This entry is part 14 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth


Throughout March, I’ve been focusing on a different fundamental game design concept in each of my articles and examining how this design element is used in Magic: the Gathering. Now I’m bringing my unofficial “design month” to a close by talking about the idea of a “core gameplay loop,” musing about what Magic’s core loop is, and then giving you some tips to improve your Magic game by being the boss of the core loop.


The Core Gameplay Loop

The CGL for short, is the most purely distilled essence of a game: a set of actions that you repeat several times to build the basic experience of the player. Occasionally, there are other elements involved that are added to and taken away from the CGL to vary the gameplay, but players end up spending the vast majority of their time cycling through the CGL. Thus, it’s the most important point for a designer to focus on when crafting their game. If you don’t have a CGL that’s tightly refined and enjoyable, you just don’t have have game at all. For a better explanation check out this post on the blog “Elements of Game Design.


Here are some examples of classic CGL’s:


Super Mario Bros.: Run to the right, jump over enemy/obstacle, repeat.

Go Fish: Evaluate your hand, ask opponent for a card, repeat or go fish.

DOOM: Scan for enemies/items, move tactically, fire weapon, repeat.


Of course, there’s much more to these games specifically that make them great–and to making a great game in general–but the CGL is beginning. It is the tiny kernel that you need in place to build your whole game around. Mario wouldn’t be any fun if you couldn’t grab the mushrooms and the tanooki suits, but in terms of relative time spent inside the game, running and jumping completely dwarfs acquiring and using power-ups.


Acclaimed Halo designer Jaime Griesemer famously said,


“In Halo 1, there was maybe 30 seconds of fun that happened over and over and over and over again. And so, if you can get 30 seconds of fun, you can pretty much stretch that out to be an entire game.”


(Jaime goes into more detail about this in the full interview, which is definitely worth the read.)


Unfortunately, although he created one of the best sound bytes on game design, he left out the greater context that gives this statement its meaning: it’s a “3-second loop inside of a 30-second loop inside of the 3-minute loop that is always different.” The “run, jump, shoot” loop gets augmented by different enemies and set pieces, the availability of certain weapons and ammo, the specifics of your current objective, the presence of allies or story elements, and so on.


“Run, jump, shoot” may sound boring on paper, but it’s actually incredibly fun to execute and it still feels great after doing it over and over again for decades. The other elements–the graphics, the story, the sound–aren’t much more than window dressing. Bungie made half a dozen best-selling first person shooters by perfecting the flow of just this small, thirty-second chunk of the game and it’s not like they did anything incredibly original. They just did it well.


Mr. ParetoHead

This is a typical application of the Pareto Principle: 80% of your results come from 20% of the inputs. A better adaption for this example might be: “20% of the content creates 80% of the experience,” as expressed in the book “100 Principles of Game Design,” by Wendy Despain. I highly encourage you to pick up a copy and devour it voraciously just as I have. It served as the inspiration for many of my recent articles.


If you haven’t run into some iteration of the 80-20 rule, you probably live under a rock (at least 80% of the time). It pops up all the time in virtually every discipline. Just within Magic you might speculate that 80% of your wins result from the top 20% of your cards. Perhaps you get 80% of your wins from your best 20% of decks. Maybe, just maybe, 80% of your losses stem from 20% of your play mistakes (spoiler: they do). Honestly, there are so many potential applications of the Pareto Principle that it could be the topic of its own article in the future. The Pareto Principle is a huge influence on my life. I might even spend 80% of my time thinking about it. Shout out in the comments if you want more Pareto power.


So what is Magic’s CGL? Starting from the beginning of your turn, you’re already combining and repeating some of the basic actions of the game: evaluate the game state, take actions, resolve effects, repeat. That’s the most technically correct loop I can give you, but just knowing that isn’t especially useful. What can exploring the design of core game play loops do to benefit you? Let’s focus in on two arbitrary gameplay loops that have the potential to determine 80% of your wins.


So You Want To Be Great At Magic?

There’s no shortage of advice on how to work your way up to the status of a Magic pro. Practice is obviously a key element, but how you practice and what you practice are what will ultimately decide how good you become. I want to stress the importance of mastering two particular gameplay loops as part of bettering your overall game. You just absolutely cannot be a top Magic player unless you’re a stone cold master of the fundamentals: the ins and outs of the stack, the phases of the turn, and combat. Intimate familiarity with this small set of rules will be responsible for you winning and losing the vast majority of your games.


To be great, you really don’t have to be a rules guru, because the obscure is very unlikely to matter much in relative terms. When a niche situation starts to occur more frequently, you’ll be including it more in your practice as a natural consequence. So instead of trying to memorize Magic’s massive comprehensive rule book, I advocate getting in lots of reps from two common play situations:


Loop 1

Starting at the end of your opponent’s turn:

  1. Check the game state. Make a conscious effort to become aware of all the permanents in play, life totals, and each player’s number of cards in hand. Take a look at any cards that have just changed zones: entered the battlefield, gone to graveyard/exile, etc.

  2. Take a moment to make a prediction about what cards might be in your opponent’s hand. You can get a wealth of information from what they played on their turn and how they chose to attack. This is the best time to sum that information up and make inferences about your opponent’s holdings. You’ll need this information to help inform your own lines of play in step 4.

