Online Learning: The Gathering – Lessons About Distance Education from a Trading Card Game

Written By: Matthew Acevedo, Instructional Design Manager

A number of us in the instructional design shop at FIU Online have taken to spending the better part of our lunch break playing Magic: The Gathering, a trading card game that’s been around since the early 90s and continues to grow and evolve. Some of us have resurrected our cards from old storage bins and others are brand new to the game. In Magic, players cast spells, represented by cards, that summon creatures, deal damage, restore life, create energy, and otherwise affect the flow of the game. Summoned creatures engage in combat, and the game ends when one player ultimately emerges more powerful.

Given that we all share these two seemingly unrelated interests, it struck me that there might be meaningful parallels between the two worlds — lessons we can learn from the game and apply to our work in creating effective and engaging distance learning experiences. Let’s explore.

The Rules are Always Changing

Magic starts with a set of basic rules and game structure, but effects and abilities that specific cards have disrupt the rules and the structure. For example, a basic premise of the game is that, each turn, a player’s creatures attack and the defending player’s creatures block. However, creatures that have the ability to fly can’t be blocked by creatures that don’t fly, thus disrupting the basic premise of attack and block. Moreover, some creatures have the ability to “reach,” or block creatures that fly, although they don’t fly themselves, overriding the rule about flying. In fact, the “Golden Rule” of Magic states that “whenever a card’s text directly contradicts [the] rules, the card takes precedence.”

The rules are always changing in online learning, too. Formal education once had a rule that learning had to take place in a certain space at a certain time; distance education broke that rule. Advances in communication technologies and learning management systems disrupted the rule that students couldn’t collaborate, communicate synchronously, or generate their own content. More recently, adaptive learning technologies are changing the rule that students need to follow the same learning path to reach an educational outcome.

In each new expansion of Magic, new rules and card mechanics are introduced that change the way the game is played. In online learning, advances and innovations in technology and pedagogy change the way education happens.

The Marriage of Logic and Creativity

Magic, at its core, is a game of logic, procedural decision making, and math. In fact, its creator, Richard Garfield, designed the original version of the game while he was a PhD student in combinatorial mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania. Decisions in the game are made based on mathematical determinations of what is most strategically advantageous for each player. Deck building relies heavily on probabilities and statistics to optimize the chances of drawing useful cards throughout the progress of a game.

But the quantitative aspects of Magic represent only one side of the game. The other side is creativity. Each Magic card is based on a fantasy storyline unique to the game in which beings who can travel between planes of existence vie for power using spells and creatures (yeah, it’s trippy). Many cards feature “flavor text,” an italicized addendum to a card’s functional text that contributes to its place in the overall narrative or otherwise gives it some measure of personality. And players need to leverage creative power in addition to logic to construct a deck whose mechanics work well together to form a coherent strategy; these decks can be centered around creative themes (like a deck that features all angels or all spiders).

Online learning isn’t too different in that regard. There are things that we know work from a logical and objective viewpoint: learning is enhanced when learners are engaged in solving real world problems, certain forms of effective multimedia promote learning, learning “styles” are a pseudoscience, time on task and scaffolded practice are correlated with learning gains, etc. But designers and developers of effective and engaging courses can and should also flex some creative muscle in their courses, whether it’s enhancing the aesthetic appeal of the course (more on that in a bit), infusing the personality and sense of humor of the instructor into the course materials, incorporating fun projects, or any number of other ways to creatively tackle course design problems.

Aesthetics Matter (but not as much as the mechanics)

Each card in Magic: The Gathering has an explanation of its abilities and attributes as well as an image representing the card. Magic is well known for its reputation for beautiful and detailed card art. Many players and collectors view the art as an important part of the overall Magic experience, although the art has no bearing on the way the game is played.


Island, from Magic: The Gathering expansion Ravnica: City of Guilds. Illustration by Stephan Martiniere

In online learning, aesthetics matter. Graphics can be used to highlight the organization of the learning materials and to create welcoming environments for student in the learning management system. Multimedia can be leveraged to promote learning. Generally speaking, visually appealing courses are better received by students than visually dull (or overdone) courses.

However, just like in Magic, the visual design is secondary to the instructional design of the course (including pedagogy, instructional strategy, learning materials, assessments, etc.). It’s important to not conflate instructional design with graphic design; while both are meaningful inputs to the development of a online course, graphic design is like card art: valued, but not integral to the mechanics of the game.

The Importance of Preparation

The actual duel between players is just one aspect of the Magic: The Gathering experience. Arguably, the harder and more work-intensive part is creating and continually refining one’s deck before the game even starts. In Magic, players’ decks are highly customizable and are often reflective of their owner’s playing style (and personality, some might say). Collecting cards, organizing a collection, building a deck, playtesting it, and refining it are tasks that are tremendously important to a successful Magic experience and make the actual game fun, worthwhile, and meaningful. And the more work that goes into a deck before the actual game generally corresponds to how successful a player is.

The amount of work that it takes for a faculty member to design and develop an effective and engaging online course is often more than they expect, even with when he or she partners with an instructional designer. Many would suggest that the upfront work that it takes to create an online course is significantly more than that of a face-to-face course. Spending some time and thoughtful effort into the design of an online course, including the adoption of an instructional strategy, selection and creation of instructional materials, and development of authentic assessments, invariably leads to a more impactful learning experience for students and a more rewarding teaching experience for faculty members.


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