Why is nobody writing about theory in Magic: the Gathering anymore? Does it even matter? – Wisdom Fae Under the Bridge
“Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.” – Karl Popper
Magic: the Gathering is 24 years old this year, which is definitely longer than most expected; I remember being about 14, walking down the street with Rob Brooks, when I made a remark about the game’s future in 5 years, to which he laughed, and said “Magic won’t be around in 5 years, fool!”. Here we are 18 years later, and the sun isn’t even close to settling on Magic: the Gathering.
Why has it been so successful? There is no doubt that the early setting – which was very much like popular Dungeons and Dragons Forgotten Realms – was incredibly appealing. The Brother’s War between Mishra and Urza, then the legacy of that which fed into Mirage, Tempest, Urza’s and Invasion blocks really set up the story behind the game, and made it very engaging. The artwork, interesting characters and non-standard creature types (slivers, spikes) created an identity for the game distinct from, but still inclusive of, the more standard fantasy settings featured in Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Battle and (now) Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons and Dragons.
I started playing Magic because I used to roleplay at the shop, which I started doing because my war gaming school mates roleplayed too, and I’m sure many others have similar stories. Those games represented fierce competition for Magic: the Gathering, though, as well as a degree of overlap. The initial cost of buying the core books for Dungeons and Dragons is reasonably high, but once you have those, an assortment of dice and (if you can be bothered – we didn’t bother) a figure to represent your character, you’re done in terms of investment, unless you want further expansions… but these are far from required because the game is as big as your imagination. Games Workshop opened their 100th store in the UK not long after I started playing Magic (I remember this happening because there was a sale, but I don’t know the particular date). Many of you will be familiar with these stores as they are now; fairly crisp looking games stores with decent playing areas, located in slightly off the high street locations. Independent stores at this point in time were not close to being able to afford these premium retail spots.
I remember working in Highlander Games when one of the guys who used to work at Games Workshop came in, not long after I’d drifted out of war gaming “cards are good; I play (which is of course why he was there), but they don’t compare to wargames.” For him, the big difference was the tactile thing of owning your army, building it and painting it, and having a product at the end of it. Something which he’d built. I can now – as I did then – see the appeal of this argument.
The questions of “what made me change games” and “why did Magic survive” within this context have the same big answer, to my mind; the Pro Tour and the competitive scene at large. Trying to become a better player. Honing my testing practices to be more efficient. Trying to win events. Finding the little things which will give me some sort of edge. Working out how to shore up a match up so I’m favoured without giving up too much percentage against other decks. Searching for a way to improve after I’ve consumed practically all the theory there is, or could be, about Magic: the Gathering…
….Hold up. Theory in Magic is largely based on theory about Chess and Poker. Chess originated at some point before the 7th century, while Poker came about in the modern era, sometime in the early to mid 18th century. Both of these games are still being discussed and theorised about, written about, innovated within and are changing in terms of their theoretical underpinnings as I write. Magic: the Gathering came out in 1993, and then largely borrowed its theory from these games. There is still plenty to write and think about in terms of theory for Magic, because the reality is that the game is in its infancy.
Why is there so little work done on theory?
There are, to my mind, three big reasons for this. Firstly, the game changes quite a lot from year to year. Making a statement about tempo, now, in one of the most uncompromisingly aggressive Standard formats since Mirrodin, is very different to making the same remark when Jund was the big deck in the format, or when UW Control dominated Standard with Sphinx’s Revelation, and even more different than when Ironclaw Orcs was a go-to card for red decks. That’s not to say that tempo wasn’t a thing in any of these formats, but it was certainly different in nature. Tempo – loosely – describes how time can be gained or lost in terms of development within a game. Toolcraft Exemplar, into Scrapheap Scrounger, into Unlicensed Disintegration as a game winning opening can (rightly) be described in terms of tempo, as the creature power density strongly resembles the late game, and the killing of their creature, combined with 3 damage is both lost development for them and very much like casting two spells in one turn for you. Bloodbraid Elf cascading into a removal spell for their blocker, allowing you to kill their planeswalker is also a massive tempo play, though, from a very different sort of deck, and very different cards.
When UW control was the big Standard deck, it played Azorius Charm, which wouldn’t normally be a great card, but it did a lot to hinder their development, allowing the UW Control deck to continue developing into one of the best late game Standard plans in recent memory, namely chaining Sphinx’s Revelations, and recycling them with Elixir of Immortality. Back in the old days, when the internet was barely a thing, there was a deck called Sligh which featured Ironclaw Orcs because it was efficient, and filled out the deck’s mana curve.
