The Magic University: On Magic Theory

Today, I’m going to explain why Magic Theory is important, what’s wrong with Magic Theory in general, and how to fix the problems. I’m going to set forward some rules and guidelines that should be followed when writing about theory. And… I’m going to introduce you to the hallowed digital halls of The Magic University.

This article signifies the first in a series covering a mammoth undertaking I’ve been working on for six months now.

Today, I’m going to explain why Magic Theory is important, what’s wrong with Magic Theory in general, and how to fix the problems. I’m going to set forward some rules and guidelines that should be followed when writing about theory. And… I’m going to introduce you to the hallowed digital halls of The Magic University.

There has been a resurgence of discussion about Magic Theory recently – and I, for one, am quite pleased. Why, you ask? For starters, because it segues nicely into the project I’ve been working on since last August. (More on that in a bit.) More importantly, though, each of these works represent important contributions to the body of knowledge of the community as a whole.

Having spoken to some of the old editors of the Dojo, the current editor of MagictheGathering.com, and sundry other Magic writing luminaries, the consensus is that writing Magic Theory is the biggest contribution you can make to the Magic community. If you turn out a good theory article, in many ways it provides you a legacy, even if you should leave the game or stop writing. After all, when was the last time you read a new Eric Taylor (EDT) article?

However, looking at many of the forum responses to some recent Theory pieces published here, not all of our readers agree or understand this assertion. So I figure I’ll start with telling you why I think you should be paying attention to Magic Theory.

Why Theory Is Important

The purpose of”theory” is to model a phenomenon at its fundamental level. That’s a lot of big words that basically say,”It’s a way of explaining how and why something happens.” For those who want the dictionary definition, these are the relevant entries:

5: a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena <wave theory of light>

6: a hypothesis assumed for the sake of argument or investigation

A theory needs to be as simple as is required to adequately explain a phenomenon. That’s all.

Some writers have argued that theories should always be simple, so that it can be used as a teaching tool (or what they view as its primary purpose). This is poppycock. Theory isn’t meant to teach – it’s meant to explain. Adapting a theory as a way to teach a concept is fine, but it’s stupid to unnecessarily hinder theory with a rule that says it has to be simple enough for newbies to understand.

A theory in and of itself is inherently an abstraction; in trying to model the occurrence of some real-world situation, you typically have to ignore a lot of the specific details in order to come up with the broader concept of what makes something work. However, once you have a theory, your next task is to ram as many real-world or game scenarios as possible into the damned thing and see if it breaks.

Once it breaks – and it usually does – you pick up the pieces, adapt it properly, and do it all over again.

Often, examinations of Magic Theory will uncover key concepts about the game itself that will help you as a player. Some of these concepts are often understood at an intuitive level, like the concept of board development as it relates to Tempo, and the idea that”He who draws the most cards, will often win” as related to Card Advantage.

Some theories have more practical applications, while others are more esoteric, but most people are of the opinion that the more you understand about the game, the greater your potential as a player becomes.

If you look at a parallel card game, Poker, you can discover that many of the top Poker players in the world have a solid foundation in probability and game theory. Now this isn’t necessary to play the game, or even to play it at the highest levels, but having additional knowledge at your disposal is not going to hamper your development as a player, it can only help it. Knowing how a typical player will react in certain situations is always useful, as is understanding the model of player betting behavior with certain hands.

This sort of thing holds true for Magic as well. By understanding the key concepts of Magic Theory, you open yourself up to new lines of thought as a player that may not have been available to you before.

For example, many of you may have read that Onslaught Block Draft was a format dominated by tempo – but a much smaller number of you were probably able to extrapolate that idea into explaining why you were playing eighteen-land decks (it was absolutely critical to hit three lands by turn 3, and to continue your mana development afterwards), why 2/2s for two mana were inherently good (in a format dominated by 2/2s for three mana, paying only two for yours gave you a temporal advantage over your opponent), and why Echo Tracer ended up being many Pros’ favorite card (the Tracer’s bounce effect caused crucial swings in tempo that opponents were often unable to recover from).

Pure theory won’t necessarily provide all these answers to you, but it can help.

Many of you complain that theory articles are boring. This doesn’t have to be the case. A brief look at two of the top theory writers proves this. EDT’s articles were often downright pithy (they were never thirty-page monstrosities) for the amount of ideas they provided, and Michael J. Flores has been called many things, but a boring writer has never been one of them.

