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By: CZML, Cassie Mulholland-London
May 05 2015 12:00pm
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My relationship with Magic is complex, and it belies my relationship with games and game design in general. To explain, though, I need to go through a tiny bit of my gaming history.

I started playing games in elementary school when my mother taught me chess. Naturally, the intellectual, precocious, (slightly elitist?) me loved the game, both as a way to challenge myself but also as a way to compete with others. I played chess until high school, when I quit in favor of Magic.

I'm going to be completely honest here: part of me wishes I hadn't done that. Part of me wishes I had doubled down on chess and tried to sharpen those skills while I was still in a good environment for it. But part of me realizes that without Magic, I wouldn't have half the friends I do now, and I would have missed out on some powerful (albeit somewhat painful) life lessons.

I'm getting ahead of myself. Why would I rather play chess than Magic? On the surface, Magic seems much, much more fun than chess. It has cool art, more than six different units to command, and is set up so that a weaker player can beat a stronger player once in a while yet still rewards skill more than it cares about luck. At the competitive level, games of chess often take several hours, while most games of Magic only take fifteen or twenty minutes.

Well, I've said it before and I'm sure I'll say it again, so here goes: Chess is simply a better game than Magic. That's all there is to it.

I assume that most of you will take issue with that statement, so let me explain. I am of the opinion that, all other things being equal, an excess of variance hurts a game more than helps it, and Magic--at least, the Standard, Modern, and Limited formats--has a frustrating amount of variance.

Let me put it this way. If two players of relatively similar skill levels sit down with close to evenly matched Standard decks, play skill will only be relevant in 75% of games at most (and that's at the absolute top of the spectrum). That's just the way the math works. If one player draws in the 80th percentile or above and the other player does not, it doesn't usually matter how well the second player plays (again, assuming skill levels are relatively close). If one player draws in the 20th percentile or below and the other does not, it doesn't usually matter how well the first player plays. Even though mulligans exist, and some decks are better at mitigating variance than others, it is a mathematical truth that unless you're playing a format with Brainstorm, Sensei's Divining Top, and/or Mental Misstep, variance is going to affect the results at a very significant rate.

"But Casper," you say, "variance affects your opponent as much as it affects you. Half of the games that are decided by variance are decided in your favor."

Ignoring extenuating circumstances such as deck selection and particular lines of play, you would be right. But the games I win based on variance are almost as bad as the game I lose based on variance. It boils down to why I play games. I don't play games only because I'm good at them. I play games because they're puzzles, and because I want to compete at puzzle-solving with someone else. I want to pit my intellect against theirs in an evenly-staked battle of wits (and ideally, but not necessarily, win). The point is that the difference between my skills and my opponent's should be the ultimate deciding factor. Any part of the game that takes away from that negatively impacts my gameplay experience.

But what about the excitement variance creates? In chess, when you have a 4% chance to win, it might as well be 0% for all the good it does. You just sit around futilely trying to create some modicum of counterplay, waiting for your opponent to finish you off. In Magic, you have a two-outer--maybe your opponent is at 1 life, and you're facing down lethal hoping to topdeck one of your last two Siege Rhinos. All you have to do is watch this video to see how exciting variance makes things. To be fair, there was a lot of skill involved in the video, but the excitement came from the uncertainty, from Craig Jones not knowing what the draw would be. So would taking variance away make Magic less entertaining?

I suppose to some people, but I don't get entertained by the thought that the hard work and skill I used to outplay my opponent might get ruined by a single instance of luck. And as much as I want to win, as much as I love winning and hate losing, I don't get entertained by beating an opponent that outplayed me simply because I drew better than them.

And that's why I think chess is an inherently better-designed game than Magic. In every single game of chess, the player that played more skillfully, that made better moves, wins. And that's all there is to it. It's a deep, complex, analytical game that rewards slight differences in skill more than anything else.

I don't want anyone to misinterpret this article. I love Magic. The majority of the time, it's an incredibly fun game that tests a wide variety of analytical and creative skills and encourages rationality, self-awareness, and even social interaction. And variance is a great marketing tool, because it makes coverage more exciting and because it encourages new players to stick with the game even if they lose a lot.

But you know what? Variance gets old. It gets exhausting to feel like I have no control over a large percentage of my games. My wins become hollow and my losses become frustrating. I work as hard as possible to sharpen my skills, but what use is that if a full third of the time I don't even get to use those skills?

