Understanding the Rules and Norms at Play in Magic: The Gathering


This is the third in a series of blog posts created by PhD students in my seminar, Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice

Understanding the Rules and Norms at Play in Magic: The Gathering

by Calvin Liu

Imagine this scene for a moment.

You’re playing a game of poker with three other people, their names are Sam, Zhu, and Maria. These people are strangers to you, you saw them playing across the room and they invited you into the game. The game isn’t for any sort of real stakes. All the winnings amount to here are bragging rights. Throughout the game, you get the sense that these people know each other. Listening in on an in-joke here and there, you gather that they at least regularly play this game together. Occasionally you get included into the conversation, exchanging bits and pieces of yourself and your experience playing poker. The game winds down to a close and it’s time to reveal hands. Maria reveals a pair of tens. Zhu reveals a pair of fives. The two laugh. Sam reveals a pair of threes. “Well that’s just how it goes sometimes,” he says with a smile. Finally it’s your turn to reveal. 

You put down a Royal Flush. 

The other three go quiet. After a moment of awkward silence, they push their chips towards you and you play another round. This round is a little quieter than the last. The three other players still talk between each other, but the conversation feels different this time. You weren’t exactly clear on the context of their conversations earlier, but you at least could glean some overarching meaning. This time though, it’s inscrutable. All the esoteric references the players throw between each other is like some lost language to you. 

You push through it and keep playing, after all, you’re the stranger in the group. Again, it’s time to reveal hands. Maria shows a pair of eights and looks at Zhu. Zhu shows Ace high in hand and shrugs. Lastly Sam rolls his hand onto the table, showing 7 high and passes you an expectant look. 

With a small pit developing in your gut, you reveal a Full House.

More silence ensues, and you quickly excuse yourself form the table, feeling you’ve spent your luck for the day. You take a seat back at another part of the establishment and bury your eyes in some article. Over time, you hear the poker table returning back to its light-hearted socialization. You keep to your article, glad that you don’t find yourself being invited back.

This story is a loose allegory of some of my own experiences. But, rather than poker, my awkward little games were in the trading card game, Magic: the Gathering. I hope the tale to serve as a more accessible gateway to talk about Magic: the Gathering and thinking over group engagements with play.

For those unfamiliar, Magic, also known as MTG, is a high fantasy trading card game created by Wizards of the Coast in 1993. Magic is a long-lived game with plenty of its own history and stories to tell that many people have written at length about. I myself have enjoyed the game since 1998, which would mean I’ve been playing Magic for as long as I’ve been in the educational system. But, this blog post is going to be written primarily for people who are unfamiliar with the game. For that reason, I won’t be going too much into the mechanics and weeds of Magic and want to focus more on what’s happening between the people playing the game. 

Normally, Magic is played with two people, with each player aiming to defeat the other through a variety of means. However, Magic is a multimodal game with many different rulesets and styles of play that players may choose to follow. I wanted to focus on one popular style of play, and my preferred format: Commander. Commander, also known as EDH (Elder Dragon Highlander), is a uniquely multiplayer format. Rather than the regular 1v1, EDH usually involves a total of 4 players pitted against each other in an all-out free-for-all. The objective in EDH is the same as a 1v1 game, have all the other players defeated.

The philosophy of the game mode also differs from most forms of play. While many formats emphasize prowess at defeating your opponent, EDH instead focuses on the social aspects of play. Players are expected to socialize during, before, and after a game is played. You can see this reflected in the rules committee’s philosophy for EDH.

The free-for-all environment and social nature of this format leads to all manners of political shenanigans. Bargains are made, alliances are formed, and quickly broken, targets are marked, changed, and remarked. Common phrases and deals one might hear in a game of EDH are “I won’t kill you if you help me kill that other player,” or “Give me these resources or I will hurt you,” and “That player’s a jerk/too powerful/slowing down the game, let’s team up and kill them.” 

Yet, with all these social dimensions added on, EDH is still a game of Magic: the Gathering. The rules of the game still dictate your victory by outperforming and eliminating the other players. However, despite having codified rules, a whole separate set of expectations and norms develop among playgroups of EDH. Recall the example above about poker. Nothing in the rules of poker prohibits you from displaying a Royal Flush or a Full House. The game rules in fact encourage you to make such moves to ensure your success. Yet, making those moves may incur the scorn of and distaste of other players. Socialization may suddenly become closed to you. Coded conversations and esoteric reference, may be used as forms of exclusion or conspiracy. 

Why would playing the game the way the rules suggest you do, incur such social and political sanctions from other players? There are many factors, but the ones I wanted to focus on are social contracts and invisible social rules. 

