It’s the end of a long day. We start with an 0-1, 0-3/0-6 mauling. We have one very good deck (BDM), one deck that has two non-creature spells (Tim playing a Slice and Dice and a Contested Cliffs, which is technically not a spell), and whatever Enrage pile I get. But we rally. In round six it looks like our luck has run when I am facing an Exalted Angel flipped and going second. But I figure out how to beat it and a little tight play and a well-placed Enrage puts us into first place come round seven. Even with our 0-1 start, we can scoop Slay, Pillage, Gerard into the Top 4.
Random children somehow take out the PT Boston semifinalists, and after our own round of four win, we are up against those same children deep into the night, deep end of a long day.
They are out-opening us like it’s nothing. They don’t need crimp-cornered Tradewind Riders, Morphlings up their sleeves, or foreign Kavu Chameleons because they get every open. Literally every open in the proper packs and sets. My opponent has Ageless Sentinels leading an all star squad of every breaker common in the Bird/Soldier mirror. They open double Lavamancer’s Skill. They open Glarecaster. They take Lavamancer’s Skill over Glarecaster.
That gives us the shot. Brian and I fight over every Wizard with every spare pick so that there are more Wizards in my board than in double Skill boy’s stack (his all star front line includes main deck Nameless One and two additional members of that tribe). Part of the way through Legions, we get a pick. Finally. The pack is of course deep with picks for both teams, but we get a legitimate bomb in Canopy Crawler. I go to point at the Skirk Marauder their A should take, planning to signal to Echo Tracer for Brian, a hate for me, and Crawler for Tim, but McKenna slaps my hand before I can get the signals down. Let Them Pick, he glares.
Tim is right and their A inexplicably takes Rockshard Elemental first. Brian takes Echo Tracer and I move to hate Skirk Marauder, but Tim drops his hand over it, the universal Team Rochester block. I take a random Black card and Tim takes the Marauder for himself. Pick, pick, bounce, pick, pick… and Canopy Crawler ends up on top of McKenna’s stack at number eight.
Our opponents continue to out-open us, grabbing Form of the Dragon and Forgotten Ancient in Scourge, but it hardly matters. All I want to talk to Tim about is this crazy gamble he called in Legions. Canopy Crawler was the best card in the pack. I’ve taken it over Timberwatch Elf more than once! Not taking it – giving the opponents a chance to hate it – was a clear mistake.
Or was it?
The first time I wrote about mistakes in Magic was my second article as a Featured Writer for StarCityGames.com (this time around any way). It was a controversial article, and probably still is, in the sense that it says that at any given point, there is exactly one right play and that every other play is a mistake (to some degree). The great edt says that given certain board positions you should take certain actions a particular percentage of the time that is not 100% (otherwise your play becomes too predictable). This is ultimately about playing the man rather than playing the cards.
You don’t have to buy 100% into my definition or edt’s response to see that Tim’s draft choice was a mistake. You have to take the best cards for your deck, don’t you?
And that was why maybe Tim’s call was not just not a mistake, but maybe a stroke of genius. The opponents in pack one had already shown us that they were willing to take playable cards for their own decks rather than protecting matchups by correctly hate drafting bombs. In team draft, you don’t just evaluate how likely a certain card is to help you beat your opponent… you have to weigh the opportunity cost of giving up other picks and how likely certain cards are you beat your teammates. When we talk about making”right” and”wrong” decisions, we are really talking about making tight ones.
Ultimately, Tight Makes Right.
Go back to The Next Level, the so-called interview with rising star Mike Clair. Mike talks over and over about making the tight play, focusing on tight play. Some of my readers like general rules and definitions even when they might not be applicable. Here is one:
When Facing Opponents Of Roughly Equal Or Lesser Skill Level, It Rarely Pays Not To Be The Tightest Player.
Sure, sometimes in Magic you have to bluff. You have to lull your opponent into a mistake because you have no other chance to win. Believe me, I’ve won more than one PTQ with jabber more than cards, and to beat that Exalted Angel to make the Top 4 of the above team event, I chump blocked and tossed my Aven across the play area like a petulant little girl, buried my head in my hands, and sobbed about how certain cards should never have been printed. My opponent shook his head, and sure of his victory, agreed with me as he tapped for another big threat. With his possibility for tricks now gone with his mana, I was clear to Pinpoint Avalanche the Angel and rebuild. But in general?
Don’t get fancy if you aren’t forced to.
