Currently, there are no Standard-legal coin flip cards in Magic. In fact, over the last thirteen sets that have been released, Wizards of the Coast has published only three cards of this nature: Molten Birth, bulk rare Goblin Kaboomist, and the ultimate activation on the mythic planeswalker Ral Zarek. Today, we’re going to talk about why flip cards continue to get printed at the low rate of about one every four expansions, and also why a greater volume of them shouldn’t be printed. Along the way, we’ll touch on the history and economics of the game, ethical philosophies of design and chance, and a decklist featuring an all-new card I guarantee you’ve never seen before.

A Pretty Penny

Richard Garfield started mining the design space of coin flip cards back in 1993 with Arabian Nights, largely due to the parameters of his game design. Magic was meant to be quick and portable, and coins were pieces of gaming equipment that average people would have on them at most times. (He couldn’t have predicted that Magic players of the future would come packing their own 36-piece Chessex dice cubes.) While coin flip cards were by no means a necessity for the game, they constituted another avenue of design Garfield could profitably explore, if done sparingly. The attraction of these cards was largely their novelty, and their novelty would disappear if they became too readily available. After all, even the most die-hard coin flip card fanatics probably wouldn’t enjoy a dedicated expansion wherein every card had both players constantly flipping coins. If that happened, Magic would be a very different (and probably worse) game.

Presumably this is for the same reason that most normally-functioning adults find Snakes and Ladders boring: if the game is all chance, then strategy is impossible to execute, meaning that there is no player agency. Similarly, a critical mass of coin flip cards would make players feel they have no control in a bad way (unlike, say, the randomness resulting from shuffling a deck of cards, which most are fine with). Thus it is that, over 20 years of card design later, there are still just over fifty tournament-legal cards that allow or require players to flip coins, and the vast majority of them-to be frank-are of dubious utility.

Yeah, a 5/2 for 4 at rare is probably too good for red... Better nerf it some more.
Yeah, a 5/2 for 4 at rare is probably too good for red… Better nerf it some more.

Mark Rosewater has gone on the record stating that Wizards prints very few coin flip cards

Because coin flip cards don’t score highly in market research. We understand that a small subset likes them and thus we keep making them, but the research has shown that they are unpopular.1Rosewater’s “Kind Acts of Randomness” article of 4 May 2009: http://archive.wizards.com/Magic/magazine/article.aspx?x=mtg/daily/mm/37

In other words, coin flip cards are a highly specialized form of fan service, and they exist only insofar as they aren’t pushed to the point where they annoy the other 99.5% of Wizards’ (intended or actual) clientele. This is why it would be very unlikely for any of these cards to be so powerful as to appear in the Top 8 of any competitive tournament, and why even daring to play a mediocre-performing (25% win percentile) coin flip deck in legacy gets respected Magic theorists like Frank Karsten actively crunching numbers on the big game sites.2Rosewater’s “Kind Acts of Randomness” article of 4 May 2009: http://archive.wizards.com/Magic/magazine/article.aspx?x=mtg/daily/mm/37 If a coin flipping deck ever becomes truly viable, it’ll be a huge red flag for the game, in that a mechanic despised by the vast majority of players would need to be adopted by those selfsame players, and it is predictable that some defection from the game might indeed result from this.

So why does a dedicated minority of players continue to request, and insist on playing, these disfavored, inefficient, and maligned cards? Is it simply the heroic urge for a great victory against overwhelming odds? Is it a game-within-a-game wherein the player feels they have achieved something great despite, or because of, their use of suboptimal means? Is it a superstitious fetishization of the aleatory? I believe that fascination with coin flipping stems from something else altogether: something more primal.

Of Dice and Men

Since prehistoric times, humans have used sheep knucklebones as tools for gaming and divination. Where knowledge was limited or understanding was lacking, these primitive dice were employed to help our early ancestors make their decisions, to convey the will of the gods. Eventually, the use of dice became commonplace and gained more cultural nuance, but the underlying principle has remained essentially the same for millennia.3For more detailed information on the use of knucklebones in antiquity: http://archaeologicalmuseum.jhu.edu/the-collection/object-stories/archaeology-of-daily-life/childhood/knucklebones/

It wasn’t until the 20th century and the philosophical movement of Existentialism-specifically the work of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre-that humanity was directly exhorted to abandon the mystical and the random and engage in the difficult and intellectually-challenging task of creating meaning in their individual lives, rather than passively receiving meaning indirectly from a religion, culture, or state. Existentialism basically reads: “God is dead, so put the dice down, folks; you’ll have to figure out what to do by yourself from now on.”

