Chatter of the Squirrel – The Language of Magic

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Wednesday, July 2nd – Given that all I’ve been doing since GP: Indy is helping Sam Black break formats and slaving away at language school, I’ve had no choice but to ruminate on the parallels between the two. Well, between learning a language and Magic generally, at least. I want to present, then, some of the similarities I’ve discovered, in the hopes of spelling out some global parallels for anyone trying to acclimate themselves to a way of thinking. Along the way, you just might become a wee little bit better at Magic.

Chapin’s all House of Cards, and meanwhile I’m sitting here ten-thirty staring at a stack of notecards and a blank slate wall wondering when things changed. For starters, I’m fixing to go to sleep. Yes, an hour and a half before midnight, the full cute middle-aged-couple-just-finished-watching-TV, and oops! it’s bedtime and off to work again bright and early. Yes, this is real. Chatter, who prior to June 15 didn’t even realize you could be in bed before midnight, now keeps the schedule of a nursing-home resident. Precious, huggable, well-balanced breakfast at seven. Mid-afternoon nap. Light, wholesome dinner, accompanied in all likelihood by a glass of skim milk. Scarcely a beer to be found. And, oh: fourteen &*()&*!! hours of language study every day, enough to rip my hair out in mottled clumps while raving conspiracies re: my sanity to the clear, silent windows as I stare at my reflection and count the seconds. All of a sudden* an idea pops into my mind, holy mother of something Runed Halo is insane in a deck with all fliers, and we don’t need those Spellstutters anyway, and wow I just Reveillarked back a Scion and a Sower but but but but bel a jar. Bel-a-jar. Belajar. To study. Saya belajar Bahasa Indonesia di Universitas Wisconsin di Madison, dan (oh yeah) sedang membuat PR untuk besok. And back to the grind, boys, there it is again.

Thus: the life of a Magic Pro and Luce Scholar, in all its vaunted glory. Pause for applause.


Given that all I’ve been doing since GP: Indy is helping Sam Black break formats and slaving away at language school, I’ve had no choice but to ruminate on the parallels between the two. Well, between learning a language and Magic generally, at least. Both involve extremely counter-intuitive reasoning patterns and cognitive schema in some cases entirely different from and in others even diametrically opposed to what you’re accustomed in your daily life otherwise. Truly, you’re attempting to construct a coherent system of thought from the ground up, and it isn’t easy. I want to present, then, some of the similarities I’ve discovered, in the hopes of spelling out some global parallels for anyone trying to acclimate themselves to a way of thinking. Along the way, you just might become a wee little bit better at Magic.

Some may reject this parallel at the outset, though, asking, “is Magic really anything like a language?” After all, we’re not exactly composing sentences when we’re launching Profane Commands at people’s domes. But language, at its core, is ultimately a structure for interaction, for the communication of ideas, and absent the presence of that structure all you really have is a bunch of people walking around grunting, casting glances, and making aimless, strange noises at one another**. In Magic, the game is the system of grammatical “rules” that govern the way the cards interact with one another, and the cards are the pieces of vocabulary that function in certain very specific ways. And while, in a given game, you may not be trying to communicate a certain message, you absolutely have (or ought to have) a very particular aim, just as when you form a sentence you have a particular meaning you’re aiming to convey. Moreover, just as in language you have subtle variances that drastically affect the outcome of the product – in this case, the sentence – in Magic, even the most minor decisions can radically alter the landscape of the match. Sometimes, it’s hard to even pinpoint how those decisions are different from one another at all!

Think “Yo, man, can I borrow your bike?” versus “Hey, Matt, you mind if I take your bike out for a few minutes to get some groceries,” which despite having the same basic meaning and truth value are going to produce radically different outcomes, even though it is surprisingly hard to pinpoint, analytically, why. In Magic, this is similar to the situations where, for example, it’s correct sometimes to take five from a Browbeat when you’re at eleven life and your opponent has one card in hand versus the times it’s proper to let them have three cards in the exact same situation. The most subtle factors (the order in which they have cast their spells, their demeanor, the velocity at which they have deployed their initial threats, etc.) make all the difference in the world.