Yes, there are some dull articles about Magic Theory (I’ve probably written one or two myself), but in general, the topic of Magic Theory is tackled by the best writers, and they allow the article to still be interesting, even while the subject they are discussing may be a bit dry.

Scholarly Analysis

Writing Magic Theory is fundamentally different than normal Magic writing. Instead of detailing how a new deck plays, or what the metagame looks like at a specific time, you are generally discussing how the game works; not at the”creatures tap to attack” level, but instead at the”Cursed Scroll is Card Advantage and Memory Lapse is Tempo” level. This change in the level of the topic places greater restrictions on the amount of knowledge necessary to write about the subject in the first place, and also on the content you are required to provide in order for the article to be considered good.

To me, it’s like the difference between magazines and scholarly journals. Publishing a story about biometrics in Discover or National Geographic is considerably different than publishing an article on biometrics in the New England Journal of Medicine. I view Magic Theory as Magic writing’s academia, while the rest of the material that gets published is more like Rolling Stone or Entertainment Weekly.

As with universities, sites publishing Magic Theory should provide a place where knowledge is discovered and shared, ideas are debated, and the fundamentals of the game are uncovered. The debate should be carried on at an impersonal level, where critiques can be made about the ideas themselves as part of figuring out how valid a particular theory is. Without this discourse, you simply have a bunch of people stating ideas and opinions, while the study of the game progresses at a minimal pace.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened thus far, and some of the more egregious examples of poor behavior when discussing theory have come on my watch. In case you are unaware of this, writers in general (and Magic writers in particular) tend to have hefty egos – so when their ideas are criticized, their first reaction is often to get a bit testy. Part of this is a natural consequence of writing about a competitive game, but it’s not particularly conducive to carrying on productive conversations.

Words like”right” and”wrong” are thrown around, instead of”agree” and”disagree,” or”I have proof that this works a different way, because of X, Y, and Z… How do you account for that?” Instead feelings get hurt, childish insults are thrown about, and readers get turned off.

A prime example of this came from Geordie Tait Virtual Card Advantage article, where readers and writers were so busy shouting him down from the mountaintops that they overlooked what could possibly be one of the more important recent developments in Magic Theory. Geordie’s melding of Poker Theory with Magic, and his brief, but insightful discussion of how many outs a deck has for a given board situation deserves further examination, and is getting it from some of the more recognizable names in the business. However, it was easy to lose sight of what could be an important step forward in the field with all the mud being slung around.

Part of that has been my fault, and I’m going to work on changing it.

(No worries, hefe – every SCG editor has a”Rizzo Week” embarrassment – The Ferrett)

Moving forward, theory writers need to expect to have their writing and ideas criticized, no matter how sound the evidence they provide to support their theory happens to be. Therefore, writers need to have a thick skin, and be able to adequately defend their theories without getting pissy about being criticized.

Alternately, individuals who are criticizing the ideas (whether it be in forums or rebuttal articles), are to avoid the mudslinging that has characterized recent discussions, and debate the merits of the ideas, not the individuals. Terms like”right” and”wrong” are generally to be avoided, as many of these topics are opinion-based and not objective fact-based, so therefore have no right or wrong about them.

I’m plan to pretend that we’re all adults capable of having meaningful discussions, without resorting to”Your mama so fat, when she put a yellow rain coat on everybody yelled, ‘Hey taxi!'” even if it isn’t true.

Rules For Writing Theory

Since most people probably haven’t written much scholarly material before, I figure it’s useful to provide guidelines people should follow when writing theory.

1) Know your stuff

Attempting to write Magic Theory without already knowing what has been discussed previously is sheer folly. It puts you in a position where you won’t understand what a critic is referring to when they bring up authors who have written on the subject before, which in turn tends to weaken your argument. If you don’t know what has already been written, how do you know you aren’t simply repeating work that has already been done?

Therefore, it is important to do your research. For most theory topics, there are only four or five articles that comprise the foundation for each category, so the burden placed upon new writers is not onerous.

Before now, those who complained about not being able to find the fundamental articles, or not even knowing where to begin looking for them, had legitimate complaints. The burden placed upon someone who wanted to write about theory was enormous, because tracking down all the articles written in the last ten years on a particular topic was nearly impossible. You could write an excellent article detailing everything interesting about a subject, only to have Mike Flores or Adrian Sullivan pop in and tell you EDT wrote about it five years ago and did a better job of it, unbeknownst to you. That, my friends, was a real kick in the nads.

Thankfully, the Magic University should solve most of that. (Yes, there’s a full explanation of what this is later on. Calm down, you didn’t miss anything.)

