SCG Talent Search – Should Magic: The Gathering Be An Olympic Sport?

Wednesday, January 12th – Pedro Alvarado made it to the Top 8 of the SCG Talent Search, and this week, does something completely different. He asks a simple question: Should Magic be an Olympic sport?

I hate to come out and spoil the conclusion right from the first paragraph, but let’s get one thing straight:
Nothing that can be played online is a sport.

If you weigh-in at 480 pounds and need to call the fire department every time you want to get to the front door from your prostrate position on the couch, then you shouldn’t be called an “athlete” any more than Michael Vick should be called a “dog lover.”

Having gotten that out of the way, we can now start down the utterly satisfying path of overanalyzing the meaningless. Oh yes, this article will be aiming at the little kernel of pleasure that’s smack dab in the middle of the “useless but fun” portion of your reptilian brain. Onward Ho!


Games, be they physical or mental, allow us to have black and white results in a world full of grey areas. What you tried… did it work? Easy: check the scoreboard to see if you won. This simplicity of being able to clearly define victory or defeat unites sports and mental games in ways that the participants themselves might find… distasteful.

Jocks don’t want to be nerds, and nerds don’t want to be jocks. Just try to talk to Paulo Vitor about soccer.

As a gaming nerd with an interest in NBA, I find the transformation of modern sports fascinating. Sports are evolving in several directions that are blurring the division between flesh and mind. Computers are becoming more and more important to events that, in the past, were merely physical. The improvements of the meat are being driven by the feats of the electron.

American football players have consistently had a problem of the flesh to overcome: there are only so many times you can get hit in the head before it starts becoming an injury. Think about it. You go to practice. You do your repetitions. Pushups, sit-ups, drills, running, catching. Coach says “jump,” you scream “how high?!” You develop your body so that when game time comes, you’re ready to perform. There’s one stoppage point in your march towards greatness; it’s hard to get game-intensity repetitions during practice. Full-speed Game repetitions are carefully controlled so as to avoid unnecessary hitting and the brain damage that comes with it. Of all the time that you spend training for football, you can only use a small portion actually playing it. You can do many things to prepare, but true game repetitions are scarce.

Compare this situation to basketball. Gym rats are famous for spending hours on end shooting free throws and practicing drills. Want to take 500 shots a day? Go ahead. Want to get tackled by an overtly aggressive linebacker 500 times a day? Not really. Hits to the head lead to concussions, thus they’re to be avoided. This unfulfilled need for repetitions generates a vacuum that has been satiated through mental gaming.

In modern electronic games (read: consoles like PS3 or Xbox), one of the best sports simulators in existence is for American football. Why is the level of artificial intelligence so much further advanced for football than for other endeavors? Money.

The worlds’ largest consumer economy, the US, is very football-centric. The people with enough disposable income to buy consoles for gaming are gringos, and they want their football fix as often as it can be had. For game developers, it makes sense to work on something that appeals to the biggest possible consumer market, thus Artificial Intelligence for the sport of football is advanced beyond what has been achieved in other areas.

A lot of football players in high school and college will lift weights in the morning, go to class, hit on the girls, and wait for the afternoon
practice. There, they do drills and get exposure to those precious few game repetitions. After they’re done with practice, what do they do?
They go play Madden.

The value of this advanced simulation has gotten to the point where it allows athletes to virtually experience many game situations over and over again. They can explore how to resolve problems and position themselves on the field without getting smacked in the noggin. Much like astronauts and pilots using a simulator to practice for emergency landings, football players can put in hours of work on the 3-4 defensive coverage using PlayStation. It would be equally retarded to start crashing planes for training repetitions, as it would be to hit players in the head in order to let them better comprehend the old ‘statue of liberty’ play.

The line between flesh and electronic is getting blurred. In the opening game of the 2009 season, Denver Broncos player Brandon Stokley caught a tipped pass. He ran with it all the way down the field, beating his defenders. When he got to the goal line, he violated every instruction he’d received from every high school, college, and pro coach in his life:

“Cross the goal line as soon as you can. Don’t risk losing the ball!”

