How I Evolve My Magic

By Harapan Ong - Friday, May 13, 2022

When people meet me for the first time, a common question they often have is, "How do you come up with a trick?" And my answer to them is always the same: "How DARE you speak to me."

Just kidding.

My answer is always the same—there is no easy one-size-fits-all answer to that question. Every trick has its own backstory, and every trick is developed differently from each other. There are some tricks which have gone through multiple iterations (and continue to do so to this day), and then there are some tricks that have remained the same since its conception.

Some tricks, like Kaleidoscope Production in “Opticks”, were literally invented in 5 minutes when I suddenly woke up in the middle of the night at 3am, feeling inspired. However, some tricks have taken me years and years to gnaw over, sitting dormant in my mind until one fine day, a flash of inspiration hits me and it gets resolved within a matter of minutes.

I'd like to focus on one of those tricks in the latter category. To be specific, I'd like to highlight the evolution of one specific trick in “Opticks” called "Prospectus".

The Curious Case of Prospectus

While I love Prospectus. I predict that, out of the 26 card magic tricks featured in “Opticks”, Prospectus is one of those tricks that many magicians would skip over it or think nothing of. It's not particularly visual, it doesn't have a kicker ending, and it doesn’t require any truly cool new sleights. However, the main reason why I wish to highlight it today is because the evolution of this trick is very representative of how I myself have evolved as a magician and as a creator over the years.

Believe it or not, I first conceived Prospectus in 2007 when I was only a 17-year-old student in high school. I wasn't doing particularly well in school at that time, and magic was my way of feeling like I was good at something in life (typical teenage motivation to do anything, really). I remember exactly where I was when I came up with this idea. I was sitting outside the school auditorium, feeling rather sad after a horrible Physics test, and I was fiddling with a deck of cards to escape from reality.

At that time, I was interested in the idea of incorporating multiple outs in my card magic—not in a typical "prediction" type of effect, but instead, in a way to make my routines more interactive for my audiences. I wanted my audience to make choices during my tricks that would genuinely affect the outcome of the routine, which I felt would make the performer-audience interactions more authentic and "real".

So, sitting outside the auditorium, I came up with the bare-bones effect. I wanted to show a four-of-a-kind (let's say the four Queens), and set them down on the table. The spectator can genuinely name any Queen they wish, and then I would proceed to do a very clean effect with that named Queen.

The reason why I've chosen not to specify the nature of that "clean effect" is because, well, the effect changes based on which Queen they named. Sometimes, all the other Queens will transform into Aces except the named Queen. Sometimes, the spectator would place the four Queens into the middle of the deck, only for their named Queen to rise to the top of the deck.

As with any good multiple out routine, each possible ending is always "clean.” In the audience's eyes, there is no other possible out. When the named Queen is found on top of the deck, for example, the other three Queens are found to still be in the middle of the deck (without any funny moves by the magician). When the other Queens change into Aces, there are no extra Queens to hide.

Sounds good, right?

Well I could only come up with endings for only TWO of the four Queens. As hard as I tried, I could never figure out how to deal with the other two Queens. I worked on it for a bit longer, before the bell rang and I had to rush off for a lecture.

Playing the Long Game

Prospectus sat in my brain, dormant for the next decade or so. I would occasionally, during a jam with a trusted friend, bring up this idea to see if anyone had any solutions. But, nobody ever did. And, to be honest, after years of chewing on this tough bone of a problem, I started to wonder if the effect was even worth it.

However, after nearly 15 years–which saw the release of many other projects, including my bestselling card magic book Principia—the Prospectus problem was eventually solved. And it’s such an honor to finally debut it in “Opticks.” Along the way, I learned some golden lessons that I’d like to share with you.

Tips for Evolving Your Own Magic Tricks

1. Keep Searching for the Right Tools

The solution to the third Queen came to me when I learnt a new technique to secretly displace a card—Jack McMillen's Slip Slide Sleight from Steve Reynolds' booklet Route 52. I was so happy that I solved the problem of the third Queen that I showed it to Joshua Jay. Now, I don't think he would remember this, and to be honest, I myself don't quite remember the details as well. From what I recall, I had sent him a video clip of my updated version of Prospectus with the new move, and he basically replied and told me it just wasn't very good.

