Black Magic – What Are You Thinking?

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Tuesday, November 3rd – During any given game of Magic, there are countless decisions to be made. When the situation gets tricky, we need to employ our entire mental arsenal to the myriad problems at hand. Yet when we are actually contemplating our plays, what are the things upon which we should concentrate? Sam Black reveals all…

After watching Gaudenis win Grand Prix: Tampa, I decided that, given that I play with him on a daily basis, I should probably put more effort into learning from him. Really, I only attempted to watch him play the Top 8 of a GP. This is not because the crowds made it difficult to see the cards (which was sort of true) or because I was busy doing something else (I wasn’t), but because watching Gaudenis play untimed rounds is pretty boring. I don’t play fast, but when Gau has the opportunity, he plays much slower.

In my case, I actually think I just process things slower than most people. In Gau’s case, I think it’s because of years of training (for chess) to actually spend more time thinking than most people bother with. Whenever we criticize him for playing slowly, he explains that his chess coach always said, “when you find a move, sit on your hands until you find a better one,” and, having that drilled in, it’s a hard habit for him to break.

I believe Gau’s chess training taught him how to usefully apply more mental energy to a game to play better, which I think is something not many people actually know how to do. Anyway, back to me. After thinking about how well he’s been doing, I decided that he must be doing something right, and concluded that I should probably try to slow things down when I can. I mentioned this to Gau, and he said it was probably a good idea. I asked if he felt like I noticeably played too fast for myself sometimes, and he said I think at weird times—sometimes it seems like I think when I shouldn’t, and sometimes I don’t think when I should. Then he made a suggestion, which is what motivated me to write this article:

“Think about what you’re thinking about.”

That’s it. That’s the sentence that I’m planning to expand into an article. I might have mentioned before that I often feel like it’s the short, pithy bits of advice I get that seem pretty obvious that help me make breakthroughs in playing. Things that you really wouldn’t think would be too helpful, like Hron saying, “Take the good cards,” or Bucher saying, “Play around everything.”

What Gau was suggesting was that, while playing a game, you stop yourself and you ask what your mental energy is going toward. What are you thinking about and why? Assuming you’re focused on the game, there’s still a reasonable chance that whatever you’re considering isn’t what you need to be considering. When you find yourself in a situation where you know you need to make a difficult play, stop and ask yourself what you need to know to make the correct decision. What is the real question, and how can you answer it?

Obviously two days later, in the GP where I told myself I was going to implement this idea, I find myself 0-2 in my first pod, thoroughly tilting, and sitting next to Gau. He finishes his last match and watches me.

My opponent has used a bounce spell to turn a race around, and I have to figure out how to recover. I’m at 2 and he has a Shoal Serpent that I’m pretty sure he’ll be able to attack with thanks to his Khalni Gem. I have 6 lands in play (5 Forests and a Mountain) and a Forest, a Nissa’s Chosen, and a Timbermaw Larva, and a Vines of Vastwood in my hand. He’s at 10.

I know that I need to play Nissa’s Chosen to be able to block his Serpent, but it gets harder after that. Do I leave my mana up so that I can block and Vines to kill his Serpent, or do I play the Timbermaw Larva so that I can chump his Serpent and then attack and kill him with the Vines?

At this point, I totally freeze up. I know that I need to think about what cards he could have and what plays he could make that would make each of my plays correct, but that’s not enough. I needed to figure out where to start. Do I start the flow chart by thinking about my actions (if I do x, then y happens), or do I start by thinking about his cards/actions (if he has this, then this will happen)—Is there a way I can shortcut this? Which is best if he has a creature? A removal spell? What cards can I beat, and what cards can’t I beat? There are too many options, my head isn’t in the game. I can’t figure out where to start, and eventually I just make a play. I play the Timbermaw Larva and the Forest and pass with one Green open and one card in hand.

On his turn he attacks, I chump, and he plays an Umara Raptor. I draw a Savage Silhouette. My play is easy at this point. I’m dead to the Raptor unless he blocks with it, and if I attack and he doesn’t block, I win. I attack. Now he has to decide if he should take it, in which case he’s dead if I have a pump spell, or chump, in which case he still has the Serpent to attack with and he wins if I don’t have a creature. If I do have a creature, he can attack, force me to chump, and then still win if I don’t draw another creature and he draws another land. He chooses to chump, and I lose.

Given that he played the Raptor, the play I made on the previous turn was the only play that gave me a chance of winning, but I had no way of knowing he was going to do that, and it’s being “results oriented” in the bad way to think that that in itself makes my play correct (I say “in the bad way” because I think the term “results oriented” has been given too much of a negative connotation recently, and that there are a lot of results that really are worth looking at—I’ve been thinking of writing a defense of results for awhile now, but that’s a topic for another time). Now that I’m not under the pressure of a real game, let’s consider what I should have thought through in that game:

My plan was to play the Timbermaw Larva. This is where I should have said, “okay, I have a plan… now I need to sit on my hands and make a better plan.” What happens if I play the Timbermaw Larva? If he attacks and doesn’t have anything, I win. If he attacks and has any creature, I chump, then on my turn I attack, if he doesn’t block, I win, but if he does block, I lose unless I draw a creature. If he attacks and draws a removal spell, I lose—unless I draw a removal spell for his Shoal Serpent or a bigger creature and then win the topdeck war, but that’s extremely unlikely. If he doesn’t attack, I probably win. So with this play, I beat most lands (I lose to the jump land) and lose to most spells (I beat things like Ior Ruin Expedition or Paralyzing Grasp).

