Five Useful Instances Of True Versus Useful

Parsing the difference between information you need and information you have is a constant battle in Magic. If you need help deciphering the noise and improving your game, Mike’s got five examples of how to improve just in time for the Madison Open Series!

I suppose it all started with Nissa Revane.

All planeswalkers are awesome, right?

Well before we were coming to that conclusion (or rolling up our sleeves) RE: the two-mana Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded, there were four-mana planeswalkers like Nissa, and the presumption was that they, like Garruk, Ajani, Elspeth, and other Ajani before them, could be awesome.

Now there might have been some flaws with this theory, at least as applies to Nissa. Problems like Blightning, or the legality of Lightning Bolt in Standard at the time. Zvi himself cautioned me that Nissa wasn’t even worthy of Block Constructed play, but…

All planeswalkers are awesome, right?

Well, what if I could play lots of planeswalkers, all together?

Or what if I could play some planeswalkers, synergistically, with other also-awesome cards?

I guess I was brewing up proto-Superfriends at the time, that innocent time before the table-snapping Venus on the half-shell that was Jace, the Mind Sculptor; but ultimately Nissa had too many dependencies. I tried Nissa with an Elves suite (obviously Elves, I suppose). Even in a three-Nissa build you kind of had to have four Nissa’s Chosens.

I tried Nissa with Armillary Sphere for card advantage and Conqueror’s Pledge for late game oomph. I had Nissa and Garruk (then the only kind of Garruk), Ajani, and Elspeth all at once. Surely it was going to be awesome! Surely.

I had Selesnyas and Nayas plus Luminarch Ascensions in my sideboard for the inevitable more-controlling controls.

More than anything, I was locked into Baneslayer Angel. Remember, these were the days before Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and so by extension certainly before Sun Titan. And to my mind, and by the testimony of the recently-triumphant Dragonmaster, “Baneslayer Angel [was] the best large creature of all time.” And in a Standard essentially defined by creatures? Perhaps it was the best card you could play, at all.

And then there was the performance by a particular red panda enthusiast:

Kali Anderson won the StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Nashville, stealing the thunder from a Top 8 featuring two g-d copies of my own Mono-Cascade deck (Editor’s Note: Mono-Cascade is [michaelj’s] all-time favorite deck to play). Surely there was something to be said for this Nissa Revane.



Ultimately that something—at least as went my explorations with Jungle Shrines and basic Plains—was…


I tested and Tested and TESTED some more. I kept losing games and matches to decks I thought I should have been beating. I never knew when to hide behind 1/1 Soldier tokens versus jumping my Baneslayer Angel. I think I even dropped one to being Overrun by another Nissa deck’s Elf onslaught.

So after a long night of hanging out with BDM, I went home with one thing on my mind.

All of this is too much work.

(not what you expected, I’d wager)

I knew what I liked.

I liked Lightning Bolt and Baneslayer Angel. I liked the power of having a four-mana planeswalker and the flexibility of gaining life with it or containing a small beatdown creature. I loved Loved LOVED Bloodbraid Elf!

But Lightning Bolt and Baneslayer Angel didn’t really get along that well with Nissa. I mean they were all fine cards but Nissa wanted more Elvish Archdruids and Turntimber Rangers for her ultimate; these cards were soaking up all my spell space, and I hated ever drawing and playing them fair and square. Even when Bloodbraid Elf was good, it was never that good—not like it was when flipping over a Blightning (as I was used to at that point).

Nissa is too much work. She is such a high-maintenance chick.

I felt bogged down by Nissa. She made me play all these cards I didn’t really want to play. I had a three-color deck but my one-drop was Llanowar Elves. This didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

Why don’t I forget about all these “synergies,” I thought. Why not just play the good cards?

It started out with Nissa Revane, sure. It ended with Andre Coimbra. Maybe that was the beginning.

There is a principle in neuro-linguistic programming that there is no real failure, only feedback; I think the Nissa Revane story is a good example. From one perspective I spent a whole heck of a lot of time on bad Nissa decks. Like a lot. As I said, I played all different builds; two-color, three-color… Surely, too, I admired of Kali’s winning deck.

