Tag Archive | Magic the Gathering


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.”

On Magic and Habit-tracking

In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety. (Abraham Maslow)

The small things are the big things.

Fragment from imaginary dialogues

“I love that quote by Abraham Maslow. Brian Johnson likes to think of it as +1 or -1, and has a beautiful metaphor for it: Destiny Math

Every +1 and -1 is a micro-decision, which most often escapes notice. It is the compounded effect of all those little moments that determines our Destiny. 

Which brings me to Magic the Gathering and habit-tracking.”

“What’s the connection?”

“As you know, I love Magic. I love playing it, and I love delving into the design aspect of it. I love it as an experience, and also because it connects me with and allows me to practice some important values/skills: Creativity, Focus, Adaptability, Patience, Persistence, Decision-Making, Strategic Thinking, dealing with uncertainty, among many others. 

The problem is, for me, it has addictive qualities. It’s immensely engaging, and once I get going, I find it very hard to stop. My solution for the past few years was to stop playing altogether. Until now.

In an instance of Inversion [<link; medium read], I’ve taken it as a challenge to conquer my addiction.”

“You’ve tried this in the past. What’s different this time?”

I now see it as a spiritual practice

Thinking of it as a bet, the potential benefit of success is huge. If I can conquer my most powerful addiction, what else is possible?

Also, in the past, I was relying only on willpower. Not smart, since willpower is unreliable. 

I now approach it strategically

Every playing session is a meditation

Every playing session is a deliberate practice. I start each session with a written plan of action, detailing what I’m focusing on during the session, and end it with a debriefing session, where I analyze what went well and what didn’t.”

“Can you give an example of a spiritual aspect of the practice?”

“I play an online version of the game called Magic the Gathering: Arena. I play against real people. The game has very few social features. The only way to communicate with the opponent during a game is through a small selection of preexisting emotes, like ‘Hello’, ‘Well Played’, or ‘Good Game’.

I’ve made it a habit to always say ‘Hello’ to my opponent. And when I do it, I take a moment to center myself, focusing on my Heart, and send them Love.

Which brings me to habit-tracking.

That’s another strategic tool. I added Magic to my habit-tracker app [<link]. Initially, I added it as a yes/no ‘having completed the habit’ kind of thing. But then I had an idea:

What if I used the +1/-1 system for this particular habit?

Whenever I do something well, I celebrate it and mark it as a +1.
Whenever I lose balance, I mark it as a -1.

The goal for the day is to end it on at least a certain specific positive tally, like at least +3.

I call it +1/-1 Tracking.”

“Do you use this system only with this habit?”

“I’m thinking of using it only with the most challenging habits, as it’s quite laborious.”

On Magic and Models 5

A Magic the Gathering deck

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“As we’ve talked before [<link; medium read], I’ve turned Magic [the Gathering] into a complex mental model. So it has practical application.”

“Can you give an example?”

“One of the things I love about Magic is its modularity. This is an essential feature of the Magic-model.

Structurally, Magic can be broken down into two phases: deck-building and play.

Think of Poker. You have a fixed deck of cards, which are shuffled together, and cards are extracted from it in random order according to a specific set of rules.

Unlike Poker, decks in Magic are customizable. Magic cards can be combined in a myriad ways.

The Designer that I am, I’m constantly optimizing the many systems of my life. In fact I think of optimization itself as a system to optimize.

A (not that long a) while ago, I asked myself:

How can I optimize Optimization?

The answer opened up a beautiful design-space: Magic.

What if I created physical optimization cards, similar to Magic cards?

I started playing with the idea, did a little prototype, and loved it. So I started building on it, optimizing with each iteration.

Magic has a number of card types distinguishing different types of spells (creatures, instants, sorceries, enchantments, and artifacts). At some point I asked myself:

What if I created different types of cards?

I tested it, and loved it.”

“What types of cards did you create so far?”

Optimization cards – How can you optimize x ?
Implementation cards – How can you implement x ?
Questioning cards – various questions

Learning cards – refreshers on the things I’ve learned
Priming cards – cards with a priming effect

What’s beautiful about the system is that, since all the cards have the same size, they can be combined to form decks, which allows for deck-building.