The reason I harp on this point so much is that I’ve done a lot of thinking lately, largely due to a series of conversations with Adrian, about intuitive versus cognitive grasp of the game, who has what, and how you can develop each of those respective skills. While I used to think there was a kind of instinct to the game that was more or less innate, the more I play Magic the more unlikely that seems. Of course, some people are just going to be “born” better at the game than others. But just as I learned how to extract the maximum value from the placement of a modifier, or how to break a run-on rule for effect, I think the “intuitive” grasp of Magic: The Gathering can be learned very much as one learns a language. The cognitive understanding starts first, but these ideas gradually serve as the building blocks for more ideas that are – and this is crucial – not necessarily conscious thought processes at the outset. That is, I think that it’s very possible to make “correct” plays for the right reasons without having first thought consciously about those reasons, in the same way that I type correct sentences or speak correct phrases without processing and ordering that sentence first. Once you familiarize yourself with the structure, the case-by-case behavior falls into place.

Also, crucially, this is one of the reasons I think it’s so easy to mis-evaluate certain cards that don’t really fit well into existing patterns. I’ll use Runed Halo again, because it’s totally insane, and yet when you first see the card – at least, when I first saw the card – I didn’t think “Swords to Plowshares plus Lobotomy plus they still have to draw the cards you Lobotomized” (under the right circumstances, of course) because there wasn’t really anything to compare it against. I didn’t have the vocabulary.

When I started thinking of Magic as a language – or, at least, sharing similar structure with the same cognitive processes that are engaged by language – it suddenly started to make sense why I was able to differentiate “what matters” from what didn’t in, for example, Time Spiral Block Constructed so easily. It’s why I find my game continually improving even though I played at my first Pro Tour seven years ago. I’m learning to speak the language.

With that in mind, here are some skills that you can use – in both disciplines, really – to improve your “game.”

1) Practice, practice, practice.

You knew I’d say that, and I’m sure it doesn’t seem too helpful. Blah blah, another author telling us to play more games. But, let me tell you, Monday’s class is always hell because I haven’t been speaking Bahasa Indonesia for a mere three days. I don’t hear a word once and immediately know what it means, how to employ it, what its various tenses are. Worse, I might even understand how to play a given matchup after a twenty-or-so-game set – I’m being ambitious, but you get the point – only to forget the crucial parts a week later because I’ve passed it off as done. This definitely happened to me for Hollywood, when I totally forgot to side out Scions of Oona versus G/B Elves even though that was the most important conclusion at which I’d arrived through prior months of testing in that matchup. In language, I know I knew what the words hanya, umur, and sekali meant yesterday, but I sure don’t remember them now. Without reinforcement, you’re not going to retain anything at all.

But, at the same time…

2) Get some rest.

As I mentioned before, I never took naps, of all things, before starting this program. But my brain is so fried after a morning’s study that I cannot simply remain awake the entire time. I need to “reboot,” and I definitely need to relax. For Magic, I know that for most people – and sure, there are exceptions – there’s an extremely high level of diminishing returns. I’m not just saying “sleep before tournaments.” I’m saying that if you’ve been playing so much Magic that you feel burnt out, you need to chill, go outside, watch a movie, hang out with whomever, do something else. I’m serious about this. I often wondered how I’ve been able to put up consistently middling-to-good results (at the very least, I’m perennially qualified for everything) despite playing, I guarantee you, far less Magic than anyone else on the Pro Tour. I’m not saying stop battling; I know I’d be doing far better if I could play more. But you have these MTGO giants who play upwards of forty hours a week, and I sit and think to myself “I could never lose if I were able to play that much!” The problem, though, is that for the non-Yurchick-and-GerryTs of the world, most people just aren’t getting value out of their iterations. I’ve played matchups with people, basic matchups like Quick-N-Toast versus Kithkin in Block, with people on the PTQ circuit who I know have played the decks against each other at least a hundred times. Yet still I ask questions like, “why did you remove the counter from the Vivid Meadow as opposed to the Vivid Creek?” and I am met with a blank stare. It’s as if this decision wasn’t even considered.

