Down And Dirty – Mountain, Shock You: Magic and the Real World

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Wednesday, March 18th – In an uncharacteristically reflective mood, Kyle Sanchez examines the impact of Magical resource management on real world decisions. Harking back to an innocent game description from the Old School of Magic, he suggests that competitive Magic players are setting themselves up well for success in other aspects of life…

One of my fondest memories of “old school” Magic* was during the Urza-Masques era, when I started playing, during the Top 4 of a Friday night tournament. Top 2 received a very attractive foil White Knight, which was part of the first generation of FNM foils, before of course they were called “FNM foils.”

Jared, Sammy’s little brother piloting his big brother’s 1.5 “Ultimate Burn” deck, had made the cut, and was facing off against an unfamiliar face that we hadn’t seen around the shop before. We were pulling for Sammy’s little brother to defend the shop regulars, but really, I just wanted him to earn one of those White Knights so Sammy could steal it then trade it to me for my White Weenie deck, a deck that lost to Flashfires and triple freaking Dread of Night earlier in the tournament.

Jared rolled a six, and we cheered! This was before Magic etiquette was established, and we winced as the unknown assassin matched the six. Jared, battling in his first Top 4, felt the significance of the moment and countered with a strong five that was not to be answered, and led with a first turn Mountain

He then proceeded to make one of the most memorable plays in my Magical lifetime.

Jared reached down to the Mountain, firmly and confidently twisted it sideways, and announced: “Shock you!”

I looked at Sammy, my nephew Josh, Kris, David the Roach, the dude coming out of the bathroom buckling his pants, Angry Ron behind the counter, and all the other shop regulars. I couldn’t stop my hand from slapping the top of my forehead in disgust and confusion. Nearly every other player in the shop followed and slapped their foreheads, creating a wave of claps the made Jared ask nervously “What?!”

It’s obvious to everyone reading what his mistake was. Shock is an instant, and playing it on the first turn in a completely blind and random match as a sorcery is just plain dumb as nails. Jared didn’t know any different; he was playing a narrow-minded burn deck where he just had to play Chain Lightning, Ball Lightning, and Lightning Bolt, until his opponents were cooked well done or he managed to mana burn himself to death.

I ran into Jared a couple of weeks ago, which gave me a lighthearted reminder of his early blunders. More importantly, it made me break down his play to the root of the circumstance.

He mistimed his spell, which is one of the fundamental aspects of Magic: maximizing your resources.

This opened the dusty attic that’s held a theory I’ve had about the game for awhile, one I’ve put off thinking about in depth regarding its significance.

Learning how to succeed in Magic lays out a blueprint that helps you succeed in life.

Playing by the rules gives us a solid moral background while instilling excellent decision-making skills over a broad range of ever-changing scenarios. We play different archetypes to win more often in changing metagames. We have to learn how to obtain the cards we seek, so we learn how to barter, focused around an end-goal of obtaining the resources that will give us the best chance to succeed. We network with like-minded friends and peers to better each other as individuals.

Before I go any further, I want to highlight the difference between the type of Magic player that sits down with a Mono-Green Bear deck and the guy who sits down with four Cryptic Command and four Bitterblossom. I’m not saying that the Bear deck guy is a horrible person, but there’s a reason he’s not reading this website while you are. There’s a reason you made Top 8 at that PTQ, won FNM, or like to draft Red and Black for removal with Blue for evasion and manipulation. And that’s what separates us competitive players: we care about winning enough to do the research and think about the game intellectually.

There are so many of us that have breathed, eaten, and slept with Magic on our minds that we’ve built up a wealth of situations and scenarios in our brains that can be translated to better our outlooks and productivity in other aspects of our everyday lives. Very similar to how college looks to set us up for success and instill good work ethic, competitive Magic breeds excellent decision-making and resource management.

If only Jared had learned the importance of that turn 1 Shock all those years ago…

Awhile back, I was invited to participate in a poker colony in Austin, located in a collection of dorm rooms. Jeff “Potter” Meyerson, a very good friend of mine who dabbled in competitive Magic, was the bank for the whole establishment, and he was looking to recruit Magic players to teach them high stakes online poker. He had been teaching poker to his dorm roomies as well as a collection of hand-selected students from UT, and quickly found out how much easier it was to relate poker to people who’ve played Magic before, which led to a more profitable poker colony at his end.

This is nothing new, of course; when Dave Williams made his big break in poker, it brought a great deal of positive attention to Magic players and highlighted our superior decision-making process. But somewhere down the line, poker became the cool thing to do, as well as extremely profitable for a chosen few, and it feels as though people drifted farther from using their time profitably. They were hooked into the limelight lifestyle of a professional poker player, when there are an abundance of profitable endeavors that Magic players can use to boost themselves financially.

It’s tied to the same phenomenon which dictates that everyone thinks they are an excellent poker player. Seriously, whenever poker is mentioned among a group of people, there are always a few that try and one-up each other, saying they’re better, they’ll take your money, etc.