Like this:

They’re not as as pretty as Magic cards, but they get the job done, and are a joy to play with.”

On Magic and Models 4

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“You use a certain linguistic pattern a lot: two words linked by a hyphen.


For example ‘transitional-space‘, or ‘decision-point‘. Can you explain the meaning of this pattern?”

“Viewed as a template [<link; medium read], the pattern looks like this:

model3 = model1-model2

model3 is the synergistic combination between model1 and model2. A ‘combo‘, to use some Magic [the Gathering] terminology.

A Magic the Gathering combo.
The two cards work together to produce a powerful effect (infinite recursion).

model3 is an emergent model.

Let’s take transitional-space, since you used it as an example. 

The models that make it up are transitional and space. Space here is used as a modifier-model, similar in function to how a linguistic suffix modifies the meaning of a word.

So modifier-models look like this:
Prefix: model-
Suffix: -model

I actually use this notation for modifier-models, so with a hyphen before or after the model-word. In your examples, the modifier-models are -space and -point. Using them, you can create all kinds of useful conceptual-tools.

A few examples:

liminal-space (threshold-space)


All these have potential practical application.

Combining models is a magical creative-playground – and a beautiful design-space.”

On Magic and Models 3

A Magic the Gathering deck

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“Can you give another example of how you apply the Magic the Gathering model to Models Thinking?”

“Another application of the Magic model is deck-building.

In the same way in order to play Magic you select a number of cards to form a deck, you can select a number of models to form a metaphoric ‘deck’. A models-deck.

So, essentially, a models-deck is a particular combination of models for achieving a specific end.

A models-deck is a priming-tool.

For instance, I start every single day with a morning activation ritual, where I activate my mind and body.

I activate the mind with a priming ritual, by reading a selection of powerful ideas, followed by a themed writing session focused on implementation / optimization. 

I activate the body with movement.

As part of my priming ritual, there are two models-decks. One is focused on tools, the other on representations [<link; medium read].

I call this models-priming.”

“Can you show me one?”


This is the Tools deck:


The Obstacle is the Way
(Parkour, Inversion, Reversal, Creative Limitation)

Big Thinking [<link; medium read]
(Holistic, Big-picture, Macro, Big-Questions, Integration)

(80/20, ONE Thing, Essence, Editing)

(Love – Beauty, Play, Gratitude;
Self-care, Mind / Heart, Movement / Stillness, Input / Output)

Presence / Embodiment
(Flow, Focus,
Empty-Space, Slowing down, Pause-Point,
Metacognition, Hyper-Awareness, Observation, Patterns)

(Oscillation, Activation, Activation Energy, Perpetual Motion Machine, Re-Commitment) (Oscillation, Re-Commitment,
Activation, Activation Energy,
Parkour, Movement snacks, Perpetual Motion Machine)

(Deliberate Practice, Learning Zone,
Focused / Diffuse Thinking, Divergent / Convergent Thinking,
Feedback Loop, Evolution Spiral, Problem/Diagnosis/Design,






(Stacking, Life-Stacking, Transitional)

(Beautiful Opportunity, Gift,
Opportunity Cost, Contrasting)

On Magic and Models 2

[Part 1]

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

Models Thinking (or Modelling) is like Magic the Gathering.”


“I’ve connected the two systems of meaning, thus creating an emergent system. I’ve turned Magic (viewed with a game-designer’s eyes) into a complex mental model which I use to enrich my Models Thinking and create new models.”

“Magic the Modelling?”

“You could say that.

The unit of Magic is the card.
The unit of Modelling is the model.

Just like cards in Magic can be combined to create a synergistic emergent effect, the same with models.

Just like in Magic,
some models work well on their own,
some models work better in combination with others,
some models work only in combination with others.

The beauty of it is that it allows for the transfer of Magic design concepts and principles.

For instance a useful concept from Magic design is that of variance. One aspect of it is connectivity, which in the context of Magic is a card’s interaction possibility-space, the potential number of cards it can interact with, which can be high or low.

In Magic, a card with a clone-type effect like Evil Twin has a high variance because it can interact with all cards of the ‘creature’ type.

In the same way, we can speak of high/low variance models.

