Chatter of the Squirrel – What Matters

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Wednesday, July 1st – The best advice ever given to anyone about Magic is the statement, “Focus on what matters.” Of course, that’s cheating, though, because clearly if you know what matters already then you don’t really need to worry about figuring out what to focus on.

Originally I planned to write, this week, about how to apply Magic Theory, big ol’ capital letters, multisyllabic terms, abstract concepts,- isms aplenty – how to translate all of that into something you can do in actual games. Unfortunately for me, the answer proved to be too simple to really carry an article all by itself.

I mean, it’s something a lot of people talk about. Whether theory is useful. Obviously I’m of the opinion that it is, but you’ll hear people say that a lot of the material over which theorists rub their temples and wring their hands is really stuff that good players just sort of ‘get’ intuitively without having to call it “Polarity” or whatever. Whether there’s a need to spend all of this time arguing about whether a 1/1 Squirrel token is a ‘card’ or not – and, from other camps (such as that of Interaction Advantage), whether that distinction is meaningful in the first place.

The truth is that basically all theory is good at being what it purports to be, and its application, when you think about it, is pretty straightforward. You need to know how to execute a Phase 3 trump during deck construction, if that is what your deck is looking for, and once you configure the deck to allow such a strategy you need to play in such a way to make it manifest. Deck construction and sideboarding are not at all divorced from elements of technical play. You have to play well, at least strategically, to design a deck and sideboard that accomplish what you want them to do. Likewise you have to understand who the beatdown is in a given matchup both during deck construction and inside an actual game, and you have opportunities to gain initiative both by virtue of in-game decision-making and out-of-game design*. Other theories have more limited, but not necessarily less important, usages. Recognizing the makeup of a given environment due to the nature of information cascades; developing a deck using concepts of format polarity; maximizing the quantity of spells you can cast that ‘have haste**’; all of these are decisions you have to make at the point in which you’re selecting your deck, but aren’t immediately useful while you’re sitting down at the table playing a game.

Still other theories are so universal and/or ingrained across general habits of ‘good play’ that they don’t really serve as much of a mechanism to generate advantage at any point. Mana curve, card advantage, tempo – these are all concepts which we use so frequently that they rarely factor into our conscious decision-making processes. I am not necessarily saying that they shouldn’t; we didn’t have an adequate explanation of tempo until Next Level Magic came along, and frequently players should actually be less concerned about card advantage than they presently are, particularly when it concerns whether or not to mulligan. My point is that “when in doubt, play cheap spells that generate value” is not really a revolutionary statement to make.

These theories, however, are extraordinarily valuable in that they provide an excellent descriptive framework via which we can analyze games***. It’s frequently important to realize that the game was lost on the turn that Branching Bolt resolved, even if the game dragged on forever after that. Or that you were sitting there with 5cB falling further and further behind because your list had a glut of three-mana spells that sat in your hand doing nothing while your opponent was killing you. Or that there was just no way to come back from your opponent’s turn-1 Nacatl on the draw with Mono-U Faeries when you didn’t have an Explosives in your hand or a Chrome Mox, because tapping out to deal with it meant your opponent was going to resolve an even bigger threat. Or whatever. Frequently the ability to describe what was happening through the lens of these theories allows you to then make predictive- or analytically-informed decisions at a later stage, such as including Controlled Instincts in your Mono-U Faeries list because you need a way to deal with that turn-1 Nacatl without tapping out on the third turn. But understanding what tempo is, alone, would rarely lead to such a decision by itself.

The thing is, there’s the article, right. Theories are good at what they purport to be. There’s no need to ask for more than that.

That of course begs the question, though: well, if not theory, then what should we be thinking about?

The best advice ever given to anyone about Magic is the statement, “Focus on what matters.” Of course, that’s cheating, though, because clearly if you know what matters already then you don’t really need to worry about figuring out what to focus on. So it seems, you know, kind of silly. Kind of obvious. But why then is it so resonant? It sounds good, sure, but the real reason everyone sort of nods their head and sighs audibly and like puts their hand on their chin and furrows their brow when they hear this is that it’s also salient to the point. In fact, in a lot of ways it is the point. Because a lot of us – a lot of us – refuse to focus on what matters, and we know it.

