The Third Big Idea

Posted in Serious Fun on August 22, 2006

By Anthony Alongi

Like just about anything – Olympic medals, sneezes, Magic sets per block – great things come in threes. And so do Big Ideas. Welcome to the third and last week of the Big Idea series!

You can find Big Ideas 1 and 2 here and here. If you haven't read them already, I recommend doing so. If you don't want to read them and would prefer to be confused and outraged when this article appears to have no context – well, I've cut you off at the pass, Meat. Here's a quick summary: the first one talked about Evaluation and Adding Value, and the second one talked about Accountability and Taking Responsibility. So now you know anyway, and you can't unlearn it, can you? Nyah.

The Third Big Idea

What, really, is Magic about? Why wasn't it designed as a solitaire game? Why is multiplayer Magic so much better than duel Magic? (Oh yes, it is.) And why does the most personally isolated form of MagicMagic Online – contain all manner of chat boxes, trade rooms, avatars, and other dressings of face-to-face interactions?

Answer: we seek out each other's company. For social creatures like us, it's not enough to add value and take responsibility. Those things are necessary, but not sufficient to achieve and enjoy success. We have to do such things with people, in their company. We have to find a crowd and join it.

That action, or engagement, is the third Big Idea.

Engaging A Player

The most basic sort of engagement in Magic happens when you sit down across from another player.

Engaging a player is the "basic unit" of this Big Idea. You gotta do this if you want to play Magic. If you're not fun to play with, and if you don't have fun playing, then you won't need this site for long. Because you'll be leaving the game soon.

But most of you don't have to worry. You already know how to do this, right? Shake hands. Be respectful. Play your best. Congratulate your opponent at the end of a good game, win or lose.

Once you're mature enough to handle a single opponent, you can take the next step in emotional evolution and become a multiplayer enthusiast.

Engaging A Play Group

Stern_ProctorOf all the emails I've gotten on various topics over the years – from requests for deck help (sorry, I can't) to conversations about interesting formats – the gloomiest come from players who cannot find other players to play with. Maybe they live in a rural area and there are just not enough other players around. Maybe there are a few interested players, but they're spread out, too young to drive, and unable to find a card shop that can serve as an easy meeting place. Maybe the guy who's writing me is a difficult person to get along with, and other groups have pushed him along.

While I've given some of the advice that follows in past articles and emails, I'd like to pull it together and run through the basic strategies for finding a new play group. In order of suggested priority:

  1. Examine your own behavior. Before you put extensive effort into convincing people to spend time playing Magic with you, make sure you're the kind of person who's fun to play Magic with. This is especially important if you've struggled to stay in past groups. For tips, you might try reviewing the first couple of Big Idea articles.
  2. Play more at the local store. Once you're feeling like you'd get along fine with a group, your best bet to find other Magic players is where Magic players hang out. If there is a local store to play at, show up as often as is reasonable. Participate in tournaments, even if you don't think you're good enough. You'll meet tons of players this way, and some of them may be looking for a group too.
  3. Play the percentages. Without a local store, you have to play the hand you're dealt. If you're a high school student, most of your universe revolves around the other teenagers in classes and extracurricular activities. If you're a college student, your universe is a bit bigger and may include the social clubs that tend to form on many campuses. If you're out of school, you probably spend most of your time at the workplace – but you also spend significant amounts of time in things like volleyball leagues, or book clubs, or neighborhood activities.
    There are lots of ways to introduce people to the game; but in my experience the best way to recruit new players is to be playing a duel where people can see you. People are naturally curious and will ask you what you're doing. It takes time and practice not to answer with a torrent of geek-speak; but once you learn to introduce the game in an interesting and non-threatening way, you might convince your friend to try it out.
  4. Broaden your horizons. We'll talk more below about improving your own engagement skills. One of the benefits of challenging yourself with new activities is that you increase the number of potential Magic-playing friends. (It's certainly not the only benefit! But this is a Magic article.)
    If you're interested in lots of things and don't know what to try first, look for activities where playing a quiet game of Magic on the side is easy. Chess club is a little obvious – how about scrapbooking? You can cut doodles and position colored staples while you wait for your opponent to pass priority.
  5. Advertise. If there's a local shop nearby and you trust the owner, you can let the store owner know that you're looking for a group. She may have heard from two other people that week who happen to be in the same situation. Or check in with the teacher who runs chess club at the school. There may be other adults whose job involves kids who can have their eyes and ears open for you. As with any time when you're handing out names and numbers, discuss your efforts with a parent if you're not yet an adult.
  6. Try Magic Online. I put this last not because I'm not a fan of Magic Online – I've played it and enjoy it – but because it does represent an additional investment of time and money. On the plus side, Magic Online hurdles you into an instant, worldwide community that's lively 24/7.
    It may be only a temporary solution for you, until your efforts to find other "paper" Magic players bear fruit. Or it may become something you enjoy regularly. For a while, I used it to test out ideas because it's so incredibly easy to build and rebuild decks. Ultimately, I found it scarily addictive and backed off in the interests of time. But many players have better self-control than I do!

Engaging A Magic Card

After starting off by talking about engagement with other people, it may seem strange to talk about "engaging" a card. But we're going to shift momentarily to the idea of engaging a Magic card, because it's a milestone on the way to engaging someone else.

