Flores Friday – Dictating the Field of Battle

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Dueling in Magic can be described in countless ways. One of the more enduring metaphors sees our glorious game shrouded in the imagery of war. When setting up on the field of battle, it makes sense that, as generals, we choose to fight on our own terms. In this enlightening article, Mike waxes poetic on ways in which we can dictate the field of battle. If you’re looking for a subtle edge at your next tournament, let Mike lead the way!

I was up late listening to pre-Super Tuesday political commentary this week and a blast from the past, “the Duke” Michael Dukakis*, showed up around 1.30 on some PBS talk show; he said something very unconventional for American Presidential politics. I’m not sure if it’s right or not, but it was certainly provocative (I’m paraphrasing here): “Forget this Red State and Blue State stuff. Campaign in all fifty States. Giving up half the field to the other party is a losing strategy.”

I was thinking about the Duke’s statements in terms of Magic strategies. Can we learn anything by dissecting this idea, even if it is wrong?

A million deaths were not enough for Yueh!

The next day I found myself calling my friend and former #1 Apprentice Josh Ravitz while running some errands. I chat with Josh online basically every day, but something popped into my head and I wanted to talk to him about it (Josh is currently reading The Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut’s first and best book and basically my favorite book of all time, while biding his time until the next installment of A Song of Ice and Fire).

“Hey, have you read Dune?”

“No. Should I?”

“You love swords, swordfighting. Dune has a lot of swordfighting, swordmasters, knives carved from the teeth of gigantic sandworms, combat math…”

We went on about the war techniques of Dune and I remembered how the despicable Harkonnen beat the noble House Stark Atreides early in the novel. Sure, there was a healthy measure of treachery that made the win possible, but the victory came largely down to the Baron’s secret weapon: Explosive artillery.

Explosive artillery was kind of a joke in Dune’s far future. Personal force fields rendered them useless, and large scale military engagements are accomplished by sword-wielding supersoldiers (one legion was said to be capable of pacifying a planet). The Atreides forces turtled up in caves to make a stand against the attacking Harkonnen… and got trapped by the Baron’s explosive artillery, left to starve.

The Fremen, supersoldiers native to Dune, would later comment that this was a result of poor preparation.

The explosive artillery sequence reminded me of two principles germane to Magic discussion:

1) The Atreides conceded the field of battle. They didn’t even know they were doing so. With superb commanders like Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck (probably the two most formidable swordsmen in the universe at that point, with an unenhanced Duncan worth between 49 and 70 soldiers and Gurney worth about one-and-a-half Duncans), they probably entertained the notion of winning the engagement. However the fact was that their non-awareness of the field of battle and how it could be utilized led directly to their defeat in this case.

2) The explosive artillery sequence, how it came about, and the method of its success against the superbly trained Atreides, precisely describes the utilization of buried linears in Extended (or perhaps smaller formats). There was a time that explosive artillery was a legitimate weapon in the Dune universe; that time had passed, though, and the progression to atomics, laser weapons, personal force fields, and ultimately the rediscovery and remastery of sword fighting designed to best force fields (it just works in Dune, don’t argue; the book is freaking great) left simple bang bang in the dust. How different is this from unearthing a neglected linear with some perfectly good but lately ignored value and positioning it into a winning Extended deck?

Think about how positioning a rediscovered / forgotten linear in a format like Extended relates directly to the field of battle. Imagine that the boogeyman is, say, Dredge, and that some if not all guns are blazing in the direction of the graveyard such that the opportunity cost for the format at large is, say, splashing for Ancient Grudge. Affinity – no slouch in the linear mechanics power department – ends up a winner not just because it legitimately boasts nearly the value of Dredge, but because the natural enemy provided by the format – Ancient Grudge – is disengaged so nothing is holding it back. Affinity is able to dictate the field of battle unchecked and opponents left and right can simply nod to themselves as they are overwhelmed by threats as large as they are fast.

