Mind Games: Why M:TG and Chess?

So if you checked out my introductory post, I mentioned that the two games I decided to use for incremental improvement on Twitch (which you can follow HERE because you’re awesome and that’s what awesome people do), are Magic: The Gathering (MTG) and chess. So why these two games? Why not a billion others? Why not become a master of Overwatch or League of Legends and play where the big money is?

It has to do with a story of opposites.

I’ve noticed that there are so many areas (especially in creative/thinky work) where the extent of product can be divided into two (or a few) categories. So if you want to reach a level of competency with an entire field of knowledge, you select one thing out of each area, and you’re golden. A prime example of this phenomenon is learning to play or teach musical instruments. If you want to become a high school band director, there are woodwinds and brass instruments. If you learn how to play one representative of each (like a clarinet and a trumpet), it is assumed that you’ve picked up skills in each that will translate to the other instruments in those classes. Another example is found in the learning of second languages. If you can learn a tonal language (such as Mandarin) and a Romantic language (like French), those skills will translate to scores of other languages. Yeah, you’ll have to put in the time, put in the time, Jesse Eisenberg, but there’s a path of least resistance there that will make it easier.

Which brings me back to MTG and chess. Yes, there are commonalities between the two. Both are (usually) two-player games. Both are primarily played live on tabletops but also on computers. Both are visual games…what you SEE matters. But, beyond this, they differ in the most fundamental sense of what a game needs in order to be playable and reproducible: in rules and luck.

Everyone knows the basic goal of a game whether you’ve taken a game theory class or not: You play to win the game.

Darn right, Herm.

So how do you know whether you’ve won or not? Well, there are rules. These rules control what you can and can’t do. If the game is tic-tac-toe, you don’t get to put an X and an O in the same square, no matter how much of a unique snowflake your mommy told you that you were. And it’s in these rules where these two games differ substantially.

Chess is not a complex game in the grand scheme of things. If you don’t know how to play, you may not believe me, but it just isn’t. A grade schooler can learn the basics in about an afternoon. There are a few quirks that you get better at over time, but it’s not that bad. And everyone who plays knows all the rules of the game itself. It’s not like two average chess players will sit down for a game, one will move his/her knight in a funky way, and the two will argue as to whether it’s allowed or not. Everyone who plays gets that.

Magic: The Gathering is not that sort of game. In fact, its lack of stable rules is the entire basis for the game. This is not to say that there aren’t any rules at all…in fact, you can read all the rules HERE if you want. Now, I wouldn’t recommend this. When the company itself puts a label above the comprehensive rules that says “DEAR GOD DON’T READ ALL OF THESE ARE YOU CRAZY OR SOMETHING”, you know you’re in deep water. That’s 219 pages of rules, by the way. So there are rules, Beavis. But the point of the game is that you change the rules at any time depending on what you decide to play. If I were going to be as simplistic as I can, MTG is a very fancy game of War: you turn cards over, and whoever has the better one wins. But every rule and interaction in the game can be changed at any time. For instance, in the most basic sense players get to draw one card every time it’s their turn. But if one of them plays this card:

Well, now you get to draw three cards every turn instead of one. And EVERY RULE IS LIKE THIS. That’s why the official rule book could be used to kill burglars. On top of this, each player uses their own selection of cards for their side…and the decks can be whatever size you want…and there are some ways to play that allow for the use of any card ever printed for MTG… all 14000 of them.

But it’s not just rules. Luck makes a big difference as well. It is ridiculous for a chess player to claim to be “unlucky” in a game. The board begins the same way for every player. The moves are the same. Unless someone grabs your hand and forces it to move a piece where you don’t want it (which I’m pretty sure is assault in at least seventeen states), it’s on you. Luck is not a factor. But in MTG, luck is a huge factor. The average deck that a player uses is around 60 cards. You get to use seven of them at the beginning of the game. If you get a bad seven random cards, you’re in big trouble. There are remedies, but none of them are particularly good. I’ve been playing MTG for about a week, and I’ve won more than one game against superior opponents.

I currently suck at MTG.

But it doesn’t matter sometimes, becuase you’re lucky and your opponent isn’t. Deal with it.

So we have two games. One has ridiculously stable rules. The other has rules that change around every ten minutes. One is not affected by luck at all. The other has luck as a significant factor in its play. But both are strategy games that take a HUGE amount of concentration and skill to excel at. So these games should be complementary…from brass to woodwind, from Mandarin to French.

The experiment begins.