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I've been reflecting on this concept and trying to come up with a concise answer: Why do different levels of card rarity exist in MtG? In order for this concept of different numbers of different cards existing to be beneficial to MtG, it has to do one of a few things:

  • Make it easier to build decks.
  • Make the game more strategic.
  • Make the game more replayable.

Here's what I've come up with so far:

  • The first one is probably most relevant. If a Llanowar Elf was just as common as a Shpinx of Uthuun, and both were just as common as everything else, it wouldn't make any sense because the number of decks that need Llanowars and the amount of Llanowars in each deck that uses them is much greater.
  • To some degree, it makes the game more replayable, in that it takes longer to see all of the cards because some of them aren't as common, but I don't really consider this a good reason in itself.
  • Rares tend to be more powerful than other cards, and this seems to work exactly backwards from how it should. If tons of people want a Thrun, the last troll in their decks because it's really powerful, shouldn't it be common so the people with rares don't have an advantage over the people who don't? If you're going to make some cards weaker than others, why not make more of the good ones and not the bad ones? Making powerful cards more expensive does not improve the overall game.

Are these points somewhat valid? How does some cards being produced in smaller number make Magic a better game? How would the game change for the better or worse if all cards were equally rare?


NOTE: Saying that having certain cards be rarer than others makes the game better because of the 'ooooh shiny!' factor when you do get one does nothing to make deck building and playing the game more interesting or fun. I also know that it makes Wizards and card shops tons of money, but I do not want to focus on money in the creator's pockets being the reason for their existence. :D

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Don't forget or underestimate the issue of profitability for the parent company. –  Gregor Jan 28 '12 at 3:41
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"but I do not want to focus on money in the creator's pockets being the reason for their existence." — you may not want to focus on that being the reason for their existence, but that is the primary reason for their existence. Without rares, there would be no relatively valuable cards, no secondary market, no chasing the "good" rares and buying boxes of cards. Wizards is a business, not trying to create the purest, best game they can. –  ghoppe Jan 28 '12 at 6:36
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This answer to a question about a bad rare card has links to a couple articles dealing with the existence of bad rares, which manage to at least partially answer your question along the way. –  Jefromi Jan 28 '12 at 7:31

10 Answers 10

up vote 28 down vote accepted

The main reasons for rarity are:

  1. To allow for complex cards without overwhelming new players. Rich interactions are part of what make Magic great, but the sheer volume of rules can be overwhelming. By limiting complex cards to uncommon, rare and mythic, it reduces the amount that new players need to worry about it.
  2. To allow for interesting limited environments as well as powerful cards for constructed. By putting limited bombs at rare or even mythic rare, it reduces the effect they have on limited format games.
  3. To sell cards.
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I'd put #3 as #1, but the other two are also true. –  Neal Tibrewala Jan 28 '12 at 6:14
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I'd say #3 is mostly a consequence of a well designed game (and thus the other two are more important). –  rahzark Feb 8 '12 at 10:23

I'm surprised that so many people have rallied around to say "it's all about the money, deep down". I don't think profitability is a key driver of there being different rarities at all. I think it's just a side effect (though, for Wizards, a highly beneficial one).

If Richard Garfield had wanted all cards to have equal rarity, he certainly could have made the game that way. Most games have only a single rarity, and most (good) games remain profitable.

Collectible card games are different to most games, naturally. When you buy most games, you have a good idea of exactly what you're going to get inside the box. When you rip open an MtG booster, you have no idea what you'll find inside. And having no idea is a lot of the fun.

Let's imagine a world in which a 300-card Magic set had only a single rarity. Players who liked the game would buy a box of boosters and be pretty much guaranteed to own at least one of every card. This is good from the point of view of impoverished completists. But is it really good for maintaining the excitement of the game?

Let's not forget that when Magic was being developed, Richard Garfield (rather naively perhaps) never imagined that people would feel obsessively driven to collect every card. He anticipated coming across a new rare in another player's deck as a thrilling event. Rarity was explicitly designed to create a more breathtaking gaming experience. The game where you never know what you might be playing against when you sit down opposite a player from out-of-down. Really, doesn't that sound like the best game in the universe?

