Chatter of the Squirrel – Constructing the Ideal Play Environment

Read Zac Hill every week... at StarCityGames.com!
Wednesday, May 6th – Today, we’re talking about the mechanics of how people are affected by space. This article is about how we can most effectively manipulate the tournament environment – or, more commonly, how we can best accommodate the realities of that tournament environment by changing some of our own habits – to be most conducive to our success.

Maybe a month and a half ago I am trekking down to Melacca with a friend-of-friend, an architect and lecturer who might be the single smartest person I’ve met here in Malaysia. He is smart but is also cool in the way that characters on smartly-written television shows are cool, the kind of cool that makes you appreciate that he considers, but doesn’t plot, every word he’s saying before he says it.

But so what we’re talking about between pro-wrestling diatribes and comments on the scenery – have you ever noticed that distant mountains are usually blue, of all colors? – is the mechanics of how people are affected by space. This can be any type of space, from a home to a club to a restaurant to the dynamics of traffic on a morning commute, but the central point is that the effect of space is so profound precisely because it’s so rarely considered as an active variable. That is, space tends to be taken as a given. I believe the cause is at least somewhat biological. We are conscious of the fact that we are creatures, and the natural state of creatures is to be present in an environment – an environment with and within which they interact, but until comparatively recently (on the Earth-historical timeline) certainly did not create.

It’s something that just kind of exists, is something around which we’re supposed to adapt. And yet the nature of that space affects us quite tremendously. Limitations on privacy, personal space, and zone-construction, according to my friend, not only contributed to but literally defined the relative ability of your average Malaysian child to be truly independent from his or her parents. The presence or absence of a few windows, a few walls, a few columns in an office building could radically improve or sabotage productivity. The simple arrangement of chairs and televisions in a bar, without changing a single thing about the bar’s doors, walls, tables, windows, whatever, could set the level of dialogue in the place anywhere between a boisterous roar and a near-eerie quiet.

Of course, even though we view (subconsciously or otherwise) all of these environments inside which we interact as more or less a given, the truth is that an overwhelming majority of them were designed and constructed by human beings, often with very specific objectives in mind. But just as you can design a space to achieve certain ends, there are also ways to manipulate how you interact with that space – how you position yourself within it – to similarly accomplish something deliberate.

This article is about how we can most effectively manipulate the tournament environment – or, more commonly, how we can best accommodate the realities of that tournament environment by changing some of our own habits – to be most conducive to our success.

I am playing in the quarterfinals of the CardMaster 5k that was held this past weekend at Malaysia’s newest card shop. It’s Game 3, but that’s sort of a misleading term because I drew out game 1 with triple Oblivion Ring because my life total was extremely low, I had won the die roll, and I liked my sideboard. I had won game 2, and was looking in good shape for game 3; I had a Behemoth Sledge and a slew of Martial Coup tokens on the table against nothing but an Elspeth and a Ranger of Eos, and though I was at six, things were looking good because of the Battlegrace Angel I had just drawn that turn. My opponent had cast the Ranger a turn before, but the way he tapped his mana left him no means of casting either of the two Wild Nacatls he had searched up. This caused me to pause. Did he just screw up, or did he have a Path? He’d left a Plains open, and not a Jungle Shrine, meaning that he seemed to be trying to signal Path rather than just make the purely-optimal play. Hmm. This is one of those things I wanted to know for sure, so I make some comment along the lines of, “Way to tap your mana there, guy,” with the sort of asinine condescension in my voice that makes people just sort of ache to prove you wrong (and slap you afterwards for added value). True to form he kind of smirked a little, said nothing, and I knew he had the Path.

So I just swung with my team to kill him or make him use the Path, then cast a post-combat Angel to block, and kill him with my guys next turn, right?

Well, no.

Should have, but no.

I actually had made a mistake turns earlier by casting a premature Coup, first of all. But what happened was that everyone in the Top 8 was watching the match, chatting with one another and chatting with me, and I was taking it easy. Not really paying attention, assuming I had the game in the bag. Thinking about my next matchup. Taking things as a given. It doesn’t help matters when the crowd basically collective-gasps as I draw my Angel, and I start thinking about trying to conceal the fact that I had drawn a card that was such a huge blowout, because I didn’t want to give away information. So instead of casting my Angel, I decide what I really should do is equip Behemoth Sledge, walk right into his Path, and fail to have enough mana to play the Angel in my hand. I lose on the counterswing.


It may seem like I am blaming the people around me, but that’s the furthest thing from what I’m trying to convey right now. The fact is, a crowd is part of the environment. Whether it is feature matches or simply the finals of a PTQ, when everybody is cheering their friends on and pouring their will into every topdeck and huddling around the table like villagers staring down a well, people will be watching. It’s the reality of a tournament setting. And it’s our responsibility as players to accommodate it.

