the game outright. This makes the game (and deck construction) a lot more about statistics and abstraction than you choice of strategy in other games.
There’s a card called golden urn, for example, which powers up the longer it is in play and allows you to use it up to gain life (more the longer it has been in play.) It is rather simple to construct a scenario in which it wins you the game and there will certainly be game situations in which you can say “if only I had had a Golden Urn I would have won.” Still, the card is rather terrible because it will more often than not have absolutely no impact on the game.
This one card already shows a multitude of interesting aspects. For one, players get to improve at the game by learning to properly evaluate cards like it. Beginners might love it, veterans might learn to avoid it. Even more veteran players might be able to identify the situations in which they should play the card despite it being awful. This simple card teaches players the value of life gain, the value of a card, the importance of cost, and the danger that is hindsight.
Another example would be the card Victorious Destruction. It does, for all intents and purposes, the same as the card Shatter which costs less than half of what Victorious Destruction costs and it can only be played during your turn while Shatter can be played at any time. It is easy to dismiss the destruction as completely unplayable because of that, but it isn’t. As it turns out there are situations in which you will (in the absence of shatter) be quite happy to put this card into your deck because the effect is still useful at a highly increased cost.
Other games don’t really offer choices like that. Imagine a game of Starcraft II in which you were given Marines which cost 125 minerals instead of the usual 50 and had no Stim Pack upgrade. Building these Marines would always be a bad choice, even if you didn’t have normal Marines at your disposal. The same would probably hold true for abilities in an MMO or weapons in an FPS. Current games simply don’t create enough unique situations for such nuances in design to become relevant.
It has often been said that World of Warcraft itemization includes no real choice because there is one definitive best answer to any choice you are presented with. This is not true in a game like Magic. There might be statistically better choices, but even those are often hard to define. If you put three professional Magic players into a draft tournament, it is quite likely that they’ll end up with three different decks even if they are at the exact same skill level.
I don’t know how to replicate this in modern games, but I’m sure there is a way. I dearly hope someone will find it.