2) Choose Your Words Carefully and Do Not Reuse Jargon!

There is nothing worse than reading three different theory articles that use the same words to define different concepts. This sort of behavior takes discussions of difficult ideas and makes them impossible. Therefore, if you are discussing a concept that has already been defined and examined, do not appropriate someone else’s terms for your own use, unless your definition is the same.

The reason for this is relatively simple, but bears mentioning. When discussing the concepts of Magic, one is forced to combine cardboard, mathematics, probability, and the rules of the game into one big clump of language. Using words to describe these situations is often tenuous, and the task does not need to be made more problematic by individuals who reuse already defined terms.

If you have a new idea, create a new term for it. It’s a pretty simple plan. However, if your idea isn’t new and is just a rehashing of someone else’s idea using new words, expect to take a lot of flack and lose some credibility. That’s why guideline number one is important. Science functions by having precise definitions for all phenomena to make meaningful discussion possible, and in order for Magic Theorists to even have conversations about the game, they need to ascribe to the same principles.

Here is a brief list of already defined terms that you should not appropriate for your own use. In my next article, I will attempt to briefly define these terms as they are commonly used, but for now just know that they are out there.

  • Card Advantage

  • Virtual Card Advantage

  • Pure Card Advantage

  • Card Quality

  • Card Impact

  • Tempo

  • Speed

  • Investment

  • Inevitability

  • Symmetry

  • Deck Templating

  • Metagame

  • Metagame Clock

  • Fundamental Turn

I’m sure there are plenty of others, and I’ll cover quite a few more theoretical concepts besides these over the course of the University, but this list should provide a nice start as to terms you should not be stealing and re-defining by yourself.

3) Cite Your Sources

If you are going to discuss other people’s work and theories, you not only need to give them credit for the ideas they have already brought to the table, but you also need to provide links to the material you are citing, so that everyone else can follow along.

Not acknowledging the work of others demonstrates either ignorance or plagiarism… And not providing links to the material so others can follow along and educate themselves hinders the discussion and dissemination of information.

That’s a lot of big words, but they’re all trying to say”Cite your sources and provide links, dammit!

We Don’t Know What We Already Know

About a year ago, I was pondering Magic Theory in general and considering adding my voice to the list of authors that had written some of the more important works about the game. I enjoy thinking about the theoretical side of Magic, and figured writing some theory would be a decent way to leave a legacy behind, should I some day get too busy to continue writing and playing. It seems kind of silly, but these were my thoughts at the time.

(This was before I ever wrote the Hall of Fame debacle… Yeah, I definitely should have waited a bit on that one.)

Anyway, I began thinking about topics I might be qualified to write about, which lead me to asking,”What are the areas of Magic Theory?” Obviously there’s Card Advantage and Tempo – but what else is there? Knowing that I’m not an expert on the subject, I decided to ask around a bit and get some opinions.

The first thing I did was e-mail Flores and ask him that question, but anyone who’s dealt with Mike knows that you never get the answer you expect. I think Mike’s response was something like,”All areas of Magic Theory either break down into Deck Deconstruction or Mechanic Deconstruction.” Then when I asked where these theories were discussed on the net so that I could buy a clue as to what the hell he was talking about, Mike’s answer was the obvious (but unhelpful),”In my head.”


I continued poking at the old fogies of the game, including Adrian Sullivan (who didn’t even return my e-mail), Scott Johns (busy), Aaron Forsythe (you guessed it, busy), Ben Bleiweiss (helpful), and Bennie Smith (very helpful) to try and get some feedback about what the different subject areas of Magic Theory happen to be and came to one conclusion: Nobody knew.

Ben and Bennie were both able to get me started with references to older articles and ideas, but I quickly came to the conclusion that no one had ever a) Categorized Magic Theory or, b) Compiled a (mostly) comprehensive list of articles for each Theory category. Ferrett gave a nice attempt at putting together notable articles about the fundamentals of the game, but he was just skimming the surface. (Mainly because I didn’t know where they were – T.F., who ran into the same Wall of Non-Responses that Knut did)

Anyway, the reason why this is a problem is because it hampers future development of theory as a whole. Imagine what the study of Physics would be like if only 30% of the students Physics had actually read Newton’s Laws? Or if only 40% of the students actually knew the Theory of the Atom? Productivity and progress would be miniscule, because students would be forced to continually”rediscover” fundamental truths that have been known all along to those with access to the information. This is a waste of time that could be avoided if such information were widely disseminated.