A lot of players deny themselves a ton of Magic enjoyment by improperly engaging each Magic card. This has nothing to do with whether you play tournament or casual Magic – it has to do with how much time you spend with each card the first time you see it.

Sliver Queen
What was your first reaction to a split card like Spite // Malice? What did you think was up when you read the morph rules text for Hystrodon? How long did you stare in awe at your first gold card? (Mine was Sliver Queen, so I might be projecting a little here.)

The best Magic cards are the ones that engage us on several levels. And I mean all of us. If you're a tournament junkie, you're still susceptible to the "wow, cool" moment. And if you're a casual player, you're still impressed by power. Cards like Exalted Angel; Rith, the Awakener; Darksteel Colossus; and Visara the Dreadful tend to appeal to multiple audiences. While Wizards has a good time designing cards specifically for Johnny, Spike, and Timmy, I'll bet they really enjoy hitting all three player types with a single card.

When you engage a Magic card properly, you engage the card's creator. It doesn't matter if you ever visit Renton (which I haven't), or if you ever meet Randy Buehler (which I have), or if Mark Rosewater ever responds to your emails (which he has once or twice for me, but it's an overrated experience). You're getting a glimpse into creative minds – not just the minds of the design team or development team at Wizards, but also of the artist who did the artwork, and the writer(s) who did the flavor text, and the storyline creators who set the context for the card. There is a huge amount of creative effort that goes into each card, and every four months another few hundred new ones come out with renewed effort. Each of these cards contains multiple sources of artistry – writing, painting, game design, even graphics and printing. Each bit of cardboard is a massive collaboration. The more you think about it, the more amazing the game of Magic becomes.

Engaging The Difficult

As I have for the last two Big Idea articles, I now turn a bit away from pure Magic content to talk a bit about life beyond the pure game.

I suggested a couple of weeks ago that not every interaction you have in life will be entirely pleasant. In your search for happiness and a good life, you'll encounter resistance. Every time you play Magic to win, there's at least one other person who would rather you lost. Every time you go to a local card shop, there's someone there who probably has a more difficult personality than most. Every time you check out message boards on a site like this, there's at least one poster who's not going to agree with you.

Students with annoying views. Co-workers who don't pull their own weight. Family members who insist on getting their own way. It makes you want to scream… or maybe yell back at them… or maybe ignore them altogether.

Avoiding those who annoy us is a human response. It may even be healthy at times. But for those who do it reflexively, they miss out on a little bit of life's fun.

I became a government worker, and a politician, in part because I enjoy engaging seemingly intractable problems and trying to pull out a solution. For an admittedly rather sedentary fellow, there are few thrills greater than walking into a meeting where everyone's arguing passionately and walking out with everyone agreeing on how to move forward.

Managing conflict is a skill you won't find in a high school curriculum (and not many college majors, either). But it's something you'll use in hundreds of careers – including making Magic cards, if you're ever so lucky.

For those of you interested, you can start by going to the message boards, finding an issue everyone seems passionate about on at least two sides, and gently arguing the point of view that's opposite the one you really feel. Then, on future threads, try to find essential truths on both sides. Point them out.

Do the same in your classes, and in your job. The more you can think like the other side, the better you'll do in your career. And by happy chance, the better you'll be at Magic.

Engaging The Unknown

Walker of Secret Ways
Even harder than engaging the difficult is engaging the unknown. But this is where engagement can be the most rewarding.

For example, is read by players in over one hundred countries. Many of them have cultures, perspectives, languages, and daily routines unfamiliar to those who write for the site – as well as others who read it.

Even after years of writing this column, hearing from players in these countries is still a thrill. So is hearing from Americans who have different backgrounds and experiences from mine – two recent emails from military personnel really made my day a couple of weeks ago.

While I've gotten a lot from my current job, which is at an agency run largely by other white men, some of my most intense and rewarding learning experiences have been at organizations dominated by other races, and/or the opposite gender. When you have to report to someone who doesn't look like you, or who has a different take on the world from you, you have to think and work harder to succeed. You have to accept that you don't know it all, and that the best course of action usually involves keeping quiet for a while and listening.

Those of you who play Magic Online in the wee hours of the night – do you ever take a moment to stop and think about the people you're playing with? Every other game probably involves someone from across the planet. The only two things you have in common are an Internet connection and a love for Magic.

You don't have to take advantage of every opportunity, of course – you've got games to play! – but I hope those of you who play online take the time, here and there, to connect via chat or trade with someone completely different from you. I hope you get excited enough about the interactions to consider visiting and embracing places you never would have considered before.

And I hope those of us who play virtual or real-card Magic find joy in trying something completely different. A new opponent, a new play group, a new format… the possibilities are endless.


That's it for the Big Idea series. I'm glad I got the chance to share these with you all. Adding value, taking responsibility, and engaging others are three values I have that have increased my enjoyment of Magic. They've also grounded me away from the game. I hope they do the same for you.

There are still plenty of big ideas out there – several readers wrote in with some fine ideas, thank you! – but this column needs to move on. There's a big theme week coming up, and after that come the Time Spiral previews. After that… who knows what Big Ideas will come?

Anthony Alongi has been playing various Magic formats for over eight years, and has been writing for much longer than that. He co-wrote his latest book, JENNIFER SCALES AND THE MESSENGER OF LIGHT, with his wife MaryJanice Davidson. Jennifer Scales is a half-dragon who ends up being a big fan of engagement.

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