Magic: The Gathering is collectible trading card game that consumed countless weekends as I worked my way through middle school. Other people had sports, or girls, or even art. I had fantasy. It’s almost certain that you had a group of Magic devotees (or something comparable, depending on the era) at your middle school. In case you were too intimidated to venture over to that table in the dark and distant corner of the lunchroom to find out exactly how the whole thing worked, here’s the basics from the Magic: The Gathering Wikipedia entry:
In a game of Magic, two or more players are engaged in a battle as powerful wizards called “planeswalkers“. A player starts the game with twenty “life points” and loses when he or she is reduced to zero. Players lose life when they are dealt “damage” by being attacked with summoned creatures or when spells or other cards cause them to lose life directly. A player can also lose if he or she must draw from an empty deck (called the “library” during the game), or if they have acquired 10 “poison counters”. In addition, some cards specify other ways to win or lose the game.
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The two basic card types in Magic are “spells” and “lands”. Lands provide “mana“, or magical energy, which is used as magical fuel when the player attempts to cast spells. Players may only play one land per turn. More powerful spells cost more mana, so as the game progresses more mana becomes available, and the quantity and relative power of the spells played tends to increase. Some spells also require the payment of additional resources, such as cards in play or life points. Spells come in several varieties: “sorceries” and “instants” have a single, one-time effect before they go to the “graveyard” (discard pile); “enchantments” and “artifacts” are “permanents” that remain in play after being cast to provide a lasting magical effect; “creature” spells summon monsters that can attack and damage an opponent.
The game is complicated and nuanced, and a perfect metaphor for all sorts of things that happen outside the confines of a teenager’s imagination. Inspired by an editor here at Hardwood Paroxysm I thought I’d see if I could draw some parallels to NBA basketball and this year’s Finals matchup between the Heat and the Spurs.
I built a deck for each organization, designed to reflect their stylistic tendencies and idiosyncrasies. Before the comments become weighed down with criticism about my tactical choices, I stopped playing Magic in the mid-90s and my deck construction is limited to cards with which I was familiar. They also may not be the most potent decks in the context of actual gameplay, but they were chosen to reflect the identities of each team, not to win the informal tournament that takes place at The Yankee Clipper card shop in Rochester, NY every Saturday afternoon.
This is what’s known as a Burn Deck, at least it used to be when I played. The basic premise is to do massive damage as quickly as possible. Often that damage comes from a distance in the form of spells like Lightning Bolts and Fireballs, but the deck also has some powerful creatures capable of injuring an opponent. Here’s how some of those elements reflect directly on the Heat
Lightning Bolt, Fireball, Chain Lightning
These powerful attack spells represent the Heat’s outside shooting. They require a very small cost of energy but allow them to quickly do huge amounts of damage to an opponent. There’s more than a little symbolism in that fact that each spell does it’s damage in multiples of threes.
The Heat’s three-point shooting suffered greatly against the Pacers and it often short-circuited their entire offense. When Ray Allen and Shane Battier aren’t making shots from the wings and from the corner the Heat lose an efficient offensive weapon, but it also allows the defense to collapse on the interior reducing the effectiveness of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and their ability to penetrate. It’s no accident that some of their most crucial runs in the Conference Finals coincided with clusters of made three-pointers by Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller and Ray Allen.
These creatures represent the Heat’s point guard rotation, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole. The Dragon Whelp is a creature of moderate offensive and defensive power, with a relatively high cost to summon. However, when a slightly higher cost is applied it’s offensive rating can become slightly higher.
This card perfectly represents the offensive contributions of Chalmers and Cole. It’s not there all the time, but when it comes, it comes and it’s been integral to their success this postseason. Against the Pacers, Chalmers shot 48.5% from the field and 50.0% from on three-pointers in their four wins. In their three losses he was 39.3% from the field and 28.6% on three-pointers. Cole’s win/loss split on three-point percentage against the Pacers was 50.0%/33.3%. The ability to summon this little bit of extra offense when the team needs it most gives adds another dimension of danger to the Heat’s attack.
This creature represents the variability of the Heat’s entire supporting cast. The Mijae Djinn has the capability of dealing as much damage to an opponent as any other card in this deck, but every time an attack begins there is an even chance of it failing completely.
