We're all aware of the allures of flavor and "theme" in the Magic universe, which in no part have spawned "RPG" variants left and right. Cooperative play can greatly extend the "flavor" of the Magic environment by allowing people to build decks centered around a certain theme, a "feel", or personal preference; all of which are so easily destroyed by a competitive environment.
MTG players, being drawn to the fantasy setting provided, are especially sensitive to thematic cohesion - as demonstrated by the draw of the "Commander" variant, in which your Legendary creature is actually special, and not one of four pieces of cardboard sleeved up in your deck, ready to subdue opponents with lower budgets (or higher aesthetic considerations! Ever wonder why younger, less-experienced players - including yourself when you were just learning about the game - tend to have worse decks but more fun?).
The competitive nature of MTG has always bothered me, as it tends to destroy the fantasy setting that makes it so fun and creates an environment in which one is essentially required to build a deck that is "competitive" and not one that is fun, not one that offers a venue of creative self-expression, and not one that resonates with the player. Example: You love the flavor of the Simic guild, and would love to include flavorbomb card X - but the card "sucks". Or, "He's a Legendary creature. I can't have more than one! It would destroy the uniqueness that gives the card value."
After reading a very good book on the nature of competitive environments by a certain Alfie Kohn ("No Contest: The Case Against Competition"), and learning about how certain values are unavoidably destroyed by competitive environments (including what many believe to be the "higher" functions of creativity and aesthetic value), I decided to find/create a cooperative variant that supports and nourishes the creative and aesthetic energies of the player and allows for a much more satisfying game environment with more fulfilling gameplay - one that does away with generalized strategy (aggro vs. control, etc; threats vs. responses, mana-curve balancing, deck optimization, how many copies? etc, etc) and replaces that with elements which recognize the value of a unique creation by the player.
I haven't yet been able to find any co-operative multiplayer variant that does not simply regress to some kind of solitaire variant. In my mind, a cooperative game is much more difficult to set up, as it requires a thorough balancing and scripting of the game's environment to ensure that there is a proper level of consistency within which players can act, and a proper level of random occurrences which make gameplay interesting.
There is a reason why DnD is so attractive to those drawn toward aesthetic functions: it possesses, in my mind, "the" formula for a cooperative multiplayer game: a semi-scripted framework around which players can work (the settings, the classes, specializations, skills and stats), certain static elements combined with a minor level of randomization (which serve to create a real and measurable "progress" in the game), and the ability for semi-random events to change the game and make it more exciting. There is a balance between what "is" and what "can be," in other words. Also of great importance is the feel that the player is special - that the experiences and skills that you, the player, bring to the table are unique and valuable in their own right. I believe that a cooperative MTG variant would have to take on some of these aspects to develop an engaging and fulfilling experience: some kind of pre-scripted scenario ("Prevent the dissolution of the Guildpact," "Hold out against the forces of darkness until Avacyn is released from the Helvault"), static elements with variation which can measure growth (an essential part of any fulfilling game is mastery!), and semi-random events which can alter gameplay.
I'm essentially calling for the creation of a cooperative variant which vastly alters game mechanics, but allows play with existing MTG cards, creating a satisfying game environment in which the player is a unique and special being, and is allowed to pursue aesthetic values and use the game as a form of self-expression.
What does everyone think? Anyone know about co-op variants which have a similar playstyle? If not, ideas for how one can be created?
Off-the wall ideas:
-Re-writing underlying core rules of the game, such as:
>4 max copies of a card: Why even have copies? As a powerful spellcaster, you shouldn't inexplicably "forget" a spell after you've casted it four times. Introduce a way to cast any spell that you "know." Have one of each "spell" and be able to cast it as many times as you darn wish.
>the library and the hand: Why is it, that a wizard as powerful as yourself can only randomly pull cards out of your so-called "library?" You should have access to all the spells you know at all times. Unless you happen to be struck by some dark magic that makes you forget
>the resource system: How about introducing elements which allow the player to "grow" in a persistent environment that is greater than the individual game (non-persistent-tv-show-syndrome - wait, didn't Meatwad die in that last episode?), being able to only cast weak-ish spells at the onset, growing in power as you become more experienced as a mage - using a resources not bound by chance to what you happen to draw, but utilizing some other resource system (say, "willpower") that grows as you grow
-Creation of semi-scripted branching storylines drawn from Magic lore (What if Mirrodin was successful in overcoming the Phyrexian invasion? What if Barrin's actions had taken a different course?).
-Allowing new spells to be "learned"
-Greatly reinforcing the pathetic cooperative elements in MTG, so far limited to the mechanic "Join Forces," which is hardly cooperative. It feels good to pitch together on a spell to produce a bigger effect: it emphasizes the importance of the player, while at the same time creating an entity greater than the sum of its parts.
Gathering the ideas here, it seems to be there are two different ideas here.
1) More "face the hydra" co-op challenges and such, perhaps with a progressive improvement system between the challenges like an ongoing campaign (upgrading your deck between challenges and so on).
2) Magic the RPG - but using the existing cards in some way rather than starting from scratch.
Those might sound similar, but they're two different beasts. The first works within the existing architecture of the game, the second would reinvent gameplay and mechanics for suiting the flavor of a magic RPG (things like not forgetting spells and so on).
Additionally, competition isn't really what stifles creativity. What's demonstrated to stifle creativity is providing concrete and tangible rewards for optimal success. This is the same in cooperative environments as competitive environments. People trying to do things the most efficient and best way in order to get a tangible reward are less likely to try the problem from unconventional angles. Optimization is all the rage in cooperative games too, such as MMO raid groups and RPG campaigns. Trying to unshackle the desire to build an optimal deck is a whole other thing, and usually doesn't go well with game designs focused on improving your power (as is the definition of a progression system).
There are a lot of conflating ideas here. It's clear there are some awesome ideas too, but it feels like kind of a mess at the moment. What's your core goal exactly? And is there more than one project you can come up with that serves your different design goals, if you have more than one? If so, awesome, that's more than one cool project instead of just one cool project.
Your post is awesome. I kinda think I feel the same way as you do/did about competition.. I kinda feel bad about all this combat stuff. It seems nice at first but it creates a lot of unwanted tension with many people .. even sometimes people who have already some experience in mtg.
Indeed many tabletop cheap rules could change the whole game.. making mtg less of battle to "kill'em all" and rather a battle to get somebody among the players to win as quickly as possible.
For instance a simple set of rules could change the game spirit dramatically.
1) if any player loses, the game stops because everybody loses.
2) if any player wins, everybody wins.
3) the objective is just to beat the game in as few turns as possible.
It is even possible to add a more radical view to the game that is more philosophical(?) but can bring some interesting stuff which is to suppress all combat phases. Like some pacifist stance.
Some other rules/alternate rules could be added/used like if everybody's life count is locked in infinite increasing combo then everybody wins.