It was fashionable not that long ago to equate Magic and poker. It seemed pretty appropriate, what with well known Magic players like efro, Eric Kesselman, and Dave Williams all winning at the World Series of Poker. Poker – at least before it became very difficult to play online in the United States – became the occupation du jour of countless gamers, who then became professional gamers. Magic, poker, poker, Magic… Sometimes it seemed like one blended into the other. At real life Premiere Events, players would gather between days to battle in the arena of No Limit. You could even saunter into certain Magical apartments and see multi-screen computer setups with both MTGO and six Party tables running simultaneously.
I found myself playing a little poker, too. I read a handful of books and found it pretty easy to win money in limit games online. My then-editor here Ted Knutson asked me why I bothered to write Magic articles: I could probably make about the same amount of money playing poker. Heck, gambling is exhilarating! Why didn’t I put more effort into it? I realized kind of quickly that I was making about two dollars an hour at the limits I was comfortable playing, and cashed out after I played enough raked hands to claim my signup bonus.
The thing about poker that is different than Magic is the definition of winning. When I played “fun” games growing up, losing hundreds of dollars playing every hand, I thought that the game, the hand, the pot, was what you were supposed to win. Like in Magic, your goal is to win the game, and there are only two or three ways you can typically do that; your unit of measurement is the game. In poker, the unit of measurement is actually just money. You play, you can win 10 hands and lose one hand and if you lose the wrong hand, those previous 10 hands are sand running between your fingers; 10-1 doesn’t necessarily make Top 8. In poker, it is often advisable to not play at all so as to conserve your resources so that you can win money later; in Magic, there isn’t really any equivalent to folding.
So you basically have to play every hand (that or you lose the game, the game itself being the unit of measurement)… But as with many activities that conform to a specific structure – sonnet writing, classical piano, constructing legal briefs – you actually have enough room within the structure of how you conform to distinguish yourself as talented, masterful, or completely hopeless. The thing about Magic is that one game doesn’t necessarily translate to one hand, one pot. There are lots of ups and downs in many Magic games – certainly Magic matches – not unlike the exchange of small pots in anticipation for the big all in near the end of a poker table. What am I getting at?
Magic has betting.
I realized this thinking about some different kinds of opening hands you can have in Extended. The easiest example is Dredge because Dredge is generally considered to be a completely non-interactive matchup for, well, everyone. They win 80% of the time game 1 unless you do something like Smother your own Dark Confidant when they aren’t looking and nuke all the Bridges. I don’t really believe in playing a lot of specific Dredge hosers if I can help it. I once asked the Innovator why someone should play a set of Tormod’s Crypts when they can just play Engineered Explosives, which cost the same amount of mana, given the existence of decks like Next Level Blue (where Engineered Explosives can be very good). People largely lose to Dredge in sideboarded games because they either didn’t respect it (or its presence) at all or they just don’t understand how to win.
A player like YT, whose baseline mantra is to win every fair fight, is mostly scared of the speedy token kill. I usually emphasize a flexible defense against the tokens specifically because I am capable of beating singular threats “fairly” even when they are a 14/14 Golagari Grave-Troll or a 6/6 everything. Therefore, I sometimes lose to not respecting the Ichorids.
I recently kept this hand with two Engineered Explosives, two Pernicious Deeds, and Sakura-Tribe Elder. Here’s the problem with this hand: You can’t mulligan it if you have mana. In fact, that hand is unbelievable if you get to cast your spells. I had easily won the previous game with Engineered Explosives for 0 on the first turn, which bought me basically infinite time while my opponent with between 10 and 16 lands tried to play a fair game and / or to kill me with mediocre 1/x flying creatures, so he was on the play. The problem with this kind of hand is that the redundant good cards make it particularly vulnerable. Permanents-based Dredge defense is doubly vulnerable: Dredge decks have to be able to beat Leyline of the Void, so they can generally beat whatever permanent (Engineered Explosives, Pernicious Deed, Ghostly Prison, etc) if you give them sufficient time. In this case he just happened to have to Cabal Therapies in his opening hand and I was done.
I was all in… And then I got called.
Look back to what I said in the previous paragraph: you can’t mulligan it. You’re pot stuck. Your chips are right there. Whether you realize it or not, you are banking the match on how the first turn, maybe the first three turns, go. You are also completely dominated a fair amount of the time, and there’s just not much you can do about it.