What did he do? He started running parallel to the goal line and burning time off the clock until finally a defender chased him down and forced him to score the touchdown. This action took six more seconds off the clock than the traditional play would have. Check it out; it’s pretty awesome.

When asked about his strange behavior, he explained it came from a lifetime of gaming Madden Football. The action that was considered revolutionary in the NFL is one of the basic strategies that every twelve year old with calluses on their thumbs has mastered. Get to the goal line, don’t score, run across the field, and burn time off the clock.

Gaming consoles have gotten to the point where in-game repetitions, strategic planning, and learning are happening every day on the PlayStation… beyond the control of coaches. Was Stokley’s strategy designed by Josh McDaniels, the Broncos’ head coach at the time? No! Obviously not! McDaniels is a retarded Neanderthal that brought down my beloved Broncos to the level of the stinkin’ Detroit Lions. Overcoming Josh McDaniels will be like overcoming getting raped using a rusty, metal deck box with sharpened corners. May he forever burn in hell.

Sorry about that; let’s just say I’m not used to hoping that my team loses games in order to get better draft picks.


Okay. Where were we?

Game simulators are having a profound effect on how athletes are trained. There are only so many pull-ups you can do in a day, but after you’re done with the muscle building, you can do mental reps on the PlayStation. This daytime obsession then translates to your sleep where it becomes part of your neural network. Remember: deep encoding happens while you sleep; you train your brain with your dreams.

These guys play all day, then go on the simulator, and

they dream about it? Seems like dedicated gamers to me. Who puts in more hours of work a week: Brad Nelson or Peyton Manning?

Anyway, what happens when all these children, who’ve put in thousands of thousands of console hours, start filling all niches of society? And their children? What will happen when the console starts evolving? So far, everyone agrees that you cannot consider something a sport if you’re using a PlayStation controller to do it unless, of course, you try to see who can throw the clicker the furthest. Is there something that can cause this firmly set concept of reality to waver?


In the future, there will be a functional virtual reality simulacrum. Right now, you can attach a small grid of electrodes to someone so they can move a fake arm by just thinking about it. The mind-controlled prosthetic can generate enough strength to pick up a bowling ball, but it’s precise enough to lift an egg without damaging the shell. This line of research will continue to be developed and brought to the place where the technology can be most profitable… PlayStation.

Memo to the Nintendo guys:
I want that!

I want to think ‘jump’ and see Mario jump. I want to think ‘kill the Goomba f**ker’ and watch the evil mushroom one die in a salvo of fireballs to the head. Think kick, get a kick. Mental into physical.

Can a man with no legs participate in the Olympic 400-meter sprint? No! You cannot use that advantage. That’s right. Advantage. The Olympic committee kicked some poor sap out because his prosthetics were better than real legs for medium-distance running. Think about it. Better… You have to use your own arms and legs for it to be considered a sport. Right now, they even regulate how much of your own blood you can use by re-injecting it before a game. Your own blood is a controlled substance because someone figured out how to break the rules system and get a competitive edge.

My heroes are all

That was such a Zvi move.

When simulations and their interfaces evolve to a point where you’re doing things without gripping the controller, is it considered a sport then? If you’re playing a game where you put on your virtual-reality helmet, and you play virtual-reality football on a 53-man team with 53 other individuals, plus the coaches, is that real? When you have to train your football avatar like you train your body, is it now athletics? In The Sims, you have to “work” and “study” so that your little, alternate self can be a more rewarding escape mechanism. Is there any doubt that your football wide receiver will have to do pushups so he will become stronger?

How will it work? You get your newly minted electronic human from Sony. You do pushups to train him. Run sprints so he becomes faster. Play him enough so that you understand the dynamics of the position better than you could while actually getting hit in the head for a full game of football. Develop this to the point where NFL players are using it as game-value repetitions for certain situations… shouldn’t it be considered a sport? Eventually the line between console gaming and sports is going to blur, and artificial limits will have to be established like they were for prosthetics and Olympic sprinters.


Not being a physical sport, does that mean Magic: The Gathering isn’t a competitive endeavor? Is it a game of luck? You can ask Kai, Zvi, Finkel, PVDDR, LSV, Chapin, Guillaume #1, and Guillaume #2 if they think the player has no effect on the result of the game.

