This post was originally supposed to be 2 to 4 pages, but it got a little out of hand. The prompt was given to me in a job application, and the premise was simple:
“Sell something to us, even yourself.”
So, I decided to sell Magic: The Gathering and, by extension, myself as someone who plays the game. I figured it would be easy to throw together a little article to send in about how MTG has helped me in real world situations. As I started writing, however, the article kept escalating. I kept thinking of more examples of how MTG translates to the real-world and more ways that the game helps players develop intellectually.
Instead of a fairly short writing sample, the essay snowballed into rather exhaustive explanation of why Magic: The Gathering matters.
The 7 Reasons Why Every Kid Should Play “Magic: the Gathering” (And Every Company Should Employ Someone Who Does)
If you have not seen it already, take a minute of your time and watch Francis Plays Magic The Gathering (Warning: Francis is flabbergasted and prone to spewing profanity). While it is mildly entertaining to watch a grown man squeal incoherently and flip a table just because he is losing a game, it is also disconcerting, especially for fellow Magic: The Gathering (MTG) players. As if loitering outside of comic book stores with binders and backpacks was not hard enough to justify already, now there is a video to reinforce any negative stereotypes that might coincide with playing a trading card game. Although the video is staged, it is still immensely popular (3,083,876 views and counting), which means that this viral and absurd portrayal of Magic: The Gathering contributes directly to a negative perception of the game.
Compound the video’s popularity with MTG’s loose association to games marketed towards younger audiences (games like Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh), and it results in the widespread and unfortunate opinion that trading card games like MTG are facile and childish. From an outside perspective, it seems like MTG fosters a state of prolonged adolescence in people who should be doing “grown-up” activities.
This is not true.
There are a bevy of benefits associated with playing MTG. In spite of those shallow and pejorative perceptions circling the trading card game, people who play Magic: The Gathering develop valuable and highly marketable skills that translate directly to both academic and professional environments.
It turns out that Francis is probably frustrated for good reason, as MTG is a challenging game that incorporates much more than shuffling cards and rolling die.
1. Mathematical Reasoning
Magic: The Gathering is first and foremost a game of mathematics. In order to play the game, each player needs to build a deck, usually consisting of 60 cards. The process of “deck-building” is a mathematical process in and of itself, as players must develop a strategy and strike a balance between all of the different types of MTG cards so that their deck works properly. This boils down to evaluating the statistics of a deck, which can be a frustrating and time-consuming process. For simplicity’s sake, I will not delve into the overwhelming amount of statistical analysis that can be involved when building a deck, but it is important to note that players must take statistics into consideration on a consistent basis. (For a very in-depth example of the statistics of MTG, visit this article on the statistics of “fetchlands”)
The mathematical thinking of MTG does not end at the deck-building phase. There is a tremendous amount of computations involved in every game of MTG. At the beginning of each game, players start with a designated number, usually set at 20, which represents their life total. Whenever a player’s life total drops to zero or below, that player loses the game. While this may seem like a simple premise, the enormity of ways that a player’s life total can be altered creates an incredibly complex game. At any given moment, a player must calculate changes in life totals, along with the multitudinous other aspects of the game, by using addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.
The computational aspect of the game becomes even more difficult as a player enters competitive play. Competitive MTG games coerce players to make decisions based on mathematical calculations in high-pressure and time-sensitive situations. Generally, MTG tournaments only provide 50 minutes to finish a set of three matches (which is, at times, not nearly enough), forcing players to efficiently evaluate varying scenarios and potential outcomes in order to determine their best course of action. Even when playing casually, without the time constraints, MTG helps foster a player’s ability to think abstractly and mathematically in a timely fashion.
The mathematical nature of the game correlates directly to real-world scenarios, both in academic and professional environments. Obviously, the capability for time-efficient, mathematical reasoning is a huge boon for any student preparing for an exam, like an SAT, GRE or GMAT. Mathematical reasoning also translates to a broad range of professions that require the ability for complex and efficient mathematical thinking (i. e. computer programming, economics, engineering). Obviously, playing MTG does not equate to remarkably high SAT scores or engineering degrees, but the game does sharpen a player’s computational abilities because of the inherent mathematical and statistical nature of the game.