This is actually one of the chief ways that I try to extract value from a large format like Extended. I have noted on several occasions that I think that most serviceable linears tend to end up about as powerful as one another when the dust settles (Dredge may be more powerful than Beasts, but there is no single main decked Trinket Mage target that eradicates Beasts, and no scripted eight- or even ten-pack sideboard strategy against Beasts), so a clever player can obtain a disproportionate amount of value by playing dodgeball and correctly selecting the forgotten linear. Further value is available by hybridizing decks, especially multiple complimentary linears.

Obi-Wan and Anakin on the Bridge

Right after Revenge of the Sith came out, I did a writeup on Livejournal about lightsaber duels. I don’t keep a Livejournal anymore, and I never approached the popularity of, say, the Ferrett when I did, but this one post was an unmitigated success, and gave me a measure of Livejournal stardom for a day or so, generating 57 responses (an all time high for my Livejournal) and a completely new lightsaber scoring schema from none other than the great edt.

Keeping in mind that this was originally written in May-June of 2005, the post:

Each of the recent prequel movies had something very good to contribute. Episode I was not a good movie, but tonally it did something exceptionally well; similar to Gladiator, it showed rather than told. Within the first five minutes of Episode I, you know everything that you need to know about the Star Wars universe of the prequels and the Jedis’ place in that universe. Even Padawan learners are inexorable, which is important for our discussion, and no amount of technology and even skill can beat the Jedi: When the Force is With You, you are vulnerable only to deception, overwhelming mathematics, or someone with greater knowledge of the Force.

Episode II was worse than Episode I, and had a demonstrably inferior title, but also introduced the idea of Yoda fighting.

Episode III is better than either of the previous movies without being actually good. It has more Yoda fighting but also plot holes the size of galactic cruisers. What is interesting, instead of debating the merits of any film, is to talk about overall lightsaber records. Since Episode II, it has been en vogue to talk about how kickass Yoda is (and he is referred to as the pinnacle duelist).

But who would you really not want to meet at the end of a dark alley?

This is an interesting question. The automatic answer seems Yoda. I mean, Yoda kicks ass. It says so right on that guy’s tee shirt. You know who else is kick ass? The guy with the purple lightsaber. You know, Sam Jackson. From Pulp Fiction? Yeah, that guy is the most powerful Jedi.

Why would you pick those Jedi as the most dangerous? It’s simple. They have the best PR. That’s it.

Most of the Jedi and Sith overlap in whom they fight. It doesn’t really matter if you are a master or a Padawan learner or what color lightsaber you have or how many you swing over the course of a fight. It doesn’t matter if you spin and flip or if you stab and scream. Only two things matter: KO or dismemberment.

That’s it: KO or dismemberment. You disappear in the middle of a fight, it’s the same as if you ran away. You start levitating things to keep your Padawan breathing? I’m not interested in what would have happened in a “fair” fight. You know who you are, Master.

Do you know who Yoda is? He’s the Kobe Bryant of lightsaber fighters. He has a flashy game, spends the late 90s on the championship team, and has a big game when his boys don’t win. Just look at the records:

Episode I:
Darth Maul v. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jin – DRAW
Darth Maul d. Qui-Gon Jin
Obi-Wan Kenobi d. Darth Maul

Episode II:
Count Dooku d. Anakin Skywalker
Count Dooku d. Obi-Wan Kenobi
Count Dooku d. Anakin Skywalker
Count Dooku v. Yoda – DRAW

Episode III:
Count Dooku d. Obi-Wan Kenobi
Anakin Skywalker d. Count Dooku
Obi-Wan Kenobi d. General Grevious
Emperor Palpatine d. Mace Windoo et al
Emperor Palpatine v. Yoda – DRAW
Obi-Wan Kenobi d. Anakin Skywalker

