Flores Friday – A Wealth of Information

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Friday, August 22nd – The study of Economics, and how it relates to Magic, is something that’s been touched upon in countless articles down the years. Today’s Flores Friday sees Mike in inspired form, looking at the value inherent in certain strategies, and investigating the very nature of the battles we should be looking to fight, above the battles we are actually fighting.

Once upon a time I was a college student; I was a kind of college student that many of you probably know — or knew — in college. While I nominally went in to study to be a doctor, lawyer, or businessman, I also went in gaming the system. You see no matter what they tell you on The Gilmore Girls, there is no such major as pre-law, nor pre-med; they just don’t exist. There are certain required classes that you have to take in order to attend medical school in the United States, but there isn’t any such major. Most students who intend to become doctors end up studying Biology, but that is just for convenience’s sake (there is a fair amount of overlap between an undergraduate Biology major and pre-med requirements).

I think that I always knew in the back of my mind that I didn’t want to study anything remotely useful in college, so I declared myself an English major from the outset, concentrating mostly on British poetry of the Romantic period; as for gaming the system, there was no nominal problem with this because since there is no such major as pre-med (and no requirements whatsoever in terms of pre-law), I could study whatever I declared myself interested in studying and have an equally relevant major.

I quickly came to the conclusion as an undergraduate that I had no interest in… Interestingly, a lot of the things that I really like to study today: Perhaps my adult reading lists centered around math, quantitative analysis, psychology, statistics, etc. are an unconscious apology to my willy nilly younger self (though I didn’t understand this at the time, a lot of those same pursuits can greatly improve one’s Magic game); thus, my deep interest in economics came only late in my twenties.

Without going too in depth in background information, I am going to declare something that many of you probably already know, and explicitly, in fact: Economics is the basis of essentially all Magic theory. We even describe card advantage — the core, that germ, around which almost all of our informed decisions are formulated, for good or not — as card economy. I am wild about economics in the abstract, I read the Wages of Wins blog, the year I read Freakonomics I decided that was the best book I read that year, I blah blah blah. The problem is that for as wonderful as its bells and whistles can be for describing certain observable elements of human experience, economics is fundamentally flawed, and as a system for understanding the best that Magic can give us, the flaw is twofold: Not only does the same real-world flaw carry (not surprisingly), because so many of our decisions hold card economy central, that flaw destroys much of our ability to make the best decisions both in the tournament and out. Why?

Economics is the study of scarcity.

Sometimes you will hear people joke; is it worth Bill Gates’s time to pick up a $100 bill if he sees one in the street? * My dad would be very angry. Of course it’s worth his time. Don’t you know the value of money? Only kind of, Dad. I spent most of my college career studying Romantic British poetry. An economist would chuckle. There is no $100 bill… Somebody already picked it up. Scarcity.

Basic microeconomic theory assumes things like no rational actor saves anything, businesses optimize to expend all their resources and not make supernormal profits, and individuals maximize utility by spending all their money. Certain general rules are important in order to find a baseline, but we know that this does not describe 100% of experience. I’m sure that you know some people obsessed with saving money, and they probably don’t even save it very intelligently (it’s stuffed under a mattress, or in a money market account, or they need a financial cash cushion to “feel secure” even though they are carrying credit card balance), and businesses… I don’t think that it’s a real-life core goal to not aim for a profit.

Magic, too, when studied through an economic lens, can lead to shoddy play. I have written on numerous occasions that the most common mistake I make in big matches is to tap all my mana when I shouldn’t. This is a very economically-driven bad habit, etched at the very core of how I learned to play competitive Magic. Certainly you must have see players tap two for a Gerrard’s Verdict for the same reason (it’s all their mana, it’s two cards), then lose to a Broken Combo Deck TM, rather than playing the topdecked Duress (leaving a stray mana, it’s only one card), and avoid losing, at least that next turn.

Military actions fueled by specifically economic goals are flawed as well. Let’s say the goal is wealth, and that wealth is a function of resources and technology (R * T). For essentially all of human history, the pursuit of wealth has been defined by one group mistakenly gobbling up the resources of a neighbor in order to increase R, therefore increase value of R * T.

However, maximization of T would yield the exact same results, without having to muck around in someone else’s R (and is generally a less expensive expenditure of one’s own R). Think about how we define epochs of human history… It’s always as an expression of T. Stone, Bronze, Iron; Steam, Electrical, Information. Wealth creation based on increasing R tends to be short-lived, whereas when T goes up, you increase your own wealth, and at the same time lift the base for everyone who can participate in the delta technology, again without fighting over someone else’s R.

So how does this translate specifically to Magic?

