I was reading Star City the other day and happened upon a review from The Ferrett on David Sirlin’s book "Playing To Win" in which he commented:
“There’s next to no discussion on how to improve these skills. He mentions that Virtua Fighter champions tend to have great yomi skills and Magic players are excellent at Appraisal, but aside from that you’re left with the burning question: If I don’t have a talent for yomi, how do I gain it?”
As usual, I thought to myself, “Oh man… how do you teach yomi? Let alone yomi as it’d relate to Magic the Gathering?” The problem with teaching yomi is that it’s a skill you pick up via competition and training, where you get better at games with a strategic subset of moves. You learn to recognize patterns, preferences, and tells naturally over time, with the more inherent experience you have playing the game.
But trying to at least explain yomi, and attempting to teach it… it’s worth a shot!
Hence the inspiration for this article was born. I’m going to attempt to make a series at helping you see what yomi is, and how you can improve your skills at it. It all starts here, with what yomi really is. So let’s define yomi.
Yomi is a Japanese term which straight English equivalent is “reading.” Essentially, “seeing what people would do based on probability and feelings gathered by patterns or perceptions the opponent puts out.”
David Sirlin, author of Playing To Win, I believe had a good definition of yomi: "Knowing the mind of the opponent."
If you want to delve slightly deeper into its meaning, a definition from the Chinese board game Go would be: "The mental process of calculating lines of play." The obvious afterthought of that definition would be: “… and developing a countermove based on the most common line the person is likely to travel.”
The Go definition is subtly different from Sirlin’s though; under the Go definition, you’re focusing more on the opponents plays for yomi information*. Sirlin’s definition opens up picking up tells from the opponent themselves for other information.
*I can say this, because Go is a game of perfect information. Hence reading the opponent gives you no real value. This is also why it’s awkward trying to explain yomi in normal terms for Magic.
One of the most important skills you can develop in any sort of competitive multiplayer game is the ability to predict someone’s actions. Being able to do so on a consistent basis to any significant degree of success gives you a huge advantage over your opponent. The real question, of course, is how to gain this ability… and then how to parlay it into actual percentages helping you win games. The common link between all of the definitions, and the basis of yomi, is reading the opponents actions, perceiving them, and developing a countermove based on that perception.
For you poker bums, this would be like spotting tells; the only real difference being that you’re not necessarily looking at a person themselves for the information. In fighting games, you’ll never see the actual player when you’re fighting them. Instead, you’re going off the data you have about the game and the information you gleam from the opponent’s moves. This is also the crucial difference between intuition and yomi. In one you’re making a judgment based purely on instinct and gut feeling, not using any normal ration thinking processes. The other sees you calculating the most probable plays for the opponent and picking the one you’ve perceived him to be doing next.
As for why this is important to you and why understanding and learning yomi can be a crucial part of you game, think about something for a moment. How many times have you lost a close game because you picked the wrong option? Or worse, had games where you picked the “correct option,” yet the opponent had exactly what he needed to stop that?
Ever consider that the other guy already had a clue what you were trying to do, and was just letting you go about your business, content to stop you when you tried your plan?
To put it bluntly: how many more games would you win if you could correctly predict your opponent’s moves? Or stop counter-plays against you without scrambling for a topdeck? I’m guessing the number of saved games would be quite high.
Now that I’ve given you a reason to care about yomi, I’ll answer your next question.
“Is yomi truly necessary at a high level of play?”
As I stated above, I’d say yes… but it’s not as important as in Go or fighting games in general. Mostly because you will rarely be asked to think 15-20 moves ahead, or make a decision in the time frame of 1-2 seconds. In Magic, many people use low-level yomi without even realizing it, and even only thinking a single “yomi layer” ahead can result in trumping your opponent. You may not even be running an actual counter to the opponent’s plan in your deck**. In addition, in Magic it’s very hard to win without some semblance of a plan. So you’re probably already using yomi and not even realizing it.
**That would be a yomi thought if you apply yomi to deckbuilding, choices, and metagaming. Each of those topics could easily have a few articles about them, so for now I’m going to simplify it.
Did I lose anyone there? I probably did. Let me explain about the layers of yomi. First off, if you haven’t read Sirlin’s piece on yomi layers or the chapters dealing with yomi in his book, please read this.
