Feature Article – Working the Angles: The Geography of a Problem

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Friday, October 24th – Billy Moreno, a player used to the Sunday spotlight, brings us some exciting theories on the process behind achieving our goals. If you’re looking to excel at your next big even, his ideas may hold the key… He also shares a saucy Extended Zoo deck, and updates his Standard Anti-Toast decks just in time for the StarCityGames.com $5K Standard Open this weekend!

I walk compulsively. If you’ve seen me sitting for three entire days at a Magic event, getting up only to smoke (that’s right, I barely even move to eat), you might be laughing at me right now. But that’s not exactly what I mean. I don’t live with a compulsion to walk, and Magic isn’t the panacea that has let me overcome my condition. When I walk, though, I live with the compulsion to walk a certain way. A way that I may never be able to write. Directly, efficiently, and without any meandering. What I mean to say is that when I’m walking, I work the angles as much as humanly possible, cutting across manicured lawns with blatant disregard for “Keep Off” signs, walking from the southeast corner of Block A to the northeast corner of Block B, even though that means spending the entire length of the block in the middle of the street. I’ll move if a car comes (I’m nearly OCD about not running into moving vehicles), but I have noticed that other people tend not to walk the same paths I do. If I’m walking with someone and they don’t take the angle, I’m annoyed.

I spend a lot of time philosophizing while I’m walking. I guess it was inevitable that I would try to turn my walking method (mania) into a more general theory. The next step in the thought process was figuring out what kind of situations the spirit of my walking model might useful for understanding. Given that I pretty much only walk when I’m trying to get somewhere (sadly, Amber has given up on asking me to go on after-dinner walks with her), it seems like the principles (pathologies) that guide my walking could be the backbone of a process of achieving goals.

Interestingly, walking and achievement have a history together. I’m sure you’ve heard the advice about taking baby steps when faced with a seemingly unmanageable task. Even the metaphor of milestones suggests the relationship. The strategy of breaking marathon-length tasks into small, achievable goals is a sound one, built around the idea that constant successes will you keep you motivated and moving forward. I don’t really disagree with the process, but I do think it ignores what I’m going to call the geography of problem solving. The baby steps are always in the direction of the final destination, but because the guidelines for charting one’s course are only manageability and general direction, there is no reason why the small goals selected for achievement are necessary or lead to the most efficient path to final success.

My problem with the baby steps method has nothing to do with the name (in fact, sitting here thinking about adults the world over wobbling around like one- and two-year olds tickles me to no end… I’m so ready to start making babies), it’s just that the course from starting position to destination is plotted in the wrong direction, from the wrong perspective, and at the wrong time. As far as direction, it seems clear to me that a path-charting process that works backwards from destination to position has the advantage of only caring about those obstacles to success that are absolutely relevant, while avoiding the trap of dead-end paths. Of course, this kind of mapping requires an overhead perspective, one concerned with the entire picture, rather than one focused on just the next goal. While using the baby steps method, the ultimate goal is understood at the outset, but the incremental process takes place in the moment, as exemplified by the question, what can I do now that will move me towards my final goal. I’m convinced that these steps need to be planned beforehand; any decisions made in the now should be decisions based on changing knowledge about the terrain and the obstacles between you and your goal.

I’d like to take this opportunity to start talking about Magic, finally. Pro Tour: Berlin is coming soon, as is States, and this weekend brings us the StarCityGames.com $5K Standard Open. I think it’s safe to say that I can guess a lot of people’s goals and hopefully I can provide you with a guideline for figuring out how to reach them. For the sake of brevity (I’ve got jokes for days), I’m just going to talk about the PT, and I’m going to assume that the goal is to win.

Starting at the destination, picturing myself holding a huge trophy, having vanquished the field, I retrace the steps that lead to success. While tracing my path, I need only pay attention to the obstacles and how I navigate them. Once I begin walking that path towards success, I probably need to devote an appropriate amount of care to walking it well; that is, once I know the lay of the land, I want to make sure I walk the straightest line I can from obstacle to obstacle, focusing only on those obstacles that actually keep me from reaching my destination. I promise this is about Magic.