The Problem with Playing Fair

Why does Zvi say not to play fair? The answer is very closely related to the inability of decks based on trading (essentially contests for R) to win in Extended. For years players have been attracted to the progressive card advantage of decks like Survival or The Rock, and done relatively well, but in most environments these decks have had problems dealing with Broken Combo Decks TM. Even when I was on my original run with The Rock some six years ago, winning against Donate fourteen times on the way to GPT and PTQ wins with Sol Malka’s list, I could never beat the Innovator in testing, not after he switched from Donate to Aluren. My cards, which tried to grab a little R and leave me with a little R, simply didn’t do anything quickly or compellingly enough to actually win.

The reason is that these decks are fundamentally based on fighting small battles to obtain the opponent’s R at a slight profit. There is nothing wrong with that if T is equal, but the problem occurs if the opponent has greater T. Imagine that the opponent’s T is greater by a factor of two; small delta in R will only be significant if you can really grind the opponent down to R = 0, attrition, attrition, attrition. What do you have left yourself? Note the recurring complaint about these kinds of decks — and many decks that I have built over the years — and the quality of their finishers. If you are not attacking quickly enough, because you have put so much R into taking the opponent’s R away, you simply give the Broken Combo Deck TM time to get R beyond 0, at which point his superior T will end the game.

At Grand Prix: Philadelphia earlier this year I had a chance to watch now-newly crowned Grand Prix: Denver champion GerryT play his Loam deck against a highly skilled TEPS player. Gerry was operating on all cylinders in terms of delta R. He had Life from the Loam going with Ghost Quarter, and even though his opponent had Lotus Bloom warping in, Gerry had an Ancient Grudge in his graveyard to deal with that on upkeep, to cripple the main phase-centric TEPS.

The problem occurred when the TEPS player produced a Pact of Negation for Gerry’s Ancient Grudge. He was all tapped and the Lotus Bloom lived to the main phase. All the Life from the Loams in the world to this point had failed to keep TEPS at R = 0. Now he had three mana to work with, and a hand full of spells he had not played — nor been able to play — due to Gerry’s turn after turn of mana suppression against his comes into play tapped lands. Bam! It was over. With just a little mana, T was spilled all over the table.

For all his card economy, Gerry had not been able to acquire a way to win, constantly flipping over Tarmogoyfs when Dredging; his opponent had a turn, and that turn was enough in this case.

So what makes for a superior T?

This is a highly conceptual question. From the most basic way of thinking, better technology is… better technology. Is it better deck technology? Certainly new decks and how they are released via our sources on the Magic Internet seem to go hand-in-hand with this interpretation, or at least in some wise. Think about how a little bit of deck tech on magicthegathering.com can spread like wildfire and eradicate the previous contenders from the metagame. Think similarly about how one player with one secret deck from another geographic region can cut through a regional PTQ like a hot knife through butter, leaving the locals so many beheaded cro magnons, victims of the lone rising h. sapiens.

What is the opposite of competition?

A pretty typical soundbyte you will get from an MBA student is something like “Where there is no competition, there is no opportunity,” or “Where there is no competition, there is no business.” This presupposes that all the opportunities have been carved out, and we all fight for a little room in a particular niche, and that’s just the way it is. Some people, some businesses, execute better than others, and those are the ones that win.

About a year ago I walked into my boss’s office and told him that I wasn’t particularly interested in competing any more. Advertising costs were — and despite “the economy” still are — rising, at the time our biggest channel was actually a “friendly competitor” (as if there is such a thing), and we were at kind of a business crossroads from the product side. He wondered what I was talking about.

I wanted to be like Starbucks.

Now today Starbucks has competitors, and like any mature business, has had some challenges, such as recently closing some 600 stores, or coupon screwups that handed market opportunity to opponents like Caribou Coffee. But when Starbucks first hit the scene, they did everything the opposite of how the market seemed to indicate they should move.

Coffee was commoditized. They charged — especially for the time — more money. Think about how striking an idea that must have been; here is something anyone and everyone can get for a cheap price either from the grocery store or for a couple of coins at essentially any McDonalds, but Starbucks decided to show a different value, resurrect the coffee traditions from around the world, bring those to an urban American setting, and charge extra for the opportunity to… pay them more money for something anyone could get for a cheap price either from the grocery store or the local McDonalds. Here is a nice leather couch.

They made a market.

We made a market, and have been pretty successful in ways none of our traditional competitors could ever hope to have been. And we did it by doing the opposite of competing, setting ourselves apart from all the trends and expected messaging in our industry, going places where the enemy was afraid to go, even rewriting what it means to be successful on the largest advertising platforms in the world. So now, as a person who never wanted to study anything worthwhile in college — certainly nothing to do with quantitative analysis or business — I’ve fallen into something of a marketing guru.

So how does this translate to Magic?

