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Rule of Law – The Most Beautiful Game in the World

Magic: The Gathering is the most beautiful game in the world.

I could qualify that with an “I find” or an “in my opinion,” but there isn’t really an objective reading of the above sentence to compete with the subjective one. “Objective criticism” is an oxymoron, despite what you may have heard. If you think a particular hyper-realistic video game rendered in 1080p or a game of chess recorded a hundred years ago is the pinnacle of gaming beauty, I won’t argue with you. All I can say is that if you put that video game on the big screen and two grandmasters are locked in an epic struggle at a table nearby, neither will peel my eyes away from my opponent as he or she decides whether to attack into me when all my mana is untapped.

Do I think Magic is beautiful because I’ve spent thousands of hours enjoying it, or have I spent thousands of hours enjoying it because I think it is beautiful? Either way, when I play a good game of Magic I feel like it transcends “activity” and becomes something more.

Sources of Beauty: A Brilliant Move

There is the story (perhaps legend) of a player, Chad Ellis, having drawn almost entirely lands in his first several pulls from his mono-blue “draw-go” library, intentionally not playing his 4th land and discarding a [card]Counterspell[/card] in order to give his opponent the impression that he was holding all counters instead of nearly all land. The correct play style vs. a mono blue opponent with all counters but no lands is often to not play anything he can counter, which forces him to discard spells while you accumulate lands in play and threats in your hand. This is in sharp contrast to the correct play style vs. a mono blue player who likely has a mix of lands and spells in hand. There, it often seems better to try and run the blue mage out of counterspells by playing threats. Intentionally missing a land drop puts the blue player squarely into the former camp in his opponent’s eyes, and when the blue player resumes playing lands in subsequent turns, it will just seem like he drew the land that turn and still holds 7 spells. Over time his hand will start to actually contain spells, and he can “start playing the game,” so to speak, even though he likely did more “playing” of the game on turn 4 than his opponent will do in a lifetime.

If you’ve ever sideboarded up to 70 cards in limited to beat a mill deck or sideboarded a very narrow card for a very specific reason and used it to great effect, you reached into a deeper layer of options than the average player contemplates, considered those options, and got rewarded, just like Chad Ellis did. Play enough, and get good enough, and you’ll feel like you are capable of playing the game “on another level,” that same level where you find the options your opponents aren’t considering. The same could certainly be said of Chess, but as soon as you reach a level beyond your opposition, that opposition stops having fun. This isn’t the case in Magic. The opponent likely doesn’t even realize the gap in ability or pine for more options. I suppose driving drunk might feel even easier and more enjoyable than driving sober (you get to avoid complex conundrums like whether to stop at a red light) even though driving sober is the more effective form.

Sources of Beauty: Uncertainty and the Randomness Generator

A fancy play isn’t the only source of beauty in Magic. Even determining the correct basic land configuration in a sealed deck is a beautiful thing. There is no known formula, just some known (often competing) principles like more early plays of a certain color require more lands that make that color mana. More double-mana-symbol casting costs in a certain color require more lands that make that color mana, and so on. At the end of the day it has to look and feel right, something like “that oughta be enough white mana. With the 6 Plains and the [card]Gold Myr[/card], it really oughta be enough.” What fraction of a Plains’ worth of white mana does a Gold Myr provide, on average, by the way? It’s too complex a question to answer precisely, and yet you better make your best guess. Beautiful.

In a book I can’t recommend enough, Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in the Markets and in Life, Taleb describes ways in which most people are unaware of the effects randomness has on our lives. In my own life, I have been repeatedly astonished by how difficult it is for people (mostly non-gamers) to grasp even basic probabilistic reasoning such as “the fact that a coin-flip resulted in Heads does not mean that Tom’s bet on Tails at 2:1 odds was not in his favor when he placed the bet.” People can see results but often cannot “see” the generator that led to those results. Not every game is Russian Roulette, with its visible 6-shooter that opens up and reveals the odds of a bullet being in the top chamber before the cylinder spins into a random state. The beauty of Magic is that the generator of uncertainty we need to be envisioning is constantly changing. In any one game the generator is the shuffling of two 40- or 60-card decks, containing both known and (likely some) unknown components. The more we know about the cards in the decks, the more we know about the properties of the generator and what results are likely to emerge. Let’s say that if I make a certain attack, my opponent can kill me with a topdecked burn spell, but I don’t know how many burn spells are in his deck; I’m playing Russian Roulette but I don’t know how many bullets are in the gun.

If I draw an opening hand of

[draft]3 Island
Silverchase Fox
Angelic Overseer
Bonds of Faith
Smite the Monstrous[/draft]

I need to know whether mulliganning gives me a better chance of winning than keeping the hand. Intermediate questions like “What are the odds I draw a Plains in 2 turns?” or “How often will I win after I mulligan my opening 7 card hand?” require us to estimate (or, in a few cases, calculate) the probabilities of certain events, and also weigh the importance of those events. When we make our best guesses and are done with the game, we’ll have a “win” or a “loss” that followed our decisions, but that isn’t even data, it is singular, a datum. You’ll need to try and estimate how this particular generator (your shuffled deck and the opponent’s shuffled deck) works, and if you approximate it better than your opponents in your head, you’ll win more often. How much more often is too complex a question to answer precisely. None of us can fully understand or control the generator, unless you count Casey McCarrel.

