Tag Archive | Magic the Gathering


Fragments from imaginary dialogues

How come you no longer play Magic the Gathering?

I discovered the principles that underlie what I love about Magic: Modularity and Synergy.

I call Modularity the principle behind Magic’s Lego-like structure, the property of the pieces that make up the game to combine in myriad ways. In the words of Mark Rosewater, Magic’s head designer:

Magic is really not one game but a series of different games connected by a shared rule set and game pieces.

I call Synergy the principle behind what in Magic (and other similar card games) is called a combo. The pieces that make up the game can combine to produce an emergent effect more powerful than the individual pieces. 

Understanding the principles allowed me to transcend the game. I’m now playing a meta-game.

What meta-game?

“The meta-game of Language and Meaning. It’s a game with extraordinary practical application, governed by the same principles as Magic: Modularity and Synergy. Units of language and meaning are modular elements. They can be combined to form new emergent structures. Think of all the two-word concepts I’ve been creating. Those are synergistic structures – combos.

Magic will always be a part of me. I’m now playing Magic even while not playing Magic.”


Quotes as Resource: Quote Combos

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What are quote combos?”

“In Magic the Gathering, cards can be combined to achieve an emergent effect more powerful than the individual cards. I call the underlying principle, Synergy. In the game’s terminology, a synergistic combination of cards is called a combo.

By default, people think of quotes as single entities. However, just like in Magic, quotes can be combined to amplify their effect. This is what I call a quote combo.”

“Can you give an example?”


Less but better. (Greg McKeown, Essentialism)

The small things are the big things. (Josh Waitzkin)

How you do anything is how you do everything. (Josh Waitzkin)

This is a powerful quote combo that expresses an essential aspect of my life philosophy. I have it pinned on the desktop of my computer to see it at all times.”

Question Combos

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What are question combos?”

“Combo is a term from Magic the Gathering. In the context of the game, a combo is a combination of cards that work well together. They’re synergistic. Combined, they amplify each other, producing an emergent effect.

Similarly, a question combo is a synergistic combination of questions.”

“Can you give an example?”


Question + Opposite Question (Inversion)

What is the best decision?
What is the worst decision?

How to succeed at x ?
How to fail at x ?

How to x ?
How to not-x ?

Creativity Tools: The Thematic Oracle

How to use an oracle:

Have a specific question on which you would like a fresh perspective. Clear your mind so that you are in a receptive state.

Pick an “answer” at random.

How does the creative insight relate to your question?
What story does it tell?
What sense can you make out of it?

Try to think of as many contexts as possible in which the Insight makes sense. Be literal in your interpretation. Be metaphorical. Be off-the-wall. Be serious. Don’t worry how practical or logical you are. What’s important is to give free reign to your thinking.

Most insights will trigger an immediate response. Sometimes, however, you’ll look at one and think, “This has nothing to do with my question,” and be tempted to dismiss it. Don’t. Force yourself to make a connection. Often those ideas that initially seem the least relevant turn out to be the most important because they point to something that you’ve been completely overlooking.

(Roger von Oech, Expect the Unexpected (Or You Won’t Find It))

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What is a thematic oracle?”

“Using the normal oracle, you’re asking a question and picking an ‘answer’ at random.

Using a thematic oracle, you’re picking an ‘answer’ from a collection of items that are thematically linked.

For instance, you can pick a word at random from the dictionary. (words)

Or you can generate a random quote. (quotes)

Or you can generate a random Magic the Gathering card. (Magic cards)

Thematic Oracle

You can use anything on the card: the image, the title, the mana symbols, the card type, the set symbol, the description, the flavor text [the italicized text on the card].”

“How do you generate random Magic cards?”

“On my phone, I use the method [<link; short read] we’ve spoken about a little while ago.

On my computer I use Gatherer [<link], the official Magic the Gathering card database. At the top of the page there’s a ‘Random Card’ option. (Sadly the option is missing on the phone.)”

On Magic and Playfulness

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“There’s a new Magic the Gathering set on the horizon called Ikoria, Lair of Behemoths [<link], inspired by the Japanese Kaiju giant-monster genre.”

“I love it how every set is like a big puzzle.”

“Yes, it’s fun to discover the possibilities a new set offers. 

Magic is a beautiful game. For me however it’s also a source of inspiration.

A card that appeared in the context of the set really resonated with me. This one:

“What about it resonated with you?”

“The title: Otrimi, the Ever-Playful. More specifically, the linguistic pattern ‘ever-playful‘.

Playfulness is one of my central values [<contextual-link; medium read]. This pattern gave me a beautiful new way of expressing this essential identity-block [<link, medium read]:

I am Dani, the Ever-Playful.

On Magic and Detachment

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“When playing Magic the Gathering, what’s the most challenging practice?”

“At first, it was keeping it under control. Playing only the amount of time I allocate for it, and playing only after finishing my work for the day, no earlier than 5pm. It was very challenging, but I succeeded. Considering how addictive the game is for me, this is a huge accomplishment.

