I’ve mentioned it a few times before, but one of my non-video gaming hobbies is Magic: The Gathering. It’s a game that I picked up from a couple friends during high school (towards the tail end of Revised) and played fairly consistently for a couple of years, before sticking all my cards in a box and moving on to other adventures for a while. I think I played a couple of games during college, but didn’t buy any cards – or really think about Magic at all – between a pack or two of Alliances (in 1996) and a Deck Builder’s Kit sometime in 2011 (I think. I somehow have one or two cards from the 2009-2010 Zendikar block, but I’m not sure where they came from.)
At that point, a few of the folks in my D&D group started playing casually before our games, as a way to kill some time and expand our gaming. And that was pretty fun. I broke out my cobbled-together-from-booster-packs deck from 1996 and joined in with my horribly-outclassed Sengir Vampire and Norritt, and it was pretty enjoyable. I started looking at ways to modernize that deck, since all the cards that I used to think were good had strictly-improved replacements that had been printed over the last 15 years. I started messing around with printing out proxy cards, in the hopes that I could have a chance to play casually with my friends while not going down the black hole of wallet doom that Magic can be. It worked out because my friends were doing similar things – I bought a few cards here and there to at least make myself feel like I was vaguely supporting Wizards of the Coast – and everything was fine.
Except, the problem was, I’d gotten myself hooked again. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s true. See, Magic is one of those games where you can spend far more time theorizing about the game than actually playing it. It’s vastly complex and, depending on the format that you choose, essentially impossible to understand all the angles. You not only have to consider the tactics that your deck is built around, but you have to understand the strategy of each of opponents’ decks (or, at least, some general approaches for various styles), so that you can be ready to deal with them. It’s really cool, and there are a ton of moving parts.
The problem, then, comes back to that black hole money pit I mentioned. At its heart, Magic is really the quintessential model for a microtransaction-based game. You build a ruleset (in this case, a good one, even!), get people hooked with introductory offers (Starter Decks, Intro Packs, etc) that have enough to be able to participate, but not enough to really be competitive, and then sell them incremental upgrades that constantly leave them wanting more. Magic is particularly insidious in that they sell randomized booster packs – a set of 15 cards, with an random selection from several rarity pools (1 super-common land, 10 “common”, 3 “uncommon” and 1 “rare”). A typically “good” deck, has a large number of the rare and uncommon cards, so in order to actually build one of the better decks, you are going to need to open a large number of booster packs. Or go to the secondary market, which is thriving – some cards from the newest set are going $20-30.
This can all add up really quickly. And new sets of cards come out every 3-4 months, that change strategy (or push other, older cards, out of the Standard format), so there’s a strong incentive to buy early, buy often, and continue buying. If you want to build a specific deck (and there are tons of tools to help you build them without having physical cards, like Tapped Out), it’s probably better to just buy the singles. But when you see deck lists that consistently have a price tag of $300+, that seems… ridiculous. On the other hand, if you just buy a few more packs, well, maybe you’ll get something good! Or maybe you’ll get something that your friend wants – and maybe that friend has some cards that you want! And then the whole thing devolves into “Holy shit, my wallet is empty and I’m still missing these 5 cards!”
And all that is if you only want to build one deck and maintain it as new cards come out, which can get really boring.
I don’t know where I’m going with this, but it’s incredibly difficult to find a good line between having fun on a hobby that I like and not letting it take over my world – both mentally and monetarily. I know that the best thing to do is to just buy some extra printer toner for my casual games, keep playing in the occasional Draft (a format where you buy a few cards that you then use in the games and potentially win some prizes out of), and ignore the draw of a “real” deck. But my lord is it enticing to just buy that one next pack, and hope I get what I need…