PostgreSQL has had proper json support for a while now. The unique extensibility approach of the PostgreSQL system allows it to enable native SQL friendly JSON processing.

In this article we’ll play with the Magic: the Gathering card data in JSON format data set, provided with a CC0 licence, and process the information provided. We also see how to normalize a JSON document into a proper database model that benefits from some PostgreSQL advanced features, and how to then inject the JSON documents into the normalized database schema. Finally, we compare some non-trivial processing done against both versions of the database schema.

Loading the data set

First retrieve AllSets.json and then load it into your local testing PostgreSQL instance as following:

create schema if not exists magic;
create table magic.allsets(data jsonb);

For loading the 27MB single json document in PostgreSQL, we can’t directly use COPY this time, so we’ll write some Python code:

#! /usr/bin/env python3

import psycopg2

PGCONNSTRING = "dbname=magic"

if __name__ == '__main__':
    pgconn = psycopg2.connect(PGCONNSTRING)
    curs = pgconn.cursor()

    allset = open('AllSets.json').read()
    allset = allset.replace("'", "''")
    sql = "insert into magic.allsets(data) values('%s')" % allset


Let’s be fair though, a single json document isn’t exactly a good example to show the PostgreSQL capabilities when it comes to handling this data type. Also, I doubt your application would do that, even when using MongoDB. I guess a collection of cards would be better, so let’s transform our giant JSON document into such a collection:

create table
      select jsonb_array_elements(value->'cards') as data
        from magic.allsets, jsonb_each(data);
create index on using gin(data jsonb_path_ops);

On the old laptop I’m using for typing this blog post and playing with PostgreSQL, extracting the Magic™ cards from the single document into 34207 entries in the table took 603.524 ms, and creating a dedicated gin index took 3121.274 ms. Of course those numbers aren’t repeatable and mean nothing…

Finding cards

The home page of the website features the card named Sen Triplets, how can we find it in our collection? The following query is one way to do implement the search:

select jsonb_pretty(data)
 where data @> '{"name" : "Sen Triplets"}';

You might have noticed that we created a gin index using the jsonb_path_ops operator class, which supports only the @> operator (it reads contains). This index is meant to speed up queries where we search a json object inside our json documents. The query plan shows the index is actually being used:

                                  QUERY PLAN                                   
 Bitmap Heap Scan on cards  (cost=16.27..141.81 rows=34 width=32)
   Recheck Cond: (data @> '{"name": "Sen Triplets"}'::jsonb)
   ->  Bitmap Index Scan on cards_data_idx  (cost=0.00..16.26 rows=34 width=0)
         Index Cond: (data @> '{"name": "Sen Triplets"}'::jsonb)
(4 rows)

Now, for the result, it would be better if I were to show it as a JSON document here, rather than as a psql result set of one line. Save the query to a sen-triplets.sql file, then run the following command:

psql --no-psqlrc -At -f sen-triplets.sql -d <connection string>

And here’s our JSON object:

    "id": "3129aee7f26a4282ce131db7d417b1bc3338c4d4",
    "cmc": 5,
    "name": "Sen Triplets",
    "text": "At the beginning of your upkeep, choose target opponent. This turn, that player can't cast spells or activate abilities and plays with his or her hand revealed. You may play cards from that player's hand this turn.",
    "type": "Legendary Artifact Creature — Human Wizard",
    "power": "3",
    "types": [
    "artist": "Greg Staples",
    "colors": [
    "flavor": "They are the masters of your mind.",
    "layout": "normal",
    "number": "109",
    "rarity": "Mythic Rare",
    "manaCost": "{2}{W}{U}{B}",
    "subtypes": [
    "imageName": "sen triplets",
    "mciNumber": "109",
    "toughness": "3",
    "supertypes": [
    "multiverseid": 180607,
    "colorIdentity": [

Now this Mana Cost expression does seem quite complex, and I guess it’s pretty rare to find it. Let’s figure that out:

select count(*)
 where data @> '{"manaCost": "{2}{W}{U}{B}"}';

Only 3 cards in our complete collection do match such a Mana Cost.

In order to show other ways to query our collection and benefit from the index, we could count how many cards are found with the 3 colors ["White", "Blue", "Black"] as this one. The contains operator (spelled @>) when given a json array searches for arrays that intersect with the search query. It means that it finds arrays with more elements than those in the search query, as seen in the following example:

  select data->'colors' as colors,
   where data @> '{"colors": ["White","Blue","Black"]}'
group by grouping sets(data->'colors', ())
order by count desc;

Note we used a grouping sets expression that returns both the total count and the count per specific array of colors:

                   colors                   │ count 
 ¤                                          │    98
 ["White", "Blue", "Black"]                 │    57
 ["White", "Blue", "Black", "Red", "Green"] │    37
 ["White", "Blue", "Black", "Green"]        │     2
 ["White", "Blue", "Black", "Red"]          │     2
(5 rows)

Cards sets

When creating our table, we didn’t keep the sets information, and for more interesting queries we’re going to need that.


create table magic.sets
select key as name, value - 'cards' as data
  from magic.allsets, jsonb_each(data);
drop table;

create table
  with collection as
     select key as set,
            value->'cards' as data
       from magic.allsets,
            lateral jsonb_each(data)
  select set, jsonb_array_elements(data) as data
    from collection;


The expression value - ‘cards’ allow to remove the cards key from the JSON object. In our case this allows to register only the collection parts of the object, and leave away the cards for the other table.

