On the Virtues of Magic

copyright Wizards of the Coast, 1993-present
  1. You learn problem-solving. In Magic, you have limited resources — the cards in your deck, and to a lesser extent the cards in your hand — with which to solve a problem (“Defeat my opponent, typically by reducing him from 20 life to 0”). If your deck is running smooth and unopposed, it can typically do this well… but inevitably you’ll come up against a situation you never dreamed of. “He played what on my creature? And now this other thing happened… Ugh. How do I win now?” I dunno, buddy. How do you win now?
  2. You learn good sportsmanship. I’ve designed a number of decks myself, some of which are not very good, some of which are very good, some of which are very silly, and one of which I don’t play anymore because it’s too good. (It uses some of those Splicers from New Phyrexia to get cheap artifact tokens on the board, followed by a Shape Anew, followed by exactly one copy of a Darksteel Colossus. Playing a Turn-11 card on Turn 4 is typically enough to cause a scoop.) My stated goal in designing these decks is simple: I want my opponent to have fun playing against it. He — well, she; my most frequent opponent is Mara — may win, she may lose, but either way I want her to enjoy the game. That is, literally, secondary to winning as far as I’m concerned. (Which is why I describe that deck as being “too good.”) I think that this value — prioritizing fun over victory; the idea that losing isn’t the worst thing that can happen; the idea that there is, in fact, something more important than winning — needs to be a great deal more present in American society.
  3. You learn to lose gracefully. I’ve mentioned the effects of the Random Number God on your opening hand: having too many spells, having not enough land. This can happen no matter what deck you’re playing. There are some ways around it: not just the mulligan rule, but having specific cards that offset a lack of lands, from Once Upon A Time to Fetch Lands to the Power Nine. The problem with those specific cards is that they can be very, very hard on your wallet. They help you circumvent a weakness that’s built directly into the game: because your hand is random, it’s always possible that your deck simply won’t function the way it’s meant to. Every deck is obliged to lose sometimes, not because its opponent necessarily did anything right but because the deck was condemned, by luck, to do everything wrong. This sucks… and it’s an incredibly valuable lesson for anyone seeking to spend time in that arena called “real life.” (And, like real life, this issue can be defrayed by simply throwing money at it.)
  4. You get good at doing a lot of math. Math is actually a fundamental skill of the game because it determines how creatures function in combat; and attacking (or defending) with creatures is typically the main way a deck reduces its opponent’s life total and/or maintains its own. The reason the math gets complicated is that, while creatures have starting stats in “Power” (how much damage it can do) and “Toughness” (how much damage it can take), these stats can become changed, both temporarily and permanently, by in-game abilities. An incredibly funny show-match between noted Internet personalities Sean “Day9” Plott and Jesse “OMFGcata” Cox shows this happening; Plott has a creature which starts the fight at 1/1 (basically the smallest that a creature can be), but by the end of it has become a 5/3. Learning to keep track of that many rapidly-changing variables is good mental exercise.
  5. You learn to prioritize. Like I said, every deck is good at something specific and bad at something else. So when you’re tinkering with your deck, you’re asking yourself about priorities. “I have this one card — say, Naturalize — that I need rarely, but when I need it it just wins me games straight out. The problem is that I need it so rarely. Most of the time it just takes up space in my hand. What can I replace it with?” This is really a second form of Point #1. “How many copies of it are in the deck?” The rules of the game state that unless the card is a basic land — one of those Plains, Islands, Swamps, etc I mentioned earlier — your deck can only contain four copies of it. “Do I need that many? If I removed two or even one, I could free up space for something else. Or, is there a version of the spell that is somehow beneficial even if I don’t need it? Say, it has Cycling, which lets me pay 2 mana and discard it to draw another, presumably more useful, card. Or what if I just cut it out entirely and put in this other thing that doesn’t do what the original card does, but instead just helps the deck win. What if I double down on my strategy instead of building in safety valves?” There is no single right answer to this question — the correct answer depends on a lot of things, like, “Who am I playing against”; “How often do I need to solve that particular problem”; “How screwed am I, really, if I can’t solve it” — but learning to figure out the answer is an excellent way to build critical thinking skills.
  6. You learn to prioritize. As mentioned previously, the game’s objective is to reduce your opponent’s life total from 20 to 0; as mentioned previously, the main way most decks accomplish this is by attacking with their creatures. Creatures attack en masse, but the defender gets to assign their own creatures as blockers on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes you will need to sacrifice a creature to do this — like if something with 4 Power is on its way, but your only creature would die if it blocked, but you would die if it didn’t block. At that point, it doesn’t matter what that creature is or how it’s meant to fit into your larger game plans, whether or not it’s meant to do something else than die in a fight; you let it die in the fight. But earlier in the game, when you still have all 20 Life? Do you have to throw away that creature that has other purposes in the context of your deck? Should you? What, genuinely, is the most important right now: your life total or your long-range plans for victory? Because you can’t have both. So choose one.
  7. You meet a lot of people. Magic is a hobby that crosses all walks of life; I’ve played it against my wife, against strangers, against classmates, and once against the CEO of my company. (He kitbashed together an impressive Bestow creature that ran away with the game.) This puts you in social situations you might not have otherwise entered into… and that’s always good practice, even if it does mean you’re liable to have a few stumbles on the way.
  8. You learn about your own strengths and weaknesses. Playing Magic will inevitably put you in situations that you weren’t prepared for, which is the first step to preparing for them next time. There’s also the fact that certain colors will inevitably appeal to you more than others do, because they’re consonant with how you want to live your life when you aren’t a planeswalker. (Many of my decks revolve around gaining life and using that as an impediment to my opponent — not just because I’m staving off defeat via lifegain, but via cards that say things like, “When you gain life, you can make your creatures stronger” or “When you gain life, you can deal damage to your opponent”. I like it when my victory is a byproduct of simply strengthening my own position. Yes, Green is my favorite color, why do you ask?)
  9. It’s a vehicle for self-expression. My gift to Mara for our first wedding anniversary was a themed deck. Her maiden name (Barrett) means “bear,” and mine means the number 5, and she hyphenated, so I built a deck that revolves around five different kinds of bear. It is, unfortunately, not very good — bears, by long tradition, cost two mana apiece, so on Turn 4 she has a maximum of 6, maybe 7 Power on the board, whereas that one “too-good” deck I mentioned has 11— but she really liked getting it, which is part of what matters. And the cool thing about Magic decks is that you can always tinker with them to make them better!
  10. It’s relatively cheap. Even if we buy a box, 540 cards, once per set (which are released every 3 months), that works out to about $400 a year for a lot of useful tools that can be combined and recombined into new and interesting decks between the three of us. And in today’s economy, where cable companies are withering because their services are simply too expensive for most people, something which entertains all of us and doesn’t cost a lot of money could be a godsend.

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