2. Reading Comprehension and Vocabulary
If the framework of MTG is mathematics, then the aspect of the game that transforms MTG from monotonous flashcards into an entertaining and intellectual game is the text. Throughout gameplay, players must consistently read over cards in order to evaluate a card’s usefulness and determine how that card will impact the game. Consequently, in order to play MTG on any level, reading comprehension is paramount for understanding both the cards and the rules that govern them. Generally, new players develop a basic understanding of the game by playing casually with friends and skimming over the basic rulebook provided by Wizards of the Coast. But, in order to play at a high level, players must develop a deeper understanding of the rules, which inevitably leads to Wizards’ comprehensive two-hundred page rulebook that expounds upon every tedious detail of the game.
With a basic understanding of the rules, players can then focus on learning how the cards operate within the game. Garnering an understanding of the cards is contingent upon sifting through the text on each individual card, which generally includes the card’s title, type and an explanation of what the card does. Within MTG’s massive library, the difficulty of card text ranges from relatively simple to aggravatingly complex. The varying degrees of difficulty enable beginners to ease into the game by playing with simple cards before encountering a card with a paragraph full of confusing jargon. In order to play the game fluently, however, players must continue to develop their reading comprehension skills by familiarizing themselves with the cards (yes, even the complex ones), the rules and how they interact.
The difference between the following three cards visually exemplifies the varying degrees of difficulty of MTG cards. These cards range from simple (left) to somewhat complex (right).
The cards within MTG’s massive library also utilize an extensive and, at times, lofty vocabulary. The difficult vernacular found throughout the game helps to develop a player’s vocabulary which contributes directly to refining a player’s reading comprehension. While the cards displayed above do not contain any incredibly challenging words, cards like Vernal Equinox, Zealous Conscripts, and Progenitor Mimic clearly demonstrate that MTG incorporates uncommon and difficult vocabulary words.
Even fictional words that have been fabricated for MTG cards can be beneficial for a player’s reading comprehension. A great example of this can be found in the card Somnophore, which is a card that actually helped a friend of mine during his SAT’s.
Obviously, my friend did not know what a Somnophore was because the word does not exist, but by using the context clues provided to him (the artwork and how the card operates in gameplay), he was able to ascertain a fundamental understanding of what Somnophore means. In the picture, it is clear that the creature is putting someone to sleep, and the card’s in-game effects connote something very similar. So, when he encountered the word “somnolent” (tending to cause sleep) on his SATs, he identified the matching prefix, breezed through the multiple choice options and selected the correct definition, all because he had used a MTG card.
By grasping the sheer amount of challenging and complex text that a player must digest when playing MTG, it becomes evident that even limited exposure to MTG can be beneficial to a person’s vocabulary and reading comprehension. Again, the real-world benefits are apparent, especially because people are constantly sifting through online content and communicating via email and text messages. Reading comprehension and vocabulary are two vital aspects of a person’s communication skills, and MTG provides a platform which can help develop and refine both of them.
3. Critical Thinking
In addition to improved reading comprehension, vocabulary and mathematical skills, MTG also helps to develop a person’s ability to think critically. Critical thinking is a comprehensive skill that, put simply, incorporates reasoning, research and analysis in order to make well-informed decisions. Critical thinking is imperative for MTG players because MTG is a cerebral game of ever-changing scenarios. The capricious nature of the game forces players to both strategically plan ahead and make logical impromptu decisions. In order to make the best possible choices, players must constantly analyze their current situation and consider every outcome of their potential maneuvers. With all things considered, a well-played and competitive game of MTG is like a combination of chess and poker, as the players are always methodically strategizing, reading their opponent and taking carefully evaluated gambits.
