I’m going to be honest. Magic: The Gathering intimidates me. I first played the game in the salad days of my youth (ok, in college), and I had fun! I got a pile of cheap cards in one of those cheap cardboard boxes and built some bad decks. I was interested in getting more competitive at the game, but I was broke so that wasn’t going to happen. Eventually my friends and I stopped playing and migrated more to board games. Then I started playing Hearthstone, which scratched the CCG itch but was more convenient and casual.
But Magic has such a long history, has such an intense competitive scene, and is so awash with keywords and interactions that my mind puts up some sort of barrier in front of it. I’ve been able to embrace my slow dive into the world of wargames with their complicated rules and sometimes odd language. Among the euro and ameritrash games I don’t think there’s any I would be particularly intimidated by. Heck, I play Netrunner competitively and that’s arguably more complicated than Magic with its asymmetry and novel interactions.
What could possibly break me out of this MtG lull? Why, only the very best way to experience any CCG: a draft. Immediately when this possibility was proposed to me, some part of my brain turned and said, yes, this was going to be fun. We asked some friends who actually play Magic and they recommended the Conspiracy set.
For about $90 we got enough booster packs for our group of 6 to do 2 different drafts. Breaking that down, it’s $7.50 per person, per draft, which seems pretty reasonable to me. Plus, if you actually play Magic outside of this context you can keep your cards, although from my research it doesn’t appear that this set is actually legal in any competitive formats. Someone who knows these things–please correct me in the comments if I’m wrong. Ok, so maybe it’s just for kitchen table play. But that’s fine with me! I have no other aspirations with Magic, and maybe you don’t either.
I’d forgotten how much fun it is to actually run an “event”, even if it’s with the same people I’d normally be playing games with. For starters, I got to prepare my beloved, beat up, craigslist-acquired games table for the event:
There’s something delightfully ritualistic about opening up booster packs. I suppose this is one of the reasons why the business model has worked so well over the years. We even had a brief argument over the proper way to examine the cards from a freshly-opened pack. For the uninitiated, in a Magic booster pack the cards are organized by rarity–the first few are always commons, then maybe a couple of uncommons, then finally in the back you get at least one card that is rare or better. Behind that, though, is a basic land or token card. Perhaps this reveals something about my personality, but I support the following sequence of events:
- Open pack and pull cards out
- Throw the back card dramatically onto the table, sight unseen, so as to scorn its uselessness
- Immediately look at the rare card
- Take a moment to praise or curse your luck based on how good that rare is
- Look at the rest either out of curiosity because the rare was badass, or out of hope because it was junk
Most of my peers argued that one should go front to back, as if tediously opening a present, so as to savor the rare card reveal. These are the kinds of people who take deliberately small bites of good food so as to “savor” it and they are not to be trusted.
Drafts are amazing. They’re egalitarian. Sure, someone might know the game better and know how to draft more effectively, but you all start with those same three booster packs and endless possibilities before you. How it works is just as you would expect–everyone takes one card and passes the rest to their neighbor. Keep doing this through three packs, and then construct a deck from the mess of cards you’ve collected. But with the Conspiracy set they’re so much more.
See, Conspiracy is made specifically for the draft format. On the box everyone is instructed to keep a pen and paper ready for unspecified, cryptic reasons. It turns out that there are cards that change their power or their effect based on the draft itself. I don’t want to spoil much, but here’s a taste of the kind of thing you might expect: Amber drafted a spell that required her drafting neighbors and herself to select a color. The spell gained the ability to destroy a card of one of the chosen colors. It was great, because not only did it break up the head-down, quiet nature of a draft, but it also played into another meta-aspect of drafting: guessing which colors your neighbors are going for.
In our particular draft this became a running joke and matter of suspense. My very first pick was a legendary that I may or may not have bugged out about a bit too much. It was a cool card to be sure, although I never actually drew it in-game. The problem was that it was a specifically tri-colored card (it required one of three different colors of mana to play). So the rest of the draft became a running game of, “which three colors is Marc going for?”. For the record, it was black, green, and blue.
We’re not Magic players and this was a decidedly extremely casual event, so I think there was going to be some joking and card spoilering anyway, but the interactions created by the Conspiracy set made that so much better. The one criticism we had was that some of the cards specifically gained power as they went undrafted, so they almost required someone to “hate-draft” them so that one of the people going for that color didn’t get a massively overpowered card later in the draft. I didn’t mind it, but it rubbed some of the group the wrong way.
Due to all of us being either Magic noobs or severely out of practice, the draft did take a very long time. Fortunately I had planned for this and made sushi while people were constructing their decks.
The games themselves were a blast and we all had a lot of fun. The set is designed for free for all games (i.e. 3-5 players) which was….fine? I think I definitely prefer the traditional one on one format. Despite the inclusion of a “Monarch” ability, which gets passed to you if you do damage to the Monarch, the format still seems to encourage ganging up on people until there are only two people remaining. Furthermore, it seemed to heavily favor slower, more control-focused decks. The best decks of the day were Orion’s white-blue control deck with a stupidly powerful endgame combo, and Amber’s black-green deck with a lot of large creatures and sustainability. Ben made a very aggressive mono-red deck that performed well one on one but was completely destroyed in the free for all games.
So how does Magic work casually? It’s so fun. Playing a card game away from the pressures of competition, particularly in the draft format, is one of the premier experiences in our hobby. Right now we each have some fun decks we plan to continue to play with. Once we’re done with that, we’re going to do another draft with the rest of the cards from the box. And since no one really cares about keeping their cards, we’ll probably scramble them all up and do even more drafts after that. Then I have plans in the back of my mind to make a custom Netrunner draft.
Can I just do a different draft every day? Please?