The most challenging practice now is Detachment from the outcome. Maintaining Balance, by focusing on playing well (and on the beauty of the game) rather than on winning, and in the face of losing and winning.

As a side note, a beautiful thing about Magic is that it’s an environment that allows me to actually practice Detachment. Games in Magic are relatively short (10-20 minutes). I like to think of each game as a repetition (rep). Playing it every day, I get a lot of reps in.”

“How does losing and winning disturb your Balance?”

“There are many aspects that can influence the outcome of a game. The relative power-level of the decks, the skill of the players – which can be quantified by the quality of their decisions (decision-making) and the number of mistakes they make (focus) –, the cards they draw over the course of the game. Due to the random shuffling of the decks, every game of Magic is unique, every gameplay situation a unique puzzle. And, unlike jigsaw puzzles, Magic puzzles often have hidden information.

Magic is a game of decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. Your decisions and capacity to focus are the only things within your control, which do not guarantee victory. You will inevitably lose some games. But even though I understand these things, I have a tendency to forget after a game is over. 

After winning, I feel good, as if everything was under my control. There’s several cognitive biases at work here, among which Resulting, tendency to equate outcome-quality with decision-quality (it is possible to win even if I played poorly), and Hindsight Bias, tendency after an outcome is known to see it as inevitable.
After losing, I feel bad, perceiving it as a personal failure, as if everything was under my control.

Before a game, the practice lies in centering myself.
After a game, in letting go, reconnecting with the value of Humility, and asking myself:

Could I have played better?

On Magic and Anchoring

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“I’ve been reading a lot of Magic [the Gathering] strategy articles lately, and I was struck by how much more there is to learn when I thought I knew it all. It reminded me of the cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect.”

“Remind me what the effect is.”

“Beginners have a tendency to assess their ability as greater than it is. As a beginner, you don’t know what you don’t know.

You’re familiar with the conscious competence learning model:

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence
Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence
Stage 3: Conscious Competence
Stage 4: Unconscious Competence

I was still at stage 1 and I thought I was at stage 3. 

This realization helped me reconnect with the value of Humility – one of my central values.”

What if you actively used Magic as a reminder – a complex anchor?

For instance you could use the iconic Magic color wheel as a reminder of your values.

The Magic color wheel

“I love the idea.

The beauty of it is that I can make use of both the colors and the symbols.”

“What do you have in mind?”

Blue (Water) is a reminder of Balance and Presence.
White is a reminder of Life and Love – which I like to think of as ‘the Sun of my life’.
Black is a reminder of Death, that there is an end.
Red (Fire) is a reminder of Passion and Authenticity.
Green is a reminder of Creativity and Movement and Nature and Interconnectedness.

And all of them combined are a reminder of Wisdom and Virtue and the Macro level.

This is an initial sketch. In time, I’m going to keep refining the model.”


Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“Magic the Gathering is a deep strategic game. As such, it has a long list of concepts describing various aspects and nuances of the game. I view all of them combined as a system of meaning – a (compound-)model.

I’m constantly looking for practical ways I can use concepts from Magic in my own life. One of them for instance is inevitability.”

“What is inevitability?”

“If one player is virtually guaranteed to win the game if it goes long enough, that player is said to have inevitability. In Magic, this is an essential feature of the Control deck-archetype. This archetype plays the long game, and seeks to have an answer for anything the opponent throws at them, to control the game at every step. The longer the game goes, the stronger it becomes.

This is a beautiful metaphor for life in pursuit of Wisdom.

Playing the long game, seeking to have an answer for anything the game that is life throws at you, to be in control at every step, with the unshaken belief that the longer the game goes, the stronger you become. That with diligent preparation, success is inevitable.”

Conquering addiction

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“I love Magic the Gathering. For many reasons. The problem is, for me, it has addictive qualities. It’s immensely engaging. When I start playing, I find it hard to stop. I can literally play it all day. 

I’ve had several failed attempts to keep it in check in the past. Until now.”

“Isn’t it too early to tell?”

“I’m not basing my conclusion just on the recent successes, but on the system I have in place.

I like to think of Magic as two games in one. The actual game, and the meta-game of keeping it under control and looking for ways to transfer insights and concepts from Magic to the Meta-Game (with capital letters) that is my life – what I call The Beautiful Game [<link; medium read].”

“So meta-game is a higher order game, and Meta-Game (with capital letters) is the highest order game.”


The system is part of the meta-game. Optimizing the system is also part of the meta-game.”

“What does the system look like?”

“It has several components.

How long did I play today? 

This is a key aspect. When playing Magic I have a tendency to lose track of time. Moreover, the impulse to play it activates repeatedly throughout the day. By tracking it, I can tell at a glance that I’ve reached the limit for the day.

Observation/Embodiment (Presence)
What is noteworthy?
How do I feel?

