Clocks, Blocks & Clay


One of the things you notice when talking to other magicians is just how differently people can view the same trick. And the lens through which we see magic tricks affects what we do with them.

So here’s a way that I often look at tricks when considering what to buy, develop or perform.

Essentially, whenever I come across a trick, whether it’s a new release or an older routine, I ask myself whether it’s a ‘Clock’, ‘Block’, or ‘Clay’.

The terms relate to the degree in which you can alter the tricks. Think of it as your freedom of creative movement. To give a more of an idea what I mean, I’ll go through each term in turn:


Clocks are those tricks or routines (I’m using those terms interchangeably in this post) that are created like a precision-engineered Swiss watches. Every part is intricately connected to every other part, and if you try to change or remove any part, it’s like a tiny spring pings out and the whole thing stops working. It’s designed to do one thing well, and only one thing.

Examples of this would be The Bandana Trick, where everything from the plot, to the method, to the presentation, is fixed – the ultimate ‘karaoke magic’ trick. Another example would be a multi-phase gambling routine based around a unique stack, where one phase sets up the next.


Blocks are tricks that are modular. So you can chop and change different parts (or phases) as you wish and they’ll still work. Sure, some configurations of the modules may be better than others, but they’ll all function as tricks.

An Ambitious Card routine is a good example of this, as are many rope or ring-on-string routines.


Clay tricks are those which are almost infinitely adaptable. You can push, pull, tweak and twist them however you like.

Example of Clay tricks are less common in magic, but jazzing with a memorised deck could be considered Clay, or using a glimpse in mentalism, since you can reveal practically any information you can draw or write.

how they help

So what’s the point of these categories? Why bother? Well, here are two good reasons to start with:

  1. They make decisions easier
    If you want to avoid being generic, and put more of yourself in your magic, then avoiding Clocks is a good place to start. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the potential tricks you could do, so filtering them down by only considering Blocks and Clay will help you to focus.

    There are some great marketed tricks which I haven’t bought, purely because they are Clocks, and so there’s no way for me to change the props to tailor it to myself.

  2. They make creating easier
    Creating new magic can be challenging, so why make it harder than it needs to be? If you’re struggling to adapt a trick, it’s often because its structure is quite rigid – it’s a Clock. Whereas if you choose to work with tricks that are more open to changing, it puts the odds forever in your favour (like The Hunger Games, but without all that messy murder).

When is a clock not a clock?

When it’s ajar (no wait, wrong joke). These categories aren’t discrete boxes, they’re more of a sliding scale. And they aren’t always set in stone. When you’re considering tricks, see if you can find ways to push them along the scale towards being more adaptable.

For example, the linking rings is often treated like a Clock, with everyone doing minor variations of the same moves, in the same order. But as Morgan & West show in their splendid book Parlour Tricks, even a trick as old as the linking rings can be altered, it just takes a bit more thought.

The same goes for marketed routines. In any routine with printed props, see if you can get (or make) a version with blank props. For example, with John Archer’s Blank Night, the envelopes come blank so you can write anything you like on them, rather than just duplicating his routine.

I’d love it if more magic producers made Blocks and Clay the rule rather than the exception. It would be a simple way for them to encourage more originality in magic.

Even if a ‘blank’ version of a trick isn’t available, you can often take routines and, once you understand their workings, recreate them in your own style.


Now it’s over to you. Go through your existing repertoire and quickly categorise each routine.

What’s the ratio of Clocks, Blocks and Clay? Then see which you can tweak to make more adaptable. Or which you can swap out for something more Clock-like. You’ll end up with a lot more potential for personalised magic.

I’d love to hear how you get on. What are you adapting or swapping? Which tricks have you seen in a new light? What are some lesser known Clocks? Do let me know at wideopenmagic [at] gmail [dot] com