Epic Experiment: What Can Science Teach Us About Magic: the Gathering?
Peering at data in my old University department, I would occasionally swivel around in response to a “you play Magic!?” from an interested friend or colleague who happened to be walking past. Working on my PhD research in an open-plan building with a copy of Perilous Research tacked above my desk, it was one of the few times that Magic: the Gathering and science would meet.
Although the worlds of work and play rarely crossed over, each taught me a lot about how to be better at the other. It’s a long journey, but grab your safety goggles and let me walk you through what science has taught me about Magic: the Gathering (MTG).
Experiments fail, but we learn from them
One of the first things you learn about science as a new PhD student is that experiments fail. A lot. You only had to be a regular at the pub next to my department and hear my Friday night lamentations to be aware of this. Microscopes break, cell cultures die, irreplaceable reagent explodes, and lines of code are invaded by mischievous hordes of open bracket symbols.
Even if you’ve managed to survive a week without having to ask yourself whether you should scrape your fallen cells off the floor and back into your petri dish, the Gods of Science can still give you a hard time. Your data might cast doubt on a theory that you have founded your project on, and demand that you follow a new path. This can be difficult for new scientists and experienced professors alike.
Engaging with MTG is like running a series of experiments. Each time we draft the current set, we learn a little more about which archetypes are strong, which ones we enjoy, and which cards we overvalue because all we want to do is to make Ancient Brontodon crew a Sleek Schooner.
As Magic players, we love to explore and try out new things, but sometimes our experiments won’t work out the way we hoped – we will incorrectly interpret a signal in a draft, we will put a card in our sideboard that we never bring in after game one, so what can science teach us about running these little experiments and learning from our mistakes in Magic? I think that it’s down to a few things.
The first is our ability to make a prediction of what will happen if we do something (or “generate hypotheses”, in more scientific language. We do this all the time within Magic without thinking about it. We choose a Modern deck because we think it is well placed in the metagame right now. We pick up the smallest creatures and combat tricks in draft because we think the current set favours aggressive strategies. We play our biggest creature because we think that our opponent doesn’t have a counterspell.
The second is to take the information that we learn, analyse it, and use it to make future decisions. This sounds terribly formal and conjures the image of scribbling visual representations of the Standard meta on flipchart paper or entering matchup results into a personal spreadsheet (although I’m not saying that this isn’t a good approach, it may be very helpful for making decisions) but it’s a lot more subtle than that. If an aggressive draft archetype didn’t work out well for us a couple of times, and we read an article saying that it is underpowered, we are less likely to prioritise it when drafting in future.
The third is being able to throw away a theory in the face of contrasting evidence. So much of the time, in science, in Magic, and in life, our investment in something warps our perception of its value. Whether it’s time, money, or our emotions that we have invested, it can be hard to let go and feel like we have admitted defeat or wasted our time, even if we would be better off abandoning ship and starting afresh. It can be incredibly hard to do. As humans, we become attached to the things that we have invested in, and even in science, a field that demands we keep an open mind and think critically about our every perception of the world, people sometimes keep repeating the same experiments in the hope that they will work, in the face of evidence. I have definitely been guilty of this, both in science and in Magic. Learning when to move on from a Standard brew or a series of lab experiments that are failing is so valuable.
Complexity is beautiful
Our understanding of biology has advanced to far that we often find ourselves studying systems so complex and intertwined that we cannot possibly fathom what would happen to “gene Y” if we changed the concentration of “molecule Z”. I have studied only a tiny component of one of the many biological systems that lets our squishy mortal selves keep playing counterspells without falling over. The study of complex biological systems is the inventively named “Systems Biology”.
Within a Systems Biology project, we often have to accept that a) our goal is to study a tiny part of a system far too complex to fit inside our own heads and b) that this is okay. We probably also think that this stuff is fascinating too, else we wouldn’t be doing it.
I can see a few similarities to Magic here.
Often when I have talked to interested friends about Magic, they have responded that they would learn but it seems too baffling and complex. It’s completely understandable why Magic appears this way – the fact that the rules are so long that I have been playing for nearly four years and have only read a tiny section of them, the thousands of different cards, the fact that even high-level Magic requires judges to explain intricate rules interactions to seasoned players.
I think there’s a few reasons why FNM isn’t accompanied by the gentle sound of steam escaping from the ears of Magic players.
You become an expert in a tiny part of it
Imagine every card that was ever printed in Magic. Now imagine the proportion of those that have ever seen play in Standard, ignoring everything else (sorry, Chaos Draft staples). Zoom in further to only the cards played in Standard in 2018, and then to your deck. While we are aware of the history of Magic and may have played Standard for years, we focus on a tiny subsection at a time. That’s exactly how science works, and complexity seems less bewildering when we think of it like this.