Build a Magic™ booster deck

With this data we can see about building a booster from any edition of the cards collection. First, let’s have a look at the Limited Edition Alpha edtition:

with booster as
    select name,
           ) as rarity,
      from magic.sets
     where name = 'LEA'
  group by name, rarity
   select rarity, booster.count, count(*)
     from booster
          left join
            on cards.set =
           and>>'rarity' = booster.rarity
  group by rarity, count
  order by rarity <> 'Uncommon', rarity <> 'Common';

This query shows several interesting techniques:

  • we have to normalize the data embedded into the json data field so that we can use them in our join operation: the sets contain a booster field with is an array of card rarity to form the booster, but all lower case when the “rarity” key in the cards are capitalized, that’s why we use initcap in the query,

  • the left join operation is done against data extracted on the fly from the cards, here we have no indexing support for that but the data set being very small (34207 different cards) that’s no problem,

  • finally we abuse the knowledge that false sorts arbitrarily before true in PostgreSQL to build a custom order by rule, we want to see Uncommon then Common and then only Rare.

And here’s the result set:

  rarity  │ count │ count 
 Uncommon │     3 │    95
 Common   │    11 │    74
 Rare     │     1 │   116
(3 rows)

So, to build a magic deck from the LEA set we need to pick 3 uncommon cards among 95 available, then 11 common cards among the 74 available and finally 1 rare in the 116 rare cards from the collection.

\set collection 'LEA'

with booster as
    select name,
           ) as rarity,
      from magic.sets
     where name = :'collection'
  group by name, rarity
   select>>'rarity' as rarity,
>>'name' as name,
>>'manaCost' as manacost,
>>'type' as type
     from booster
          left join lateral
            select data
             where cards.set =
               and>>'rarity' = booster.rarity
          order by random()
             limit booster.count
          as cards
          on true
  order by>>'rarity' <> 'Uncommon',
 >>'rarity' <> 'Common';

The left join lateral allows to inject directly how many rows we need in the subquery limit clause. We use the order by random() trick here to get our cards. It’s ok because we know that a booster doesn’t contain that many items, and as said before, even this laptop where the article is typed has no problem dealing with 34207 rows. Should you need to pick a random() number of items in a bigger list of choice, read Selecting random rows from a table by The Rhodium Toad, PostgreSQL committer.

And here’s such a booster pack:

  rarity  │             name             │ manaCost │           type           
 Uncommon │ White Ward                   │ {W}      │ Enchantment — Aura
 Uncommon │ Berserk                      │ {G}      │ Instant
 Uncommon │ Bog Wraith                   │ {3}{B}   │ Creature — Wraith
 Common   │ Ironclaw Orcs                │ {1}{R}   │ Creature — Orc
 Common   │ False Orders                 │ {R}      │ Instant
 Common   │ Twiddle                      │ {U}      │ Instant
 Common   │ Red Elemental Blast          │ {R}      │ Instant
 Common   │ Samite Healer                │ {1}{W}   │ Creature — Human Cleric
 Common   │ Shanodin Dryads              │ {G}      │ Creature — Nymph Dryad
 Common   │ Weakness                     │ {B}      │ Enchantment — Aura
 Common   │ Wall of Wood                 │ {G}      │ Creature — Wall
 Common   │ Llanowar Elves               │ {G}      │ Creature — Elf Druid
 Common   │ Benalish Hero                │ {W}      │ Creature — Human Soldier
 Common   │ Merfolk of the Pearl Trident │ {U}      │ Creature — Merfolk
 Rare     │ Contract from Below          │ {B}      │ Sorcery
(15 rows)

When consuming the data in JSON in your application, you might want to return directly, which is a json document, rather than extracting some of the fields only like we’ve done here.

Magic™ card type, type of card and subtype

From the MTGjson documentation we have different kind of types for a single card:

  • type

    The card type. This is the type you would see on the card if printed today.

  • types

    The types of the card. These appear to the left of the dash in a card type. Example values: Instant, Sorcery, Artifact, Creature, Enchantment, Land, Planeswalker

  • supertypes

    The supertypes of the card. These appear to the far left of the card type. Example values: Basic, Legendary, Snow, World, Ongoing.

  • subtypes

    The subtypes of the card. These appear to the right of the dash in a card type. Usually each word is its own subtype. Example values: Trap, Arcane, Equipment, Aura, Human, Rat, Squirrel, etc.

