Best-Laid Plans

My last two articles talked a lot about plan-making: how one should plan in situations where the opponent could have hate cards for your affinity deck, and how one should plan on saving a lost game in the face of the opponent’s tricks. Both of these articles were well-received in the forums, which makes me happy. But, many of the plan-making concepts brought about some thoughtful disagreement from some readers. Since I haven’t yet put in the proper amount of testing to write about Extended, I thought I would take a few pages to write more about what kind of planning I was talking about.

My last two articles talked a lot about plan-making: how one should plan in situations where the opponent could have hate cards for your affinity deck, and how one should plan on saving a lost game in the face of the opponent’s tricks.

Both of these articles were well-received in the forums, which makes me happy (thanks to everyone who takes the time to read and comment). But, many of the plan-making concepts were also argued by some folks. Since I haven’t yet put in the proper amount of testing to write about Extended, I thought I would take a few pages to write more about what kind of planning I was talking about.

Start Simple

For both of my last two articles, people in the forums accused me of over-analyzing. I suspect after reading this article they’ll be back again for more. My response to them is always the same: “Overanalysis is bad? Gee, thanks, Mr. President.” (They love that joke in London.)

But, I have to admit that there is a danger in over-analyzing, calculating probabilities, etc., when in reality the decision is simple: “If I don’t do X, I’m screwed.”

I was playtesting the Mind’s Desire vs. Goblins matchup in Extended recently, and I found it extremely easy to decide when to try to go off and when not to. The Goblin deck goldfishes so fast that the final turn of the game usually involves the decision of “go off this turn or die.” Not much of a decision, is it? No probabilities to analyze, no worries about potential tricks in the opponent’s hand, no need to think about all those pesky rules I outlined in my previous articles. Just do everything you can to storm up a Mind’s Desire, or scoop the cards.

So, the first thing I want to make clear in this article is that sometimes the position forces your decision. And, when it does, you shouldn’t worry yourself sick about possible moves the opponent could make. You just have to make the forced move and hope for the best.

A corollary to this rule is, “do I even need to do X?” Sometimes, playing additional cards might lead to over-extension, or leave the opponent an opening to punish you.

A good example would be in a recent team draft, where my W/B deck splashed Red for Ryusei, the Falling Star. I was wrecking one opponent’s creature-light draw with a couple Cursed Ronins and assorted White ground-pounders, and when his board was reduced to just a lonely Frostwielder, I decided to really put the nail in the coffin with Ryusei. I was singing a different tune after he used Frosty and revealed Crushing Pain. This was doubly bad because, aside from the fact that I didn’t even need Ryusei to win that game, I also revealed to their team one of my first picks, when I had absolutely no need to do so.

So, before you even apply any of the techniques detailed below, always be sure that you even need to make your considered play. It may be that you’re just as well off by doing nothing.

Weighing Your Options

Adrian Sullivan wrote in the forums for my Affinity article: “The real struggle for a lot of players is learning the values to give to choices. It is all well and good to define classic or romantic play, but essentially, we are working with valuations that are at heart, arbitrary.”

This is very true. In poker your material gain is measured in money, in chess it’s measured in the “point” value of your pieces, in Monopoly it’s measured by the amount of rent you can get from your opponents. What scale do we measure our gains in Magic? Life points aren’t very exact – how many times did Brian Weissman win his games from one life? – and card advantage is not always correct, otherwise the Blue/Green Madness deck would not have been so popular. Without a scale, it’s very hard to evaluate a play if it doesn’t lead to a direct win.

But in chess, at the master level, the amount of “points” you possess loses meaning. There are legions of famous games where a queen was sacrificed for less than nine “points” and checkmate did not immediately follow, but nonetheless the queenless player had an overwhelming position and won easily. These evaluations are made in a very abstract way: a player usually happens upon a choice where he says to himself, “I can reach Position A, or Position B. Forget about the material; which position is better for me?”

So, what makes a “better position” in Magic? Well, all I can give you is a cop-out answer: it depends upon your deck.

In Constructed, this kind of analysis is actually done during the creation of the deck; the best deckbuilders create their weapons with an eye towards the won positions they want to establish. Read Sullivan’s article about the birth of the Red/Green Kiki-Jiki deck that took the Midwest by storm in October; what had been a series of mediocre builds finally came together when the idea was conceived of obtaining a soft lock with Kiki + Rootrunner.

In Limited, it’s a little tougher, but if you know your deck well enough, you can figure out the sort of positions you want even while you’re drafting. For example, if I am drafting U/B and I have a lot of aggressive fliers like Teller of Tales or Gibbering Kami, then I would be more likely to draft cards had can stall up the ground while those fliers take over, such as River Kaijin and Psychic Puppetry. On the other hand, if I were drafting R/W, I’d want to take the maximum amount of cards that help set up positions where Kami of Fire’s Roar wrecks the opponent (i.e., I want to be playing Lava Spike.dec).

Yes, this is all very abstract. Fact is, even in the most analytical games, it’s the ability to make those abstract calls right that separates the Jon Finkel of the world from the rest of us.

Probability Play

Although I just spent a whole section saying there is no really good scale for evaluating plays in Magic, there is one scale which never changes no matter what your position: the probability scale. A given card will come off the top of a deck with probability P, where P is somewhere between 0 and 1. So, to the extent that any play has a “value,” it has a probability value.

For example, let’s say you’re playing Osyp Lebedowicz Vial Affinity deck from GP: Orlando against an opponent playing the Blue/Green deck that let Sean Vandover won the Maryland State Championship (since Sean is a local judge, his deck is very popular here, and I have seen many people face these kinds of decisions). You’re on the play and pull one of those types of hands that could be awesome if it gets going, but also gets much worse against turn 1 Oxidize; say, a hand with Seat of the Synod as the only land, an Aether Vial, two copies each of Arcbound Worker and Thoughtcast, and an Arcbound Ravager. Do you send the hand back?

