At the Gathering – We Never Just Talk…

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Wednesday, November 4th – Communication is a funny thing. We can say something exactly the same to two different people, and get two different responses. Both inside and outside of Magic, we get mixed message, strange reads, completely baffling personality traits, and so much internal, inbred catchphrases that it’s sometimes hard to get a clear point across.

Communication is a funny thing. We can say something exactly the same to two different people, and get two different responses. Both inside and outside of Magic, we get mixed message, strange reads, completely baffling personality traits, and so much internal, inbred catchphrases that it’s sometimes hard to get a clear point across. Furthermore, we have non-verbal cues messing things up even more.

Today, I want to talk about the communication process we use in Magic, and what we can do to help improve it. I’ll try to use examples as often as possible. Along the way, maybe I can help crack open some of the jargon that gets used, as I’ve heard many a player asking what some of the terms that are used often actually mean.

I’m a pretty typical male in some regards. I read the paper, watch sports, and don’t listen to my wife while I do either one. It’s not necessarily that I don’t hear her, because I’m sure I respond with plenty of “uh huhs,” and even a “That’s nice, dear,” on occasion. But I’m not actually listening, and we both know it. Weeks later, when I forget about dinner at the in-laws (not as bad as it’s stereotypically made out to be, but I’d still rather be drafting) we both realize it. Fortunately, my wife has come to grasp this, and now realizes I’m not actually listening. She’ll either wait or interfere, depending on the urgency and her mood. If I’m looking her in the eye, she knows I’m invested and there for the conversation.

Which brings me to my point: Communication goes both ways. I’m a pretty vocal player in what I’m doing. I specify mana on dual lands and birds (or colorless on pain lands and such) and I start every turn the same way: Untap (1 second pause) Upkeep (1 second pause unless there’s triggers or I have action) Draw (Place the top card face down in front of me for 1 second, then pull it into my hand unless they say something). I’ve had a few judge calls asking to back up to the upkeep for effects, and not a single one has gone against me. Because most of my opponents just nod, or say “Uh huh” (sound familiar?) because they aren’t actually listening, they’re thinking about their cards, and other things, and not actually paying attention to the game. I actually got in the habit because I was missing Upkeep triggers and effects when I was playing Faeries during TSP/LOR Standard a few years ago. (08 Regionals, I believe.) The point here is that you are only as engaged in the game as you make yourself.

Moving on, let’s tackle acknowledged shortcuts that are used. For instance, Conley Woods has an example that’s been a rather hot topic of late in the top-8 of GP Tampa. I’ll quote directly from Conley himself:

Regardless, I lead with a turn 2 Survivalist into turn 3 Greenweaver Druid to John Mays’ Umara Raptor. On my turn 4, I tap my lands and Greenweaver Druid to play a Mold Shambler with kicker, pointing at his lone island. It is at this time that I realize one of my Forests didn’t tap for some reason, or spun around 270 degrees etc, so I go back to tap it. John quickly points at the land I just tapped and claims “You didn’t play it with kicker.” He calls the judge who is sitting right next to him as we have 2 judges pretty intently watching our match. I am quick to point out that I grabbed the Forest and tapped it and even pointed at his Island. My opponent says I never announced kicker at this point, despite acknowledging that I pointed at his land. The judge obviously rules in my favor as no sane person would pay 5 for a Mold Shambler and even point at an Island.

In this case, it’s the common shortcut of pointing. We also use verbal terms, not only for destruction effects, but also bounce, Wrath or sweeper, exile, and others. In EDH, I’ve used the term “wreck” to signify destruction. In fact, it’s a pretty common term locally, and I imagine elsewhere as well. There’s no real ambiguity amongst most of us, although I have had a new player or two question me about it. For instance here’s a quote from a recent game. “Play Vesuva, wreck your Cradle.” The player with Gaea’s Cradle out immediately put his legendary land in the graveyard, but a newer bystander watching asked what had happened. While Rogo and I had no questions what I had done, I realized we skipped a step or two there where I have Vesuva copy Gaea’s Cradle.To go back Conley’s example, it’s obvious to most of us, to Conley, and the judge exactly what Conley meant with his Shambler: To Destroy the World! (or at least the Island.) I imagine his opponent knew exactly what Conley was trying to do as well, and was merely trying to get an edge where he thought he could.

There are a lot of shortcuts and ambiguous terms that are used in Magic, and a majority of them are not issues. “Bin your guy” while wielding Lightning Bolt is pretty obvious, or just physically touching their card with your bolt. However, if there’s any confusion, it needs to be very clear. At GP: Seattle this year, I was playing Seismic Swans. I had cast Swans on trun 4, and then used Bloodbraid Elf to cascade into the Seismic Assault the following turn. I was in the process of going off, and using the shortcut of just pointing my land at the Swans of Brynn Argoll each time as a shortcut and saying “Again.” one time, My land hit about 50/50 between my Swans and my Bloodbraid Elf. My opponent called a judge, trying to claim I pointed at the Elf, which is somewhat ridiculous for two reasons. One, it’s about halfway, so you should just ask, instead of assuming. Two, I said “Again,” implying the same action as before, which was targeting the Swans so I can kill you eventually. For the rest of the GP, I made sure to set my Swans in the middle of my playmat, and everything else off to the side. Much Like Conley did, I just tightened up, avoided anything else questionable, and very clearly explained each action to a non-ambiguous degree. I didn’t announce “I target my Swans of Brynn Argoll with Seismic Assault, discarding [insert whatever land here], then using the replacement effect to draw two cards instead.” as that would have been obnoxious, but I was a little more clear each time than before.

