September 2nd, 2011 / 3:48 pm

Magic The Gathering as Literature, part 1 (introduction)

Jon Finkel (seated left) plays Patrick Chapin (seated right) in a feature match at Pro Tour Philadelphia 2011.

Part 2 | Part 3

Hello! I’m new here.

I am in Philadelphia, attending a professional Magic: The Gathering tournament (Pro Tour Philadelphia 2011). The event runs through Sunday, and throughout the weekend, I’ll be posting updates “from the floor,” so to speak. I’m currently sitting in the pressroom (I have a press pass!) alongside a few other reporters; they’re busy Tweeting and posting about the current tournament standings, what the format looks like, which cards and decks are proving the best. It’s high stakes stuff—one of four invitational tournaments held annually around the world (the last two were in Paris and Nagoya; the next will be in December in San Francisco), with a top prize of $40,000.

All of which, I think, should interest even those who know nothing about the game. Here’s why:

My plan is to focus on how this thing is a literary experience. Magic involves a tremendous amount of reading: in addition to the cards themselves (which include tons of specialized keywords and other terminology), many of the game’s participants generate dozens of articles each day—more writing than any one person could possibly hope to read. This past week alone saw a flurry of articles that reached as far as The Washington Post and The Atlantic concerning one star player and his experiences with OK Cupid. (Yes, Jon Finkel is here; I just watched him play a key match against another popular Magic celebrity, Patrick Chapin. Finkel won.) In addition, players have over the past eighteen years developed a literary culture to discuss not only the game and its strategies and events, but continuously evolving slang and trends and theories. I’ll be discussing all that, and more.

Stay tuned!

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  1. Timothy Willis Sanders


      really like the flavor text on ‘bitterblossom’

  2. lorian long


  3. stephen

      cool you’re at hmlg now, adam.

  4. Trey

      totes drafting tonight

  5. Trey

      totes drafting tonight

  6. Guest
  7. DeWitt Brinson

      I remember buying a pack when Magic first came out because I liked the pictures and quotes on the cards. I had no idea it was a game until a couple years after that. I played. Sometimes I miss playing now.

      I like this post.

  8. DeWitt Brinson

      I remember buying a pack when Magic first came out because I liked the pictures and quotes on the cards. I had no idea it was a game until a couple years after that. I played. Sometimes I miss playing now.

      I like this post.

  9. Nate

      Zombie deck, please.

  10. deadgod

      I don’t know anything about Magic:  The Gathering, never played an RPG or RPG-like game, and don’t understand why they’d be fun or interesting to play. 

      –but I’m looking forward to reading the series–in particular, about the ‘literary” aspect of this gaming.  For example, is there Magic “slang” that one might recognize without realizing its Magic source?  Do players experience each game – or at least the dramatic ones – as a narrative, or is that too elaborate a term?  Do the games feel, to their players and/or spectators, like instantiations of decision trees, like chess does, or do they feel more, eh, densely filled with personality as they flow?  And so on.

      (I feel sorry for Bereznak, whom I don’t think was trying – and maybe failing a little too badly – to be hateful so much as cutesie-ha ha.  A little . . . well, a lot more self-deprecation and she wouldn’t have come across to the thin-skinned as such a villain.)

  11. Magic The Gathering as Literature, part 2: The Articles | HTMLGIANT

      […] Tour Philadelphia! The second day of the tournament is well underway. As you’ll recall from Part 1, I’m curious to what extent this event—and all Magic culture—is a literary phenomenon. […]

  12. Whatisinevidence

      Are there any women involved, at all?

  13. Ken Baumann

      Rad! Welcome. Very happy to have you, and what a series to start with. MtG holds an untapped mana resource in my heart.

  14. Adam D Jameson

      Yes, there are, although the pro scene is very much male-dominated. (The casual scene sees a bit more gender equality.) I counted three women who were competing (out of 420), and I spoke a few times with one of them: Olga Okulskaya, who flew in from Russia to play. (This was her first trip to the US.) She finished 353rd.

      There’s been a lot of discussion in the Magic community as to why this is. My second post includes a link to an article by pro player and writer Paolo Vitor Damo da Rosa that examines why so few women play competitive Magic; it’s a pretty fascinating read.

      That post also mentions Megan Holland, a writer I’ve been speaking with this weekend. She runs a very popular Magic-based community calendar ( There is a small but substantial number of number of women here; it’s just that most of them aren’t competing. (Megan’s husband, Kitt, was in the tournament.) They’re Wizards employees, judges, reporters, onlookers, girlfriends, wives, casual players.

      But, yeah, mostly men.

  15. Adam D Jameson

      Hi deadgod,

      I hope my second and third posts have gone some way toward answering your questions (and there is a lot more to say about the subject). The slang associated with the game is practically a book in itself! As for narrative–no, the game is more abstract than that, although some players (like David Ochoa) have done some writing converting their games into narratives.

      But I’ll try to say more about all of this. Cheers,

  16. Adam D Jameson

      “In Lorwyn’s brief evenings, the sun pauses at the horizon long enough for a certain species of violet to bloom with the fragrance of mischief.”

      It’s a beautiful card, I think, even if it did completely destroy the game for a while.

  17. Adam D Jameson
  18. Magic The Gathering as Literature, part 3: The Vocabulary | HTMLGIANT

      […] Part 1 | Part 2 […]

  19. Magic & Writing & Me | HTMLGIANT

      […] are, to date, all of my Magic-related posts: “Magic the Gathering as Literature,” Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3 (written at Pro Tour Philadelphia […]

  20. An open letter to Cedric Phillips, Gerry Thompson, and the Pro Magic community at large | A. D. Jameson's Blog

      […] argument. I love watching professional Magic, and once attended a Pro Tour as press just so I could blog about it. But at the same time, I think that your logic is mistaken, and I suspect that your arguments will […]