[Caution: Arithmetic ahead.]

Assume that the U/G deck will keep any hand with two land and above. The odds of him having turn 1 Oxidize are: [(10 choose 1 Forests)*(3 choose 1 Oxidize)*(58 choose 5 cards after the Oxidize and Forest are chosen)]/(60 choose 7 ways to have a seven-card hand) = 0.356. Note that this is not exact; it includes the possibility of a hand he would probably send back, such as one-land hands or hands with six lands and Oxidize. But, I don’t want to bog us down too much with math, so this rough estimate will work for now.

So, Oxidize happens with 36% of his hands. But, I can recover from the hosing by pulling a second artifact land, which happens with probability (19 lands left in deck)/(53 cards left in deck) = 0.358. So, I end up in deep trouble if he has the Oxidize and I don’t pull a second land, which happens with probability (0.583)*(1-0.358) = 0.228. About one time in five that you face this decision, disaster will strike. Those are pretty good odds to risk; I would probably not send the hand back unless I read some kind of Oxidize tell from my opponent.

Of course, I’m not saying you have to be a probability expert to be good at Magic. I am saying that you can (and should) at least try to estimate your odds in some situations, i.e., “Plan A requires him to have a crappy draw, like a land, next turn. I’m guessing the odds of that are only about 1 in 3, so Plan A is not so hot.” Or, “my draft deck has seven removal spells and I haven’t drawn one after seeing 10 cards, so the odds of my pulling one next turn are 7/30. Since 6/30 = 2/10 = 0.2, I have a little better than 20% chance of ripping it … maybe I shouldn’t make that block I was thinking about.”

Mamet Rule Planning

The problem with all of that probability talk is that the one time you absolutely need the probabilities to work out in your favor is usually the one time they don’t. That’s why I wrote about the Mamet Rule: “always plan as if your opponent has an answer, because if he doesn’t have it, your plan wasn’t a waste of time.”

This proved to create some controversy on the forums. Some people pointed out that if you restrain yourself all the time because you are afraid of, say, Oxidize, then two bad things happen: [1] you “leave damage on the table” because planning around Oxidize will cause you to be too cautious with your combat tricks, and [2] you allow skilled opponents to bluff you by always leaving a Forest untapped.

Those arguments are both correct, but they misinterpret the Mamet Rule. I am not saying, “always play cautiously because of Oxidize.” I am saying, “before you decide to go all-in against your opponent’s untapped Forest, make a plan of what you would do if he has the Oxidize.” As we’ll see, even in the face of a trick from the opponent, being aggressive is often the right plan. The Mamet Rule just says to have a backup plan.

Here’s a good example. It’s the last round of 2004 Virginia States. I am 5-2, facing an opponent with an identical record. Winner of the match gets 21 packs of Champions; loser gets a job with Mr. Jack Squat. We are playing the Vial Affinity mirror match.

In game 3, I have turn 2 Ravager and turn 3 Moriok Rigger, but my only supporting artifacts on the table are a few lands. Still, when I empty my hand with two Myr Enforcers on my turn 4, it seems like he’s in trouble. All he has is a Blinkmoth Nexus, a Cranial Plating, an Aether Vial, and a few non-Black-mana artifact lands. He puts a second counter on his Vial, equips the Nexus with Plating and swings for seven, taking me to twelve. “No problem,” I think, “He can’t kill me next turn unless he has a second Plating.” So obviously he then taps out to play a second Cranial Plating. I would tell you what I was thinking here, but this is a family website.

Now I have to make a plan. After counting my damage on board, I saw that I could kill him with my attack by sacking all my lands to pile counters on the Ravager and Rigger. But, then I remembered his untapped two-counter Aether Vial. I realized that if he could Vial out a man and chump-block my Rigger, my attack would not be lethal, unless I topdecked a way to handle the Nexus (Electrostatic Bolt or Relic Barrier).

Remember: first see if I have a move that is forced. Since he’s also going to kill me on his next turn if I make a non-lethal attack, and the only way I can kill him is to swing with all of my men, my play – swing with team – is in fact forced.

Now, the Mamet Rule says that I should also have a backup plan if he Vials out a blocker. What can I do? Well, there are some possible tricks; one would be to sack all of my lands to Ravager except for my Great Furnace, thus suggesting that I have an E-Bolt. This way, I can try to induce a blunder on the part of my opponent, an important aspect of The Art of the Save. But, in this case, a bluff is an extremely low-probability play. No matter what bluff I make, his best plan is to put both Platings on the Blinkmoth and pray that I don’t have an E-Bolt.

[This leads us into a fact that is as true in Magic as it is in poker or any other game: it’s hard to bluff an opponent out of making an easy decision.]

So, I determined that even if I drew crap, my best course would have been to attack all-in, hope that he didn’t have a Vial-able man, and if he did, I would try to bluff a Bolt as mentioned above. However, I knew that as long as he didn’t screw up the block, I was probably lost.

The end of the story is kind of anti-climactic. On my turn I topdecked … Thoughtcast! And I Thoughtcasted into … two Arcbound Workers! I re-calculated my damage and saw that an all-in attack would now win whether he had a Vial-able man or not. I attacked, and he Vialed out an Atog, but it made no difference and the match was mine. How lucky!

Until next time, here’s hoping the drafter on your right complains about how bad his pack is, and then ships you Hideous Laughter (This happened to me last week, and that guy on my right was playing Black, swear to God).

This article written while listening to “The Al Franken Show.”

mm underscore young at yahoo dot com