Gathering the Magic: Complexity and the Emergent Trinity
By Stefan Lindberg on July 30th, 2009 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now
“I think the next century will be the century of complexity.”
- Stephen Hawking
"I wish I'd read that book by that wheelchair guy."
- Homer Simpson
Welcome to the second installment of Gathering the Magic, where we look at Magic from a philosophical perspective, and philosophy from a Magic perspective. Last month, we examined the concept of focus, and how the focused mind is fit to contemplate the wisdom hidden in games, from ancient Go to modern Magic. Feeling focused? Good, because this month we'll go deeper into the concept of complex systems, briefly touched upon near the end of the previous article. While you may wish to browse the wikipedia article, there is really little need. Playing Magic has already introduced you to an excellent example of a complex system, and all that remains is to identify its hallmarks and apply them to other areas.
The important concept of emergence.
One hallmark of a complex system is that it has emergent traits. Where a typical system trait is found at a basic system level, the emergent traits are found at a meta level. The layers and meta-layers of a complex system are easy to spot in Magic. For example, all the rules from floor rules to individual cards in the card pool constitute the basic level, from which deck archetypes emerge on a higher level. The meta-level or meta-game is the plane where we find the actual decks and their interactions. The various levels of a complex system can partially be considered stable subsystems unto themselves (the game rules level, the metagame level etc.), but sometimes changes on one level will have a significant and unexpected inpact on another level. This can occasionally give a complex system chaotic traits. Complexity theorists describe this middle ground between linear, deterministic systems and chaotic systems as "balancing on the edge of chaos". In short, it means that it is unpredictable to what extent a complex system will be unpredictable!
Two other features of complex systems are feedback and adaptiveness. Feedback means that there is interplay both on each level (rules trumping rules, decks trumping decks) and between levels or on a systemic level (such as rules invalidating decks, or decks leading to bans i.e. rules changes). Adaptiveness means that if the system is disturbed on any level, it will adapt so as to reduce the impact of the perturbation. The system strives to return to equilibrium or a stable node. For example, if a very strong deck emerges in a format, other decks will soon adapt and exploit its weaknesses. This is the essence of deck tiers! Tier 1 decks are good on their own, exploiting the strongest interactions in the card pool. But in so doing, they give birth to more rogue tier 2 decks that are good because they can beat the top decks while being less optimal overall. The tier 1 decks sweep the field, invalidating random scrubby decks on a meta level and thus create the living space for tier 2 decks. If tier 1 decks are the antibiotics, tier 2 decks are the opportunistic, resistant bacteria that crop up once competition from the natural deck flora has been wiped clean. These mechanisms of dynamic power balance - of feedback and adaptiveness - are what generate metagames of tier 1, tier 2 and tier 3 decks, and aggro, combo and control decks alike.
The Legacy of Evolution
Evolution expressed as a tautology.
An interesting event in the evolution of life on planet Earth is the cambrian explosion. It denotes a period in time when Mother Nature gave birth to many strange creatures, that would later become extinct due to competition from more suited species. If you've played Magic for long enough to observe the birth of a relatively new format such as EDH or Legacy, you have witnessed this evolutionary process first hand. In fact, EDH is still in a state of cambrian explosion; deck variety and creativity is plentiful, and there is even a tendency to avoid too powerful decks to not make the format overly competitive. Competition would ultimately end the state of "cambrian explosion" as a traditional hierarchy of deck tiers would emerge. But since the goal of EDH is ultimately to have fun, and always winning isn't necessarily conducive to having fun while playing (or getting to play at all), there is little need for competitiveness. Viewing the EDH format as a complex system, we thus note how it is influenced on a rules and meta level through socio-political decisions - on a meta-meta level if you will.
The competitive, sanctioned format of Legacy is a closer analogy to the more cutthroat nature of the evolutionary process. It too had its cambrian explosion when it was still a new format. People were experimenting with things that were downright bawdy, until the strongest inherent synergies of the cardpool were identified. Archetypes such as Threshold, Vial Goblins and Ill-Gotten Gains combo emerged, and the tier 1 decks heralded the evolution into the Legacy metagame we see today. But how can it be that even in a new and competitive format with a vast card pool, the classic archetypes of control, aggro, and combo still emerge? As many have observed, the same dynamic trinity is found in the simple game of rock-paper-scissors. Indeed, isn't there a kind of scissorness to aggro decks that cut through the battlefield to the win? Or the rockness of the non-interactive combo deck that simply sits there until it wins at a crushing speed. And the paperness of control decks that can wrap themselves around any game plan, but are burst apart from an overwhelming onslaught. Is this more than an entertaining analogy, a principle to be found in complex systems in other fields as well?
Returning to the evolutionary perspective, we find the animal kingdom organized by man into carnivores, herbivores and omnivores. If carnivores become dominant, the toll on the herbivores is too great, forcing the carnivore population to diminish. This is good news for omnivores that now have less competition from other animals, but it won't last for long as carnivores turn to omnivores for emergency food while the herbivore population recovers. It's aggro, combo and control all over again! Can we not recognize, for instance, the prowling lion (carnivore) in the aggro player, the uncompromising bison (herbivore) in the control player, or the sly jackal (omnivore) in the combo player? Too many lions means fewer bisons, opening up the field for the opportunistic jackals, just like an aggro-dominated field will discourage control players and open up for combo players that in turn give less incentive to play aggro and more incentive to play control. Feedback and adaptiveness!
