Monday, May 24, 2021

Trading Card Games and the Paradox of Choice

Magic brought with it an enormous boom in the then-new trading card game genre, with dozens of competitors beginning and ending in the 1990s alone. As the genre's solidified, we've seen the benefits (creative) and downsides (largely financial) of having random components and uneven player access to your game. One benefit that I haven't seen talked about, I think because it's subtle, also has something to do with how Magic has an enormous player population for a game of its complexity level – that incomplete
access to components helps dodge the Paradox of Choice.

The Paradox of Choice is a concept created by researcher Barry Schwartz and elaborated upon in his 2004 book. Schwartz' thesis statement is that humans have a particular decision-making process, and that having too many granular options is paralyzing. For example, if you want to buy a TV, it's easier for you if the store has one or two TVs compared to a big-box electronics retailer and its hundreds of similar options. You'll feel stressed about not making the optimal TV purchase, even if a large number of them would suit your needs just fine.

The Paradox of Choice exists in games as well, and one reason why games with many decisions have higher skill floors. When you begin a game of go, assuming you're playing first and neither player has a handicap, you are presented with this:

"Go ahead," the game says to you, "pick any intersection of two lines and place a stone on it. But be careful! If you do the wrong one you'll lose." Unsurprisingly, it is recommended that beginners to go start with smaller grids and work their way up.

The Paradox of Choice isn't really about selecting the optimal move – pretty much anyone would understand that that could take a whole lifetime to master – but more about the psychological torment of having countless options and not knowing which one you should make. As you gain experience in a game and become more enfranchised, you gain a better guide to what a good choice looks like, starting with following guides by rote and gradually gaining more improvisational/tactical knowledge; but as a beginner, having so many options is essentially deciding from thousands of interchangeable options.

This is already a problem when it comes to playing a game, but it becomes compounded if your game has a setup or deckbuilding process that occurs before the game proper. During the "piloting" section, if you lose because you made the wrong choice, you'll at least know what happened for the next time you play. But if you lose because you didn't choose your starting components correctly, you might have no idea how you could have done better since it would require a huge number of plays to sort out real facts from statistical noise.

Cutting the Gordian Knot

Later games where you assemble a deck from scratch have approached the Paradox of Choice in more conscious ways. Android: Netrunner's base set comes with enough material for a wide number of decks, but also comes with a list of suggested builds for each faction in the game, meaning a player can just pick up a fairly effective deck by following the list. Hearthstone's "color pie" is much more segmented than Magic's – you pick one class and that's it – so you can just choose a class you like to play and intentionally restrict your choices before you set out to even build a deck.

Magic handled this in a different, almost unintentional way. The trading card system itself – with the unavailability of rare cards baked it – solved the Paradox of Choice by restricting most new players' access to cards. In a gameplay sense, this is bad as players will have unequal levels of strength and cohesion depending on their starting collection; however, as a teaching tool, it's much easier to onboard someone with one deck they know how to play than with a huge pile of cards that can be oriented in different ways.

Most people who get into Magic either acquire a pre-made deck or are given cards by a friend or family member (the latter being more common back in the day). This selection of cards allows the player to develop an initial understanding of how the game works and their gameplay preferences before they become more enfranchised and gain a better understanding of deckbuilding. It also allows people who don't want to invest too much time or effort into Magic to play the game without having to spend too much time outside of the game preparing.


When designing a game, you'll often find yourself in the position of having to meet two sets of contradictory needs. In the case of TCGs, designers have to balance between enfranchised players who want total freedom to craft their own strategies and new players who will get turned away from the game if they feel like they have to put in a ton of effort making punishing choices they don't understand. Fortunately, the classic structure of TCGs also means that you can appeal to both groups at once, if you're careful.

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