Magic is a game of skill. One that has its own athletes and superstars. Yes, being a Magic superstar smells of being a big fish in a small pond. Kai Budde will never be as famous as Roger Federer just because tennis is more popular than Magic, even if their respective reigns of dominance are similar.

As an alternative to the flesh Olympics, there’s a parallel event run by the International Mind Sports Association. Bridge, chess, Go, and draughts were all part of the field of the First World Mind Sports Games, which took place in 2008 in Beijing. Right after the jocks were finished doing their thing, the geeks walked in and ran one of their own. This time with less sex appeal but with a lot more calculators involved. The event was supported by the International Olympic Committee and the power-nerds got to hang out in the same spot that the more glamorous had been using. They even stayed in the Olympic Villa.

For the 2012 games, it’s widely expected that poker will be included as an Olympic event. Poker is the worlds’ most widely played game. Detractors say it’s a game of luck and thus doesn’t belong in the Olympics.
“How can you have a tournament for good luck?”

goes the argument. The point is
valid; you wouldn’t just line up 700 guys and have a coin-flipping competition, would you? (Yes, Rizzo, I know

“That Johnny sure can flip a mean coin. His heads win rate is at 51.05%. He’s a MONSTER!”

While coin flipping is not a skill event, javelin throwing clearly is. Thus, javelin throwing is an Olympic sport while coin flipping is not. Where does that leave us for poker and Magic?

Poker is a widely played game of skill recognized by the World Poker organization. It will be included in the Olympics for 2012. Magic is a widely played game of skill (see Worlds) that has one big difference with poker. Magic is privately owned. Poker is public property. Magic is owned by Hasbro.

Is this a showstopper? Honestly, yes. What’s the difference between Magic and Halo? Halo is a skill event as well. StarCraft? Super Mario Brothers? Should Luigi and Koopa Troopa be in the Mental Games?

There are hundreds of millions of active console players right now. CityVille, the newest Facebook game by Zynga, got played by 65 million people three weeks after it was launched. There will be a time when a mental game, and the competition in that game, becomes equally important to popular culture as sports are right now. What needs to happen before this can occur? The game has to be fun for entry-level spectators.


What were the Romans thinking when they built the Colosseum? Were they making it possible for three guys to fight five lions to the death? No, this happened for centuries before mass media was available, even media as old as a stadium. What were they hoping to achieve? Simple: they wanted to allow ten-thousand spectators to watch the kitty cats maul the gladiators. The Colosseum was built to satisfy the need to watch.

Were the original Olympic Games about running or jumping? No. They were about people watching others run or jump. The thing we have to remember is that these events aren’t about the sport; they’re about the audience. The tournaments are set up so people can watch others play a game, not for the convenience of the athletes. Night games happen so more people can tune in on the TV after work. I’m sure the guys involved would prefer a 3 pm time slot that has them back home in time for dinner.

One of the limiting factors of mental games versus traditional sports is the entry-level viewer. Picture yourself watching a game with your elderly Aunt Eunice and having to explain it to her:

“You see that? This guy is trying to put the ball through the hoop. The team that manages to put the ball through the hoop the most times wins.”

That guy is trying to throw the javelin. The one that throws the javelin farthest wins. The one that runs the fastest, the one that swims the quickest, the one that jumps the highest. They all win. All of these are easy to explain, and Aunt Hilda can appreciate what’s happening, even if she does think it’s a bit silly.

Now you sit with your Aunt Gladys to watch the mental games.

“You see that pawn to kings four opening? That was really good because he’s trying to generate some sort of control over the center squares.”

She looks at you funny, like you’re some

child riding the short yellow bus all the way to Shamesville. Even so, she can see that there are central squares, and yes, the pawn is sitting in the middle of the board. Now picture the same scenario for Magic….

“I can’t believe it! He went all in trying to Mind’s Desire for storm count, and he missed his Tendrils. How exciting!”

“Do what now!?!? He missed his what? His tendrils? I see no tendrils. He doesn’t look like calamari; why would he have tendrils?”

