We were poring over some Google Analytics data, the CEO and I.
He was very frustrated, which anyone could see. He was missing a VP, filling in himself, and doing a fairly bad job of both jobs. He wasn’t
sleeping much; board pressure had him pull the trigger on a new website that wasn’t ready for prime time. We had invested God knows how many
millions in developing it, but in its first month, we bled maybe half a million more off targets. Maybe more.
Everything seemed to be going wrong with tech. There were more and more small problems creeping up. No one had seen this coming; this other thing was
costing us with Google. They forgot to undo the robot-blockers from the beta site so engines might never find us again. Sigh.
“Why can’t we do anything right?”
Why can’t we do anything right?!?
I looked at him with daggers.
He had been Bezos’ strong right hand building the book group at Amazon. He was our CEO and could certainly drop me at a moment’s notice.
Didn’t matter. Unacceptable.
“Never, ever say that again,” I snapped. “You’re the leader, the coach. Everyone here works for YOU. Never ask it, never
think it, and absolutely never say it.”
He was perhaps understandably taken aback.
But he never asked the question again—at least in seriousness. Sometimes he would nod at me in a meeting and ask it (like it was our personal
joke), but for the most part… he never said it again.
“Why can’t we do anything right?” is a perfect example of a terrible question; it is perhaps the worst question a CEO can ask of
another key decision-maker. I mean, for one thing—and especially at the time—I felt like I, personally, could (and did) do quite a few
things right. But think about this question for a moment why it’s so awful—how do we answer it?
This question isn’t “what did we do wrong?” or “how can we do such-and-such better?” This question presumes that
we do everything wrong and asks us to think up reasons justifying this conclusion. It isn’t “what does two-plus-two
equal?” but rather “why does two-plus-two equal four?”
This is an article about the questions we ask and why improving them can improve… well… everything.
Successful people (in any arena) generally have a better quality of information. They have better data and can be more decisive because of that. And
one of the reasons that they do so much better in the world (and what it is they are interested in doing well in) is that they ask better
A few weeks ago, we had an article RE: decisive sideboard crafting. We can’t Can’t CAN’T develop the best sideboards in the history of Magic by asking
ourselves how a matchup plays out; but rather, how we can craft the matchup to the percentages we need.
A hot topic among my playgroup right now is High Tide. Ancient misers are talking about what to play in the upcoming GP, and High Tide is being bandied
about as an option. This leads to stories about the first time High Tide was available, dialing it back all the way to Pro Tour Rome for tall tales.
The consensus is that the good guys had the wrong deck in Rome (Survival of the Fittest). Even when they could burgle a game one on bad operations (the
opponent didn’t declare which lands he was untapping with Time Spiral), the matchup was inevitable… at least with the tools at hand.
Zvi wrote an article ten or so years ago on how he won a PTQ with the failing, good guy strategy, after Rome.
This week, I devoured the entirety of Chad Ellis excellent blog on negotiations. Chad tells a
story of almost optimal question-asking. Teddy Roosevelt’s election squad has printed up three million flyers supporting their candidate (expensive);
an oversight is that they did not first obtain rights to the photograph used (potential disaster, as using the aforementioned photo sans license could
result in astronomical fines). Asking them, if anecdote holds true—money-focused and mercenary rights-holder—to use the photo at this point
would put them in a precarious negotiations position given the sunk cost of the already-printed flyers plus potential fines incurred… Easily in the
millions (and this is back when millions meant something).
What question did Teddy’s ingenious strong right hand ask?
“We are printing up hella lotso Teddy flyers. Mad PR to the photographer who gets his pic on them. How much will YOU pay US to use your photo?
The answer was $250.
That’s a hell of a lot better than negative three million in fines.
Successful people ask better questions!
Let’s run through some bad questions and see how we can improve them for better results.
“Shouldn’t we just ban Jace, the Mind Sculptor in Standard?”
This question has a lot of problems, which range from bad assumptions to vague goals. We need to break down the question at multiple levels in order to
figure out what is going wrong here and why otherwise smart or reasonable people might be asking this one.
The first one is (and maybe we want to use it to springboard to a better question) “what do we want in a Standard format?”
Let’s assume for a moment that the answer to that question is a vague answer of “diversity” or at least “more diversity”…
Well the next question could be HOW MUCH diversity do we want?
I am going to—for sake of argument—say five decks. Here’s the big invalidator. THERE ARE ALREADY five (or more) playable decks in
Pre–New Phyrexia Standard. In fact, if you go back to the media around the release of Mirrodin Besieged, the conversation is all around Kuldotha
Red, Valakut’s CONTINUED dominance (despite being legal Pre–Mirrodin Besieged, no one was clamoring for a Jace ban at the time), and what will
happen around Tezzeret. We were even having contests RE: how many ways you could think of to deal with Thrun, the Last Troll.
