Deep Analysis – Getting Rid of the Noise

Read Richard Feldman every Thursday... at StarCityGames.com!
A truly massive amount of decisions are made in the course of a game of Magic. As a competitive player, the way you handle these decisions is the only influence you get over the outcome of the game. Plenty of articles talk about how to improve your knowledge as a player, some try to improve your intelligence, but very few discuss how to improve your focus. Today, Richard attempts to do just that…

A truly massive amount of decisions are made in the course of a game of Magic. As a competitive player, the way you handle these decisions is the only influence you get over the outcome of the game. The rest is luck, which you cannot influence – so the knowledge, focus, and intelligence that you put into these decisions is, in essence, the entirety of your competitive skill.

Plenty of articles talk about how to improve your knowledge as a player, some try to improve your intelligence (or, at least, they suggest how to make better decisions in Magic), but very few discuss how to improve your focus. As focus is the element that amplifies the effectiveness of your knowledge and intelligence, you can get a lot of mileage out of simply giving your mind more space to work with during a game.

I know I’ve referenced it before, but Tom LaPille first article as a columnist on StarCityGames.com touched on a topic that hasn’t gotten nearly as much press as it deserves: how to give your decision-making process the time it needs to arrive at the best possible plays.

If I give you one task – “should you attack with Mogg Fanatic?” – and you devote the entirety of your attention to it, you will come up with a much better answer than if I ask you a hundred different questions at the same time and demand answers to all of them at once. Magic is a tough game in part because it rarely asks you one simple question at a time; the questions are usually both complicated and numerous.

The fact is, even a so-called simple question like “should you attack with Mogg Fanatic?” tends to branch out immediately into other questions. “Will he block?” “Do I need the Fanatic on defense?” – and then, of course, the questions that branch out from those, “What will he block with?” and “Do I need Fanatic on defense if he only attacks with one guy?” and so on. There are plenty of complicated decisions that must be made before you can answer one simple question like this, but I already examined that concept in detail last week.

So how do you give your decision-making processes the time they need to excel?

Tom’s article outlines one method: time management. He suggests things like thinking on the opponent’s turn, memorizing the outcome of certain interactions so you don’t have to work through them when you’re on the spot, and thinking in general terms when you don’t have time to analyze every nuance of a situation.

In chatting with Zac Hill recently, our topic of conversation touched on another way to improve one’s decision-making process. As Zac had just completed a run of solid finishes at Pro Tour: Valencia, Grand Prix: Daytona, and Worlds, I asked if something had changed in the way he approached high-level tournaments. He said that one of the biggest contributing factors was that his focus had improved of late. By keeping his mind centered only on the game at hand, rather than what had transpired at the tournament so far, what else was going on around him, or what kind of record he needed to Top 8, he was able to make better decisions on the spot.

He got rid of the noise.

What do I mean by noise? A lot of things are noise.

1. Your Record So Far

When I’m X-0 at a tournament, I’m on top of the world. “I can still lose and Top 8,” I think, so I’m relatively carefree. I don’t have to think about my record when I’m in a game, because there’s nothing to worry about. If I win, I continue the streak. If not, I’ve just used up my safety buffer, and must still lose again before I’m out of contention.

When I’m X-1, on the other hand – I must confess – I do think about it. I know I can’t take another loss and still make Top 8, so I fret about it during the match.

That’s no good! Thinking about my record during the match does nothing for me. It’s just noise, and all it serves to do is to distract me from making the best plays I can. It doesn’t matter if I’m X-1, X-0, or anything else – no matter what my record, my goal is to win this game.

Every second I spend thinking about my record and not the game at hand is a second I could have spent working out my attacks for the next turn. Worse, by mentally switching between topics, I can derail a line of reasoning that could have led me to arrive at the right play. “I think I’ll attack with the team. Hmm… how will he block if I do that? Man, if only I were X-0 and a loss wouldn’t knock me out here… er, what was I doing?”

Messing up your thought processes has serious consequences when you have important decisions to make. The worst is when you keep going back and forth between trying to work out the board and thinking about how close you are to elimination like this, and eventually you have to make a choice so you just recklessly shove your team into the red zone and hope for the best. It will come as a surprise to no one that this often does not work out to be “the best.”

Think about your record after the match is over. Or before the match, if you’re so inclined. Or after you get home. Any time but during the match. During the match, it’s just noise that will get in your way.

2. Your Own Luck

Pardon me while I don my Cynic’s Hat.

*clears throat*

The Game of Magic does not care about you.

It doesn’t know you. It is not your friend; hell, it doesn’t know what friendship is. It’s cold-hearted, emotionless, and unfeeling. It won’t let you in on any of its secrets, it won’t help you out, and the whole time you’re playing it, all it will say is “You win,” “You lose,” or “You can’t do that.”

I have proof. Look at this conversation I recently had with it.