Episode IV:
Obi-Wan Kenobi v. Anakin Skywalker – DRAW

Episode V:
Anakin Skywalker d. Luke Skywalker

Episode VI:
Luke Skywalker d. Anakin Skywalker

Lifetime Records:
Count Dooku: 4-1-1: 13
Obi-Wan Kenobi: 3-2-2: 11
Anakin Skywalker: 2-4-1: 7
Darth Maul: 1-1-1: 4
Emperor Palpatine: 1-0-1 (4-0-1?): 3 (12)
Luke Skywalker: 1-1: 3
Yoda: 0-0-2: 2
Qui-Gon Jin: 0-1-1: 1
General Grevious: 0-1 (4-1?): 0 (12)
Mace Windoo: 0-1: 0

Now here are some asterisks:

* I am only considering the six films, not canon (come on man, it’s canon) peripherals like Clone Wars.
* I am only considering lightsaber-on-lightsaber action. The whole point about Yoda is that it doesn’t matter that he is great at beating up droids. Lightsaber v. droid, you bet on lightsaber. No amount of skill or science beats a lightsaber. You expect a Padawan to be able to handle himself against some robots, but award the little green guy the gold star for doing the same? You want to kill a learner, go hire an army to backstab him in the middle of a mission or blow up the planet he is on like any other good mathematician. All we are interested in here is how duelists of reasonably comparable skill match up.

At the end of the day, the most dangerous duelist is clearly Count Dooku. As children we are taught to cower in fear of Darth Vader but Dooku picked up KO and dismemberment wins on Darth in the same fight. Moreover, he has two knockouts on Ben Kenobi, the next best fighter in all of Forcedom.

As was said, the Jedi you least want to face in combat is clearly Ben Kenobi. He has two losses to the best player in the game only, but wins over Darth Maul, General Grevious, and Anakin. Of particular note is his win over Grevious, a fighter with 0 technical match points, but an implied record second only to Dooku’s (and maybe better).

That said, Grevious plays like he’s got at least 12. I know that I said I wouldn’t bring Clone Wars in, but he was characterized as unstoppable, as he chopped down Jedi in that, and had to do something to pick up not only his Osama Bin Laden-esque status in Episode III, but the four lightsabers he wields in his fight against Ben. How else would he pick up the green and blue weaponry?

Does Palpatine get 12 points or 3 points or no points at all for his win over Mace Windoo? His lone battle is like a handicap match, but the deciding dismemberment is actually dealt by somebody else. I don’t know about giving him 9 extra for this any more than I want to give Anakin a stack of match wins for clearing out a room full of little kids. This is a sticky point, but I am confident in giving the Emperor 3 points for his four kill effort.

That was a little fun, right?

Okay. What was the point?

Terrain again! Field of battle again! How does Ben Kenobi get his win over Anakin in Episode III? Ben is the best scorer the good guys have, but the plot at that point yet Anakin is cast as an unstoppable force, the Jedi who finished Saruman when he escaped or outright beat Yoda, Ben, and Anakin himself in previous conflicts (“to be the man you have to beat the man”). How does Kenobi succeed? Again it is a utilization of the terrain, the leveraging of the field of battle as an ally in order to overcome a potentially superior opponent.

The strange thing is that Anakin and Ben agree on the field of battle. Anakin, full of bluster like a celebrated linear mechanic, doesn’t seem to care that Ben has painted a gigantic bullseye on him. It is no surprise when the future Vader is cut down.

“The enemy’s gate is down.”

Back during the Dragonmaster’s GP superstar days, Brian Kibler and I used to shout that line from Ender’s Game (probably the only SF novel to actually be taught in military schools) at each other across crowded tournament rooms. One of the main progressions in Ender’s Game is battle in a null gravity zone. By mastering that unusual field of battle and teaching his jeek to think of the object of their efforts as “down,” the protagonist Ender is able to consistently succeed despite being saddled with a smaller and less experienced team, by essentially reinventing the rules of the game.

