Magic: The Gathering: A Mathematical Introduction

Magic: The Gathering is a game which some take seriously, and others lightly. Many understand it, even more do not. Some play it nonstop and others never see the point. Personally, I think it is a great game. Only those who actually play the game can truly understand how wonderful it is. Most people who write it off as pointless do not see the mechanics of the game that make it simple, yet complex. In its five years of existence, the crowd that Magic has drawn can alone show how great the game really is. On the weekend of May 1 and 2 I traveled with some friends to Pro Tour: New York in Secaucus, New Jersey. Hundreds of people were gathered inside the Meadowlands Exposition Center just to play the game they love. The Pro Tour is no day in the park; it is a great competition for the mind.

Zev, a junior at Scarsdale High School, along with myself, had both qualified for the Junior Super Series event. Sixty-four players age seventeen and under qualify for the JSS at challenge tournaments held during the winter. We had playtested for this tournament a fairly lengthy amount, yet I was still skeptical. As it turned out, I went 1-3 and dropped out. Zev went 0-3 and dropped. A record of at least four wins was necessary to make the top eight, in order to play at the JSS Championships where $250,000 in scholarship money is awarded. We tried, but what was it that kept us from winning? What is it that keeps every Magic player from winning all the time? What keeps even the most skilled of players at bay from winning every single game? It is a word called chance.

Chance is what makes Magic different from many other classic games. When one plays Chess, he gets to see all the pieces. Both players have eight pawns and eight other pieces, either white or black. Every piece moved is public information, and nothing is held secret. Chess is ruled by complete skill. Nothing random can possibly happen. Magic, on the other hand, adds a new element. Not only are each person's playing materials often different or varied (the decks), but randomness exists in this game. One starts the game by randomizing his deck of sixty or more cards, then drawing seven. He will definitely not draw the same seven cards in every opening hand! Variety is what makes this game different than Chess. There are two elements of variety involved: Deck construction and random card draws.

Deck construction is part of what governs this element of variety. The card draws are simply a result of the deck construction, as well as any cards played during the game which may alter the contents of what is remaining in the deck (for example, removing cards from the deck). The Duelists' Convocation International (DCI) is the authority governing sanctioned tournaments. Although many players do not participate in tournaments, the DCI's deckbuilding guidelines provide for a fair game.

Some cards were printed before the research and development team realized they were overpowered. Hence, the cards are banned from deck construction. Some cards are only restricted, meaning only one is allowed in a deck. Any card that is not banned or restricted is allowed up to four copies per deck. A player has to think, "how many copies of a card do I want in my deck? One, two, three, or four?" If he puts four copies in, he is likely to draw one very soon. If he only uses one, his chances of drawing it are slim. Maybe having multiple copies is redundant and that is the reason for using fewer. If he uses three copies of a card, then what will be his chances of drawing one by turn six? Probability pokes its nose up into the game now.

In Chess, there is no probability, other than thinking about the number of possible moves. However, a player's play style is more likely to govern how he plays the game of Chess than probability will. For all intents and purposes, there is no probability in Chess. Probability goes hand in hand with chance and random events. It is the chance that an event will occur, or not occur. Will your adversary draw the card he needs to win the game this turn? Next turn? Within five turns? Calculating the chances can help a player decide whether to play defensively and anticipate the other person drawing their win card, or play aggressively and assume that the card will not be drawn by the other player.

Some of the other math involved in the game is less obvious. The "chance versus skill" question is a very hot topic among high-level players. How much of playing a given deck is based on skill, and how much on chance? The obvious solution would be to take a fairly inexperienced player and give him one deck, and give an experienced player the other. The experienced player will win with either deck if there is complete skill involved. If the deck is straightforward to the point that there are no decisions to be made, and it beats the other deck almost automatically, then it is possible the expert will lose games. In Magic, though, there are always at least some thoughtful decisions to make. The chance of getting paired against a superior deck in a tournament does not mean an automatic loss. If your skill is lower to that of the superior deck your chances may be slim, but if your skill is higher than your chances become much greater.

So then, what constitutes a superior deck? What deckbuilding techniques are necessary for one to make a deck that wins more often than a deck which is not as good? How does one determine which card selections will guarantee a flawless road to victory? Questions like these are what every player must try to answer when attempting to create the "perfect" deck. Of course, I will aim to prove that the "perfect" deck does not exist. Laws of game theory are an invaluable aid in proving this. While game theory is a very conceptual science, its laws very well do apply to games such as Magic. While knowledge of these laws will not make one a Pro Tour Player, they can help one who is trying to understand the game have an easier time making decisions. Game theory is simply a series of laws regulating how one goes about making decisions in a situation. A "game" in game theory is not necessarily always a game as defined in common talk, but game theory certainly has many game applications.

Through the laws of probability and game theory, along with statistical analysis and actual experiments, I will be working on coming up with conclusions that can take these laws and correlate them to the game of Magic. First and foremost, I will be explaining the basic concepts of game, in order for the reader who is unacquainted with Magic to familiarize himself with these terms. In describing the game, I will attempt not to reiterate the entire rulebook, though I will summarize the basics of how the game is played. Upon completion of these details, I will begin my outline of game theory and begin on relating the math and game theory to its Magic applications. I will provide profiles of many of the people who I consult with as part of my project. I will be discussing a survey I conducted in order to determine how much math Magic players recognize as part of the game. This entire report will follow closely the outline given in my project description.


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