For reference, here are the Yomi Layers:
Yomi Layer 0 – The initial play and/or plan (Player A)
Yomi Layer 1 – The opposing counter to the play (Player B)
Yomi Layer 2 – The answer to the counter (Player A)
Yomi Layer 3 – A counter to the counter from Layer 2 (Player B)
Yomi Layer 4 and up then repeats until you run out of viable options and loop back to layer 0. In fighting games you’d simply do the original move, but in Magic that’s usually not an option.
At this point typically, yomi layers stop; the counter to the second counter from Player B usually doesn’t exist in CCGs. The majority of players never get past yomi layer 2, and in Constructed it’s rather difficult to create situations where you’ll need any layers that are exceedingly high.
Another note would be that if the game structure favors an even number of yomi layers in a significant fashion, the game (metagame, deck, whatever) may be inherently flawed. Why? Because it favors the person with the powerful threat, while also giving him a counter that trumps the answers to the threat. That breaks the yomi series, because it puts an artificial cap of how far ahead a player can think and plan. That’s the going theory I have, anyway; it’s exceedingly difficult to break yomi down into Magic counter and counterbalance terms.
Since I don’t want to freak anyone out yet and use comparisons to Street Fighter to serve my point, I’ll show you a true example of yomi that K Prime reminded me of in responding to The Ferrett little book review. Taken from Flores article, "The Ten Greatest Battles Of All Time," here’s his description of the play.
Jonathan Becker (PT Junk) versus Unknown Opponent (The Red Zone)
… I remember glancing over Jon’s shoulder and wondering why when he passed his first turn; there was still a Sergeant in his hand… It was only after his second turn, when the opponent untapped, and gleefully sent a main-phase Scorching Lava at the "helpless" 1/1, did Becker’s plan become obvious. He responded with Wax/Wane, and had just gone a long way in winning a difficult matchup.
This is a great example to show why yomi is a valuable skill to have. Let me break it down for you. Becker has Ramosian Sergeant, which he knows is a critical piece to winning the match. Becker’s opponent either knows via testing or in-game realization that if he kills Sergeant, he’s taken away one of the best threats Becker has. Becker realizes this and sets himself up in a position to protect his threat against the inevitable counter (the Scorching Lava). Hence the yomi breakdown of that particular play is as follows.
Yomi Layer 0 – Becker has his threat (Ramosian Sergeant) and realizes the importance of keeping it alive.
Yomi Layer 1 – Opponent realizes the threat and boards in Scorching Lava.
Yomi Layer 2 – Becker slowplays the Sergeant with a land open.
Yomi Layer 3 – Opponent plays his counter.
Yomi Layer 4 – Becker plays Wax/Wane, nullifying the opponent’s counter
If we look at it starting from the pure play perspective, then it’s only 2 yomi layers. However if we take it one step further we can see another deeper set of yomi being played out from the earlier games. Hence we have the additional set of yomi, which goes up the 4th layer. So, in essence, it’s really four or more yomi layers that were broken down. Just not all at once and not all to do with that exact game scenario.
Still, the fact that yomi was exhibited was obvious from the pattern analysis and how Becker deftly countered his opponent’s counter with a non-intuitive play from the knowledge that his opponent would be waiting for his threat. That’s the power of yomi; and even in the deeper sequence, Becker was only utilizing three levels of yomi! Becker’s opponent in-game never got past one yomi layer, even though he made out-of-game decision to board in Scorching Lava as a counter.
The reason it’s so hard to define yomi or create higher yomi levels in Magic is that yomi is commonly applied to games with perfect information. In Go you can figure out all of the legal moves each turn in a minute… it’s just a question of then perceiving which spots to be the most important to whatever plan. The same goes with fighting games. There are a set amount of moves available to each character, which means once you know them all you know exactly what the opponent can do. This isn’t to say you’ll never be surprised by a move or action, but it’s far less likely than in a game of imperfect information like Magic.
Despite yomi itself not translating amazingly well, I think it’s a concept worth delving into. I’ll be dealing with the ramifications of limited information and yomi compared to fighting games and similar games in the next article. Then we can work on training your yomi skills… and if people want me to continue after that, the sky’s the limit.
E-mail me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom