First of all, a Reddit comment I recently made. The question on the table was: Why wasn’t Android: Netrunner more popular? My answer is mostly about Magic: The Gathering…
Please forgive the scattered and testy nature of this long comment. I don’t have time to edit and organize.
There have been many, many, many customized-deck card games, ‘living’ and ‘trading’ and ‘collectible’ and so forth. Only a couple have ever done good business, even in the medium term, after the novelty/craze period. I think u/SyntaxLost is right: however it was designed as a game, ANR wasn’t designed to be the kind of corporate product line that M:TG is.
It’s said that ANR did reasonably well for a card game that isn’t one of the three popular beat-’em-ups (M:TG, Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon), but at day’s end those are the only custom-deck games that’ve made decent money in years and years. Quick: name any of the other top-10 card games, if you can.
Of the big 3 I’ve played Pokemon, an execrable game, and M:TG, a good but hyperbolically overrated one. I believe they’re popular for reasons that have only a little to do with quality or depth or delicacy or nuance; Netrunner’s a better game, deeper, more thematically rich than the popular ones, but it lost the mindshare-game predictably. It’s not a meritocracy and the reasons aren’t really about game design — they’re about social experience.
Random packs appeal to people. Collectible cartoon art appeals to people. Japanese children’s fighting schlock appeals to people. Things already popular appeal to people. A couple years ago I’d be trawling my FLGS on a Friday night and it’d be full of teenagers. M:TG appeals to them because of, not despite, its grotesque (frankly unethical) blind-booster distro model. It’s quick to get into — it gamifies the act of buying a consumer good.
You’re having the ‘M:TG experience’ the instant you buy your first pack.
You can turn up at the FLGS, spend $10, and have an evening of M:TG or Pokemon. There’s value in that.
There was a good, interesting Star Wars LCG years ago — even that didn’t do well post-novelty. Star Wars! Card games come and (fail to constantly regenerate their playerbase and) go. The big 3 are entrenched; they are meaningful revenue streams; stores are committed to them. Target sells their products. And they don’t have hilariously self-limiting business plans.
(Think of the Netrunner sales pitch: ‘To make a real deck, first spend more than $100 to buy our introductory product three fucking times…’)
ANR does have a bunch of nonobvious (but clever and sensible) jargon that you have to learn — i.e. the terms ‘R&D’ and ‘HQ’ actually matter during the game — and offers more complex choices, on average, than the card-army games. ‘Onboarding’ is disastrous. Your first experience with ANR is worse, less satisfying in almost every way, than with the other games.
(Yet I just played my first game with my 10-year-old son, who got it and loved it.)
‘Session Zero’ matters.
Losing your first game of M:TG is fun. Playing MORE mana and BIGGER monsters is fun.
Losing your first game of ANR is not fun. There’s nonobvious stuff to manage. It feels like you have both too much freedom and too many requirements. It’s hard to intuit the nature of the ticking clock.
Well, so ANR is a complex card game and M:TG (+ilk) is a social pastime. No wonder they’ve suffered such different fates.
If the above comment is at all insightful, here’s the insight, conveniently boldfaced in the original:
You’re having the ‘M:TG experience’ the instant you buy your first pack.
People unacquainted with the once-massive, still shockingly big collectible card game (CCG) business may not realize this, so it’s worth elaborating on.
The core insight of the creator of Magic: The Gathering, master game designer Richard Garfield, was that arbitrarily complex custom card decks could compete under a relatively simple rules framework to generate a radically new mode of competitive gameplay. He made ‘deckbuilding’ a core element of card play — one of the two best gaming ideas of the 20th century.
(The other? ‘It’s like a wargame, only each figurine represents one guy, and instead of just fighting they can do anything. We’ll roll the dice to see what happens next in the adventure. And there are dragons.’)
Garfield was naive enough, nearly 30 years ago, to think that selling cards of varying rarity in blind random packs would be a neat distribution model — he famously intended for players to offer cards as ‘ante'(!) before each match, a notion that didn’t survive playtesting.
The core insight of Wizards of the Coast, the (now Hasbro-subsidiary) company that publishes Magic and owns the obscene and cynical patent on Garfield’s custom-deck design language, was this: M:TG is actually three overlapping games in one:
- The table game — play of the hand
- The home game — deckbuilding
Plenty of Filthy Casuals love the table game, and for a certain sort of person, the home game is one of the most intellectually rewarding activities in all of gaming.
The gambling game is the sole reason Hasbro bothers with M:TG.
M:TG is a license to print money, a primary driver of Hasbro’s table-game revenue, but that moneymaking power depends on a grotesque business model, selling blind booster packs containing cards whose power levels (play value) are tied to their rarity (commodity value). Many M:TG players eagerly justify this to themselves — read any Magic forum for a taste of this low-grade Stockholm syndrome, with dull know-alls subjecting naïve n00bs to the ‘Case for Capitalism, Day One’ lecture that is the obvious limit of their own reading — while most wearily accept it as a condition of the Corporate Fun they’ve bought into. But facts remain facts: most M:TG cards are ‘filler’ destined to be sold to children by the case, competitive M:TG decks can run to a thousand bucks (vastly more for vintage formats), and M:TG’s set-rotation system means that playing in two different years means buying lots of Hasbro product.
The hidden structure of the M:TG experience isn’t complicated. WotC sells you the chance to ‘pull’ an exciting collector item from a plastic bag, and as a consolation prize you get to play a fairly casual high-variance card game, almost entirely removed from that played by the small cadre of high-level professional players that you are encouraged to dream of joining.
This structure remains hidden because players prefer it that way.
WotC has ‘gamified’ the act of buying playing cards. That isn’t a new concept (BUY POGS!), but this specific form — ‘deckbuilding’ that starts at the sales counter — was merely ugly when it was baseball cards, and is nauseating when it’s dressed up as a meritocratic-competitive activity. No one harbours illusions (anymore) that collecting baseball cards is a skillful activity. It’s more like subscribing to a cable TV service: you pay your monthly fee, sometimes something unusually good comes on, mostly you get a bite-sized predictable experience, and the money’s not coming back unless you’ve got something going on the side. The supplier is responsible for product, not the experience; play is your problem.
(A vanishing number of M:TG players make some of their money back. The ones who make a big profit are (1) very lucky and/or (2) predators.)
To be clear, Magic: The Gathering is a good card game when you get to the deckbuilding and table stages. At high levels it’s deep and rewarding; for beginners it’s fun and intriguing. But there are much better custom-deck games that don’t involve selling ‘cardboard crack’ — the community’s term, not mine, for the blind-booster gambling model — to kids. Strip away brand loyalty, sunk costs keeping players in, and the gambling (buying) game, and what’s left, really? Another card game? One popular enough to get a Friday night game among strangers at the FLGS. It sells because it sells, and because the selling per se is part of the thrill.
M:TG the game is a wonderful thing. M:TG the business is contemptible. You’d have to be pretty (willfully) stupid to believe that they’re two separate things.