Believe it or not, that’s exactly the state that Magic is in. A lot of the older material that provided the fundamentals to Magic Theory is either lost or almost impossible to find. Anyone wishing to develop something new has to do so without anything but a passing acquaintance as to what has been discussed before, or they have to spend a great deal of time trying to unearth the originals. That’s time that would be better spent applying theory to the present environment, if the original material was made readily available.

In short, every time someone new wants to write about Magic Theory these days, they not only have to rediscover the Theory of the Atom, but they typically have to figure out the Law of Gravity as well. One can only imagine how much this hinders the development and discussion of”new” ideas.

Background Info

Being the natural born problem-solver that I am, I began to figure out ways to overcome these issues. The first thing I did was start breaking down the categories of Magic Theory (which I’ll present in my next article). There’s a lot of information available about the game, and if you don’t divide it up into reasonable topic areas, it can all be a bit overwhelming. If I were to just provide you a list of all the theory articles I found without classifying them first, it would be akin to building a library with fifty shelves worth of books on Science, but no Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress system to guide you.

The next thing I tried to do, was fill these categories with articles that are instrumental in explaining a particular theory and/or applying it to the game. Tragically, many of the more notable sites from Magic’s history have gone the way of the dodo (or is that the Dojo?), and are only available in bits and pieces via the WayBack Machine at archive.org.

I didn’t let that stop me though. For some reason, I was bound and determined to accomplish what I had set out to do, so I brute forced my way through classicdojo.com, the Dojo web archives, Sideboard.com, Mindripper.com, Brainburst.com, and StarCityGames.com, picking up any notable theory articles I discovered along the way, and plopping them into already defined categories or making new ones. Since none of these sites have particularly useful search routines, saying that this process was a pain in the ass in a vast understatement.

Unfortunately, even then I’m sure I don’t have a comprehensive list of articles for each subject, so whenever you feel I’ve missed one, let me know and I’ll add that as well.

Scott Johns told me he had wanted to do this exact same thing before, but was never able to find the time. Luckily for me, I happened to be unemployed last summer, and found myself with a lot of spare time to read old Magic articles.

I had nearly completed my initial research when I got the job as Managing Editor here, and had my further efforts to work on the project completely submarined by the editing workload.

The Magic University

That brings us up to the present. Now I’ll discuss the Magic University itself, and what I’ll be presenting in future articles.

As I’ve stated, aside from an extremely small percentage of old-school writers and editors, most people are unfamiliar with the early works (or even the current articles) about Magic Theory. Therefore, what I will be doing is writing an article examining each particular category of theory (like Tempo), give a definition of the concept, provide links to each of the notable works in the category, and then give a brief abstract for each article.*

Finally, I will attempt to summarize the state of that particular theory as it currently exists (which is going to contain my own personal biases, but since I’m writing these, it can’t be avoided), and then do a brief gap analysis examining specific areas that have been untouched, or merit further exploration.

If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. I’m actually a little daunted by the prospect of pulling this off. However, at this point I’ve got too much time invested not to push the project forward. Six months is a long time to research anything, and it’s high time I started showing some rewards for the work.

In addition to providing the University lessons on each topic (or category), I also plan to develop some of my own original theoretic material for the University as well, since that was my purpose for starting the project in the first place.

So there you have it – my thoughts on Magic Theory, and a brief introduction to The Magic University. Even though I know this project won’t be for everyone, my hope is that most of you will find the concept intriguing, and that you’ll enjoy coming along with me as I hop in the WayBack Machine and rediscover what we should already know.

My purpose in doing this is to give back to the game and the community, and to raise the level of discourse about Magic Theory to a level as yet unseen. The game has grown a lot over the years, and I think the study of the game should grow accordingly. We’ve already lost some great material that will be very difficult to recover, and if the project isn’t started now, we’re bound to lose more. Hopefully the articles to come will provide a solid foundation for current theorists to work from, and make up for much of the ignorance the community has had to put up with over the last few years.

As I stated earlier, I think of writing about Magic Theory as the game’s academia, and the concepts (and the game itself) are complicated enough that they deserve that sort of study and respect.

Then again, it’s still just a game. What do I know?

Ted Knutson

The Holy Kanoot

Mail us at https://sales.starcitygames.com/contactus/contactform.php?emailid=2

* – For anyone who is chiding me right now for only including articles and not delving further into the Usenet archives, I invite them to do their own research in those areas and present a companion project to this one. Unfortunately, I wasn’t around for those discussions, and starting from complete ignorance and finding what I was looking for in a timely fashion, was far beyond the time I was willing to spend researching.