Games of Chance
Mark Rosewater is a god. At least, that is, to the hundreds of Magic the Gathering players here in Bowling Green and the thousands—millions?—of players elsewhere.

Rosewater is the Head Designer of Magic, overseeing the creation of a game that is, in his words, “constantly evolving.” This constant evolution stems from its quarterly release of new cards, with which comes new abilities, new rules, and, sometimes, a “standard rotation”—that is, old sets of cards become illegal to play in a special format of the game called “Standard” as the new cards roll in.

It is this “rotation” that forces Magic to be both continuously popular and increasingly complex, making it an interesting subject of study.

For the past several years, with the increase in openness on the Internet, Rosewater has publish articles, blog posts, and even recorded podcasts on various topics of Magic’s design. Occasionally, the “metagame” is brought up, describing the proportions of different types of decks that see play in Magic tournaments across the world.

Consider the game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” If most of your friends prefer throwing “Rock,” then it only makes sense for you to throw “Paper.” However, with this in mind, your friends would want to throw “Scissors” more often.

And so on and so forth, players in a playgroup of Rock, Paper, Scissors or Magic the Gathering will adjust their play styles, reaching, in time and ideally, an equilibrium. I say “ideally” because, occasionally, the makers of Magic mess up.

Consider the game of Rock, Paper, Scissors again. Let a new element be added to the mix, say, “Boulder,” and let’s agree that throwing “Boulder” resulted in instant victory except against another Boulder, in which case the game either ends in a draw or is determined randomly. We could then say that the original equilibrium of the game was disrupted by the introduction of Boulders. Why?

Because no one would throw anything else.

Punctuated Equilibrium
Around the time that I first began to play Magic competitively, a deck dubbed “Wolfrun Ramp” appeared in the mix, much in the same way as Boulder above. Normally Magic was, at that time, balanced between three types of decks, “Combo, Control, and Aggro,” which typically beat each other in the same circular fashion as Rock, Paper, Scissors. It so happened that Wolfrun Ramp was a very, very good Combo deck—a Boulder.

That is, no one in my playgroup would play anything else.

Magic is fragile in this sense. Once a powerful deck like Wolfrun Ramp is discovered by players, the game “breaks,” players losing interest in it until to next standard rotation.

The metagame of Magic, then, is a perfect analogy for change—this is, after all, what it’s best at.

Marching Forward
Let’s compare humans to these games. We naturally balance ourselves into an equilibrium with each other, our jobs, our social interactions, and with the environment, animals, crops, the weather. I do not mean to say we are in constant struggle like Rock, Paper, and Scissors, but that we simply are attracted towards an ideal balance.

This is assuming, of course, that no “new cards” are brought into the mix.

Our happy equilibrium is strange in that it steers us towards new cards. Consider inventors, scholars, tech companies—all of these, under ideal circumstances, will produce new tools, thoughts, or technologies. These, if they are truly worth their merit, will disrupt society’s perfect balance, pushing us forward until we settle, again, on a new equilibrium.

But even this “step by step” view of the world is wrong. It’s as though we are constantly changing, constantly being prodded by some bigger, better Boulder. Sometimes the disruption is small, hardly noticeable, if at all—I would argue that this is almost always the case. Other times, the change is bigger, the size of the effect increasing as the frequency decreases.

It is the truly momentous drivers of change, however, that are scary—Ebola, SARS, Revolutions, Civil Wars, War World II.

A Choice
Rosewater’s job as Head Designer of Magic is tough. Year after year, he must create a game that feels different enough from the last rotation to pique interest, yet retain the same balanced equilibrium they’ve worked so hard to craft. But compared to decision-makers in health systems, this being Head Designer of any game feels trivial. Why?

Because time is of the essence.

As Boozary, Farmer, and Jha put it:

Ebola represents a pressing global health crisis, but more are certain to follow. The outcomes of the next several months will reveal the capacity to forge effective partnerships across borders and disciplines, and the extent of the commitment to value all human lives equally. By responding to the crisis with a surge of stopgap solutions, it is possible (although unlikely) that such an approach could eventually stem the epidemic and end the morbidity and mortality for this current outbreak. Alternatively, responding to Ebola with a broader approach that involves meaningful investments in the provision of health care staff, resources, and systems could succeed now and help create sustainable models for the future. If the approach involves reengineering health systems around the patient, there remains an opportunity to bring lasting progress for those who need it most.

So the question is, do we return to our previous equilibrium sooner by using temporary quick-fixes, or push through the chaos on to the next stable state by placing our resources in long-term improvements? ∎

Read more in this series, follow me on Twitter, and join the conversation. Let’s Hack Ebola together.