There are also aspects of MTG that enhance a person’s ability to think critically outside of actual gameplay. As previously discussed, deck-building is a fundamental and challenging part of MTG. In order to build a competitive deck, a player must develop a strategy for his or her deck and select cards that work synergistically within that strategy. To an outsider, this may seem like a simple task, but there is a substantial amount of critical thinking required in order for a player to piece together a competitive deck.
With a strategy in mind, a player must determine the best cards for a deck. Researching those cards, however, can be a daunting task, as the current library of cards exceeds thirteen thousand in number. There are also many restrictions in place that limit and, at times, completely ban the use of certain cards. While the restrictions cull the number of cards available for use, eliminating the need to sift through thousands of cards, they also force players to find alternatives for banned or restricted cards. Combine those game-mandated restrictions with a player’s limited collection, and the research process becomes rather challenging. These limitations force players to be creative and critically evaluate alternative cards that work well within the confines of the game, their deck’s strategy and their budget.
The process of finding the right cards for a deck does not end in the research phase. “Play-testing”, or using the cards in actual games to analyze their performance, is an integral part of the deck-building process. On paper, a card might seem like an excellent fit within a deck, but when it comes to actual gameplay, the card might not be pragmatic. There are occasions when cards do not work synergistically with other cards, and some cards may only be useful in rare situations. These types of kinks in a deck’s performance can only be identified and corrected by play-testing the deck and critically evaluating each card’s performance. Only after play-testing can a player be sure that his or her deck is ready for competitive play.
In summation, deck-building, a process that incorporates nearly every facet of critical thinking, is closer in resemblance to the scientific method than to any card game. Deck-building and playing the game help to develop a player’s ability to think critically, look at situations objectively, research and analyze. As a player becomes more competitive, it becomes necessary to refine these skills, delve deeper into cards and stay on top of current trends. Thus, the more involved the player becomes with the game, the more refined that person’s skills for critical thinking, research and reasoning become. Needless to say, those skills are invaluable and universally applicable to every branch of academia and nearly every profession.
4. Social Skills
When one thinks of gaming, social interaction is generally not the first term that comes to mind. MTG, however, provides an opportunity for players to socialize, both within their network of friends and with other players. By promoting and hosting a large variety of events, MTG provides a platform for players to network, share ideas, trade cards and have a good time with fellow enthusiasts.
So, MTG provides a platform for social interaction, but how does that translate to academics or the professional environment? The answer is collaboration, and it is one of the hottest buzz words for businesses right now. Whether companies are looking into new technologies to help their teams work together more efficiently or evaluating better practices to help foster collaboration, working together as a team is a major initiative within both professional and academic domains. It also happens to be an important aspect of MTG.
One of the best examples of a collaborative process within the game of MTG is the aforementioned activity of deck-building. As discussed earlier, deck-building is the process of selecting the most useful set of cards for a deck. This requires extensive research, play-testing and analysis, and it becomes much more efficient and enjoyable when collaborating with others. When working together on a deck, players share ideas, evaluate the benefits and disadvantages of certain cards and debate about which cards and strategies work best. If a company wants an employee who knows how to work together on a project in order to develop the best possible product or result, they need not look any further than someone who has played Magic: the Gathering.
5. Fundamental Economics
All hobbies that include collectible items, from refurbishing antiques to collecting baseball cards, inevitably foster a fundamental understanding of economics. In this respect, MTG is no different. Within MTG, there is an inherent structure of card rarity that creates scarcity. Scarcity, in turn, contributes to MTG’s system of supply and demand. The game’s structure of rarity helps to clearly indicate that some cards are worth more than others, and it helps players begin to understand how card values are determined within the system.
Along with the built-in system of scarcity, there are other factors that can affect card value. One such factor is the utility or usefulness of a card in gameplay, which is an attribute that has a limited correlation to a card’s rarity. The utility of a card directly contributes to its demand, which can make a relatively common card much more valuable than a card printed as a rare. This aspect of card demand becomes even more complicated at times because a card may be used heavily in official tournaments for one month, only to dwindle in the next, causing a significant drop in that card’s value. This creates a rather volatile economic landscape that players must monitor consistently in order to make well-informed decisions while trading, selling and purchasing cards.