Of course those are repeated a lot in every card instance, as we can see with the following queries:

  select data->>'type' as type, count(*)
group by type
order by count desc
   limit 3;
    type     │ count 
 Instant     │  4052
 Sorcery     │  3805
 Enchantment │  2020
(3 rows)
  select jsonb_array_elements_text(data->'subtypes') as subtypes, count(*)
group by subtypes
order by count desc
   limit 3;
 subtypes │ count 
 Human    │  3192
 Aura     │  1669
 Wizard   │  1013
(3 rows)
  select jsonb_array_elements_text(data->'types') as types, count(*)
group by types
order by 2 desc
   limit 3;
    types    │ count 
 Creature    │ 15827
 Instant     │  4201
 Enchantment │  3875
(3 rows)

We had a repetition problem with the rarity already, now with the three different kinds of types a card might have, and then there’s also the artist. It’s going to be quite hard to maintain that data set, so… I can’t resist.

First, to check some basic guarantees, second, to normalize the data.

Constraints and data quality

The data being available in JSON and easy enough to process could be all we need. Sometimes your application or business rules require data quality, and Relational Data Base Management Systems provide that with the help of constraints. As a user, it means quite some work has to be done to declare the kind of data quality we want.

The MTGjson documentation tells us that the cards id field is

A unique id for this card. It is made up by doing an SHA1 hash of setCode + cardName + cardImageName

There’s no constraint to guarantee that the id is actually unique, in the JSON file. Let’s have a look. Here’s a classic query to find duplicates, and we expect no result:

  select data->>'id' as id, count(*)
group by id
  having count(*)>1;

Oh. Oopsie:

                    id                    │ count 
 2ba1628b4169e33a4a6773124bec72fadfb6c983 │     2
 34bbf9e14b771f9eb4c4c2970ed54b8ff836118a │     2
(2 rows)

Details? Sure:

select ctid,
       data->>'name' as name,
       data->>'mciNumber' as mci_number,
       data->>'multiverseid' as multiverseid,
 where data @> '{"id":"2ba1628b4169e33a4a6773124bec72fadfb6c983"}'
    or data @> '{"id":"34bbf9e14b771f9eb4c4c2970ed54b8ff836118a"}';

So, real duplicates it seems:

  ctid   │         name          │ mci_number │ multiverseid │               md5                
 (493,7) │ Jaraku the Interloper │ 31b        │ 74489        │ 81afc561a6055eac8d2b59be00b63946
 (493,8) │ Jaraku the Interloper │ 31b        │ 74489        │ 81afc561a6055eac8d2b59be00b63946
 (497,6) │ Scarmaker             │ 69b        │ 74476        │ 975c9860656b05e81d7e46d6af17c507
 (497,7) │ Scarmaker             │ 69b        │ 74476        │ 975c9860656b05e81d7e46d6af17c507
(4 rows)

Now, to clean up the mess, we need a way to distinguish two rows that are entirely the same. No user column differ. Mmm.

Deleting duplicate rows

The ctid is one of the PostgreSQL System Columns. It is accessible to us users, and to use with care. From the docs:

The physical location of the row version within its table. Note that although the ctid can be used to locate the row version very quickly, a row’s ctid will change if it is updated or moved by VACUUM FULL. Therefore ctid is useless as a long-term row identifier. The OID, or even better a user-defined serial number, should be used to identify logical rows.

So we can actually clean up this mess:


 where data->>'id' = '2ba1628b4169e33a4a6773124bec72fadfb6c983'
   and ctid = '(493,8)';

 where data->>'id' = '34bbf9e14b771f9eb4c4c2970ed54b8ff836118a'
   and ctid = '(497,7)';


You can see in the delete statements above that we use both the system column ctid and a user column, here data->>‘id’. This allows to delete nothing should concurrent activity move the data around on disk. You never know.

If you like this kind of dive into SQL content, where every SQL query is presented in a context, and with a real data set that you can download and play with at home, then you will love my new book: Mastering PostgreSQL in Application Development.

Cards and Sets Rarities

As we’ve seen in a previous section of this document, cards and set’s boosters rarities are oddly different. Let’s have a closer look now. For the cards, it’s quite simple as each card has a simple rarity key:

  select data->>'rarity' as rarity, count(*)
group by rarity
order by count desc;

It’s interesting to count the cards by rarity classification, because that’s how it supposed to be classified. We expect Rare cards have a lesser count than Common ones, and that’s what we have:

   rarity    │ count 
 Common      │ 11297
 Uncommon    │  9618
 Rare        │  8711
 Basic Land  │  1854
 Special     │  1704
 Mythic Rare │  1021
(6 rows)

Now, the sets objects have a booster key, which has its own full blown documentation paragraph at the MTGjson documentation page. Quoting from it:

The ‘booster’ key is present for each set that has physical boosters (so not present for box sets, duel decks, digital masters editions, etc.). It is an array containing one item per card in the booster. Thus the array length is how many cards are in a booster. Each item in the array is either a string representing the type of booster card or an array of strings representing possible types for that booster card.