Jace has been around for more than a year. If Jace were really the problem, don’t you think the problem might have manifested sometime before the last
Wouldn’t Jace have won all the tournaments between Worldwake and now?
But it didn’t. Jund was dominant, and people played more lands; various Naya decks did quite well. RDW was the best. Pyromancer Ascension was the best.
Jace was always there, but not dominating, for the most part.
The better question is “what changed to make Jace so dominant?”
Because I am writing this on my iPad on the train, I am going to shortcut what I would usually use to wax philosophical for a while and skip to the
conclusion. Pre–New Phyrexia, Jace was never the problem, or even a problem. If anything, Jace was part of the solution. The sameness of
the Top 8s is actually a symptom of a very good format (we will get to that later) where merit is rewarded… The problem (if there was one) was
Stoneforge Mystic, and the proximate cause was the printing of Sword of Feast and Famine.
All you have to do is watch any Caw-Blade mirror involving at least one player at a greater than 50th percentile of play ability to see that the
argument should never really have been about Jace on anything RE: secondary market price.
Playing for Top 8 at the NYC Nationals Qualifier, Josh Ravitz was, in the deciding game, out-drawn three Jaces to zero, one Gideon to zero, and his opponent had Squadron Hawk / Sword of Feast and Famine going.
The game never ever LOOKED close.
Josh dominated him with a lone Mortarpod. He just PLAYED better. He left mana open when he was supposed to, tapped it when he was supposed to, killed
Hawks so they couldn’t suit up, and just kept attacking. He had even gone second this game.
Last week in the elimination rounds of the TCGPlayer 5K I won, Phil Napoli, with two Emeria Angels to zero and all the Squadron Hawks in the world,
connected using Sword of Feast and Famine on David Shiels’ face, forcing him to discard Jace, simultaneously attacking his other Jace to resolve Jace.
The life totals reflected Batterskull versus War and Peace, so it wouldn’t be over any time soon… Or so we thought.
Shiels—from no cards in hand—simply managed his life total, played PNaps into a spot where he could clean up if he topdecked Day of
Judgment (he did), and rode his superior experience in the mirror to the game three win. What is even more amazing is that along the way, PNaps drew
two more cards named Jace! They had essentially no effect on the outcome.
No one who wants to make the format more about skill would make the argument against Jace. But what about “diversity?”
As I already said, I don’t generally like formats with more than about five viable mainline decks (preparation becomes impossible but for brute force),
and pre-NPH, we had a format with more than five, actually. The proximate change with Mirrodin Besieged was Sword of Feast and Famine, which
super-charged Stoneforge Mystic and enabled what I consider to be the greatest Standard deck of all time, in the context of one of the greatest formats
of all time.
Let’s ask a question! Here is an okay (but not great) one:
“What do you value in a Standard format?”
Again let us jump through nuance (iPad considerations) and get to the money shot. I want the better-prepared player to win about 90% of the time. You
don’t want him to win 100% of the time… That’s chess, not Magic. We want luck and roguish surprise; we want Adrian Sullivan to actually be able to
win with his brews if he puts in enough elbow grease (but the bar should be HIGH); but we don’t want dice-rolling. Formats I hate (Faeries, Affinity in
Block) correlate to about 75% if everyone makes generally good decisions but jump to like 95% in favor of ruthless ones like Sam Black or PV, with
those extra points garnered by willfully suboptimal deck decisions by the opponents (LSV once told me that summoning a Puppeteer Clique sickened him,
but to do anything else was just stupid). Note how different that swing is from what we experience today, especially around Caw-Blade mirrors and color
Formats I personally love (Masques Block, anything involving Champions of Kamigawa) favor prepared players even more than 90%… But I would be willing
to concede that formats I love often correlate with weak primary market sales (they are not exciting to the average player on flash or card power).
Master deck designers love degenerate inequality because it gives them the most opportunity to exploit their superior understanding of math and
margin… They just don’t want to play the same ones over and over.
Contrast with formats everybody hates (second Deadguy Red, most of Jund), where preparation gives only like 60%… who wants that? That’s right. That
guy who topdecked the second Fireblast or got you with seven Blightnings in three games. Is that the format you want? Is that who you want hoisting the
I am willing to concede that the better prepared player might win a little too much right now if you are willing to admit that banning Jace has very
little to do with prompting “more diversity” bunk. Seriously, prior to NPH, there were plenty of decks. I never in my life won so much on MTGO as I did
the week before my 5K win, and it was all with Pilgrim’s Eye and Mortarpod (no blue). I also only beat one total Primeval Titan, but that’s what you
get when you play to beat all the Caw-Blades and RUGs only. That said, I killed all the Pulse Trackers easily.