When we talk about playing tight, we are talking about making the decision that, over time, over many games in similar situations, will give you the greatest chance for victory. Sometimes that play will screw you in an individual game. Sometimes your opponent will be playing a card you don’t anticipate… and nevertheless, maybe you shouldn’t anticipate that card in the future even though it beat you this time around. In sealed deck, you don’t evaluate your decisions based on rares that the opponent might have when putting the opponent on a strong common in the same colors and mana cost that he is much more likely to have would lead you to make the opposite decision (this of course assumes it’s not game three and he didn’t already show you the relevant breaker rare, blah blah).
Which brings us to Catachresis.
I should probably make you look the word up, because it is the kind of word that, like Arbitrage, Metanoia, Or Satori, will change your life and stick in your head forever. The problem is that it’s not really an English word and if you look it up at dictionary.com, you aren’t going to get the right message. Many moons ago, Scott McCord (who is not only a mighty mage but a professional magazine editor) told me to kick dictionary.com to the curb and use merriamwebster.com. [Or m-w.com for the lazy among you. – Knut, sure that it’s probably every single one of you] Why do I never listen to Scott? In this case, merriamwebster.com offers the far superior definition:
Main Entry: catÂ·aÂ·chreÂ·sis
Inflected Form(s): plural catÂ·aÂ·chreÂ·ses /-“sEz/
Etymology: Latin, from Greek katachrEsis misuse, from katachrEsthai to use up, misuse, from kata- + chrEsthai to use
1 : use of the wrong word for the context
2 : use of a forced and especially paradoxical figure of speech (as blind mouths)
But catachresis goes beyond mere words. When the technique was taught to me by the great McArthur Genius Susan Stewart, it was more about making Intentional Mistake. Like, you know what you are doing [writing] is wrong, but you do it anyway.
In Magic, I think catachresis translates to plays like the one Tim made in that Top 2 draft. Tim knew full well that not taking the Canopy Crawler went against every convention of correct drafting. But he chose to bounce the big Beast off of both opponents anyway. Why did he do this? Why is this generally accepted to be an incorrect draft decision.
The answer is simple. The chances of winning a game wherein the dedicated Beasts player draws and plays Canopy Crawler against a small creature Red player are very high. Therefore Canopy Crawler is a desirable, not to mention highly synergistic, card to draft. The chances of winning a match against the same small creature Red opponent – all other things held equal – are probably higher when playing with Canopy Crawler than Skirk Marauder, therefore, especially with a B teammate ready to hate draft the Marauder, Canopy Crawler is the superior pick.
This of course assumes that Tim would not otherwise end up with the Canopy Crawler.
The difference between playing tight and making this specific decision on McKenna’s part is that Tim knew that he was going to get the Canopy Crawler anyway (this is actually a precise real life implementation of the prisoner’s dilemma). Because of this, deviation from the accepted tight play actually became the right play.
Now of course if the opponent’s didn’t cooperate, Tim would have had a slightly worse card (Skirk Marauder) for his deck, but the opponents would also have blown a hate draft on Canopy Crawler rather than a card for one of their decks.
So, what is the difference between catachresis and actually making a mistake?
We all know that playing the percentages doesn’t work out 100% of the time in Magic. That’s why they are percentages instead of sure bets, and why Magic is more interesting than chess, which is a pure skill game with no random element or hidden information. The reason we strive for the tight plays is that, by definition, over time, they lead to more wins (even if we may lose in the short term after making one).
We make intentional mistakes, on the other hand, when they aren’t mistakes. Really knowing when we can do this implies a lot of savvy on our part, by the way. First of all, we have to be adept enough to recognize what the tight decision, the One Right Play, is… and actively choose to make a divergent play. Note that this is very very different from how a typical mistake is made. I make a lot of mistakes. I usually can recognize when I’ve made one, and almost always know what the right play is. Unfortunately, I realize this one second after making the wrong one. That is not a proper catachresis: it’s just an error.
If this is a difficult idea to understand, just think about Gwen Stefani, the front (wo)man for No Doubt. Imagine a young woman in bright green bellbottoms with an exposed navel, wearing a bare-shoulders halter-top stitched from old black and white sweatsocks. Not a pretty sight, even in your mind’s eye. But if Gwen wears such an outlandish combination, matching it with her faux-50s platinum ‘do, she not only looks fantastic, but ends up on magazine covers. The difference between any random mismatched wannabe and Gwen here is that Gwen is savvy enough to understand the conventions, has sufficient knowledge of the rules to know when and where she can break them effectively. Arbitrary errors, on the other hand, are just errors. You’ll play worse, and lose more.
Now keep in mind that, functionally, when we Play The Man, go catachresis rather than conventionally tight, and win because of it, what we have really done is choose the real right (read:”optimal”) play. This is what edt is talking about when he says that given the same board position we don’t necessarily take the same action. Sometimes you can look across the table and know that he is going to call your bluff. Sometimes you know he is conservative and will take his beat like a man. But the play that gives you the greatest chance to win that particular game given that same situation can be different given two different opponents. The concept of the accepted tight decision – if you can’t Play The Man, you have to play the percentages (what you think most players would do in response to the same board) or you are going to hurt your chances to win – is what most of us who (according to edt) aren’t Mike Turian have to do against most opponents.
