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 Anchoring 3

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“Magic the Gathering is not one game, but many. In the words of Mark Rosewater, the game’s head designer (and one of my favorite creative people):

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

The various sub-games that make up Magic are called formats.”

“What’s your favorite Magic the Gathering format?”


“What is Draft?”

“The formats fall into two main categories: Constructed and Limited

In Constructed, you build your deck of cards ahead of time from a large pool of cards.
In Limited, you build your deck on the spot from a small pool of cards.

Draft is a Limited format. 

Magic cards come in randomized 15-card packs called ‘booster packs‘. Draft is normally played with 8 players around a table. The players start with three booster packs in front of them. Each player opens one pack, picks a card from it, and passes the remaining cards to the player on their left. This process repeats around the table until all cards from the first pack are gone. 
Then the players proceed to opening another pack, following the same process, then the third pack, until all cards are gone. 
Finally, the players build a deck from the cards they drafted, and play against one another. It’s like a mini-tournament.

Draft is a very skill-intensive format that requires making the most from a limited set of resources. A bit like life.”

“You want to focus on the process, not the outcome, yet you are keeping track of your Draft games and winning ratio. Why?

My current Draft stats on Magic: Arena for the set Theros Beyond Death

“Unlike Chess, which is a game of perfect information, Magic is a game of imperfect information. In Chess, your skill as a player can be very precisely quantified. In Magic, no matter how good a player you are, you are going to lose many games due to factors outside your control.

The best way to quantify your skill as a player in Magic is as a win/loss ratio. As long as you consistently make good decisions in the face of uncertainty, you’re going to win more than you lose. The larger the sample-space, the more accurate the conclusion. 

As a side note, my current sample-size is not large enough to draw an accurate conclusion.

This is an objective overview of how good you are as a player, which is a strategy for overcoming several cognitive biases.

It’s also a beautiful metaphor for life. We’re all imperfect beings, operating under conditions of uncertainty. We can never achieve a 100% win ratio. Even an 80% win ratio is a stretch. The best we can strive for is consistently maintaining our win ratio above 60%. This serves as a beautiful reminder for embracing Humility.

As another side note, this is just a model. To gain a better understanding you need to employ more than one model. For instance, a too high win ratio can signify that you’re not probing the limits of your comfort zone, hence you may be stagnating.”

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.”