This will be my last article for StarCityGames.com. It's been a pleasure and a great privilege to write for the best website in Magic but my association with the game is coming to an end. For the foreseeable future I'm leaving Magic.
This has been something I've planned for a while and there are a number of factors involved in my decision. Mostly it's to have more time to devote to my studies and work. While Magic is a great game it's never been much more than a pastime for me—I've never shared the ambition of Patrick Chapin and Luis Scott-Vargas to make it into a career. I have nothing but respect for the people who do but it's not my personal choice.
I'd like to thank the terrific past and future editors of this website particularly Lauren Lee and Steve Sadin. I'd also like to thank the many readers who commented asked questions gave feedback and everything else. I apologize to those who I never managed to reply to but rest assured that I always read and took into account everything you had to say.
This is a farewell piece. Again it's something I've wanted to write for a while but never found the words to set down. This isn't about me; it's about the game that we all love that will continue to grow and probably outlive all of us.
Why do you play Magic?
We all have different reasons. Everyone needs a hobby. It might be a way to socialize when you've had a tough week. You might love fantasy and the flavor of the worlds Magic takes you to. Maybe you dream of being the next big name from your country to make it on the Pro Tour. If you're especially lucky you're one of the few who can call it a lifestyle a way to travel the world and meet remarkable people.
These are all great reasons to play the game we all love.
But I do it for a different reason.
What exactly do I mean? With a bit of patience and a healthy dose of imagination you can find out.
The Beauty of Complex Systems
The story starts four decades ago in the winter of 1961 in the deep cold of Boston Massachusetts. Snowplows steamed through the streets icicles grew like ivy on telephone poles and street lamps frosty winds howled through rattly windows. Shivering at his desk in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sat a young professor named Edward Lorenz. He was a man struggling with a problem a problem we find all too familiar more than 40 years later. Lorenz had a computer bug.
Edward Lorenz was a meteorologist by training and a computer scientist by inclination. He was a man ahead of his time; in 1961 the whole computer concept was still fairly foreign to the establishment. That makes what Lorenz was trying to achieve even more outlandish: trying to use these mysterious boxes to predict the weather. Outrageous? Certainly if you listened to the skeptics. But the simulation Lorenz had built over the past year looked to prove them wrong.
Or possibly prove them right. After all the darned thing wasn't working.
Lorenz had hit an impasse. He'd run the simulation once and gotten impressive results. But upon trying to go back and recreate the same data the program had done something completely different. Clearly something was wrong—but what? Was there a mistake in the code? It seemed to check out. Perhaps the computer itself was malfunctioning but for the life of him Lorenz couldn't work out how.
Then serendipity struck. It was the parameters. The first time he'd entered the decimal 0.506127; the second he'd rounded to 0.506. The conventional wisdom at the time stated that such a small difference couldn't possibly matter. But the experimental evidence said otherwise. Since each step in the program depended on the step before a tiny difference in initial parameters was magnified and magnified again and again until the two sets of predictions looked nothing like one another.
Unexpected? More than that. Mind-blowing. This discovery redefined how we understand complex iterated systems—systems that feed back and impact on themselves. Everything from the global financial markets to the human body to the metagame at your local store is a complex iterated system. And what makes them remarkable is that we can never absolutely predict their behavior. The slightest of slight variations throws everything off. Because of this fundamental unpredictability we will never reduce the world to a system of equations. It's too robust. And I find that beautiful—that no matter how much we know there will always be more to understand.
You may have never heard of Edward Lorenz. But you've probably heard of "the butterfly effect" the popular culture concept of chaos theory his work spawned. The classic example: a butterfly flapping its wings altering global weather patterns sparking a hurricane on the other side of the world. And where did that example arise from? None other than Lorenz himself through the original talk he gave in 1972: "Predictability: Does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?"
Of course it runs deeper than that. If small changes can have massive effects it follows that massive changes can have tiny effects and that some changes can have no effect at all. The point is that it's nonlinear. In practical terms it means you can't guess what will happen. You just have to follow it through and find out.
Magic is a complex iterated system. A decision you make on pick two of a draft affects every single player in that draft and affects every single pick you make from that point on. A metagame one week determines the metagame the next week in subtle ways—something as minor as the sideboard choices the pros are making affects whether Elves is a good choice or not. The last four slots in a deck affect every last card and the challenge is to hit that balance between consistency and power while correctly anticipating the metagame.
It demands our full understanding and powers of comprehension. But what it gives back to us is something much greater.
Be Still My Heart
Everyone knows what a heart attack is. Person clutches at their chest drops down and dies unless a passerby knows CPR and miraculously brings them back to life.
Heart failure is much less a part of popular culture. It's less dramatic. It doesn't strike people down out of the blue. It comes on insidiously over the course of months and years. You might not notice at first passing it off as your breath becoming a little more difficult to catch as you get older. You can't walk as far as you used to. Maybe you've gained a few pounds and your legs are a little bit swollen.
But the main difference is that people recover from heart attacks and go on to live long healthy lives. That doesn't happen with heart failure. It's a disease of the elderly people who've smoked two packs a day for 50 years and have already had two heart attacks. Excepting the lucky few who get a heart transplant it's a slow and inevitable decline to the grave.
