Magic’s Protocols

A photograph of a Magic game being played by three players, each with their own battleground area filled with cards in play states both tapped and untapped. Various kinds of dice are positioned near some cards.
A multiplayer game of Magic in action. | Image by Jesper Wahrner. Used via CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

As a protocological system, Magic functions most successfully when it—or, rather, when its set of players—follows a set of procedures that define its objectives, mechanics, and behaviors (otherwise it may not be recognizable as Magic at all). Some of these protocols are incredibly clear, e.g. the set of clearly defined rules that players are expected to follow, such as the goal of reducing one’s opponent(s) to zero on their life counter by attacking them with creature and sorcery cards. Other protocols are less obvious save in a general sense—for example, the range of opportunities available that emerge through the play of each individual game (see Play Styles below). While each of the individual actions a player might make are relatively limited, the combination of particular actions into complex strategies may or may not be recognizable or predictable by all involved. Many of these strategies are similarly influenced by the sets of protocols made available to each player by the sets of cards they (or their opponents) have decided to use for a given game; as the specific contents of any player’s deck only become public knowledge (known to all participants in a game) through the act of play, many players attempt to navigate overlapping spheres of possible protocols that could influence their victory in the game.

There are certainly sets of protocols popular among members of a local group as well as among competitors at a national or international level that emerge through continued gameplay with one or more sets or ranges of cards—the metagame ecologies mentioned above—especially if the players using them participate in particular sub-games of Magic that restrict card ranges (e.g., Standard, which allows for the use of only a range of the most recent sets of card releases, while Modern allows any cards released after the 8th Edition of Magic in 2003). Players often employ these and other metagame protocols in order to make most effective use of the cards to which they are limited; other players, however, work to disrupt those protocols by using cards or card combinations that the metagame enthusiasts may not use as frequently or expect at all. The rise of different player assumptions, interests, and archetypes is yet another realm of protocol that influences the game significantly but is even less codified than the protocols outlined in Magic’s explicit rules and card behaviors.

As part of his video channel Tolarian Community College (2015), Brian "The Professor" Lewis explains several protocological life hacks for Magic players looking to expand their range of available and relevant social and gameplay protocols so as to enjoy the game more fully.


Player Archetypes

As Magic has developed a variety of common play strategies and standard game elements, so has its player community recognized a number of player archetypes that are drawn to the game. These archetypes reveal important information about how the community sees itself and the values it holds about the game and how to play it (and in some cases, whether playing the game or learning its protocols even matters).

Timmy (or Tammy) is described as the kind of player who "cares more about the quality of his win than the quantity of his wins" ( Rosewater, 2013, n.p.). Timmy/Tammy is often described as looking for the most powerful creature they can in order to pull off a decisive victory. Such players "are eager to experience something. They seek an emotional and/or adrenaline rush" (Rosewater, 2013, n.p.). Accordingly, games of Magic can often be understood for these players as exciting contests and, above all, fun.

Spike is, according to Mark Rosewater (2013), "the competitive player. Spike plays to win. Spike enjoys winning" (n.p.). Spike and Timmy/Tammy occupy opposite ends, the "serious" and "non-serious," of a spectrum describing orientation toward play. The Spike archetype is said by Rosewater (2013) to have been the first archetype clearly identified (described initially as "the tournament player") by the Magic R&D team. Of the player archetypes, Spikes may also be the most likely to evaluate cards not only by their mechanical effectiveness but also in relation of that effectiveness to said cards’ financial value in the general marketplace.

Johnny (or Jenny) exists as a kind of middle ground between Timmy/Tammy and Spike; the Johnny/Jenny archetype sees play as "a form of self-expression" (Rosewater, 2013, n.p.). Different components of gameplay might attract certain Johnnies/Jennies to Magic, from creating new decks to innovative uses of specific cards. Johnny/Jenny may want to win, but it is generally on the player’s terms rather than for the sake of victory itself. Such players may have particular play styles they enjoy or by which they want to challenge themselves (e.g., building a Blue Aggro deck, which can be somewhat difficult given the relative lack of cheap Blue creatures).

Vorthos was initially defined by Matt Cavotta (2005), in a Magic column on the Wizards of the Coast website, as the kind of player attracted to Magic primarily by card art, novels, and other fantasy-emphasized qualities of the game. According to Cavotta, "Vorthos understands that Magic can be fun even when you’re not playing the game" (2005, n.p.). Further, Cavotta argues, some individuals identifying or identified with the Vorthos archetype may not even play the game at all, preferring instead merely to collect cards for their art or their non-mechanical flavor (i.e., diegetic) text. However, not all Magic players or designers agree about Vorthos’ inclusion in this list; for example, Rosewater (2007) has argued that Vorthos is less a psychological profile than it is aesthetic (identifying appreciation of the game rather than motivation to play it); thus, for Rosewater, it is possible for a player to be both a Spike or Timmy and also a Vorthos: "I can tune the card for Vorthos without affecting the Timmy-ness of the card" (2007, n.p.).

Melvin is the last of the identified archetypes, filling a role much like that of Vorthos. However, where Vorthos might be understood to appreciate the aesthetic of a given card and its elements, Melvin is described as appreciating "how all the joints and beams come together to make a beautiful building. He wants to understand the role and function of each piece" (Rosewater, 2007, n.p.). Melvin represents aesthetic appreciation of the game’s mechanics and its functional components the way that Vorthos represents appreciation of the game’s fictional universe and the forms of art that bring it to life.