Here’s how to extract all the different possible values from the boosters, and it’s more complex than we would like it to:

  select case jsonb_typeof(booster)
              when 'array'
              then initcap(jsonb_array_elements_text(booster))
              else initcap(booster #>> '{}')
         as rarity,
    from magic.sets,
         jsonb_array_elements(data->'booster') booster
group by rarity
order by count desc;

This query won’t run in PostgreSQL 10, to get the fixed version and know why, and understand how to fix it, please read Set Returning Fonctions and PostgreSQL 10.

As the booster key is associated with an array value, we unnest the array with jsonb_array_elements again. As each element of the array might be either another array or a text, we can’t use jsonb_array_elements_text this time. We have to unnest nested array elements or to extrat the text from a single json text value.

To extract the single json text value as a PostgreSQL text, without the extra json double-quoting, we use the #>> operator, that reads extract text at path. And the json path for a single text element is {}.

On the result set, we have the following list of entries this time:

          rarity          │ count 
 Common                   │  1138
 Uncommon                 │   331
 Rare                     │   110
 Land                     │    50
 Mythic Rare              │    44
 Marketing                │    43
 Timeshifted Common       │    14
 Checklist                │     5
 Foil Mythic Rare         │     4
 Foil Rare                │     4
 Foil Common              │     4
 Foil Uncommon            │     4
 Timeshifted Uncommon     │     4
 Double Faced Uncommon    │     2
 Draft-Matters            │     2
 Double Faced Rare        │     2
 Timeshifted Rare         │     2
 Timeshifted Purple       │     2
 Double Faced Mythic Rare │     2
 Double Faced Common      │     2
 Foil                     │     1
 Urza Land                │     1
 Power Nine               │     1
 Double Faced             │     1
(24 rows)

The first thing we notice is that our cards collection only has 6 different rarities and the boosters contain 24 different ones. It’s going to be complex to build some of those boosters…

Other than that, we want to generalize the rules to build a booster. Those alternative choices — represented as an array in the JSON format — might be a good representation for every entry in the booster so as to unify the processing of the field. Matching an element against and array is easy to implement in SQL thanks to both the Row and Array Comparisons and the array contains item operator, spelled @>.

PostgreSQL has support for arrays, and support for enumerated types. It should be no surprise that PostgreSQL covers arrays of enums too. So our choice for representing a booster pack is going to be able to use an array of rarity_t elements:

create type rarity_t as enum
  'Common', 'Uncommon', 'Rare', 'Land', 'Mythic Rare',
  'Marketing', 'Timeshifted Common', 'Checklist',
  'Foil Mythic Rare', 'Foil Rare', 'Foil Common', 'Foil Uncommon',
  'Timeshifted Uncommon', 'Double Faced Uncommon',
  'Draft-Matters', 'Double Faced Rare',
  'Timeshifted Rare', 'Timeshifted Purple',
  'Double Faced Mythic Rare', 'Double Faced Common',
  'Foil', 'Urza Land', 'Power Nine', 'Double Faced',
  'Basic Land', 'Special'

With that data type, we now are able to build arrays of rarity_t elements, and check if a card’s rarity value is contained into such as array.

Normalizing the data set

PostgreSQL is very good at mixing SQL and JSON, as we’ve seen in the previous query, thanks to advanced processing functions such as jsonb_array_elements_text and operators such as ->, ->> and @>.

That said, minor inconsistencies such as the rarity information being spelled in different ways in different contexts is a problem. Duplicate entries is an ever greater concern.

There’s no way for PostgreSQL to guarantee any data quality when all it knows about are opaque json documents. We won’t host a lecture of the Normal Forms benefits here, but we can still see how to turn our JSON documents into a proper relational model.


PostgreSQL makes the translation from the JSON document to a proper schema quite easy, as we are going to see now. First, the sets.

create type border_t as enum
  'black', 'white', 'silver'
create table settype
   settypeid  serial primary key,
   name       text,

create table set
   setid     serial primary key,
   mkmid     integer,
   name      text,
   code      text,
   info_code text,
   release   date,
   border    border_t,
   settypeid integer not null references settype(settypeid)
create table booster
   setid      integer not null references set(setid),
   num        integer,
   rarity     rarity_t[],
   primary key(setid, num)

We made some trade-offs here, and didn’t follow the Normal Forms rules to the letter. The booster is now a proper reference table with as many entries as cards, each having a “number”, as in card number 1 is a “Mythic Rare” and card number 2 is an “Uncommon”. Each entry of the booster table associates a set with a rarity array containing alternative choices for this card of the booster. When there’s no alternative, we will have there an array of a single value.

We also chose to create an enumerated data type for the border rather than a reference table. Well since its creation about 25 years ago, only 3 border types have been produced. I think using an enum here is a good trade-off.