Unfortunately, that aspect of Magic became a victim of the game's runaway success... though it certainly didn't hurt the game's profit margins, as insane collectors paid out thousands of dollars to "catch 'em all". Even so, I don't think they kept rarity in the game just to rake in the cash. Rarity has so many beneficial effects on the game to this day: it allows most of the cards in any given booster pack to be easy for a starting player to comprehend; it allows more interesting and controversial cards to be added to the mix because there won't be too many of them floating around the average play group; it allows for much more nuanced Sealed and Draft environments; and, at the end of the day, it just makes some cards feel intrinsically more cool and exciting than others, which might not be the case if you could easily have 20 of every card you wanted.

Rarity makes people want to pay big money for cards, because it's cool. It isn't a trick to "force" players to pay more money to play the game. Players always have the option of not doing so, you know! It's just that Magic is such a cool game that, for a lot of people, it's worth shelling out for.

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Great point about Garfield's original motivation. –  Ben Gartner Feb 8 '12 at 23:14

Ben covered the general reasons pretty well:

  • Rarity drives sales.
  • Rarity defines the Limited format.
  • Simple commons are newbie-friendly.

I feel like there's a subtext to your post, though: the rarity model drives up the cost of participation in Magic as a hobby -- how can this actually be anything but detrimental to the game?

I think the answer is that, in addition to driving sales of booster packs and sustaining a secondary market for cards, the rarity model serves as a useful bit of social engineering that sustains interest in Magic and preserves some variety in the local play environment.

When Richard Garfield first designed the game, the assumption was that players would own a pretty small set of cards, and that rare cards would be... well, actually rare. Like only one of your friends would own a Shivan Dragon and it would be noteworthy that he did so. Dedicated players and collectors, however, quickly bought lots of packs in order to acquire the cards they wanted, including all the coolest rares.

The lasting effect of this is that it established Magic as not just a card game, but a standalone hobby of sorts. Players' financial investment in the game translates into emotional investment as well. By sweetening the chase for cards, rarity helps to maintain Magic as a big deal to its players rather than one game out of many.

Maybe that's all well and good but you treat Magic more as a strategy board game than a singular hobby, and so you don't see the point of mythic rare Thrun -- or, more specifically, $15 Thrun. Here's the point of $15 Thrun:

  • Newbie players aren't likely to see a lot of him. But many newbie players aren't likely to see a lot of anything that's not in a starter deck, so this really isn't that important.
  • Very dedicated competitive players -- the kind of folks who might actually travel to play at a Grand Prix, for instance -- are going to be willing to pay $15 for him, if he's any good (or $100, if he's as good as Tarmogoyf, Dark Confidant, or Force of Will). Rarity is kinda irrelevant for them, really, outside of Limited.
  • Hardcore casual and FNM-level competitive players buy a lot of cards, but they're still likely to feel a bit uneasy about spending $15 just to play Thrun. Quite a few players at this level are still likely to commit to Thrun, but it does involve a commitment on their part, such that they're not likely to just come in next week with an entirely new flavor-of-the-moment deck after putting so much effort into acquiring Thrun or Wurmcoil Engines or blingy Liliana. This is one of the factors that ensures, especially in the era of massive Internet-driven information cascades, that your local play environment isn't just a carbon copy of the "big leagues" (the other being personal taste). Thus, the cost of picking up tournament-staple cards gives your local game store or "kitchen table" a metagame that moves at a comfortable pace for its participants, rather than the comparatively frantic clip of high-end tournament environments.
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One downside is that too high of a financial barrier will cause a local meta to stagnate as no one builds new decks. This is how you get local Legacy scenes where everyone has only one deck, for instance. What's worse, when players have "bought into" their respective decks for the season and then one comes to totally dominate an environment (e.g. Caw-Blade), the inability to easily pivot to playing that deck tends to discourage and frustrate FNM-level players. –  Alex P Jun 7 '12 at 0:28
    
Alex P, that's why cards get banned. –  Cees Timmerman Jul 27 '12 at 14:20

I know you said you don't want to focus on money in the creators' pockets, but the fact is, that is the reason. It's a simple consequence of the law of supply and demand: if you want to sell a lot of your product, you increase the demand and decrease the supply. For Magic cards, that means you make powerful cards (high demand) in limited numbers (low supply). All the changes to rarity levels over the years, including mythic rares, foil cards, and planeswalkers, are meant to either increase the power level or decrease the numbers of these rare cards. That in turn entices people to buy more booster packs in hopes of opening a powerful and exciting card.

The other reasons that Ben mentioned do also play a role in motivating the rarity distribution, but it's a minor one. In everything I've read from Wizards over the years, their primary motivation in designing the game as they do has always been to sell cards.

