Engineers down through the ages have had a saying, which comes to us from the time of Archimedes.
Designs always involve trade offs, there’s no way around it. You want it to be the fastest? It can’t be the biggest. You want it to be the strongest? It can’t be the lightest. You want it to be the tallest? It can’t be the thinnest. You see this all the time, in toasters, buildings, airplanes and – yes – trading card games.
Arena is the premiere portal into the Multiverse of Magic: the Gathering, with new players pouring through daily. Some of them have never played a trading card game before. Some have experience from games like Hearthstone. Many people have found Magic’s Mana system to be troublesome, to say the least. Getting screwed or flooded is frustrating, and ends games in ways that leave you feeling helpless, or like you haven’t even gotten the chance to play. There’s no denying, that kind of experience is no fun.
To clarify, when I talk about the Mana system in Magic here, I’m talking both about the Color Pie, and how Mana sources are distributed throughout your deck, instead of being a separate resource. Hearthstone handles its mana system very differently. In that game, you know exactly how much Mana you’ll have every turn, there’s no color separation, and there’s a maximum total amount of Mana which will ever be available to you. Both systems have their benefits and shortcomings. Neither is the *correct* way to do it; they’re both designed to solve different problems.
Magic’s much maligned Mana system is engineered to accomplish several goals, and just as with any other bit of engineering, there’s tradeoffs involved. But let’s take a look at what it’s trying to do, and how it approaches and accomplishes those goals.
The Mana system in general is an important tool for controlling the power level of cards. This is something that Magic does share with Hearthstone. If every card was costed the same, then some types of cards would be completely irrelevant. Why play a 2/2 creature, when you can play a 5/5 for the same cost? You’d also be left with games where either the early game or the late game was largely irrelevant. If every card cost 5, then you’d spend the first 5 turns of the game doing nothing. If every card cost 2, then you’d quickly be top decking.
Having varying Mana costs allows Wizards to design cards with more powerful effects, while keeping gameplay balance. It makes some cards relevant in the early game, and some cards relevant in the late game. So the goal here is to control power level and maintain balance, while making different cards relevant at different points in the game. The tradeoff is that sometimes you’re going to have cards stuck in your hand which you can’t play.
The Color Pie creates mechanical separation between the different colors. If every color had access to every ability or mechanic, then there would be no variation in game play, or deck construction. But this means that some colors are going to be weak to certain types of effects and game play. Red can’t deal with Enchantments. Blue can’t kill Creatures. The beauty of this system is that you can mix colors together to try and shore up the weaknesses of one of them, or because they’ll compliment each other well.
Hearthstone addresses this by having Class-specific cards, which are unavailable to other decks, and strong synergies between cards and Heroes in certain classes. Magic has no such restrictions (with the notable exception of the Commander and Brawl formats). If you can generate the colors of Mana that you need, then you can play any Spell you want. There is a fun challenge here, to figure out how to construct a deck which gives you ready access to the Mana to cast your spells.
The Color Pie also grants a fertile home to the players’ creativity. With so much to choose from, strong individualism in deck design is readily available. Magic is a wide open canvass, and players are free to toss buckets of paint across it, or sit down with a single-bristle brush. The sky is really the limit here. Some people like mono-colored decks. Some people play 5 color good stuff. Some people even play colorless decks! (“Artifact” is the secret 6th color of Magic)
The objective here is to create diversity in gameplay, and open diversity in deck construction, giving players the freedom to play decks which reflect their individual play style and preference. The tradeoffs are that sometimes you’re going to be color screwed, and will be unable to cast spells when you need them, and some colors will be unable to answer certain threats.
Some amount of variance is a key element to enjoyable game play – for most people. This actually falls on a spectrum. Very Spiky players (check out Mark Rosewater’s article on Magic psychograpics – https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/making-magic/timmy-johnny-and-spike-2013-12-03) prefer much less variance. Other players prefer more variance. Generally speaking, a healthy quantity and quality of variance translates directly to a more fun and enjoyable gaming experience. The variance of the Mana system accomplishes several objectives for Magic.
It increases the variation of game play. If every single game played out exactly the same way, Magic would grow stale very quickly. This is why some people prefer Limited (Draft and Sealed), or even play Limited exclusively – it is the most diverse format in terms of gameplay.
The variance of the card draw, and of the sequence of when you have your Mana available adds diversity from game to game. If each player had exactly the color and quantity of Mana they wanted, when they wanted it, then games would become much more predictable, and rote. Some matches wouldn’t even be worth playing out, because some decks would always beat other decks.
I’d like to stress that this is not even about getting flooded or screwed. The Mana system adds strategic depth and complexity to the in-game decision making. You can sometimes win or lose based on how you sequenced your lands in the early part of the game. It gives you the opportunity to outplay your opponent, giving you another avenue where skill determines the game’s outcome.
The variance in Magic, to which the Mana system contributes, also adds another important, and much maligned aspect to the game. It gives weaker players the opportunity to beat stronger players. This is actual a vital aspect to the continued health of the game. Every game suffers from attrition – that is to say, players leaving the game. It’s just a fact of life. If new players don’t come into the game, then it will wither and die. It’s very daunting to come into a game like Magic, and even more daunting to square off against a definitively stronger player. I know, I’ve been there. There’s always “that guy” in the shop that’s Top 8 at every FNM. I’ve been that guy, too. The thrill that the newer or weaker player gets from beating you is infectious. Some of those wins are going to come on the heels of Mana problems, and that’s OK. It’s still an exciting moment for the other person.
There’s also another important aspect to new player development that’s not always acknowledged or well understood. Early in their gaming experience, people need a scapegoat for their losses. It’s interesting that there’s a point where people are unwilling or unable to accept responsibility for the loss. It gets blamed on Screw or Flood, or the other player drawing better. Good players will grow past this, and one of the big “level ups” of learning to play Magic well, is getting to the place where you examine your game play and learn to take ownership of your losses, because that’s what you need to do to get better at the game.
Again, diversity of game play is the goal here. It comes at the cost of sometimes not being able to cast the spells you want, when you need them.
Magic’s Mana system is engineered with a focus on variation and flexibility. Hearthston’s Mana system is engineered with a focus on consistency and stability. Neither is the “right” or “wrong” way to do it, anymore than a ferry or a jetski is the “right” way to build a watercraft. They’re looking to solve different engineering problems, and each solution comes with its own benefits and drawbacks. I’ve played Hearthstone a bit. It’s a fine game, but I found that it’s not for me. One of the things I prefer about Magic is the Mana system. But that is entirely a personal preference. I understand and appreciate why some people prefer the way Hearthstone handles its Mana resources.
That’s the beauty of games. We all get to love what we love about them, and that’s OK.
Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to let me share my thoughts with y’all.