"One Turn of One Game": On Chance, Variance, and Misplays

Curator's Note

Since its inception in 1993, Magic: the Gathering (M:tG) has established itself as the world’s preeminent trading card game. Unlike other games it is often associated with, like Dungeons & Dragons, Magic is competitive, making it more akin to chess, as the cards you draw serve as board pieces to be utilized against your opponent. Unlike chess, where each opponent starts the game with the exact same pieces, in Magic players draw cards each turn at random from a preconstructed deck of their choosing totaling roughly sixty. This gives the game a distinct element of chance not entirely unlike traditional card games like poker.

In recent months several documentaries have been released with a focus on the game’s professional players who participate on Magic’s “Pro Tour,” where the world’s best players square off to determine who is the game’s greatest practitioner. Enter the Battlefield: Life on the Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour (2016) is one of those documentaries, which follows a handful of players as they navigate the competitive and often precarious life of a Magic professional. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film is how it captures Magic’s defining duality between chance and strategy.

Roughly twenty-minutes into the film we are introduced to Chris Pikula, one of the game’s most respected players, who is attempting to boost his resume for a possible induction into Magic’s prestigious hall of fame. As the clips that accompany this text explain, Pikula’s absence from Magic’s HoF most likely stems from a misplay, a mistake that occurred during one turn of one game in 2004. In the face of certain defeat, against extreme odds, Pikula top-decks the exact card he needs at the exact moment he needs it. In itself, top-decking is quite exceptional, like hitting a walk off home run in baseball; it is something that happens rarely, and when it does it can provide some of the game’s most dramatic moments. And yet, Pikula inexplicably misplays his opportunity, relegating certainty to a virtual possibility, turning victory into harrowing defeat.

As the second clip reveals, chance works in several ways in Magic. After being granted an opportunity to play his way into the HoF by making the top twenty-five, Pikula once again comes up short, placing thirty-third based on a series of tie-breakers he has no agency to control. What this single moment brings to bear is Magic’s ontology: an intoxicating blend of probability and improbability where unforeseen good fortune can be instantaneously undone by human error and, likewise, human virtuosity can be undone by unforeseen bad fortune. For Magic, and Pikula, chance is not capable of producing a real contradiction, but it does hold within itself virtual possibilities that contradict each other.

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