Sources of Beauty: Infinite Context

Just as people use the word “infinite” to refer to finite things that are very vast, people use the term “strictly better” to refer to a card they feel is superior to another card in every way. The only problem is, of course, that no card is actually superior to another card in every way. If they printed a card that was exactly the same as [card]Dauthi Slayer[/card] but without the line of text “[card]Dauthi Slayer[/card] attacks each turn if able” (lets name it Dauthi Equivocator) people would say the card is strictly better than Dauthi Slayer. I would even say it is strictly better, if I was describing the card to a friend. It’s useful to compare a new card to an old one and describe the difference, and if your description is only off by a very very small margin, that’s a good description. None of that changes the fact that I have seen Dauthi Slayer win a game that Dauthi Equivocator would have certainly lost. In cube draft, my friend had Dauthi Slayer out when his opponent assembled a combo that let him cast [card]Mindslaver[/card] every turn. The Dauthi Slayer killed the Mindslaver player before he could find an answer to it. That was an extremely beautiful thing to witness.

[card]Ancient Grudge[/card] seems better than [card]Shatter[/card]; until it’s the last card in your deck and you get targeted with [card]Quiet Speculation[/card]. [card]Shattering Pulse[/card] seems better than Shatter (poor Shatter); until you play against [card]Word of Command[/card], watch your own artifact die and 5 of your mana get spent, only to then get a [card]Storm Seeker[/card] shoved up … you get the idea. [card]Meddling Mage[/card] makes every example given so far trivial. These might seem like corner cases being used to deny “strictly better,” and perhaps it all seems like useless nonsense. When a card seems strictly better, it is 99.9% of the time, right? But what about the fact that [card]Volcanic Hammer[/card] could be better than [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] because of [card]Mental Misstep[/card] or [card]Chalice of the Void[/card]? Does that seem possibly relevant more than .1%? Ok, fine, what about the fact that Underground Sea can be the target of Wasteland but Island cannot? Checkmate.

Thought Exercise:

Would a Basic Plains with the additional text “Other players may not control your turns. If another player would gain control of this, you may retain control of it instead.” be strictly better than Plains (it has been ruled that the deck construction limit of 4 copies doesn’t apply to either card, as with snow covered basics)? Why or why not?

Potential Answers:

One way of answering the exercise is to argue that restricting your opponent’s options isn’t a strict upgrade in the first place. I might have a [card]Disciple of the Vault[/card], for example, and the opponent would sacrifice her [card]Mindslaver[/card] at 4 life and die to my [card]Lightning Bolt[/card], except she doesn’t because I control the new version of Basic Plains.

Another way of answering the exercise in the negative is that giving yourself additional options, such as whether to hand this land over when they take control of it, isn’t necessarily a strict upgrade. Mental fatigue, mistakes, and opponent trickery rise as we increase our options.

Yet another way of answering the exercise is to simply point out the card [card]Praetor’s Grasp[/card] (and others like it).

So was Underground Sea strictly better than Island when Alpha was the only set? No, because you lost a rare whenever you Ante’d the card and lost. But seriously, let’s propose a block constructed format with no [card]Mindslaver[/card] or [card]Word of Command[/card] or [card]Wasteland[/card] or [card]Annex[/card] type effects. Would [card]Underground Sea[/card] be strictly better than Island? In that narrow context, yes.

Context matters. Several players have searched for the so-called Grand Unified Theory of Magic, the most visible person being Michael Flores. These players often try to come up with a model that predicts how any possible Magic card should be valued. (Flores’ recent attempts claim to be moving away from card evaluation and toward valuation of everything that is going on, but if he doesn’t have a workable weak form he certainly doesn’t have a workable strong form of the theory.) I like and respect Michael Flores, but I don’t think he’s ever going to complete this particular quest. The comprehensive rules plus the Oracle text of every printed card make up by far the closest approximation we have of a Grand Unified Theory. They are the only description of how the cards interact that is satisfying in every case from a purely “what happens if this card meets that card” standpoint, and they even kind of provide a valuation method by explaining when a player loses or wins the game.

However, they don’t include the player-decision elements of Magic. How good is [card]Second Thoughts[/card]? Well, it kills a creature and draws a card for 4W, so we could compare it to other cards that also draw a card and kill a creature and see how its costs compares to their cost. But how can we ever approximate with any confidence the probability that the opponent decided to put creatures in her deck and decided to attack with those creatures? We’re not even trying anything like accounting for [card]Mindslaver[/card] and [card]Chalice of Void[/card] and we’re already at an insurmountable obstacle.

The beauty that this kind of analysis reveals is both the beautiful depth of the game and the fact that the game is fun despite all the complexity detailed above. Tremendous uncertainty and depth somehow only rarely derail the fun train. I can’t adequately express how amazing that is. Usually, it is only when a card or cards are so good that the variation and complexity of play are actually significantly reduced that fun drops off dramatically.

Whatever pursuit you’re most passionate about, find a way to get so bogged down in the minutia of it that you shift your aesthetic preferences in an attempt to rationalize your way out of the guilt you feel for neglecting more important aspects of your life. There’s some pretty stuff down here.

-Matt Sperling
mtg_law_etc on Twitter

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