Flow of Ideas – Learn, Unlearn, Relearn

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Thursday, January 14th – Magic is a game of high level decision-making and resource managements, but it is also, at its core, a game defined by making the best decision in the time possible. Whether choosing which creatures to send into combat by pushing them into the red zone of a feature match table or sliding creatures across the uneven concrete in the schoolyard, there is only so much time you can take to make a play.

Tournament Magic is a game of shortcuts.

Magic is a game of high level decision-making and resource managements, but it is also, at its core, a game defined by making the best decision in the time possible. Whether choosing which creatures to send into combat by pushing them into the red zone of a feature match table or sliding creatures across the uneven concrete in the schoolyard, there is only so much time you can take to make a play.

So, we rely on shortcuts.

Not shortcuts in the sense that saying “go” is a shortcut to end the turn, or that untapping and drawing a card is a shortcut for not playing any spells in your upkeep. Shortcuts in the sense of an actual, mental shortcut; the flattened brush in your mind created from iteration after iteration of experience.

How did you know to kill that Noble Hierarch on turn 1? Because it’s going to let him cast Rhox War Monk next turn, you idiot. No. It’s because you have seen that play a hundred times — turn 1 accelerator into turn 2 three-drop — and know that spending the removal spell now is better than dealing with creatures that jump the curve for the next three turns.

The same knowledge that tells you to Bolt that Hierarch is the force that tells you to wait until he plays a land to kill a Steppe Lynx, to always Flashfreeze Blightning, and to Mana Leak the Seething Song instead of whatever spell comes next. It’s also the reason we have to pause and tank when we are in an unfamiliar situation.

In Philip Ross’s 2006 psychology article “The Expert Mind,” Ross looks at chess masters and how they are able to play twenty or more games at the same time without losing their precision of technical play. An amateur cannot do the same. Psychologist George Miller estimated through his studies that any given human can only think about five to nine different items at any given time, yet chess grandmasters could easily think about more. How is that possible?

The secret came in “chunking” pieces of memory — or archiving shortcuts. Instead of merely accessing five to nine items — five to nine plays — at a time, each “chunk,” containing thousands of possible board situations, occupied only one item in the chess player’s mindspace. As a result of chunking information, each grandmaster could access upwards of 100,000 pieces of information. When they saw a familiar board position, they knew what move to make regardless of if they had just been dropped into the game or had seen it through from the beginning.

Sound familiar?

Though one scientist in the article estimates it takes about ten years of effortful study to learn enough chunks to reach a status akin to grandmaster in any given activity, chunks of information are certainly still created and accessed for people with any considerable amount of experience.

The article is a good read that clocks in at a mere seven pages, and it is available for free online. I won’t continue to paraphrase; if you’re interested in a more thorough perspective, go check it out yourself. The important takeaway is the notion of being able to know what to do in particular situations because of the shortcutting of information.

Imagine a world without shortcuts. Surprisingly, it’s not hard. Just pick an activity you’re a novice at. For me, that activity is dance. When I go swing dancing, it always requires intense focus to the point of being mentally taxing. I have to juggle five to nine items in my head at once in quick succession. Rockstep, triplestep, left step, right step, left step —was that supposed to be another triplestep? — right step… Oops. I don’t remember where I was. Can we start over?

Feel the beat, don’t think, just dance, blah blah blah. At this level, a level with zero shortcuts, that just doesn’t work.

Others though, those with more experience, can dance with such grace and poise, such vigor and excitement. It’s all because they’ve chunked the necessary body actions and different moves they might see in their partner and then take muscle memory shortcuts as necessary.

If everybody danced like me, the art of dance wouldn’t have survived hundreds of years. Fortunately, expert dancers have shortcuts to tell them what to do.

But what happens when your mind misreads the situation and falls back on a shortcut that ends up with your feet stomping theirs?

In a Personal Applications of Psychology class I took over the summer, the same class which introduced me to “The Expert Mind,” we talked about how behaviors and behavior development are learned. Behaviors try to develop in a three-stage linear fashion, but you can control their development and lock them in stages.

The first level is control by others. This is the stage when you are first learning something and someone else has to show you how to do it. Swinging a baseball bat. Lighting a barbeque. Tapping your lands. After you are shown any one activity enough times, you begin to remember how it is done and progress out of this level.

The second level is control by self. At this stage, you can do the activity without any coaxing or help but still have to actively think about the steps it takes. It’s like after you learn to drive, but while you’re still new on the road. You really don’t need your dad telling you to make sure to signal before changing lanes anymore, but your mind has to leap through that process and engage itself in the action of pulling the lever to the left of your steering wheel down.

The third level is automatization. At this point, the behavior is controlled entirely by environmental cues. You see the ball is a few feet in front of you at a level height, so you know it’s time to swing your bat. The process of tapping your lands is an afterthought you don’t even remember doing. You can talk on your cell phone and adjust the radio in your car while letting the flashing turn signals around you decide the weight your foot applies on the gas pedal. Except today, there’s a car in front of you running a red light. You freeze up. You’re not used to that environmental cue.


