Fishing Lessons – The Purpose of Theory

Tuesday, March 16th – Last week I started my series of articles on what I call the Theory of Stock Mana. I am a big believer in starting from the very beginning, and that is what I was trying to do last week. I started with the basics of the concept and planned to elaborate and expound. My mistake was that I didn’t start at the very beginning…

Last week I started my series of articles on what I call the Theory of Stock Mana. I am a big believer in starting from the very beginning, and that is what I was trying to do last week. I started with the basics of the concept and planned to elaborate and expound. My mistake was that I didn’t start at the very beginning, like I thought I did. You see, it isn’t enough to explain the basics of my theory; I have to explain what a theory is first.

This prequel was largely inspired by an online conversation with Matt Sperling, where we discussed what the theory of stock mana is and what it is supposed to do. I received multiple messages on facebook, twitter, the forums, and via e-mail with questions about the theory. There were a lot of solid questions, and there were a lot of very simple ones. Mostly there were questions about stuff I haven’t covered yet but will be explained in a later article. There were a lot of complaints and whatnot as well, and the majority of them by far were based in a misunderstanding of what a theory is and not necessarily a misunderstanding about my theory in particular.

You see, a theory is there to better understand the game. That is all. It does not help you play better. It is a translator for the information that we all constantly consume.

To use my gravitational theory example from last week, by discovering gravitational theory, we didn’t become better jumpers. It didn’t give us the ability to start flying all of a sudden. We still needed to do all of the aeronautic work to figure out how to do that. All the theory of gravity did was describe what was happening in terms that were easier to understand. We all knew we stuck to the ground and that things fall downwards, but then we knew why.

The theory of card advantage does not teach you how to play. Sometimes you have to 2-for-1 yourself, and it is the correct strategic play. That is a decision you need to make with your amazing human brain, not one that can be mapped out for you in a description of card advantage. Let’s look at a simple example.

You attack with a 4/4. He blocks with a 2/2 and a 3/3. You Giant Growth it. You don’t need card advantage theory to tell you that is a profitable exchange. Card Advantage just describes why it is profitable, and by how much. That’s the way theory works. It is not the end-all of strategy.

Once you understand the concept of card advantage, you are able to see these exchanges ahead of time and set up games in a way that the principles can be applied, which gives you advantageous exchanges and interactions. Eventually you would have found out about how to do that anyway, but since you learned about the theory and how to apply it, you were able to skip levels of grueling testing because of your greater understanding of the game. That mental shortcut for finding profitable spots is what is beneficial to you, and the discussion of the theory of card advantage is what gave it to you.

The misconceptions about what a theory is supposed to do for you come from either a writer’s hyperbole being taken at face value by readers, or theorists being delusional and giving the wrong message. When people do things like say they have solved Magic or created a Grand Unified Theory of the game, they are practicing one of these two behaviors. We have all done it. Me, Flores, Chapin, and every other theorist you can think of. We get excited over a new concept and talk it up past the point that it can live up to. Well, here’s the truth:

There is no Grand Unified Theory of Magic, and there never will be.

That is like trying to get a computer to act like a human brain. It is not how it works. Magic is far too complex a game for strategy to be summed up just like that with no exceptions or ambiguous areas. All the theories are trying to do (or SHOULD be trying to do) are better describe what is going on. We are trying to explain the complicated interactions that occur in accessible terms. Card Advantage does this using cards, while Stock Mana does this using effective mana costs. Neither can play the game for you.

The hyperbole in the descriptions of the theory make it seem to the reader that this theory should instantly make them good at Magic or something like that, so they are disappointed when that isn’t the case and claim the writer is lying. There is no magic pill or potion that can transform you into a star card player. The theories are just there to save you some time in your journey, and anybody who says differently is lying, speaking in hyperbole, or outright delusional.

