Monday, March 28, 2016

How Magic the Gathering is Teaching me to Adult, Part 1

Alright, like The Dark Souls Confidence Revelation this may seem like a stretch, but bear with me, I'm going somewhere with this weird relating of a game's mechanics and culture to the real world.

So, Magic the Gathering is helping me to "Adult." First of all, what is "Adulting"? I'll tell you. "Adulting" is the dumb term Millennials (also a dumb term, seriously stop using this term for people in their 20s) use for making their way out into the world and becoming independent adults. (I've got a lot of opinions on this whole situation, I'm going to do my best to keep them to myself. Me being snippy isn't the point of this entry.)

Anyway, back on track from the angry digression. MTG (which is the acronym I'm going to use from now on) is a game with fairly simple basic rules and a lot of inherent complexity. Kind of like real life, from that incredibly general description. But it gets better, and as I'm about to show you, the parallels get closer. As I've come to learn how to play MTG, mainly by watching other people play and learning by osmosis, I've discovered a lot of the logic for the game's strategies and culture hold true to the rest of real life, and these lessons can be applied therein.

So, how is MTG helping me "Adult"? I'm going to break it down across two blogs this time; between the Game (Part 1) and its Culture (Part 2), and some of their features.


Flexible Strategies and Favoured Mechanics

MTG's general mechanic is that the cards are broken down across their five iconic colours. Each colour has a particular flavour/attitude/affinity and tends to stay fairly close within it. Different combinations of colours create decks with different feels and approaches even though they may share many mechanics. (Here's some extensive technical reading if you really want more detail about the "Colour Pie".) A lot of the basic strategies of MTG are tied pretty closely to the colours that have the strongest showing of the mechanics the strategy uses. (Eg. "Control" decks almost invariably have a Blue component, "Aggro" decks usually have a Red component.)

However, that doesn't mean that decks of certain colours only do certain things. Here's the bit about flexible strategies that I want to address. My education makes me somewhat of a generalist (Bachelor's in Biology and English, yo) so in MTG terms I'm probably some kind of multi-colour deck. Within the several colours of my makeup (let's say I'm a 3-colour deck just because) there are at least 3 different approaches I can take, plus the approaches made up of the different combinations of my colours.

Say I'm an Esper-colour deck, that's Blue, Black and White, so:

3 individual colours
+ (Blue and Black)
+ (Blue and White)
+ (Black and White)
+ ("Esper" a unique mechanical combination of all 3)  
= 7 possible approaches any given problem

Now the important part: let's relate this to my own personal skills: I can draw on my education, my personal hobbies and my previous job experience, AND put those three all together into 7 different approaches to real-life problems!

What I'm saying in this section is don't think you're limited by ONLY ONE of those things.

Apply your book knowledge, but also apply your trivia and hobby knowledge, and skills you picked up at other jobs or learned from other people. Especially when you're looking for a job. Don't limit yourself to what you know how to do or what you like to do, try to branch out and find a way to work in what you can do from any stream you're familiar with.

Like some colours being better at some things than others, not all approaches will work for you, but think of yourself like a tree. You have your niche that you're growing in, but you also have all these branches you can use to move a little outside your comfort zone. Which brings me to my next section:

Preference VS Knack

Within the different colours, there are different strategies, some fit together better than others, and how you personally like to play the game tends to manifest itself in what combinations of colours and strategies you tend to favour when you're building decks. 

Personally, I like to build within my comfort zone of some combination of the previously-mentioned Esper colours (Blue, Black, White). These are the colours whose flavours/approaches I'm most familiar with, so keeping one or two of them and adding in one I don't usually play (Red or Green) is a good way to build a deck for me. Additionally, I like to play slow, top-heavy "Midrange" strategies that rely on being able to make my way up to mana-intensive spells and large creatures.

However sometimes when I'm building a deck, I can't always stay within my comfort zone. Sometimes its just not feasible either because of restricted resources (Limited, Draft) or the speed of the format (Modern). This is where I discovered I had a knack for building low-mana-cost "Aggro" decks. I like being able to play big fat Midrange decks, but I'm actually quite good at building lean, fast Aggro decks.

The takeaway: Harness your knacks if you can't get your preferences

Have something you're actually pretty good at? Exploit it! I'm not a huge fan of working Retail jobs, but I have a knack for building extensive product knowledge and people find me approachable, so I'm actually pretty good at retail. I'd prefer a work-from-home writing or editing job, but I have a knack for small-scale retail.

Going back to the tree analogy, you grow best in your niche, but you can reach outside your comfort zone and still be attached to yourself. Trees prefer to stay put, but they're good at branching out.

Sideboarding and Corner-Cases

(Hey look at that segue about branching out! Aren't I the essayist?) In MTG, the "Sideboard" is a pool of 15 cards included with but not in your final deck of 60. Between games, players may "side out" cards from their deck and replace them with ("side in") cards from their s]Sideboard to improve their chances of winning against their opponent in the following game (best of 3 games in a normal match, best of 5 for a final match). A lot of Sideboard cards are included to cover a deck's weak points, or to address corner-case problems that may arise in a match-up.

(Eg. Siding in specific spells to remove a particular kind of card from the battlefield; a Control player may not always run removal for Enchantments in their main deck, but you bet your basic lands they'll have some Enchantment removal in their Sideboard for when that comes up.)

Essentially, keeping a Sideboard allows a deck to branch out from its main focus and cover all/most of its bases or deal with unusual problems should the need arise. So what's the real-life equivalent of a Sideboard? I've thought of two: Your hobbies/odd skills, and your friends.

I'm assuming most people have hobbies that have nothing to do with their jobs, because otherwise they'd probably go crazy. I've studied Biology and English and have worked in retail, but my hobbies include drawing, writing and knitting. Now there's obviously some overlap between the English studies and writing, but I write different things in different contexts. The drawing and knitting, however, have nothing to do with my technical areas of expertise. I also have some basic construction skills from helping my dad with all the renovations to our house over the years.

These are my sideboard cards.

If a weird problem comes up that my mental "Maindeck" (training/education) can't solve, I side in my other skills and use those to address it. For example: I'm not a trained contractor, but I know how to put up, mud, and sand drywall. Skills Sideboard.

Alternatively, call in the troops. Your friends count as your sideboard as well, because chances are they have skills or resources you don't, and they'll let you avail yourself of those skills/resources on occasion but not all the time. They're Sideboard, not Maindeck. (For MTG nerd readers: Think of calling your friends like siding in Planeswalkers; they'll help you out, but if you overwork them they're probably going to bugger off. Hopefully not to an IRL Graveyard, though.)

So don't discount your odd skills you think you'll never use. Make your hobbies or dabbling work for you, not the other way around.

Maybe they're not employable skills, but there's a chance they'll come in handy trying to solve other weird corner-case adult problems. Like when your jerk room-mates punch holes in your walls. (For the record this has never actually happened to me.)


Join me next blog when I take on "How Magic the Gathering is Teaching me to Adult" Part 2 and talk about how the Culture of Magic extends beyond the game table!

Until next time, nerds!