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!!!

Field sample processing

This fall I have been processing the insects and pollen samples that I collected this spring from my fieldwork in the Mojave Desert. The insects were primarily caught using pantraps, and were transferred into 90% isopropyl alcohol for preservation. With the help of our lab’s two undergraduate practicum students, Shobika and Shima, we are gradually getting them nicely organized into collection boxes.

I pinned many, many bees and wasps when I worked on a pollinator census during my undergrad in West Hamilton. These are the steps I use for processing insect samples:

  • Remove insects from alcohol.
  • Give the bees a rinse in water to fluff out their body hairs (this step works variably well, we may need to give some of the larger specimens a spa day in the future)
  • Gently dry with a paper towel, this causes the wings to uncurl. Wing venation is very important for identification.
  • Under a dissecting microscope, pin from top to bottom through the upper right-hand side of the insect’s thorax into a stryofoam block. You want the insect to be completely horizontal.
  • Gently uncurl the legs from the body and unfurl 1 antenna.
  • Affix an insect identification label underneath the insect with the text readable from the left side of the insect. These labels should have date and location of collection, unique identifier and the name of the collector.
  • Place into foam lined box.
  • Repeat!
  • Very small insects get pointed rather than pinned. The right side of the thorax is glued to a triangle cut out of cardstock, and the triangle based is pinned instead.

I have also been mounting pollen samples whenever I can squeeze the time in. I collected stigmas from the field and have been storing them in ethanol-filled small tubes.


  • Let slide warmer heat up
  • Using a transfer pipette, remove the pollen-ethanol suspension and transfer drop by drop onto warm slide, letting the alcohol evaporate and ensuring it does not run over the edges.
  • Place stigma onto slide.
  • Rub the inside of the centrifuge tube that was storing the sample with a bit of fushcin jelly, place  onto slide as well. Cut out 2 more small cubes of jelly, place over drop locations. Cover with slide cover and leave on warmer to melt jelly. Label slide.

For a different experiment that I have not yet processed, I will put the tubes into a centrifuge, spin down and pipette out the pellet to save time and labour. Quite a few tubes from the current experiment are extremely small and I am concerned about their ability to hold up under the force of a centrifuge. I need a less labour intensive process to make slides for my upcoming field season. I can think of two main options right now – use sturdy tubes that I can centrifuge, or collect into small tubes without adding ethanol, and mount each evening while at the research station. This will cut down the need to let the alcohol evaporate.