I’m not harping on players, though, because it can be completely intimidating to have to think on this level game in and game out one hundred percent of the time, which is why most people don’t. Frequently, though, you’d be better off playing ten good games than twenty on autopilot.

3) Integrate Magic into your reality.

Wait, what?

One of the best laughs I’ve had in recent memory is when Ervin Tormos told me a story about how he refused to get out of bed one time because his Morphling was untapped. If that makes sense to you, then bravo, you’re kindred. I have distinctly lain in bed with a girl – not recently, Anna, I know you read this, and mwa!, love ya!*** – and thought I was getting such a good deal at 1GG. I bought a six-pack of Capital Porter that ought to have cost nine or so dollars, and instead the cashier rang it up at around eight, and what immediately jumped into my mind was suspending Ancestral Visions. I can’t tell you why this makes sense, only that it does. In language, one of the things SEASSI repeatedly emphasizes is to not not not try and translate everything into English in order to grasp its meaning. This is one of the many reasons we conduct class entirely in Indonesian, and rely heavily upon photos and examples (at least at the outset) in lieu of word-by-word translation. The reason is that it’s multiple orders of magnitude easier to link a word with a concept directly than it is to try and route it through the vehicle of another language. So next time you run forty-five minutes over the allotted metered parking time and nevertheless don’t get a ticket, don’t call yourself the most giant donk in the history for thinking of it as a ‘savage topdeck.’

4) Focus on what matters.

… and he said it. We’ve heard a lot of this through the years, and still we have no idea what this means. But, I think, we’re getting close.

In language, initially I was totally overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what was being thrown at me. This was (and is) no doubt the hardest thing I had ever done. We were learning forty, fifty new words a day, new verb phrases, adverb forms, adjective structures, inquiries, and where on earth can I possibly start with all this? But a talk with Bu Amelia greatly assuaged many of my fears. The vocabulary will come later, she assured me. For now, learn the words you’ll use tomorrow, and figure out where everything fits in the big picture. The rest will come to you in time. In other words, focus on what matters.

In Magic, most of the time, I have absolutely no idea what matters. I don’t think many people do. But I have figured out, specifically with control decks, preferably pure control decks, but also any time you’re assuming the control role, even in Limited, what it is. That was a lot of commas. Feel the buildup. But when you’re supposed to take control, what matters is the question, “How on earth can I possibly lose this game?”

This probably applies in every situation, come to think of it, but it’s easier to digest when all you’re trying to do is not-die. In Time Spiral Block: Is that random Tarmogoyf ever going to conceivably manage to kill me by itself? Will I possibly die to it? Well, if worst comes to worst, I can burn this Damnation on it in three turns, but in the meantime I’m much more likely to die if I kill that and he drops a Mystic Enforcer. That Goyf (or Predator, or whatever) is going to wind up incidentally dying when something I actually care about that I can actually lose to hits the table, so right now it doesn’t make a difference because my opponent’s plan for winning can’t possibly just include “attack with this dude and hope that nothing happens to it.” At GP: Indy, I’m at twenty life. My opponent has a Spawnwrithe, I have stone nothing, my opponent can’t make me discard cards. Several different spectators wondered why I didn’t Firespout right then and there. “You’ll have to kill it anyway, and the opponent doesn’t have to play any more guys to kill you.” Well, I wasn’t going to lose to that Spawnwrithe, but I very well may have lost to the guy he played next turn if he played it. Taking six damage hurts, but it’s not going to make me lose. Meanwhile, it opens up the possibility for me to gain initiative when I draw a relevant creature, putting my opponent on the defensive and mitigating his later threats. As it turned out, my opponent did contribute an extra guy to the table, I did manage to gain initiative with my Firespout, and I won the game that I might have lost if I took the route that gained “advantage” without focusing on eliminating (to the greatest degree possible) any of my means to lose.

Sometimes that’s not possible, sure, but that’s why you don’t worry about things you have no control over.

Alright, back to the notecards and monotony. Sampai nanti!


* That’s for you, Timmy.
** Which is more or less your average PTQ environment.
*** That just happened.