For instance, there’s a type of models which I call modifier-models. Like Meta.



Meta is a high-variance model.”

“Looks like you’ve tapped into a rich design space there.”

“I’m thrilled at the prospect of exploring it further.”

On Magic and Models

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“One of the things I love about Magic the Gathering is its modularity.”

“What do you mean?”

“The best analogy is with Lego. You have a number of colorful interlocking pieces which can be connected in countless ways to create objects.

In the same way, in Magic you have a (huge) number of colorful interlocking cards (representing spells) which can be connected in countless ways to create experiences.

The magic of the game (pun intended) lies in the interaction between the cards, and the joy of playing the game (partly) comes from the discovery of connections between the cards, especially when not immediately obvious (or intended).”

“It seems there’s joy even in not playing the game.”

“Oh, yes. Joy in the exploration of its design. A meta-game.

As you know, to play the game, you select a number of cards, within certain constraints, and form a deck. The better the cards making up the deck work together, the better the deck.

Some cards work well on their own.
Some cards work better in combination with others.
Some cards work only in combination with others.

The extent to which two or more cards work together is called synergy. The most powerful synergy is called a combo.

I like to distinguish between two kinds of synergy:
micro-synergy: synergy at the level of the individual cards.
– macro-synergy: synergy at the level of the deck.

In essence, synergy is a kind of emergence. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

By extension, we can think of micro- and macro-emergence.”

“I see some beautiful emergent possibilities from the concept of emergence.”

“Now that I think of it, creativity itself is emergence.

The essence of creativity lies in making connections. In making connections, you’re essentially creating an emergent higher-order level of meaning.”

[Part 2]

Two Games

When force of circumstance upsets your equanimity, lose no time in recovering your self-control, and do not remain out of tune longer than you can help. Habitual recurrence to the harmony will increase your mastery of it. (Marcus Aurelius)

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“Even if I no longer play it, Magic the Gathering remains one of my all-time favorite games.”

“What do you like about it?”

“The art of it, the creativity, the design, the structure, the modularity, the variety, the flavor, many things.

Magic is really not one game but a series of different games connected by a shared rule set and game pieces. (Mark Rosewater, head designer for Magic)

For me, Magic is a beautiful resource, a rich metaphoric system, a source of design inspiration, and in many ways, a model for The Beautiful Game [<link; medium length].

Magic the Puzzling

The picture you see is a Magic the Gathering puzzle, a game situation specifically created by someone to solve.

However, I like to see any game situation in Magic as a puzzle.

You have a set of game resources (life total, cards* in your deck, cards in hand, cards on the table), and a unique game state, and you have a limited time to make the best possible decision given these circumstances.

I realize, for me, part of the joy of playing Magic was solving such puzzles, and adapting to any game situation.

In the same way, any life situation can be seen as a beautiful puzzle to solve.

You have set of life resources (energy level, learned mental tools, mental tools available, prior set-up/build-up), and a unique life state, and you have a limited time to make the best possible decision given these circumstances.

We could call this The Decision-making Game. Its essence can be captured with a question:

What’s the best decision?

However, unlike Magic, the Decision-making Life-Game has an additional layer: accessing your resources, which is dependent on your mental state.

In an unresourceful state you only see problems not solutions. (Tim Ferris)

Being able to play the Decision-making game requires that you put yourself in a resourceful state. Or, to use Tony Robbins’ (and my preferred) terminology, a beautiful state [<link; medium].

We can think of being in an unresourceful state as being out of balance.”

“Makes me think of what Brian Johnson called ‘The Equanimity Game‘ seeing how fast you can recover balance once lost.”

“I love Brian’s idea of The Equanimity Game. This is just my take on it.

Whenever you’re out of balance, the micro-quest (and absolute priority) becomes to recover it and to return to the beautiful state.

“What if you made the beautiful state your baseline, your center?”

“That’s one of the life-puzzles I’m working on right now.

The Equanimity Game and the Decision-making Game are twin games. The Equanimity Game is an enabler, it sets the stage and opens the door for the Decision-making Game.”

* The cards in Magic the Gathering represent spells, and mana-generating lands that allow you to cast the spells.