The point of behavior automatization is dangerous. For some small behaviors, it’s okay. Walking. Writing. Talking. The mundane pieces everyday life is built upon. But for anything larger, you need to think about what you’re doing as you do it and bring your automatizated behaviors back down to the level of control by self. You have to first learn it, then unlearn it, then relearn it, this time applied to your behavior only in the ways you want to have available at the control by self level.

I mentioned tapping your lands as an automatized afterthought. Do you have any idea how many games of Magic have been lost by mistapped lands? You don’t want tapping lands to be automatic. You want it to be something you think about.

Relying on automatization — taking poor shortcuts without knowing it — is what can cause you to lose close games.

Wait. Didn’t I just say Magic is defined by shortcuts? Let’s go back to our good friend Noble Hierarch.

You are always going to Deathmark that Noble Hierarch without hesitation. That Hierarch is dead before the tiny amount of heat generated by the friction of tapping lands dissipates from the table surface. It’s such an ingrained, obvious play made over and over throughout tournament Magic by yourself and thousands of other players that you don’t even need to think about it. And that’s precisely the problem.

Tournaments are all about shortcuts because we only have finite time to make a play. If we spent 10 minutes deciphering every play, we would play impeccably — but that doesn’t work in a game confined by 50 minute rounds.

In chess, you can always rely on your chunks. If you know the best move in any given board position, you can call upon your past knowledge and always make that play. Nothing unforeseen is going to happen.

Magic is different.

The same chunks that are so beneficial in chess can be your enemy in Magic.

Maybe your hand is full of removal and it’s better to save your removal for each threat in turn. Maybe your hand has Volcanic Fallout and that Hierarch is going to be a casualty of war come turn 3 anyway. Maybe you’re playing R/B Burn and the right play is to always save the Deathmark for their lifelink creature. Almost every player is just going to kill the Hierarch. Often, they’re right. But on rare occasions, they’re going to be wrong.

How about the maxims we’re all taught early on in our Magic playing career? Always wait until the last possible moment to cast your spells. Always try and force a two-for-one trade. Always pick good removal over mediocre creatures. Are you trying to lose? Clinging to these principles actively makes you a worse Magic player. While cute reminders early on, they are nothing more. They are sometimes correct, sometimes not. Bringing these notions into the tournament ring gives away the extra margin you need if you’re going to fight tooth and claw to make the right play on every turn of the game.

Sure, always playing spells on your opponent’s turn looks strategically sound. It gives the opponent the least amount of information possible while having the slight potential to broaden your options. What could go wrong?

Well, the art on my playset of Stonewood Invocations could be filled to the edge with tally marks if I just kept track of their kills. You’re going to cast your removal spell after blockers? Now that’s just greedy.

Walking around at the last PTQ, I saw so many Scapeshift players pass their second turn with a Magma Jet to their opponent’s Steppe Lynx. Unsurprisingly, the situation didn’t turn out the way the Scapeshift player wanted it to. Really now, what’s the advantage in waiting? Right, like you were really going to Magma Jet their Goblin Guide instead.

Remember Mistbind Clique? I spent hours looking for the game text “Mistbind Clique can only be cast during the upkeep step during PTQ’s,” and couldn’t find it. It’s such an automatic play to make, etched into our chunks of thought as a behavioral shortcut. We’ve all seen it made a hundred times. But that doesn’t make it always correct.

Card advantage? Yeah, it’s nice. But that won’t stop me from Mana Leaking your Umezawa’s Jitte three times to ensure that I have win-the-game advantage later on.

Shortcuts are our enemy.

As Magic players, we like to create all of these gameplay theories that try to explain most often how to make the best play. Who’s the Beatdown. Investment. The Philosophy of Fire. The fact of the matter is that none of this made up terminology and theory actually matters in a game of Magic. It’s like the study of Philosophy. The articles are all just guides which teach you shortcuts and give you information to store away in your chunks. And often, the plays they lead you to make will be correct. But sometimes, they’ll lead you down the wrong path when, instead of thinking “what is the right play here,” you think “I’m the beatdown, I need to attack.”

At the same time, we have to know when to consider our options and make sure we aren’t taking a shortcut. It’s not realistic to tank on every play.

You know the point in a match when you reach a game state you’re not sure how to react to, and then end up spending a minute tanking on the right play? Now imagine doing that for every single play you make. You would usually find the right play — but you would also drain your mental energy for later decisions, not to mention the round clock, faster. Shortcuts are important for that reason. When we see our opening hand and it has a land that enters the battlefield tapped and three other lands, it’s good that we immediately know we should open on the tapped land. Small shortcuts like that one are just like breathing. But if we continually follow shortcuts at every step of the game without acknowledging the impact of the play we’re actually making, if we make our behaviors automatized based on the cues of our hand and our opponent’s board, it’s easy to make small mistakes that can drastically alter the game. And then, well…


Gavin Verhey
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else