The Big Game: Math and the Average Player

By now I have clearly demonstrated how math is a big part of Magic. From probability, decision making, and strategic applications, it is apparent that math forms the backbone of what makes the game so intellectual. However, the question arises to whether players actually identify and use the math components. To find out about how much math is actually seen by players of the game, I conducted a poll on The Magic Dojo. I asked players to send me responses to the following questions:

  1. What is your name and age?
  2. How long have you been playing Magic?
  3. What is your background in math (what courses have you taken)?
  4. To what extent to you think math is an important part of strategy and game play?
  5. How, if at all, does math play a role in your game play? Explain.
  6. Do you think someone who is more knowledgeable in math has a higher playing potential than someone who does not does? Why or why not?

This survey was posted on The Magic Dojo ( on May 14th. Over the course of May 14 through the morning of June 9, I received 182 responses. They came from players of varying age and experience. Most recognized the mathematical aspects; yet most agreed that math does not make for a better player. Critical thinking skills are the basis of being a better player. Nonetheless most recognized that math does exist behind the scenes of the game. After all, Richard Garfield, the designer of the game, is a graduate student in mathematics! After reading the responses, I sorted them out in hopes of drawing conclusions. The following are my analysis of the information I gained from this survey:

I. Age distribution
12-15 16-19 20-23 24-27 28-31 32-35 36-39 40-43 44+
18.6% 26.6% 21.5% 12.4% 13.6% 4.0% 1.7% 1.1% 0.6%

The average age of the Magic player is a high school or college level student. There were fewer middle school and graduate level students that answered the survey. There were even fewer older players, though there were some. The high school to college range can be attributed to the targeted interest group. Most males this age are interested in strategy gaming far more than their older and younger counterparts. Note that I did not include gender in this poll. The majority (more than 95%) was males. Females generally do not constitute much of the portion of Magic players, generally because they do not take as great an interest in strategy games. These are just statistics, not an opinion.

II. Experience distribution
0-1 years 1-2 years 2-3 years 3-4 years 4-5 years 5-6 years
5.3% 12.9% 16.4% 25.1% 31.6% 8.8%

Please note that X-Y years denotes greater than X, and less than or equal to Y. Therefore 2-3 years means more than but not including 2 years, up to and including 3 years of experience playing Magic. It appears that the majority of players have been around since when the Revised (3rd) edition had been released. I know that the popularity of the game had actually peaked then, so these results do in fact make sense. Part of the result may be that this only represents the field of Dojo readers, which it does, but still it seems fairly accurate as a general distribution.

III. Background knowledge distribution
Middle School High School Calculus College Level Graduate Level
3.0% 33.3% 14.9% 38.1% 10.7%

Middle School indicates general middle school math education. High School indicates Sequential Math courses I through III, as well as Precalculus. Similar algebra, geometry and trigonometry courses correspond as well. I chose not to include Calculus under the category of college level math. The math levels seem to correlate directly with the age of the players. Therefore the average player can be a high school or college student well educated in mathematics, and has played Magic for 4 or 5 years. It would appear that an interest in mathematics corresponds with an interest in Magic. This is usually the case. Some people are not as proficient in math and still enjoy the game a great deal.

IV. Recognized concepts, use of math, and view of importance of math
Very Little Somewhat A great deal
Concept recognition 9.0% 36.7% 54.2%
Use of math 18.1% 31.3% 50.6%
Importance of math 20.5% 36.1% 43.4%

It is very apparent that Magic players recognize the mathematical concepts behind Magic, use these concepts in their game play, and see their relative importance. Beginners may only see the subtleties such as life counting, damage dealing, and other addition/subtraction ideas such as creature combat. More advanced players identify mana curves, casting cost analysis, land ratios, and timing issues. Experts see advanced probability, statistics, and metagame analysis. Most players agree that decision making is superior to mathematical ability when it comes to playing the game.

In deckbuilding, mathematical skill comes into play more often, though intuition often reigns supreme. While math is a big part of Magic, it may not necessarily make a better player. Decision-making does, though. Game theory, an economics application, is more useful to the average player then numerical mathematics. Deck creation is where the math comes into play. Game mechanics are full of math. The game play is not as full of math. While beginners only view math as life totals, experts see the big picture. Math thinking skills are useful in the game either way.

Players use a fair amount of math either at a conscious or subconscious level. While it is an underlying part of the game, it does not necessarily enhance one's playing skill to a large degree. Knowing math never hurts, though. In deck construction, math is great. In playing, fast arithmetic is also a good thing. Logic and reasoning skills are also good things to take with you onto the gaming field. Play experience is more valuable than pure mathematical experience, though. All players seem to agree on these ideas.

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