When I was in junior high, I played a game called Magic: The Gathering with a few of my friends. If you’re not familiar, it’s a card game that pits two people against each other in a battle of monsters, magic, and legendary heroes. Each game was different, and it was a good excuse to get together with the guys for a few hours of conversation and good-natured competition.
I stopped playing once I entered high school, and gave my cards away to a younger friend a few years later. Looking back, however, I’m amazed at how much I learned from such a seemingly frivolous past-time…
Each player’s deck had to contain at least 60 cards, with 7 cards drawn at the beginning, then 1 additional card each turn. Certain cards (like land, which provided necessary resources) were critical to have in your hand at various points in the game, so learning how to construct a good deck involved mastering intermediate-level statistics.
Playing well required mentally comparing which cards had been drawn vs. how many of each card was in the deck and calculating odds, which quickly helped me develop a better working sense of probability.
Some cards naturally amplified the effect of others, so constructing your deck well meant understanding every card available and how it could potentially interact with others. Particularly effective combinations could be executed with a little planning and foresight, which would be devastating to your opponent.
Entire strategies developed around certain combinations, and understanding second-order effects was the best way to take advantage of them, either by using the combo or disrupting your opponent in mid-execution. Understanding combinatorial effects is the first step in understanding even more complex processes - how they work, how they interact, and how to make them better.
Each player starts with 20 “life points," and the objective of the game is to reduce the other player’s total to zero by attacking with monsters and spells. As the game developed, you were forced to plan moves several rounds into the future. What was your opponent doing? What cards would they likely have in their deck? Should you tap your resources now to launch an offensive, or hold back and disrupt your opponent?
The game could play out in any number of ways, so every turn required reconstructing the possible scenarios before choosing the most appropriate action. The more I played, the stronger my intuition became about what was important and what to do next - the primary benefit of experience.
Organized tournaments were regularly held at the regional and national level, and the results were posted online, alongside the complete contents of each winning deck. Dominant strategies quickly evolved, with certain types of decks winning consistently. In response, new decks would be constructed to beat them, altering the balance of power.
Many players based their deck designs off of the dominant decks, so keeping track of the competition was the best way to ensure you won games. One of my proudest moments in competition was beating a dominant deck in a local tournament with a brand-new strategy that exploited a weakness in the design, which wasn’t possible without studying how it worked.
New card sets with novel abilities were coming out all the time, so staying competitive meant constantly tracking what was new. Each new set release altered the balance of the environment, which required constantly testing new options for viability via iteration. Just like any fast-moving business environment, becoming complacent or failing to learn new things made defeat inevitable.
Even though the fundamental rules haven’t changed, there’s no way I could walk into a tournament today and win. Against an 11 year old who has mastered the new environment, I’d have no chance. The faster you learn, the better you can handle inevitable change.
Close matches are intense, and a single wrong decision could cost you the game. Staying calm and keeping emotions in check often won matches against a less composed rival. I once lost a tournament in the final rounds by getting too excited and completely overlooking an available option that would have won the game. Losses like that are great learning experience, and I’m glad I learned the lesson playing a card game vs. running a business.
Learning by Accident
Those are deep lessons to take away from what looks like a silly card game. Here’s the kicker: they’re all abilities I later used to develop new products for a Fortune 500 company, and use to this day when making business decisions. I wasn’t trying to learn, but by paying attention, I developed skills I’ll use for the rest of my life.
What are some of the things you’ve played around with over the course of your life? What did you learn from them?