Let me tell you what matters.

Right now, I’m testing with a very solid group for Malaysian Nationals. I do not expect to do very well, both because I’ve always been terrible at Standard and because everyone else is working much harder than I am on basically everything, but that’s not really the point, and I mention it only to put into perspective the lens through which I am approaching this tournament. That’s not to say that I would do very well if I put in comparable effort, either; I have been truly impressed with the diligence that everyone is bringing to the table, because it’s much greater than it has been for PTQs, and in the ‘States I suppose I am used to seeing the exact opposite. There is one trend, though, that is sort of funny to me. Yesterday I walk into the restaurant and run the obligatory chats when I see Michael Toh furiously keying away some entry into his cellphone. He is actually making the face that people on infomercials make when they’re trying to exaggerate the difficulty of some basic task so as to convince you to purchase the like AbsorboPly 3000 for Only $19.99. Squinting. Mouth open but unconsciously. He asks me what I am playing, I say probably either Faeries or Five-Color Braid, and he just starts like jamming my response into what I can only imagine is the cell-phone equivalent of an Excel spreadsheet and totally like back-in-fives the conversation once again.

I come to realize that he is not the only person doing this. There are no fewer than five Malaysian guys expending exhaustive amounts of effort compiling a database of what every single person in the tournament is playing. Actual printed, red-inked sheaths of paper. And I just can’t help thinking to myself, what, am I going to get Cabal Therapied on turn 1?

Jumping through hoops to figure out what everybody is playing just doesn’t matter. I mean. Sure, okay, I get it, it kind of matters. And I’ll probably get destroyed by somebody who keeps the like four land three Volcanic Fallout hand versus my Bitterblossom — Spellstutter – Scion draw just so someone can stand up on a table and announce Great Justice! But it doesn’t really matter.

Let me rephrase. My opponent has out a Glorious Anthem, attacks me with a Wizened Cenn. I have out a Scion. I play another Scion, double block. I look at my opponent. He looks at me. “Damage?” he says. “Yes,” I reply with confidence. “Two to one, one to the other,” he says. I place a single Scion into the graveyard. He waits. I wait. He waits, then points, says, “He has a damage on him.”

When I am doing that, the fact that fourteen rather than thirteen percent of the field has elected to play G/B Elves is not what matters. When my opponent in draft yesterday battles with two guys, leaving himself with no blockers, then dies on the counterattack to my double-Unearth after I rip a basic land, knowing that I have a slight preference for drafting the color black in S-C-R is not really what matters. And what is important is what really matters.

I see a lot of players get very preoccupied with very, very unimportant things. For whatever reason, there’s an article that goes up every year or so about Jedi Mind Tricks, about the mental game, about the small things you can do like putting a sandwich on the table to give yourself an edge. These articles always generate a ton of hoopla. For three or so weeks after that, I can always count on being asked how many cards are in my hand whenever it’s obvious that I’m trying to coordinate a difficult attack or sequence of players. I mean, that is cute, that is adorable. It’s precious, deserves a hug or a golf clap or whatever. And I guess I am not trying to diminish it, really, either, even though that is exactly what I just did. Because that stuff does add up sometimes. I am known to go to relatively great lengths to tilt my opponents, especially at the PTQ level. It’s just – when you’re doing that sort of thing, and yet are you know running every single one of your Bloodbraid Elves into your opponent’s Plumeveils, it seems like there could be some more effective allocation of mental resources going on. Is all.

