Over the last 10–15 years, there has been a significant amount of scholarly discussion regarding the rhetorical activities of various agents in networked systems (most notably Brooke, 2009; Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2006; Spinuzzi, 2008). Complementing that discussion is a concurrent increase in critical inquiry on protocol, which, "[p]rior to its usage in computing [...] referred to any type of correct or proper behavior within a specific system of conventions [... but now] refer[s] specifically to standards governing the implementation of specific technologies" (Galloway, 2004, p. 7). As argued by Alexander Galloway (2004) and by Galloway and Eugene Thacker (2007), among others, protocol informs, influences, and fuels the activities of networks and their diverse agent populations. This uptake of scholarly conversation on protocol is unsurprising, given the meteoric rise of popular interest in complex protocological networks that impact millions on a day-to-day basis, such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter, as well as government and corporate surveillance strategies that track individuals’ behaviors across diverse networks and structures. For rhetoricians interested in digital and electronic technologies and their roles in contemporary acts of persuasion, protocol provides a means by which to understand how human and nonhuman agents alike relate and interact in complex systems.

However, far less often discussed in related circles are the protocols and relevant logics of systems and structures that function similarly to, but are not inherently connected to or based in, electronic technologies, with scholars like Nathan R. Johnson (2014) having begun to explore a wider range of protocol’s influence, investigating protocological rhetoric as (for example) "an extension of institutional critique" that extends beyond the informational infrastructures making use of technological protocol (p. 395). Conventionally, electronic technologies have often been described as possessing a greater range of unique attributes than actually exist, leaving incomplete the examination of analog counterparts or alternatives. As a result, our understanding of rhetorical protocol, complexity, and activity is limited, as relevant scholarship has similarly trended toward the digital.

Where such discussions have most frequently (but not exclusively) occurred is within the field of game studies, as diverse media share logics of possibility that emerge through game play. Specifically, these logics make use of protocol in order to express particular procedures that catalyze new situations and events for players to deal with. Ian Bogost’s (2007) argument for procedural rhetoric as "the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions rather than the spoken word, writing, images, or motion pictures" (p. 3) provides a solid foundation for understanding how the results of protocological possibilities are expressed in a given circumstance. The other modes of communication listed by Bogost (e.g., writing, image, spoken word) supplement procedural interaction, but they are subordinate to the "rule-based representations" that comprise the game world or system and the behaviors available for agents acting within it.

While video games serve as the central population of objects of study for scholars making use of Bogost’s procedural rhetoric theory, analog games (e.g., board games, card games, party games) also function through the protocological procedures that facilitate their play. Procedural rhetoric, then, can greatly assist an understanding of protocol as an object of study that extends beyond electronic technologies. Specifically, procedural rhetoric serves as a particularly useful way to describe and define how protocol is understood and executed when game mechanics and agent interactions are made transparent through analog intermediaries rather than through opaque (or otherwise inaccessible) digital agents and systems.

Two players engage in a game of Magic: The Gathering. One player reaches for a card on the table while the other looks through the cards in their hand.
A game of Magic: The Gathering in action. | Photo by Kyle Gese and released into public domain.

Among the most popular analog games played currently in the United States—and one of Hasbro’s biggest non-Star Wars franchises (Hufford, 2016)—is Magic: The Gathering, a collectible card game in which players strive to defeat one another through the use of cards representing magical spells, creatures, and artifacts. Magic is especially notable for its amassing thousands of players—some amateur and others establishing careers, playing on a professional circuit—over a 25-year period and spanning the entire world, with the vast majority playing the physical game, while others prefer its videogame form. Over those two decades, the game’s creators have developed and published thousands of distinct cards (each with its own unique rules effects) and experimented with multiple variations of game play (that often implement unique sets of cards that may dramatically transform the game’s rules). Magic has even been recognized as arguably the world’s most complex game, demonstrated in part by the work of Alex Churchill, Stella Biderman, and Austin Herrick (2019) showing Magic to be Turing complete.

In other words, Magic is a complex analog system whose success as a procedural activity and as a commercial game product is dependent heavily on the comprehension of protocol—comprehension that emerges through the act of play and through the deliberation surrounding that play. While protocol is most often invoked as a framework for digital systems, Magic demonstrates how complex analog systems (games and otherwise) make use of protocol for rhetorical purposes in ways that digital technologies often constrain or otherwise obscure. This demonstration is significant in that it further opens up critical investigation into protocological rhetoric as occurring in and fundamental to diverse and ubiquitous day-to-day contexts.

In this webtext, we explore how Magic and other complex analog systems operate rhetorically—not so much to claim that they do (since that is hardly a controversial position) but rather to discover what happens in the process of executing those operations. First, we perform an analysis of its rules, player archetypes, and common play styles in order to examine how the game’s protocological mechanisms and surrounding play culture have developed over its 25-year existence. Second, we engage the game’s protocological qualities more directly through exploratory play with pre-constructed and custom decks. Our scrutiny of Magic’s protocol then compares the game’s anticipated activities (set up in its game rules) with its realized expressions of those activities (the games themselves).

Research Questions

There are several specific research questions that guide our explorations of Magic’s rules in principle and realized practice. Each of these questions is directed toward a particular facet of procedural and protocological rhetoric, either specifically in regards to Magic or to procedure more broadly. Together, they triangulate an understanding of the relationship between rhetoric and protocol that, we hope, can inform further investigation of procedural systems and their capacities for meaningful communication.

  • RQ1: How do the protocols of an activity system or network like Magic function in new and familiar ways?
    • RQ1a: How does that functionality emerge through rhetorical action?
    • RQ1b: How do participants in the system recognize changes to the system and its protocols over time, if at all?
  • RQ2: How are the protocols of a system communicated distinctly (1) through their direct enactment/expression and (2) via the texts describing/surrounding that system?
  • RQ3: How do different networks activate and engage one another through the execution of specific protocols (e.g., the economic and player-based networks mediated through and evolving the protocols of the game)?

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