Every time somebody says “but how does this help me if I’m in this situation?” or anything similar is missing the point. In that situation, what you should be doing is taking in all of the information you can garner about the game state and your opponent, put it into that fascinating human brain of yours, and using your knowledge, logic, inductive reasoning, deductive reasoning, math, instincts, reads, conceptualization of the rest of the game, formulation of your game plan, and understanding of what is profitable and what isn’t, you then come up with a play and make it. Stock Mana isn’t there to come up with the play for you. It exists to improve your instincts, your conceptualization of how the game will play out, and your understanding of what is profitable and what isn’t. There are still a ton of other factors you have to consider both inside and outside of those categories.

In terms of card advantage, sometimes you have to 4 for 1 yourself because if you have more than 10 life when you reach a certain game state, it doesn’t matter how many cards you have left. Card Advantage theories aren’t going to help you make that play. No theory is. That is complex strategy and unintuitive tactic application that is far beyond anything a theory could explain.

At some point, could one theory explain everything? Technically, I suppose it could, but at that point it would become so diluted and complex that it would actually be impossible to apply and so hard to understand that one’s time would be better spent just learning the strategy.

Like I said before, theories are supposed to be mental shortcuts. If they are more complex than what they describe, then they are useless. In the double-blocked 4/4 example from earlier, which is easier to remember?

A) If a Territorial Baloth is blocked by a Hedron Rover and a Nimana Sell-Sword, it is profitable to play your Groundswell on it to kill both of their creatures and have yours survive.

… or…

B) Killing 2 creatures with 1 card is good, and a pump-spell into a double-block is a way to do that.

Now, which is easier to apply? What if you had a Timbermaw Larva with 2 Forests attacking instead of a Territorial Baloth? Then A wouldn’t even apply, while B would. We have the mental capacity to see the correlation between the situations and make decisions based on similar circumstances even if they aren’t the exact same cards, so after experiencing a few similar situations you will finally end up thinking of it as B rather than A. Then, you will find that it has even more abstract applications; there are other ways to kill 2 guys with 1 thing other than pump-spell into double-block. Then you realize that it’s not just creatures that matter, and that dealing with 2 of anything for the price of 1 is beneficial. Eventually you will encounter enough examples of this tactic in practice, and will be able to subconsciously refine your definition of the concept to:

C) Negating 2 cards with 1 card is profitable by 1 card.

Voila, you’ve discovered the theory of Card Advantage! Now, if you had just read about it instead of learning about it through countless hours of playing, you would only need to encounter it a couple of times to understand how it works and where it can be applied. Then you and your friends can share examples of ways to set up games for these beneficial situations, and you learn and grow as a player. The theory fast-tracked your learning process by giving you simple, quantifiable explanations of why some plays were working out well and some weren’t. Good thing you read about it and understood it instead of just grinding out hour after hour trying to figure out why you can’t win, right?

It is a learning tool. A mental shortcut. Not a how-to guide on all things Magic strategy. You still need to play the game, learn how it works, and know the strategy. It just expedites a portion of your training.

Sperling had a good line about theory that it gives you back either less than or exactly what you put into it, information-wise. Most theorists try and argue that it gives you more, but that just isn’t true. All it does is translate what you put in. If you pick up a foreign novel and put it into a translator, it doesn’t give you back a book with more relatable characters or more chapters or anything like that. It gives you exactly what you put in, only it gives it to you in a way that you can understand. Theories are translators.

Being able to mentally access and properly brainificate the read-out of the theory-translator is important. This is why when the theory gets too complex and diluted to account for more and more (in an attempt to be the end-all be-all of Magic strategy), it loses all of its value. The whole point is that you are trying to put in a lot of complex information and get an understandable explanation back.

Enter: I am stuck to the floor. I can be unstuck for a short time but then I just snap back onto the ground. There is nothing attaching me to the ground, though. If I let something go, it always immediately crashes to the floor, never staying where it is or flying upwards. If I step off of a ledge, I too fall to the ground instead of continuing to move at the level I was on previously.

Return: There is a force in the center of the earth that is pulling everything with mass towards it.

