Magic the Gathering and Critical Thinking (What I really do with my time at University)

I was sitting in my Women and Health class, desperately brewing a new deck for Friday’s Innistrad release, when I came to a realization: I was doing more critical thinking working on a deck than I was in the class itself. Each change to the deck forced me to question the value of each and every card. With only sixty spots to fill, I needed to ensure that each one would synergize best with the others, which combo would be deadlier, and which build would ultimately ensure my victory.

When building a deck, I need to contemplate the value of each card in ways that are wholly unconventional. Generally, a 1/1 flyer for 2 mana would be a decent choice, particularly with lifelink. The fact that it’s an artifact is even better, allowing me to use my planeswalker, Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas to search it out.  With each card, there’s an unwritten test regarding how it interacts with with the ones I’ve already incorporated.

Even the cards I’ve already planned to use are subjected to this test- for each new pick, I need to ensure my old picks arestill viable, still as powerful as they were when I began. It’s not an easy process, and involves a great deal of situational thinking.

When you’re building a deck, you have to plan for virtually every eventuality. Sure, it’s good to imagine the card working in perfect conditions, when it’s all set up to be truly game changing, but what about in situations that are less than optimal? There’s a good chance I’m never going to encounter those ‘ideal’ circumstances, after all. With that in mind…

There are a lot of questions I need to answer.

It's a little something like this.

If I had to draw into a card, would it be this one? How often would I want a different card instead? What situations would bring about my pick? What about interaction with my opponent- how susceptible is this card to counters or removal? What cards exist that could cause problems for this card? All of these factors determined whether or not each card remained in the final draft of the deck.

Of course, even in the face of removal… some cards are valuable enough to run anyway. Judging that’s not easy, either.

To actually logically consider this sort of thing, you need an almost complete knowledge of every card available to every player in the standard environment. Then, you need to determine how stable your win condition is, whether the opponent’s cards will be too much for your deck to handle, what cards you need to swap, and if the deck is viable.

The final hurdle after your decklist is finished is testing the deck against others that have proven to be viable in the tournament scene. This can amount to hours of testing, finding faults in both your play-style and your build style. It involves tweaks, modifications, and ideas that only a madman would come up with, the end result of which is your deck being refined to the peak of its potential.

Like so.

Even after all this work, your deck might not work- viable on paper, but not in practice. Sometimes, I’ll spend hours on a deck, only to realize that a single, seemingly insignificant weakness totally cripples it- meaning I have to scrap it and start again. In order to be successful in tournament-level Magic, you need to understand that you aren’t always going to succeed- take it in stride, figure out what you did wrong, and use that knowledge to crush the guy who beat you into dust the next time around.

Real Life Applications

Believe it or not, card games can actually help you here.

Card games aren’t the only place where such skills prove useful.

The ability to look at a problem, formulate a solution and refine it until it’s as good as it can possibly get is a skill that’s valued by corporations and professionals the world over. Being able to consider situations in which an idea might fail and act accordingly, and possessing the tenacity to attack the problem from a new angle if it does…



There are people who pay thousands of dollars to learn these kinds of skills- and I learned them from a card game that’s played by children as young as six.

The great thing about Magic: The Gathering is that ‘fun’ is exactly what it manages to be. Even when you’re devoting hours of work to it, there’s a sense of satisfaction. Even when you have to start over after days of tweaking and modifying, there’s a sense of enjoyment.

What if Universities could educate like this? What if schools could ‘teach outside the box,’ and instil these abilities in their students? If academics could look at games like this as a legitimate educational experience, they could very well introduce students to a method of thinking that’s very hard to inspire, but absolutely invaluable later in life.

And all they’d have to do is pick up a deck of cards.


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