So, I’ve won the tournament. How did I get here? I won three rounds of single elimination in the Top 8. What obstacles did I face in the Top 8? We can only guess about the particulars, but I can safely imagine that I had to beat three players who were better than the average PT player piloting decks that were capable of winning most of their rounds against increasingly stiff competition. My ultimate obstacle, then, is figuring out how to beat three better-than-average opponents playing as many as three different better-than-average decks. It seems clear that I’ll need to roughly play as well, and have as good a deck, as my Top 8 opponents. Obviously, luck has an impact, but not one we can really plan for.

Even if I’ve figured out as much, I have another distinct obstacle. I need to make the Top 8. Just because I’ve discovered the best deck for winning in a Top 8, doesn’t mean that deck will get me through 16 rounds of wildly varied competition, facing decks being played based on just as wildly varied metagame speculation. I’m sure many a Top 16 finisher has looked at the final standings and bittersweetly noted how perfect the Top 8 metagame was for him. I’ve been there myself. Conversely, once in the Top 8, a player may see his first round pairing and correctly assess that he has almost no chance in the match-up. At Pro Tour: Honolulu, against Craig Jones, Antoine Ruel cast an absurdly illegal Ancestral Recall to laughingly illustrate just such a point.

So, if I need to both make the Top 8 and win out once I’m there, what steps can I take? As noted earlier, once in the Top 8, I need to play at least roughly as well as my opponents and have a deck about as good as theirs. The match-up part is something I have almost no control over. No matter how well I predict the metagame, the Top 8 is such a small sample size that aberrations from the overall metagame are likely. That’s the reason so many writers dig down into the Top 16 and further to look for successful decks. If I want to play well, I need to be good at Magic in general (seems obvious, but I just wanted to make sure it was explicit), but I also need to be very familiar with the deck I am playing. You can generally be sure that a deck good enough to make the Top 8, given the right pairings, is good enough to win it. So I should focus on playing well enough to beat the kinds of players I can expect to see in the Top 8.

Conversely, it’s safe to say that if I play well enough to win under the Sunday spotlight, I’ll be prepared to play well enough to make it through the Swiss rounds. Because I’ll play more than 5 times as many rounds in the Swiss and I’m more likely to see an accurate reflection of the metagame, it becomes much more critical at this step that I correctly predict that metagame and correctly plan based on that prediction.

Basically, I now know that if I want to win at PT: Berlin, I’ll need to pilot my deck well enough to beat at least three people who pilot their decks about as well, and I’ll need to play a deck that anticipates the metagame well enough to win 13 rounds against opponents that resemble my prediction.

Now that I know the two obstacles I’ll need to overcome if I want to win the Pro Tour, I need to figure out what might keep me from doing so. In both cases and for most people, the answer is probably a lack of time. Playskill, especially with a given deck, has a direct correlation to the amount of Magic a person is playing, especially with that deck.

Metagame assessment is mostly a matter of man hours; there’s definitely a real sense in which players have biases towards deck types, and those biases can randomly skew the metagame, but the biases are many and will usually cancel each other out as so much noise. Overall, we all share the basic rationale that we want play the best deck (for a metagame) and so I should trust that when I do enough work my understanding of the best decks (give-or-take a margin of error that includes other decks that I think are close) will be pretty accurate. I think one of the most important things I can tell you in this article (especially since I’m starting to doubt that my overall method is anything the average Magic player couldn’t figure out on his own) is that it’s important not to outthink yourself about the metagame.

Time can’t be conquered, but we can definitely figure out how to make better use of it. The fastest way learn to pilot a deck well is to constantly play matches either with or against that deck against or with a wide variety of other decks being played by people who are hopefully better than you. That means you really want to figure out what deck you’re going to play as soon as possible. With that in mind, the fastest way to figure out the metagame and what deck you should be playing in it is to play a wide variety of decks and experience as many of the match-ups as possible form both sides of the table.

Switching it up, playing both sides of a match-up, will also give you a head start on all the work you will need to do once you’ve picked a deck. In fact, the deck-selection step may actually take place very late in the process, as late as the day or two before the actual event. So, it really is critical to be literate with all the decks you might end up playing, so that you’re not starting from scratch when you finally decide.