While casual players may not immerse themselves in the economic aspect of MTG, it is nonetheless a significant part of the game, and it is one that translates directly to the real-world. For starters, scarcity, supply and demand are all fundamental concepts of economics. MTG players who evaluate cards from the economic perspective develop an understanding of these concepts naturally, without having to delve into textbooks or take a class. In addition, because MTG’s economic system can be erratic, it requires consistent research and analysis for players to keep up with trending cards and make financially sound decisions. This means that the economic side of MTG is yet another aspect of the game that reinforces a player’s ability to think critically, research and analyze.
As a final note on the economics of MTG, it is important to acknowledge that there are actual careers affiliated with MTG. These opportunities include jobs in creative, marketing and R&D, among many others. There are also many lucrative businesses outside of Wizards of the Coast that retain profitability and relevance because of MTG. From blogs and eCommerce sites dedicated to covering nearly every aspect of MTG (including the economics), to the countless trading card stores that maintain relevance by hosting events and selling MTG cards, the economic relevance of MTG is extraordinary.
6. Imagination and Innovation
While a game of MTG generally takes place on a table, perhaps in a living room or at a gaming store, the cards in the game represent things from a fantasy world. And, since it is a card game, MTG requires its players to use their imagination in order to conceptualize what happens during gameplay. While the fantastic artwork and supplementary storytelling (ebooks, novels, graphic novels & comics) help players to visualize the action of the game, it is still very much an act of imagination, with no television screen involved. Consequently, gameplay helps to foster a player’s ability to think abstractly and creatively as they must conceptualize how the cards within the game interact, all with very little visual aid.
While the visualization that occurs during gameplay is certainly beneficial for a person’s imaginative and creative thought processes, there are other aspects of the game that apply more directly to the real-world. Innovation is another trending buzz word in the business world, and MTG is a game that fosters innovation on a regular basis. Whether a player is in the midst of a game or in the middle of the deck-building process, there is a constant need to think critically and creatively about how to best utilize his or her cards. Players innovate relentlessly in order to develop new strategies and brainstorm new combinations between cards, just to find some sort of competitive advantage. Frankly, if an employer is looking for someone who can think creatively, evaluate problems from different angles and develop innovative solutions, they need only go to a place where MTG is being played.
7. Fosters Healthy Competition
Finally, Magic: the Gathering fosters a player’s sense of competition. It only takes a couple games of getting trounced by your friends to really ignite the urge to improve and return the favor. The competitive nature of the game reinforces every other aspect of the game, giving you the inspiration to research innovative ways to improve your deck and refine your playing ability. Seeking to improve could result in anything from slight variations to your deck of cards to a complete strategical overhaul, but the drive is always the same: improve, refine and compete.
While one of the best venues for developing a competitive edge is sports, there are those who cannot engage in athletics. MTG offers an ideal and enjoyable avenue for those who want to compete but do not wish to participate in a sport. Even if the a person is involved in athletics, MTG offers those players an arena to compete at an intellectual rather than physical level. It helps to mention that intellectual competition translates better to real-world scenarios, as businesses and universities certainly want to foster competition, just not the physical kind.
With all this in mind, do not let Francis’s table-flipping rampage leave you with the impression that Magic: The Gathering is only played by blabbering madmen and barbaric lunatics. It’s simply not the case. In contrast to the negative perceptions circling MTG, it is a cerebral and complex game that helps players develop intellectually in a lot of ways. If you question the authenticity of my arguments, ask around. You may be surprised about how many people have played MTG. And if that isn’t enough, go and visit your local MTG store.
You might end up enjoying the game.
Magic the Gathering and it’s respective properties are copyright Wizards of the Coast. I am in no way affiliated with Wizards of the Coast, and the content of this article is entirely personal opinion.