It’s no secret that I have a big problem with theory. I also don’t bother pretending that that isn’t where I spend most of my time. This apparent contradiction has led many to suppose I suffer from self-loathing or idiocy. Some gusto-seekers have gone so far as to wager on both. Let’s pretend I can…

It’s no secret that I have a big problem with theory. I also don’t bother pretending that that isn’t where I spend most of my time. This apparent contradiction has led many to suppose I suffer from self-loathing or idiocy. Some gusto-seekers have gone so far as to wager on both.

Let’s pretend I can answer these charges, and move on as if nothing were amiss.

I reserve for Magic Theory a generous helping of disdain. This isn’t to suggest that I think that it is somehow worthless and people who work at it are wasting their time. Closer to the truth would be that I get very little out of theory, and so when I read it, I’m wasting my time. How often I carry on regardless is a tribute to just how chock-full my weeks are these days.

And although the separation of Theory and Application has been my bread and butter, Magic Theory is supposed to tell us something important about the game we play.

It’s no good if someone hands you a very accurate map that’s written on a 1:1 scale. Never mind that you can use it to get wherever you want to go. It’s got to be accurate enough to direct your travels, but it still has to fit in your glove compartment.

By the same token, if someone hands you a sheet of paper on which is drawn a circle and "EARTH" in big letters, you’re hardly likely to congratulate them on their unifying approach to mapmaking.

So it is with much of the Theory written today, at least for me. The remainder seems to rest on concepts, the understanding of which is assumed. I hate to let good writers down, but I’m not up to speed. I may have an intuitive idea of what is meant, but I don’t have a good idea of its implications. An excellent example of my misunderstanding is with Deck Archetypes.

The idea of Archetyping is something I’ve been investigating for a couple of weeks. I balked at writing about it last week because I had so little material, but another week’s digging has me resigned to the fact that there simply isn’t enough written about it for me to talk competently about it.

Not that I’d let that stop me. Looking back, I don’t think it ever has.

My search had taken the usual path: Dig through the archives of the major sites, spend hours on fruitless keyword searches. Everywhere I found talk about archetypes, but the content of the word was always either assumed (as in "I think the metagame to be composed of the following archetypes…") or abstracted above my interest ("In Magic, there are three archetypes: Combo, Control and Aggro.").

In short, the discussion I was looking for doesn’t exist, or is equivalently inaccessible. This leaves it up to me to put down canonically the idea of what an Archetype is.

To which I say: Chew it.

Not just because I’m not up to the task. Sure, that’s true too, but also because this is an idea that’s already understood (I think) by a large percentage of the Magic Community. The dictatorial approach won’t work. Shame, that.

Instead I intend to lay bare all my misconceptions, along with false insight, and insist that you, the reader, steer me back onto the right path. I say this with a sincerity I had thought impossible to muster. Please write with criticisms of the ideas I put forth. If you do so, I’ll be able to revisit this topic with more accuracy, and more importantly, credit where credit is due.

If you don’t, there’s an off chance that someone will mistake this for fact.

(For those of you who think this isn’t enough of a challenge, there is a PIE-LOSOPHICAL ESSAY DEATHMATCH at the end of this article. Responses to that are so much more than welcome.)

Before we begin, levity.

B. F. "Skinner" Manders recently bought himself a candy dispenser shaped like Jar Jar Binks, and I quote: "It’s great, see, the candy is shaped like a tongue and it’s inside his head, so to get at it you have to open his mouth up like this, and push the tongue out. So when you eat the candy, you’re making out with Jar Jar."

(Space to think)

Your guess is as good as mine.

Okay, let’s start with the basics. First is the dictionary definition. Never mind that because "archetype" is a claimed word in the Magic Community, this definition won’t necessarily apply. More often than not, words are chosen for their meanings, and I’m a gambling man.

"The original pattern or model of which all things of the same type are representations or copies. A perfect example."

— www.m-w.com dictionary entry for "Archetype"

The key terms here are "pattern," "model" and "perfect."

An archetype is an idealised deck. It is an abstraction of a number of similar decks that exemplifies what they have in common and disregards their differences. In this way it is a model, because it shows you what is common to all members of the group. It is perfect, not because it is the best deck to have those common features, but because it gives you only that information.

The concept of Archetyping rose out of a desire to be able to discuss decks broadly, with inferences applying to all the decks represented by the archetype. The similarity that determines an archetype could be anything: The inclusion of a certain set of twenty cards, colour mix, spell type mix, game plan, or some combination thereof.

Intuitively, the commonality arises from what the deck actually does. Decks that do the same thing will act the same ways in given situations, allowing us to discuss their reactions broadly. However, pinning down what this common action really means is tricky. Speaking simply, every card difference between two decks means there are situations where they react differently. Let’s look in detail at the criteria above.

Wakefield demonstrates that the first criterion is insufficient by making the opposite claim that a set of twenty-two cards can be augmented by others to create different types of decks. The article is located at:


If we were to take the "Secret Force Engine" Archetype, we wouldn’t be able to say much beyond card counts and a general ability to bust out the "Best Fatty Ever Printed."

Colour mix is also easily discarded. What are you going to say about the "Mono-Red Archetype" that applies equally well to Ponza and Classic Sligh? Susceptibility to Burrowing? ("Why, no, OMC. It was precisely the absence of Burrowing that paved the way for Ponza.", "Oh, my mistake.")

Spell mix seems a little more promising, provided we move beyond the land/non-land and land/artifact/enchantment/sorcery/creature/instant distinctions. Decks with similar amounts of cards with similar effects will probably behave in roughly the same way. Although obviously because they rely on different instances of different cards, there will be situations that one instance of the archetype can handle that the other cannot.