Right now, there’s only a week left before the big day. Where do you find yourself? If you’re prodigious, disciplined, and have been around the block a few times (I’m looking at you, Heezy and Hat), then you can probably start working now and get through all the work you need to do in time. But I hope you mere mortals have been working for a while already. If you have, I hope this article can help you focus only on what’s essential for winning a Pro Tour. If you haven’t done a thing yet, it’s time to start taking some shortcuts. You can’t scrimp on skill, so you’re going to have to catch up all you can by trusting the work other people have done assessing the metagame, pick a deck or two they recommend, and learn it fast (while you’re doing that, don’t forget to play both sides of the match-ups…it really will give you a better understanding of what’s going on).

In that spirit, I’d like to offer the deck I’ve been working on, one that I’d take to Berlin in a heartbeat if I was qualified. It’s nothing especially flashy; it’s actually a pretty standard Zoo build, with a few strong choices in the sideboard. But the fact is that Zoo is high on the power scale, consistent, built to punish people who stumble, and not easily targeted (you can build a Zoo-killer, but you give up too much across the board to do so).

I’m sure a few cards stick out like sore thumbs (quick question: do sore thumbs stick out because they pulse brightly red, or because it’s too painful to tuck them in?). In the maindeck, the Plains and Forest are insurance against Blood Moon effects. You might notice that I’ve chosen Putrefy over Oblivion Ring. They fill the same role, fighting fatties like Tarmogoyfs and Myr Enforcers, and annoyances like Vedalken Shackles, but where O-Ring can deal with the random Seismic Assault, Putrefy can keep a Storm deck off their Lotus Bloom turns. As far as I’m concerned, Zoo and Storm decks are the main poles of the format, and my particular decisions are based on that. This leads us to the sideboard. Finally, the singleton Akrasan Squire (which makes more sense after you look at the board) is a big deal in the mirror, allowing all your creatures that normally bounce of theirs to effectively swing in. The two Hounds are merely a concession to the curve and the speed requirements of the format.

I’m pretty sure that the combination of Finks and Rangers are the best possible plan for the mirror, and more than serviceable in any other match-up (like Affinity or whatever-level Blue) where Zoo wants to or is forced to play an attrition game. Not only do the Rangers keep the Nacatls and Figures flowing, he also has three power, a critical number in the mirror. Against the Blue aggro-control decks, I wouldn’t bring in the Finks but the Rangers are still awesome, presenting another source of card advantage besides Dark Confidant. Kher Keep comes in when you side in the four-drops to make sure you are able to play your spells on time.

Pyrostatic Pillar is another card that is chosen for its effectiveness in a particular match-up, this time Storm. But it comes in against anything slower than you that needs to play relatively efficient spells to try catching up to your initial onslaught. Ancient Grudge, of course, is the standard. Jon Sonne said he likes Kataki in this spot because sometimes Ancient Grudge can’t catch up to an Affinity draw that features multiple Ravagers, and I can see his point, but I don’t like giving up the extra weapon against Vedalken Shackles.

I would sideboard as follows:

Zoo: -2 Isamaru, -4 Molten Rain, -1 Dark Confidant; +3 Kitchen Finks, +3 Ranger of Eos, +1 Kher Keep

Desire: -3 Putrefy, -3 Incinerate; +4 Pyrostatic Pillar, +2 Ancient Grudge

Faeries: -1 Akrasan Squire, -3 Incinerate, -4 Molten Rain; +3 Ranger of Eos, +2 Ancient Grudge, +2 Pyrostatic Pillar, +1 Kher Keep

Affinity: -2 Isamaru, -4 Molten Rain, -1 Akrasan Squire; +4 Ancient Grudge, +3 Kitchen Finks

I hope this list is helpful.

For everyone who’s next big event is this weekend’s StarCityGames.com $5K Standard Open, here’s an update to both of the lists I presented last week… a single list that combines all the best elements of both, preserving all of the anti-Toast tools of both, while taking full advantage of the pressure (good against Faeries) and anti-aggro tools in the GWu deck.

I don’t have a sideboard yet, but this a maindeck I’d be happy to bring to SCG:

I wish you well in your future tournaments, and I hope my visualization techniques are helpful for those serious about self improvement.

Until next time…