This entry is part 17 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth


In my earlier article about Bushnell’s Law, I discussed the problems you run into when your game is difficult to learn. Design choices made in the game’s infancy have shaped the way Magic has been adopted and spread all over the world. The consequences of those decisions can’t be fully understood or quantified, but if we want to keep Magic thriving long into the future we need to use some comparative analysis to see the game through the lens of a designer. Today’s article will dive much deeper into why Magic is difficult to learn by examining a number of the game’s core features and how they add difficulty to the process of skill progression.  


Complexity and Intuition

Complexity is Magic’s greatest strength and its greatest weaknesses. There are a number of things about the game that are complex, but I want to focus specifically on the complexity of the rules.


If you took someone who has never played before, handed them a deck, and told them they were playing Commander, it just wouldn’t work. There is only a miniscule nonzero chance that they would actually execute enough of the rules correctly to finish a game of Commander. I estimate the odds at being somewhere between the monkeys on typewriters thing and the junkyard tornado assembling a Rolls-Royce. There’s just too much going on in the rules of Magic for you to be able to guess them correctly, because–on top of the sheer number of rules–many of them aren’t intuitive. This is at the very core of the problem.


Intuition is the ability to know or acquire some information without being explicitly told what it is; when something feels easy to learn it is said to be intuitive. When it comes to Magic, you can’t intuit your way through the process of learning the game. You must have it explained to you, multiple times. There really isn’t a document that can help you teach it to yourself. There is a rulebook, which we know as the “Comprehensive Rules,” but this document is over two hundred pages long and is written like a technical manual rather than a how-to guide. The opening paragraph plainly states that the rules are not intended for beginning players. You can’t even read the rules of the game until you are an advanced player? This does not bode well.


Monopoly (also published by Hasbro) is a complex and interesting tabletop game with some counter-intuitive rules, but at least it doesn’t require an entire forest to print out the booklet. Even better, if you read the rules you can actually learn to play. It’ll even walk you through your first game. Monopoly is a step in the right direction, but it still isn’t what I’d call intuitive. So, are there any examples of a game that you learn naturally? Yes, from a little company called Nintendo.


Super Mario Bros. had an instruction manual, but you don’t need that nonsense. You can learn everything you need to know in five minutes by just playing the game. Let’s reimagine our scenario from before: we set up the game, put the controller in the player’s hand, and tell them they’re going to play the first level. The neophyte playing SMB is much more likely to be successful than the neophyte playing Magic. There are, after all, only so many mistakes that they can make (the physical design of the controller uses a low number of inputs–four direction buttons, A, B, Start & Select–to guide player behavior). The hardware restrictions of the platform were used by the designers to help improve the experience of new players learning the game. Elegance in a nutshell.


When you start playing, you don’t know where to go, what to do, or how to execute any actions. You assume there is a goal, but you don’t know what that is. Miyamoto swoops in again to save you with his badass design chops. There’s nothing on the opening screen of level 1-1 that indicates you are winning the game. Your points are at zero, your timer is going down, nothing is moving on the screen until you press the buttons. We aren’t told what happens when the timer goes to zero, but the feeling of running out of time is innately negative for humans. It’s made clear that you have to change something. Luckily, you have the controller in your hand!


Because there are a only small number of choices, the design encourages the player to experiment. Given a thousand choices, people will do nothing and be paralyzed by indecision. Given only a few choices, decisions are much easier. You can try all the buttons in seconds and get instant visual feedback from the screen about what actions they perform. No matter what you try first, you’ll get some piece of useful information. So you can learn to execute every command quickly, but that doesn’t give you any information about the strategy of the game or what the objective is. We learn those things from the onscreen position where the game starts.


There is an exceptional video from Extra Credits that goes into detail about all the ways that World 1-1 subtly teaches you to play the game. It’s definitely worth a watch. Mario begins on the left side of the screen with empty space to his right. He’s even facing to the right as the screen opens. The message is simple: go right. If you’re unsure about how to do that, and you mess around with the buttons, you might find out that you have the ability to go left as well, but immediately you will be stopped because the screen can’t go left. The concept of the game is essentially “run to the right.” Rather than trying to explain this, the clever designer just makes it so that the only option is to go right. Everything is to the right: the coins, the power-ups, the enemies, the ending. “Move right to advance” is Mario’s number one rule and you can’t do anything in the game until you follow this rule.