Despite the prominence of these clear and distinct archetypes, there are of course hybrids or blends of these archetypes and different player motivations, play styles, tastes, etc. As a result, these archetypes serve to help describe in broad strokes the range of players in the general Magic community so that the game’s design team can target each archetype in its development and refinement of cards and mechanics in its iterative releases. By including all of these archetypes in its considerations, the design team facilitates multiple approaches to interpreting and executing the game’s protocols without necessarily or inadvertently excluding any—leading to an intriguing and nuanced consideration of both player-as-audience and player-as-rhetor in and across individual games of Magic.


Play Styles

There are several common play styles or strategies for games of Magic, generally building on the game’s color wheel used to distinguish cards and card combinations. These styles are not necessarily limited to the colors described below, but they conventionally exist as effective styles within those parameters (due to certain colors’ cards being more likely to facilitate certain play styles over others). Neither are these styles the only available approaches to constructing an effective deck or strategy. As Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman (2004) argued, "a card game such as Magic: The Gathering, with its thousands of different cards types, is a hothouse of emergence, designed specifically to facilitate the creation of card-combination engines by its players. [...] The cards of Magic are the simple elements of a language. By using them in different combinations, the player makes their own meanings through the play of the game" (p. 168). What we describe below, then, are styles that have cohered among enough members of the community to be named; they serve as genres of play that suggest particular orientations to Magic, card games, and protocological thinking and that can tell us a great deal about the potential for combination and innovation within a given rhetorical ecology.

Aggro as a play style reflects a player’s use of numerous low-cost (and generally low-power) creatures in order to overwhelm an opponent’s defenses—a kind of death of a thousand cuts. By filling one’s deck with cheap creatures, one should, theoretically, be able to have mana to pay for and play one or more creatures every turn, even if the opponent momentarily destroys one’s creatures on any given turn. As low-cost creatures exist in many of the color sets, with White, Red, and Green, to a lesser extent, are especially popular as the basis for aggro decks.

Burn is a style focused on direct damage to an opponent, usually bypassing (or focusing less) on creature-oriented damage through the use of sorcery and other cards that target one’s opponent. Burn decks tend to be primarily, if not exclusively, Red. Like the Aggro style, Burn is generally intended to provide a fast play experience; if a Burn player cannot overcome their opponent quickly enough, there may be little in the Burn deck to offer resistance to the opponent’s card resources and tactics.

Combo involves multiple components working effectively in conjunction with one another in order for a player to achieve victory—usually fast or decisively. Combo decks often use cards that allow a player to cycle through their library or graveyard in order to access more cards so as to retrieve and use those desired. In rare cases, some combos allow for infinite loops that provide players with the ability to activate the same cards in sequence over and over, usually to deal a devastating amount of damage to an opponent. One of the very first well-known Magic decks made use of a specific combo—Black Lotus, Channel, and Fireball—that allowed a player to transform their own life into mana and then turn said mana into damage targeting (and defeating) one’s opponent. This particular combo was so effective that Wizards of the Coast opted to make Black Lotus illegal and begin keeping certain play strategies in check at official tournaments (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, p. 272).

Control is a style in which a player counteracts an opponent’s moves, such as preventing creatures from entering the battlefield or cancelling sorcery spells. Many Control decks chip away slowly at an opponent’s life while attempting to exhaust the opponent’s preferred strategies for their own victory; e.g., once the most expensive or powerful creatures in an opponent’s deck have been sent to the graveyard, the Control player may shift from counterspelling to damage-dealing. Blue and Black are particularly suited for Control play.

Mill, technically a subset of the Control play style (and named for an old card, Millstone, that employed the style’s central tactic), is a strategy unlike most of the other approaches to play. Where the standard win condition for games of Magic is to reduce one’s opponent to zero life, Mill strategies make use of a second available win condition, called decking: emptying an opponent’s library so that they can no longer complete the initial "untap, upkeep, draw" steps of their turn. Specifically, being unable to draw a card from one’s library results in one’s immediate loss of the game. In game, this is usually represented as mind magic, i.e. psychically destroying an opposing Planeswalkers mind. Savvy players may then empty their opponents’ libraries through various card mechanics—often alongside beneficial mechanics for themselves (e.g., Sphinx’s Tutelage, which forces an opponent to discard from their library whenever the controller of Sphinx’s Tutelage draws a card). Like other Control approaches, the Mill style has greatest support in Blue cards; hybrid decks may use Blue/Black or Blue/Red combinations to facilitate particular means of milling opponents’ libraries.

Ramp is similar to Aggro, but involves larger and more powerful creatures. The ramp described by the term refers to cards in the deck that are meant to generate more mana per turn than the assumed default pace of one land added per turn to the play area, which would add one extra mana for use. Green makes ample use of ramping, whether enchanting lands to produce additional mana of various colors or having creatures who can be tapped for mana as well, such as Llanowar Elves. Ramp cards allow for the play of more expensive creatures—which tend to be the most powerful—more quickly than an opponent might expect to see them played, which in turn changes the tempo of gameplay considerably, another characteristically Green style of play.

While these are only some of the common play styles, the distinctions between these approaches clearly indicate particular ways of interpreting and enacting Magic’s protocols for certain rhetorical and procedural ends, some of which are universally shared (e.g., winning the game), while others are unique—namely how the game is played and won, in terms of both what a player does to realize a strategy and what that player does to try and force their opponent to respond to that strategy. In addition, these gameplay approaches are further complicated by the influence of the game world, diegesis, on otherwise entirely mechanical protocols; this influence serves to help construct a sense of Magic as a system whose procedures are understood to operate within particular thematic boundaries that are also protocological in nature and protocols that must be accounted for in thematic, diegetic terms.

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