But at the end of the day, the not-winning I did—the “failure”—gave me the information I really wanted. The cards I was playing for, the signature cards I was bending my deck design around, were not performing as well as just a “regular” card. I liked Naya-ness; I learned I liked the combination of acceleration, and Bolts, and a good four-drop. But I also realized, over time, that I just wanted to tap out for the best threat I could, every round.

This brings us to our first of five useful incidents for today’s article (and I am paraphrasing Bard Patrick Chapin here):

1. Nine out of ten decks / Built by the best / Suck – so keep the / Good one and discard the rest

What does this mean, in and out of context?

If you haven’t listened to it in Patrick’s “Brew Master’s Delight” you have probably heard Conley Woods or another designer making some similar comment. It is a similar principle to how we conduct direct marketing.

Basically, most ideas are bad. Most tests are bad, or at least come up with empty hands and shrugged shoulders. Even when we end up with penicillin or the technology driving Post-Its… it is by accident. Most product launches and advertising campaigns—and certainly decklists on the alpha build—fail. But it is silly to judge almost anyone only on these failures. While a 90% failure rate by even “the best” might be an exaggeration, I would hazard that I make two bad decisions for every one good one I make, and I have a ludicrous track record.

Put another way, each and every one of us is better than the worst thing we have done.

The trick is to figure out the 10-33% of the times that things do work out… and scale up those things that produce.

That’s it.

You have something good, you put it in the hands of a lethal bullet.

You have something bad? Maybe you report on it in a “process” type article, or let some fans see you stream with it (and lose), but you move on. It might not be good; but it might be interesting to talk or think about… and at its best, it might just rebound you into a related or tangentially influenced PT winner.

2. Never play The Rock

This is one I learned from Zvi.

…Based on essentially an entire Act Two of constantly wanting to play The Rock.

I don’t know at what point it was that I switched from ruthless offensive decks (I spent the entirety of the 1990s winning tournaments with fast black ones and twos) to a desire to win via incremental card advantage and tapping out for huge creatures… but I certainly spent a good four or five years in that mode.

Zvi’s argument, generally, was that incremental card advantage decks only work as long as incremental card advantage is a viable strategy, meaning you have time to sit there and grind out an extra card every three turns or so. If your opponents refuse to cooperate, you basically never win.

It may in fact have been my study of The Art of War that eventually got me out of it. I was coming out of a year where various Exalted Angel, Dwarven Blastminer, and Indrik Stomphowler decks were winning other people Extended PTQs, but Master Sun explained to me that a great general avoids long, protracted conflicts.

I thought back to the many games where I started out with flurries of Duress and Cabal Therapy… and ended up losing to 20-point exact-sies from the last Psychatog, anyway.

Likewise, I would encourage you to never play The Rock.


It’s just so rarely the best thing you can be doing.

And even when it is? You never want to be The Rock that loses to another copy of The Rock by being out-midranged. You have a six but he has a bigger six. Or worse yet, he has a seven! What do you do when your big game is a six but your opponent has a six on four, or worse yet, any kind of an eight?

Is your Titan really so much more impressive than his (faster) Griselbrand, or the other cat’s Titan… but backed up by removal and/or the color blue?

Now part of never playing The Rock is to be able to identify if you are in fact accidentally playing The Rock. Zvi taught me that The Rock is not necessarily [only] B/G. A Grixis Control-looking deck can be The Rock!

“T/F: You will Sun Titan back Borderland Ranger.”

Brian David-Marshall, to YT

The only solution is constant vigilance.

3. As long as you’re rolling dice, you might as well roll the ones with the biggest numbers

This is a concept that took me many years and the ejection of a lot of ego (if you can believe that) to wrap my head around.

At the end of the day, we are all just rolling dice, all the time.

Some of us can roll the dice with greater skill or accuracy; others can roll dice in places where even the gods do not see… But we are rolling dice.