It may surprise a lot of people that I feel more or less the same way about deck construction during PTQ and GP seasons. For Pro Tours, I am all about breaking formats, because you have one tournament and it’s infinite rounds and it’s for all the marbles and that’s that. Plus it’s usually an unexplored format so little advances in innovation tend to go a long way. And sure. Sometimes you have a Swans deck for Barcelona or a Tenacious Tron or that very popular first Faeries finish that gave us a core of all the modern lists – the one with Nameless Inversions and no Rune Snags which hardy har har we laugh now at how could that guy have been so far behind, but which was so unreal ridiculously busted for that tournament that it just doesn’t matter. But most of the time you’ve got something like five different PTQs in range, along with one or two Grand Prix of the same format, and the most challenging part of the equation is figuring out how you can attend them all. How smart is it, really, to devote all of your time to ‘solving’ the format – especially in the modern era, when most formats are deliberately diverse, and all feature certain polarities that are going to be bad matchups for certain kinds of decks no matter what? Is out-teching everybody else what matters, really? Is it even really feasible, in an era of ubiquitous MTGO-usage and two-hundred-plus PTQ attendance? Sure, sometimes it might be. But most of the time – does it just make you feel good?

The fact is, the overwhelming majority of games are decided through tight strategic and technical play. The surest way to win a match is to play it well. Constantly we hear about true masters of PTQ-format deck design like Adrian Sullivan and Mike Flores and Richard Feldman punting their matches in the top-4 of a Q. And the thing is – I don’t necessarily doubt that they have shown up with the best deck in the room! The issue is that you have got all of these other lists that have obviously shown that they are capable of winning tournaments also, and is the slight edge you may get from a matchup percentage here or there worth the huge dip in in-game testing time you have to devote to the entire process of honing and tuning a deck from scratch? I assert that an overwhelming majority of the time it is not, barring extraneous factors like it being higher-EV to try and break a format with the limited time you have because you know you can’t practice enough to become a master. I loved this past Extended PTQ season because I literally felt like I could beat any player that sat in front of me. I had just jammed so many games with the list that I knew what to do in every situation. Cedric is in a similar position with Kithkin right now, I feel. And getting to that point is the surest way to win a PTQ, because the errors that give other people their losses simply don’t apply to you.

What matters inside a game – which cards, which decisions, which strategies – changes all the time, and I can’t help you with that little piece of the pie. But what matters before you sit down, what you should prioritize, is tight, precise, deliberate, well-informed technical play. At any given PTQ you need to do the homework to get the lists. You need to play against those lists. You need to refine your own list so that it has a plan against everything reasonable. And then you need to learn how to execute. What matters is the play. Your play. Some people base their entire time convincing people that what matters is the deck, the tech… everybody has got to got to got to keep up with the technology curve. We writers get paid largely to provide that tech to people in easily-digestible form, replete with sideboarding guide and a decklist you can port right into MWS to start testing. But the reason I feel comfortable saying this, just sort of putting it out there, is that I’m one hundred percent certain almost everyone reading these words will continue to nod their heads, say ‘uh-huh,’ ponder these ideas for maybe fifteen seconds, and go on doing what they were doing anyway. Because it’s seductive. It’s easy. We all want to feel like the total master who has turned the format on its side, to just sort of clean up because we have figured out what everybody else hasn’t. It’s much less sexy, much less romantic, to be the guy sitting there winning all of his matches because he’s ground out exactly twenty points of damage through turn after turn of carefully-plotted Zoo attack.

But he is the guy who gets to sit there and win all of his matches.

“Tight technical play decides more games of Magic than all other factors combined.”

A smart man said that. We should listen.


* Incidentally, Wall of Denial was so good in our Honolulu deck largely because it allowed our Bloodbraid Elves to gain initiative. I first understood this maybe five minutes ago. We’ll get to the distinction between predictive and descriptive models in a little bit.

** Understanding, for example, that both Plumeveil and Wall of Denial have haste in a Bituminous Blast-informed Standard, but Wall of Reverence and Broodmate Dragon do not, and whether yours is the kind of deck that should be concerned about that distinction.

*** I would put Interaction Advantage squarely within this camp – but, then again, I would also call Engineered Explosives a threat.