I have an issue with the way Magic tournaments are run as well; they seem to be designed to reward inconsistency. For example, I can show up to four GP day ones in a row and go 6-3 in all of them for a 67% record and four narrow misses at day two. Another person can show up to four GP day ones in a row and go 7-2 in two of them and 3-6 in the others for a 56% record and two qualifications for day two. An 11% difference in players' records over 36 games (assuming the same format) is reasonably significant, and yet the player with more match wins had worse finishes overall than the player with fewer.

The same issue is apparent when you look at the prize structure of Magic tournaments. The Pro Tour pays out $40,000 for a first place finish, yet only $20,000 for a second place finish. But doesn't it seem like getting second place at two Pro Tours is significantly more difficult than winning a single one? Moving further down the prize chart, a player would have to top 8 a full four times, top 16 eight times, or top 25 (the minimum needed to automatically qualify for the next Pro Tour) sixteen times to win the same amount of prize money as a single victory. The prize structure at individual Grand Prix is a little bit better, but not tremendously so.

To be honest, though, there's no way I'm quitting Magic anytime soon. It's far too fun of a game, and besides, there's very little money in chess except for the absolute best players in the world. Everyone else is battling for table scraps. So I'm going to keep grinding on MTGO and do everything in my power to minimize the variance inherent to the game.

Join me next week where I'll present solutions to the problems I just described. I'll go over how Magic could change to decrease variance as well as how you as a player can compensate for it. In addition, I'll propose a separate tournament structure that would compensate for variance to a certain amount.

Thanks for reading!


Casper Mulholland

@CasperZML on Twitter

tikipanda on MTGO


Very well written article by Francis Law at Tue, 05/05/2015 - 12:21
Francis Law's picture

Very well written article Casper.

The view that competitive games would benefit from decreasing variance is one I'm sure many would agree with you on. Personally, this lecture by Richard Garfield- convinced me otherwise. I'd also highly advise the book he co-authored "Characteristics of Games" if you haven't had a chance to read it.

I question whether "I play games because they're puzzles, and because I want to compete at puzzle-solving with someone else. I want to pit my intellect against theirs in an evenly-staked battle of wits (and ideally, but not necessarily, win)". Magic is a broad game with many avenues of appeal and it can be hard to pinpoint what exactly is "fun" about it. When people say this, I often feel it's a kind of post rationalization to justify the playing a stigmatized game by making it seem more worthy. I know I have caught myself doing the same thing in past.

Keep up with the quality content.


Thanks by CZML at Tue, 05/05/2015 - 12:56
CZML's picture

Thanks for the links and the feedback! I will definitely watch the video and see if I can pick up the book sometime in the future.

As far as why I play Magic goes, the quote you picked out of the article is 100% accurate. Sure, I think dragons and wizards and elves are cool--and I'm not ashamed of that fact--but I would be just as comfortable playing the My Little Pony card game if I felt it was better designed and also gave me the opportunity to do it as a career. When I'm in a match, the flavor of the cards is essentially irrelevant to me because their function is the only thing that influences patterns and lines of play.

I'm not saying everyone approaches it this way, but I certainly do. It has nothing to do with the fact that Magic is stigmatized. Your point as it possibly applies to other people is definitely an interesting one, but I can say that it isn't relevant to me.

Again, thanks for commenting and providing research material!


I agree. Ultimately its why by Jyalt at Wed, 05/06/2015 - 20:48
Jyalt's picture

I agree. Ultimately its why I never pursued MTG with an 'all-in' perspective and finally decided to just get a job and earn my money in the workforce. Not as fun, but pays much better. It was pretty heart-breaking to Q for PT Portland 2014 off a GP Montreal top 8, spend weeks and weeks practicing, then go 0-3 in my M15 draft pod because I didn't open a planeswalker and 2/3 of my opponents did. The last guy just watched me mulligan to 4 in the third game. Variance at its finest.

That sounds like a rough by CZML at Wed, 05/06/2015 - 20:58
CZML's picture

That sounds like a rough experience. Still being able to top 8 a GP is still extremely promising. Maybe if you had stuck with it you might have been able to do well at the next PT you qualified for. All variance tends to correct itself in the end.

True. If I spent the 100's by Jyalt at Sat, 05/09/2015 - 09:59
Jyalt's picture

True. If I spent the 100's of hours since then playing magic instead of working I *might* be qualified for a PT again (and likely in debt from travel expenses). What happened instead was me making tons of money at my new job and buying a house. I'm OK with how this choice has ended for me. It's like I top 8'd a PT in real life instead of MTG.

Definitely do what makes you by CZML at Mon, 05/11/2015 - 16:42
CZML's picture

Definitely do what makes you happy. Personally, I'm too dedicated to being a professional gamer to walk away, but I would never fault someone for having different priorities than me. Glad things are working out for you.