The other day I was sitting at a rickety, porter-stained picnic table under oaks slung with Christmas bulbs. I was speaking to someone about facets—the individualized derivatives of code-switching that govern anyone’s interactions with people. Basically, the person my boss sees is not the person my partner sees, neither of whom is the person my friends see. Not a one of those people is the person I see. There’s a lot of facile talk about masks that we’ll skip over in the recounting and a lot of bleary reclassification of terminology. But the basic gist of it is that you’re never the person anyone sees, and you’re too close to the source to see yourself.

There’s no intrinsic “you,” because the tools of self-judgment are too clumsy. Your own attitudes and experiences cloud how you see yourself. Without enough self-awareness to develop comprehensive pictures of ourselves, we create culture and foster independent choices that reflect who we are. Eventually we concretize a “self” around ourselves—a pearl grown from a kernel of grit. Magic is that accreted life experience in microcosm—a series of choices that dictate not just your future developments, but shows you who you’ve been in the past.

Really, that conversation was nothing new. It’s rare that I go a week without talking about the performative aspects of the everyday life. I am a bubbling hot mess of neuroticism—but drawing he connection between how this applies to both job interviews and pack wars was new. I sidebarred the general-interest conversation to parse that out further. It’s clear that performance is pervades every aspect of a game of Magic—from “should I feign that my six-card hand out of a mulligan is mediocre when it’s actually great?” to “should I offer the handshake?” at the end of that match.

But this breaks down after a certain point. Choices don’t create consciousness. You’re not the summation of your record collection and your playstyle. Life isn’t a mirror. It isn’t a gem or a disco-ball or a d100,000,000. You can try to reduce it to fractals or facets, but those are mathematical and precise—two things interaction between people, ludic or otherwise, can never be. “Operations” is a better label—it implies set patterns that can be disrupted—but there’s still a kind of predictability that I’ve never seen borne out in human patterns, micro- or macro-. That’s part of why we create games—so that we can have predictable patterns that narrow our options for response and dictate how we can react.

Magic, then, is designed to have interactive operations as its governing principle. We have certain expectations of basic operations. Lands provide mana, mana provides options, options provide paths to enact our goals. We have an expectation of the cards we’ll draw in a given game, and we as a community have agreed that we should be able to play those cards so long as our deck cooperates. This is why Dredge is a failure of operations, why Ponza decks are verboten under modern design philosophy, and why they’re not going to be reprinting Cursed Scroll in a Limited set anytime soon—no matter how frequently or vociferously I lobby for any of these. More to the point, it’s why soulbonding Deadeye Navigator to Venser, Shaper Savant is considered a faux pas. Your operations—and your self—are subject to the enforcement of others.

Sixteen thousand, give or take—that’s the current tally of unique cards in Magic today. From Icy Manipulator to Deadlock Trap, from Savannah Lions to Sram, Senior Edificer; we have sixteen thousand different cards, with 16k-factorial interactions between them. Many of those have a fail-state of “nothing happens,” operationally speaking. But then again, so do many of us.

It would take lifetimes to calculate all of those possible combinations—lifetimes we don’t have—but all it takes in the moment is reflex to realize the correct play. Lightning Bolt their most dangerous threat, Giant Growth your unblocked attacker, Flash of Insight yourself end-of-turn. That same reflex tells you to savor your last sip of beer as you watch sunset bring a blush to Spring’s first leaves of those majestic oaks.

If all of life is operations, then we operate the best we can, as we always have. We blaze forward bravely with imperfect information. With the frustration of tilt clotting our neurons. With the grand and open future available to us. With the hope—whether founded or not—that we will stick the landing.

Next week: Motivation is the engine of theater, but engines need more to function. Let’s talk about everything as theater.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

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