Now about the cards themselves:

create type color_t as enum
  'Black', 'Blue', 'Green', 'Red', 'White'

create table artist
   artistid serial primary key,
   name     text,

create table layout
  layoutid  serial primary key,
  layout    text,

create table cardtype
  cardtypeid   serial primary key,
  cardtype     text,
create table subtype
  subtypeid serial primary key,
  subtype   text,


create table type
  typeid serial primary key,
  type   text,


create table card
  id           text primary key,
  setid        integer not null references set(setid),
  name         text,
  flavor       text,
  description  text,
  image_name   text,
  layoutid     integer not null references layout(layoutid),
  artistid     integer not null references artist(artistid),
  cardtypeid   integer not null references cardtype(cardtypeid),
  types        integer[],
  subtypes     integer[],
  colors       color_t[],
  color_id     color_t[],
  rarity       rarity_t,
  mci          text,
  multiverseid integer,
  number       text,
  cmc          numeric,
  power        text,
  toughness    text,
  manacost     jsonb,
  extra        jsonb

This isn’t a fully normalized schema. Rather than going to full distance and having association tables between a color reference table and the card table, we chose to declare the color as an enumerate data type. That’s because we know that the Magic™ game is defined by those 5 colors. No data maintenance with new colors is to be expected.

New cards layouts and types have been known to appear in some special editions, packs, or collections. So we need to have an easy way to manage them, each in their own reference table.

Still, rather than having a proper association table for this many to many relationship, we use a PostgreSQL array: once a card is edited, its properties have zero maintenance needs. Also, PostgreSQL makes it easy to index and search into arrays.

The only problem with those arrays is that we can’t implement a foreign key to the reference tables type and subtype.

Dispatching JSON data into normalized tables

Now that we have a table schema that should make our work easier, how do we populate it? Well, in SQL of course!


It begins with the sets and their type:

insert into settype(name)
     select distinct(data->>'type')
       from magic.sets;

And we have our 17 types of sets registered. On to the sets themselves:

insert into set(mkmid, name, code, info_code,
                release, border, settypeid)
     select (data->>'mkm_id')::int,
       from magic.sets
            join settype
              on>>'type' =;

As you can see the PostgreSQL json operator ->> extract the data as text and we need to convert those text entries to their target data types at times. It’s easy to do, and ensures we know what we’re dealing with.

And now we have a clean data set for the sets:

select setid, mkmid,, code, release,
  from set
       join settype using(settypeid)
 limit 10;
 setid │ mkmid │         name          │ code │  release   │   name    
     1 │    74 │ Tenth Edition         │ 10E  │ 2007-07-13 │ core
     2 │     3 │ Unlimited Edition     │ 2ED  │ 1993-12-01 │ core
     3 │     6 │ Revised Edition       │ 3ED  │ 1994-04-01 │ core
     4 │    10 │ Fourth Edition        │ 4ED  │ 1995-04-01 │ core
     5 │    47 │ Fifth Dawn            │ 5DN  │ 2004-06-04 │ expansion
     6 │    23 │ Fifth Edition         │ 5ED  │ 1997-03-24 │ core
     7 │    29 │ Classic Sixth Edition │ 6ED  │ 1999-04-21 │ core
     8 │    37 │ Seventh Edition       │ 7ED  │ 2001-04-11 │ core
     9 │    44 │ Eighth Edition        │ 8ED  │ 2003-07-28 │ core
    10 │    49 │ Ninth Edition         │ 9ED  │ 2005-07-29 │ core
(10 rows)


Our set table is missing the booster information, which is now handled separately. It is now time for us to handle it.

insert into booster(setid, num, rarity)
     select setid,
            row_number() over(partition by setid) as num,
            case jsonb_typeof(booster)
                 when 'array'
                 then (
                       select array_agg(initcap(rarity)::rarity_t)
                         from jsonb_array_elements_text(booster) as rarity
                 else array[initcap(booster #>> '{}')::rarity_t]
            as rarity
       from magic.sets
            join set on set.code =,
            lateral jsonb_array_elements(data->'booster') booster
   order by setid;

In this query, we process the booster array elements in the same way as before, depending on if they are an array again (and then fetch each array element as text, capitalize this text using the initcap function and casting the result as a rarity_t enum value) or a scalar text value, in which case we build an array containing a single element, the extracted text value as a rarity_t enum value.

We use a lateral join in the query in order to unnest the data->‘booster’ entry for each set found. In the output of the query, we also use the window function row_number() over peers as defined by the expression partition by setid so as to associate to each element of the array its index position, and keep that in our booster target table.

Keeping the array index position should allow us to display booster configurations and randomly generated booster instances in the right order.

