Learning From Magic

How do we learn how to learn? That’s a deep rabbit hole to start going down without a guide, but Magic itself is a great toolkit for learning how to think and solve problems, especially when dealing with uncertainty.

For a long time now, I’ve had the belief that Magic is the best teaching tool I know of for teaching people how to think better. The qualifier there is important, because I want to be up front about my biases. It’s the best tool I know of, but, I strongly belief that people learn best by learning about things they’re passionate about and then extrapolating through analogy from that specialization to understand other things. My dad, for example, is a golfer, and if I tell him about something he’s likely to say “Yeah, that’s like this thing in golf…” We can generally relate any idea through analogy to whatever we have the best understanding of, so it’s natural for me to encounter a new idea and map it to something I’ve already seen in the world of Magic, but that doesn’t necessarily mean my map is any better than someone else relating through whatever their area of expertise is.

With that said, and while fully endorsing the idea that the most important thing is to follow one’s passions and learn deeply about whatever they’re really driven to and that expertise will always lead to things that can be extrapolated into other areas, I do think I have what seems to me to be a lot of reasons to think Magic is particularly well-suited to teaching people everything else they need to know through extension.

So I’ve had this intuition that Magic is great at this because I observe it in myself regularly – I often find myself able to quickly grok new ideas through comparisons to experiences from Magic, but one of my ongoing projects has been to try to find words and examples to demonstrate this theory to other people. I try to collect thoughts about specific ways in which Magic is a great tool for learning to think better in order to catalog them so that I can ultimately make a powerful case for this point. Today, I want to begin the process of organizing these ideas and getting it in writing. This is intended to serve as a foundation for myself for continuing the project through more evidence, and for others to help them recognize areas where they can be drawing from Magic that they may have missed, to help them appreciate just what Magic can and has done for them, and to possibly provide a case for going through the trouble to teach more people about Magic.

Organizing these points is tricky, since what I have to work with at this point is just a collection of observations. I figure I’ll start with one that I think is particularly important, and that was my impetus for writing this now.

Last week, I wrote about cards I was wrong about, and concluded with this:

“The important thing, as always, is to remain flexible in your assessments and to position yourself to learn as fast as possible, but learn “soft” and fast, not hard and fast – keep your positions flexible, as even once you’ve learned something you may find that your understanding was incomplete and you may still need to unlearn it again and learn something else.”

Then the other day, I (mostly) observed a conversation in which Justin Cohen was explaining that he tries to avoid having beliefs – that elevating an idea to the status of a belief makes it harder to update and correct. We’re wrong very often, and it’s hard to even know what things we might be wrong about, so it’s best if we can limit our attachment to our ideas as much as possible.

The people he was talking to didn’t really understand how one could function without forming beliefs – first of all, it’s natural to do so, and second, beliefs inform actions, so how do you ever know what to do if you don’t have beliefs? So I found myself pulling up my own article to read the quote above – the idea that you want “soft” positions rather than “hard” beliefs.

Even for me, when I speak generally about avoiding beliefs, it feels like fluffy nonsense – what does this really mean? But, when I think about it in terms of Magic, it all makes sense, and this brings me to my first point about how Magic is a great thinking tool.

Magic forces you to be wrong very often and to confront the ways in which you were wrong regularly. However, it doesn’t make you conclude that you were wrong because you’re stupid and can’t understand things and just accept that you’ll always be wrong. In Magic, you’re often wrong because Magic forces you to make decisions with incomplete information. Before any tournament, you have to choose a deck. When you do so, you choose a deck to the best of your ability with the information you have, and I think you always know that you’re likely to find out over the next few hours that your choice was wrong. We always know that we’d be able to make a better choice in hindsight, but that’s always what the next event is for. The same is true for any given play – you make a play to the best of your ability given what you know at the time, but you’re aware that you don’t know anywhere near everything you’d want to know in order to make the best possible decision, like the cards in your opponent’s hand or on top of both players’ libraries.