Despite their resurgence in Game 7 against the Pacers, Chris Bosh, Wade, Battier, Allen, Cole and Chalmers have all become huge variables. When the system is working and shots are falling they combine with LeBron to make the Heat essentially unstoppable. But they’ve also demonstrated over the past few weeks that they can bumped off course and forced out of the action. Wade, in particular could be what this entire series rests on for the Heat. If he plays up to the ceiling of his capabilities it’s difficult to imagine the Heat losing four out of seven games. But a track record has been established and the potential is there for a complete no-show. For Miami to win this series they will have to win more than a few of these random coin flips, receiving the best of what each player can offer.
This creature represents LeBron James. At the time I stopped playing Magic, this was the most powerful creature in the game and there is simply no questioning the fact that LeBron is the most powerful player in the league. The Shivan Dragon is very costly to enter into play, but once it’s there it’s almost unstoppable. It has incredible ratings, both offensively and defensively, as well as the ability to increase it’s offensive output when necessary. But most importantly it has the ability of flight, which makes it’s offensive attack only defensible by other flying creatures.
Regardless of the state of his supporting cast, LeBron is clearly playing at the height of his powers. He is versatile and potent, capable of single-handedly destroying an opponent for significant stretches. Like the Shivan Dragon, he will need to put all of his destructive capabilities into effect to beat the Spurs, offensively and defensively. Simply put, he can’t just be the best. He has to play the best.
Unlike the Heat’s deck, which is focused entirely on the destructive powers of the color red, the Spurs are playing with a prismatic deck. Despite their uniform colors, the Spurs’ style of play actual matches up with the colors of blue and white. This is a counter deck, unlike the Heat’s deck which focuses on rapid damage, these cards are collected to disrupt and distort their opponent’s intentions. Allowing for a slightly more elegant and leisurely form of destruction.
Although most of the Spurs’ deck is drawn from the colors white and blue, there is a little red mixed and the ability to hit back from a distance. Like the Heat, three-point shooting is both a huge component and huge barometer of offensive success. The work for corner three-pointers as well as any team in the league and it’s one place where their offense really explodes quickly into runs. The multi-dimensional lands that are included in this deck allow the Spurs to utilize these spells without sacrificing their fundamental identity of disruption and distortion.
These spells are the heart of this deck. For an extremely low cost of mana energy it allows the Spurs to quickly dismiss any action taken by an opponent. Offensive, defensive and anything in between is simply cast-aside with a wave of the hand.
The Spurs are among the most creative and thoughtful teams in the history of the NBA. It starts with Gregg Popovich, but the players on the floor are integral as well and make many adjustments on the fly. Their schemes are so well planned and executed that often stymieing an opponent’s desired course of action at either end of the floor seems as simple as Popovich waving his hand. The Heat’s talent level is incredible and they are nearly the Spurs equal in creativity. But when LeBron was still in high school Tim Duncan and Popovich were already masters at out-planning and out-executing opponents.
Phantasmal Forces and Serendib Efreeti
These creatures have a relatively low cost, with a very high offensive capability. However, they trade-off is that they can damage you in other ways, necessitate continuous upkeep, or provide very little in the way of defense. They seem to me to be a perfect metaphor for the Spurs’ role players.
Matt Bonner, Danny Green, Cory Joseph and Boris Diaw all provide significant skill in certain areas but are lacking in others. Whether it’s being a defensive liability, relative inexperience or over-exuberance keeping their skills on the floor requires a cost and a sacrifice. Popovich is a master at managing those costs and hiding those shortcomings, but if he is forced to rely too heavily on these sorts of contributors, the costs begin to stack up and can become difficult to overcome.
I included three Serra Angels in the Spurs’ deck, to represent Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. However, these are really a reflection of Tim Duncan. The Serra Angel is unique in it’s ability to attack without being tapped. What that means is that it is capable to both attack and defend on a single turn. The Serra Angels also have the ability to fly, which means the potential to counter LeBron’s Shivan Dragon.
These cards represent the responsibility of the Spurs’ big three, even if they don’t totally reflect their vulnerabilities in health and age. Duncan especially bears a huge burden in this series with the responsibility of holding his team together at both ends of the floor. For Parker and Ginobili the task is to meet LeBron in the air, not literally, but metaphorically. They have no hope of keeping him from the rim, but they need to rise to his level of production and be his equals in greatness. These three cards and these three players are the key on the Spurs’ side.
Let the match begin . . .