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Expensive cards are often said to be mistakes, though. See Skullclamp, Jace the Mind Sculptor, and all the banned/restricted/unreprinted (some even legally unreprintable) cards. –  Cees Timmerman Jul 27 '12 at 14:27
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I wouldn't say "often." There are a few mistakes, but the majority of expensive cards are just normal cards that are in high demand. –  David Z Jul 27 '12 at 14:48

I agree with most of previous comments, but I'd like to add another aspect of the issue. There is an aspect of this game that was inherent in the beginning and now it's quite overlooked: the ANTE. If you play with ante, then you may risk losing a rare, while your opponent may risk just a common card... and this can add interest and different approaches to a game (and to deck building!). Nowadays playing with ante is very uncommon...

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In this article Mark Rosewater discusses how cards become rare (particularly focussing on "bad" rare cards).

Here are a couple of the reasons he specifies for why some cards become rare:

  • They’re too complex to be common or uncommon
  • They’re cool, unique creatures or spells that need to be rare to keep their specialness
  • They’re cards that prove disruptive to sealed or draft and are made rare to minimize their appearance in limited formats
  • We need to make the card rare to keep a balance of “good” cards throughout the three rarities
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I hope you don't mind if I give you some constructive criticism on your answer: Very long, detailed answers don't (necessarily) suit this format, and certainly entire articles copied wholesale from elsewhere are unlikely to answer a specific question as it is posted here. I've submitted an edit for your answer that will instead highlight a few key points from the article you quoted, and provide a link to the complete article if people would like to read more detail on the topic. Please do continue to contribute to the site though! –  Johno Jul 22 '12 at 16:01

I think @DavidZaslavsky and I are on the same page. What is Magic? It's not a board game, it's not just a card game, it's a collectible card game. And that's fine, it is what it is. If WotC printed cards on demand a charged $1 each, most of the "commons" wouldn't exist because there'd be no demand for them, so they'd probably never be created in the first place. And those commons do add to the game: they add lots of flavor in each block, and sometimes they're better than R&D predicts. The meta-game, tournaments, etc., would be barely recognizable. I don't play Magic because of the costs--the last booster I bought was either Alliances or Mirage. If things were equally costed people like me would probably still play. But without the costs, there's no way WotC could justify all the R&D they do. The sheer number of cards is amazing, and it makes Magic what it is.

It does seem like the game would be healthier if any ridiculously expensive cards were either banned or re-printed until the supply was enough to keep the price reasonable. I can't think of any justification for "mythic rares" other than making buying packs more like buying lotto tickets.

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Mythic rares are also mechanism for reducing the volume of sets "cashed in" from Magic Online. Without them there'd be a bit of a tendency for individual-card prices to drop after a while as enough virtual boosters were opened (such that a physical booster box would effectively have "negative EV"). –  Alex P Jan 28 '12 at 7:48
    
Does a booster box actually have positive EV? If I buy one, open, and sell the cards do I have a decent chance of turning a profit? I can see how mythics could help that, but I'm still surprised. –  Gregor Jan 29 '12 at 19:41
    
For someone who bought the booster box at the wholesale price, yes. That's what makes the various MTG singles dealers profitable. At retail price, I don't think so, other than the occasional bubble (e.g. chase cards on release day). Then again, consider the average singles value of cracking a Ravnica-block box today. –  Alex P Apr 4 '12 at 16:22
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If all cards were equally priced, the tournament metagame wouldn't actually change: the tournament constructed metagame is already all about choosing the best cards for the job, even if that means paying $100 for a couple of cards. –  Alex P Jul 23 '12 at 16:01

I'm surprised that nobody's mentioned the story aspect yet. Common soldiers and bears are actually common, and mighty wizards are rare, planeswalkers even more so (mythic rare):

One in a million sentient beings are born with “the spark,” the ineffable essence that makes an individual capable of becoming a Planeswalker. Of those born with “the spark,” even fewer “ignite” their spark, enabling them to realize their potential and travel the planes. Most Planeswalkers have their spark ignited as the result of a great crisis or trauma, but every awakening is different. A near-death experience might ignite a Planeswalker’s spark, but so could a sudden, life-changing epiphany or a meditative trance that enables the mage’s grasp of some transcendent truth. There are as many such stories as there are Planeswalkers.

Take the horde of skeletons in the background of this (common) Alpha card's art, for instance:

enter image description here

Those skeletons are certainly more common than a certain planeswalker's glasses (uncommon), which are more common than his sunglasses (rare):

enter image description here enter image description here

enter image description here

Thrun, the Last Troll (mythic rare) has many stories on his very hide, as written in the official set preview.