I think that the delta T can be closely correlated to a successful Phase III execution, given sufficient time. Resource exchange is fine so long as you can keep the opponent in a sufficiently supplicant Phase (Gerry had his TEPS opponent “basically manascrewed” while executing his core Phase II card advantage plan). Consider the triumph of Gerry in Denver, and how it intersects with Phase III play.

What does a Runed Halo mean to you?

When I heard about Patrick’s Halo, I was stunned. I really liked Demigod of Revenge because it is the closest thing that Block offers — other than a couple of well-placed Mistbind Cliques — to utterly non-competitive play… Not “non-competitive” in the sense that it can’t compete, but more in the sense that it makes it impossible for the opponent to compete, maybe un-competitive or anti-competitive, or wealthy is a better term. When Faeries sticks that fourth turn Clique with Blossom online and a little initiative, it’s almost like the game ends right there. Now Mistbind Clique is not a true Phase III, but simultaneously Mana Shorting the opponent into the Stone Rain Age is a compelling multi-directional move on the Phase Axis, Fae advancing to deep Phase II while kicking the other guy down to Phase I… An arithmetical Phase I, sort of. Demigod of Revenge, the second one especially, is nine-tenths irresistible, the closest thing to Phase III that we have, except maybe for an untap with Oona.

In all these cases, these are really demoralizing offensive moves specifically because they are harbingers of imminent defeat. Why? Typically, you know you don’t have the tools to beat them. Tools, eh… Does that word smack at all of technology?

Runed Halo is compelling because it removes the significance of the opponent’s Clique, Demigod, or Oona, that is, his likely Phase III end game plan, as many as he has, for a really insignificant expenditure of R. The Justice Toast lacked or lacks a true Phase III, but that’s okay. With the opponent’s Phase III suppressed, the deck is very capable of winning with superior Phase II exchanges, where everything is generating incremental value. It is hard not to recognize the true delta in technology represented by this small innovation.

So what is the lesson?

Despite a long history of personal shortcomings, I do not think that it is particularly useful to pursue any kind of truly economics-based decks, or even play (to a lesser degree), that is decks and styles of play focused on winning wars of R. The problem is that even when they are at the advantage, these almost as a rule fold to superior T.

It seems more prudent, then, to focus on T… But still, what does T mean in the end? My friend Steve Sadin thinks that T can most usefully be illustrated by decks that completely blank the opponent’s ability to compete by proaction, on as many axes as possible. His example — essentially obviously — was the Moreno Flash-Hulk deck. Market conditions at the time dictated Flash-Hulk as the baseline level of technology, with everyone at that point capable of being h. sapiens but many deciding for whatever reason to show up with cro magnon fiction suits on. Not surprisingly, h. sapiens for the most part laughed off cro magnon attempts at competition. The special thing about Steve’s deck was that — because it played essentially Phase III Magic on more than one axis — it removed an additional branch of competition from the board. As such, the Moreno deck was a true example of both technology that blanked the pretending competition, lifted the level of practical application, showed us what was possible, and in-game, disallowed competition using multiple vectors, both via a fast proactive kill and by disallowing interactive play. Perfect wealth.

A few weeks ago Osyp chided the New York scene’s recent focus in deck design. Why have we turned in our Urza’s Towers for 2/2 creatures in both Standard and Block? I think that a compelling motivation is that when certain of those 2/2s “stick,” the opponent really and truly cannot move forward or compete in a meaningful way. Thus, the guy behind the Magus of the Moon or Gaddock Teeg can achieve victory essentially unhindered.

Then of course advances in technology — Runed Halos named Murderous Redcap, if you will — allowed or allow for the dance to begin again by removing a pesky source of non-competition.

While I think that wealth is a very rich topic, and I could write a hundred articles about how it has shown its head in Magic over the years — or even just recent months — I will leave you with this: If Justice Toast is essentially a high level Phase II deck that can suppress Phase III-capable decks’ capacity to reach that Phase, then perhaps the proper way to compete is to “win Phase II.” In this case, I think that introduction of the best Phase II card, in-context, would be appropriate. This seems to me Puppeteer Clique, which can be incorporated both into other Quick n’ Toast builds and splashed into the Red Deck using a manabase similar to the one I posited last week. I tested a fair amount on MTGO recently, and have had real problems with decks presenting a Puppeteer Clique to steal my Mulldrifter (or even Kitchen Finks), especially when my remaining guy is but a Mulldrifter (think about the catastrophe that that can be). Just a thought.


* You can actually work this out. The answer depends on how long you think it takes him to pick up the $100 bill, and what interest rate you assign to the bulk of Bill’s wealth. If it takes a full three seconds, I don’t think it’s worth Bill’s time, but if you assume a pretty horrible interest rate of about 6%, it’s certainly worth his time if it only takes one second. Of course you can ask yourself how much effort it takes him to pick up the $100 bill; at negligible effort, it’s kind of always worth his time because he is going to make the interest anyway. This is a very masturbatory question.