This has to do with noticing certain impulses / desires as they arise, and creating space [<link; short read] for decision-making. It also has to do with noticing cognitive biases and the fluctuations of my emotional state.

What’s the best decision? (pre-decision)
Was it the best decision? (post-decision)
Why did I make that decision?
What were the failure-points?
What can I learn from this?

This has to do with decision-analysis, identifying failure-points and behavioral-patterns, troubleshooting and optimizing, and inner exploration. 

Buffering/Back-up (Preparation)
What are the red-flags?
What will I do when I fail?

This has to do with highlighting and preparing for conditions that are likely to lead to poor decision-making, and creating a protocol for dealing with failure.

Intention-Setting (Priming)
What’s the practice?

This is perhaps the most important of all. Having a system in place is useless if you don’t apply it. I noticed I have a tendency to forget, so I have all these written down and I read them right before starting to play.”

On Magic and Decision-making

Fragment from imaginary dialogues

“Thinking Mastery is a both additive and subtractive process. 

Absorbing quality-information and improving your capacity to think and, equally important, minimizing our strong natural tendency to make errors of judgment.

I realize, I’ve been focusing too much on the additive aspect, and too little on the subtractive aspect. I decided to address that.”

“Doesn’t the former also address the latter?”

“Not by default. Combating errors of judgment is a very specific process. You need to know what you’re dealing with (specific knowledge acquisition), and to develop a practice for systematically dealing with them (deliberate practice). 

The end goal is to eventually integrate the two together, such that the additive and subtractive aspects become one. I call this process deconstruction / integration.”

“What’s your approach?”

“Errors of judgment come in two flavors: cognitive biases and illusions, and logical fallacies. The former are the most important, so I started by focusing on them. I’m using this [<link] beautiful resource as the starting point. I want to create a mind-map with all of them, and to also create flashcards with each.

The practice starts with noticing them (observation / introspection). 

That is, being constantly on the lookout for when they occur, and creating opportunities for them to occur.

Take Magic the Gathering for instance.

That’s a perfect micro-environment to work on several biases at once (which makes it a high-density practice):

Confirmation Bias: tendency to favor information that confirms our existing beliefs.

Self-Serving Bias: tendency to take credit for successes and deny responsibility for failures. 

Resulting: tendency to equate decision-quality with outcome-quality.

Hindsight Bias: tendency, after an outcome is known, to think of it as having been inevitable.

Fundamental Attribution Error: tendency to blame the person when other people make mistakes, but to blame the circumstances when we make mistakes.

“What would you say is the most impactful of these?”

Resulting, because it has the biggest potential to improve my decision-making more generally.

I got the concept from a book I’m currently reading called Thinking in Bets [<link], written by a former professional poker player named Annie Duke. The book has been a paradigm shift for me.”

“What other big-ideas have you gotten from the book?”

“One of them is,

Life is Poker, not Chess.

We crave certainty, so we create in our mind fixed – and often rigid – models of the world. We like to think that life aligns as neatly and predictably as Chess. Whenever we make a good decision, a good outcome is certain to follow. And, when life does not conform with our fantasies, we manage to maintain them through skillful application of Confirmation Bias.

I call this the Illusion of Order – our tendency to imagine the world as more orderly than it actually is.

Unlike Chess, Poker (and Magic the Gathering) is a game of incomplete information, a game of decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. Just like life.
In Poker (and Magic), it is possible to lose with a good hand and win with a bad one. Just like in life.

There’s much more uncertainty in our decision-making than we realize. To become a better decision-maker, you need to account for that uncertainty. You need to separate the decision-quality from the outcome-quality.

Annie takes it one step further:

All decisions are bets (on an uncertain future).
All decisions involve risks.
All decisions have an opportunity cost.

In our neat little fantasy world, we tend to operate under a black-and-white reductionistic decision-making model:
‘Good’ decisions produce good outcomes.
‘Bad’ decisions produce bad outcomes.

Under conditions of uncertainty, a better model to base your decisions on is a probabilistic one. According to this model, decisions fall on a continuum: from 0% probability to 100% probability.

With this model, we get a more nuanced image of what a good decision looks like:

A good decision is an informed decision.
A good decision takes into account multiple perspectives / models.
A good decision takes into account our tendency to make errors of judgment.
A good decision is a decision that increases the probability of obtaining the desired outcome.

For a long time in Magic the Gathering, I was focused on the outcome. Whenever I won, I took it as confirmation of how good a player I (thought I) was. Whenever I lost, I blamed it on luck, and felt a strong impulse to play again, in order to confirm how good a player I (thought I) was.”

“Reminds me of a quote by Mark Rosewater [the head designer of Magic the Gathering]:

If you blame luck for your failures, you’re never going to get better.

“There’s a life lesson in that.

Turns out I wasn’t as good a player as I thought I was. Far from it. With this realization, I finally started to improve.

I’m now focused only on the process, on playing as well as I can, and at the end of every game, whether I win or I lose, I ask myself:

Could I have played better?

There’s a life lesson in this too.”