Experiential Learning

In other words, Super Mario Bros. scores high on experiential learning. This is a three-dollar word for the concept of “learn by doing.” The best way to get better at playing SMB is to play SMB. It’ll teach you all the necessary skills by progressing naturally through the meticulously designed levels.


All the best games have some degree of experiential learning. The smoking gun of wasted opportunities by the designer is when you’re forced to sift through a manual, or read some huge wall of text on screen. Magic scores very low on experiential learning.


As I stated at the outset, you simply cannot learn Magic just by playing it. In all honesty, there’s no one thing that can make you learn Magic singlehandedly. Reading the rules will help. Thousands of hours of repetition will help. There are even some great novels about it, but you’ll need all this and more if you want to participate in the deepest experiences of the game.


When you get right down to it, this is the oldest and most effective way that humans can learn. We’re able to abstract information from other sources, like speech or text, but we have the additional challenge of needing to conceptualize that information before we really internalize it. When you give someone directions on the street, they can be handed a perfectly accurate set of instructions to make it to their destination, but without knowing how to unpack that information and apply it, they aren’t going to get very far. This relies heavily on our higher processing centers in the brain. Very few other organisms can even undertake the task of processing abstract information, which is an evolutionary signal that it is either going out of style or very new (hint: it’s the latter).



If we aspire to one day encounter the problem of translating information we must first be able to locate that information. This is the concept of discoverability. When necessary information just jumps out at you, or is conveniently in the first place you look, that’s high discoverability.


Needless to say, this is a good thing and designers strive to make their products and games easily discoverable. One of the most frustrating problems you can encounter as a user is when you simply don’t understand what to do. The different parts of a system should be clearly differentiated and the things you can interact with need to show the user how to use them and what their function is within the system. If you don’t, the user is unlikely to accomplish anything within the game–and they certainly won’t be able learn to do it themselves.


In Magic, the game throws a vast amount of information that at you, and none of it is presented in a way that makes it look more or less important than any other bit of information on the card. One notable example is card text. The textbox of a card contains coded instructions about what it does within the game, but you need to have a lot of play skill built up before you can start to understand when to play a card, why you would want to play it, or what effect you can expect it to have. All of the rules text just looks the same. You can’t discover how the game is supposed to be played just by reading the game’s pieces.


A great example of high discoverability is Mirror’s Edge, a videogame that uses color to clue the player into which objects in the environment are important and how you can interact with them. The visual aesthetic is stylized to accentuate straight lines and sharp edges. These shapes create natural arrows that pull your eyes directly to important features of the terrain or focus you on an upcoming obstacle. The majority of the environments are a clinical white to make the vivid blue and red of the interactive objects pop out. Contrast is the key to the player distinguishing what’s important and what’s not in a fast-paced game about constantly running.


There’s No Feedback In My Monitor

Sequencing your spells correctly and choosing targets wisely are very important skills to learn if you want to become better at Magic. They also happen to be more examples of things the game doesn’t explicitly teach you.


Even if you understand what a card like Doom Blade is meant to do in the abstract, you won’t get any useful information from the game about how to do that. The instructions on the card aren’t even explicit. It says “destroy target nonblack creature,” but that’s coded language, like the street names of an unfamiliar city. A phrase like “remove one creature from play, that creature can’t be used again” gives a much clearer explanation of what you’re intended to do with the card.


A major obstacle that you have with a tabletop game is that it just isn’t capable of signalling information back to the players in the same way that a videogame can. If you get shot in Doom, your life will go down. You don’t have to do anything; it’s immediate and automatic. You can’t have any errors of omission or record keeping, as the game does this for you. This helps present and reinforce the understanding that getting shot causes your health points to decrease. The number goes down and we instinctively know that’s bad. We perceive an immediate causal link between getting shot and the failure state of the game: dying.


When a game can respond to your actions by giving you updated information, that’s called feedback. Humans love feedback. Our brains have evolved to establish causal links between actions and events. Our whole body is set up as a platform for the observation of causality. Part of rapid growth in popularity of videgames is how effortlessly they map onto our natural desire to process cause and effect relationships. Historically, tabletop games have required special actions by the players to give each other that feedback, because no automatic audiovisual responses were generated by the game.