Let’s move on to another communication breakdown, the vague bluff. Probably the most famous of these in recent memory is the Chapin Profane command at one of the 5K’s, I believe. Again, I’ll go from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, and quote Chapin directly here.

I would have liked to talk about this story in my article, but basically it is along these lines-

I have Chameleon Colossus, Cloudthresher, and two Wilt-Leaf Liege, as well as 8 land. My only card is Thoughtseize. I have 10 life.

My opponent has been playing off the top and has a Siege Gang, 4 Goblin tokens, an Elspeth, an Elspeth token, two Stillmoon Cavaliers, 2 untapped mana, and 17 life.

What is the play?

I drew the Profane Command and immediately showed it to him very happily, hoping to draw the concession. He does nothing.

I say, “It is a Profane Command. You are at 17, right?”

He says, “Yes, but what are you going to do with it?”

So, I think and have to decide in a split second whether to kill Siege-Gang and be likely doomed in time or try a bid at the win somehow.

I tap all 8 land and say,

“Profane Command, you lose 6 life and all of my legal targets gain fear.”

Then I think he asks me something to the effect of, “do you attack with everything?”

Then I turn all of my creatures sideways and attack with the team.

He does not block with anything but the two Stillmoons, and is dead as a result. I immediately tell him afterwards, both for his personal use in future situations and to avoid any confusion with random people watching the feature match pointing out that he could have blocked afterwards.

I believe that in every aspect that turn was legal, and I took great care to in NO way indicate that Colossus had fear, as I did not point to it, I did not say all of my guys have fear, I did not say the team gets fear, etc. Also, he did not ask me any questions regarding any of my creatures after I played the Profane Command, beyond “So this is a 6/6? and this is a 9/9?”

This is quoted from the forums of Sam Black article here.

Before I go any further, let me say a few things. This is not an attempt to vilify Patrick. I think it’s a brilliant play, and it’s perfectly legal. We’re going to use it as an example of what triggers you should listen for. For instance, when I hear “All my legal targets” My ears perk up just a bit. Why would he say legal? Is there an illegal target? We can all agree that we rarely here the term “Legal” in a normal game of Magic unless there’s some sort of need for it, so why is there a need for it here?

What Patrick said was clear and legal, but his opponent made an assumption that was incorrect. The error was on the receiver of that message to clarify what was being said. To use a sports analogy (since readers have said they do enjoy them) Patrick threw a catchable ball to his opponent. It may not have hit him on the numbers, but with a little effort, he could have made the catch. Instead he chose not to make the effort. Every fan I know of chalks that incompletion up to the receiver. To quote Lee Corso in almost any game he commentates on, “you gotta catch that ball, there’s no excuse.” (And yes, I recognize that this analogy implies teamwork, not competition. In some ways, you have to work together in Magic to advance the game state, such as communication.)

A lot of these miscommunications end up in difficult game states. Failure to record life total changes on optional triggers because you didn’t tell your opponent is a big one, especially with Bloodseeker in limited these days. At U.S. Nationals 2008, I watched Charles Gindy and Billy Moreno playing a feature match, and a Thoughtseize was cast. (I believe by Gindy, targeting Moreno, but I could be wrong.) After a turn or so, I saw that life totals were wrong by two. Gindy had recorded the two life, but Billy missed it. So I discretely had Bill Stark grab a feature match judge real quick for me without interrupting the match, and mentioned it to her. I had to head back to the LTP area I was working, but I hope it all worked out. No foul play, as it was Moreno giving his opponent two life, but 6 turns down the road, if they notice it, it could be a pain. Similarly, I’ve had issues with the Ascensions lately, where I say go, then tick the die up. My opponents don’t notice, then when they look over ask how that got there, i missed that trigger. I’ve had to take the trouble to make sure to announce them now, just to be safe. However, I’m definitely not going to help my opponents with optional triggers, and I doubt anyone reading this would either.

So, what have we learned today about Magic and communication? How clear do we need to be with our opponents? To be honest, not as much as we should. many players can get an advantage out of clever phrasing. However, I would argue it would behoove you to focus on playing strongly, ensuring exactly what the game state is, and being aware of what is happening in the game. The best play is tight, technical play with a clear understanding of the game state.
To rip off a franchise, you must study and practice the mundane before you can master the art of the Jedi…

Until next time, this is Jeff Phillips, reminding you: Don’t make the Loser Choice.