At the Gathering – Ancient Wisdom

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Wednesday, March 11th – We must practice diligently with our deck. This will not only increase our level of comfort with it, as noted before, but also prepares us for the actual moment of crisis, when we must make the decision, and that decision may very well determine whether we win or lose. Go to any PTQ, and you can start picking out the players who audibled into a different deck the night before.

The Art of War was written sometime between the late 6th century and the mid 5th century B.C.by Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu’s work quickly became the basis for military thought throughout Asia, and that legacy has been carried on through today. The Art of War has been studied by some of the greatest leaders and planners in the history of men. Today, we’re going to look at how we may be able to apply some of its lessons to the realm of a different battle: The Magic Duel. Together we will see what lessons we can glean from this tome of warfare, in hopes of finding an edge against our opponent.

The Art of War, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one’s deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field. These are:

1. The Moral Law
2. Heaven
3. Earth
4. The Commander
5. Method and Discipline

Sun Tzu is declaring that these five conditions should be measured before you even decide to take the field of battle. Of course, we do not have such a luxury in Magic, and must battle with whatever foe the DCI Reporter program has established for us already. However, there is still knowledge to be gleaned from this. If these attributes can foreshadow who will be victorious, then using them in our own planning can assist us. Furthermore, they may be of some use during the game. Let’s look at each of the five attributes, and conclude how they translate over to our specific battleground.

The Moral Law: When Sun Tzu lists the Moral law, it is stated in reference to harmony with one’s soldiers. While you may think that we need not worry about such things, this actually has two very distinct and important applications to our encounters. First, we must be at Harmony with our deck. I’m not talking about any of that Feng Shui type of stuff. I mean we need to feel comfortable with our deck. You need to want to play your deck for a large amount of rounds. If you are planning to win, you will need to play this deck a minimum of 6 rounds for any decent size tournament (For instance, a small PTQ or States tournament) all the way up to 18 rounds for the largest tournaments (For example, a large Grand Prix, including Top 8 action). If you are not comfortable piloting the deck, you will not play well, especially at the end of the second day of grueling mental combat. Of course, we become comfortable with a deck by applying the second principle, which is practice.

Without constant practice, the officers will be nervous and undecided when mustering for battle; without constant practice, the general will be wavering and irresolute when the crisis is at hand.
-Wang Tzu

We must practice diligently with our deck. This will not only increase our level of comfort with it, as noted before, but also prepares us for the actual moment of crisis, when we must make the decision, and that decision may very well determine whether we win or lose. Go to any PTQ, and you can start picking out the players who audibled into a different deck the night before. As they are playing, they are taking longer to make the decisions, and they are making more of them incorrectly. It is because they do not have the knowledge that only experience can give you. They have had no practice, and as such, are struggling for it.

Heaven: Moving to our next attribute, one may be quick to assume it is a physical description of the Heavens, and thus, means flying or other forms of evasion. However, this is not the case. Sun Tzu refers to heaven as the elements and seasons, in fact the very economy of Heaven. It is the æther, the unknown, and the incorporeal. For our purposes, it is our non-permanent spells and tricks. The flame of a Volcanic Fallout, the dismissal of a Cryptic Command, these things carry the attributes of heaven. It is also the potential of what you have. The cards in your hand would be other examples of Heaven, because they are not known (generally) and, to your opponent, have the potential to be any of those things.

Earth: Next we come to the Earth, which really is as cut and dry as it seems. Earth represents the physical world, the lay of the land and the world around us. For our purposes, Earth represents Permanents in play. Whether they are Lands, Creatures, Artifacts, Enchantments, or even Planeswalkers, when we consider Earth, anything that is a permanent in play counts. Thus, we can determine if we have a current advantage from the Earth. Keep in mind that that may change based on the plays of Heaven.

The Commander: The fourth attribute we come to is the commander. For Sun Tzu, the commander is obviously the man in charge of it all, which makes the translation rather simple for our purposes. However, there is more to it than that. In determining whether we have an advantage in this regard, Sun Tzu would have us look at five virtues which the commander should have. I’ll list them here, and then we’ll come back to them after we’ve finished this list of five. The five virtues are wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage, and strictness.

Method and Discipline: Finally, we come to the last factor, Method and Discipline. In this, Sun Tzu gives specifics of marshalling an army, and ensuring troops are properly supplied. Now, obviously, for our purposes, neither of these examples are particularly valid, but the idea in general is. First, let us look at method. There are two potential aspects to determine here. First is determining who the aggressor is and who the controller is. In the words of Michael J. Himself, “Who’s the Beatdown?” Second, by what method are you planning to win? Are you Aggro, Control, or Combo? Or a hybrid of two of those styles? Furthermore, how does your method of winning play out against your opponents? More importantly, how does your opponents method of winning play out against you, and can you disrupt it? We then progress to the virtue of discipline. While discipline in the Art of War is directed towards the discipline of the army itself, regarding order and punishment, it takes a different turn for our purposes. Discipline, to us, is our ability to stay centered, to play “tight.” Are we staying constantly focused on the goal of winning the match? Are we ever vigilant in seeking the path to victory? Or do we let laziness and carelessness into our game, causing us to make misplays and mistakes? Are we staying disciplined in our plays?