Perhaps that all sounds very grim but in fact life itself is a slow and inevitable decline to the grave. Heart failure may accelerate that but it's not the face of the Grim Reaper. It can be slowed or stopped. But for many years doctors were baffled on just exactly how to do that.
The thinking was: heart failure is what happens when your heart well fails. It stops working properly. It can't pump hard enough. A lifetime of fatty foods smoking diabetes high blood pressure what have you have taken their toll. The cardiac muscles have tipped their hat said "good day to you gentlemen" and gone on to the great cardiovascular system in the sky.
So to treat it doctors used a class of drugs called beta-agonists. These bind to receptors that force the remaining muscles to work harder and compensate for their fellows who've given up the ghost. After all if your heart isn't pumping hard enough what's needed is to make it pump harder. Right?
I'm sure you know where this is going. The human body isn't simple or linear and these things rarely turn out the way they're expected to.
So. Did it work?
Well sort of. For a little while. Patients felt immediately better. They could breathe easier and walk further. People in the terminal stages of heart failure at death's door in the intensive care unit were pulled away from the Reaper's skeletal grasp. Clinical measurements of cardiac output—how much blood the heart pumps around the body—were encouraging. This was enough to persuade the FDA and they duly licensed the drugs to be used in standard medical practice.
But with time it became apparent that beta-agonists didn't really work. They improved symptoms but they didn't improve the underlying condition. Some studies actually found that they shortened patients' lifespans and others found that they increased the risk of fatal complications of heart failure. Beta-agonists were gradually discontinued. Today they're only used in very specific scenarios and even then only for a short time.
And what replaced them?
The exact opposite. A class of drugs called beta-antagonists or beta blockers. These directly oppose the actions of beta-agonists. They stop the heart from pumping. It turns out that when your heart is failing the thing to do is encourage it to fail more.
If you told this to a doctor in the 1970s he would've looked at you like you had his wife's underpants on your head. Could you blame him? It's utterly counterintuitive. Even now we don't really understand how this works. If you ask a cardiologist they'll mention some complicated medical jargon and hope that you'll go away. Yes it might be the inhibition of sympathetic outflow or vasodilator effects or prevention of cardiac hypertrophy. But these are the hypotheses that come after the fact and we still don't know why they would take precedence over the basic principle that your heart's about to stop and you're kicking it.
Magicians know all about this—the phenomenon of expectations being so far off that the truth is the exact opposite of what you thought would happen. Remember when Avacyn Restored came out? Cavern of Souls was about to halt Delver in its tracks and possibly make ramp unbeatable. The Magic world was poised for a radical metagame shift on the back of an unassuming land. Instead what happened was that Cavern was mostly ignored. Delver got Restoration Angel to fill the gaps in its midgame gained a ton of resilience to Curse of Death's Hold and became the consensus heir to Caw-Blade as the "best deck."
Or what about when Mirrodin Besieged was printed? Green Sun's Zenith was the exact card to complete Valakut's stranglehold on the format and we despaired of fighting through hundreds of Mountains in the months to come. But instead the unexpected Sword of Feast and Famine turned out to be the perfect card to pair with Stoneforge Mystic and Jace and created a whole different monster. Primeval Titan and friends were all but pushed out of the format.
No One Knows Anything
In 2008 as global financial markets were hemorrhaging money a man named Nassim Taleb made a billion dollars.
How did he do it? Simple. He bet on his own ignorance.
Wall Street traders sell "options" on stock that profit if the stock price falls below a certain level. Usually the level is set such that the option has a very small chance of making a profit. For example let's say General Motors stock is selling today for $50 a share. You can buy options from a company to sell them General Motors stock for $40 a share sometime within a set timeframe—say the next week. That means if the stock falls to $35 very soon you can buy a pile of it and turn around and sell it at $40 making a nice profit.
Now the chances of you getting to do this are slim. Stocks fluctuate but not that much that fast. The bottom would have to drop out of General Motors stock for you to get any use out of that "option" you just bought. Overwhelmingly chances are it'll be a wasted dollar or two out of your pocket.
But exactly how likely is it that your dollar will go to waste? People make livings quantifying just that. And Taleb didn't believe a word they had to say. All he saw were people putting too much faith in what they thought they knew and brushing what they couldn't explain under the carpet. The unknowns deserved far more respect than they got. The chances of a stock plummeting were chronically underestimated by analysts with short memories and misplaced certainty.
For a while Taleb was the pariah of Wall Street—the man who didn't believe in prediction who sneered at empiricism itself. Like Socrates he was certain only of his own ignorance and held this to be his chief intellectual advantage over other people who were ignorant of theirs. Unlike Socrates he was vindicated within his own lifetime by wagering against what others were sure of.
Weather models? Heart disease? Stock options? What does any of this have to do with Magic?
Well the individual heuristics are different. But the underlying principles are the same. Magic is a game of sufficient complexity to be fundamentally similar to any real life complex system you care to name. Not just poker. The business world the climate the economy right down to the biochemical processes happening in your individual cells.
They're all beautiful.
And what I love about life is the opportunity to contribute ever so slightly to working them out.