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Create and Discover


Just this weekend, I was talking with my friend Brandon Isleib about our deck-building habits. Brandon had been telling me about how his Game Day went, and without thinking, I asked, “What deck were you playing?”

“Great question,” Brandon said. “What deck was I playing?”

As it turned out, Brandon’s deck didn’t really have a name. He is a rogue deck-builder, a classic Johnny. To him, there is no fun in playing something tried and true. He proudly listed all of the obscure cards that he had successfully run in Standard, and I have to admit I was impressed.

Odds // Ends

I’m the exact opposite in a way—instead of Constructed, I like to draft, but I tend to find a deck that works for me and then run it into the ground. During Zendikar, it was Birds carrying machetes. During Gatecrash/Gatecrash/Gatecrash, I became known at my local game store for my “Friday Night Simic” decks. By its very nature, the very act of drafting kept this from ever becoming stale—I was typically able to assemble a consistent skeleton of cards such as Crocanura and Pit Fight, but actually filling out the deck called for thinking on my feet and making sometimes counterintuitive choices.

Brandon and I are very different in our deck-building styles—his exploration is more sweeping, while mine is fine-grained. But what we have in common is a fondness for solving challenges in interesting ways. As he pointed out, “It’s about variety and discovery. Draft provides that; weird Standard provides that; multiplayer provides that.” Although it can be expressed in a variety of ways, as Brandon and I showed, the desire to create and explore seems to be a common human drive.

Boggart Forager

While extensive research has been conducted on what leads to creativity and innovation, usually in the interest of helping businesses harness that power for financial gain, less focus has been put on the experience of creativity for its own sake (Janssen, Van de Vliert, and West, 129–130).

Positive psychology pioneer Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi sought to change this, pointing out that in a study of what people experience when they’re doing what they enjoy most, “designing or discovering something new” was the top answer (Beyond Boredom, qtd. in Csikszentmihalyi 108). He argued that “Even though personal creativity may not lead to fame and fortune, it can do something that from the individual’s point of view is even more important: make day-to-day experiences more vivid, more enjoyable, more rewarding” (344).

Games are a perfect opportunity for this kind of creating and discovering. But as Csikszentmihalyi pointed out, that kind of exploration can be found in everyday life as well. After interviewing dozens of highly creative pioneers in their respective fields, he found that these people actually seemed to bring that kind of mindset into their work (107). For every doctor or architect who is captivated by his job, there are many who are bored by the exact same work. Creative engagement isn’t a property of the activity, he concluded—it’s an approach (108).

Wild Research

Based on the experiences of these highly creative, highly successful people, Csikszentmihalyi extracted some principles that he hoped could be used to help people be more engaged in their activities. As you would expect, these ideas are already in full force to make Magic the fun and fascinating game that we all love.

The bad news is that in our day-to-day lives, we do not have a team of people working full-time to make sure we have plenty of opportunities to create and discover. The good news is that we can take charge of this ourselves.

Principle 1: Find the Problem

It seems counterintuitive to anyone who knows me now, but I am in the psychology program that I am in because I didn’t want to do research. A Ph.D is a research degree, while the one that I am working on—a Psy.D—is focused on being a practicing psychologist. After helping out with research for three years in undergrad, I was done.

Essentially, I was bored. If there are no new challenges to pursue, a task quickly becomes boring (Csikszentmihalyi 350). As the junior member of the lab, I held the video camera. I wrote down how many times a kid played with a toy in each five-minute interval. To get a sense of this experience, think about Magic: Imagine if you had to put in dozens or even hundreds of hours organizing the pros’ collections before you were even allowed to pick up a deck.

Fortunately, with Magic, we are allowed to jump right in. No matter how new we are, we are free to explore the big questions: What are the best decks in each format and how can they be improved? What new formats might we find exciting? In short, what can we do with all these cards to make something powerful and/or fun? These are problems that are specifically designed to challenge us, to keep us engaged at every level.

Teferi's Puzzle Box

In the rest of our lives, we are not necessarily handed these opportunities. We are often stuck with rote work, whether it’s in school or a low-level work position. When you’re just repeating memorized information, “How does photosynthesis work?” is typically not an exciting problem. As Csikszentmihalyi says, “[schools] teach the routine of literature or history rather than the adventure” (125).

In cases like these, we can either gain access to the higher-level problems (not always possible) or find our own. According to Csikszentmihalyi, creative people question what most people accept (363). They ask why something is how it is. They ask how it can be done better. These are the deep questions, the ones that make work exciting.

In my case, the question was, “Do I really have to count each of these names and then put dozens of hash marks in this giant grid? Couldn’t a computer do this way better?” Within a week, the definition of “research” had changed from “counting names by hand” to “typing names into a computer,” which wasn’t a whole lot better—but for a few days there, it was “designing a computer program.” I was starting to suspect this field had potential.

Principle 2: Learn the System

When something is not particularly interesting to us, it is natural to learn the minimum we need to get by. I certainly couldn’t tell you one thing I learned in my undergraduate philosophy class. But in talking about the various systems that make up our lives and cultures, Csikszentmihalyi says, “A person who learns to operate by the rules of one of these domains has a chance to expand enormously the range of his or her creativity” (370).