We may have a look at one particular booster definition, the first one ever:

select mkmid, release,,
       booster.num, booster.rarity
  from booster
       join set using(setid)
 where set.code = 'LEA';

And here’s what the booster for the Limiter Edition Alpha looks like in our setup:

 mkmid │  release   │         name          │ num │   rarity   
     1 │ 1993-08-05 │ Limited Edition Alpha │   1 │ {Rare}
     1 │ 1993-08-05 │ Limited Edition Alpha │   2 │ {Uncommon}
     1 │ 1993-08-05 │ Limited Edition Alpha │   3 │ {Uncommon}
     1 │ 1993-08-05 │ Limited Edition Alpha │   4 │ {Uncommon}
     1 │ 1993-08-05 │ Limited Edition Alpha │   5 │ {Common}
     1 │ 1993-08-05 │ Limited Edition Alpha │   6 │ {Common}
     1 │ 1993-08-05 │ Limited Edition Alpha │   7 │ {Common}
     1 │ 1993-08-05 │ Limited Edition Alpha │   8 │ {Common}
     1 │ 1993-08-05 │ Limited Edition Alpha │   9 │ {Common}
     1 │ 1993-08-05 │ Limited Edition Alpha │  10 │ {Common}
     1 │ 1993-08-05 │ Limited Edition Alpha │  11 │ {Common}
     1 │ 1993-08-05 │ Limited Edition Alpha │  12 │ {Common}
     1 │ 1993-08-05 │ Limited Edition Alpha │  13 │ {Common}
     1 │ 1993-08-05 │ Limited Edition Alpha │  14 │ {Common}
     1 │ 1993-08-05 │ Limited Edition Alpha │  15 │ {Common}
(15 rows)

Now that we have the booster information properly organized, we can get more information about them. Not every set type has a booster attached, and we have boosters with different number of cards in them. Is there something to learn about that?

with stats as
      select as type,
             count(booster.num) as cards
        from set
             join settype using(settypeid)
             left join booster using(setid)
    group by setid,
      having count(booster.num) > 0
  select type, cards, count(*)
    from stats
group by type, cards
order by type, cards desc;

In this very classic SQL query we see a couple for join operations and the use of the having clause to select only those groups with at least a card in their attached booster, as in the expression count(booster.num) > 0. That’s because the left join will still produce an entry when there’s no booster associated, and the entry will be NULL.

The query is written in two steps, the first one gets how many cards is found in each booster associated with every Magic™ set we know about, and the second step then groups those settype, count of cards together and count their occurences:

    type    │ cards │ count 
 conspiracy │    16 │     2
 core       │    16 │     8
 core       │    15 │    10
 expansion  │    16 │    33
 expansion  │    15 │    37
 expansion  │    12 │     1
 expansion  │     8 │     5
 masters    │    15 │     5
 reprint    │    15 │     5
 reprint    │    12 │     1
 starter    │    15 │     3
 starter    │    10 │     1
 un         │    15 │     1
 un         │    10 │     1
(14 rows)

Without knowing more about the game itself, it’s kind of hard to conclude anything from this dataset, other than saying that only 7 of the 17 different set types have a booster. How many cards per booster seems to be quite random from those numbers.

Exercise left to the reader, try to find other parameters that influence how many cards are found in each booster. You might begin with the sets release dates, for example.

This is a pretty good exercise into Exploring a Data Set in SQL as we saw here in a recent article.


On to the artists, with a easy query:

insert into artist(name)
     select distinct(data->>'artist')

And we have 663 different artists. Now, the layouts:

insert into layout(layout)
     select distinct(data->>'layout')

And we have only 12 different layouts used in our cards collection. Now, the rarity:

insert into rarity(rarity)
     select distinct(data->>'rarity')

And we have only 6 different rarities in all our cards collection. Only 6. For 34207 cards. That’s a lot of repetition in there. Now, the card types:

insert into cardtype(cardtype)
     select distinct(data->>'type')

And we have 1541 card types to work with. What about the types and subtypes, which are JSON arrays this time? It might be more complex… but thanks to PostgreSQL advanced support for JSON in SQL, not that much:

insert into subtype(subtype)
     select distinct(jsonb_array_elements_text(data->'subtypes'))

And we have now 349 subtypes registered. The types are going to have about the same level of complexity of course:

insert into type(type)
     select distinct(jsonb_array_elements_text(data->'types'))

And that’s 20 types for our 34207 cards. We’re left with the main table now:

insert into card(id, setid, name, flavor, description, image_name,
                 layoutid, artistid, cardtypeid,
                 types, subtypes, colors, color_id,
                 rarity, mci, multiverseid, number,
                 cmc, power, toughness, manacost, extra)
     select data->>'id',
             select array_agg(typeid order by typeid)
               from type
              where data->'types' @> format('["%s"]', type)::jsonb
             select array_agg(subtypeid order by subtypeid)
               from subtype
              where data->'subtypes' @> format('["%s"]', subtype)::jsonb
             select array_agg(color::color_t order by color::color_t)
               from jsonb_array_elements_text(data->'colors') as color
             select array_agg(case when color = 'B' then 'Black'::color_t
                                   when color = 'U' then 'Blue'::color_t
                                   when color = 'G' then 'Green'::color_t
                                   when color = 'R' then 'Red'::color_t
                                   when color = 'W' then 'White'::color_t
               from jsonb_array_elements_text(data->'colorIdentity') as color

            data - 'id' - 'name' - 'flavor' - 'text' - 'imageName'
                 - 'layout' - 'artist' - 'type' - 'rarity'
                 - 'types' - 'subtypes' - 'colors' - 'colorIdentity'
                 - 'mciNumber' - 'multiverseid' - 'number'
                 - 'cmc' - 'power' - 'toughness' - 'manaCost'
            join set on set.code = cards.set
            join layout on layout.layout =>>'layout'
            join artist on =>>'artist'
            join cardtype on cardtype =>>'type';

And our 34205 cards are now loaded into a normalized (enough) schema, with some guarantees.

