The Mad Libs Ploy

An illusion has three stages.

First there is the setup, in which the nature of what might be attempted at is hinted at, or suggested, or explained. The apparatus is seen. volunteers from the audience sometimes participate in preparation. As the trick is being setup, the magician will make use of every possible use of misdirection.

The performance is where the magician’s lifetime of practice, and his innate skill as a performer, cojoin to produce the magical display.

The third stage is sometimes called the effect, or the prestige, and this is the product of magic. If a rabbit is pulled from a hat, the rabbit, which apparently did not exist before the trick was performed, can be said to be the prestige of that trick.
— Christopher Priest, "The Prestige"

This is one of my favorite things I've posted. It's a continuation of last week's post on the Phil Deck, but it's a lot more than that (and you don't necessarily need a Phil Deck to do it. I'll explain a regular deck handling at the end.). It started off as just a way to present a separate effect and I performed it that way a few times. But then it became an effect itself. You'll see. 

The Setup

The idea is pretty simple. You show your friends a deck of cards. On the backs of the cards are a bunch of words: nouns, verbs, and adjectives. You shuffle up the cards as you tell your friends that you're trying to increase your magic creativity for competition you're entering. ("First prize is a date with Melinda, The First Lady of Magic. Ten runners up get a subscription to True Mysteries which is a service that sends you the blueprints for magic effects in the mail once a month. I'm already a subscriber but it would be nice to get it free because it's pretty expensive. And 100 entrants will be randomly picked to be guest editor for a day at, the world's greatest magic blog.") The competition is a test of magical improvisation so you've created this deck to push your creativity to the limits. You pull out a piece of paper and it says:

"So what I do is I mix up the deck, then choose four random cards to complete that sentence."

You finish shuffling and take a few cards off the top of the deck and place them on the paper so they make a sentence.


"And then I challenge myself to to accomplish this trick. I usually give myself like 30 minutes to think of something and if I can do it I give myself a point in the win column, if not I give myself a point in the loss column."

You turn the page over and there are three marks in the win column and eight in the loss. Clearly this is pretty challenging. 

You spread through the deck to show them a bunch of different words. The nouns are all things that might be found in your home. The verbs are all magic related words, e.g. "tear and restore," "change," "penetrate," etc. And the adjectives are just adjectives: fast, painful, scary, sexy.

You ask your four friends to each think of a card. You ask one to think of heart, one a spade, one a club, and one diamond. You do this so they don't think of the same card and so you get a mix of different types of words. (All the verbs on diamonds, adjectives on hearts, etc.) The four people each tell you their card (or one person tells you her four cards), and you pull them out of the deck. You say, "Your choices are now the foundations for this trick." You pull out a couple other cards as examples. "You said the 4 of clubs, on the back it says 'Egg.' If you had said the 5 of clubs we would have gotten 'Skateboard.' You chose the 10 of diamonds which is [you turn the card over] 'Vanish.' If you had picked the 8 of diamonds it would have been, 'Tear and Restore.'" You show the back of the 8 of diamonds and then put that card back in the deck and for the last time you spread the deck face down so they can see all the different words they theoretically could have picked.

You take the four cards they named, turn them over, and put them into their proper parts of the sentence.

VANISH an EGG with a BICYCLE in a FIERY way.


The Performance

"Awww.... what the hell...," you say and let out a big, long sigh. You drag your bike in from the garage and get an egg from the kitchen. You just stare at them both for a few minutes. "Feel free to watch some tv or something," you say. 

You wait a while. Every now and then you get up and try and balance the egg on the bike seat, or spin the wheel slowly and try and place the egg through it. After each little brainstorm you sit back down and just stare intently at the bike and egg. Eventually you jump up excitedly, get your friends' attention and vanish an egg with your bicycle in a fiery way.

And how do you do that? Bitch, I don't know. It's just an example. In this scenario you've stumbled upon a way to vanish an egg with a bicycle and some flash paper and the Mad Lib Ploy is how you're getting into it. Let me be clear -- and if you've received the emails that I've received you'd understand why I need to make this clear -- this post is NOT about how to vanish an egg with a bicycle. This post is about justifying any trick you have that makes use of apparently random items.

The Reasons

But why bother using a Phil Deck to get into a trick like this? Why not just vanish an egg with a bicycle (or whatever)?

Multiple reasons:

  • Making it seem improvisational is more interesting to your audience. It feels like this is a unique moment, not something you're prepared for. Their choices are the DNA for this trick.
  • You're giving them a backstage peek into the process of creating magic (supposedly) which is inherently interesting.
  • Take your weaknesses and make them strengths. You're taking a non-organic trick with these random items and -- by giving it a context -- you're making the complete randomness a feature of the effect. It's something you're highlighting. 

There's no reason to do this presentation if you're going to force the phrase, "VANISH the CARD with an ENVELOPE in a MYSTERIOUS way." The whole purpose of this presentation is to give a context to an effect you have that utilizes seemingly random props. People often think, "Well, this effect uses ordinary objects, therefore it's an 'organic' effect that I don't need to justify." But using ordinary objects out of their normal context isn't that much better than using an obvious magic prop. You can use a brass chop-cup and a crocheted ball to do an effect and they might think, "Hmm... there's probably something special about that cup. It doesn't look like any ordinary cup I've used." Or you can use an empty tin can and -- unless you're in a recycling center -- they might think, "Hmmm... there's probably something special about that tin can, or else why would he have brought it here to this wedding reception?"