There are a number of things I could have done to avoid misplaying in that situation. The first, obviously, is to avoid altering my gameplay because of the presence of the crowd – to, in a sense, ‘get over it.’ ‘A crowd’ may not seem like an element of an environment, but I’m using ‘environment’ to mean, broadly, ‘characteristics of a space which are present by virtue of the nature of a given space,’ and not, like, the ceiling and walls and dealer-stalls etc. I’m well-known to prefer a maximally-quiet, ‘serious’ environment when I’m playing competitively, devoid of distractions and disturbances. And I tend to test in such an environment, creating a kind of ‘zone’ as much as I possibly can. But the reality is that such an environment is typically very, very different from a noisy, cold, crowded tournament hall, with side-events and loudspeakers and loud gamer-chats about this or that total oh-em-gee blowout. It’s well-known that people tend to perform better on things – tests, athletic competitions, games like Magic or Chess – the more similar the competitive venue is to the environment in they’ve practiced, for a whole host of behavioral- and cognitive-psychological reasons. I could quit being so comfortable in my practice habits.

Even assuming that’s not the case, though, I could have done an infinite number of things right there at the venue. I could have simply not started chattering to the people around me – which would have been good, anyway, because I hate the type of person who is like stone-cold-quiet when they’re losing or at parity, trying to brainstorm a way out of a situation, but is kind of annoyingly garrulous when they’re ahead and just seems so eager to crack jokes and chat with anyone who’ll listen. I recognize that I can routinely be that person, and it drives me crazy. I could have asked the spectators to take a step back or to quiet down; I mean, it was a bunch of friends of mine, it’s not like they would have gotten offended. But I wasn’t taking responsibility for doing any of this, because a) I wasn’t focusing on the fact that this element of my environment was something I could control, and b) I wasn’t focusing on the game in the first place.

Truth is, there are so many little edges we sacrifice from not thinking about the consequences of the way we orient ourselves within a space. This particular example is but the tip of the iceberg.

Have you ever been walking to your table and noticed that as you’re walking past you can basically tell what every single person at the venue is playing, because you see their cards on every shuffle? This is a natural reality of having a giant number of people playing Magic in the same space, but it’s also something that is very smart to minimize if you get a chance. It’s such a huge edge to know what someone is playing before you even look at your opening hand. Likewise – and this is especially true now that Meddling Mage is legal again – your opponent knowing your deck before you sit down can lead to tons of perfectly-avoidable blowouts. This is why I always try to sit facing the flow of traffic into the play-space, or, when possible, with my back closest to the nearest wall. It’s just so much harder for people to grab a passing look at what I’m running.

Along those same lines: Crowds betray information. If you’re a semi-big name, or even if you’re just popular, for whatever reason, it really behooves you to be situated in a place where you’re going to draw the smallest crowd. Again, you only have two options, so you might have no outs either way. But if possible, try to position yourself where spectators and onlookers wouldn’t be able to see your hand or the card you draw every turn from their designated viewing-area. What you don’t want to do is rip a crucial Broodmate Dragon, or whatever, have everyone gasp, only to realize that you don’t want to cast that spell that turn because you’d be walking into a Coup (or because you’re not able to cast it, or whatever). Then your opponent Thought Hemorrhages, you take three and/or your Planeswalker dies for no reason because your opponent knows you’re not just holding another land, you get your threat Cranial’d, and you’ve fallen tremendously behind.

Here’s another thing that’s especially vital at bigger events. You ever notice the huge, giant, red-numbered clock they employ at almost all Grand Prix events? There’s no reason that you shouldn’t, when possible, be able to glance easily at that clock at all times. Knowing the amount of time remaining in a matchup informs your entire strategic approach to the game – what kind of risks you have to take, when you can simply afford to not-lose, whether it’s valid to play for the two-outer you will ‘eventually see given enough time.’ But the second your opponent sees you actively trying to figure out the time, you basically force him (because the act of seeking out the time is itself awkward) to start considering all these same variables for himself, virtually sacrificing any edge you might have gained. This is something over which you have control even before the game begins. Don’t just plop down in whichever seat is closer. Remember, you have two options. Take some time, think about it, and pick one deliberately.

Other realities seem common-sensical but aren’t, obviously, if you’ve yet to think about them in the first place. If you’ve got a bag with you – and I’m remarkably prone to this – don’t pick the seat that places you right smack next to the flow of passersby. Not only may you get something stolen, but the time you spend worrying about it is time you’re not focusing on the game. If you’re freezing cold, don’t place yourself directly next to the AC vent, fan, or window. And if you know the guy sitting next to you is a friend of your opponent, go ahead and move to the other side of the table to avoid even the possibility of anything suspicious happening.

Of course, most of these involve being early enough to the match to have the option of which seat to pick in the first place, but that’s yet another habit it’s not a bad idea to inculcate. Nothing’s more frustrating than a game loss, but even worse are the ones that are perfectly avoidable!

These types of things are rarely thought about actively, but really do mean the difference, more often than you’d think, between winning and losing.

Until next week…