Magic: The Gathering is a card game produced by Wizards of the Coast, a subsidiary of Hasbro—you know, the people who make Transformers and My Little Pony? Yeah. Them. Many players consider it to be the best game ever made and the grandfather of most modern collectable trading card games like Pokémon TCG. What many players don’t realize is Magic: The Gathering is an objectively bad game that exploits its audience with predatory business practices designed to siphon as much money out of the player as possible.
If you’re interested in trying out Magic: The Gathering and are finding nothing but good things and would like to hear both sides, you’re in luck. Here, we’re going to lay out all the reasons why Magic: The Gathering is bad.
Magic The Gathering Is Expensive
You may be thinking that most things are expensive these days. And you would be right. But read on, as you may be underestimating just how expensive this hobby can be.
The cards themselves are distributed in packs of fifteen, or twelve for the more expensive version. (Wait the more expensive packs have fewer cards? YUP.) Each of these packs contains only a single “rare” card. Often these rare cards will be the only viable cards worth using in a given deck. The majority of cards in any viable deck will be very specific rare or “mythic” (rarer than rare) cards. In other words, just because a card is “rare” doesn’t mean it will be of any use. In fact, each set only has a very few number, (maybe 5-10 out of hundreds) of cards that are viable.
At around $4.00 – $5.00 per pack (or $20 – $100 for “special collectors packs”) you can start to see how quickly costs can add up. Due to random distribution of cards players realized that the only way to build a competitive deck is to buy, or trade for the cards one requires. This means that if you want to have a chance to compete, it’s better to avoid purchasing any official Magic: The Gathering product. That’s right, players realized that they were being swindled by the company that makes Magic The Gathering cards, and an entire market to circumvent the predatory practices would be needed, which ironically, simultaneously supports the system they’re trying to avoid.
So, easy solution, right? Unfortunately, due to the secondary market and artificial scarcity of powerful cards due to pack distribution, highly sought-after cards can be very expensive. So, what does this mean for the average player?
The “cheapest” format you can play is called Standard. In Standard you can only use cards released in the last year, so decks in this “format” are lower in price due to lower demand. However, you might be thinking that low would mean, what? $30? $50? Try $300-$500. Yes. For Magic: The Gathering, hundreds of dollars for a single deck (that is 75 cardboard cards) can run as much as an Xbox Series X, or PlayStation 5. Think that’s bad? Just wait till you hear that your investment equivalent of your monthly rent is going to be made illegal, no matter what.
Remember when we said that the game exploits its customers? Here’s a prime example. “Standard“, a.k.a. the cheapest format you can play in, is what’s called a rotating format. In that, once you build your deck with cards from the most recent sets, you must continue buying cards from future sets. Why? Because every year Wizards of the Coast moves all those cards you purchased for hundreds of dollars out of the format so that new cards can have time to shine. Want to keep playing? Get ready to buy a brand-new deck again.
To be fair you can use your cards in what is called “non-rotating” or “eternal” formats but, (if you haven’t picked up on the trend yet) get ready to open your wallet once again. That standard deck that “rotated” out is legal in eternal formats, but guess what? Its power level is assuredly far too low to ever win a game. Sure, there might be some competitive decks in a non-rotating format that use the cards you already own from Standard, but you’re going to have to shell out even more money in order to keep playing. $300 decks become $1,000 decks which become $5,000 decks which become $10,000+ decks. We’re not being hyperbolic here.
Let’s pretend you bit the bullet and purchased secondary market cards for a competitive deck. You can’t very well just carry around cardboard cards. If anything should happen to your fragile, yet expensive cardboard, you won’t be able to use them. After all, you can’t use marked cards in a card game. So, lets open our wallet yet again and buy card sleeves! Sure they’re not that expensive at around $10 to sleeve up a single deck, but most people, realize that putting your cards in a sleeve isn’t enough protection. Thus it’s common practice to use two sleeves per card. An inner and outer sleeve referred to as “double sleeving.”
Now that your pricey cardboard is protected, you also realize you can’t set your sleeved cards down on any surface. Your sleeves can get marked just like cards can, so that wooden table with sticky crap on it might mess up your sleeves. Gt ready to buy a playmat. Using a playmat ensures those expensive sleeved cards stay fresh.
But wait. How are you going to carry all this stuff? You can’t just walk around holding 75 cards and a floppy old playmat. An entire industry has been booming around the fact that using cardboard cards to play games is very risky. Enter the producers of deck boxes. For another $10-$30 you can put your expensive sleeved cards into a box for transport. You’re going to need to buy something to store your playmat in too. If you roll it up and put it in a bag it’s going to get ruined. While we’re at it, better buy some dice and tokens too – there’s a lot to keep track of.
Phew. That’s a lot of stuff to buy. Okay, so you’re ready to go. You’ve got your cards, and sleeves, boxes, playmats, tubes, and dice. You’re ready to play! Now all you need to do is find a local game store that actually has an event scheduled for the format your deck is legal in. Do you have one close by? If you’re in a big city it might not be a problem, but elsewhere might be an hour’s drive. Hope you get good gas mileage. Maybe it’s in a nice part of town. Maybe not.
Okay, so let’s say you found one. You have the time to commute and a full tank of gas to get there. Turns out the game store is a business too, so let’s open up our wallets again to pay the entry fee! Usually $5 – $15 depending on what you’re playing and usually requires about three hours of your time, so let’s hope you’re not planning on doing anything else that evening.
Awesome. We’ve done it. We’re finally playing Magic: The Gathering. Turns out the people playing here at this local game store are very good. They’ve been playing since before you were born and have a “judges” level (yes, there is an actual school to teach players the rules) of understanding of the game. Even with an S-tier deck you’re likely not going to win early on. Asking for advice for how to improve will often be met with a “keep playing” which is true. But in this lies the catch-22. It took so much time and money to get here, so how much more time and money are you willing to pay to keep playing for a chance to beat someone with decades lead-time?