In Magic, we make decisions without forming beliefs all the time. Through this model, I can recognize that really, everything else I’m doing works the same way – when I’m forced to make a decision, I weigh all the information I have and choose the best course I can think of. It’s not hard for me to see how thinking through a list of things I believe and defining myself by them, something people do all the time, can be dangerous. For example, as a kid, teenager, and college student, I identified as someone who didn’t drink – rather than just being someone who had always evaluated the situation historically and at each point when I could have drank determined that I’d rather not, I took on the “doesn’t drink” label as part of my identity. Any time we do this, we create a higher cost to changing our positions. I ultimately decided to remove that label, and I drink occasionally now. I think there’s not a terribly high cost to having made it harder for myself to decide to drink, but my position led me to make some very stupid predictive statements about the future.

Anyway, this is getting a little off topic. My point is, when you make a draft pick, sometimes you’re very confident that it’s right. I believe that I should take Tragic Arrogance over Thornbow Archer in my U/W draft deck if they’re somehow the only two cards in the pack. That is a position that I have extremely high confidence in. However, if I’ve first picked Kytheon’s Irregulars and I’m passed a pack with Sentinel of the Eternal Watch and Consul’s Lieutenant, while I have a high confidence that my draft is off to a great start, I’ll have very low confidence in whichever pick I make – the idea of a belief would certainly never enter into it – when I take one of those cards, I’m not trying to make a statement about which is right, I just have to make a decision and take one. I think it’s healthy to get used to being in that position, and to recognizing that you could be wrong, without letting it reflect heavily on you because you just don’t know yet.

To sum up, I’d say the skill Magic is teaching here is mental flexibility – the ability to make decisions without becoming attached to them, and to be able to update easily.

Going back to another conversation I’ve had in the past with someone who was familiar with Magic but didn’t really play, I brought up my belief in Magic as a learning tool and he agreed that it was valuable, but what stood out most to him was how it teaches people to look for creative uses for the tools available to them (an idea he called “munchkining” meaning loosely, “taking advantage of rules/systems/anything in unintended or unintuitive ways”). I’m currently listening through the Worm audiobook, a piece of web fiction about a girl with the ability to control and sense through insects, and one of the particularly compelling aspects of the story is that she’s very good at using her power creatively to accomplish as much as possible with her abilities. I’d like to think that Magic players in general would have a similar skill set at doing as much as possibly with the tools presented to them.

Magic teaches this by having cards with specific intended functions that you often use in other ways. For example, sometimes you play a deck with Monastery Swiftspear and Searing Blood against a creatureless control deck, and you find yourself targeting your own Monastery Swiftspear with Searing Blood to deal an extra damage with Prowess. It’s certainly not how you drew it up, but every point counts. Sometimes it’s something different, something as simple as reading the card Talent of the Telepath, a card that’s ostensibly about casting your opponent’s spells, and realizing that the effect you really care about is the fact that it puts seven cards from your opponent’s library into their graveyard so you can use it as a mill card that might have some upsides. If you show this card to a new player, I bet very few of them would read it and say, “Oh, so the point of this card is that you can deck your opponent with it?” In practice, however, that’s when it’s been most tempting to me.

If I’m making the case that Magic is uniquely well-suited to teaching people, one might ask why Magic and not some other, similar game like Hearthstone? To me, Magic isn’t just about the actual game, it includes the community, the tournament support, the articles, and the rich history of the game. In this way, Magic has several advantages.

Magic has a long history of excellent theory articles that teach people how to think strategically about Magic, but all of these concepts are easily extended to other areas of strategic thinking. To use a fairly standard example, “Who’s the Beatdown,” a concept written about for Magic and easily understood through Magic, can readily apply all over – the simple message is basically to identify who has inevitability in a conflict, and to recognize that the other side it the one that has pressure to make immediate progress – to use an example in a very different context, a parent teaching their adolescent child about safe sex is the beatdown – there’s a natural time pressure to accomplish their goals before it’s too late. They may at first tell themselves that they hope their kid comes to them with questions since, after all, kids should want to learn and their parents are there as a resource. But ultimately, a concerned parent is often going to have to be the one to bring up the topic because the possibility that their kid will not have the knowledge they wished to impart on them before being presented with a situation where it’s important has inevitability.

