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Design Space Implications for Magic Theory
By Dan Freagarthach
Graeme McIntyre recently wrote an excellent article over at Manaleak asking the question, "Why is nobody writing about theory in Magic: the Gathering anymore?" It is a fine question, and for my part I am going to attempt to show that the answer is at least in part, "because any truly comprehensive theory has limited practical utility outside Standard format."

My recent article about an example deck called MetaEsper demonstrates that any complete theory for Magic that encompasses the Modern format cannot rely on the production of mana (though virtual production via converted cost equivalence could provide an alternative), and it must allow for the case that the battlefield is functionally nonexistent within a particular game (the mirror match and variations thereon). In mathematical terms, a comprehensive theory must allow for the values "mana produced" and "battlefield interactions" to both be empty sets in a functional Modern legal game.

Legacy format introduces a more subtle challenge to a complete Magic theory in terms of the calculation and transition of possible game states. Transcension, a deck I wrote about back in 2003 and have included an update for at the end of this article, demonstrates that a comprehensive theory that includes Legacy format must account for a single main phase transition from a game state in which all players control their own decks and the outcome of the game is undetermined into a game state in which one player has playable access to {all the cards players began the game with} and can arbitrarily decide the outcome of the game between win, lose, or draw at instant speed while the other players have access to no cards in any zone of the game. Accounting for such a transition probably has little practical importance for the players involved, and yet remains a complicating element when attempting to understand mathematically how a game of Magic can function within the Legacy format, particularly because it requires any comprehensive theory to allow for the value "cards a player can access" to be an empty set across all zones without impacting the game outcome within a single turn (a player may win the game without having access to any cards).

Commander and Vintage formats will introduce further complexities that a fully inclusive theory will be required to account for, which leads me to my premise, upon which I shall confer the grandiose appellation Rule of Practically Limited Theory: Any complete theory of Magic: the Gathering that comprehensively outlines practical implications for competitive deck building, performance, and interaction can currently exist only when constrained to the set of cards comprising a single instantiation of the Standard format.

Due to the rotation of Standard as a format, the window for both discerning and utilizing an inclusive theory may be discouragingly small. To put it another way, there may be too little practical return on investment for players to understand a particular set of cards within Magic at the level of mathematical comprehensiveness required of theory crafting in any current format or larger, multiple format scale. This leads me to advocate for the official adoption by Wizards of the Coast of a newer eternal format, something like Frontier or potentially Arena. Among the other advantages such a format would bring, I believe we should include the potential for theorists to engage with Magic in a unique new way.

Transcension - Legacy legal deck (60 cards, 15 card wishboard)

Lands

9 Forest
9 Plains
3 Sunpetal Grove
3 Windswept Heath

Creatures

4 Tinder Wall
3 Wall of Blossoms
4 Wall of Mulch
4 Wall of Roots
3 Wall of Vines

Spells

4 Burning Wish
4 Enduring Renewal
4 False Dawn
3 Safewright Quest
3 Silence

Sideboard

1 Cunning Wish
1 Dawnglow Infusion
1 Death Wish
1 Enter the Infinite
1 Golden Wish
1 Grinning Totem
1 March of the Machines
1 Mirari
1 Mnemonic Nexus
1 Pull from Eternity
1 Temur Ascendency
1 Upheaval
1 Vision Skeins
1 Wheel and Deal
1 Words of Waste

Comments can be posted here in the forums.

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