For example, if we think of a "Counter-Burn Archetype" as being composed of:

24 Lands

16 Counters

12 Burn Spells

4 Win Condition Cards

4 Miscellaneous

Then it’s clear that the types of counterspells in the deck will have a large impact on how it behaves. Even more glaring is the choice of Win Condition. If you choose Millstone over Morphling, your deck is vulnerable to Disenchant but not Wrath of God.

It is also important to notice that because similar effects from cards are usually limited to a single colour, the idea that archetyping necessarily involves the deck’s colours is smuggled into our understanding.

Game Plan is too nebulous a concept to form the backing for archetyping. While it seems to make sense to compare a Speed Black Weenie deck to a Speed Red Weenie deck (after all, both pour out small creatures quickly and use targeted removal to get around blockers) the differences both in modality of their removal and their access to different kinds of tricks (to say nothing of their weakness to differing sideboard strategies of opponents) makes the comparison fail to yield information beyond what describes them as similar.

Above all, Theory is supposed to tell you something you don’t know.

Here is where I’m stymied. I realise that the concept of Archetyping comes from a synthesis of these factors, but I can’t get them to co-operate in my head. I always end up too abstract or too concrete – never in the middle ground that leads to insight.

Doubtless you’ve read the following, but if not you may find them useful.

Mike Flores has written an excellent set of articles known collectively as "Building Broken Decks." These are available from his column index at


Flores makes good use of the concept of archetypes in his discussion of retemplating decks to beat an established metagame. In fact, the engineering he proposes can be seen as a kind of archetyping in reverse. Situations of certain types are expected to happen, and this in turn suggests a way for the deck to behave. From this is determined the deck itself.

However, it’s this last conceptual leap, from supposed behaviour to actual constitution, that I find very difficult to do. I don’t know if this is the fault of my misunderstanding of archetypes. I suspect it is.

Throughout this article I’ve talked of archetypes as idealised versions of specific decks. This supposed reliance on abstraction is interesting in light of Scott Johns‘ article discussing right-brain involvement in Magic.


Specifically, the section marked "The Epiphany."

His talk of artistry in Magic as a perception of the relations between cards and decks in a non-analytic way is very provocative. It seems to apply very directly to a person’s understanding of archetypes and the larger concepts that have grown out of it, such as metagaming, match-up knowledge, and even more pedestrian things like deck tuning.

I hope that someone makes use of this article as the springboard I could not. Comments, criticisms and replies are eagerly awaited.

Josh Bennett


[email protected]

"Blake, if you don’t get rid of that thing, I can’t make any guarantees on your personal safety." – Sky Winslow Roy

"Seriously, let’s beat him up." – Sky Winslow Roy


(No-Prize for best answer. Excelsior!)

Consider the universe as a 4D block, with three axes describing traditional space, and the fourth being time.

Suppose further that this block has a definite shape. This is to say that for every time-instant past, present and future, there is a definite arrangement of whatever stuff you suppose to take up the space of the universe.

Thus there’s one for now, for five minutes from now, and so on. Each of these is a full description of the universe at that time-instant.

(It may help to contrast this with the idea that the 4D block only extends from now into the past, that the future shape is not fixed, and the block grows as time passes.)

Now suppose that you are able to make temporal truth-claims about the universe. That is to say that statements about future events are TRUE or FALSE at the time of their utterance. Consider the following example.

A lottery number is going to be drawn at Time-2. At Time-1 (earlier than Time-2) you say that Gerald is going to win the lottery. At Time-2 the number is drawn, and Gerald wins. Not only is the statement made at Time-1 TRUE at Time-2, it was also TRUE at Time-1.

The weapon of this Deathmatch is the attempt to salvage the idea of indeterminate events, to make them possible within this understanding of the universe. Otherwise, the universe is pretty uninteresting, being devoid of choice and surprise.

Good luck to all!


It may help to begin your investigation into indeterminacy with Schroedinger’s Cat and similar thought-experiments.


Consider dissociating the idea of "Determinance" from the idea of "Truth". Is it necessarily the case that because the statement made at Time-1 is TRUE at Time-1, that the events of Time-2 are unavoidable?

"I don’t know if this is a" HINT-2 (Wighty):

The three properties of the universe are described as:

1. Fixed 4D shape

2. Presently TRUE statements of future events

3. Indeterminate Events

The three ideas seem to form a cycle, any two of which exclude the third.

Take, for example, the configuration presented in the Deathmatch. On the face of it, this seems to suggest a deterministic universe. If it is TRUE at Time-1 that Gerald will win the lottery at Time-2, then Gerald wins the lottery at Time-2. It can’t be otherwise. Thus there are no indeterminate events.

Alternatively, suppose we can make presently true claims about future events, and there are indeterminate events. We could then understand the universe either as infinitely forked, branching at each moment into possibilities. The statement is true because the future is manifold, and it applies to it. Other interpretations are possible, such as a 4D universe in motion, none of which seem to jive with the idea that the 4D universe is fixed.

Similarly, we can assume a fixed 4D shape and the indeterminacy of events by solving the Schroedinger’s Cat problem by saying that until we open the box, the statement "The cat is dead." is neither TRUE nor FALSE. Thus the universe has a fixed shape, but many things (those indeterminates) are exempt from being the subject of presently TRUE claims of future events. This obviously leaves out property two.

Thus there is no solution and the whole enterprise should be put in the trash.