You can make the point that every game has core values that will help you better yourself as an intellectual mind, but Magic is unique in that it’s based around ever-changing yet uniquely balanced setting. This makes it much more “lifelike” than those first-person shooters in which you have several lives, gory conclusions, and an arsenal of mayhem at your command from the start of the level.

This is one of the prime reasons Magic has been so successful and potent among those that have been lucky enough to buy that first important booster pack.

The key to unraveling this blueprint lies in relating it to your everyday occurrences. If you’re a starving high school student, try applying yourself to your studies as much as you’ve applied yourself to Magic. Haha, yeah right… high school is the time to learn Magic, right? Your bills are paid by the parents, and you have a lot of extra time on your hands to draft on MTGO.

It’s not that taking time off Magic to complete your studies or get your mind and future straight is a bad thing; the things you’ve learned and friendships you’ve built will still be there when you come back. The important thing is being successful in whatever endeavor you pursue, which is the driving factor to maximize your resources.

I’ve stayed with Magic more than nearly everyone in my area. I’m a Magic addict, and one continuing theme is that people will always be coming out of the woodworks to sling some spells, reliving their glory days, and paving the way for new ones. No one loses the Magic bug, which is why you see the likes of Finkel, Dave Williams, and Hunter Burton still competing. All have the luxury to sit on sunny beaches all day watching topless models walk by while sippin’ on Martinis, but the lure of the game cuts deep.

If you’re a proud business owner, you’ve probably already got some of the fundamentals down, but Magic can help you transform the way you approach managing your business’s resources to maximize your profits.

If you’re not a proud business owner, and working a job to build up revenue, think about how you can spend that revenue to better your future outlook, like buying property and renting it out, or buying a beat up van and turning it into a mobile Taco shop. Spend two mana to Rampant Growth and you might end up with a turn 3 Phyrexian Processor. The important thing is to have a plan and end game.

There is no opponent to kill, unless you really don’t like your neighbor because he doesn’t clean up the dog poop from walking Max in the morning, but perhaps sitting down and thinking the situation out like a complicated combat step will set off the light bulb that prompts you to attack the problem from a position of intelligence, working toward a mutually beneficial solution.

Predicting what’s going to happen turns in advance is another important skill to learn, and if you predict yourself chump-blocking a Tarmogoyf with the pay check you draw every turn, you need to make the correct adjustments to find a suitable answer.

There’s another important fundamental part of Magic to which a lot of people have a hard time adjusting, and that’s losing.

In Magic, losing is a regular occurrence, and something everyone has to handle. Our losses contribute to a better understanding of the game, like how it’s just variance that we got stuck on two lands for ten turns and lost to two-toed Tommy. Picking the pieces up from critical losses and re-gathering ourselves is something we’ve had to deal with numerous times**, which teaches us control. Control that will translate into better posturing for our future critical loses, such as when we’re forty and our house is burnt down by an arsonist, or when social security and medicare in the States falls through and we’ve gotta pay for our own damn pills.

Rich Hagon wrote an excellent fifteen-part article on Shuhei Nakamura and his rise to greatness, detailing the ups and downs via his DCI match history record. While Shuhei was batting 65% match wins against the game’s top players during his peak on the Pro Tour, he’s still only averaged a very consistent 60% match wins over his entire Grand Prix career thus far. That means that on the PT, while he was hot, he lost roughly one out of every three times he played, which is a testament to the level of variance that takes place in our game.

If Jeff Gordon won two out of three lifetime races he would be heralded as the second coming of Christ in a car, while Kobe Bryant winning two thirds of his season games isn’t nearly as impressive. However, it’s probably pretty close to his lifetime average.

The important thing is learning how to deal with your loses. After every game I play, I run through a little mental recap of the game, highlighting key interactions, the speed of the game, and the cards to play around next game or next time I play against that deck. You’d be surprised how useful it is to recap your day while lying in bed with your eyes closed.

Whatever you do, don’t handle the situation like Jared, who threw the “Ultimate Burn” deck against the wall when the unknown assassin used Chill out of the sideboard of his Mono Blue counterspell deck. After throwing the deck, he ran outside and started to cry, but Sammy wasn’t in a sympathetic mood so he went outside and punched him in the arm a few times. I’ll never forget the squeals, like a piggy being butchered, after each of Sammy’s punches, or Jared’s teary reddened face when Sammy made him pick up all the cards.

But what did he expect? He was up against Masticore and Morphling as optimal kill conditions, Powder Keg as quality removal, and Whispers of the Muse and Ophidian to increase his resource options.

Thanks for reading…


* It wasn’t the oldest of schools, but I’d rather learn the game once 6E rules came out instead of all the pre-Urza Block BS where you don’t die until the end of the turn and cheating was popularized. I could have had some fun with Ante, though.
** Steve Sadin was hospitalized and almost died because he gamed too hard trying to make Level 3. Lesson? Don’t GP in Australia and walk around barefoot. Look at him now, back-to-back years on the train of gravy.