Back then, creatures were terrible, and this idea was pretty cutting edge. The Sligh deck is the ancestor of today’s Mardu, which is why the cards in those decks are vaguely similar, but the others are also often tempo cards. The problem with this is that it makes the term tempo pretty nebulous, which makes it difficult to articulate ideas about for writers, and more problematic than most people will let on in terms of comprehension. Tempo is the best example of this problem as it might be the least well understood concept in Magic theory, but concepts like Expected Value and even card advantage are difficult terms, and their relationship with the game is in a constant state of transition.
Which leads us to the second point; the game changes so much from year to year in small and large ways that there are plenty of other things to write and think about, so there is a tendency to write about these topical issues instead. I’ve spoken with Bradley Barclay often about writing, and he has remarked that he would write, but he would want to write about the things which would impact people most, and these are long topics to write about, often unpopular, and the length and complexity of the article would mean he’d want paid more than he would realistically be paid. When I first started writing I thought I’d write more theoretical content than I do, but even now with a pretty considerable amount of experience, the idea of doing so is daunting. Would I get it right? Would anyone even want to read it?
This is the last reason no one writes these articles anymore – it’s really not clear that people would actually want to read them. There is loads in the way of content which will help you win more games *right now*. A standard primer on the deck you’re going to play next week is going to make way more of a difference to your chances of winning the event next week than an updated article on tempo. Long term, it would almost certainly be better to read an article on tempo, but people want results immediately.
Why does it matter that there isn’t any work done on theory?
One answer to this is that perhaps it doesn’t matter. Live content (streams, video content) might be the next evolution in the consumption of information about gaming. It might be that you can consume the content on theory so that you have an approximate idea of how the game operates, play a bunch yourself, then watch *loads* of content from professionals and ringer types, and do your best to copy them, without necessarily understanding why they do the things they do, or play the cards they play.
The problem with this is that it makes it very hard to be anything special at the game. How do you ever get to the point where you’re able to do well at the highest level if all you do is copy plays? How will you build or choose a deck for a Pro Tour? Will you simply accept a ropey match up because you’re taking someone else’s sideboard, and you don’t have the mental tools to make informed changes? How will you discuss things with your team mates, when none of you really understand the game?
As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, I’ve been playing loads of Overwatch recently. The content for improvement in that game constantly stresses the idea of playing competitive games to get better at the game, to improve on a fundamental level, not to go up ranks. Magic doesn’t have a ranking system anymore, but there is a lot to be learned from this idea. There is pressure – each week, now, with the PPTQ system – to achieve things in the game. For me, it used to be that I’d be annoyed if I didn’t top 8 every 3rd PTQ or so, and if I kept losing in the top 8s, that would also annoy me. Then with the PPTQ system it became the case that I was annoyed whenever I didn’t top 8, and *really* annoyed when I didn’t win a top 8 after I’d made a couple. Another thought which has occurred to me is that on 7 big events I’ve qualified for (European Championships, 5 Pro Tours and last year’s World Magic Cup) I haven’t played great decks. I’ve had access to them a few times, and not played them, which is also regrettable, but the point is that I don’t have the skill set after all these years to be able to build good decks, which is what is needed to some extent to actually take advantage of the rare times when one gets onto the Pro Tour.
Progress in Magic is a matter of inches, not miles. There is a lot to be said for less immediate, results based plans for getting better, because the reality is that you will likely be waiting quite a while before you qualify for anything big, and when you get there, you’ll need more than the ability to soak up information from professionals playing games on Twitch.
So, what is the solution?
Read everything you can about theory. Make note of the writers who write about theory. If you write, try to write about theory. The theoretical tools which we have at our disposal now will be made redundant in time, and new ones will take their place. The best players in the game will either keep up with the times, or they too will be rendered obsolete. If you truly aspire to succeed in Magic: the Gathering, then you certainly must understand it. In the medium term, what you will need to consistently succeed in qualifiers and so on is some sort of edge, and theory is a frontier with no frontiersmen.
For my part, I’m going to try to write more theoretical content, starting with something on statistics for next week. When I first started writing this article it was my intention to make a smaller point about theory as a segue into a point about statistics, but it turns out that I had more to say on that topic than I thought.
That’s it for this week. all the best in your qualifiers – if you’d like some immediate results, I’d suggest playing Temur Tower, but that’s mostly just because I’ve been doing reasonably well with it in the last few events.
All the best,