Whether in business or at the gaming table, learning how to correctly assess your key performance indicators can keep you from a ruinous error in judgment.

What is Business Magic?

With an estimated player base of 20 million, Magic: The Gathering is the most popular trading card game in the world. Playing Magic at the tournament level, where winners can earn up to 50,000$ US, requires careful evaluation and good strategy. If you don’t know anything about Magic, but want to inject a little knowledge from left field into your business strategy, “Business Magic” is for you.

You start a game of Magic with 20 life and win by reducing your opponent to zero life. It should logically follow that your life total is the most important measure of success in the game, right?

Wrong.

In practice, life totals are almost meaningless right until the moment one player is about to immediately lose.

In that respect, life totals are a lot like cash: it’s certainly nice to have and if you or your business run out, you’re almost assuredly in trouble – but it bears little to no relation to how well you’re doing overall. Also, much like cash, overvaluing life totals means you will not understand why you run out.

Business Magic Lesson #1: It is easy to mistake an important-looking figure for a key performance indicator.

All Business Magic Lessons such as this one hold true both for tournament Magic and business strategy.

Experienced Magic players often appear not to be worried about life totals. They accurately predict future gains and losses by closely watching other indicators, such as cards in hand. Those are the true key performance indicators. Life totals, much like cash, are just a by-product of how good your past decisions have been. If you only keep an eye on your life total, you will lose to an experienced player most of the time – because by the time you recognize a problem, it is often too late to do something about it.

In real life, that should be the last thing happening to you. So don’t set yourself up for failure by overvaluing the wrong figure.

If you ask a professional player when they lost the game, the answer will never be “the turn I ran out of life”. More often than not, it will be somewhere between turns one and three.

Business Magic Lesson #2: By the time the big losses happen, they are just logical consequences of prior shifts in momentum.

Now let’s see if you’ve been paying attention. Here are two Magic cards. One of them is good. The other is very, very bad. Even without any prior knowledge of the rules, you should be able to spot which is which:

Chaplains Blessing compared to Ancient Craving

Chaplain’s Blessing, of course, is a bad card. Gaining five life might seem like a notable advantage. But at the end of the day, playing it does not change your position. If you lost three life per turn before, you will still lose three life a turn, but you can now do it for slightly longer. It’s basically a one-time cash injection, meaning that it does not solve any problems.

Ancient Craving, on the other hand, is a useful tool. Instead of gaining life, it makes you pay life to gain another ressource, cards. Having three cards is preferable to having three life in most situations, so a trade might be beneficial to you.

Business Magic Lesson #3: Everything is a resource. Learn what it can do for you and don’t be afraid to invest it.

Gaining life is not a benefit in itself. It should be considered a resource. In fact, everything should be.

Competitive Magic players are very good at this. They see their life total, or a card pile that is literally called the graveyard, and ask: “How can I use this to my benefit?”. Even if that means investing something others are afraid of losing, there might be an opportunity worth investigating there.

Now here’s where you might say that in business, the goal is not to burn through assets to make a certain competitor go bankrupt faster than you do (not usually, anyway). While that is true, failure to correctly assess your key performance indicators will still make you go bankrupt.

Case in point

A surprising number of companies go out of business insisting that their numbers are actually good. They’re not entirely wrong, it’s just that they’re focused on irrelevant numbers. Consider the change brought to the TV landscape by the advent of DVR ratings: Shows and Channels that managed to monetize DVR viewings via product placement and other forms of advertising have found success, while those still focused on the now less-relevant ratings have not. When ratings stopped being the defining key performance indicator, those that weren’t afraid of risking them won in the end.

Takeaway message

Focus on the figures that really matter. In Magic as well as in business, learning to correctly assess the state of the game is the first step towards competitive success.


Whenever he can take the time, you can find Chris at Magic: the Gathering tournaments all over Europe, honing his strategic skills … or being a gigantic nerd, depending on your point of view.

“Business Magic” is a multi-part series. New installments are published on Mondays.