The Method

As I've already indicated, you're using a Phil deck, but instead of one force item, you're using it to force four different words. Simple. Later, I'll discuss a non-gimmicked deck option.

In theory this could be the end of the idea. But I prefer to take the whole presentation one step further into...

The Prestige

You wipe off your brow, sit back on the couch and give yourself a point in the win column for successfully executing the trick. You start cleaning up a little and put the pad of paper away. You take your mail off the table and flip through it. 

"Oh," you say, "this is that subscription service I'm hoping to win. The one that sends you magic blueprints each month. It's like $600 a year if you can believe that."

You show them the envelope and then tear into it.

"Oh, fuck me," you say. "It would have been so much easier to do it this way." And you drop everything to the table.

Your friends are confused and astonished. They pick up the deck of cards with the words on them and spread through them. All the words are different. Only their choice of cards would create the effect that was on the blueprint in that envelope. You let it slowly dawn on you that this is quite a coincidence. "Wait... that's impossible, isn't it? This company is pretty fucked up. Sometimes they respond to emails I've only thought of sending them. And remember I said it's $600 a year? Well they take 15% off if you send them a chunk of your hair, but it can't be cut, it has to be pulled from the root. What could that be about?" you say, rubbing the back of your head and staring off as you relive the painful memory.

The End.


I know what some of you are thinking. You're thinking, "Oh, Andy, you just spoiled the whole feeling of the main trick being improvisational by having that reveal at the end."

Well... yes and no.

Yes, it does somewhat, but not necessarily any more than any prediction "spoils" the whole feeling of fairness in regards to whatever selection procedure was being used. 

And remember what the purpose of "creating" the effect from "random" words is. The purpose is not to make the audience believe I'm a genius at creating magic effects in a completely spontaneous nature. They may have that impression in the middle of the performance, but I don't mind tearing that down at the end. The purpose is to get them interested in the effect and engaged in the moment in a way they wouldn't be if I just said, "I know how to vanish an egg with a bicycle." At this stage of the presentation, those benefits of the selection procedure have already been wrung dry. So when I reveal the prediction (which in this case isn't really a prediction) it turns the whole "random word selection procedure" into an effect itself. And if you follow this from beginning to end, it's like a 20 minute suite with separate movements. All of which are very different but intriguing in their own way.

Part One: You capture their attention with the idea of a completely original trick. One that their decisions will help create and one you couldn't possible have prepared for. Just the notion of a deck of cards as a random sentence generator is interesting itself on some level.
Part Two: They get to see you in your brainstorming phase. I've been harping on this since I started this site, but don't underestimate how much people will enjoy this type of thing. It's fun for people to watch the process of creation and see things in an unfinished stage.

Part Three: Now they are seeing an actual magic trick. Vanishing an egg with a bicycle. Or making a bowling ball appear from a pizza box. Or tearing and restoring a skateboard with a puppy. Whatever. It should be a seriously incredible trick. I would not go creating a half-assed trick with random items just so you could do this larger presentation. Wait until you have a real mindblower that's strong enough to stand on its own, then incorporate it into this performance piece
Part Four: After witnessing a truly strong magical performance, the twist ending transforms the nature of the entire experience. I would not just pull out a prediction at the end and say, "I knew what cards you would name." That's a little too dull and a little too much of a fuck-you to the premise you established. Instead, by making it a wild coincidence (as opposed to a prediction), the other three "movements" still stand on their own within the context of the trick. If you could "predict" what cards they would name (and thus what words you would end up with), then the part where you're brainstorming ideas would just be a nonsensical waste of time. This is not to suggest the audience will really believe in this mail-order magic blueprint company that just happened to send blueprints for an effect that was seemingly created on the spot. They understand it presents the same impossibility as a "prediction." But by not treating it like a prediction or claiming responsibility for it, the integrity of the story of the complete piece makes sense.


After the words were picked originally, you have the word-deck in your hand. The four cards are turned over and the sentence is unveiled. You then get up to go get the items mentioned on the backs of the cards. When you're in the garage getting the bike (or whatever), you have all the time in the world to swap out the force deck for a normal 52-card deck (that is similar to the Phil deck in its distinctive quality) that truly does have random words all over the back. You remove from that deck the 4 cards that were named by the spectators. Then when you return to the room, you just place that deck back on the table. As far as the audience is concerned, that deck's purpose was complete minutes ago. So they won't even notice you leaving and returning with it -- it's a completely natural action.

Now this is an incredibly strong convincer after the twist is revealed because they can now pick up the deck and examine everything and nothing is amiss. No other cards would have created that effect or matched the blueprint in the envelope.