Besides Playing The Man, there are also very good general times to diverge from accepted strategies. One of them is if you are vastly behind in a matchup and have to try something weird, or are at least trying to create an advantage in a symmetrical matchup. In early Masques Block, the Rebel mirrors were about Ramosian Sergeant, Chimeric Idol, Parallax Wave, and Reverent Mantra (and Saproling Burst if you were G/W Rebels). Because neither player could control the other’s drawing a Ramosian Sergeant or could contain critical mass and a Reverent Mantra, most players focused on the Parallax Wave element. In the early stages of the PTQ season, I sided out all of my relevant enchantments and artifacts in favor of more Disenchants, theorizing that my opponents would always be stranded with Seal of Cleansing, whereas I was using two mana answers to break their best cards.
Later in the season, with the proliferation of Mageta, the Lion, players could no longer be”stuck” with Disenchants, and Chimeric Idol was one of the best cards against Mageta anyway, so this no longer made sense. I sided out all my rebels instead, overloading on cards like Predator, Flagship and Story Circle to try to outlast the opponent’s Disenchants while making their Magetas, Rebel Informers, Parallax Waves, and overall deck draw quality less efficient. (Got a lot of second place PTQ finishes toggling between these strategies, let me tell you. Frown.)
The beauty of these sideboarding techniques was that they were so unpredictable. Few opponents knew why their ostensibly fine draws couldn’t yield game wins (at least the first time around). But the sideboards still made perfect sense. Chris Pikula favorite thing to say was”I just beat you up with all these Rebels; now I’m going to side them all out,” and he’d 2-0 the opponent, playing essentially two different decks in two different games. Sometimes we would have opponents who actually Knew What We Planned To Do because they had talked to friends of ours or something… and would get pounded in game two when we still had the Rebels in: thus I give you Second Level Catachresis.
In sum, tight is usually right. You deviate when you can predict that the opponent will err and your own bluff, weird extension, or seemingly sub-optimal card swaps will actually generate an advantage. You deviate when if you play right, play your best cards, you will be dominated anyway. But remember, when you are as good or better than most of your opponents, it doesn’t typically pay to not be the tightest player at the table.
BDM recently told me that Jon and Kai, given the same boards, will make the same decisions. They are both excellent technicians. But why is it that we root so hard for Jon and proclaim his genius whenever we he does something mildly successful, whereas we say”of course he did” whenever Kai wins? The difference, BDM says, is that even though they will generally make the same plays, Jon is much more apt to bring in maverick chaff from his sideboard to beat a bomb, or make a crazy bluff, or lie to his friends to win. Of Course we think of Jon as exciting. He’s not just a legend, he’s drama. The most memorable play I can think of Kai ever making was, on the way to winning his Trix Extended Pro Tour, top-decking a Donate against Darwin Kastle in the Top 8 while staring down a Crosis with no cards in his hand. Kai says that while he got lucky, his win there was a result of making the exact tightest play at every opportunity On The Way to getting lucky, so that once he actually made that topdeck, he could win where another player might not have.
So what was the result of McKenna’s ingenius catachresis? BDM dropped the first, beaten by that opened Form of the Dragon (not surprisingly). I played two turn 6 Glarecasters and received in return two turn 7 scoops. Tim was still in his first game – but with an active 5/5 Canopy Crawler – and seemed to have the match well in hand when BDM finished his bomb-laden opponent, picking up the next two. No splits were declared, so we stuffed our pockets with hundreds of dollars as well as taking home the all-important Blue Envelopes.
That was almost a year ago; too bad we didn’t back it up come Boston.
J. Gary Wise has made the final day of the Team PT several different times, with several different teams… even winning one with Scott Johns and Mike Turian (neither of whom are allowed to sling spells any longer). There is something else that he also does, traditionally, come Team PT time: Gary has dinner with me at Plataforma.
This year, though, Gary foolishly(!) did not show prior to the trek to Seattle.
On July 4th, many members of the extended CMU-TOGIT connection joined certain NY Magicians to celebrate their patriotism with Star Spangled Slaughter 2004, where no cow, chicken, or pig was safe from a tuxedo wearing Brazilian with a sword. In Gary’s place came Jelger Wiegersma and Jeroen Remie, Von Dutch members whom I had never met before, brought by Gerard Fabiano.
One week later, they were Pro Tour Champions.
Coincidence or tight decision making?