Enter: I have a Territorial Baloth and Landfall has not triggered this turn. I attack with it and my opponent blocks with a Nimana Sell-Sword with one +1/+1 counter and a Hedron Rover that has not had landfall trigger this turn either. I order my blockers Hedron rover and then Nimana Sell-Sword before casting a Groundswell for +2/+2 targeting my Territorial Baloth. Both of his creatures die and mine lives, and now I am very far ahead in this game.

Return: You 2-for-1d, him so now you are up a card.

Something that may not be necessarily that simple, but something that accurately describes what is going on in terms that the recipient can comprehend. It is a language tool. You may know that it is profitable before you know the card advantage theory, but you would probably be left stammering “because it is good for me and bad for him” if someone asked you to explain why it was profitable. Either that, or you would just state what happened in slightly less specific terms. The card advantage theory gives you the language you need to explain it to that person (and, more importantly, to yourself). Without the ability to articulate it, you can only help yourself from knowing something is inherently positive. With the syntax that the theory gives you, you don’t need to just think it is good; you know it is, and you know why. Plus, you can now explain it to other people or have other people describe other +CA situations for you that you can then add to your Magic arsenal.

It is not telling you how to play the game. It is explaining the game itself to you, at which point you can apply that knowledge on your own.

This is why the level 8s are above this type of theory-talk; they already inherently know everything that is being described by the theory from the sheer mastery they have achieved from countless hours of playing and thinking about Magic. They don’t need a mental shortcut to get to the point of understanding where your game improves, because they already have the knowledge at the point where their game has already improved, so what good is the language going to do for them?

Well, it will make it easier for them to teach other people, since not all masters can articulate their craft well. This is true for pretty much anything where a point of pure mastery can be reached. That is, unless they develop a language that can be used to describe the finer points of their craft in a way that can be comprehended by someone who is not a master. That is where these theories step in.

In the real world, even if a theory isn’t necessarily correct, it can still serve its purpose of giving people in the learning process a mental shortcut to easily accessible terms to describe the phenomena in question. Observe.

Enter: The giant ball of fire in the heavens moves throughout the day. It travels in a straight line as it appears in one side of the sky and dissapears on the other. The pattern follows the course of the day and it happens every day.

Return: A God is riding a flaming chariot straight across the sky.

Obviously eventually the return gets changed to “the sun rotates around the earth” and eventually to “the earth rotates around the sun.” None of that matters, though, as long as you know that the sun travels in a straight line thoughout the day so you can apply that knowledge to build sundials to tell time, know how long the day is approximately going to take, and so on. And even though the theory is obviously faulty, it still describes a complex situation in more easily described terms. It is all about having that mental shortcut to be able to assimilate the goings-on in your life into your understanding of the world.

Back to Magic.

The Theory of Stock Mana is important (in my opinion) because it is far more accurate than Card Advantage is. If you kill two 2/2s or two 5/5s, the card advantage is the same. Stock Mana describes that same situation in a way that can discriminate between the values of the differently sized creatures. I think it is more concise in doing so than the other new-age theories available because it describes the interaction in simple, numerical terms. The simple quantifiability of the results that come out of the Stock Mana translation machine is what attracts me most to this way of viewing the game.

I did not solve Magic. I did not produce a simple formula that can play your games for you. All I did was create language that allows simple, mathematical descriptions of cards, exchanges, and interactions. For the billionth time, it describes the game; it doesn’t play it.

For the example above with the same input, Stock Mana would give you something like:

Return: You spent G to negate 7B of SM and 3GG of EC.

See how much more specific that is? You’re not just up a card or some indiscriminate amount of the ill-defined “tempo.” You are up a specific amount of SM and EC on the exchange and so you can easily gauge not only that it was profitable, but very distinctly and specifically, HOW profitable it was. That way you know which plays are the biggest swings and why.

The level of conciseness also comes in handy for comparisons, i.e. our two 2/2s versus two 5/5s example.

Hopefully this article explained what Magic Theory is really about to you, and hopefully you’ll be able to think about it this way moving forward. I’m about to go play in the StarCityGames.com Indianapolis Open weekend, so hopefully I can win it and give you guys a report next week. I like the word “hopefully.” I also like ice cream cake. Mmm, ice cream cake.

AJ Sacher