How Magic: The Gathering Taught Me to Think
“Reverence a vos dame”
I turn to my partner and take a deep curtsey as he takes a deep bow.
“Reverence au quand”
I pivot to the man on my right and do the same again. I try to keep my heel from catching on my hoop skirt while holding my head up. I smile to match my glittering tiara.
I reach my gloved hand back for my partner’s hand and briefly catch his eye. I can see his mind nervously ticking away, keeping the time and playing the steps forward in his mind.
I offer reassurance with a squeeze of my hand. We got this.
Little did I know this man—this card counting, credit card gaming, hedge fund managing, world-famous Magic playing man—was about to change my life….
He introduced me to Magic.
Magic: The Gathering, that is.
Jon Finkel, world-famous Magic player, danced with me at a society ball in New York City. We became friends. And I started playing *a lot* of Magic.
Magic taught me how to think. And I mean really think. It was my first introduction to working on getting better at thinking. Let me share two examples of this….
1. Thinking Forward: The Clock
When you take an action, form a sentence, send an email, how far down the causal chain do you think…?
In Magic, players are obsessed with “the clock”— that is, how many turns more the game will continue before someone loses.
This clock is theoretical, there’s nothing ticking by that draws things to a close. It’s the count you keep in your head of:
- How many life points your opponent has
- How many life points they’re losing per turn
- And thus how long until they die (i.e. get to 0 life points)
Additionally, it’s the count of:
- How many life points you have
- How many you’re losing each turn
- And how long until you die
Both these clocks are ticking in your mind, and they dictate how you play.
When your clock is longer than your opponent’s (that is, if all things hold constant, your opponent will run out of life in fewer turns than you), you take the aggressive stance.
When it appears your opponent has more turns than you do, it’s best to go defensive—don’t try to attack their life points, you’ll lose that race. You’re best off putting your resources into defense, stalling any damage on either side, and thus giving yourself more turns to draw cards that might put the clock back in your favor.
This is the game of Magic that the greats play. They don’t attack for the life points, they attack for the clock.
This is the first great piece of thinking that Magic taught me. Instead of thinking about the reactions that my actions might elicit, I began to think of my goals on any given time-scale and if a given action would move me closer or further away.
In life, though each individual move matters, you have to be able to see each choice in terms of a bigger narrative. That takes a bit of the pressure off each individual action and makes the process of optimization in the service of a bigger goal, that spans more turns and more time.
Takeaway :If you focus on the move, the turn, the action, instead of the larger goal you’re trying to affect, you’ll end up on the Molehill of Micro Optimizations, deep in the land of Local Maxima. Focus on what your larger goals are, and take actions that make those possible—even when those actions don’t feel like forward motion at the time!
2. Thinking Backward: The Draft Cap
(I’m gonna get into some weeds related to game play here… feel free to skip ahead you’ll know I’m out of the weeds when you see this: ⚔🐉⚔🐉⚔)
A common format for competitive magic is called Drafting, where groups of 8 players select cards in competition with each other from a limited pool.
Getting better at picking cards from a limited pool means you have to get a lot of practice opening new packs of cards. That gets real expensive, real fast. It also takes forever.
So my friend group found ways to make it cheaper—we would play online, and collect text files of our drafts to send around and discuss.
- Spend $15 for a 3-hour game, learn some along the way, then spend another $15 for a 3-hour game to put that into practice. Learn more. Repeat.
- In an evening, that’s $30.
- And there are ~15 of us, so that’s $450!!
- 1 person spends $15, captures the pick-by-pick of their drafting—this text file is called the “Draft Cap”… which might stand for Draft Recap or Draft Capture, I’m honestly not sure.
- They send that file around to the group & everyone chimes in with what picks they thought were good, which bad, and why.
- All 15 of us get to learn for that one input of $15.
Here’s an example of what that Draft Cap looks like:
Of course if you can’t remember all the cards by name (or just want to look at something more elegant) you can drop that text file into any number of converters that will give you a pretty picture like this:
Did you skip ahead? Cool, please rejoin!
So, we found a cheap way to learn and have fun—great! But all that was just set up. Here’s the thinking trick I learned:
In most cases humans evaluate decisions based on outcomes. But in playing Magic, I learned to evaluate decisions based the information at hand.
The banter we bartered was never: “Oh, You should have been drafting Green. Just look at this great Green card was coming in Pack 2! Tough luck.”
Instead, you’d read lines like: “If you were paying attention by pack 1 pick 5, you would have noticed a Knightly Valor still there, clearly indicating that no one to your right was drafting White. You should have switched to White at that point. Though in the end, switching to White would actually turned out poorly for you, with the information you had, I think that’s what you should have done.”
We humans have a funny grasp of causality. We’re way too likely to validate our decisions with the outcomes that transpire—no matter how many external forces are involved.
This is so common a human failing, it has a name: Outcome Bias
“The outcome bias is an error made in evaluating the quality of a decision when the outcome of that decision is already known.”
You can’t look at the outcomes of a decision until you’ve made it! If you’re trying to get better at making decisions, learn to evaluate your process based on the inputs, not the outcomes.
Your decision is good or bad based on how well you considered the information at hand. It’s good or bad regardless of what options show up by chance later on.
Takeaway: If you want to combat Outcome Bias in your own mind, seek out ways to get feedback on your decisions based purely on the inputs.
Tying it All Together
So what’s my overall point here?
Well, I’m not saying everyone should play Magic (though, give it a shot—you might love it!) But I am saying thinking isn’t something that happens to us. It’s something that we do; it’s a skill that we cultivate, train, and develop over time.
Takeaway: Keep your eye out for thinking lessons like this—you’ll find them in the darndest places.
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