Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The legacy of Magic: The Gathering on Dungeons & Dragons

I know some gamers, including some close friends of mine, who believe the true end of Dungeons & Dragons came about when TSR was acquired by Wizards of the Coast.  Being a fan of the both Dungeons & Dragons 3E  and Dungeons & Dragons 4E , I am obviously not one of them.  In fact, I tended to dismiss their claims about the influence of Magic: The Gathering on D&D as being overblown.  After all, 3E D&D was under development when the company was acquired, so how much influence could the new owners have had?

After this last weekend I have decided I needed to reevaluate this position.  Last Thursday I purchased Magic: The Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers on the Xbox 360.  Prior to this weekend I hadn’t played Magic: The Gathering in nearly a decade.  While playing this weekend I was struck by how many core concepts from Magic: The Gathering have migrated to Dungeons & Dragons over the years


This is one of the most obvious influences.  Magic: The Gathering is driven by keywords.  If a creature is listed as having Double Strike, Flying, or Haste, you can look up those standard keywords and figure out immediately what the creature can do.

Dungeons & Dragons 3E and Dungeons & Dragons 4E both make extensive use of keywords.  Knowing a creature has the Insubstantial property or a spell is a Force effect allow for greater consistency within the rules of the game.  Before the use of keywords, there would often be big differences between how very similar abilities would be adjudicated.

I am actually a big fan of the use of keywords.  I believe they both streamline the rules and add a great deal of consistency to the game.

Art Style

One of the contributing factors to the success of Magic: The Gathering is the artwork on the cards.  Not surprisingly, when Wizards of the Coast acquired TSR they put their stable of artists to work on redefining the look of Dungeons & Dragons.

The effect this had on the game should not be underestimated.  Obviously a lot of people (although not everyone), found this new look appealing.  I would even argue that the new and more fantastical look encouraged game designers to create more fantastical arms and equipment.

I personally have mixed feelings on the new look Wizards of the Coast brought to Dungeons & Dragons.  I do feel that the old art style felt somewhat dated to me.  However, I am not always a fan of the new style either, which sometimes looks a bit too “medieval punk” for my tastes.  So for me this is a wash.

Customizable Builds

Magic: The Gathering is all about customizing your deck.  A good deck consists of cards that may be individually decent, but devastating when combined. 

Dungeons & Dragons 3E added this concept of customization to player characters.  Using feats, multiclass, and prestige classes players were able to customize their characters like never before.  Dungeons & Dragons 4E added powers into the mix, which means the player gets to choose the majority of his class abilities. 

Not surprisingly this focus on customization leads certain players to game the system.

Once again I find the customizable builds to be a mixed bag.  I do enjoy customizing my character… in fact, my perfect system would likely be a classless point buy system.  On the other hand, the tendency to power game can go a bit too far at times (as any trip to the Character Optimization boards will show).

Exception Based Rules

The basic rules of Magic: The Gathering are rather simple.  You summon creatures and attempt to use them to damage your opponent.  The complexity comes from the fact that many cards allow you to “break” these rules in a specific way.

Powers in Dungeons & Dragons 4E work in a very similar manner.  While the basic rules of D&D 4E are pretty simple, each power allows you to “break” the rules as well.  It is not surprising that many players use power cards, whether home made or store bought, to keep track of these effects.

I know that exception based rules is one of the most controversial parts of Dungeons & Dragons 4E.  I tend to like the concept, but sometimes have issues with how it was implemented.

In conclusion…

It really is impossible to deny that Magic: The Gathering has influenced Dungeons & Dragons since it was acquired by Wizards of the Coast.  Of course whether you see this as innovation or blasphemy depends on your point of view.


Pete King said...

A fascinating read, thanks for the analysis. As you say, it's neither good nor bad, but really depends on your point of view. I hope that they take a step back for a 5th edition and realise that D&D's destination should not be to end up as a collectable card game. An outrageous thing to say, perhasp ;-)

Medraut said...

RE: I hope that they take a step back for a 5th edition

While I like many of the innovations 4E brings to the system, I definitely agree that they went to far in some cases.

One example of where they went too far is how they handle flying. Flying complicates a lot of things, especially the forced movement capabilities of the various classes.

To solve this, most flying in 4E has been limited to short bursts which only last a round. This makes flying much easier to handle tactically, but the limitations on flight seem a little extreme.

To put it another way, maybe a 5th level wizard shouldn't be able to hover over the battlefield and unleash magical death, but it seems reasonable that a 25th level wizard should be able to.

Scafloc said...

I think that innovations like templates and keywords remain some of the strongest mechanical additions to gaming in a long time. The dungeon punk art, on the other hand... I suppose I see it as an improvement over line art, at least in some cases. My real gripe is that D&D has become increasingly focused on a "heroic campaign." This is not bad in and of itself, but I kind of miss the old time feel of characters who started as nobody and eventually became heroes by virtue of the extraordinary circumstances of their in-game lives.

As to flying,I think I have made my opinion on this clear in many replies here, but never why. I do have some respect for the mechanics of the battlefield chess match that you can sometimes get in 4e. In my mind that is one of the most fun parts of the game; it is most certainly the one that requires the most forethought when designing a dungeon encounter. Suddenly, stairwells, cliffs, and other treacherous terrain become, well, treacherous! I like that. On the other hand, if a high level wizard isn't able to fly about with impunity, it is just one more example of "wow look what I can do" being removed from them. Hell, even the flying carpets got nerfed, and they are essentially mobile terrain.

Medraut said...

RE: if a high level wizard isn't able to fly about with impunity, it is just one more example of "wow look what I can do" being removed from them

I waffle back and forth on this point. The classic wizards, from Gandalf to Dumbledore, rarely were able to take to the air unassisted.

On the other hand, flying wizards were very common in D&D. While I think 5th level may have been a bit early, it would be nice to have them gain that ability by mid-paragon level.

RE: even the flying carpets got nerfed

This doesn't bug me. A flight ceiling of 50 feet seems sufficient to me for most purposes (although 100 feet might have been better).

Still, I don't need my flying carpets to be flying above the clouds like in Disney's Aladdin. A wizard on a flying carpet raining fire on his enemies from five stories high is sufficient for me.

Pete King said...

Not to open a can of worms here but a 20th level D&D wizard, from any edition, is MUCH more powerful than Gandalf!

Unknown said...

having been on the end of the card gaming for quite a while, I feel the need to chime in here.

on the point of customizable builds, 4e is still a decent clip above Magic, but it's a little too close for comfort; I say this because in recent years with MtG, there's been a certain built in number of combos in every set. Most of them are fairly obvious, some of them are more subtle, & a few of them are WTF moments that slipped past playtesting. While the WTF moments usually get the errata hammer (or in more extreme circumstances, the Banhammer), there's usually one overriding similarity in them. They are few in number in comparison to the size of the sets, which tend to number in the couple of hundred card range (300ish for the first part of a block of three, with the later 2 parts being a more respectable 150ish).

Now, moving on to 4e, there's a significant difference in the amount of builds (or to make it more of a card reference 'colors') to work with. This makes certain builds much more effective in comparison to the others (I'm looking at you, tactical warlord), because there's a smaller pool of powers to work with.

Now, this is a correctable issue, as the continuing release of books can keep expanding builds & powers for the various classes, lending a more balanced play. But the influence of this mindset can be seen early on, & it might be what soured some people on the ideas in 4e to begin with. Fortunately for 4e, there haven't been too many WTF moments in the powers. Some items have seen a heavy nerfing, but it's been not too bad so far.