Plan B is to pass the turn. If he attacks, I block and play Vines of Vastwood. If he doesn’t have instant speed removal, I kill his Shoal Serpent (note that if he has instant speed removal, I’m definitely losing this game; I can ignore the possibility of instant speed removal for the purposes of making this decision, so if he attacks, I will kill his Shoal Serpent—unless he has Slaughter Cry, which beats this plan and loses to my other plan, but there’s probably enough other stuff going on in this question that I can’t put him on one specific card I haven’t seen from him). If he has no creature after that, I play my Timbermaw Larva and attack with the Nissa’s Chosen and then I’m threatening to kill him on the next turn and forcing almost anything he plays to chump the Timbermaw Larva—that’s pretty good—it probably beats most lands, just like the play above. If he attacks and loses his Shoal Serpent and then plays a creature, I play my Timbermaw Larva, and now the game really depends on the creature he has. If it’s smaller than Nissa’s Chosen, it basically might as well not exist and that’s good for me, so that’s an argument in favor of this play. If it’s a flier, it kills me. That’s a slight argument against this play, but, as seen by what happened in my actual game, it’s still unlikely that I win if he plays a flier with the other play anyway. If it’s a creature that’s bigger than Nissa’s Chosen, like a Shatterskull Giant, I play Timbermaw Larva and then he attacks, If I double block I keep one guy and he has nothing or I chump with the Nissa’s Chosen, but then I can’t attack back for lethal because I’ve used my Vines, and I’d have to draw another creature. This means that as long as it’s smaller than Nissa’s Chosen plus Timbermaw Larva I’ll lose my Timbermaw Larva, but I’ll still be in pretty good shape. If it’s bigger than those two together, things look pretty rough. I’m going to need to draw a removal spell or running creatures (or, say, the Savage Silhouette that I did draw).

In this case, the thought process was actually relatively easy—I didn’t need to consider exactly how many cards left in my deck would make me win in each scenario or do any real math, just construct a basic flow chart. I should have been able to do that and make the right play. I couldn’t in this case, which is why I know I’m not as good as the best players in the game. (I also don’t get results like they do—have you people been following Yuuya or Juza this season?) On the other hand, I think the fact that I know that this is what I need to learn to do during a game, and the fact that I think I know how to learn to do it is pretty encouraging as it relates to my ability to get over this kind of problem.

This line of thought can also be applied to mulligan decisions. (As a warning, I’m just using this as an excuse to transition into a really interesting mulligan decision Bucher faced in GP: Tampa that lead to a lot of interesting discussion). His six-card hand was Swamp, Khalni Heart Expedition, Harrow, Timberland Ranger, Sorin Markov, and another card (which might have been something like a Heartstabber Mosquito or a Murasa Pyromancer—it’s not really important). He needed to hit 2 lands, and he needed one of them to be a Forest, or he was definitely losing that game. If he hit that, he beats almost everything. If he hits a turn or two late, he’s still in decent shape.

Everyone who saw the hand immediately said he should mulligan—the hand looks terrible. But this is a special case because of the exact nature of his deck. It was a four-color ally deck that included multiple landfall cards. If he starts the game with only five cards, it’s extremely unlikely that his lands will tap for the right color to play his spells, and even if they do, he probably won’t have enough lands, since his spells are pretty expensive. If he does, he won’t have many spells, which isn’t usually that big of a problem if they’re expensive, but in this case, they’re allies, so casting just one of them isn’t that great. Also, cards like Khalni Heart Expedition are almost blanks in a five-card hand most of the time.

It’s hard to imagine him winning more than 20% of the time with a five-card hand with that deck. If he keeps his six-card hand he needs to draw a Forest in his next two draws to have a good chance of winning. He has 8 left in his 34 remaining cards. The odds that he his one are 1-(28/34)*(27/33) which is about 33%. If that happens, he also needs another land in two of his three other cards, which is two draws at one of 16 other cards, which is 1-(17/33)*(16/32) which is about 75% of the time—That means he wins about 25% of the time. This number is less than the number we came up with at the time, which was (more like 30%+)—I’m not sure if there’s something I’m missing now or something we did wrong then, but regardless, the 25% is still odds I’ll take with that deck given the alternative. The point is that what you need to think about in this case is, “can this hand win?” then, “how likely is that?” and finally, “what is my alternative?”—this is slightly different than the usual process for mulligans, which is something more like, “does this hand suck?” In this format a lot of decks are punished much more than decks in other formats for having fewer cards because they need an unusually high number of lands (or in the case of allies, spells) to work properly. This means that the decision to mulligan with a hand that looks awkward is often particularly tricky.

Next week I’ll be in Paris for what is expected to be the largest GP ever, where I’ll have another chance to properly figure out what to think about to make a decision in time during a game. Somewhere in there, I hope I’ll find time to prepare for Worlds.

Thanks for reading…