As the creator of Magic: The Gathering and the father of the TCG genre, Richard Garfield has unique insights into what makes card games fun. So we were intrigued to hear that he worked with Abrakam Entertainment, creators of Faeria, on the new digital roguelike deckbuilder Roguebook.
TCGplayer Infinite recently got the chance to ask Richard Garfield about Roguebook, Magic, and the future of card games in general.
(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)
TCGplayer Infinite: "You've described your role on Roguebook as 'design adviser.' Could you expand on what that means?"
Richard Garfield: "Usually when designing I take full responsibility for all aspects of design, weighing the concerns of developers, playtesters, and codesigners. With Roguebook, I was more in a position where I provided some general guidance and goals, critique of various playtest versions, and some specific design elements. Roguebook is not my vision, realized, it was a shared vision to which I contributed."
TCGplayer Infinite: "You've often talked about your fondness for the early days of Magic: The Gathering, when the challenge for players was about making the most of a limited cardpool. That style of play is mostly gone in modern TCGs, outside of Draft and other limited formats. Do you think TCGs lose anything when players have complete control over the cards that are available to them?"
Richard Garfield: "Having complete control is not a bad thing. There are environments in which it is very rewarding, and ones in which it is less rewarding. There is, however, a bias in modern play toward complete control which can obscure the pleasures of more limited environments. Also there is a tendency to equate power of deck with quality of play, which is really almost completely unrelated. In some games high-quality decks are easy to figure out and to play. In some they are challenging to figure out and/or to play. In some games limited environments are easy to play and get the best quality deck out of, in some they can be challenging in one or both regards."
"Even though this is one of the things that digital deckbuilders are addressing—building decks from limited but increasing pool of resources—you see similar themes evolve. Many times the deck you 'should' be building in a deckbuilder is boring to play, even while it might take discipline and skill to get it. That is fine, and many players like that journey to mindless killer decks… including me. However, I think I will always prefer deck building where the final deck is challenging to play with unexpected situations arising during play."
TCGplayer Infinite: "When you created Magic, did you anticipate the industry—game stores, tournament organizers, content, this website—that cropped up around the game's enclosed economy?"
Richard Garfield: "Not nearly to the extent it happened. I knew I had a special game with which players could engage in many different ways, but, I also knew many games I loved didn't make much of a splash and I had to be the one that got people to play in my groups. However, there was an energy about Magic that was often independent of my involvement, so with more experience I might have recognized its power."
TCGplayer: "Unlike Slay the Spire or Monster Train, Roguebook doesn't dictate when the player will get in fights or find new cards. It's up to the player to explore the book and set their own pace. That gives players more agency, but it also adds to the list of variables that go into each run. How did you and the team at Abrakam handle the design challenge of balancing all those variables to make sure each run is tense and exciting?"
Richard Garfield: "Usually by making some guesses and seeing how it panned out, then tweaking; iterative design. There were a number of high-level issues that needed to be addressed, and with each iteration we would look and see how they were represented. For example, if you typically can explore the whole map, it makes your decisions along the way with regard to exploring less interesting. Some iterations had players not invested in the exploration after they understood what was going on, because it was mostly going to be explored anyway. Similarly if the amount was always around one half it wouldn't feel so rewarding—players had to feel like their decisions could give them more or less of the map. Another element was how informed the player's exploration was, if it was always blind then players would feel less agency than if they had some knowledge of some elements of the map to work toward."
"One of the elements of exploration that I was passionate about—and indeed one of the elements of the game in general I was always an advocate of—was that players are often correct to get new cards. New cards are fun to add to your deck and they generally increase the variance and therefore skill of playing the deck. It is amazing to me how for a genre called deckbuilders, how much proper play is eliminating cards and passing up opportunities to add them. This was addressed in many ways in the design, but in exploration by making sure the price of adding new cards was not such that players felt like fools for buying them."
TCGplayer Infinite: "Since you invented Magic, trading card games have migrated to video games and inspired new sub-genres like deckbuilders. Is there any design space in collectible gaming that you think is still underexplored?"
Richard Garfield: "I don't really like to think of it as collectible gaming—I call them specifically trading card games and generally massively modular games. Collectibility is a side effect of some of the manifestations of this game area, and is often challenging to be present without being poisonous for players."
"To answer your question, however, there are many areas that still excite me in this game form that aren't touched much. One area I have recently spent a lot of effort on is random deck games, like Keyforge. With a random deck game players don't build decks, except possibly within the game they are playing. You can think of this like playing sealed deck Magic, which is the root of the concept."
"With sealed deck Magic, players would have to adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of their deck and learn how to use the complicated tool they had been given as best they could. A game like Keyforge, which is built for that sort of play, has a lot of flexibility with how the player can use their deck. Unlike many game forms it is difficult to "become the best" simply by reading what the experts say you should do. The player becomes the expert at the tools they have."
TCGplayer Infinite: "What games or pieces of design have impressed you recently?"
Richard Garfield: "With digital games I am very interested in auto-battlers, Storybook Brawl being the most recent exceptional member of that crew. It shares a lot of game DNA with what was probably my previous favorite, Hearthstone Battlegrounds. Monster Train was also outstanding, I loved their take on the digital deckbuilding genre."
"For paper games perhaps Root is my recent favorite. It is not brand new, but it took me a while to get to it. I was interested because it was supposed to be very asymmetric, but was deterred by the descriptions of its complexity. I was happy to find that the complexity was almost entirely because of its asymmetry, each elemental game was not very complex. Dire Wolf's digital implementation is a good way to try it out and learn it."
TCGplayer Infinite: "What do you hope fans of Magic and other traditional TCGs will get out of playing Roguebook?"
Richard Garfield: "TCG players often are lured in by the magic of a game where there is a vast array of possible strategies that are different for everyone. As they learn the game more they will often find that the way people play will be very different, researching the best deck in the current environment and building it and playing it. Deckbuilders in general and Roguebook in particular can return them to that wide open magical environment. I believe Roguebook's emphasis on rewarding players for adding cards to their deck can keep them in the fun part of deckbuilding for longer than many games in this genre."
TCGplayer Infinite: "Any tips for new Roguebook players?"
Richard Garfield: "For me the most enjoyable experience is exploring and discovering combos yourself, rather than seeing what 'experts' say. I would advise trying to limit your research to answering rules questions where needed, at least for a while. That is my advice for most games I guess!"
A big thanks to Richard Garfield for sharing his insights with us. To heed his advice, download Roguebook on Steam and explore its pages yourself.
If you want to try your own hand at designing cards, now's your chance. Nacon, the publisher of Roguebook, is holding a contest for people to design four new cards that will be incorporated into the game. Not only will the winner get to see their creative vision come to life, they will also win an Unlimited mint graded copy of id="Black Lotus" variantId="8989", the most infamous card in Magic: The Gathering.
Visit the contest website to submit your design and vote on the winners!