Me: “Hey! You’re Magic: the Gathering!”
The Game: “Correct.”
Me: “Okay, I got some serious beef here. The other day I was at this PTQ and I mulliganed six times in the first three rounds. What’s up with that?”
The Game: “I don’t understand the question.”
Me: “You’re the game, man! You’re in charge! Why did you do that to me?”
The Game: “I didn’t do that to you.”
Me: “Well then who did, smart guy? I sure didn’t choose to have crappy hands a bunch of times in a row.”
The Game: “What made the hands crappy?”
Me: “Is this a joke? The first three had no lands in them.”
The Game: “Did you order your deck such that the top seven cards would have no lands in them?”
Me: “Of course not! Why would I stack my deck to screw myself? I shuffled it like always.”
The Game: “So you shuffled the deck.”
Me: “Yeah, obviously.”
The Game: “So you ordered it.”
Me: “No! I shuffled it.”
The Game: “If the order of the cards was not determined by your shuffling, then what determined the order of the cards?”
Me: “Um…well, my opponent cut the deck after I was done shuffling.”
The Game: “Then your opponent caused the top of your deck to be ordered that way.”
Me: “Okay, fine. But the shuffling was random! Why’d they have to be crappy hands so many times in a row? Why’d you do that to me?”
The Game: “I had nothing to do with it. You have already established that it was your shuffling followed by your opponent’s cut that determined the order.”
Me: “But, dude…couldn’t you have cut me some slack?”
The Game: “I cannot manipulate your fingers to make you order the cards differently when you shuffle, nor can I make your opponent cut differently. All I do is enforce the rules here.”

See? It’s just like I said. The game won’t help you out. It’s just a big meanie-face.

The game doesn’t remember what your last three opening hands looked like. Besides, even if it did remember, the game is a cold-hearted jerk that doesn’t do requests.

Thinking about how your luck has been going while you’re in the match is noise. Tabulating just how very bad your run of luck has been, to calculate the “odds” that your luck will change (as if your future luck was influenced in any way whatsoever on your past luck), is noise.

You can complain to your friends about it when the match is over, but during the match these thoughts do nothing but drain away the time you need to work out the decisions necessary to win despite your poor fortune.

3. Your Opponent’s Luck

This is a more common offense than the previous one. How many times have you sat, staring at the board, unable to believe how many damn Tarmogoyfs he drew this game?

Just where do you suppose that line of thinking is going? “If he hadn’t drawn three Goyfs,” you might think, “I wouldn’t be in this position.” Has that thought process helped you out any? Has it given you some insight into how you should proceed from here? Of course not – it’s a pointless hypothetical about a game state that doesn’t exist. Much as the game doesn’t think about your good fortune, it also does not care one whit how lucky your opponent has been. All the game reacts to is what spells are played and what actions are taken; mental grumblings about how many Tarmogoyfs he’s drawn is noise. You’re complaining to yourself.

Thinking about how many Tarmogoyfs he’s drawn will not help you win this game, and you know it. This bit of noise is just as useless as thinking about how your own luck has fared this match. Thinking about how to play this game state, on the other hand, will help you win the game, and by cutting out this bit of noise, you give yourself a better shot of winning despite the opponent’s killer topdecks.

A side effect of this is the Premeditated Bad Beat Story. This is a bit of noise I used to catch myself thinking about all the time – I’d be working out how best to tell my friends about how badly my opponent had sacked me out when what I should have been doing was figuring out how to win despite his luck. [Man, have I been there… – Craig.]

Stories about how you outplayed a savagely lucky opponent are much better than bad beat stories, I promise.

4. The Opponent’s Poor Play

This might just be the worst one of all.

I want to be careful to note that you should never ignore the opponent’s level of play. When the opponent punts, the manner in which he does so (that is, what kind of mistake it was) and how he reacts to the realization that he punted (if at all) give you some highly valuable insights into the player you are facing.

That stuff is useful. What’s not useful is sitting in slack-jawed disbelief that this freaking donkey who somehow forgot to attack with his flyer three turns in a row is now in a position to beat you.

Put it out of your mind. It doesn’t matter if the world’s biggest ‘foon or Kai Budde is commanding the superior board position in question. Accepting defeat when you have a real chance to turn things around is foolhardy, and if you’re not going to accept defeat, thinking about anything but how you’re going to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat is… say it with me now… noise.

Following Through

Conceptually, noise is an easy thing to get rid of. In practice? Not so much.

Like summoning creatures in your second main phase rather than your first, getting rid of noise is simply a habit you have to get into. Noise wouldn’t be a problem if we could just turn it off in the blink of an eye; the whole reason it gets us into trouble is that we let it sneak up on us when we’re in the middle of something important.

At first, by recognizing that these mental diversions are not harmless, but an active detriment to your game, you can start catching yourself doing them and can at least stave off what might otherwise develop into a full-blown noise tangent in the middle of a complicated turn. As you start catching yourself more and more, though, you’ll gradually rid yourself of the habit of thinking about them in the first place.

Remove the excess clutter, get rid of the unnecessary noise, and what are you left with?


See you next week.

Richard Feldman
Team :S
[email protected]