Parallels Between BJJ and Magic: The Gathering

It’s no secret that many in the Panda Nation are big Magic: The Gathering players, including Nelson, Hillary, Reilly, and myself. The fantasy card game comes up almost every time we are on a podcast, and MTG terminology often sneaks into the Inverted Gear blog posts, like Nelson’s use of “metagame.” Nelson and I have packed MTG decks for Globetrotter camps. In fact, the first time I met Nelson and Hillary in person was when they stopped by to train and then play Commander, our favorite version of MTG.

In this blog post, I want to draw parallels between Magic and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Prepare yourself because we’re going full nerd for this one.

A Game with Many Types of Players

In both MTG and BJJ, you have a wide variety of people engaging in “the same” activity with different goals and levels of competitiveness. Each can be broadly divided between casual or competitive, with players falling at different points on the spectrum. In BJJ, we talk about hobbyists versus competitors.

In MTG, you have “kitchen table Magic” between friends, Friday Night Magic at local game shops, regional Pro Tour Qualifiers, Grands Prix, and even a Pro Tour including a World Championship. If this is the first time you’ve heard of professional Magic players and you’re scoffing at the idea, let me tell you BJJ wishes it had the $50,000-250,000 prize purses that the MTG Pro Tour pays out.

The BJJ has similar tiers, such as garage grapplers, individual BJJ schools, local and regional tournaments, and the big events like Pan Ams and Worlds.

In both MTG and BJJ, I have seen personality conflicts between players when their goals do not line up. In MTG, you sometimes get a cutthroat “winning is all that matters” player crushing the more casual players. In BJJ, you get the “always goes 100%” guy who treats every match like the Worlds finals. On the flipside, you sometimes get a casual player showing up at a serious event and getting crushed.

It’s not that one way is right or wrong, but that understanding where you and others fall on the spectrum will help you find the right training environment and training partners to get what you want out of your training.

The Metagame

The “metagame” is the eagle’s eye view of all the strategies competitors are employing, paying special attention to what is winning. In MTG, this is often done by studying tournament results to see what deck lists were played. In BJJ, we pay attention to what techniques are popular and winning matches. To “metagame,” you predict what you will be facing and come prepared to beat it. The simplest way to say it is “I think everyone else will be doing ____, so I’m doing ____.”

In BJJ, we see this when certain techniques become dominant and warp the entire game around them. The berimbolo is the biggest modern example of a metagame warping strategy. Competitors are faced with 1) using the strategy themselves, 2) developing a counter to it, or 3) hoping to dodge anyone using it. When this goes too far and becomes detrimental to the sport or game, organizers may need to step in with rules changes and bannings.

You can build a deck or plan a grappling gameplan that looks good on paper, but flops out in real life because it matches up poorly against what the other competitors are doing. Or you can come up with a quirky plan that runs against traditional logic but it lines up just right against the field, if just for one tournament.

The metagame also includes understanding the rules of the game and figuring out the best way to take advantage of them. In BJJ, this is often where competitors come up with tactics that bore spectators but win matches, like double guard pulls and stalling just enough to run down the clock without getting warnings.

Knowing Your Match Ups

Metagaming is mostly in the preparation, but you still need get down to winning one match at a time. You need to quickly get a read on your opponent so you can predict what to expect out of them.

In MTG, this is done through play testing, which is playing decks to see how they match up against other decks (or against the same deck, in what’s called the mirror match). This is where you learn how to alter your strategy when facing different opponents. What’s important in one match up may not matter in another. A MTG team will test decks and tweak them to figure out what they are bringing to the next tournament.

In BJJ, you develop your ability to implement or adapt your gameplan through sparring against a wide variety of grapplers. You need to know how to deal with all types: pressure passers, wrestlers, guard wizards, footlock specialists, etc.


If you liked this BJJ and MTG mashup, please let me know in the comments and we’ll make more of it. If you want to play digital CCGs with me, you can add me on Hearthstone as Aesopian#1325 and Eternal as Aesopian+8911.


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Comment on this post (3 comments)

  • Nolan says...

    I love this article. You drew many of the same parallels I’ve drawn since starting BJJ. I use “metagame” often when trying to explain things to people at the gym. I often think about the competitive deck building process the same way I think about my regular rolls, but when I know I’m going to roll against someone who shuts down my usual game, I sideboard in different techniques or game plans to try and stay competitive against a bad match up.

    And Tom, Mana burn isn’t a thing anymore. Hasn’t been for quite some time now.

    November 09, 2017

  • Kombatch says...

    Really nice article, last year I made the same thinking and I came up with a little something go check my Facebook => Kombatch.fr

    I will add you on HS ;)

    November 09, 2017

  • Tom Fleenor says...

    BJJ would be a lot different if you couldn’t manaburn yourself.

    This post speaks to my soul. Good stuff, Matt.

    November 08, 2017

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