The thing is, these hands come up all the time. Usually when an amateur who rips through the early rounds of a PTQ, 4-0 or whatever hot start, and then fizzles towards the end of the Swiss, it’s because he got caught on potentially unbeatable hands. As the opponents get better over the course of the day, they start to disassemble your good openings because they had a better operational plan than relying on drawing certain cards in the early game; that is, they can often win even when you draw the cards you want to draw.
Magic has bluffing.
… But you knew that already.
It took me a while but I finally figured out that my friend Patrick Chapin is simply one of the best Constructed players on the planet. He’s easily Kenji level right now, and might be better. The Worlds Top 8 didn’t really have any effect on me. I have become quite used to having friends actually win big events (Osyp says that when I first met him I said that he was the worst Magic player I had ever seen while he beat on one of my manascrewed apprentices), so finals was kind of ho-hum. He had a great deck. You expect the Innovator to have a great deck.
It was actually the PTQ finals that convinced me. I was Patrick’s first call. I was Matt Wang’s first call after Boston, Steve’s call after Columbus, Patrick’s call after he won (“Actually I scooped to a teammate in the finals”) his PTQ. I insisted that winning a PTQ required luck, but Patrick indicated that he wins basically every PTQ and PTQs are actually easy. Really? I seemed to remember doing better at PTQs than Patrick at least sometimes back when we played near one another. Yet he had won zillions of PTQs.
Then I remembered poor Neil Reeves.
I am one that believes that player behavior is the most important thing that governs the outcome of any given game. Not matchups, not specific decks, but how the players themselves approach the game. In No Limit they say that you don’t even need a hand to win a pot; so much of it is bluff, and card advantage is meaningless in the face of player behavior. One player can simply refuse to acknowledge the validity of the other player’s strategy and race him in the air. Pay attention to me! You can almost hear the “wronged” player, up a half-a-dozen cards, scream it as he slaps down another two-for-one. This isn’t how it went in testing…
In testing, your playtest partner was probably willing – perhaps simply to coddle your ego – to interact with you a little bit. “That’s a nice Avalanche Riders,” he might say. “It’s certainly stunted my ability to action a massive Corrupt this turn.” The Regionals 1999 Survival versus Necropotence matchup was an interesting one – kind of the contrapositive of the 2007 Donkey Pong versus Pickles matchup – where each player considered the matchup either completely unwinnable or completely unloseable. On the classic metrics, Survival seemed to have the edge; Necro was mana hungry and its creature suite just before Masticore was printed was nothing to write Yawgmoth about. There might actually have been Bone Shredders on both sides! It seemed to me that Necropotence was a heavy favorite. You just played your Skirge and killed them with it, tapping whatever mana you had for Drains and Corrupts every turn, using them to fuel Necropotence for no other purpose than to get more Drains and Corrupts, all going to the face. The problem for some Necropotence players was that they acknowledged that there was a Survival deck on the other side of the table and wasted their time on whatever stupid creatures the Survival player produced, not realizing how the race worked when one side was gaining life and taking life away simultaneously; the math wasn’t even that hard.
Back to Neil, and why Patrick is so great. Patrick bluffed out Neil freaking Reeves! On his way to a GP: Milwaukee finals, Chapin kept this horrendous hand of all Birds and Elves, nothing but lands. He put on some kind of show every game, but really played up this one. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. However, he had Neil all worked up about Opposition, that he would have to hold back any and all reactive spells to stop Opposition, that when he accidentally drew Compulsion, Neil just let it hit. Gotta stop Opposition. Well, there was no Opposition… Not until Patrick was able to fix his hand and go off with Madness cards, overloading Neil’s permission. Neil chose to let the Compulsion hit because Patrick put him in certain place mentally, despite the fact that Neil has one of the finest mental games in the history of Magic. After I remembered seeing this match, I realized that Pat probably really can win any PTQ he wants to. Most players will play whatever game he tells them to.
This is the nature of the field of battle. It is shorthand for what is important to you and to the other guy. When two masters fight, we mortals will sometimes be puzzled as to why they are doing something or other in a particular way. Why did he break his Onslaught dual then? And why did he put his land into play tapped? They play around the other player’s cards rather than just trying to maximize with their own hands. Why? Because they understand that there is something going on besides the cards that they draw laid out in the sequence in which they draw them.
