Using Magic the Gathering to Teach Experimental Design

With the current circumstances in today’s world, we have all been forced to adjust to a new method of learning. With classes moving online, one of the major challenges that has arisen is keeping students interested and engaged in their studies. Online classes extremely limit student-student and student-faculty interactions, making these courses feel almost impersonal. That being said, finding a way to make these online lessons fun and engaging could both help students enhance their overall understanding of basic academic concepts (such as experimental design, report writing, and figure generation) while also allowing them to work with novel information.

This semester I am one of the TAs for Biol 3250, a course dedicated to teaching students in varying academic disciplines how to plan, conduct, and analyze scientific data collected through experimentation. Many of the labs we have designed focus on proper planning and execution of these scientific experiments, but there is one section of the course that is a bit different. For this section, students are presented with several large datasets and are tasked with designing a hypothesis, predictions, and/or predict the patterns presented in the pre-collected data. From there, students are asked to create a figure and run a statistical test to support their ideas. To keep the students engaged and interested, one of these datasets used data collected from something outside the scientific field. This data was collected from opening packs of a popular tabletop card game titled “Magic the Gathering”.

What is Magic the Gathering

Magic the Gathering is a popular tabletop card game that uses a combination of strategy and chance to win. The game, designed first in 1993, has since expanded in both size and popularity with over 35 million players worldwide. The game puts players against each other with their pre-constructed decks, where the goal is to get their opponent’s life points from 20 to 0. Packs of these cards can be purchased containing 1 Rare/Mythic, 3 Uncommon, and 9 Common cards. To see how these packs are opened and what a booster box looks like check out the Youtube channel Mario MTG. Each set released is thematically unique from the previous, taking players to worlds (known as planes) that push the bounds of one’s imagination. Players get to choose from a variety of color themes and combinations for their decks with each color representing something different.

  • White: The color of order, community, and peace.
  • Blue: The color representing knowledge, perfection, and control.
  • Black: The color of resurrection, opportunity, success, and satisfaction
  • Red: The color of freedom, strength, and destruction
  • Green: The color of nature, growth, beauty, and harmony

So How Does This Tie Into Learning?

So I bet you are wondering now, “How could a fun tabletop card game possibly have any connection to an experimental design course?” The best answer to that is that it teaches students to work with large amounts of data while also showing that experimental designing can be fun! Boxes of these Magic the Gathering sets were opened with each individual card inputted into the data as a datapoint. Each pack ranged from 14-15 datapoints and after opening several boxes, well over 6000 data points (and soon more) have been collected. Each individual data point in itself looked at various aspects of each card such as name, color, ability, etc.

With this large dataset now compiled, students are free to generate any possible questions or hypotheses they could think of. “What is the probability of getting a mythic card”, “On average how many foil (shiny) cards can you get in a box”, “which set has a larger number of higher value cards.” These are just some small questions that could be addressed by analyzing this dataset. We want to show students that you can run an experiment on anything, even a fun game, and we want them to have a fun and unique way of working with big datasets. Being able to find new and inventive ways to keep students engaged in their studies is quite a task. Since everything is now done virtually online, it is important to try and new and fun ways of both engaging and teaching students.

For those who want to see how these data points were collected the Youtube channel Mario MTG goes through a bunch of box openings (Shameless plugin haha). On this channel, I go through opening boxes of the newest sets of magic the Gathering and also provide some commentary on the cards, prices, news, formats, and the overall future of the game.

The link to the channel can also be found below!!!

Annual plant neighbourhoods

As a team, we are discussing the fine-scale grain of sampling for estimating annual-annual plant interactions in deserts. We are particularly interested in the Mojave Desert to examine pollinator-herbivore interactions with annuals that are mediated by the other immediately adjacent congeneric species. Here is a brief compilation of key papers examining this challenge.

scale matters, a plant’s eye view

Publications describing the fine-scale annual plant neighbourhood concept

Mack, R. N. and Harper, J. L. 1977. Interference in dune annuals: spatial pattern and neighbourhood effects. – Journal of Ecology 65: 345-363.

Holzapfel, C. and Mahall, B. E. 1999. Bidirectional facilitation and interference between shrubs and annuals in the Mojave desert. – Ecology 80: 1747-1761.

Schiffers, K. and Tielbörger, K. 2006. Ontogenetic Shifts in Interactions among Annual Plants. – Journal of Ecology 94: 336-341.

Lortie, C. J. and Turkington, R. 2008. Species-specific positive effects in an annual plant community. – Oikos 117: 1511-1521.

Emery, N. C., Stanton, M. L. and Rice, K. J. 2009. Factors driving distribution limits in an annual plant community. – New Phytologist 181: 734-747.

Luzuriaga, A. L., Sánchez, A. M., Maestre, F. T. and Escudero, A. 2012. Assemblage of a Semi-Arid Annual Plant Community: Abiotic and Biotic Filters Act Hierarchically. – PLOS ONE 7: e41270.

Underwood, N., Inouye, B. D. and Hambäck, P. A. 2014. A Conceptual Framework for Associational Effects: When Do Neighbors Matter and How Would We Know? – The Quarterly Review of Biology 89: 1-19.

Underwood, N., Hambäck, P. A. and Inouye, B. D. 2020. Pollinators, Herbivores, and Plant Neighborhood Effects. – The Quarterly Review of Biology 95: 37-57.

Personal vote

I am a fan of the 15cm scale for fine-scale but often sample with a 15cm ring nested within a second 30cm metal ring. I construct using wire.