I was dejected, of course, but the moment I received that negative feedback about the trick, I suddenly and immediately thought of another move that could replace the Slip Slide Sleight, which was way more hidden and way easier to do as well. It's a relatively old move in my arsenal, but somehow it never occured to me to apply it to Prospectus until Josh told me my trick was bad.

I guess there are two lessons here: firstly, to be an effective creator, you need to be constantly expanding your toolbox of sleights. The more you have learnt, the more you are able to pull out the correct "tool" for the correct problem at a moment's notice. As the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail to you. Instead, if you have a well-stocked toolbox, then you are much more capable of finding the appropriate solution to any given problem. Learning new sleight of hand moves was what set me on the path to solving the third Queen problem, after all.

2. Don’t Let Negative Feedback Deter You

The second lesson would be that rejection is not always a bad thing. Getting negative feedback, I feel, is almost always more informative and helpful than just getting people telling you how great your tricks are. Sometimes, if you can get over the initial sting of someone saying your trick is bad, that negative feedback can actually spur you on to improve the trick until it is no longer "bad", such as in the case with Prospectus.

3. Expand your Horizons

The solution to the fourth Queen took even longer than the third Queen to develop. The breakthrough came when I was studying in the UK for my Physics degree, when my friend Marc Kerstein introduced me to Angelo Carbone at the Magic Circle, who is an absolute genius when it comes to inventing magic gimmicks. Angelo was just blowing me away with gimmicked trick after gimmicked trick which, for a sleight-of-hand purist like my past self, shook me to my very core.

It was then I realized that in my drive to only use sleight of hand in my magic, I had become myopic in my vision. To paraphrase a famous quote from Sir Isaac Newton himself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother sleight or a prettier flourish than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of gimmicks and gaffs lay all undiscovered before me.

From then on, I dove deep into playing with gimmicked card magic, an exploration which continues to today. As for Prospectus, I guess it's not surprising that it was during this interest in gaffed cards and gaffed decks that I finally discovered the elusive solution to the fourth Queen problem. I won't spoil which gaff I ended up using, nor will I explain how I used the gaff in question, but I felt confident enough about this solution that I chose to debut it Prospectus in “Opticks” (which comes with the necessary gaff card).

The lesson? Obviously, have an open mind! Magic tricks are always going to evolve with time, and sometimes they will evolve in ways you would never have expected, simply because you, as a creator, will evolve in ways you would never have expected.

Always be open to learning new methods, new tricks, and new plots from areas outside of your current comfort zone. Nowadays, I try to read magic books on coin magic or even mentalism to get that spark of inspiration for my card magic. The key is to never say no to learning or trying new things in magic, because every side road you choose to go into might just be the next big thing to inspire you for years to come.

So, by looking at how Prospectus evolved and developed over the past 15 years, I hope I have also given you an inkling of how I have developed myself as a magician, all while providing some lessons that are worth reminding yourself of from time to time. The truth is that every single one of the 26 tricks in “Opticks” is like one of my children that I've raised over time. I've proudly watched them grow into great pieces of magic, each of them with their own unique life that they've chosen to lead.

If you'd like to explore along with me, I hope you will check out my latest Vanishing Inc. project, “Opticks”. It is something I'm truly proud to share with you.

Get Your Copy of “Opticks”

Reader comments:


Friday, 13 May 2022 16:40 PM - Reply to this comment

If I could distill a takeaway from this, it is the need for continual learning. You cannot continue to grow in any field or endeavor unless you commit to continue to learn. That learning can go wide. The answer or inspiration that drives innovation can come from almost anywhere. You just never know what will trigger your brain to make that unexpected connection that results in a new idea.


Sunday, 15 May 2022 11:13 AM - Reply to this comment

Thanks! This justifies my thousands of dollars on book collection over 2 decades. Although I’m guilty of leaving many of them still in cellophane wrap with hopes of actual learning and practice.

For those of us who pursue this as a hobby, don’t let the information overload be counterproductive. Narrow in on teachers that you like and structure from there. There are so many great ideas and some just ooze ridiculous good ideas like a waterfall. But give yourself a strong foundation first by sticking to a teacher u like who gives u material u would use. Also remember that it’s different performing as a professional where u find new audiences than when for family. Most important don’t forget to have fun. Speaking as a prodigal student.

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