In Magic, this was shorthand for identifying the key to victory and letting “gravity” pull us toward that goal. Taken another way, we can learn from Ender to challenge the fundamental principles that define a format and its predicted matchups. When we talk about the dictation of the field of battle, we are describing a mental contract that exists – explicitly or not – between the players, who agree upon the terms of combat. The actions that each player makes continually refine these terms, and ideally, their tactics are meant to advance them to victory based on those terms.

The simplest field of battle is the race. I attack you with everything; you attack me with everything; eventually one of us is dead. The winner is defined by the player who went first, had the most efficient mana progression based on the limits of the format, or who drew pump spells or was playing Red.

All of a sudden one player decides that this new-fangled “blocking” might deliver a drop or two of value and entirely new paradigms spring up where there were none before. Can a 0/4 creature be good? What about a 2/5 for 1GG? Neither one can attack at all, but they can provide value while preventing the success of the opponent’s attack. Wow. You are blowing my mind. The next thing you know, you might be suggesting cards that aren’t creatures at all!

As our agreed-upon fields of battle become more complicated, intricate, and in some cases unpredictable, short term conditions become stand-ins for victory itself. Consider the field of battle upon which many decks agree to compete with Enduring Ideal. Losing can be replaced, at least effectively with “I didn’t kill you before you ‘went off.'” Victory is defined not by winning, but more specifically by winning within a certain window, even if the Ideal deck is four turns out of dealing its first five points of damage. Many decks agree upon these terms willingly (and some sideboard in such a way as to lengthen the amount of time they have to fulfil their victory conditions, as with Kami of Ancient Law); most, especially in Game 1 situations, agree by default. The Ideal player operates with a certain level of speed and authority, whereas the opponent is incapable of meaningful interaction.

But what if you deny the Ideal the opportunity to cut corners?

One of the simplest challenges to the heretofore axiomatic field of battle might be the Martyr of Sands combo I played at the second New York PTQ (which boasted a Phase III designed specifically for anti-Ideal). That deck didn’t win in the short term [either] but simply rejected the idea that one player would win simply on the grounds that he had survived four turns, strung seven mana together, and produced a do-nothing Dovescape. In response, Martyr met the intended interaction-ending end game with its own difficult-to-interact-with Phase III. No. You have to killme.

It is no secret that I have based a good many decks and theories on the work of Master Sun. In The Art of War, he even devotes an entire section to terrain, where he dictates any number of enlightening – and easily adaptable – principles concerning the field of battle; here’s a goodie:

“Other conditions being equal, if one force is hurled against another ten times its size, the result will be the flight of the former.”

You know when you are NO Stick and you’re feeling pretty good about yourself, but then in Game 2 the other guy opens on Kird Ape, Ancient Grudges your Seat of the Synod, Vindicates your Chrome Mox, and flashes back on your Isochron Scepter all in the first few turns? That (in Magic) was what Master Sun was talking about.

All conditions being equal, you’re screwed. He has many cards for every invested Artifact on your side of the table. You can’t get ahead and you can’t trade effectively due to the nature of your manabase. Part of the problem here is that he actually agreed to your terms on this one. The problem is that he went for an overload strategy and now wins based on the shorthand of your dictated field of battle.

In situations like these, you have to scoot over a little bit so that conditions are no longer equal. You need him sending arrows into stuffed bags of grain instead of your precious soldiers. Consider a different fight, where you’re Dredge and feeling pretty good about yourself. Your opponent is feeling even better about himself, and has gone so far as to fan out his array of Bridge burners. It never occurs to him that he might be aiming for the wrong stuff, not immediately, not even after he Extirpates all your Bridges… and you off him a fair sized Golgari Grave-Troll. Master Sun thought of that, though.