Let us now return to the five virtues of the Commander, and concentrate on which attributes we may desire to achieve for the betterment of our dueling. To refresh our memory, they are wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage, and strictness.

First, we come to Wisdom. While seemingly a simple and straightforward virtue, we must realize that wisdom itself has as many facets as we give it. What wisdom must we have, then? First, we must have wisdom of our self. We must know what we can do and what we can’t do, both in play capability, as well as our arsenal. In knowing what we can’t do, we know our weaknesses, and can plan accordingly, either by compensating for them, or preparing a path around them. Secondly, we must strive to know what our opponents are likely to do. Some examples of this would include a meta-game analysis of what you expect to play against, and resolving a way to overcome them. As an in-game example, we must attempt to ascertain what options our opponent has at this moment, and how that may affect us and our current plans. Do we need to change those plans based on this information?

Next we come to sincerity. While your initial reaction may be to use the definition most often correlated to being Genuine and Honest, in this case we actually will be using a different intonation of the word; that of your seriousness. Similar to the Factor of discipline, except discipline is a factor of battle, whereas this is an attribute of the commander. Are you sincere in your play-testing, and in your assessment of your skills and capabilities? Have you taken your preparation seriously? Do you practice in a serious manner, befitting one who would expect to win?

The third virtue we will examine is benevolence. In this, Sun Tzu implies how a commander treats his soldiers and his peers. Again, one may think this a trait which does not translate well, but if we look closely, we can see that there are some helpful aspects. The main benefit of this virtue is one of Karmic resonance. How you act towards other people may very well come back upon you. Rudeness, impoliteness, and malevolence can just as easily be turned against you. Listen well to stories of players who could not draw into a top-eight because no opponent would draw with them. Furthermore, Magic today is a game of networking outside the venue. Look at the collaborations of the super-teams that have driven LSV and Nassif to recent top finishes. Do you think that either of these players would have done as well playing alone in their basement, without the assistance and camaraderie of their fellow players? LSV himself noted in the Grand Prix: Los Angeles Top 8 profile that he was convinced of the power of TEPS by Josh Utter -Leyton. The more amicable you can be with your teammates, the more likely you are to remain in that team.

We then come to the virtue of Courage. Again, while this has obvious warrior connotations to it, we can also discover how it can be useful for our own purposes as well. We can find that, for us, courage means the strength to do as you believe the best method to be. Often, you may be wrong, but many an innovative deck was started because some player, somewhere, had the courage to try something different. However, we must be careful to ensure that our courage for originality does not become stubbornness of mind. Our courage must be fluid, willing to both attempt and discard an idea as the tides of value change its potential.

Finally, we shall explore strictness. This is similar to the virtue of sincerity, but has some key differences. Our strictness is our ability to follow through, contrasted to sincerity being our ability to do it well. As an example, if I play-test exactly one game, playing as hard as I can, and analyzing with my partner the plays made throughout, I have been sincere in my play-testing. But have I been strict? I believe not, as one game does not yield the information I desire. As a counterpoint, I could play 100 matches, but if I play them all lackadaisically, then I have not been sincere in my testing. Strictness, then, is our ability to a lot the proper amount of a resource for success. Consider also the monetary aspect. Does the player who is unwise in their card purchasing and trading utilizing strictness in their affairs? No, they have been very lax with their resources. I have heard many a player complain about the price of cards, only to watch them waste 15 dollars on fast food that very same day. They then complain about the price of a Cryptic Command. Has this player properly allocated their resources? If they truly desired the Cryptic Command, they would find a way to obtain it. This, then, is why one player who properly allocates his resources can obtain the play-set of Cryptic Command the need, while another does not.

Later on, Sun Tzu hits us with this line:

The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the opponent. To secure ourselves against defeat is in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.

… Hence the saying: One may know how to conquer without being able to do it. Security against defeat implies defensive tactics; ability to defeat the enemy means taking the offensive.

This is practically the very definition of a control deck, first putting one’s self beyond the possibility of defeat, and then using your advantage to then find the opportunity to defeat your opponent. Let us consider the following: As an Aggro deck, you are trying to kill your opponent as fast as possible, but the path to victory lies in their hands. You are not shaping their game, they are shaping yours. However, if you can be fast and efficient enough, you may be able to kill them before they can secure themselves against defeat. However, again, the control of the game, the determination of the outcome, is in their control much more than it is in yours. You did not defeat them; they failed to protect themselves properly or quickly enough. This does not mean the archetype is without merit, only that you are sacrificing control, in more aspects than one, for tempo. This is illustrated by the last point I would like to quote from Sun Tzu.

Therefore the Clever Combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him.

In this we see that merely imposing your will is not necessarily enough. To fully ensure victory, you must ensure that the opponent does not impose his will upon you.

And so we see that, although a work over 2,500 years old, Sun Tzu’s famous work “The Art of War” continues to be a font of knowledge to those who seek it out.

This is Jeff Phillips, reminding you: Don’t make the Loser Choice.