It might be interesting to note that the cumulated size of the normalized tables is 17 MB while the table fits into 23 MB. To be honest, the magic.allset single document entry table with all the cards in there is only 8632 kB, which is quite impressive.

As another interesting point, you can see that we didn’t normalize all the JSON document fields into our card table. That’s because most of the extra fields are only set for some cards, so I didn’t want to spend too much time on them. It’s easy to check how many are set, and we find 8055 rows where extra <> '{}'::jsonb, an empty value.

You might have spotted that several number fields are left as text, that’s because they may contain non numeric entries. We find cards with the mciNumber “128a”, or with a power of “2+*”.

As I really can’t resists those nice bar-diagram-in-the-console tricks, here’s the repartition of cards by their types:

  select type, count(*),
         repeat('■', (   100.0 
                       * count(*)
                       / sum(count(*)) over ()
               ) as pct
    from type
         left join card
                on card.types @> array[typeid]
group by type
order by type;

The query shows how to join the type and the card table when a single card references several types from a single column, an array of types. We do that with the PostgreSQL array operator @> that reads contains and works against an array on each side. And here’s the console bar diagram:

     type     │ count │                      pct                      
 Artifact     │  3429 │ ■■■■■■■■■■
 Conspiracy   │    25 │ 
 Creature     │ 15825 │ ■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■
 Eaturecray   │     1 │ 
 Enchant      │     7 │ 
 Enchantment  │  3875 │ ■■■■■■■■■■■
 Ever         │     1 │ 
 Instant      │  4201 │ ■■■■■■■■■■■■
 Land         │  3549 │ ■■■■■■■■■■
 Phenomenon   │    16 │ 
 Plane        │   152 │ 
 Planeswalker │   183 │ ■
 Player       │     2 │ 
 Scariest     │     1 │ 
 Scheme       │    65 │ 
 See          │     1 │ 
 Sorcery      │  3868 │ ■■■■■■■■■■■
 Tribal       │    83 │ 
 Vanguard     │   116 │ 
 You'll       │     1 │ 
(20 rows)

The “You’ll” type reads quite strange, almost like a bug. So let’s try and see where this comes from, by querying the original data set, before normalization:

select data->>'name' as name, data->>'types' as types
 where data->'types' @> '["You''ll"]';

And here’s what we get:

─[ RECORD 1 ]────────────────────────────────────────────
name  │ B.F.M. (Big Furry Monster)
types │ ["Scariest", "Creature", "You'll", "Ever", "See"]

Well, it might be that people encoding the JSON data set had good reasons to turn that sentence into card types, or it might be a bug.

  select, count(distinct
    from card
         join type
           on type.typeid = any (card.types)
          and type.type = any('{"Scariest", "You''ll", "Ever", "See"}'::text[])
group by;

In this query we search for all the cards that have one of the words as a type, with card.types being an array of type.typeid integers. And of course we omit the Creature word from the sentence, as we know that’s a pretty common card type to find around. And here we go:

            name            │ count 
 B.F.M. (Big Furry Monster) │     1
(1 row)

Looks like a bug in the JSON encoding to me.

Building a Magic™ booster against a normalized schema

For comparing purposes, let’s place the previous query against the JSON encoded data set first:

\set collection 'LEA'

with booster as
    select name,
           ) as rarity,
      from magic.sets
     where name = :'collection'
  group by name, rarity
   select>>'rarity' as rarity,
>>'name' as name,
>>'manaCost' as manacost,
>>'type' as type
     from booster
          left join lateral
            select data
             where cards.set =
               and>>'rarity' = booster.rarity
          order by random()
             limit booster.count
          as cards
          on true
  order by>>'rarity' <> 'Uncommon',
 >>'rarity' <> 'Common';

To build a booster for a given Magic™ set, we have to randomly select a card of the right rarity for each one of the booster’s slots. Remember that each booster slot is an array of rarity alternative choices, so a card of any of those rarity levels may be choosen for that slot entry.

Our task is now to rewrite the same sentence, only in SQL:

select booster.num,
  from booster
       join set using(setid)
       left join lateral
         select, card.rarity, cardtype.cardtype
           from card
                join cardtype using(cardtypeid)
          where setid = booster.setid
            and card.rarity = any(booster.rarity)
       order by random()
          limit 1
       as card
       on true
 where set.code = :'collection';

Compare to the query used before we normalized the data set, which had to unnest the booster definition in a first CTE with the jsonb_array_elements_text function, and also to capitalize the obtained rarity to be able to compare it to the data->>rarity of all the cards…

This previous query also had to aggregate the count of each rarity asked for in the booster so as to then use a limit booster.count in the lateral subquery in order to fetch the right amount of cards.

