What I Love About Magic: The Creativity

Posted in Ways to Play on February 17, 2017

By Quinn Murphy

Quinn has been fascinated with Magic ever since Revised Edition. When he is not spending time with his lovely wife and amazing son, he's constantly brewing decks for, playing, and writing about Magic.

In the many years I've played Magic, I've found ways to express my own creativity and enjoy the creativity of others. What I love about Magic is the platform it provides for creative innovation and expression at every level.

I tried to isolate a single narrative thread of creativity to discuss, but the strands I looked at always split into more strands, making a single vision impossible to hold. What I've chosen to do instead is to present several brief peeks into the many ways creativity lives and thrives within Magic.

Expression Is Mandatory

An aspect of the game that I think people fail to see is hidden in plain sight: you can't play Magic without expressing yourself in some way. Whether you are competitive or casual, brewer or grinder, the choices you make tell us something about your desires and tastes. If part of creativity is simply expression, then Magic provides a platform for that.

I think Mark Rosewater's most important piece of design writing involves his description of player types. Besides being one of the first pieces I've ever seen describing psycho-demographics for the players of a game, I believe that it touches the larger point that I came to learn later is at the heart of all games:

We play games to express ourselves and scratch psychological "itches."

Players scratch those itches by engaging the platform of Magic however they please. Whether you are making the next great rogue deck, finding a non-obvious line of play, or finding the right theme for a Commander deck, you are engaged in an expressive and creative act.

The Language of Combination

At the heart of Magic's creative platform is its cards. I've often thought of every game having its own language. The game rules act as a grammar and the possible moves and pieces represent the vocabulary.

The interesting aspect of a vocabulary is that every word in that vocabulary increases the breadth of the language almost exponentially. This is because words combine with all the other words in a language.

Magic has a very large vocabulary. Since Magic's basic rules are sparse and exception-based, the vocabulary is mostly embedded in the card pool. Each new set creates ripples in multiple formats, as the new "words" create new combinations, and each new combination either reinforces old strategies or creates new ones.

A Seat at the Table

I enjoy playing Magic Online a lot, but nothing quite replicates playing at a tournament face to face. Social interaction is great, but also I really enjoy the small bits of personalization that people bring with them. It can be cool sleeves, custom playmats, foiled-out decks, personalized tokens and counters, or simply their choice of lands; I find it interesting to see what people bring of themselves when playing the game.

It doesn't affect the actual play of the game, but it does influence the experience.

Theoretical Magic

Anyone who knows me knows I am a huge fan of Magic theory past and present. I enjoy reading strategy articles with decklists, but nothing excites me more than when a great player and/or writer opens up the game by offering a clear and applicable way to think about how the game is played.

A lot of the earliest theory in Magic is barely even visible for newer players today. The reason for this is that much of this theory has changed the way the game is now designed, and in turn is embedded in the basic language and "vocabulary" of the cards and rules themselves. There is little to debate about the existence of card advantage and tempo now, but at one time these were at the frontier of Magic thought and theory.

Good theory, in keeping with the language metaphor, doesn't add rules or vocabulary to the language; it instead directs the mind to the why of the words and grammars you use, showing you new patterns of usage.

Here are a very few of my favorite theory articles:

The particulars of many of these no longer apply, but that shouldn't stop you from enjoying how the authors used experience and imagination to challenge the way all players thought about the game.

Imagination's Crucible

I've talked a lot about expression and thought and ideas but little about what binds them all together: results.

Unlike many other creative platforms, Magic provides feedback for one's ideas in the form of a win or loss. One's deck is not rated each round by a panel of judges in a Magic tournament. Little subjectivity is involved in playing an opponent and trying to win two out of three games. You win or you don't win; it's cut and dried. This is probably what fascinates me the most about Magic and keeps me coming back match after match, brew after brew.

Playing Magic competitively offers you a crucible for your ideas, a set of trials that your deck and play must experience to discover how applicable they are to the environment. You don't want to get focused on any one result—randomness plays a factor—but over time, you can learn which of your ideas about play or deck design seem to work and which don't.

There are many levels to this crucible. A casual match at home is not a Friday Night Magic. An FNM is not a Grand Prix, and a Grand Prix is not a Pro Tour. You shouldn't expect assumptions to carry over from one level to another, but at each stage you get a sense for how your set of assumptions is faring.

Such feedback for thoughts and creativity is rare, and when you have it, it's a gift because you now have a way of knowing what ideas to hold on to and which to let go. The competition of Magic offers a quick, iterative way to test your assumptions about play or deck design while having fun in the process.

Through all my years playing the game, Magic's opportunities to express creativity have never ceased to amaze me. What avenues for creative thought and expression do you like most?

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