Recall that EDH positions itself as a social format. The format encourages players to interact beyond the confines of the game environment. The mechanical rules of the game of Magic, thus serve as a proxy for social interaction. The way a person interacts with these rules and types of cards they choose to play are read as statements about their personality, intent, decorum, and experience. As these games play out, the ways that people play form a social contract where invisible rules are drafted. Actions in a game that incur social and political penalties are not necessarily about whether game rules are being violated, but whether these social contracts have been breached. Certain cards and interactions become taboo as they become indicative of undesirability socialites within a group.

For example, when playing powerful cards that assure victory, the user may hear phrases such as “I wanted to keep the game going,” or “Why do you have to be so competitive?” No mechanical rules are violated in these situations, the game allows for such cards to be played and encourages such victories to be won. Yet, the unwritten social rules in this group encourage the game to endure to prolong interaction. These phrases are indicative of social values that focus on human interactions over game objectives. By choosing to win, that player effectively makes a counter statement along the lines of “I don’t want to socialize with you further on this.”

These social contracts are not limited around concepts of victory or success in Magic. In another vein, some groups hold taboos towards cards that prolong the game, which may be indicated with phrases such as “You’re just durdling” or “Just get on the with the game.” In these scenarios, playing cards that prolong the game may be read as statements of “I am forcing you to engage with something you don’t want to.” Each playgroup develops its own preferred set of socialites, codifying them as “house rules.” However, these rules may not necessarily be visible to strangers and newcomers. This can cause friction for people trying to join new groups.

Consider again the idea that game rules serve as proxies for how we socialize between each other. The important part of that statement is the word proxy. It’s not a direct conveyance of social values and behaviors, it’s a relay, a representation.  This allows for some nuanced forms of socialization. Let me give an example in one of my personal experiences playing EDH. 

I was playing amongst a group I was generally unfamiliar with. We’re having a good time, talking about our strategies and little idiosyncrasies of Magic: the Gathering. It was our third or fourth game at a campus cafeteria and it was already well into the night. Everyone else at the cafeteria had left, but we had stayed to play one last game. Mid-way through the game, I play a card called Prophet of Kruphix, a card that has a reputation for being one of the more powerful ones in the game. There’s a bit a groaning from my opponents. 

Up til now, the atmosphere had been friendly and casual. But when I play Prophet of Kruphix, a switch flips. My opponents quickly make a pact to get me out of the game. The talks between them become more tactical as how to disrupt my plans or complaining how unfairly powerful Prophet of Kruphix is. The mirth of the earlier conversations is gone, and I begin shuffle in my seat. It’s apparent I’ve committed some faux pau, but I keep playing, hoping the tension would end along with the game. Through what I felt was a series of good decision making, I am able to survive the team up and pull myself to victory.

My opponents are less than pleased. They grumble that my victory had been off of one card. I could have listed a handful of other play decisions I made, but instead I offer an apology, saying that I included the card due to its synergy with my strategy. One of the players raises their voice at me and exclaims “Shut up!” They then walk off, pointedly leaving me by myself after a whole evening of what had otherwise been a pleasant exchange of interests. From the distance I can hear them still complaining about Prophet of Kruphix for a little while longer, but it quickly settles back to chat about Magic in general, just without me included.

That experience has by far, been the worst experience I have had in my twenty years of playing Magic: the Gathering. Though why does it still sting so personally for me, when my opponents main complaints were about the card and game? The way we play games and the ways we behave in reference in them, allows expressions that may not be appropriate in “normal” socialization. At face value, the opponents teaming up on me and shutting me off from the conversation could be read as a game statement of “You have too much of an advantage and must be dealt with.” But there’s a subtext here, one not just about my playstyle and my position in the game, but about how those inform the type of person I am seen to be and my ability to assimilate into the group. 

By opting to play an exceptionally powerful card, I break a social contract that is obviously apparent to the group, but invisible to me as a newcomer. While from my perspective, playing such a card was an exercise in my knowledge and prowess of game interactions, this violation proxies certain perceptions on me as a person: “He’s not skilled enough to win without this card,” or “He’s too competitive, he’s a killjoy.” Saying such directly, especially in a public space, would be inappropriate. Thus, they were said indirectly through complaints about the card, targeting and collusion. These modes of play acted as proxy for the exclusion and ostracism that would follow once the game was finished. 

If only these things came with a manual for newcomers.


Calvin Liu is a communications scholar with a BS and MS in Information and Computer Science from the University of California, Irvine. Calvin takes an interdisciplinary approach of exploring the role of play. He examines how forms of play and technology act as proxies for the construction and negotiation of social rules. His previous work involved an ethnography into the furry fan community, a subculture sharing an interest in anthropomorphism and zoomorphism. His work in the furry subculture merged posthumanist framing alongside new media literature to analyze how identities are negotiated across artifacts and performances. Currently, Calvin is examining the relationship play has towards the construction and performance of identities. You can reach via email (liucalvi@usc.edu)