Magic introduced so much that is now common to most CCGs. It created the "cards that can wildly change the rules of the game" paradigm. It used the concept of a stack to handle complex player interactions (though that was introduced in 1999). It made the booster packs popular and was very successful doing so.

At its core, Magic is a game about wizards who fight using, well, magic to invoke creatures, cast spells, build artifacts… The major mechanic of the game is the combat phase. The active player can attack their opponent with any of their creatures. Then the defending player can block any number of the attacking creatures with any number of their creatures. Once that's done, the combat resolves: creatures that are fighting deal damage equal to their strength to each others. A creature that receives damage equal to or greater than its toughness dies. And unblocked creatures deal their damage directly to the defending player, lowering their life — the goal being, of course, to bring the life of your opponent down to zero.

This mechanic has an incredibly deep design space. Just the basic keywords we find on cards show that: flying, trample, first strike, double strike, lifelink, deathtouch, reach… All different ways to slightly change the way combat works. Wizards has been designing Magic cards for more than 27 years and they still manage to surprise players. And players still enjoy it very, very much! This combat mechanic can also become very complex very quickly. The number of possible combinations for attacking and blocking goes up exponentially the more creatures there are on each side of the board. This has pros and cons, but overall I believe it is a big strength of Magic over other CCGs: this system at the heart of the game offers players a lot of choices.

Another truly fundamental mechanic of this game is its resource system. The mana, that you need to play cards, comes from actual land cards! Two things are important here: the first is that you can only play one land per turn. Thus on turn 1 you can play a card that costs 1, on turn 2, a card that costs 2 (or two cards that cost 1), and so on. This gives the game a feeling of progression, just like in a story. The more the game goes on, the more expansive cards you can play, and more expansive cards are of course more powerful, more impressive.

The second consequence of this resource system is that it is dependent on the luck of your draws. Because those land cards are part of your deck, and your deck is shuffled randomly, you have very little control over what resources you'll get. This has a huge impact on deck building: players must carefully think about the number and type of lands they play in order to maximize their chances of being able to actually play their cards. This is, in my opinion, the major source of variance in games of Magic. It means that, no matter how much better than your opponent you are, you will sometimes lose because of bad draws. And reciprocally, you can be a worse player than your opponent and still win. But it can also lead to incredible frustration in players when they draw their 10th land in a row, or are stuck with 2 lands and only 3-costing cards in their hand. This system is both a great strength of the game — any player can win — and a big weakness — sometimes you simply cannot play.

Magic: The Gathering's color pie

One final important piece of Magic's design is its color pie. Land cards often produce colored mana, and that mana is used to play cards of the same color (or contribute to generic mana requirements for cards of a different color). Magic has five different colors, each with a specific and very detailed philosophy. A deck can have cards from any one color or any combination of colors. One can play cards from all five colors if they want! But of course, the more colors you play, the harder it becomes to get to a sufficiently stable land distribution. This system leads to a very high diversity of decks and strategies.

Now that we've taken a good look at the greatest game of all time, let's dig into the actual topic of this article: digital card games. In the next part of this series, I will start walking you through the history of the genre and how it took off.

Read the next part: History of a genre, part 1: 2002 - 2016 or go back to the introduction of this series.