There might be certainty, and superior technology and development… But it is ultimately dice.

“Playing 0 of the best cards week 1 is less likely to be right than picking completely at random.”

Patrick Chapin

Deck designers who are more in love with their own ideas than maximizing their chances (or their bullets’ chances) of winning typically don’t have a great grasp of this concept. Card synergies (and linear strategies) typically work out by generating additional value at no additional cost in cards or mana. The trade-offs are that your average card quality is somewhat compromised. The classic example might be running Ravenous Baloth over Loxodon Hierarch in a Beasts-Rock deck. You lose the 187 life gain of the Hierarch (you have to actually sacrifice the Baloth to gain 4 life); this is essentially an implication of inferior card power and card economy head-to-head, but if you are playing lots of Beasts you have more opportunities to gain 4, and if you have Contested Cliffs in your deck, you get a free source of battlefield domination (if the opponent gives you sufficient time and relevance, of course). Or an Arrogant Wurm is more expensive, less durable, and does less damage than a Phantom Centaur… Except when you are playing it on the cheap while pumping your Wild Mongrel mid-combat. Grok?

Now these brewers who are more interested in their own ideas than winning will often try to will value onto cards that happen to be different, rather than play the accepted good cards.

The motivation, I think, is to make a mark and do something distinctive and significant. As you can only do something distinctive via differentiated difference, they tend to err more on the side of “being rogue” (which is in fact essential for their model) than “being on the winning team” … which also is.

Man, I wanted Nissa Revane to be pumping out all the Bloodbraid Elves!

But you know what? She just wasn’t as good as having a Ranger of Eos, and as a source of life gain (and self-preservation), she just didn’t hold a candle to Ajani Vengeant, especially when I didn’t care about either of those things because I was facing control. No amount of my desire was going to out-pace the actual performance of some other available cards.

So if the game is “high roll,” then who is going to win: the guy with the d6, or the guy with the d20?

Sadly, the guy with the d6 wins like 15% of the time.

But hey, if you want to have the advantage like 85% of the time, you should choose the dice with the most sides!

Now I make this suggestion assuming the intention to win the most. If you have some other motivation, carry on.

4. The more flexible your operating system, the more likely you are to seize an opportunity

Last week I talked about using an algorithm that is essentially the Jeet Kun Do of personalities. I try very hard to eject old or outmoded strategies and ways of thinking, and fill myself up with the most useful ones as much as possible, soaking up as much as I can along the way. For example, I am no longer obsessed with being “right” all the time.

This principle is closely related to options-preservation foci on “the play” as described by both Zac Hill from a theoretical standpoint and Jon Finkel from a practical one. Why is it generally better to tap your Island rather than your Glacial Fortress? Because all other things held equal, you have more options left when you have a Glacial Fortress untapped than just an island.

When is it superior to tap your Glacial Fortress instead? When your opponent is playing Choke. Why? Because if you tap your Island into his Choke, you might ultimately have fewer options by holding back the more!

Here’s the cool takeaway: This principle is applicable to… everything, and in most situations!

Last week we went over a handful of different communication modes that might allow you to win games that you might not have been able to take acting otherwise. Most readers seemed to enjoy the practical tools addition, but others said they weren’t interested in winning “that way.” That’s okay, of course, but you can’t disagree with the fact that flexibility in terms of these behaviors allow you more opportunities to succeed than adhering to a rigid (and smaller) palette.

Multiple writers have described the difference between Jon Finkel and certain other top players primarily as a willingness to side in the Dromad Purebred. Is Dromad Purebred good? No. Actually it’s kind of bad, or at least underwhelming in most spots. Are there times when Dromad Purebred is your best option, at least if you suck it up, ignore the potential embarrassment of being caught on camera with an em effin Dromad Purebred in play? Can you put the soul read on a particular opponent and realize that Dromad Purebred might be the difference that makes the difference?

How about Lost in the Woods?