Csikszentmihalyi uses the term “domain” to refer to any area that is governed by its own rules and symbols (37). The concepts can vary in how concrete they are; compare math and psychology. Magic may appear to be a single domain, but in fact, it is many. For example, strategic theory covers concepts such as card advantage and tempo. Design theory includes the color pie and the New World Order.

Because of the way it is set up, Magic makes it fun and easy to learn the domains. While understanding the pre-established concepts may involve reading and studying, it is generally presented in a way that is fun to learn. In addition, just through experience we absorb a huge amount of what one researcher calls “Domain-relevant knowledge and skills”—which she considers a necessary precursor to creativity along with creativity-relevant processes and task motivation (Amabile, qtd. in Zhou and Shalley 167).

Accumulated Knowledge

After playing hundreds or thousands of games, you have a pretty good sense of what white cards tend to do or which kinds of spells are often good. As a result, we are able to find interesting avenues of inquiry that naturally arise from tensions and inconsistencies in the system (Csikszentmihalyi 87). It appears that the more you learn, the more you want to learn.

Once again, the real world doesn’t make it quite so easy on us. When I was first doing research, I only saw a tiny slice of information at a time—because I wasn’t familiar with the relevant theory, I didn’t really understand the significance of what I was looking at. The patterns of data in front of me could hold the most amazing breakthrough, and all I would see were boring numbers.

Author Gretchen Rubin says that if an area of her research is boring to her, she reads an entire book about it and finds herself fascinated (Rubin). I had the same experience the first time I did a literature review—an overview and summary of the major research on a topic. Reading about gifted children and ADHD, I was initially bored by copying down statistic after statistic.


But the more information I added on, the more I became aware of patterns—patterns that were sometimes surprising and patterns that were often fascinating. I showed it to my supervisors—“These numbers don’t make sense.” “You’re right,” they said, piling more reading on me. “Figure out what’s going on.” The deeper I went into the system, the more my previously dull and obligatory reading became a resource for creating, discovering, and exploring.

Principle 3: Find Engaged Peers

According to Csikszentmihalyi, fields can be either reactive or proactive. In a reactive field, the people around you are not particularly interested in novelty—if you want to create and explore, you’re on your own. In a proactive field, on the other hand, novel ideas are encouraged and solicited by the people around you (Csikszentmihalyi 43).

When researchers developed a measurement instrument for distinguishing between workplaces for high-creativity projects and workplaces for low-creativity projects, they found several key differences. In addition to challenges and freedom (as discussed above), they found a number of important social factors. These consisted of a workgroup with diverse perspectives and the freedom to mix, support for creative ideas from the supervisor, and an overall culture that supports creative thinking (Zhou and Shalley 199).

Izzet Guildgate

Once again, Magic provides this readily. From your local playgroup to Twitter, an incredibly diverse array of ideas can easily be spread and blended in response to the demands of the constantly-evolving and multiplying formats.

If you do not have this kind of environment in the rest of your life, it is easy to sit on your ideas and let them become stale, which can lead to boredom. In Csikszentmihalyi’s interviews with creative individuals, “the importance of seeing people, hearing people, exchanging ideas, and getting to know another person’s work and mind“ was a repeatedly emphasized theme (66).

Collective Unconscious

In fact, if one thing has sparked my fascination with research, it’s doing it in an open forum here at GatheringMagic. People question my ideas, calling for me to either defend or revise them. People call for me to look past my first ideas and find something more substantial. People send me things on Twitter that they think I’d be interested in. All of these factors keep the task novel and challenging—not to mention providing an enjoyable sense of camaraderie.

In Case of Boredom

As humans, we love to explore and discover. Magic is a rich environment for us to do that. It provides challenging problems for us to work on, fascinating information systems for us to learn and play with, and a constant influx of new ideas from the people around us.

While the rest of life doesn’t provide these same opportunities, that doesn’t mean we can’t find them or make them. As Csikszentmihalyi says, in reference to creatively engaged workers, “we have to assume that it is not what these people do that counts but how they do it” (107).

Not everything is necessarily going to grab you, but as we saw with my research experience, it can be surprising what does. Next time you feel like brushing off a task, instead try going deeper and see what you find.

Works Cited

  • Csikzentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. 1st Ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. Print.
  • Isleib, Brandon. Personal interview. 25 May 2013.
  • Janssen, Onne, Evert Van de Vliert, and Michael West. "The Bright and Dark Sides of Individual and Group Innovation: A Special issue Introduction." Journal of Organizational Behavior. 25. (2004): 129-145. Web. 20 May. 2013.
  • Rubin, Gretchen. "7 Tips to Fight the Deadly Feeling of Boredom." Positively Positive. Positively Positive, LLC, 18 Mar 2013. Web. 26 May 2013. .
  • Zhou, Jing, and Christina E. Shalley. "Research on Employee Creativity: A Critical Review and Directions for Future Research." Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management. 22. (2003): 165-217. Web. 14 May. 2013.

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