In the “normalized enough” version of the query, we still have a left join lateral dance with an order by random() limit 1 which allows to randomly fetch a single card per open slot in the booster definition, and we retain a booster card entry position.

Also this time we spell the array contains element operation differently. We could have used the @> operator support for PostgreSQL arrays, as in booster.rarity @> array[card.rarity], but chose to use the = any operator instead, as in card.rarity = any(booster.rarity).

And here’s an instance of such a booster:

 num │   rarity   │        name         │  rarity  │          cardtype          
   1 │ {Rare}     │ Defiant Bloodlord   │ Rare     │ Creature — Vampire
   2 │ {Uncommon} │ Castle              │ Uncommon │ Enchantment
   3 │ {Uncommon} │ Wall of Omens       │ Uncommon │ Creature — Wall
   4 │ {Uncommon} │ Leeching Licid      │ Uncommon │ Creature — Licid
   5 │ {Common}   │ Dizzy Spell         │ Common   │ Instant
   6 │ {Common}   │ Fertilid            │ Common   │ Creature — Elemental
   7 │ {Common}   │ Sibsig Host         │ Common   │ Creature — Zombie
   8 │ {Common}   │ Shock               │ Common   │ Instant
   9 │ {Common}   │ Zombie Outlander    │ Common   │ Creature — Zombie Scout
  10 │ {Common}   │ Hyena Umbra         │ Common   │ Enchantment — Aura
  11 │ {Common}   │ Lay of the Land     │ Common   │ Sorcery
  12 │ {Common}   │ Sandblast           │ Common   │ Instant
  13 │ {Common}   │ Varchild's Crusader │ Common   │ Creature — Human Knight
  14 │ {Common}   │ Aviary Mechanic     │ Common   │ Creature — Dwarf Artificer
  15 │ {Common}   │ Fertile Ground      │ Common   │ Enchantment — Aura
(15 rows)

Now, we can also try to generate a booster of cards for the Dark Ascension set, which contains specification for cards rarity we don’t have in our collection. For that we run the same query as previously, and before running it we issue the command \set collection 'DKA'. We get the following result:

 num │        rarity         │         name         │  rarity  │            cardtype            
   1 │ {Rare,"Mythic Rare"}  │ Blessed Reversal     │ Rare     │ Instant
   2 │ {Uncommon}            │ Brain Pry            │ Uncommon │ Sorcery
   3 │ {Uncommon}            │ Goldmeadow Lookout   │ Uncommon │ Creature — Kithkin Spellshaper
   4 │ {Uncommon}            │ Explosive Revelation │ Uncommon │ Sorcery
   5 │ {Common}              │ Orzhov Basilica      │ Common   │ Land
   6 │ {Common}              │ Tinder Farm          │ Common   │ Land
   7 │ {Common}              │ Dark Banishing       │ Common   │ Instant
   8 │ {Common}              │ Elvish Warrior       │ Common   │ Creature — Elf Warrior
   9 │ {Common}              │ Aether Swooper       │ Common   │ Creature — Vedalken Artificer
  10 │ {Common}              │ Divine Offering      │ Common   │ Instant
  11 │ {Common}              │ Skyhunter Patrol     │ Common   │ Creature — Cat Knight
  12 │ {Common}              │ Orcish Conscripts    │ Common   │ Creature — Orc
  13 │ {Common}              │ Cloud Sprite         │ Common   │ Creature — Faerie
  14 │ {Common}              │ Vedalken Dismisser   │ Common   │ Creature — Vedalken Wizard
  15 │ {Land}                │ ¤                    │ ¤        │ ¤
  16 │ {Marketing,Checklist} │ ¤                    │ ¤        │ ¤
(16 rows)

As there’s no card of rarities Land, Marketing, or Checklist in our set, then those booster’s slot requiring them are left empty.


PostgreSQL is exceptionally good at providing a modern implementation of the SQL language. Its extensible design means PostgreSQL is capable of integrating powerful and advanced features from the non-relational world in a beautiful way. When processing JSON documents in PostgreSQL, we are still doing SQL and benefiting from its many features. Of course the implementation of unnest functions and the lateral join operation against them are key to a great success, as we saw in this article.

Still, it proves much easier to both maintain data quality and write analytics queries when using a normalized database model. PostgreSQL provides some tricks beyond the classic Normal Forms and allows working with e.g. enumerated types, arrays, and json data: this is a trade-off one might find interesting when relaxing foreign key references in a database schema.

Of course, being used to SQL, my own preference leans towards a normalized schema. Also, I know that PostgreSQL has been designed and implemented to make the best out of such a schema, with an advanced query planner and optimizer and several fine tuned algorithms to implement the supported join operations.

Well, PostgreSQL is YeSQL!