You don’t need to know everything
While the more that we know about Magic the better we will likely be as players, we don’t need to be an expert on Lorwyn/Shadormoor draft archetypes to be good at playing Modern in 2018. Knowing a small amount is fine because…
Complexity allows unlimited learning
Magic: the Gathering is huge. Really huge. Even if we studied it full time, we couldn’t know everything there is to know about the game. Just like studying a complex biological system, there’s always new routes to go down, new things to explore. I think this is a major reason why so many of us love to play Magic.
You can take on new challenges one at a time
In science, much as my coffee-fuelled duel-pipette-wielding younger self would have been surprised to hear, you don’t have to do everything at once. Learning something from an experiment might lead to more questions as we delve deeper into our understanding of life, but we can take on challenges one at a time.
MTG is a living card game, being continuously cultivated by the design team at its core, and presenting us with new challenges gradually over time. When we first pick up a casual deck, we don’t get all of the questions that Magic has ever asked dumped on us, we find our way gradually. Kind of like being in the lab.
Optimized protocols are your friend
We had little cardboard boxes in the lab that contained everything necessary to extract a beautifully pure sample of DNA from a smelly, yellow flask of E. Coli bacteria. You would read steps one through ten, pick up “Reagent #1”, add the required volume to your bacteria, centrifuge the contents as instructed… and go from there. This process isn’t an experiment, it’s setup to ensure that you have the tools needed to conduct your experiments.
Although this DNA extraction kit will have been tested rigorously to ensure that does its job as well as possible, it isn’t infallible. It may be better for your future experiments if it allowed slightly more DNA to be extracted, or you might not need it to be as pure as the kit ensures. We could spend time re-writing the kit protocol from scratch to extract a bit more DNA, or to save time on unnecessary purification steps. While there are times that it is absolutely correct to optimize protocols yourself, in the majority of cases it would be horribly inefficient, leaving you with a slightly better protocol but no time to do your actual experiments. There’s much more value in using the information that somebody else has spent time carefully perfecting.
Similarly, in Magic: the Gathering, we don’t have to individually go through the process of working out how much mana should be in a Modern Burn deck. We can look at lists online and make a decision based on what the best decks are doing. If it’s not working out at FNM it might be a good idea to do some tweaking to work out a better land count, but we can use a starting point based on other people’s optimization.
There is however a distinction between accepting a piece of information is correct and understanding why it is correct. If for example we accept that step 2 of our DNA extraction says “mix vigorously” we will be able to replicate this. If after our DNA extraction we end up with insufficient DNA for our experiment, we will have no information on how to fix this if we don’t understand the reason behind the individual steps. If we understand that the purpose of mixing vigorously is to break open the cells and allow DNA to get out, we might know that we can fix our problem if we shake the tube a bit harder. Otherwise, we’ll be stumped.
If we understand that Modern Burn plays about 16 lands because it is a fast deck with lots of cheap creatures, we can make better decisions than if we know that it plays 16 lands, but don’t understand why. We will be less likely to try to build a Jeskai Control deck with 16 lands, which would be too few to fit its gameplan.
That’s not to say that Magic players should learn the reason behind every piece of information and card interaction we come across when we start playing the game, this information is built up slowly. I think it’s pretty normal to learn that Lash of the Whip will kill a 4/4 indestructible creature and to understand why later, although learning both at the same time would be better.
You can’t make it on your own
Unless you spend your days trying to collect tax from Goblins, your job will probably involve some kind of discussion and collaboration. Science is no exception. Although the mental image you may form of a scientist is a lone figure hunched over a microscope in a dark room (and so often, this was me), scientific understanding is the product of countless small steps, iterations and discoveries, each of which is a datapoint in our picture of the universe. To advance, we have to talk to those around us.
Experiments are informed by findings of another person, whether they are in the next office or on the other side of the world. Afternoons can be spent in discussion with colleagues, carefully planning next experiments or theorising about a bigger picture. During my PhD, it was so important to have friends to share in my joys and disappointments, a small team of likeminded people who were all working towards similar goals in science.
Magic is similar. We learn so much from explanations from Judges, strategic advice from friends, insights from reading card reviews, understanding from watching the Pro Tour. Testing teams thrive because they provide companionship and a central place to form ideas. When we learn Magic, having someone to walk us through the steps and explain decisions is so helpful. Magic is an incredibly social game, and like in science, having people to learn from and bounce our theories off is invaluable.
I think there’s a load of similarities between the battlefield and the lab bench, and feel like I have only scratched the surface of what brings together these worlds that I love. A big part of my inspiration for thinking about how work and hobbies relate to Magic came a couple of years ago, after reading Hallie Santo’s excellent article describing what rock climbing (another one of my passions!) taught her about Magic: the Gathering. It showed me an excellent way to think about the connections between parts of our lives.
I would love to hear your Deep Analysis and Accumulated Knowledge – if you have any thoughts on what else brings these world together or sets them apart, let me know!
Thanks for reading,