In Monopoly, one player serves as the banker who has the added responsibility of managing the money and property cards. Informally, this player is often tasked with administering the rules of the game and processing each action of each turn. The banker relays information to the other players. For this reason, it usually works best if the banker is an experienced player who understands the rules thoroughly, is capable of remaining impartial in application of those rules, and who is capable of communicating well with others.


In Dungeons & Dragons (I’m all about those Hasbro games), the Dungeon Master–just like the banker–has unique actions and responsibilities. They process information, administrate the rules of the game, and communicate the situation to the other players. These games only work because someone within the game is tasked with operating the feedback system.


In Magic, there are usually only two players and these players are in adversarial positions. We almost never provide this type of information to our opponent’s during normal gameplay. Some sporting tournament players with announce key information like cards in hand or life totals because they want to confirm with their opponent that they are on the same page, but they’ll almost never reveal anything that could be deemed strategically useful. We’d all love to get instant and honest feedback about whether we made a good play, or if our opponent is in a bad situation, but there’s just nothing in the game of Magic that makes that information readily apparent.



This leads me to another problem that makes Magic incredibly difficult to learn. There’s a tremendous conveyance problem. Conveyance is the ease with which the game communicates information to the player through its design. Feedback, discoverability, and status indicators like life totals, and text boxes are all elements of conveyance. Make no mistake, good games have good conveyance.


There’s an episode of Arin “Egoraptor” Hanson’s “Sequelitis” series on Youtube that does a great job of explaining what conveyance is and why it is important. It’s long, but it’s also hilarious. It’s also quite vulgar, so this is your potty mouth warning. This article and my thoughts on game design in general are heavily influenced by the content of that video, so it’s definitely worth your twenty minutes to go and watch it. I’ll be here when you get back. I’ll always be waiting for you, baby.


One of Magic’s major conveyance problems is that the signals you get from the game are seldom, hidden, confusing, and often conflicting. So much of the strategy is context-sensitive and even in simple situations it can be quite difficult to parse out basic causes and effects. We almost never get clear indicators about what actions were valuable or favorable.


If I use a removal spell to kill your creature and then you concede, I’m being given feedback that removal is good. It made me win the game. Kill creature, win game… right? Magic just isn’t that simple and I reiterate that the game doesn’t even have the courtesy to give you that information outright. There’s no uniform consistency of information received from its feedback.


Throughout the course of normal play, we’re given so much conflicting information that it makes it almost impossible for the new player to determine what concepts are strategically relevant. If, in the next game, I kill a creature and the player then doesn’t scoop up his cards, what am I left to think? Last time, I won. This time, nothing happened. Did I kill the wrong creature? Or at the wrong time? Does removal even correlate with winning at all? I undertook an action, got a piece of data back from observing the game state, and I’m left with even more questions than before. It’s easy to understand why new players can quickly become overwhelmed and frustrated by conflicting signals.


To become good at Magic you have to be able to collect thousands of these pieces of data on different in-game interactions and aggregate them together. First of all, this is hard work for your brain and many people would rather not do this at all, but beyond that they needed to be paying attention to key details in the game and accurately recording that information for later use. To make matters worse, once they have aggregated a ton of data, they have to interpret it to draw conclusions.


This is a whole different can of worms and leads to developmental deficiencies in a player’s skill progression–like improperly associating the causes of victory and defeat, misunderstanding the intricacies of a matchup, or developing preferences for certain cards or archetypes that don’t actually further their position within the game. These deficiencies actively discourage further exploration or data gathering because they seem to be sensible conclusions. If you only rely on a small sample size, you can breed any number of insidious cognitive biases that rob you of wins and plateau your skill growth. Sadly, in Magic, hundreds of games is still a pathetically small sample size.  


The psychologist Anders Ericsson, a professor at my alma mater Florida State University (go ‘noles), did pioneering research on the idea that you can become an expert at almost anything by investing ten thousand hours of practice. That’s a whole lot of hours. I’d argue that good game design necessitates the simplification of concepts and systems such that you can learn to play the game in less time than it takes to become a medical doctor.


These are serious issues and this is by no means a comprehensive list of the design flaws that make Magic hard to learn. If you think of any interesting points that I didn’t mention, or if you think you have a good solution for some of these problems, make sure to leave it in the comments below.


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“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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