One of the simplest and finest opening turn sequences I have ever seen was performed by the Godfather Jon Becker at DC Regionals 2001. He was playing our G/W deck and the matchup was The Red Zone. Our deck was great against Fires (G/R) but we had problems with The Red Zone (G/R/W) partly due to their creature removal. Why did Jon fail to play his Ramosian Sergeant? Did he just forget it was in his hand? I was going nuts from the sidelines. Okay! Turn 2, I guess… it doesn’t change when he can search, but he missed a point…
And that’s when it hit me… and the Godfather’s opponent. He went to Bolt the Sergeant, but Becker had G open for Wax / Wane. The Sergeant lived and the Rebel Alliance came online starting the next turn.
Was Ramosian Sergeant the cornerstone to victory? The Red Zone was a lot bigger than G/W… But Becker knew that he would not likely live if his Sergeant didn’t. Moreover, Jon’s opponent elected to forego his accelerators or fast start in order to leave open mana for a dead Ramosian Sergeant. He played his hand a certain way and put a lot of faith in the resolution of his creature elimination spell. So much of his sequencing depended on that play that when it was taken away from him, everything else went wrong too. Betting.
I don’t know about you, but I often become frustrated when I get paired against a competent player in a middle round of a PTQ and on either side of me there are two matches going on where all four players are just playing cards. At some level, there is nothing less elegant than players simply trying to execute on their scripted proactive plans. One of them Putrefies a Cranial Plating because that’s what you do. That’s why it’s there, right? Never mind that he has a Doran in play.
Or on the other side, Kird Ape and Isamaru don’t suicide into a pair of Myr Enforcers. I can’t get through for the last four, his eyes plead. Either that… Or you just didn’t realize those were the last two cards you needed in your graveyard to kill him with Grim Lavamancer next turn!
And now, some random thoughts about Magic: The Gathering:
Recently I thought back to an awesome match I had versus Sean McKeown in 2000. I was playing Accelerated Blue and Sean was playing Bargain. He surprised me with a Disenchant where most decks had Seal of Cleansing (I had even left up U for Annul). The Blue decks in those days were long on Morphlings and Grim Monoliths for power but shy on defensive permission. So in the deciding game, when Sean played Academy Rector with two mana open, and I didn’t immediately slam down Counterspell, he knew it was going to stick.
“Um, tap your Phyrexian Tower in response?”
It was legal. I was nowhere near lethal with my four lands on the board, and Sean would just get me next turn.
Accelerated Blue creator Patrick Lennon Johnson asked me that year how we ever played Magic before Sixth Edition Rules.
I was really in love with this match and the game I had stolen by masking the fundamental functionality of Phyrexian Tower, that of just being a land that taps for mana, and emphasizing its importance as a combo piece; I wanted to write an article about like The Top 8 Swindles or something like that. I went through my twelve years of Constructed match history on
thedci.com, and… and…
That was it.
I think that one play in that one game was the entirety of the games that I had won via wit and trickery rather than pure deck advantage. No wonder I think decks are so important! At least I won that tournament.
I’m sure it would have been a bonza article, though.
Here is an opening hand I had testing my Tyrion Lannister deck (Mannequin plus Pickles, or Halfman) tonight:
How do you play that hand? What order do you run out the lands?
You actually have a ton of room to screw up this game.
I would lead on Faerie Conclave because it comes into play tapped and you don’t have any first turn plays. I think Faerie Conclave is better than Tolaria West because you might actually want to Transmute Tolaria West for some reason, like you drew Damnation and you wanted to find the Urborg.
You have a wealth of plays on the second turn. Against some beatdown decks, especially ones that play Gaddock Teeg on the second turn, you might just want to play River of Tears and Evoke Shriekmaw. A lot of games in the abstract you will play River of Tears and Suspend Riftwing Cloudskate (good against both beatdown and control).
In the actual game I was up against G/R Mana Ramp and I decided that I wanted to hold my Riftwing Cloudskate. I played Dreadship Reef and just put a counter on it, anticipating that I would have occasion to hard cast the Cloudskate.
At the time this seemed right, but then I drew Mulldrifter and would have had too many cards, so I actually ended up suspending the Riftwing on the third turn and playing Tolaria West, which was medium awkward.