Adventures in Magic Culture

No, I’m not writing about some group of witches that go to school in England somewhere. I’m speaking of the culture that we develop as Magic players.  Often when people hear that I’m an anthropologist, they assume I dig for bones in ancient ruins or something along those lines. Actually, I study corporate culture for a living, and I can’t help but to notice the culture that surrounds us as a Magic community.  We are certainly a unique mix of people, and there is a lot of diversity among us, but there are a lot of things we share as a culture. I’m looking forward to writing a series of articles based on the culture of Magic: the Gathering. We will go through how culture affects us as players, and how we affect the game through the culture we develop. But first, I would like to start with a few observations about behavior, and how we got to the point we’re at today.

I was inspired to write this article (probably several more) by something that happened at a Legacy side event at GP Nashville. I sat down in front of my round 2 opponent, shuffled, introduced myself, etc… He looked up at me for a few seconds, paused, and said, “Huh, you seem normal.”

What!? I wanted to ask him a million questions. What makes me normal? Do you consider yourself abnormal? Then there are all kinds of anthropological questions I wanted to ask. What would you consider cultural norms of Magic players? What kind of cultural traits do magic players share? Where do we differ? Reflecting on your own culture is considered a difficult thing to do, because you have to remove your own personal biases and understanding.

Let me first define culture as the sets of beliefs, behaviors, and values that are shared with members of a group. Culture influences the way we act and think, and at the same time we shape the cultures we are a part of.  It’s actually quite cyclical. For example, at my local game store there is a group of individuals that play there frequently. They have a set of acceptable beliefs and behaviors established because they spend enough time there to understand the accepted behavior. If a person, new to magic, were to come in and not play in accordance to that established set of cultural behaviors (tapping their lands disorderly, passing the turn in a strange way, not constantly shuffling the cards in their hand, etc…) that person would easily be tagged as an outsider. The more that a newbie plays Magic at the store and acquires the appropriate behavior from other players, the more connected that person becomes to the store’s culture and magic culture as a whole.  Over time, culture has affected the way that person acts and that person has a small impact on the overall feel of that store’s culture.

Whoa… Mind. Blown. Right? Maybe not, but this is how I see the world on a daily basis. Do you remember going to your first few FNMs? That almost awkward feeling that you’re out of place? The way players do things slightly differently than your buddies at the kitchen table? Eventually, that awkward feeling starts to fade, and then, without realizing it, you’re behaving differently as you play against the regulars. You learn a lot about the rules and start to follow them more closely. Luckily a lot of those rules are set for you by Wizards of the Coast, but the rest are learned from your friends. Your friends picked a few things up from the players at that Grand Prix they went to, and those players learned something from the new guy at their local game store(LGS). So in a way, we are all shaping the way people behave around us and vice versa.

Acceptable Play Style

Ok, I’ve been pretty vague up to this point. Like I said, it’s difficult to step back and think of your own culture because you live so closely to it that it becomes second nature. You just tend to follow it naturally. When you think of it that way, It’s a little easier to understand which cultural behaviors we have developed. Ask yourself, “What do I do without thinking?” and, “What do I do without any immediate explanation?”

The biggest cultural hurdle that new players have to pass is the acceptable play style that has developed among players today. Magic has become increasingly complex over the years, and the new rules and mechanics have shaped the way we play. Wizards has done a good job at shaping the way we think based on the mechanics they’ve recently released or reprinted.

Let’s look at Bloodthirst first. For those of you unfamiliar with the M12 mechanic, Bloodthirst causes a creature to enter the battlefield with X +1/+1 counters on it if an opponent was dealt damage on the same turn. This taught players the value of playing creatures in the post-combat main phase. They may have learned along the way that leaving up mana during your attack phase has other benefits like being able to use combat tricks, or deceiving your opponent into thinking you have tricks. The same side effects can be seen with other sets! Innistrad is teaching players to pay attention to the graveyard with the reprint of Flashback and other graveyard based cards. Then comes the new mechanic from Avacyn RestoredMiracle.

This Spring, it’s time to believe…


Miracle. (You may cast this card for its miracle cost when you draw it if it’s the first card you drew this turn.)  I see a lot of players reach over and snatch that top card right off their deck. Right now, many  seasoned players will remove the top card from their deck, slowly slide it over to their hand face down, then lift it to their hand. There are various reasons for this. One is for allowing your opponent to respond to your draw step (Vendilion Clique anyone?). Another is to make sure you have time to look at the board state, and then assess how that card affects that board state. With Miracle, that is about to change.  When you get a chance, look up match videos of the famous John Finkel.

Thinking, thinking….

Specifically, look at the way he draws for the turn:

  1. Remove the card from deck
  2.  Place the cards in hand down
  3. Look at new card
  4. Look at hand
  5. Ponder board state
  6. Place new card in hand.

This man knows what he is doing. And I can only assume that players will adapt some sort of similar strategy. Why? Survival of the fittest (see Darwin, not Exodus set). Behavior, as an extension of culture, is an adaptation to help you survive your environment. In the world of Magic, you have to keep up with the latest rules and combine all of those restrictions into one set of acceptable behaviors. Without it, you’ll eventually lose some games because of sloppy play. Here’s what my friend Zach Throop had to say on the subject:

We all know that Magic has seen resurgence over the past few years. It’s great. But we’ve also seen a LOT of sloppy players. And that’s fair, because the rules of the game are prettttttty complex, and going to a random FNM can put you up against a computer-like douche bag. How can Magic (and Wizards) deal with the fact that a new player can’t ever be expected to internalize the entire comprehensive rules before sitting down at their first sanctioned match? So far, my best example is this new mechanic, Miracle.

Zach makes the point that the draw step is (and will probably remain) an undervalued phase during their turn, but Wizards of the Coast is teaching new players acceptable play style. A new player’s behavior represents how well they know the culture created by magic players. A sloppy player has less knowledge of the rules and will suffer for it.  On the other hand, a pro player won’t want to give away the fact that they don’t have any relevant Miracle cards in their deck, so they have to continuously check and assess the first card they draw each turn.

Magic is constantly changing and this excites me to no end. I get to watch as the culture evolves with the game. Play style is now a culmination of every mechanic ever printed in Magic, but players still manage to internalize all of that information. New mechanics like Miracle will change the way we play while others will fall through the cracks. It’s all part of the culture we create for ourselves.



Thanks for reading!



Discussion: What behaviors do you notice we follow without explanation? I notice that the longer a player has been playing the more likely they are to constantly shuffle the cards in their hand. There’s no real reason except that you see other players do it, and by mimicking the behavior you become more attuned to your environment.  We should all be more like my friend Grant Fagan, and hum a tune while your opponent is in the think-tank instead of playing with your hand.

Thanks, Zach Throop, for your contribution. The next article I look forward to writing is based on his comments on metagame, and the evolution of decks in competitive formats.