Jean-Paul 'No Dice' Sartre
Jean-Paul ‘No Dice’ Sartre

Existentialism’s prime virtue is “authenticity,” or the execution of actions that accurately reflect your self-chosen values. But not everybody is on board with the possibility of making real-time authentic choices. After all, the self is a notoriously slippery entity to theorize, and our values change over time; thus it may be possible that the same choice, made by the same person, could be authentic one day, but inauthentic the next. At the same time, external forces may occlude our perception of reality, and thus our ability to authentically relate to it, or impede our ability to accurately recall and act on our cherished values. Moreover, in the words of psychologist Martin Seligman, “The self is a very poor site for meaning… The larger the entity you can attach yourself to, the more meaning you can derive.”4Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism, p. 287 (quoted by Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, p. 97). It’s hardly surprising to imagine, then, that theoretically pushing all of history, culture, and faith into the passenger seat for the sake of being “authentic” might leave an individual feeling a little hollow and shaky, rather than psychically empowered.

The Rise of Flipism

So, not only does Existentialism have justifiable theoretical issues, but the pedigree of irrationality is much longer and better entrenched in our psyches. After the rise of Existentialism in the 1940s and 1950s, there was a conservative backlash against the implicit atheism and perceived amorality of the position-not to mention that some people just don’t like being told that they have the ultimate responsibility to make their own choices. In a 1952 issue of Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, there is a thinly-veiled parody of Existentialism made when Professor Batty explains the rudiments of “Flipism” to Donald Duck:

Batty and Sartre: Separated at birth?
Batty and Sartre: Separated at birth?

Flipism, here, is the practice of letting a coin flip make binary decisions for you. Can’t decide between the new Mexican restaurant down the street and your favorite Italian joint? Make Mexican heads, Italian tails, and then flip a coin to decide which you go to. Sounds simple, right?

It may be, if your choice is between two trifles, but if the decision is of any substance, it may be wiser to utilize other determining principles and mechanisms. Flipism saves time, at the expense of prudence.

Flipism, as a parody of Existentialism, also focuses on the importance of choices; however, it takes out all the tiresome “construction of meaning” aspect out of things and gets down to the business of offering the individual concrete solutions to practical quandaries. Rather than having the ego act as an anchor for values in an otherwise arbitrary universe, Flipism embraces the primordial chaos that confronts humanity and incorporates it into our decision-making protocols. Hmm… What could possibly go wrong?

Clearly!
Clearly!

Anybody who reads, watches, or otherwise ingests Batman lore can tell you that the villain Two-Face is the ultimate Flipist. He’s basically like a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde character, but with a heads/tails toggle between his split personality rather than a serum. All of his key decisions in life are based on the outcome of coin flips, and let’s just say that not all of his decisions are well-thought out or morally good.5Interestingly, Two-Face (or any other character composed of two binary opposites) can only ever get 50% utility on any choice he makes because anything that is in the interest of one half of his split personality is always against the interest of the other. He can never fully win, but he can never fully lose either, as part of him actually wants to be captured by Batman and rehabilitated. This makes him just one of the worst villains ever, really. It’s a toss-up (pun intended) whether Two-Face or the Riddler takes the prize in the Most Self-Defeating Bad Guy category. But Two-Face is insane, and you, dear reader, are presumably more rational. So why can’t you do what Two-Face can’t and happily become a good Flipist?

Because the Flipist position suffers from an internal inconsistency. The Flipist is still a designer of options, if not ultimately a chooser between these. If you design a menu of options and the means employed for sifting through them, then ultimately you have expressed your values and have in no way evaded your existential responsibilities. The parody too closely mimics the original, and in this light the Flipist may appear to be a subspecies of Existentialist.

Taken from a different angle, though, we can see that the goal of Flipism (if not its effect) is to diminish the agency of the individual making the choice and reduce the meaning-bearing capacity of choice, whereas Existentialism is working toward exactly the opposite end: an individual extracting the maximum of meaningful experience out of their self-constructed decisions. To put it more simply: Existentialism is the freedom to choose, while Flipism is the freedom not to choose. One is a positive freedom; the other a negative freedom.