For another example, look to the leafcutter ant. Ants are remarkable creatures - to think that something as complex as an anthill would emerge at the meta level from something as simple as an ant. Yet, without ants there is no anthill, and without an anthill there can be no ants - the two systemic levels generate and emerge from each other. Leafcutter ants are more complex still. They raise their own livestock (a fungus that only grows in their nests) by feeding it certain leaves that they cut. Take away one component, and the entire ecological microsystem collapses. It's like the chicken or the egg paradox on steroids.
Dear reader, we have now arrived at the profound insight that comes from contemplating the development of Magic metagames, predator-prey models or the evolution of ecosystems. The egg, the chicken, the hen are all development stages of the same entity. The ant and the anthill are the same - to look at an ant and think that you see all there is to an ant, is to look at a brain cell and think that you see all there is to the brain, or to look at the brain and think that you see all there is to the human mind. Rather, there is an antness of which both the ant and the anthill, and sometimes even fungi and plants, are an undisputable part.
The embodiment of the predator is defined by its environment - it is inseperable from the prey it needs to catch. And were it not for the predators, the prey population would be sickly and unfit, so predators shape prey just as much. And were it not for combo players, aggro players would have no control players to beat! In the long run, aggro players need combo players just as much as they need control players - the members of the trinity are but aspects of the One Meta. There is no spoon, or rather the spoon is but part of the matrix - the meta level of reality that seems concrete but really isn't. In the world of maya, things appear separate when in fact they are connected and part of the same complex system. Whether you choose to be a "herbivore", "carnivore" or something in between, you are simply taking up a position in the meta-continuum of the game. Approaching this choice from a competitive perspective, we find that Magic is actually quite a political game as well.
Games of Politics, Economy and Law
The picture of the political process.
One does not have to be a cynic to conclude that the biggest three games of the human species are politics, economy and law. We approach these real world games with an attitude of playing serious, whereas we approach recreational games such as Magic with an air of serious playing. Politics, economy and law is a dynamic trinity unto itself - as evidenced for example in the federal power balance of the United States; the legislative branch, the executive branch and the judicial branch. Isn't this just another fantastic embodiment of the game of rock-paper-scissors? Money is the scissors that can cut through the red tape of bureaucracy, the bureaucratic paper mill can reshape or trump the harsh rock of law, which in turn crushes dreams of wealth through taxes, fines and whatnot. Yes, isn't the control player essentially a politician? And isn't the aggro player an economist that tries to get as good a deal as possible? What about the combo player rules lawyer that scavenges the playing field for strange loopholes?
Almost all games have more or less of all three of these traits. A game is political in so far as it involves interactions with other players, whether you're negotiating property in Monopoly or anticipating your opponent's move in Chess. A game is economical in so far as it involves managing limited resources, be they allocations of Yahtzee rolls or decisions on how to spend the first few seconds in a MMORPG encounter. And finally, a game is legal in nature if you can gain advantages by knowing the rules well and using them to your benefit. Magic is by far the most blatant example of a legal game if ever there was one, but even the novice Chess player who sees castling for the first time is in for a surprise.
Can the knowledge we've gained about complex systems from playing Magic grant us an improved understanding of politics, economy and law? Yes, for this system is also subject to the laws of emergence, feedback and adaptiveness. This is why it's so hard to effect lasting change through political decisions! By way of emergence, changes on a political level will have an indirect effect on other levels of society, if any at all. By way of feedback, politicians that attempt to actually change something risk upsetting voters and not get reelected and/or lobbyists will strive to maintain the status quo. And by way of adaptiveness, entities of law and economy will respond so that business people may choose other routes to circumvent any political changes.
Political, economical and legal phenomena will persist as long as there is a system to support them. Even something as simple as the price of a cup of coffee will stay the same as long as the system around it supports it. It may cost pennies to manufacture, but if someone is willing to pay $2-3 for it, why should the barista charge less and make less of a profit? And when he is making such good profits, his willingness to pay a high rent for the best spot to sell coffee from also goes up, ensuring that profits won't be so high after all. If he's unwilling to pay the rent, surely another profit hungry barista will be in line to take his prime spot in the sun. It's hard to accept that insane rents are enabled by your willingness to buy overpriced coffee, but it's true from a market perspective. This is why things like political revolution and financial crisis are really a good thing in the long run, because collapsing the system is the only real way of changing it. Every once in a while, society needs a Hulk Flash combo to stir the pot, so that humanity will grow in wisdom, beauty and strength.
From a broader perspective, this article has discussed the dynamics of emergent trinities. Next month, we'll take a slightly different approach and explore emergent fours and fives instead, by way of the classical elements of the Orient and the Occident. Therein lies the quintessence of being, the eternal wisdom and the Philosopher's Stone. And if you're wondering where all this can be found in the game of Magic, just look at the back of one of your cards.
By Stefan Lindberg on July 30th, 2009 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now