Is a Lost in the Woods strategy by default great? Is it a table-snapper? Generally I think we would all agree that the answer is no. However, is there great certainty about being able to play it on time when we have it in our deck? Can we put the soul read on certain opponents and know based on the dragged out game 1 that Lost in the Woods is a ticket to the check mark in the “W” column?

A willingness to side in Dromad Purebred and innovate around Lost in the Woods—rather than a closed-off model of the world where anything you don’t understand or didn’t think up yourself is “terrible”—smacks of the kind of behavioral flexibility that differentiates some of the best players.

These are just tools, of course, and the trick to good tools is knowing when to use them. Just as you can’t Jedi Mind Trick your way to every tournament win, your chances in the average game are probably reduced if you have a five mana 1/5 with a marginal ability in your deck.

Yet, it’s kind of like card advantage. All other things held equal, are you more likely to win with two cards in hand, or just one? One of the reasons card advantage is good in Magic is that the option of doing X or Y is by nature more flexible than only being able to execute on, you know, X.

Do you need a college education to be successful in life, or in business, or to get a good job?

Absolutely not.

Some of the people (Magic players or no) I admire the most never went to (or never finished) college. But going to college gives most people more options than not going to college (for the average person, a BA will give them around one million more options than having no diploma over the course of a career). How about an elite education versus just any old college education? I actually think that there is huge value in attending an elite school, not because the quality of an education is so much better (though it may be), but because you get more doors opened for you.

Now here’s the thing:

Going to college can be expensive. Not for everyone, but often; elite educations are almost exclusively very expensive, and that is provided you can “get in” to begin with. If you pay out more for an education—not just in terms of money, but in terms of years of your life—than the education is worth to you (say you study something pointless that no employers respect), then you run the very real possibility of having fewer options when you get out than you would have if you hadn’t gone to school at all.

So think about this for a second before you devote not just six figures in financial investment but the entirety of your 20s to that graduate degree in Underwater Basket-weaving.

Lastly, and probably most importantly:

5. You should worry less about whether something is objectively true than whether or not it is useful to you

I purposefully chose disputable, or at least debatable, “useful” shortcuts for the other points in this article.

Some readers are obsessed with debate over stuff.

Others (typically not very successful in life, or in whatever they are focused on) are obsessed with whether or not something is factual.

Is it objectively true that you should never play The Rock? I am the one telling you to avoid it, yet I am pretty sure I won the first Extended PTQ with The Rock. So clearly there are times when you might win with The Rock, but I am still pretty comfortable telling you that, in the long run, you are going to improve your chances of success if you avoid it. The win made me happy, and probably tipped me too far along the axis of being willing to play midrange green decks. My results, over time, improve by barring myself from doing something with a depressed EV just because it made me happy once, 11 years ago.

How about dice?

How about flexibility overall?

Brian Kibler pointed out to me in Baltimore that my whole model around playing blue is fundamentally flawed.

But you can gain multiplier value with every card!

“Yeah,” said the Dragonmaster. “But what if you are bad?” More options can be poison to players who are more likely to dig themselves deeper and deeper in the muck with every wrong decision. They will actually do better if their choices are constrained!

Ultimately, this is how I try to approach everything:

I am at A.

I am trying to get to B.

I have a great many tools to get from hither to thither. I can jib-jab, play tight, loosen up, bluff, charm, practice, develop new technology, dig up an old favorite, or just play the best archetype deck as best I can. I can embed commands or call in favors. I can intentionally draw the last two rounds if I am lucky enough, or I can try to sculpt my Top 8 matchup with a favorable Swiss record, even eliminating a potential bad matchup if I am paired down in the right spot. I can network with great players, or elevate kiddies who are willing to put in the work. I can try to win it all myself, or—as I have chosen to do for most of the last several years—take a step back and share my tools with a wider and wider audience.

It is really about where B is, and what I am willing to do to get there.

Like I said, I have all different tools; ultimately anything that can get me closer is useful, though certain technologies are faster and more efficient than others. Conversely others will make my road more difficult.

Can Blood Artist carry you from A to B? Certainly! But I would be much more apt to try to fly there on the nimble back of an Insectile Aberration.