Casting a Spell Once Again: Magic: The Gathering’s Resurgence in Popularity
Magic: The Gathering holds the title of the original trading card game and has remained a consistent background staple of pop-culture since the early 90s. I’ve always enjoyed board and card games, and the Pokémon trading card game was my jam when I was growing up. 95 percent of Zoomers probably did not know the rules as kids, but Magic was always there. It allured players with its zany fantasy art, but always seemed overly complicated to me as a child and lacked the cuddliness of the Pokémon (your average Magic card depicts a giant, biomechanical zombie worm rather than, say, a large, yellow rodent). It wasn’t until middle school that I really got into the game, establishing a miniature, impromptu game in my local CCD class of all places. Then I just fell out of the game for several years, and it wasn’t until this year’s winter break that I was pulled back in. I’m so glad I started playing the game, however, as this is a great time for Magic, especially for new players.
Deck-building has always been a little bit of a hassle in Magic compared to something like Pokémon. In Pokémon you take some creatures with a vaguely similar aesthetic and you’re pretty much good after that. Magic uses a similar system of color-based card types, but there are endless strategies within strategies. Every color operates differently, there are multiple, deeply involved strategies in each color (milling, token spam, and artifact heavy to name just a few), and experienced players are going to crush you with the deck they’ve been carefully building for the last two to thirty years. It’s a lot, so when I found the recent Jumpstart ecosystem, a format where you combine two packs of cards into one larger semi-randomly generated deck, I was hooked back in. It combined a lot of the random fun of opening card packs with the knowledge that whatever you inadvertently create will be at least somewhat competitive. This was a great time, and I quickly drew my friends from my hometown into the bottomless abyss of card games alongside me. We played games with these packs for hours upon hours. Ultimately I found a combination of a pack titled “wolves” and a pack titled “gross” to be my personal winner after I won at least five times in a row with it and had it deemed “busted” by my comrades.
With this newfound excitement for Magic, I had a desire to play in a public setting. Typically, comic book shops or hobby stores will have a set of tables or a spare room for this purpose, likely with a guy who is shouting about three times louder than necessary. I went twice over the break to my local shop, but the second time was nuts. Dozens of people crammed into a room smaller than a Feinstein classroom. This was the launch of the first new set of cards for 2023, and people were excited. This brings me to Draft. By far the favorite format I tried on this foray back into Magic was Draft, in which players draft their decks from a rotating pool of cards and then play in a tournament format. Generally, you open a pack, take a card, and then pass it along and take a card from the pack of the person next to you. There’s a lot I like about Draft. It maintains a lot of strategy and choice while also feeling relatively straightforward and balanced as everyone’s picking cards from the same pool. In the extremely popular Dominaria: Remastered draft, I was able to finish fourth overall with a black and white deck I hastily assembled around a card depicting a giant, floating eyeball with a silly name. I take that as a win. 2023 is the 30th anniversary of Magic: The Gathering, and there’s no better time to get back into it if you’re like myself or try it for the first time. This upcoming February sees the release of the much-anticipated Phyrexia: All Will be One, which seems to have a very cool and creepy biomechanical visual aesthetic. If you’re a student or faculty member who happens to have an interest in playing some Magic or starting a tabletop-gaming club, feel free to send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Cultural Obsession Continues
Pokémon is probably one of those few universal phenomena to be deeply ingrained in the gestalt consciousness of everyone born between 1990 and 2005. There’s something inherently appealing in collecting and battling weird little monsters. If you’re a Zoomer, you likely have some kind of buried nostalgia for Bulbasaur (Bulbasaur is the best of the classic trio and you’re lying to yourself if you think otherwise). Thus, it pleases me to announce that Pokémon Scarlet and Violet is a fine addition to the rich tapestry of the pocket monster dynasty. I realize Scarlet and Violet are legally two separate games, but as the sole meaningful variation between them is the color of the reptilian creature on the box, I will refer to them as a singular entity.
The most immediately striking feature of Scarlet and Violet is the new format and transition to a full-open world. Past series entries have dabbled with this idea, but it comes into force in Scarlet and Violet. The entire game map is now sprawling and seamless, allowing players to traverse the most fully realized depiction of a Pokémon flavored environment to date. The gameplay itself is no longer the linear trail of battles that the series has long been plagued by, but is now instead a set of distinct objectives players can complete at their own personal leisure. It’s a fantastic change in form, reminiscent of what Elden Ring did for the Dark Souls format. It’s incredibly charming to see Pokémon roaming around little virtual ecosystems and the seamless nature of the world and gameplay’s relationship adds an extra level of immersion.
Despite whatever new features the game brings, there is only one thing people truly care about when one of these new drops happens, and that is the design quality of the monsters. Scarlet and Violet’s critters are excellent and a breath of fresh air after a couple years of mediocrity. The three starter Pokémon, Sprigatito, Quaxly, and Fuecoco, are adorable and manage to feel distinct yet cohesive. The rest of the Pokémon feel a little all over the place, but in a good way. I get the vibe of “here are a bunch of good ideas we had that we had never tried before,” rather than trying to theme them around the region. The best example of this is Finizen, an adorable little dolphin monster that fulfills the somehow unfulfilled niche throughout the eight previous Pokémon iterations of a dolphin themed creature. A key difference between every set of twin Pokémon games is its legendary poster-boys, but Scarlet and Violet makes these twins a key gameplay component in addition to just a fun layer of theatrics. Miraidon and Koraidon are two odd but interesting looking reptiles with vague elements of a motorcycle jammed into their biology. They’re both obtained early-on in a non-combat form and act as an impromptu vehicle. This works nicely with the new open world, and the bizarre lizard Harley Davidson will develop new abilities as players progress like gliding and climbing sheer cliff faces because of course they can.
With everything excellent on display here, there is still sadly an elephant in the room, and that is the game’s performance. The Switch is by no means a powerful piece of hardware. It’s around six years old and was underpowered when it first came out in comparison to its competition. Nintendo and its partners have smartly worked around this by largely producing stylized games or incredibly polished and optimized products that are generally unaffected by this limitation. Scarlet and Violet ignore this methodology and are a little janky and rough around the edges. Low frame rates, pop-in, and generalized bugginess are consistent issues without a real solution. I’d expect some of this to be fixed over time, but this will likely remain an unpolished game. I have seen people throw this game completely under the bus for these kinds of issues, but I don’t share that sentiment. Its flaws are persistent and a little annoying, but Scarlet and Violet ultimately remain a fun game despite them. The framework is solid and the game is filled to the brim with good ideas; the execution was just a little rushed.
In conclusion, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet is an excellent addition to the classic franchise that provides a much-needed retranslation of the classic format while maintaining its signature style. Its additions to the ongoing catalog of pocket monsters are worthwhile and charming in every way. It had technical issues as a result of the Switch’s aging hardware and its own poor optimization but shines through these faults to remain a fun experience. I really enjoyed Scarlet and Violet, and I’m extremely excited to see where the series goes from here.