Magic: the Gathering and Heuristic Idle Thinking

I vaguely remember the first time I played Magic: the Gathering. I think it was on a camping trip with some family friends. I was handed a black deck and given basic descriptions of the various colors. This deck made rats. Lots of rats. I played some cards, was told what tapping was, and made rats. I don’t think I understood when I should attack and when I should hold back to defend, and I recall being quite annoyed that attacking required tapping the creature. I didn’t know the immense popularity of the game at the time, and I didn’t think much of it after that trip, especially when I found out how expensive it could be.

In college I once again found myself with friends who played Magic. A group of us decided to go to the local game store and create decks on the cheap to play with casually. I built a red deck this time, though I think I really wanted to build a green one, because I liked the big creatures. None of us really put much blue or control into our decks, which made larger creatures quite powerful. Later I bought one of those random boxes that stores put all of the bad, non-valuable cards in and had some fun making various decks.

Since college I’ve dipped into that pile of cards a couple of times, and we’ve done a couple of drafts, which is undoubtedly my favorite way to play the game (I love drafting in any context, really). But last week I discovered that there’s a new online system for MtG called Arena, and it piqued my curiosity.

Every time I’ve seen a new digital MtG product it’s seemed annoyingly limited. I remember demoing one at PAX East a few years ago and it felt anemic, which is exactly the opposite of what I want from that brand. The excitement of Magic, for a casual player like me, is in exploring the cardpool and getting a sense of freedom.

Arena does that, though it’s certainly not a free-for-all. I believe the cardpool is limited to what is currently legal in the normal competitive format (called…standard?), but you earn a good number of cards through simple play and it takes only a couple of days to earn enough in-game coin to enter a draft. All in all it feels a lot like Hearthstone in what you can unlock through the grind (though you can always pay actual money to accelerate ahead).


I’m not here to review Arena, but to talk about how I enjoy games like this. It happened with Hearthstone before this, Hearts in college, and various other games in the meantime. I play games like this primarily as a relaxation tool, though that frequently ends up as a procrastination tool. I don’t know what to make of it.

I think there’s a part of me that has convinced myself that spending a lot of time with games like this is somehow better than other “time wasters” because it’s mentally engaging, even though I only engage on a minimal level. Yes I’m playing this game when I ought to be doing something else, but at least I’m not watching reality TV. It’s a pretentious mindset.

I’m not criticizing MtG as a game, only the way I play it on the computer. I think what draws me in is that it’s relatively easy, especially after playing other card games, to create a simple heuristic and play out that heuristic with few difficult decisions.

Back in the day when I was really into Hearthstone, I ended up learning quite a bit about MtG through comparison. Mana flood/starvation isn’t an issue with Hearthstone, but card draw is still incredibly important. I learned about creating positive trades, and why healing is often overrated by beginners. I understood how to value board wipes and direct damage and all of the basic things you’d tell a beginner about basic strategy.

Then I got into Netrunner, with which I couldn’t do this kind of idle heuristic thinking, but the more advanced lessons I got from it still apply–always draw first to front-load uncertainty and pay attention to tempo-generating moves.

So when I returned to MtG through Arena, I had built up a number of heuristic patterns I could follow and turn it into a near-idle game. I can hop in, go through some youtube videos, and spend a couple of hours in minimal thought.

Other Games

At night I’ve gotten in the habit of playing Madden while watching TV to try to get to sleep. I can imagine people who know anything about sleep aids screaming in horror at the prospect of someone watching two screens simultaneously at midnight, but it’s sort of worked, I guess?

Sports games have always had a similar appeal to me as an escapist activity. I can play Madden or MLB The Show or Out Of The Park Baseball or this browser-based golf game I enjoy without committing my full attention to them. Somehow I’ve convinced myself that it’s better if I play them while also watching something else. It seems less wasteful that way.

At the same time I leave other games I own by the wayside because I would have to dedicate more attention to them (and turn on the sound).

This article is more a way to get some thoughts out of my head rather than to make any kind of point. I think MtG is actually quite brilliant, but I can’t be bothered (and I don’t have the cash) to engage in it in a way that would truly challenge me. I know that my habits, especially over the past couple of weeks, haven’t been the best, but there’s a part of me that understands that this is simply how I relax.

What are your idle games–what do you play to unwind and let your mind wander? Or am I the only one like this?

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1 thought on “Magic: the Gathering and Heuristic Idle Thinking”

  1. Star Realms seems to tick this box for me (and actually fits with the Skinner Box theory that you mentioned in your Gloomhaven article too). I think that even the highest ranked players have something nuts like a 60% win ratio, which shows quite literally the percentage of luck involved. The brilliance is that the five-card market at the heart of the game simultaneously drives and limits your choices, meaning that your deck-building strategy has to adapt dramatically with every turn. I think I keep playing it so often as, a) it’s just at the right spot between demanding and undemanding but your choices really do matter, b) it’s consequently quite zen to play, and c) there’s a slot-machine-like addictive quality to striving for the perfect deck in the fewest turns. So, in short, no you’re not alone Marc 🙂

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