Casualcore: Cards, Computers, and Competition

Since I quit World of Warcraft years ago, I’ve often lacked a consistent source of things to say for this blog. Sometimes I have ideas, but more often than not I can’t feel strongly enough about it import to commit the N hours to writing out something coherent on the subject. I suppose I’ve lacked a hobby of the same depth, complexity, and community.

But since February I’ve got into Magic: The Gathering, a trading card game with a very large and active fanbase. I’ve built decks, played in tournaments, met great new people, and spent an embarrassing amount of money on pretty cardboard. It’s become an important part of my mental world – there’s so much to think about! And through it all there’s been this niggle. This small itch in the back of my mind which I couldn’t quite find until one day I was remembering my times raiding in World of Warcraft. There’s a similarity here, something I’ve long struggled with but only recently found the words to explain – I call it the casualcore problem.

If we’re going to discuss the casualcore problem, I should probably start by outlining what “casualcore” means. When I was a raider, there was a pretty big conceptual split between high-achieving “hardcore” players and less dedicated “casuals”. The former tends to take a few weeks of intense work to defeat all the content available, and the latter might never even try the most difficult parts of the game. But people aren’t nicely split into binaries like that – the casual/hardcore divide was in reality only true by degrees. In certain circumstances, a third group self-identified as distinct; the casualcore raider aimed to do the hardest content possible on a limited time-investment (such as “only” 8 hours of raiding a week). Typical casualcore groups were about 10-12 players who relied on taking things seriously and adapting quickly to new circumstances to mitigate the difference in time investment compared to hardcore players. This was not a universally successful model, but it had a distinct audience which included me.

I think this happened because there’s a trade-off in the game. WoW raiding is largely governed by time investment – the the more time you can spend, the better you understand a boss’ mechanics, the more nuanced and optimized your playstyle is, the higher your net achievement. But the return on time investment is not uniform – at a certain point, you have to sink a lot more of your time into the game to achieve a consistent performance increase. Let’s conceptualize this with a sketch of a graph of achievement vs. time invested;

Fig1

Concept of how time investment and achievement ceiling are related – more time investment gets you a higher potential achievement, but watch out for diminishing returns!

If a player starts their journey at the origin and starts investing time, their skills (relatively speaking) grow very quickly. Then, as they get better and achieve more, investing another hour a week nets them less additional achievement than it did before. Eventually, in order to double your achievement, you have to put in eight times as much work – or even more!

Now, clearly there are other factors which dictate achievement; personal experience with similar games, general game-savvy, age, engagement, personal goals, luck, &c. The point here is that in addition to factors which vary between people, there’s an underlying rule of time-investment which dictates, if you like, the ceiling of achievement which a player might hit.

Casualcore players are typically those with traits which would otherwise allow them to hit quite high levels of achievement, but who can’t or won’t invest the time required. The extra achievement we can obtain from more time investment isn’t worth our precious resources to us.

I’m in a similar position when it comes to playing Magic. Sure, I could invest more of my time into playing and overall increase my achievements. Yes, I would love to. No, the draw of winning more doesn’t justify cutting out other people and things which I spend time on already. Hence; I am limited in the achievement I can make. But I’m not really bad at playing Magic, and in time I hope to build up the experience necessary to be a respected local player. But there’s another angle here, because there’s more than one resource which dictates your achievement ceiling in Magic; money.

Unlike games where power is not easily transferred between players, Magic has a strong secondary market where players can buy, sell, and trade the best cards. Since deck quality is a major contributor to achievement, the card market opens up a secondary axis for our graph. Taking our x- and y-axes to be time and money, you can use a heat-map plot to show how time and money are in some sense commutable.

Fig2

The achievement-investment plot for two resources with different emphasis. Brighter colours mean a higher achievement ceiling. Contours of equal-achievement are shown for a few important levels.

There are quite different combinations of time/money which lead to the same achievement ceiling. I think this is a good thing, because it allows people with different priorities and resources to engage in the same game on about the same terms. On the other hand, it means that people who are poor in one of these resources and not the other will struggle to play the game competitively.

Here is where I think the interesting thing about the Magic community lies – everyone who wants to be even slightly competitive has to dedicate some money and some time to the effort. That’s why beginners quickly start to spend money on the game after they’re initially interested, and it’s also why we don’t usually see people winning solely by buying the best deck out there. Both of these elements are good for the game and its community in some sense, although it does make me wonder how often the game accidentally excludes people from certain social or economic backgrounds.

Now let’s think about where we should expect to find the casualcore region on any graph like this. By my earlier description, a casualcore player wants to maximize their outcomes while minimizing their investment. I think that a good guide for where that region lies comes from looking at the gradient of the graph, shown for time only below. Here we see that around the middle of the graph there’s a point where you get the most return on your investment – the gradient is highest – and investing any more gets you diminishing returns. This is where the center of the casualcore region lies. As returns diminish, only those people with a lot of resources (and motivation to match) will keep on improving – this is the realm of the spikes, and along the extreme end of the axis are the pro’s.

Fig3

Return-on-investment and how it relates (roughly) to the casualcore audience. Right axis (red): return on investment. Left axis (blue): Corresponding achievement ceiling.

We can see the same outcome in the 2D surface plot, except I also want to note an interesting thing – relatively speaking, the casualcore region is actually smaller than on the 1D plot. I think this nicely reflects the tendency of Magic players to compare strategies mostly to the absolute best – if the casualcore region is small, there’s a strong incentive to either aspire to high achievement or totally neglect achievement over other goals.

Fig4

Return-on-investment in the two-axis case. Brighter areas show bigger return-on-investment. The contours show important achievement ceiling regions which we highlighted earlier.

That leads me into my final point about casualcore gaming – it’s a niche riddled with tensions. Because you’re constrained by your resources, you have to accept that aiming to be the best will never be satisfying. That’s what drives casualcore players to innovate – we have to set goals which aren’t simply about maximizing our outcomes. Instead, we build janky off-meta decks. We kill bosses using fishing rods. We dedicate our lives to maining Gazlowe. Casualcore players tend to work hard towards goals which don’t make sense to the spikes and the pro’s of the world, because we so often realize that if we compete on the same terms as everyone else then we’re doomed to feel limited by our own circumstances.

Ultimately, that’s why I think it’s important to consciously develop your games to accommodate casualcore players. Casualcore players push the alternative ways to play games by finding tradeoffs between competition and fun. The diverse nature of goals and outcomes in casualcore gaming is inherently good for the scene at large, whether it’s by inspiring casual players or throwing up left-field ideas against the more hardcore. In doing so, casualcore gaming emphasizes competition as a creative endeavour as much as a technical one. That kind of thinking forms the core of a healthy gaming community.

Part of the reason I left WoW was that my time was becoming more and more precious, and at the same time changes to the game were raising the barrier to entry for casualcore play. I stopped contributing to the community, and it may well have briefly been worse as a consequence. I’m glad to have found a new place to be casualcore, and I hope that it’s curated better here.

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About stoove

A physicist, researcher, and gamesman. Likes to think about the mathematics and mechanics behind all sorts of different things, and writing up the thoughts for you to read. A competent programmer, enjoys public speaking and mechanical keyboards. Has opinions which might even change from time to time.
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