Wednesday 28 July 2021


This Bastionland Editorial was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site a week after its original publication.

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In my overwrought manifesto I set out a goal to:

Break the barriers between your imagination and your game.

The spirit of this is to tap into the essence of what draws us to games in the first place by removing those strange rules and restrictions that might serve a purpose, but can also provide friction when trying to engage with that exciting core.

RPGs are full of these, and I'll resist naming culprits for now.

I've recently been dipping back into Magic: the Gathering, and met with a friend to play some games. Like me, he played a little as a teenager but not really since. We both had the same shared memory of the game. As he put it in a message sent to me on the morning of our game:

"Can't wait to sit around and not draw the cards I need, then lose before I get to do anything!"

It's been at least twenty years since he played, but the scars of being mana screwed never fully heal.

In short - in Magic you need to first play land cards in order to cast creatures and other spells. You start with seven cards in hand and draw one each turn, so sometimes you just won't draw enough lands to actually do anything before your opponent beats you with no resistance. Worse still, instead of drawing no Lands you can end up with nothing but Lands, again leaving you little in the way of options.

The veterans among you will point out that there are ways to mitigate this by building your deck a certain way. Some creatures and spells help you get lands directly from your deck to your hands, others let you just draw more cards to increase your chances of getting what you need. There's a whole concept of a deck's "mana curve" that aims to maximise its ability to play appropriately powered spells at all stages of the game. 

Still, you're never 100% safe from getting hosed by the draw, and even if the risk is just 1%, that's going to happen to somebody. Maybe it happens on their very first game. 

It's a quick game, you just shrug it off and play again, right? Not like we're running a tournament here at my mate's kitchen table. At worst it's a minor waste of time. 

But it doesn't stick with you because it's a minor waste of time. It sticks with you because it's a barrier standing in the way between you and the game. 

When I got excited about Magic as a teenager I wasn't excited about optimising a deck so that I'd draw enough lands, but not too many lands. I was excited about casting spells and summoning creatures. Optimisation can be fun, but I want to feel like I'm fine-tuning a race, not just trying to get an old banger to stop stalling and spewing smoke in my face. 

Every card I have to put in the deck just to allow the game to happen is one less exciting spell I have the option to cast. Looking even closer, the very fact that a third of my deck is made up of beautifully illustrated, but largely uninteresting land cards feels a bit like paying a 33% tax on my fun. 

Let me cast spells. Let me summon creatures. Get these barriers out of my way and let me play the game.

This leads onto one of the things that I like a lot about Magic. It isn't just one game. It's hundreds of variants of the same game, some with mass support, some just a set of house rules. Yes there's a Standard format, but even that has its own specific rules. 

So we didn't play Standard Magic. We played a bit of Jumpstart and a bit of the more radical Cubelet

Cubelet's concept is that you can play any card face-down as a land. 

That's the sound of a barrier being smashed. 

With no lands, every card in the deck was something exciting. A creature, a spell, an artifact. Yet they were all also within my grasp. I drew some giant gorilla king that would cost nine lands to summon and I knew that I could bring him to the battlefield if I could hang on until the ninth turn. I didn't have to accept that I was at the whim of the draw. I could actually make a plan and see it through. I lost, but I did so doing in the manner that I signed up for. 

It was great fun, and I'd absolutely recommend that anybody interested in the game try out this format. 

Even if Magic isn't your thing, think about what barriers exist in your own games, and how they might be broken down. 


  1. Love commander and cube/limited. But yeah, Mana flood/screw is not a fun time...

  2. Isn't part of the excitement not knowing, like in poker or rolling a d20. It can be nerve-wracking but also joyous.

    On the reverse side

    I had a varient back when ice age came out that you split your deck into 2 piles - land and cards. On your turn you could draw from either pile as you see fit. Draw three cards pick 3 lands or 2 cards 1 land. Players choice.

    1. Sure, I think the mana screw is in there by design. It adds a bit of that "Mario Kart Effect", where even if I'm playing a more experienced player over 5 matches I might win one or two because of the draw.

      Of course the whole mess of random boosters and deck building complicates that point, but I can see a glimpse of why it's in there.

  3. MTG is a little like DND, because it was the first of it's kind, was the most successful, and is stuck with clunky rules from the 80's as a result.

  4. Mana remains the key reason I can't get into Magic or any of the endless digital games that have come out since. It always feels like a limiter at best or a needless tax at worse.

    By comparison, there's the wild world of YuGiOh which completely removed things like Mana, but in exchange that means you can be beaten in a single turn if the opponent draws the specific combination of cards that lets them play their entire deck in one turn. It's thrilling in the way two people diving to grab a fully loaded gun is thrilling.

    Maybe there's a way to balance the two? I've never found it. But I'd rather dive for the loaded gun than pay taxes.

    1. There's an MTG Variant called "Type 4" that might be interesting. I've not tried it out, and it sounds bonkers, but something about it appeals to me as a casual format.

      In short, you have no lands, unlimited mana, but can only cast one spell per turn. And of course certain cards (e.g. those that have an X cost, produce mana, or care about lands) aren't used.