The relevant part of the Mind’s Desire storm play happens based on a card we haven’t even seen yet! We assume the guy has Tendrils of Agony in the deck, and he was unable to find it with Mind’s Desire. This is why he lost. He missed his card… which we haven’t seen yet. In order to appreciate the play, we must know the entire deck and archetype to be able to understand what’s going on.

You have to explain:

“Tendrils is the kill condition in his deck. He has to Mind’s Desire to create spell count, so that when he hits his Tendrils, he can storm his opponent to death.”

All of a sudden, you’re no longer invited to Christmas dinner, and your Aunt Esther is planning an intervention for you because it’s obvious to her that you’re sniffing glue in the morning while you warm up the old crack pipe. The
throw the spear really far

explanation is simpler, thus it’s easier to be an entry-level observer for spear chucking than it is for cardboard slinging.

Nassif lucksacking Chapin out of the Worlds finals is one of the most exciting moments in Magic history… and
no one outside the game understands it.

I’ve even had to explain it to casual Magic players. At a bare minimum, you have to know the cards, the situation, the metagame, the players, etc. You have to be a really high-level magician to understand and appreciate what other players are doing. This entry bar for spectatorship is the biggest limiting factor holding back Magic from launching into stratospheric popularity. Can it be solved? … not really. The structure of the game itself would have to be violated for lowbrow entertainment. It would have to be dumbed down to something very different from what we play right now.

How is first-picking a Foresee a great and exciting thing? You’re getting yourself all in a tizzy because the player you’re watching opened a Vampire Nighthawk? Can Aunt Edna understand this without being an expert in the format?

That is what makes the 100-meter dash one of the premier events in Olympics. Everyone has tried running as fast as they can at one time or another, and everyone understands what’s happening without needing to read a manual. Even Aunt Lobelia.

Is swimming an interesting sport to watch? Nope. The only times I’m interested in swimming are:

#1 – I’m doing it for fun and/or exercise.

#2 – I’m being chased by a shark.

#3 – There’s money on the line.

#4 – It’s the Olympics.

The Olympics were meant to be a spectator event. Not even a sporting event. A race without spectators is just some guys goofing around. It’s the awareness of others that generates validity. In mental games, this will be a hurdle. Yes, people can show up to watch it, but how do you get non-players and non-player families to care?

What’s the easiest mental game for a spectator to get emotionally invested in? Poker. That’s what has made poker into such a phenomenon. It’s exciting to watch because there’s money involved. Even if you don’t understand bluffing on the flop, it’s easy to see how it’s relevant because there’s a big stack of chips sitting on the table.
“How much money? Really!?!?!?! I need to learn how to play that game!”

screams out Aunt Mildred while opening an account in an online website.

It’s all about the emotion that the spectator experiences when watching the event. An exciting dunk from Blake Griffin can be appreciated by everyone, even if the appreciation only goes as far as saying
“that’s a high-jumping fool.”

Is real-life poker an interesting game to watch live? No! Hundreds of hours of tournament play get boiled down to a half-hour-long TV show. When you have to sit there for hour upon endless hour of “pass,” “pass,” “check,” “fold,” you learn to appreciate the virtues of your toenails growing at such an alarming pace. Only professional railbirds (Sperling, Aten) would find
“Twice the blind, fold”


Make it worth $100,000, and even my Aunt Agatha will be interested.

When spectating TV poker, you can see the whole cards and put yourself in the position of the player. You know that Evil had no cards, but the player you identified with didn’t know about it. You feel powerful and happy and convince yourself you’d have made different decisions and thus become a rich man. Watching poker on TV just became rewarding in and of itself. You know Evil is bluffing, and you’re smarter than the players.

Mental games with wide spectator support are going to initiate as variations of current world sports played on the console. You can watch a Madden Football game played by NFL players and transfer this entertainment value to your private life, but it would be interesting for the rarity of the event, not because it’s fun to watch in and of itself.

Eventually there will be a game… a game that’s as much fun to watch for live action as it is to play. The Mental Games will become a real thing
instead of a funky footnote attached to the Olympic pageant. When that happens, Magic has to be front and center in the spotlight for



Please, for the love of the game.