About a month ago, I recorded a YouTube video about the RNG (random number generator) in games Magic vs. Hearthstone. Digital card games get a lot of heat for depending on RNG elements that take away from the strategy of the game. I’m not going to argue that this isn’t the case—digital card games do have some cards that depend on RNG, which can leave you at the mercy of their interactions. But that’s not the end of the story.
I played a string of such games on Magic Online following the release of Ixalan. They were all streamed, and with chat as my witness, they were some of the most consecutively horrendous Limited games I’ve experienced. That isn’t to say I lost because of things like my opponent topdecking a good card when they needed it, or not drafting enough removal—these were back-to-back-to-back games where I would never draw more than 2 or 3 lands, or I would consistently draw 9 to 13 lands with less than half as many spells.
RNG is an inherent part of any game where you’re drawing cards from a randomized deck, and typically the cards themselves add to that randomness. My issue with the “digital card game vs. Magic RNG” discussion it that people tend to dismiss the fact that individual games like this do exist in Magic—that getting mana-screwed or mana-flooded, leaving you unable to actually play the game in any meaningful way, is common.
I would go on to assert that the explore mechanic in Ixalan is as hot an RNG mess as we will likely see from Magic. That isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes you need a 3/3 to block their 3-toughness creature. Sometimes you desperately need to hit a land drop. Sometimes you get neither of the things you need. This is similar to the exact thing people complain about when it comes to Hearthstone, when you have to deal with a spell that deals random damage or destroys random minions, and you don’t get the desired result. The biggest problem with this is that it leaves you unable to sufficiently plan your next move when you don’t know what the outcome will be. But we’re strategy players. We like to plan ahead. We like to attribute our wins to our own skill and not a roll of the die. But every time we sit down to play a game of Magic, we hope to draw an adequate mix of lands and spells.
One of the reasons Magic can get away with this is due to its best-of-three system, whereas most other competitors in the conversation are utilizing a single game. This leaves us all a little more forgiving about the times we lose a game to mana screw or flood, but ultimately win the match.
Magic Online recently implemented single-game match Leagues. I’m not sure how popular these have been, but judging from a few Twitter reactions, not terribly. Whether that’s because Magic players are purists and aren’t willing to sacrifice their sideboards, or because single-game matches are legitimately bad, I don’t know. It has also been mentioned that MTG Arena will have single-game functionality. Some people will enjoy this, and some people will not. Take this tweet from my friend Franky Richards, for example.
It seems like Arena will certainly have it hearing them talk about it. Dumbed down mode for hearthstone crowd.
— Franky Does Magic (@FrankyMTG) September 27, 2017
The comment about Hearthstone is interesting. There’s a superiority Magic players seem to feel over competing games. While Magic is more complex than Hearthstone, I don’t believe that Hearthstone is lacking nearly the amount of strategy that Magic players like to claim. The two games just happen to have their complexity (and their RNG for that matter) in different areas.
I don’t think moving matches to single games in certain formats is the end of a sophistication that players may fear. I also don’t think it’s a great idea for all iterations of Magic. Having the opportunity to sideboard, and the ability to construct a sideboard, is a strategic outlet. Of course, when you compare sideboarded games of Magic to a single static game of the digital counterpart, the former is going to end up feeling miles deeper in strategy. This is why Hearthstone tournaments also utilize a best-of-three system.
But there’s another side to that coin. One of the best aspects of games like Hearthstone and Elder Scrolls: Legends is that they’re fast, portable, and competitive. I could play an entire, strategic, 10-minute game on a short train ride to work if I wanted to. Or in between classes. That convenience is worth something, and all of these factors lead to an even larger conclusion.
I’m prone to saltiness after losses. This is not only a trait I’ve tried to work on, but also something I’ve tried to dissect. Why do I get so upset at losses in Magic, but not so much in other games? I think the answer is two-fold. I’ve mentioned both of these theories in one place or another, but for the sake of this article, they bear repeating.
1) Games of Magic are long. I could likely play four games of Hearthstone in the time it takes to play one match of Magic. That’s four separate outcomes. You have game 1, then some sideboarding, then game 2, then some more sideboarding, then finally game 3. Sometimes we’re talking over 50 minutes for a single match with one verdict. You’re investing an hour of your time for a single result: a W or an L. When it ends up being a loss after sinking that amount of time into a single round, it’s frustrating. Especially if you were up a game at some point, especially if you had to mulligan multiple times, especially if you had a great first and second game, only to miss multiple lands drops in an anticlimactic game 3, etc. Investing more time means a more powerful emotional reaction.
2) Mana screw and mana flood. These are some of the biggest representations of RNG possible, but we overlook them because they’re part of a resource system that is the cornerstone of Magic. But we have to be real. Sometimes we sit down across the table from an opponent to play Magic, and we simply don’t get to play Magic. That’s rough, and not really an issue you find in more modern game systems. In other titles, while I may draw my cards in the wrong order (something that’s also possible in Magic), I will never lack a steady stream of resources to cast those cards. That’s a huge perk.
I think one of the saving graces of this issue is that both players have to deal with it equally. When one player draws 52% lands and 48% spells and the other draws 43% lands and 57% spells, that’s likely close enough that the result of the game won’t be based on these percentages. So we have a sizable “Goldilocks zone,” and the equality of the issue working for us here in every game.
Sure, we can call mana screw and mana flood features rather than bugs, as Mark Rosewater has done over time, remarking that it’s one appealing way new players can win against even the most grizzled pros. But I don’t know if that’s true. I also don’t think mana issues can be brushed off by proclaiming that they’re a consequence of poor deckbuilding, or that mulliganing better is the solution. While better players may be affected by it less frequently, not drawing enough lands or drawing too many lands and leaving you unable to interact has arguably been the largest problem in the history of Magic and no amount of deck building prowess will eliminate it. This is why cycling is one of the most popular mechanics in the game. This is why the new scry rule was implemented. These help you remain in games you would otherwise fall behind in.
Don’t get me wrong, Magic is one of the best games ever created and one that I’ve been involved with professionally for nearly eight years now. In fact, we deal with things like mana issues because we love the game that much. It’s that good, and the positives far outweigh the negatives. But in the end, Magic may have as much RNG as the next game, and the instances of it are more extreme than simply targeting the wrong creature. Still, perhaps your experience differs. I’m super interested to hear what you guys think, so be sure and let me know in the comments!