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Asynchronous Magic: the Gathering

Lately, we’ve seen a couple of games that are kinda a little bit similar to Magic, but have asynchronous turns – you do you, pass the turn, I do me, pass the turn. That means you lose out on the attack/block/board state part of Magic.

Other asynchronous games

Hearthstone and Star Realms work like this: you put out your units, and then you can attack any creature or you can attack the enemy directly. There’s no blocking, but there’s unit-to-unit fighting anyway since you can attack the other players units. There are also units that have to be attacked first, and these are core to these two games. They are the equivalent of blocking. They have a printed keyword (“Taunt” in Hearthstone, “Outpost” in Star Realms) – Hearthstone also features many ways to add this property to other units.

Codex has the same structure as Hearthstone and Star Realms in that you can attack any unit or the enemy directly. It also features the “Taunt/Outpost” mechanic of those games, but instead of certain units being designated as such by printed keywords, you can assign any unit to have this status. (Called “Patroller” in Codex.)

I’m not very fond of these solutions. I understand that they have their own tactics and strategies, but I’m so fond of Magic’s rhythm of trading creatures, building up board states, creating and breaking stalemates, and chumping.

Asynchronous Magic

Magic’s turn order is: Untap, Upkeep, Draw, First main, Attack (and the opponent steps in to block), Second main, EOT.

My idea was to instead make a game like this: Block, Untap, Upkeep, Main Phase, “EOT”, Attack.

You’d start your turn by blocking any of your opponents attackers from their previous turn (and any unblocked attackers would break through to you and your walkers). Then you’d get to untap, do your turn, and finally send in your attackers in the red zone by tapping them – and then you can’t do anything until it’s the next player’s turn. The “red zone” replaces the Patrol zone from Codex or the Taunt/Outpost status from Hearthstone and Star Realms.

The point of an asynchronous implementation is to make digital versions easier to implement and use. You do your turn, then wait – no timing stops or things like that.

Obviously you’d need “Portal cards” since there’s no Giant Growths, Firebreathing or other tricks (you can use a superset of Portal actually – many enchantments, artifacts and many triggered effects are already asynchronous, like Manic Scribe). Ideally the digital implementation would also make room for some exceptions to this, like the original Portal’s “Mystic Denial”, but the interface could be built aware of those exceptions rather than every single hand creating a priority stop.


I was struggling to come to terms with Codex and I used this “inverted thinking” to finally get to grips with it. At first, you’re led to think of Codex’ Patrol zone as blocking. The analogy is presented that the Squad Leader is a solid blocker and the Technician is more of a chump blocker with an upside.

I was struggling to win, playing this game. I just couldn’t protect myself, I would try to build as many units I could, put up patrollers, but I would get consistently overwhelmed. The flimsy bonuses from the various patrol zones would not be nearly enough compensation. The attacker would make more and more favorable trades and I would fall more and more behind.

And then it hit me. The attacker in Codex would make favorable trades – like the blocker can do in Magic! To play defensive, just turn my thinking around. See the opponents board as sort of their “attack” and send in my units to make as favorable trades as I can with them. The patrol zone wasn’t a defense zone – it was the red zone! So, if I have great units, sure, feel free to put that Iron Man on Squad Leader and have the opponent waste a couple of units to take it down. But if I can make a favorable trade with something they have, do it. To be defensive in Codex – attack! So I started winning.

In the end, I also thought that I… kinda don’t like Codex’ structure that much. In Magic, the blocker has all the choices, but they’re also the ones that are risking their own life points and walkers.

In Hearthstone, Star Realms and Codex, the attacker has all the choices and they’re the ones delivering the beatings. It “feels” weird. Attacking in Codex is both the best defense (you get to favorably deal with your opponents threats), it’s also controllish (you can take out tech buildings, addons and heroes) but it’s flavored as aggressive. It gives the feeling of a runaway leader, of being beaten down. I don’t like that as much as I do the feel in Magic.

Above all, in those games, your units are (in a way) always in the red zone. Taunt, Outpost and Patrol helps you direct the mayhem a little bit, but there’s no way to just hang back with a valuable unit. If they break through your taunters/outposts/patrollers, that’s it, your precious unit is at risk. As Maro points out, it becomes much harder to build up a board state compared to in Magic.

In the analogy, it’s like if in Magic you always had to attack with all your units, and have some limited amount of Lure to protect.

Attacking in Magic = Not attacking in Hearthstone and Codex.

Attacking in Hearthstone and Codex = Blocking in Magic.

I dunno. Hence this post and this suggestion of putting attacks & blocks between turns, going back to the red zone concept (with the attacker just sending troops over in that direction, and the defender making the choices) instead of the patrol zone or “taunt” concept. It becomes more like Magic and I like that better.

Hopefully this post has had two purposes. First, presenting a design for a Magic: the Gathering variant, whether it’s an official thing from WotC (perhaps a simplified app) or whether it’s someone else making a game inspired by Magic (like Hearthstone, Star Realms, Epic, Ashes, and Codex all sort of are). I’m not saying this should replace our classic, complex game. It’s just something that could be an intro or a nice phone version that still has a lot of depth. Something to do while on the train.

Second of all, by helping Magic players become better at Hearthstone and Codex (and vice versa). Star Realms is a little different since ships can’t block – this thinking can be helpful for Ashes, though (even though it’s not asynchronous, it’s still a game where units can be attacked). So far, I prefer Magic but… this thinking helps me appreciate the other games a bit better, and be a little better at them because some of my Magic thinking can apply.