Resources and Game Design
Magic’s mana system is largely the inspiration for how most TCGs balance cards–in most games, cards cost variable numbers of resources which you get from other cards. In Magic, you generally get those resources from lands that generally don’t do anything other than give you resources. This means that you don’t always draw the perfect number of lands, so your game doesn’t always go according to plan. Many other TCGs fix this problem by allowing you to play any card (typically face-down) as a resource. This minimizes player frustration and “non-games” where one player’s deck doesn’t function. Despite many games offering this solution, I’m among many players who choose to play Magic instead. It is just because I started playing Magic first, or because Magic’s a larger game with better support, or is there something to Magic’s land system that’s good?
I believe that the “problem” caused by Magic’s land system is a feature and that the specific “solution” of allowing other cards to be played face down as a resource is a big red flag for me when I learn a new game. This idea likely isn’t new to you, but I want to go over the reasoning, and there I think I’m more likely to offer a perspective you haven’t considered.
Strengths of Magic’s Land system:
Lands are interesting cards
There are a ton of different lands in Magic that do interesting things. If cards get played face down as lands, or if you just naturally get one extra resource every turn, those resources are all the same and have no context. The idea that you can choose which lands you want to play and get various small tradeoffs makes lands a really interesting part of the game.
Outside of the design possibilities and strategic considerations around lands, I think the aesthetic advantage can’t be overlooked.
As much as we can just think of cards as game pieces, it’s clear that the art and look of the cards matter, and when half of your cards are just face-down sleeves or the backs of cards, the game just doesn’t look as good.
Aside from that, while it can be nice to remove the mental burden of processing the details of your or your opponent’s resources, removing all context or unique quality from those resources simplifies the game. That’s not exactly a criticism, just an observation of a difference.
Choosing which and how many lands is an interesting aspect of deck building
Different decks have different requirements in terms of how many colors they need, how many colored pips they need, and how much total mana they need, and fine-tuning the tradeoffs of playing more or fewer lands and choosing how many untapped lands vs how many lands with activated abilities, etc you want to play adds a lot of depth to deck building.
If all of your cards can be played as resources such that you always have the exact amount of resources you expect, the way you use resources will be more uniform–yes, some decks will play more cheap cards and either try to end the game sooner or play more ways to draw more cards and some will play more expensive cards and try to play longer games, but you lose a lot of novelty at the extremes. It’s hard to find decks that have different curves or use resources in really different ways the way that Magic decks where less than a third or more than half the deck is lands.
Playing a land is easy
This part I think is widely overlooked–playing a land is easy. Choosing the order that you play your lands if you have a lot of different lands in your deck can occasionally be somewhat tricky, but for the most part, putting a land into play is essentially a free action with regard to your mental burden. This lets you advance the game without making any hard decisions and leave your mental energy for the part of the game where you interact with your opponent.
This is the biggest advantage. Not so much that playing lands is easy, but that playing a card face down as a land is hard. Maybe hard isn’t the right word for it, maybe the better term is burdensome. Before you play any card as a resource, you need to consider all your cards and how you expect that game to play out before you can choose which card you’re least likely to need. Often you’ll have heuristics, like playing your most expensive card as a land on the first turn, but that won’t always be right, and what if your most expensive card is a card your strategy revolves around, or what if it’s a rare card you believe is better than your other cards?
Fundamentally, playing a card as a resource is sacrificing an option, and that generally doesn’t feel good. This specifically is why I think this mechanic is a red flag. To me, it suggests that the designers don’t understand that designing a game is about crafting an experience and that they need to focus on the emotions of players, and it suggests that instead, they believe they’re creating a puzzle, and prioritize strategic nuance over the emotional experience. It’s easy for someone who’s prioritizing strategic depth to believe a game is just better if all of your cards are spells and you have to play some as resources because the players get more agency and they’re rewarded for sculpting their game plan and anticipating their needs.
The problem is that this overlooks the cost of this as an experience.
When playing a resource is a hard decision, it will require time to think about. For your opponent, that’s just a “loading screen”--a time where nothing’s happened, so they don’t have anything to do or think about, they’re just waiting for you to weigh your hidden options. When both players are doing this, a large portion of the mental effort in the game is going into solitary planning about how you expect the game to go significantly before anything happens. This makes the game feel less interactive than a game where your mental energy is going into directly reacting to your opponent’s plays.
Also, all of this energy is going into giving something up, which isn’t typically fun because you still feel like you have less than you did before, and nothing exciting happened, there wasn’t any new discovery.
The bottom line for me here is that games can only ask for so much mental energy and that this is fundamentally the wrong place to ask it because it’s so insular–this kind of problem-solving is much better suited to a puzzle than an interactive game.
Lands increase the variance of your draws, which makes draws more exciting
Drawing cards is one of the most fun parts of TCGs–you never know if you’re going to draw the card you need, and discovering which card you draw and thinking through the new options it presents is exciting. In Magic, sometimes the card you draw is essentially blank because it’s a land that you don’t have a use for, which can be disappointing, but I think the wider range of possible outcomes makes draws a little more exciting as a whole. On balance, this is, admittedly, a very small advantage, as there will always be some cards that don’t matter at whatever stage of the game you’re at and others you want to draw, but when considering tradeoffs of increasing variance, I think it’s worth acknowledging that increasing variance does make draws a little more fun.
This increased variance also makes it more likely that the weaker player wins, which is important. Outside of a tournament, where there are external incentives for winning, I think almost everyone will have more fun overall if the outcome of a game is less of a foregone conclusion. Playing Chess against someone you know is significantly better or worse than you isn’t very fun because the same person always wins. If you regularly play games with the same people, you want there to be enough variance that anyone playing can win any particular game. The closer in skill you are, the less variance is needed to accomplish that, but in general, more variance is safer to make sure the outcome won’t be a foregone conclusion. Card players often complain about variance, but historically, all the games that don’t have enough variance, where the better player wins too often, haven’t been successful.
My inspiration for writing this is that I recently attended Gen Con, where, of course, I demoed a game that uses face-down cards from your hand as a resource. There were other things I liked about the game, but that was too much of a red flag for me to want to get involved.
Having been in the industry for so long, and having seen so many new games come and go since the mid-1990s, I feel like a lot of the same mistakes keep getting repeated, so I wanted to talk about why one of the most common is so problematic. Notably, the game I demoed wasn’t Lorcana, but Lorcana also uses this mechanic.
Lorcana has the advantage that only certain cards can be played as resources, which is a significant improvement–it simplifies the decision about which card to play as a resource and means that cards can be designed such that the cards you’d never want to feel like you have to play as a resource just can’t be, and adds some of the advantages of lands in deckbuilding in considering how your deck is constructed. I think this simple change does a lot to reduce my concerns, but I still see the mechanic as a whole as a strike against the game.