“In a position of this sort, even though the enemy should offer us an attractive bait, it will be advisable not to stir forth, but rather to retreat, thus enticing the enemy in his turn; then, when part of his army has come out, we may deliver our attack with advantage.” If I know him, he probably never saw it comin’.

So why exactly is dictating the field of battle so important? The simple answer is that it is the holy grail of Magic: The Gathering, the single shining light in strategy that (barring an overload to your linear) you can aspire to that will help you win more games than literally anything else. But broken down, here are some of the highlights:

1. We know the most basic principle of the field of battle by its contrapositive. Look back at what the Duke said, or at least implied. Giving up the field of battle conceded too much value. In sharp contrast to the established modus of Presidential politics, the former governor and presidential hopeful is preaching a 50-State attack plan designed to do exactly the opposite, to not give up the value that is inherent in the land. As a basic principle, this one can’t be stressed enough.

The other day I was working on an Extended beatdown sideboard for current #1 Apprentice ManningBot and as we talked through the options, a new and vital parallel between Magic and poker became apparent to me. Ken Krouner used to say that if you could fold in Magic, Baby Huey would have been the best player ever… I realized that Magic has betting. We don’t think of Magic as a betting game, really, but that is because most of us simply play too passively and don’t think about what we are doing. What about strategic mulligans to our sideboard cards? Isn’t there a sort of investment in cardboard there, with the goal of a greater chance of winning the game? What about the personal investments we make crafting strategies related directly to the field of battle? When we decide on that field, agree to play on that field, mulligan to our Yixlid Jailer and smile… When the bastard on the other side of the table calmly points a Darkblast at it, isn’t there an interaction between us that goes deeper than a simple one-for-one on our 2/1? Haven’t we just lost? We bet. We got called. Come untap, there’s probably going to be a hell of a raise.

2. When one deck can actively dictate the field of battle in a sustained manner, it can gain value by resisting interaction.

Economics, the study of scarcity, can tell us a lot about trading resources. Cards, life total, mana, efficiency… All of these widgets fit nicely under the umbrella of economics. The problem with economics is that by defining itself via scarcity, it is inherently limited in its scope of victory. Economics mostly knows how to win by taking from the other guy.

Wealth by comparison defies competition and resists interaction. It leverages technology or brand or pure devotion and mingles them with hard work in order to produce value from nowhere. If you playtest (or play, or whatever) enough, you will inevitably come upon games where traditional card advantage loses its meaning. You end up so far behind on something that it becomes impossible to keep track of how much (just think of the strange Magic math that involves almost any game against Dredge). I think Zac Hill recently said it best: When you blow Extirpate on a guy’s Bridges, you basically just make it so you can no longer interact with him.

3. Subtly, when you dictate the field of battle, you will almost inevitably keep your opponents out of Phase III. As lots of decks can only win in Phase III, keeping the opponent out of that part of the game can stand-in as a shortcut for victory from your side. What happens to an Ideal deck that has gotten everything it ever wanted, put out all the controlling enchantments it likes, and still gets out manoeuvred by a lone Martyr of Sands?

4. Should the opponent “agree” to the field of battle in sideboarded games, the result is inevitably a blowout… for one deck or the other.

My perspective in Magic as in life is generally to challenge how everybody else does it and try something different. that said, I am not above an overload when the enemy is clear. The one big thing to think about as you strive to dictate the field of battle is that the other guy can agree… and win. Often that will require half his sideboard, but don’t forget that he can do it. When you are losing at home, and on your own terms, you are in for a tough season. Think my Extirpate against your Makeshift Mannequin in Standard. Look back to the short section on Master Sun: There isn’t much you can do in this spot… Except figure out a different field of battle, preferably one where the opponent’s numerous sideboard cards are less worthwhile.


* Fun fact: Despite losing in a 40-10 (426-111) blowout in the Electoral College, the Duke won a larger chunk of the popular vote (45.65%) in 1988 than successfully elected Democratic nominee Bill Clinton would in 1992 (43.01%)!