Basically every strategy article can be applied to all strategic thinking, and recognizing this is exactly why I think it doesn’t have to be Magic that one learns – if the whole point is that “Who’s the Beatdown” applies everywhere, every other discipline can teach the same lesson in different terms and then that idea could be extrapolated just as easily. However, I think most fields don’t lend themselves to developing the wealth of strategic written content that Magic has – for one thing, the financial incentives behind a strategy website that collects these kinds of writing, like this one, are relatively unique to Magic.

Moreover, I don’t think live tournament Magic really gets enough credit for how wonderful an environment it is, since people who go to Magic tournaments all basically understand that they’re great, which is why they go, so instead we focus on the problems – ways in which they can be exclusionary, specific negative events, problems with venues – things we’d like to improve. It’s much more useful to do that than to pat ourselves on the back for our strengths, but I do think it’s worth being aware of what’s going on here.

Magic tournaments, to me, represent the ultimate chance to do science – to test my theories in the real world and see how well I’m doing with my understanding of the game, but there’s a lot more going on outside of the game.

Magic tournaments are an opportunity to meet other people with a similar passion for the game, but who are quite diverse beyond that. Yes, it’s easy to point out that they don’t include the full diversity that exists among the human experience, and that they’re mostly white, mostly male, and, I’d guess, mostly above-average wealth… but really, most people are exposed to very little diversity in the course of their life, and I think Magic is pretty far above the average at exposing me to people with a wide variety of different backgrounds and beliefs. And it’s important that it offers a common ground and reason to interact. I’m really not the sort to go out of my way to meet strangers, but I’ve still had some very good conversations with my opponents from time to time where I’ve learned something interesting about what they do or their background or perspective.

Further, and possibly most importantly, Magic offers strong pressures to be social, to connect with other people to discuss ideas. Almost everyone who’s successful at Magic is part of a team, and almost everyone has groups of friends they play with and talk strategically to. For some, like me, connecting to people as a kid in school may have been hard, and Magic was useful just as an introduction to really functioning as a member of a large social structure. But even for people who may have needed that socialization less, Magic forces you to develop tools to share and debate information and strategies.

When my friends and I disagree about a pick, a deck choice, or a card for a deck, we discuss our reasons for our positions, and most of the time one person will convince the other or at least we’ll understand why we disagree and the potential advantages to the other person’s position. “Oh, you’d second-pick the Consul’s Lieutenant because you think aggressive decks are most successful in Magic Origins draft, and you’re going to take a two-drop over a six-drop when it’s close, and you’re happy to commit to heavy white anyway because you already have Kytheon’s Irregulars, which also strongly push you to playing 9+ Plains? I’d take Sentinel of the Eternal Watch because I think I’d rather draft a deck that’s planning to play longer games because I think Kytheon’s Irregulars will often win a game at any point that I draw it, so I’d rather plan to see more cards each game on average. Given that, the more expensive but higher-impact card that will be better when I draw it in the midgame is the better choice for me.”

Compare how productive these conversations tend to be to your average debate on Facebook, where it can be reasonably argued that no one involved has any interest in reevaluating their own position and instead both are merely looking to make points to convince anyone else who may happen to read the exchange – or even just to publically demonstrate which side of an issue they’re on.

The purpose of any game, I’d suggest, is to artificially create conflict – which gives the players experience working through conflict and solving problems. Magic is great at raising a huge number of questions very quickly, letting people work through them, and then changing again to make people do it all over again.

These are the tools Magic has taught me that I’ve most recently appreciated, but I know it’s far from everything Magic has to offer. As I said above, I’m interested, as a long-term project, in building on these ideas and developing a catalogue of ways in which Magic teaches us. As such, if you have any suggestions for any lessons you think Magic has been great at driving home for you, I’d be really interested in hearing about them.