For sake of an exercise, knowing we are now in New Phyrexia, let’s go ahead and ask the question:
“What happens if we ban Jace, the Mind Sculptor?”
The answer is: nothing that anyone wants.
Caw-Blade is actually cemented as the be all and end all. IT ACTUALLY GETS BETTER.
Without Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Exarch Twin suddenly becomes vulnerable to Spellskite for the first time in reality. Making it work takes too much
work, and all the good players on Twin become Caw-Blade players.
Twin is still the most powerful thing you can do, so Caw-Blade (now with extra room from the big Jaces it doesn’t have to play) mainboards Spellskite
(or does so “even more”). The net result isn’t JUST a cementing of the matchup over the weakened Twin but an invalidation of other strategies. How is
RDW ever supposed to beat Caw leading on Spellskite into turn 3 Stoneforge Mystic? Worse yet, how can poor MWC plan to kill all of Caw-Blade’s dudes
now that Spellskite COMPLETELY BLANKS Mortarpod redundancy?
How does no Jace affect B/U?
Will an even more dominating Caw-Blade be better or worse for the already–Feast and Famine–vulnerable Primeval Titan decks?
We’ve never had to deal with this, so I don’t know if it is the case, but I am guessing Caw-Blade loses its current draw agnosticism in the mirror, and
the mirror devolves from its skill-focused status quo. Most of the really dramatic wins and comebacks come from the losing player overvaluing
planeswalkers / undervaluing mana and tempo, and that wouldn’t be a factor as much with only Beleren for Jaces and Gideon already out of favor.
Conclusion: not only was / is Jace, the Mind Sculptor promoting diversity (to an extent), but watching the metagame should tell us that banning it
would have the opposite of the intended effect.
Let’s continue with diversity and the number of successful decks and players in the format with the aesthetic of this article for a moment. How about
some more questions!
Here’s one: “What do you think Larry Swasey is thinking about when he invents a Consecrated Sphinx or bashes a Caw-Blade with his Acidic Slimes?”
Or a better one: “Do you really think Patrick Sullivan cares about anyone’s opinion of Jace, the Mind Sculptor (or Ember Hauler for that matter) while
putting together one of HIS signature winning decks? What DO you think Patrick is thinking about?”
I actually know the answer to the second question, about Pat. Successful people ask better questions, so they get better answers and better results.
Patrick, when he plays Magic, is just focused on having a satisfying experience for himself, and he has gotten to a point of actual reverence in the
community for his unwavering lack of compromise. Gerry Thompson said that his Red Deck thinking is actually “profound.”
You know what I love about Standard? It only LOOKS LIKE it is about the decks. The reason we see so much Caw-Blade and Darkblade (and previously Angry
Birds) is because Standard so rewards the prepared players. It just so happens that part of the best players’ preparation is gravitation towards a
particular consistent strategy.
The same players do well over and over again, and they play predominantly Caw-Blade. Unlike many other formats, I really do think that this has to do
with the players more than the decks (though a great deck in this case is enabling the players). You can see this via the sustained success of almost
the same folks during the Legacy portion.
Let’s conclude with another question: “Do you know what game you are playing?”
Gwen Stefani and Blake Lively are two glorious blondes. One of them is busty and young, a television it-girl. The other one is older than I am but full
of boundless energy and explodes on stage with enthusiasm and vigor. One of them hasn’t yet proven that her ability is not carried by her looks (though
she may yet), while the other is already an almost universally acknowledged writer and branding icon.
Whatever you think about the one, we can probably all agree the other is also very nice to look at.
This is the tension Magic currently rides. I love Ravnica Block, too. It was something different and truly great, a game of skill and swordsmanship,
and where Rolling Spoil versus Bat tokens mattered. There really is something to a world where every card is ABOUT as good as a Lightning Helix.
The problem is that you can’t compare Magic today to that ideal. Post-Damnation, post-Tarmogoyf, we live in a world of battlecruisers and
planeswalkers. A year ago, there were lunatics that wanted to ban Bloodbraid Elf for reasons not dissimilar to the ire against Jace. The problem is
that banning any one Tier 1 card will not give us back Ravnica Block. Nor is it fair to say Ravnica Block was better than the current game.
Battlecruiser Magic is just a different—but also great—game.
I loved Ravnica Block, too; just as I like to look at both Gwen and Blake.
There have never been so many players as today. Pushing the envelope with Tier 1 cards is getting something very, very right.
The trick is that we have to figure out what the right question is to ask, before we can get the data to make the decision that will give us the
outcome we desire.
Personally, I think Standard is great. So I choose not to ask a question. But if you think something has to change, for whatever reason, make sure you
know what it is you are trying to balance. If it is just a normative desire to see more different decks in Top 8 coverage, balance that against how you
want to reward the players earning those spots; and remember that banning Jace probably won’t give you that vague punctuation of experience you are