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That's because story most probably was not part of the design from the beginning. The game had lore from the start, but there were no named characters as cards until Legends, the seventh overall set. –  Hackworth Jul 17 '12 at 9:53
    
The Legends expansion is from June, 1994, and even in folklore there are more soldiers than kings. More importantly, the Alpha rulebook contains a fantasy tale called "Worzel's Story" by Richard Garfield, which features half a dozen Scryb Sprites on page 4. –  Cees Timmerman Jul 17 '12 at 10:33
    
This great thread summarizes the whole plot of Magic: The Gathering. –  Cees Timmerman Jul 19 '12 at 16:53
    
It's a nice idea, but let's not forget that Alpha contained a rare called Elvish Archers - mighty 2/1 First Strikers for 1G. It seems clear to me that the rarity level in this case was indicating "an unusual break from the mechanics of the color pie" rather than an exotic and wonderful being. –  thesunneversets Jul 19 '12 at 16:57
    
See the story FAQ: "Another fairly obvious factor is that gameplay has to come first. If a story point makes a legend too powerful to be an accurate card, the card's abilities have to be toned down, even if the character it represents is godlike." –  Cees Timmerman Jul 19 '12 at 17:14

Hope this answer could still help someone, this article (an update a decade later to a previous article on the same subject) talks a lot about why exactly bad cards are printed—and it's from the source!

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We're talking about how it affects the game not how it affects the company's money (profit/loss). Furthermore we're talking about how it affects gameplay not how it affects excitement of opening booster packs etc/snob appeal.

firstly let's define the attributes of common cards vs mythic cards (and all in between on that scale). common cards are simply less powerfull cards than the rares. common cards aren't less complex than mythic cards. that's just untrue. case example is the 8 mana rare/mythic rare big monster that just has high power and 2/3 abilities and nothing more. common cards tend to be just purely less effective versions of the rare. eg they worse mana cost to p/t ratios, higher mana cost for their abilities or take off less damage etc. basically putting 'power' on a number scale common cards are X powerfull, uncommon X+1, rare X+2 etc or something roughly like that. the only difference in how the good the cards are. sometimes, rarely, in a deck even a common card will be a good card in your deck - but generally most of your cards won't be commmon/uncommon. most good decks are over 100£. and so on top of tournament prices, if you change your deck twice in a year that's like buying ps3 each year.

so now that we know the rarity of cards is simply an indicator of the worth of the card in actual gameplay (ie how powerfull it is). and we know that price is proportional to the power of cards. then all that means is they're creating a meta game where the more wealth you have in real life the more power during gameplay. so if you work out and become good with computers and earn a lot of money you're now better off when building a deck in magic and thus during gameplay so basically being good at computers (or any other thing people pay you a lot of money for) = being good at magic. that's just so wrong...

if all cards were the same price however then it wouldn't work as a business etc. common cards wouldn't be bought and seeing as they cost the same to print manufacture etc it would be pure loss so that means common cards would go out and this would be bad for the game as it would mean there are less cards for peopl to tinker their decks with/general come across ideas and having many formats is fun anyway ie pure commons etc. so then they'd have to stop making as many cards per year as theirs always going to a be a scale of good cards to bad cards simply because if a card is better than another in that set then no matter how 'good' the card is it's now fundamentally as it's worse than another. this means they'd up the price of all cards. persides it's so set up anyway the mtg is with colour categories and then themes each year etc - they know what cards are good and what's filler. whereas in yugioh there's just cards that will always be around, that are great in most decks like MST, monster reborn etc. any

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Hey Max, welcome to B&CG. I've trimmed your answer as it kinda transitioned from being an answer to the question posed to more of a rant. There was also a fair amount of profanity there, which is not allowed on this site. Please take a moment and peruse our faq when you get a chance. Thanks! –  Pat Ludwig Jan 8 '13 at 20:46
    
@PatLudwig needs more trimming ;) –  ghoppe Jan 8 '13 at 21:28
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"so now that we know the rarity of cards is simply an indicator of the worth of the card in actual gameplay" I completely disagree with that statement. I'll give you a deck of handpicked (weak) rares and play a deck of handpicked (strong) commons and I guarantee that the commons will win. –  bwarner Jan 8 '13 at 21:45
    
Gray Merchant of Asphodel and Bearer of the Heavens say hi –  deworde Sep 23 at 7:53

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