Welcome to part one of a collaboration Alex and I will be managing over a few articles – discussion about other games that can make you better at Magic: the Gathering. I’ll be going over several games and highlighting how they can improve your skills in this article today, while Alex will delve deeper into a few other games in a future article. He’ll focus on getting more to the nuts and bolts of how these will improve your Magic skills, while I’ll cover the broad range of skills you can learn in other games and which ones are best for Magic.
In many careers, people talk about ‘transferable skills’. I say there is no reason to keep your transferable skills in only the work portions of your life – games outside of Magic can improve your skills in our beloved game and help you be a better builder and player.
There is a reason that many pro players are good at poker. The skillsets are an awfully-overlapped venn diagram – in fact, It’s almost a circle. Poker requires that you know probabilities, manage risk and reward payoffs, learn to bluff, learn to have a poker face, learn to read opponents, and track information from several players are once – as well as retroactively manage previous information.
It’s an intensely mental game, and good poker play helps make good Magic play. Want to make people think you have a counter or removal spell when you only have lands?
Get better at poker.
Card Based Games
Sushi Go is a cheap little drafting game. The art is adorable, and you are trying to score the most points by having the best sushi meal. The Magic transfer is in the signalling and monitoring the board; if someone near you is trying to get sashimi, it may be worth it to hate-draft the card to prevent them from scoring 10 points.
Love Letter is a bluffing game. Everyone is trying to get their love letter to the Princess using members of the court. (At least, that’s the flavor.) The game helps you understand probability and teaches learning how to gauge different opponents based on their actions. The game is really quick; I’ve played it in a diner while waiting for food.
Ascension is a deckbuilding game that teaches you the importance of utility (card drawing), thinning a deck down to important parts, and synergy. Having a well functioning deck in Ascension is critical. Ascension encourages you to plan but be ready to adjust as the center row of new cards and enemies changes as people buy and fight cards.
Mystic Vale is another deckbuilding game. This one operates differently by upgrading the cards in the deck rather than adding it it. This game also has a high risk/reward component, where you can push your luck at a threshold to try to have larger turns. The center row to purchase from is a grid of varying power and costs.
The set up takes longer than Ascension, but I find the gameplay more enjoyable. Mystic Vale also rewards paying attention to the board to find the right opportunity to swoop in and make power plays to snag an advancement and boost your deck while slowing down your opponents.
Sheriff of Nottingham is a fun bluffing game that rewards finding patterns to advance your goals against an opponent. In this game, each player takes turns as the sheriff while the others try to take their goods to the market – and perhaps smuggle some contraband in as well. (Contraband is more valuable, but not rewarded in the end game.)
While I hate politics in Magic, this game will help you learn how to swindle and deal with opponents beyond just game mechanic interactions.
Munchkin is a card game with endless offshoots. The best lesson that applies to Magic is how to gang up effectively to stop a threat from winning. More importantly is the need to win only slightly. Overkilling Arthur so that you can’t stop Betty from winning isn’t a good strategy; you also need to save a bit to protect your shot at winning. Sandbagging answers is an important tactic.
Small World is a fantasy-based strategy game. The game uses traditional fantasy races and descriptors that are shuffled and randomized each game. The replay value is huge, because the abilities available in every game change. Additionally, the game is a strategy game; you need to determine who is a threat to you, how you can avoid over-extending, and when to decline a race to put yourself in a better position. I find Small World to translate very well to Commander; there is an unpredictability that helps sharpen your ability to recover from plans going awry.
Ticket to Ride is an amazingly fun game that is my personal favorite game to use when teaching non-gamers about board games. It scales well – the game has much greater depth for those who enjoy and understand board game strategy as well. Ticket has a high variance, but skill is still a huge factor.
This is where it is transferrable to Magic. A key skill to doing well in Ticket to Ride is adapting to changes in the game. If you really want to take a red route, but are lacking the red cards, you need to grab wilds or reroute and go around that path; trying to force a path is often a recipe for disaster. Commander works the same way. Forcing a strategy when the board dictates something else is not going to end well. Ticket to Ride also helps train you to read the whole board state, and not just focus on your goals. Blinders are bad in gaming.
Tokaido is a gorgeous game that more people should play. The game teaches you one of the best fundamentals in all of gaming – “How can I further my goal and screw you out of yours?” Is there anything else we really do in Magic?
Knowing how to simultaneously advance your plan while disrupting an opponent’s is a critical skill in Commander. Tokaido is all about this skill; it’s a cutthroat zen-like game.
Axis & Allies is a huge game set in World War II. The largest transferable skill to Magic is balancing resource development and aggression; Axis & Allies can reward build choices and taking a strategic gamble in resource development very well. Sometimes that gamble doesn’t pay off, while other times it does.
Axis & Allies is usually played in a team which greatly rewards communication skills, and anything that assists communications skills is worth looking at a second time. The game offers many, many lines of play, and learning to effectively prune the decision tree will pay dividends in Commander.
Role Playing Games
Dungeons & Dragons is THE biggest name in RPGs. The biggest transferable skill isn’t truly a skill, but a mindset. In D&D your fun is not more important than anyone else. More importantly, the group as a whole having lots of fun is of greater importance than you having the most fun alone. Role playing games usually teach this lesson, but since D&D is the most likely rpg to be seen in the wild, I’m using this as an example. In Commander, the goal is for the whole table to enjoy the game – not for you to outshine everyone and make the game all about you. Play to win, but don’t step on everyone’s toes…and their fun.
Burning Wheel is my favorite RPG. The most important lesson to transfer to Magic is on paring things down to only the most important things that apply to your goals. In deck building, you want to get to the important part of the deck and add support to make it hum. Burning Wheel presents loads of options, but to get a great game, the players drop various components to dial in on the things that matter the most.
A game about a thieves guild may seem like it drops Magic entirely, but finding the way to maximize the focus of a deck is critical in Commander. This also relates to storytelling; when we share tales of a game, we focus on the critical parts of the story. When you recant a recent game, you won’t give an entire play by play, but rather just explain the most critical pieces to tell the story of how your sweeper saved the game or how you topdecked the perfect card. That’s Burning Wheel.
What other games have you played that can bring lessons to Magic? What transferrable gamer skills have helped you crush your enemies? Let me know in the comments and twitters.