My contention is that both of these types of freedom await the brave souls who play decks based on coin flip cards, and that is why these cards deserve their (admittedly rather limited) role in the game of Magic.

Take a Chance on Me

We Magic players want to have our cake and eat it too. We want the positive freedom to create cool decks, and we also want the negative freedom of not having the burden of choice on our shoulders at all times. We want to work like Existentialists and party like Flipists.

A sure way we can do this is to design our decks such that our coin flip card becomes a win-win proposition instead of win-lose or lose-lose. Call this “building the crown around the gem.” That way we get the thrill of the flip but never get burned because we’re fine with whichever way things turn out. Check out these two-card combos for concrete examples of what I’m talking about:

Wirefly Hive + Unnatural Selection = recursive board wipe

Scoria Wurm + Pandemonium = recursive direct damage

Goblin Assasin + Krenko, Mob Boss = recursive creature kill

All of these engines are respectable starts for deck brewing, but today I want to do something that I (rather astoundingly) haven’t done before in this series of articles: provide a full and complete decklist! To stay on theme though, I want it to be both random and meaningful, which means it’s time to reveal the brand-new card I teased at the beginning.

Custom card enthusiasts, meet Jesterscape:

Yorke13e

Of course, Jesterscape is not being released in an upcoming set. Jesterscape simply represents the kind of card I think Wizards missed the chance to print in the Battle for Zendikar block: a card that mechanically enables landfall in a consistent fashion; a card that could have flavor ties with an awakened and sentient plane fighting back against alien invaders (if it were called, say, Roilscape instead); a card that captures the chaotic, playful, and interesting side of red, while giving it a powerful new engine to play with; a coin flip card that could have been the sole one legal in this Standard format, satisfying a verbal minority while not offending a tolerant majority. Alas, now that OGW’s full spoiler is up, we see that it was not to be.

Now, I’m not a super-fan of coin flip cards. I don’t think the world needs many of them, but I do think-for the little jester in us all, the Professor Batty, and the Two-Face-that at least one coin flip card should be legal in Standard at all times. It’s enjoying the crazy moments these whimsical cards create that make the game more fun as a whole and, therefore, meaningful to play. You haven’t really lived unless you have a bad beats story about losing to a coin flip card. If you feel what I’m saying, go grab a glass of fine single-malt whiskey, press play on the video link, and scroll down through the decklist6Special thanks to my old friend and UK ManaLeak columnist Dave Shedden, who gave me permission to imitate the sweet formatting of his decklists, and also served as an inspiration to write about the things I love, in the voice of the oddball that I am. See for yourself, he’s well worth the read: http://www.manaleak.com/mtguk/author/dave-shed/ below, trying to stifle your tears as you imagine how fun standard could have been if Jesterscape, or something very much like it, were published in Battle for Zendikar or Oath of the Gatewatch:

Yorke13z

Discussion

References   [ + ]

1, 2.Rosewater’s “Kind Acts of Randomness” article of 4 May 2009: http://archive.wizards.com/Magic/magazine/article.aspx?x=mtg/daily/mm/37
3.For more detailed information on the use of knucklebones in antiquity: http://archaeologicalmuseum.jhu.edu/the-collection/object-stories/archaeology-of-daily-life/childhood/knucklebones/
4.Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism, p. 287 (quoted by Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, p. 97).
5.Interestingly, Two-Face (or any other character composed of two binary opposites) can only ever get 50% utility on any choice he makes because anything that is in the interest of one half of his split personality is always against the interest of the other. He can never fully win, but he can never fully lose either, as part of him actually wants to be captured by Batman and rehabilitated. This makes him just one of the worst villains ever, really. It’s a toss-up (pun intended) whether Two-Face or the Riddler takes the prize in the Most Self-Defeating Bad Guy category.
6.Special thanks to my old friend and UK ManaLeak columnist Dave Shedden, who gave me permission to imitate the sweet formatting of his decklists, and also served as an inspiration to write about the things I love, in the voice of the oddball that I am. See for yourself, he’s well worth the read: http://www.manaleak.com/mtguk/author/dave-shed/