When I was in high school, some (almost exclusively male) friends of mine discovered a card game called ‘Magic: The Gathering’. Like many, many before them, they found a local store, bought booster pack after booster pack for the excitement of a random selection of cards, and organised weekend games at their houses. The trend died down quietly after a while, and again like many before them, they were left with boxes of cards they weren’t using stashed in the wardrobe for years.
‘Magic’ was, according to the ever-useful Wikipedia, created in 1993. Since then it seems to have been going strong, and in fact getting bigger, ever since. The premise is that each player is a planeswalker, an über-mage who can travel between dimensions. The game is a duel of mages using summoned creatures and massive spells. New sets of cards with new rules and whole new mechanics are released regularly, keeping the game fresh – and keeping us poor saps buying new cards. That’s right, I have recently been part of one of those cascades of “my friend got my boyfriend into it, and he got me into it, and I got my other friend into it, who got her friend into it” – which end in big groups and in-depth conversations incomprehensible to anyone else. I’m a very casual player, but I do find myself constantly desiring new cards.
This is what interests me about Magic: whenever people I know have started playing, they have ended up spending large amounts of money on new decks and booster packs. The phase usually doesn’t last so long, but while it’s fresh, there’s a sort of compulsion to add to one’s collection. Why? A starter deck is perfectly playable, especially for casual play with friends. Booster packs in particular are not a very wise investment; granted you may get special rare cards, and are guaranteed a ‘rare’ of some kind, but the random assortment means that much of the selection is likely to be useless to your play-style.
Nonetheless boosters are exciting. They’re well priced – cheap enough to seem like a treat you can allow yourself, and pretty good for fifteen cards (forgetting of course than most of them are likely to end up unused in a box somewhere). Magic’s other stragey is not dissimilar to an online game’s promise for regular new content. With new mechanics and new rules regularly released – not to mention new races, creatures, and general fluff for those that way inclined – there’s always something new and desirable. There’s also an incentive to buy from a new series if your friends do. Trust me, my 2011 Core starter deck is not well equipped against my dear boyfriend’s Mirrodin Besieged cards -_-;
Magic: The Gathering has lasted so long with an excellent business strategy, that’s for sure. The game has simple (basic) rules that are easily picked up, and are highly enjoyable without having to become a pro. I don’t know what it is that makes us want to buy more and add to our collections, but it does, and new cards are terribly exciting even if they don’t add much to the functionality of one’s deck. Unlike other gaming companies I can think of, it never feels as though Wizards of the Coast is trying to coerce players into spending money, but we spend money constantly nonetheless. The irony is that when the novelty passes and our friends stop playing, we all end up with hundreds of dollars of cards which no longer seem nearly as shiny. How long before my new purchases get tossed in a cupboard again? It’s only a matter of time – but it’s oh so much fun for a short while.