The Complex System of Magic: the Gathering

Magic: the Gathering is a long-standing trading card game (TCG), produced by Wizards of the Coast since 1992. The basic premise is this: each player brings to the game their own deck of Magic cards. These cards represent creatures, spells, and items to cast, and the resources to cast them with. Players go back and forth taking game actions dictated by a lengthy and comprehensive set of rules to try to reduce their opponent’s life-points to zero. The game is played by more than 20 million people worldwide and there are thriving competitive and professional tournament circuits. This is a game that is a large part of my life, so much so that I recently drove myself and some friends to Vancouver for the weekend (11 hours away) for a large-scale Magic tournament of around 2000 players.


What makes Magic unique isthat unlike traditional board and card games, where the pieces and rules are fixed, Magic is in a state of constant flux, along multiple axes. Players have agency over which cards they put in their deck, and the skill of deckbuilding is equal parts creativity and criticality. This means that every game of Magic one plays could be radically different than the last. Further, four times a year, Wizards releases a new set of cards, with new rules, mechanics, and themes. This opens up new possibilities for competitive and casual decks. Lastly, in the competitive scene, decks are designed to operate in the context of what other types/styles of decks are getting played and putting up results. This context is what we refer to as the metagame. As new cards become available, and as deckbuilders find new, innovative ways to use existing cards, the metagame shifts, and competitive deckbuilders tweak their designs to follow these shifts.

As I was reading Wilensky and Jacobson (Complex Systems and the Learning Sciences) while on the road to Vancouver this weekend, I couldn’t help but think of these topics in terms of Magic. Magic, the game itself and the metagame around it, is a complex system. Individual games of magic are the products of the interactions between rules, cards, and the human agents playing. From amidst the structure of turns and rules, and variance of randomly shuffled decks, and the decisions of the human players, emerges some meaning of a game that was played between the players, to be recounted later in narrative form to others, generalizing game states and actions from this series of small, linked interactions. At the meta-scale, the metagame is made up of every deck being played and shared by competitive players. The power of the internet has allowed for limitless and instant connection to what decks people anywhere in the world are playing, and winning, with. From this melange emerges the metagame: a set of decks, or types/styles of decks which are currently doing well.

Learning Science researchers might be interested in some questions regarding these complex systems inherent to Magic and other games like it. How do players become fluent in the rules and language of Magic? As a certified Level 1 Judge for Magic tournaments, I have a functioning knowledge of most of the in-depth structures of the rules of Magic, but there is much I don’t know. Many players have an even weaker understanding of the rules that myself, and yet they are able to engage in the game relatively smoothly. How does meaning emerge from these and other socially agreed upon rules of engagement? What are main factors for success in a metagame, and how could this knowledge be leveraged? Are there any ways the study of the complex systems of Magic: the Gathering could impact learning science as it relates to school learning?


Goblin Rabblemaster:

Grand Prix:

Pro Tour: