Flores Friday – Never Settle

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Friday, March 7th – This week, Mike turns away from the vagaries of the seemingly endless Extended season. Instead of thrashing out metagame data, he turns to deeper theory. He tackles the concept of “never settling,” a fine adjunct to his popular article How To Win A PTQ. After that, he moves into practical tips on how to improve one’s mental and mechanical game, offering sage advice on a number of interesting topics…

I was originally going to do a follow-up to The Mid-Season SWOT featuring winning decks that I had missed and decks with more than one Top 8 (which, incidentally, would have been a fairly tremendous amount of work), but people on the forums seemed not to like the first part as much as the pre-Valencia effort. I figured there would probably be some better way to spend our time together; never say I never gave you anything.

For this one I am going to hit on a couple of topics: the concept of “never settling” (which I think is very important, and something that I actively struggle towards basically every day, however imperfectly), and the intersection of that philosophy with principles 2-8 from The Top 8 Things I Get Out of Testing (per an earlier forum request from the notable Adam Prosak).

The idea of Never Settling came to me via Patrick Chapin as we reviewed the top StarCityGames.com articles from 2007. Patrick was heartbroken that I voted for Mister Orange for Writer of the Year (“If I thought someone else could win, don’t you think I would have voted for myself? I like a winner!”)… He’s probably forgiven me now that he actually scooped up the title for himself (better luck next year, EE!). Patrick voted for [my] How to Win a PTQ for Article of the Year, which I found quite troubling as I had voted for The Breakdown of Theory under the theory that everyone would vote for it, given that it was either the best or second best. Quite troubling was that I learned through surreptitious means that the pre-Valencia SWOT was actually leading all Flores articles in the voting, thanks to commentary by Rich Hagon (my guess is that the SWOT actually finished first amongst my fractured submissions, and that Craig just liked How to Win a PTQ best… Go back and read what that forked-tongued Scouser tried to muscle past us in his Awards if you don’t believe me)! [No comment here… — Craig, hiss hiss.]

Anyway, I didn’t even realize that How to Win a PTQ was [apparently] the best one (I almost voted for Dodgeball, or “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Vore?” on principle), but Patrick told me that he would not have come in second at the World Championships if he hadn’t read it (“it” being How to Win a PTQ), which was kind of like the Robert Jordan quote on the cover of A Game of Thrones. Patrick was already capable of a “one PT Top 8 per season” career, and therefore setting Top 8 as his goal was revealed to be shortsighted to say the least. He realigned his aim to actually win the World Championships (rather than the “more conservative” Top 8 aim that many top players bring to bear) under the assumption that Top 8 might actually be a foregone conclusion. With that wrong goal in mind, given that he was inevitably going to fall short as per How to Win a PTQ… when you fall short of actually winning, you make Top 8 ,whereas if you fall short of making Top 8 you don’t make Top 8. Conversely, if it is “your day” and you do end up accomplishing what it is you set out to do when trying to win, you, you know, win. If you get what you wanted in the alternative, you are no better off than if you slipped a little with the bigger thinking. It is actually very similar to some real-life salary negotiations that I have been privy to recently. The owners of a particular company basically pay you whatever you ask for. They don’t haggle; if they think that you are worth it, they simply pay you what you said you wanted, or at least told them you wanted (pay attention!). If you don’t end up worth that, their solution is to fire you like yesterday. The funny thing is that some of the superstar producers end up grumbling because they are highly productive, you know, superstars, and end up railing their fists at… themselves for not asking for more money up front. Put another way, casinos and public service commercials in areas with rampant gambling tell you to gamble away only what you can afford to lose, which is great for the casinos because you are already in a mental state where you are happy to give away only what you were prepared to give away. They then build upon that over and over, crafting you into a perfect customer; whoever became a wildly successful gambler operating under this paradigm? That’s certainly not how it happens in the bestsellers or blockbusters. When you fail this way, you’re just executing on what you – intentionally or not – set out to do.

Long story short, I realized in talking to Patrick that what made How to Win a PTQ significant was not the backwards gazing details that I put into it or the nostalgic foray into personal history but the winning – and potentially losing – attitude that it espoused and espouses. The fact remains, we all fall short.

There has been a little bit of a one-sided forum catfight between me and Article of the Year winner Richard Feldman regarding certain sideboarding strategies, a conflict that I assumed had been resolved over six months ago. So instead of falling into an ultimately pointless mudslinging contest, I just asked Patrick why someone would want to utilize Resilience instead of the [in my opinion] infinitely superior Repositioning (or some other paradigm) in order to understand where the other side was coming from.

Patrick actually explained it to me in very sober terms that he later touched on here: I mean it is actually quite simple and I found myself no less than humbled by what he told me.

Resilience is actually an extremely defensible strategy for someone who would otherwise get blown out sideboarding. Resilience is a lot like certain surgical procedures where the physician intentionally cuts the patient a little bit in order to control potential collateral damage caused by where the action really is… horrible to think about maybe, but far preferable to the often uncontrollable – not to mention largely unpredictable – tissue or even organ damage that someone straining or thrashing on the table can wreak on themselves. Likewise, intentionally giving up 15% is infinitely preferable to shaking your head and hoping that your opponent is so horribly manascrewed that he can’t pounce on you with the 75% you are giving him when you don’t know what you should actually be doing.

What I didn’t realize is that for these players, Resilience, in a queer “addition by subtraction” way, actually represents net positive aggregate expectation… Even if I think of it as “bad Magic.”

If I haven’t convinced you elsewhere / elsewhen that Repositioning is the best possible sideboarding strategy, I don’t know, bother Greg Weiss or Patrick Chapin separately on the boards. The reason that I think of one as bad and the other as so good is largely philosophical: We all fall short.

I think my objection comes from the fact that when you intentionally give up that 15% (theoretically safe with the base 66+% blended Game 1 expectation that most “Resilient” decks can usually command), you open up the door to sliding into the realm of significantly negative expectation. You’re moving along that vector already. You’re sliding in that direction. You can be wrong. What if your plan is to side out your best cards and your opponent’s sideboard strategy was not to destroy those, and you just don’t have sufficient firepower to beat him in a fair fight? Don’t you get just as blown out, just for a different reason?

My issue is that with Resilience, you still have to have one or two things going for you. You probably can’t mulligan the way you normally would. You might not be able to dig yourself out of a slow draw. Almost always you leave yourself open to a blowout from an unpredicted direction. In a sense, in giving up these kinds of controls the Resilient mage exhibits the ultimate faith in his sideboarding strategy to control tight percentages; but from the perspective of a player with an often derided technical game, when you fall short… your percentages are more likely to plummet because you give away not only focus and card power, but options.

One of the best Madonna songs ever is “More,” written by probably my favorite composer, the incomparable Stephen Sondheim. The song features such perfect pairs as:

“That’s what’s soothing about excess / Never settle for something less.”

… and even answers the question of what you might miss “once you have it all” … the answer, of course, being “more.”

That’s the thing about correctly repositioned Repositioning. As a paradigm, it exists so far up the food chain that when you pull it off, the results are almost sublime. The opponent’s errors are magnified… He moves further and further off course. Your execution is magnified, likewise, as his response cards seem less and less relevant. The supposedly wary opponent is off deftly parrying an oncoming saber with his Main-Gauche, winding up his rapier, never realizing that the unscrupulous scullery maid you paid off slipped a little botulism into his wheat beer fifteen minutes ago.

Continuing… Per Adam Prosak, more 2-8 from The Top 8 Things I Get Out of Testing…

8. How to Play the First Two Turns

The most important other thing to keep in mind when executing on any game plan with any deck is to maintain as many options as possible while moving forward. The general rule is that when two courses seem to be of similar value, you should take the path that leaves you the most flexibility the next time you can make a decision.

The easiest example is when to chump block. Usually you want to identify the last logical attack in which to chump block because up until you sacrifice that blocker, it has some other utility; you might be able to attack successfully with it, you might be able to draw another creature in order to create a profitable gang block, or you might just pluck a big enough guy that you don’t have to chump block with the little fellow at all. You are going to chump block – at least that is your plan at this point – but you want to give yourself the best chump block that you can if and when you have to pull the trigger, preserving as many options as possible up until that point.

Josh says that he knew he was getting better when he stopped giving away so many cards. He estimates that he gives up fewer than one free card per game in Constructed now; I give up close to three (!!!). How many free cards do you think you give away in a game? How many opportunities to successfully Cabal Therapy an opponent do you lose because you overvalued the two life points represented by a Ravnica dual land? Do you find the wrong land with your Onslaught dual so that later in the game your Sakura-Tribe Elder has no relevant rules text? Can you rattle off your manabase at will such that a quick glance at your board and graveyard will tell you exactly which options you have left to you when you topdeck a Search for Tomorrow?

Paul has grown recently – probably due to playing in among the most Finkel drafts of anyone other than three-time PT winner Jon himself – by realizing that he has to save his removal cards for specific threats in the opponent’s Limited deck once he has a little pertinent information. In the first few turns of the game, we so often make short-sighted tempo-oriented plays that end up costing us efficiency as the opponent jockeys to recovery and we are presented with different challenges and opportunities.

Consider your operating paradigms when playing combo decks, especially in fast formats like Extended. Middling players quite often approach solitaire combo play with very flawed (objectively) criteria. The mechanics of playing the combo deck becomes generalized to creating a degenerate mana engine or going off as quickly as possible, when in fact the goal is simply to win the game before the opponent can. By trying to go off too quickly (the most common mistake), these players often short-change themselves wins in the long run because they would have had a little bit more expectation if they had waited (though they usually walk away from matches, win or lose, with the best stories).

For both correct chump blocking and optimal combo play, it is important to understand and respect the presence of the opponent’s clock. While you want to wait as long as you can when chump blocking, that might not necessarily mean “waiting until the attack is lethal” or “waiting until the last possible turn” because a judicious chump block might actually give you as many as two more topdecks, and those topdecks lead to more options. Likewise, you have to do math when playing combo: Sometimes you have to go for it when you are a turn out of your comfort zone because that’s it. You don’t have another window.

To revisit the notion of addition by subtraction, the opponent’s clock will often remove options by rendering particular cards or potential topdecks blank. Viewed in this light, your ability to maintain the maximum number of options will many times go hand in hand with exercising such options before they are denied you by the opponent’s threats, clock, or other forward motion.

All of these principles apply during the first two turns. The operational mistake that players make during the first two turns is glossing over their significance, believing that they have many turns later to dig themselves out of mistakes that they didn’t necessarily know they were making, when in fact, in tight games, the importance of those early turns is magnified to the point that you can only win if the opponent commits some kind of catastrophic error… Even if you don’t know it!

One simple concept when playing an aggressive deck is to maximize the amount of damage that you can do next turn. This might be a good rule of thumb, but is horribly short-sighted when playing against combo decks, for example. When laying out your first two turns, you should evaluate the play(s) you can make this turn, and the plays you can make next turn, and the plays you can make the turn after that provided you draw a third land against the resistance that the opponent might provide. What is better, playing two two-drops or one Tarmogoyf? What is better against a blank canvas? What is better if the opponent follows up with Sakura-Tribe Elder? With Collective Restraint? On the play? If you have a one-mana burn card and no extra lands? There is no one answer because there are so many possibilities based on the matchup and game state; –that is why an agenda based on options preservation and flexibility while executing as tightly as possible can be so valuable as your secondary operating system.

I pulled out a tight match against Scott Valeroy in the last round of U.S. Nationals 1999, the match that I thought would put me in the Top 8. Hall of Famer Gary Wise, who was the sideline reporter, said that I didn’t deserve to win. “Nice Shock,” he said. Initially I didn’t understand what he meant. I had played Dark Ritual on the first turn to produce Dauthi Slayer and Sarcomancy. Gary contended that I got exactly two additional damage out of the Dauthi Slayer that I could have gotten without spending the potentially valuable Dark Ritual (I eventually overcame Scott’s Powder Keg and Diabolic Edict with perfect attacks to win with Hatred through Bottle Gnomes and additional blockers); Gary’s contention was that the game might not have been close if I had not had to rip an additional Dark Ritual.

In this case, a bad operating model (“emptying my hand”) led to bad tactics and lost opportunity when I topdecked Hatred. Options were lost and foresight beyond my opening hand was ignored. The game didn’t actually have to be close.