  3. Beginning on your turn, execute your untap, upkeep, draw sequence with deliberate and consistent hand motions. Make the same physical movements each time you do this so that you get in the habit of doing things correctly and not skipping steps. For example, I put my hand face down on the table, untap my permanents, then pick my hand up again. When I’m looking at the cards in my hand again, it’s clear to me and my opponent that I’m now in my upkeep step. Drawing your card is a obvious and deliberate physical motion that signals you’re in the draw step. Importantly, that should only be done once you have looked at your hand and mentally assessed what should be done in your upkeep. Missing upkeep triggers is one of the most common mistakes that Magic players make, but you’ll notice that the top players never make such errors. They’ve built the habit of moving through the phases consciously, one at a time. No skipsies.

  4. When you’ve drawn your card, you need to evaluate the game state again. Look specifically for how this card could change things. Will it affect the board? Will it take precedence over your previous plans? What’s your future line of play given this new resource? Planning your line of play is an ongoing process and you should always be thinking a turn or two ahead, but it’s critical that you have a dedicated time to think things through. Your first main phase is that time.

  5. Once you have examined the board and your hand, it’s time to act. Initiate your line, playing spells or asking to move to a new phase as appropriate. You’ll have to make decisions about how to attack and what to do after combat, but you should have already thought those decisions through completely in step 4.


You’ll notice that this loop isn’t even a complete turn, much less a full, two-turn cycle. In a typical game Magic you will do 80% of your decision making and execution in these five steps. During their upkeep and main phase you aren’t doing as much. When they tank over how to attack, you’re pretty much doing nothing because you can’t act within the game. These give you extra time to think, but little else. The vast majority of your critical decisions happen between their end step and your combat step. This is also where the most devastating errors are committed. It’s not a coincidence; every decision point is a new opportunity to mess things up if you don’t execute correctly.


Loop 1 will perfect your thinking, decision making, and execution. It’ll sharpen your rules knowledge and quickly familiarize you with new cards or mechanics. However, it won’t generate much abstract information for you and it never gives you evidence to confirm the inferences and predictions you’ve made. To practice those skills, as well as to build familiarity with a new deck, matchup, or format, we’ll use Loop 2.


Loop 2

Beginning at the start of a new game:

  1. Draw your opening hand and make your normal mulligan decisions. Consider your opponent’s hand first, using all the information you have at your disposal. Do you know what they are playing? What does a good hand from their deck look like? How does their deck match up with yours? What cards do you need in your hand for it to be effective? You can’t decide whether a hand is good before you know what you need it to do, and the constraints on that decision mostly depend on your opponent. Remember, the goal of mulliganing is to keep the hand that gives you the best chances of winning the game. The knowledge of whether a hand is good enough to keep is part and parcel of knowing how the game is going to look as it unfolds turn after turn.

  2. Play the game out normally until the end of the third turn cycle. Incorporate the steps from Loop 1 in processing each of the decisions you make and each action you execute.

  3. Stop playing when you have reached the end of the third turn cycle and evaluate the game state. In many formats, turn four is the fundamental turn. This is the critical moment where many games will be decided. When you look at the game state before your fourth turn, you should have a very clear idea of how things are going. Are you in an advantaged position? Have there been any major errors or complex decisions? Because you are planning ahead and have mapped out how the next turn cycle is going to go, you should have already have a road map to the possibility space of what will occur on turn four which, as noted above, is the magic moment.


It’s my position that you should be able to predict the result of 80% or more of your games by just looking at the first three turns, plus the associated information you have gleaned about what’s to come. There are certainly going to be cases where you still don’t know who’ll win, but you might have solid evidence for whether the game will be stuck in a board stall, the game will end soon, the game is a lopsided win, etc.


Keep in mind that this is all underpinned by the critical information about matchups that I mentioned in step 1. If you’re practicing for an upcoming Pro Tour, you’ll know that your deck has a 55-45 advantage in a given matchup. So, before you even shuffle up, you know something about how the game is likely to end. After every turn you’ll get some new information that helps you update that prediction and you should adjust your model accordingly. If you kill their first threat, your chances go up a little. If they miss their third land, your chances go up a little.


I don’t really care whether my third turn prediction of the game turns out to be accurate. What I am focused on is building the databank I need in order to make such a prediction. Moreover, the prediction doesn’t need to be precise at all. You should be able to stop any game of Magic at any point and estimate your chances of winning at 25, 50, 75, or 95% with nothing but the information on hand. If you can do that, you have a rich and deep understanding how the game works and what you need to be thinking about at any given time.


These two loops are just for the purpose of practicing. You’ll naturally bulldoze through these scenarios by just playing the game, but isolating key events can help you zero in on areas where you see the most problems. Commander is no different than any other format, if you want to be good at it, you need to practice and develop the right skills.


What’s the core gameplay loop from one of your favorite games? What tools do you use to help practice your Commander skills? Share in the comments below, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and be sure to support on Patreon.



“In General” is the place where I share my ideas on unconventional topics that are often only tangentially related to Magic. This column is a mixed bag where I collect and present ideas that don’t have a home anywhere else. If you want a column about strategy, psychology, design, economics, philosophy, internet culture, and referential humor, you have come to the right place.

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