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It's a Kind of Magic

Sean Sands | 12 Jul 2009 09:00
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Collectible card games have traditionally frightened me. If asked in a social situation, I'd say it's because of the money sink involved, but in the quiet hours of the night, I admit that it's because I fear the twisting complexity and compulsive collection that begs addiction. Where some might have a phobia of high places, speaking in public or clowns, I fear the vision of me rocking a shoe box full of cards, while lusting after an elusive rare that will complete my elaborately crafted deck.

It is for this reason that I have avoided Magic: The Gathering for so very long. The glamor of the game would fire the dopamine centers of my brain like tiny chemical artillery into the tattered remnants of my will every time I dropped a few greenbacks on a new booster pack. I would hold the foil, potentially full of great untapped mana and fantastic creatures birthed from elaborate imaginations, and I would taste coppery lust in the back of my throat.

Some people avoid alcohol, cigarettes or narcotics because they sense the precipice of crushing addiction. I avoided Magic. Or rather, I did until it invaded the precious space of Xbox Live Arcade.

It took ten editions, but they finally got me.

Duels of the Planeswalkers was, I admit, a tactical strike to any remaining barriers I may have harbored against the game. It was a one time download that required no additional purchase. It could be played solo in a safe environment. It is like an extended and elaborate tutorial for a fully fleshed world where layers of rules, concepts and terminologies would otherwise drown a new player in the deep waters of minutia.

Creating this single-player framework that rewards you with new cards by defeating computer opponents was, for me, the key that unlocked the gateway. I asked Elaine Chase, Director of the Magic: The Gathering brand at Wizards of the Coast if this was kind of the point, and she seemed to confirm my suspicion. "Our hope," she points out, "certainly is that someone starts (or restarts) playing Magic through their Xbox, and then gets hooked and wants to experience more cards and more ways to play." For me, it was mission accomplished. I was their ideal customer, and I had taken the bait. The delicious, tempting bait.

In a marketplace where countless collectable card games have come and gone, Magic: The Gathering has somehow remained culturally relevant since its launch in 1993. As a point of comparison, 1993 was the year video games saw the release of Doom, Myst, Day of the Tentacle and the Atari Jaguar.

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