You might think they'll think something is up with the 52 cards of a Phil deck. They won't. If the cards are not in a card case, and are just spread around on a table, the deck seems full enough. If anything they will just feel like cheap cards to a spectator. If you're concerned, when you introduce the deck in the beginning you can say you got it from a dollar store, but the cards were too cheap to use regularly so that's why you're writing on the back of them for this trick. But it's not necessary unless you're performing for someone who handles playing cards on a very regular basis. (And just to be clear a Phil deck is not the same thing as a "Double Decker" deck. 52 cards of that type would not withstand handling by the spectators.)

The Non-Phil-Deck Method

This presentation allows you to use a regular deck, if you want. I don't know that I would, but it would be easy enough to and it could almost be handed out for examination -- at least in a more formal performance where audiences tend to give things rather cursory examinations. It would still need to be switched to have a fully examinable deck at the end, but could withstand a brief examination at the beginning.

You have to exercise a bit more control on which card everyone thinks of, but with this presentation, where different cards have different types of words (and you need particular types of words) I think the limitations make sense.

So you say to four people, "In a moment I want you all to think of a value of a card. Not a suit, just a value. I don't want you all to think of the same value because that would be too easy [whatever that means]. So you two, [indicate the people to your left] think of an odd value, and you two think of an even value. We need different types of words. The verbs are on diamonds, so attach your value to a diamond. The adjectives are on hearts. You'll be our adjective person so whatever value you are thinking of make it a heart. [You address these statements to the people on your left.] The nouns are all clubs and spades. So make your card a club, and your card a spade. Got it?"

Then they name the cards they were thinking of and you're ready to go. 

So let's look at the breakdown of the deck and you'll see why it works especially well in this presentation. 

First, there are 28 cards they can't name (even red cards, odd black cards, two jokers), on these 28 cards you will write 28 random words. A mix of nouns, verbs, and adjectives. These cards can be freely shown to your spectator. On the seven odd diamonds you write adjectives, but they should be seven different adjectives that could all apply to the trick. In the example, I used the force word "fiery," imagining an egg vanishing in a flash of fire. But you can easily imagine other words that would apply to that type of trick as well: hot, bright, dangerous, quick. And then you can add some adjectives that just require you to embody a particular attitude: sexy, funny, mysterious. With seven different adjectives we now have 35 cards that can be freely shown. With the four actual force cards/words it's 39. And then if you can think of any synonyms for the nouns and verb you're using (disappear instead of vanish; bike for bicycle; food or breakfast for egg), you can easily have about 42-45 cards that you can freely show. Think of that. You can cleanly display about 80-90% of the deck and yet it will force one very specific trick with four "freely" thought-of cards

Stage Version

This would translate amazingly well to stage. Imagine this. You come out on stage and talk about this creative exercise you used to do with a deck of cards and random objects. And you talk about how much you liked this exercise because it was always challenging and kept you in the moment. And at first you thought of it as more of a mental exercise, but now you realize that it deserves to be put in front of an audience. "These cards can create over 100,000 different trick descriptions. So that means that what you see tonight will not only be a first for you, but it's also a first for me, and because of the randomness it will be a first for anyone ever. A brand new trick that has never been performed anywhere."

Onstage there is a small mass of items. "I asked the stagehands to assemble some items from backstage. We have wigs, pillows, framed posters, a can of beer, instruments, and so on. They also wrote the names of the items on these cards as well." 

You go through the selection procedure and get the sentence: PENETRATE the MANNEQUIN with a UKULELE in a DANGEROUS way. "Hmm, this should be interesting," you say. You sit at a table on stage for a few minutes (yes, actual minutes) just thinking while a live cellist plays for the crowd. After a few minutes you bolt up and start moving things around on stage. Once everything is in place you proceed to penetrate a mannequin with a ukulele while standing on one leg on a skateboard with thumbtacks all over the ground. The audience applauds wildly. 

You step down and accept their applause. Someone comes out and sweeps up the thumbtacks. "Thank you, ladies and gentleman. That means a lot to me. You know, I come from a magic family. My great-great-grandfather was Brooks the Magnificent. And while you might think for a lover of magic like me that would be a blessing, I have actually spent a long time living in his shadow. And Brooks the Magnificent casts a large shadow. My family did not encourage me to practice magic. We are pretty much estranged now. And before we were I was constantly being compared unfavorably to my great-great-grandfather. So to be able to come here and perform something like that -- an original miracle that has never been seen before -- well, that means the world to me.” You start putting the props back on the prop pile. "It's actually almost life-affirming, in a way. My great-great-grandfather was an incredible magician, but not a great man, and the ramifications of that are still being felt in my family today. So to be able to do something he could never dream of accomplishing means so much to me." As you're returning the items one of the poster frames that was leaning against the pile falls backwards on to the floor. For the first time you see the face of the poster.

"What the FUCK?!" you scream.

You hold up the poster to the audience. It's a handsomely painted old-time magic poster that reads, "Brooks the Magnificent presents 'The Amazing Ukulele thru Mannequin Penetration!'" With an old-timey guy in a tux balancing on one leg on a skateboard and penetrating a mannequin with a ukulele while some ghostly spirit looks on approvingly.

The performance ends with you running off stage and the sound of a gunshot behind the curtains.