MTG: Do Eggs Exist?

There’s this bit in Bill Bailey’s Bewilderness, where he describes a moment where he’s reading A Brief History of Time.


Hang on, I understood that bit.


He says here that light is affected by gravity.


So I thought oh, what he’s tryin’ to say is, it’s easier to drop things in the dark.

This is a moment that haunts me because I know full when I first started reading about how physics and evolution works my brain was full of these mangled misunderstandings of the nature of things and that as I’ve gotten involved in academia, I’ve become even more worried about this because there’s always a challenge in working out where my knowledge becomes specialised to the people I’m talking to. Sometimes I’ll mention ‘paratext’ and realise I’ve left my listener behind, then I’ll step back and start on ‘text’ and get an equally blank look and now I feel like a colossal asshole.

What’s more this feeling is magnified by the times I struggle with a concept. In my last semester I had to teach a single seminar on Ontological Materialism which involved referencing Heidegger and Bogost (amongst others). This is basically the study of whether or not things exist, which you’d think would be a pretty easy field of study that kind of finishes itself up quickly but it turns out it’s actually super difficult.

The sum total of my exhaustive reading about ontology comes from Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like To Be A Thing by Ian Bogost, who also penned Unit Operations: An Approach To Videogame Criticism, neither of which are by any means bad books but when squeezed into the vice of academic reading, what emerges is less the exciting and interesting ideas and more the little things that annoy me. It’s hard to convey to people that I really appreciated reading the structural approach to this sort of thing that can reach wide for examples into pop culture, or that I like seeing a means for explaining the videogame concept of an engine expressed academically, or that I really appreciated the way Alien Phenomenology introduced me to the coalesced term of ‘philosophy engine‘ that I have since been prattling around.

But it is super easy to express my frustration with terms like carpentry and unit operations. Especially when you try and explain those things to non-academics, because that conversation goes a bit like this:

ME: so he describes this concept of ‘unit operations’

THEM: What’s that mean?

ME: (reaching for terminology that’s clean) uh, things.

THEM: What?

ME: Um, every single thing a game can do in the smallest sequence, and also as a group of them.

THEM: So… the word ‘things.’

ME: Yes.

And that’s not helpful, and the conversation is worse when you deal with Carpentry, a term that I understand Bogost likes because it draws a distinction between philosophy as knowing, with the writing and the peer review and whatnot, and philosophy as doing, where you make a thing and that thing expresses your philosophy. I then lower the bar on that and say that all things made express philosophical points of their makers, and the problem is divining that.

Hang on this is a Magic: The Gathering article, why the hell am I going on about Bogost as if that’s relevant to a card game about fairies and elves?

Hold this point and my drink.

Okay, so the thing with Magic: The Gathering is that it is a fantastically complicated game. Dizzyingly so. The comprehensive rules are what I’d call programmatic, they’re designed to ensure that the player choices are for game actions, and the rules system can, in understandable language, simply respond to those choices, rather than need mediation or testing. Does the game exist as an object?

Jesper Juul, in Half Real (the nature of doing a big chain of blog posts shortly after a reading means you look like you’re just re-referencing the same book for two months, do something about this) explains it like this: Games are real, because they are made up of real rules, and those rules exist – without those rules the games are not real – but express fictional worlds. We know there’s a fiction to Magic: The Gathering, that’s where Hallar doesn’t get the cool comic they’re supposed to get, but it’s sometimes harder to grapple with the fact that things like ‘attacking’ and ‘blocking’ are part of that fiction. Magic is a game of conflict, a game of crashing against one another, but that conflict is entirely the fiction of the game.

Rules, incidentally, express that fiction, so they don’t get out of this totally unscathed.

The thing is, with this unreality, with this vision of the psychic plane as our battlefield and the infinite possibility we often forget that there’s a material space on these cards. It’s easy to forget that the cards are physical objects, the information they contain has to be decipherable and has to imply the existence of comprehensive rules even if they don’t explicitly state what they are. You can’t just expect each individual cards’ text to convey everything about what the rules are going to do because there are interactions that behave in non-obvious ways.

And now here we are and I’ll take that point and I’ll take my drink back, because the thought that kicked all of this off was, believe it or not Why Was Eggs Banned, and the followup thought, Why Wasn’t Krark-Clan Ironworks Banned?

The thing is, the time taken to play a game of Magic The Gathering is as much one of its material constraints, as much as is preventing players from getting too much information. You’re expected to use your hand of cards to keep information from other players, a thing that is done through the materiality of the cards keeping information on one side, and not information on the other.

Eggs was not an overpowered deck, though it did attack the game on an axis some people were not prepared to beat. What made Eggs a real problem for tournaments is that tournament gameplay relies on two ideas that are usually not in contest:

  1. Players will have a reasonable amount of time to complete their games
  2. Players will each use this time roughly equally for considered and reasonable actions

Now, there are lots of shortcuts for combo decks. Once you demonstrate a loop the floor rules are happy to let you iterate on it endlessly, choosing arbitary number of executions and time spent to do them. KCI uses these loops when it wants to generate a hojillion mana, if in a bit of a weird way (since you do it during the timing of paying for mana costs). Eggs, on the other hand, wasn’t quite so able to demonstrate loops. It could often demonstrate a loop – a single, massive swinging movement where they drew ten cards and reset their board state and floated a bunch of mana, but then they had to win off that, or try to loop again. And that made every decision made during that time fraught.

Simply put, without ever meaning to, without any malice, Eggs decks were capable of consuming all the time for the game, while a player was making entirely reasonable choices about their gameplay actions. Eggs could draw the game without doing anything wrong, just by dint of a large portion of their deck’s potential gameplan strongly resembling high stakes dicking around.

KCI isn’t like that. KCI wants loops. It wants to actually do things infinitely. KCI can’t accidentally draw the game in game 2 after making you wait 40 minutes. And that’s why the comparison between the two decks isn’t reasonable for bannings.

Bet you weren’t expecting Stephen Hawking, Bill Bailey, Jesper Juul and Ian Bogost in an article about Magic: The Gathering but here we are.

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