7. How to Execute on Paradigm-changing Strategies

In The Top 8 Things I Get Out of Testing I used the old edt High Tide versus Forbidian example, which is wonderful to this day. However, the model is basically one of criteria identification and fulfilment, very closely related to understanding (if not dictating) the field of battle.

In order to extract value from this kind of principle, you have to understand what is most important to the opponent, find and address his proxy for victory. In the High Tide example, the Forbidian player probably thinks he is “winning” the whole time when in fact the High Tide player is planning to have something to say about it in a few turns. This intersects nicely with one of my all-time favorite decks, Kuroda-style Red, and its myriad Repositioned sideboard strategies.

Against White Weenie, Josh chuckled time and again when the other guy opened on Auriok Champion and slid into Worshiphe doesn’t just think he’s winning… he can’t imagine that he won’t. In fact, these White Weenie decks had no prayer against the Culling Scales + Sensei’s Divining Top plan, and even when they had Terashi’s Grasp, they would be miles behind on the board in the case that they didn’t just get doubly mangled by Shrapnel Blast. Understanding the paradigm and model by which the opponents operated was essential to crafting a plan that would consistently overpower them. Similar decks with sideboard cards like Pyroclasm and Flashfires didn’t just fail, they didn’t even address the things that the opponent held important, let alone what was objectively important in actuallywinning the tight sideboard games.

Similarly, in most of the Blue Control matchups for the same deck, the opponent would side in Bribery for Arc-Slogger and possibly Spectral Shift for Boil, whereas the Red Deck would side out all its creatures and go for a multiple Boseiju-based burn plan, theoretically inexorable in the long game, with no Boil anywhere.

In the one case, the Red Deck happily let the opponent play his game plan knowing that he wasn’t going to get anywhere that way, and in the other case, it blanked what should have been a highly effective sideboarding strategy against the assumed default.

This is closely related not only to Repositioning but “betting,” because you can extract additional value when the opponent keeps a hand full of worthless sideboard cards. Remember, effectively shifting the paradigm is contingent on understanding not just what “someone would sideboard in” but the criteria that the opponent substitutes for winning at an early enough phase of the game that he hasn’t actually won, and applying work there… In that sense, the opponent does half your work for you!

6. How to be Flexible and even Acquire a little Strength of Character

I think this one goes beyond just playtesting or in-game play and permeates every aspect of one’s life. Put another way, you can’t be afraid of change. When you notice you are not winning in playtesting, usually you do something to fix your issue, either changing to another deck or approaching a matchup a different way, or trying a new card or strategy (the alternative is translating these losses to real life). It is important to examine your own criteria for worth / victory / expectation, and ask yourself if you are getting what you want out of what you are doing, and if not, having the strength of character to change on sometimes a fundamental level in order to improve.

… More on this another time…

5. How When to Mulligan

This one is very tough for me. I basically never mulligan in real life unless I am obviously [going to be] manascrewed (maybe it’s because I usually play mid-range decks with a little too much land, so my hands never look catastrophically bad, even if they are too slow for the context of a match). This is a significant flaw in my game, and probably one of the most easily isolatable aspects of play that can be improved by a volume of playtesting.

Note that all the examples I had in the first article – Coimbra’s setting up a hand with Mogg Fanatic against Dredge, flying to Paris until you have a Survival of the Fittest or Necropotence – are conditionally quite bad against single B pinpoint response cards from Darkblast to Duress, and can, at times, qualify as All-In betting hands, perhaps even intersecting with the expectation of first or second turn operations. There is no perfect answer here – not that I can give at this point in my life, anyway – but I would suggest finding the best person you know at mulligans and studying that person’s algorithm.

4. How to Conquer “The Fear” Using Information and Logic

One of the easiest ways to improve in this aspect of your game is to learn math. You will have to figure out the most likely out(s) the opponent has, and then figure out the probability of whether he has “it” or not. The best example I can think of is from my Regionals 2006 report with Boros Deck Wins and the U/W match where I had to calculate the probability that the opponent would have both a second White mana and Wrath of God the following turn (the decision was whether to commit an additional creature); if he had the Wrath and I played the second creature, I was likely to lose, but if I got just one hit in with both creatures, I knew I had enough burn to win the game at some point. I actually scribbled out the probabilities on my life sheet and determined that assuming 12 dual lands, 1 Plains, 1 Eiganjo Castle, and 4 Wraths he had less than a 50% chance of having the Wrath and the mana to play it (based on the lands he had played so far) the next turn. The math held up and I got my one attack, winning when I had the opportunity to play my burn spells (he tapped for I think Descendent of Kiyomaro), untapping, and playing more burn spells. It turned out he only played two Wraths main deck!

