Magic: The Gathering (more frequently just Magic) is a trading card game produced by Wizards of the Coast (Wizards). Those of you who use Wizard’s other products, such as Dungeons and Dragons, are probably intimately aware of how they have mastered the art of making fun, reasonably balanced (all things considered) games and convincing you to buy the new iteration of a fairly unchanging product. Magic is no different: Wizard’s choice to implement card rotation in Magic, to sponsor tournaments, and promote Friday Night Magic events are all excellent business choices that benefit both players and the business. These features make Magic a terrific card game, well worth playing and investing in.
The most significant difference between Magic and Yu-Gi-Oh is card rotation. In Yu-Gi-Oh, once a card is produced, it is (with the exception of a very limited ban list) free for players to use indefinitely. This leads to a process called “power creep,” where Konami—the creator of Yu-Gi-Oh—either accidentally or purposefully releases superior cards over time. Anyone who wants to stay competitive needs to acquire these new cards. Magic, in contrast, has card rotations. This means that after a card is issued it can be used in “standard” tournaments for about two years. After that, it can still be used in some “legacy” tournaments.
The card rotation feature of Magic is a really positive feature that allows for a lot of benefits to the game. For instance, the creators have the ability to tell stories and make themes for their players. Back when I played in 2012, the “Innistrad” rotation told the story of a titanic battle between good and evil in a Grimm Brother’s environment. The first block of cards contained all sorts of gritty fairy tale tropes of priests and flocks of birds. In the second block, the powers of evil took the upper hand, but in the third block the forces of light assembled their big guns. (One particular piece of lore I liked is that Avacyn, leader of the angles, had exactly the abilities require to beat the big bad Griselbrand.) While it’s not impossible to make similar thematic cards in Yu-Gi-Oh, the rotation format really lends itself to telling stories.
A second way that card rotation helps improve Magic as a game is that it means Wizards can be more creative without the risk of breaking the game. A few years ago, they made the mistake of running a card called “Thragtusk,” which helped you both when you played it and when it died, coupled with a bunch of “Flash” cards that killed a creature and then played it again. For the entire year, everyone who could afford it would play with the Thragtusk-Flash combo. But then all the Flash cards rotated out and everything returned to normal. No need for a comprehensive ban list. No angry players who were dissatisfied that the central card in their deck work was banned. The natural Magic rotation quietly swept that frustrating mistake out.
The card rotation also allows Magic to bring back old favourites. Thanks to power creep, an old Yu-Gi-Oh card you liked—while technically legal—can’t really be played by anyone who wants to win. With Magic, the standard power level can wax and wane with each set, so those cards remain feasible and can become legal again in the future.
The second thing that Wizards do to make Magic a great game to play is the competitions. These are highly-publicized events, with live-streams, prize pools, and tiered tournaments. It’s very similar to how poker is shown on TSN. (In fact, a self-reported TSN producer once went on the Magic subreddit trying to get a feel for how receptive players would be to watching the game on TV.) This is a really great opportunity for players to get out, meet new people, and participate in a competition that some of them are extremely good at. Events like this are also a great way for people to pick up rare cards without having to trust the quality-judgment of strangers on the internet. These competitions are a fantastic way for dedicated players to have fun and challenge themselves.
If you are not the competitive, event-going type, Wizards still has a lot to offer. In particular, they support Friday Night Magic (FNM) events in comic book stores and card shops all across the world. These low-key events are essentially the trading-card player’s equivalent to a Friday out clubbing. Eat some food, play Magic with other regulars, invite your friends along to them into the game. It’s a wonderful way to meet people and hang out, especially for a userbase that—at least stereotypical—doesn’t get out very much.
It’s worth pointing out that all these strategies Wizards uses to make Magic a better game also make them more money. Card rotations are the obvious example, since you need to buy new cards every year or two to keep playing in their official tournaments. The official tournaments and FNMs are, similarly, both a great way to keep the community active and vibrant, and the impetus for players to keep playing their legal decks. When Wizards experiments with new mechanics (especially those that are small tweaks on what came before), is it because they think the new mechanic will be better, or because they want to make the same cards they had before, but still force everyone to get new ones? Hopefully this article has proven that, while these tactics do result in more Magic cards being bought, they also radically improve the game, thereby making the cost worthwhile.
Magic: The Gathering is a tremendously successful and fun trading card game. This is due, in no small part, to the large events and FNMs that Wizards cultivates. However, a significant portion of Magic’s appeal is derived from card rotations, which allows Wizards to be bold when trying new mechanics, refreshes the game every few years, and allows old cards to be brought back and reused at a later date. Without card rotation, these critical features are very difficult for Yu-Gi-Oh to replicate.