But let’s say you do win. Pretend you have a great night and win every game you play. Keep in mind rounds are timed, so in order to play three matches of “best of three” you’re going to be there for about 3 hours, sometimes longer. Anyway, everyone paid money to play so how much are you going to win? Nothing! Most stores will offer those random packs no one really wants as prizes. Or if you’re lucky, store credit so you can buy more packs, sleeves, boxes, playmats … you get the idea.
After all, you might have had fun. Magic: The Gathering can be fun, otherwise it wouldn’t be so popular. It was nice to get out of the house and meet new people. But when you look back at the cost of entry could you imagine another way to have fun using 5% of what you spent for a 30-minute drive and three hours after a $5-$15 buy in? Probably.
You might be thinking, “wow that does sound pretty bad.” Guess what? We’re just getting started.
Magic The Gathering Is Random
It’s the open secret that no one really talks about but ends up being the topic of conversation whenever it happens. Which, as it turns out, is a lot. Magic The Gathering is, at its core a random game based on chance. As a result, all that stuff you went through, and all that money you spent will inevitably lead to “non-games”.
What do we mean? The way you cast spells in Magic The Gathering is accomplished by using “mana” drawn from lands. You’re allowed to play one land per turn and the more lands you have the more spells, or higher costed spells, you can play. Cards are drawn randomly since your deck is shuffled so there will be many games where you don’t draw enough lands. Other games you will draw nothing but lands and not enough spells. These games are decided for you. You have no control over this, and even the best players in the world will simply lose when RNG decides to work against them.
Sure this means you’ll get wins, but most of the fun of the game is derived from meaningful games with interaction, tense moments and pivotal plays. Sitting there, playing solitaire with your deck while your opponent can’t do anything isn’t ever going to be fun, and it happens. A lot. So much so that the traditional way to play magic is best-of-three. If it was a single match, you’d have instances where the game is over in mere minutes, meaning you and your opponent will be sitting there for the next 45 minutes while other luckier people will be playing and enjoying themselves. Reminder: you paid money for this experience.
The random nature of the game is actually part of the game itself with spells designed to let you look at what cards you may draw with mechanics that allow you to “filter” your draws to lower the chances of having games be decided by lands. Even with that most games are, and this is backed by hard data, a coin toss.
That’s right, even the most skilled player running a top tier deck will average about a 50% win rate. Sometimes you’ll have decks that are considered to be “too powerful” by the community, and those decks will often have a win-rate of 55% – 58%. This leads into our next point. Despite being nearly thirty years old, the game hasn’t been able to solve a vital problem: if you go first you have a distinct advantage.
The data is very clear on this. If you go first in a game of Magic The Gathering you’re beginning the game ahead. You get to act first, meaning your opponent is often times reacting to you instead of being proactive. It’s so bad that they even disallow players going first to draw a card. This isn’t enough to dissuade people from going first, however. In fact, one hilarious part is, at the start of every game, players will decide who “gets to choose” if they want to play first or second by a high roll using dice or a coin flip. While those are the rules, in practice, wining the high roll dictates who goes first. 99.99% of the time players will choose to go first because there’s almost never a reason to go second if you don’t have to.
So, the game is expensive, it’s lacking in player agency, it’s time consuming and above all, kind of random. You’re probably thinking that’s it right? Well… not really.
Magic The Gathering is Exploitative
What do we mean by that? Remember how we talked about how people set up a whole economy outside of the actual products Wizards of the Coast releases? WotC is aware of this and leverages their own products in a way to keep players spending as much money as possible.
Popular cards on the secondary market can be expensive due to the usual formula: supply and demand. Cards in high demand and low supply are going to be pricier than the cards with low demand and high availability. This is intentional as high value cards sell more packs, and selling more packs means more revenue. They’re not shy about it either. So, in order to keep players buying, Magic The Gathering will reprint cards in new sets, along with the new powerful ones, as a way to sell those new packs, thereby injecting value into their new products because they themselves made those cards hard to obtain. It’s very much a system that creates a feedback loop of value. See where this is going? It gets worse. Enter the “reserved list.”
The reserved list is a list of cards that Wizards of the Coast will never reprint. Why? What does this have to do with the actual game? It doesn’t. The whole point of the reserved list is to keep the secondary market value of exceedingly rare cards high. That’s it. Basically, they game the system to make more money from the system that players originally set up to avoid getting swindled. You guessed it. There’s no way around it. They’re getting as much of your money as possible, one way or another.
Magic The Gathering is a game built upon the idea that people like to collect things. And by purposefully making desirable game pieces rare through low printing / distribution, they can exploit customers who are pre-disposed to gambling addiction. Adding the thrill of earning your money back tenfold by opening a pack with a super rare card will do it. However, for every expensive pack there’s 50 others that will have rares worth less than the ink and cardboard its printed on.
You might be thinking to yourself, “that sounds a lot like gambling.” That’s because it is. For all intents and purposes those random packs are enticing for the same reason people pull the handle of a slot machine. The difference is Magic The Gathering isn’t regulated like gambling. You don’t have to be 18 years old to open packs. In fact, the game itself is meant for ages 13+. That’s right, getting your kids started early by high-risk rushes of dopamine at the cost of their college funds is the backbone of something marketed as fun card game.
We could go on, but keep in mind this article only covers the physical or “paper” version of Magic: The Gathering. There’s also a version where you can play whenever you want at home on your computer or phone. If you’re thinking things are this bad for paper, just wait. Read on using the link below as we explain:
Why Magic The Gathering Arena and Magic The Gathering Online are bad