These are the spots that you can’t be afraid. You have to figure out how you can win, how much time you have to get there, and ultimately, the path you have to take to get there before the game slips out of your hands. I read in a forum comment by Mark Young recently that you can’t bluff someone with the nuts; I don’t know if that’s true, but in my own experience, you can’t bluff someone who is desperate, either. Josh Ravitz and I played against favored son Shaheen Soorani and new addition Alex Kim (by the way, Alex is dashingly handsome in real life) at a side event at Worlds, and was sure that Alex had whatever he needed to beat us in a tight race. I looked over to Josh and told him that we could either act now and lose to the wrong card if they had it, or wait around and lose to it for sure. We pushed our small lead and went for the kill… and it turned out Alex just had chaff. I was terrified by his bluff, but like a cornered animal, I didn’t have a choice and had to push. I think that players with less presence of mind will often falter in these situations, in fact giving the opponent time to draw the out when they don’t have it.

Imagine you are playing against the Standstill / Ninja deck in current Extended. Now imagine that it is a few weeks ago and you don’t know the opponent’s list. I can actually see myself all sweaty palmed and terrified after getting clocked with Ninja of the Deep Hours a couple of times with that Standstill staring back at me and that Mutavault all giddily untapped. This is “The Fear” at its worst. As with most fears – rational and irrational – a judicious portion of fact and logic, or faith in math, will banish any amount of darkness like even the smallest match, spark, or candle can in a real world dark room. When you feel like you’re in trouble, ask yourself a couple of things.

How bad can it be?

Is it really that bad?

Does he have enough mana to do all that?

In fact, in our Ninja example, he probably doesn’t even have the right spells in his deck to ruin you up and down the way you are imagining it. He’s probably got a grip full of Swarmyards and Still Winds, and worst case scenario, a Spellstutter Sprite or two, even on seven. You have to clear your head, think about what he might actually have rather than the imaginings of your worst nightmare fantasies, and respond at an appropriate speed, otherwise, you are just giving him the time he needs to actually craft the best hand that his deck will let him.

3. How to Formulate the Best Sideboards and Avoid the Opponent’s Sideboard Cards

I didn’t think about this when I first started working on this article, that this was one of the points that Prosak wanted addressed, but from my perspective, it is all Repositioning. You extract maximum value from the game by successfully executing on a different plan than the opponent is prepared for. This necessarily presupposes that your plan trumps theirs, but that isn’t actually that hard as most people have horrendous sideboard plans that actually cost them value when they reach for their appropriate hosers. Jeff Cunningham said it best that most inexperienced players can’t actually identify the weakest cards in a matchup, and will “shave” numbers in order to wreak the minimum amount of damage to their main deck game plans while substituting cards that are only marginally better when employed in this way, rather than eliminating their slowest or least efficient main deck resources. Notice that when actively Repositioning you don’t actually ever bump up against this problem because your strategy is to change the fundamentals by which the game is contested.

Great Repositioning requires both forward thinking and a keen understanding of the metagame, so while it is the absolute best strategy, it is also the rarest to see, perfectly, in action.

2. How to Resist Autopilot and Break Bad Habits

One of the reasons that I chose to play the Top / Red Deck a few weeks ago is that I have not been playing well recently due to lack of practice (when at my best I usually practice 20+ hours a week in real life, against Pro level opponents rather than random games on Magic Online if that) and that I wanted to give myself a short rope of resources – but also a very focused bullseye to target using my still adequate math background.

There are gigantic seven (or even nine) figure markets based around not falling asleep at the wheel, and what allows you to improve in this aspect of your game will invariable require more work than I can cram into half a paragraph. I’ll just leave you with two things to think about:

1) No one ever stood out in a positive way by doing exactly the same thing as everyone else (go back and read your Information Cascades), and…

2) No one ever became great specifically by being afraid of being laughed at.