Every worthwhile Magic: The Gathering strategy article ever written can be distilled down to a single one-sentence kernel: “By [insert the topic of the said article] you can get an edge over your opponents, as illustrated by points a, b, and c.” That’s it.
Understanding this simple fact of the Magic Internet will allow you to a) evaluate how worthwhile any articles might be, and more importantly, b) figure out exactly what element(s) make an article worthwhile, and therefore useful to you. I don’t think there are any exceptions to this, but if there is a class of articles that at least skirts the criteria – albeit closely – it is the tournament report. By in large, tournament reports are masturbatory, narrow, and self-serving. However, the really great tournament reports convey concrete strategic analysis on deck choice, expected matchups, and sometimes personal mistakes that can help the reader to get an edge when participating in a tournament sometime in the future. Here are some examples that span a Deckade of Magic tournament report writing:
Regionals – Reporting on Dissension
In this tournament report, the author opens by talking about his anticipated matchups. He talks about modifications to an existing deck to face those matchups, and indicates small operational advantages yielded by the changes viz. the format would be diverse, but Loxodon Hierarchs would not be common, Seal of Fire was better against B/W and helped the deck to maintain card economy on the draw when its two-land hand included one land and one Boros Garrison. Moreover, the round-by-round system talking about the opposing archetypes – and expectation in playtesting versus the actual trial by tournament – gives the reader a picture of what he might see should he brawl in a Standard tournament of the same format (this also allows us to compare against the author’s expected matchups and gauge how reliable his predictions were).
Tourney Report: NYC Pro Tour Qualifier
This tournament report is one of the most important Magic articles ever written. Penned and posted to a public newsgroup ten years ago, just before the second Pro Tour, this tournament report catapulted the work of authors from Worth Wollpert to myself, not to mention helping to make Robert Hahn the first giant of Magic strategy. Rob goes through his playtesting process, his approach to taking down the Deck to Beat, and his modifications on an existing archetype. Though the deck is 64 cards deep, the reflection and influence of the article is much more sound. Again, this is the kind of tournament report from which one can take away something meaningful, helping to improve his game over the long haul.
Now that we’ve covered one fairly broad set of exceptions, it is probably a good time to get to the actual topic of this treatise, the Three Ways to Get an Edge.
First of all, what is an edge? In order to understand this question, it is imperative to break down – at least the high level – how a match of Magic works. In the first book of his epic masterpiece Quicksilver, the world’s foremost practitioner of the English language Neal Stephenson describes a fictitious encounter between continental lawyer-savant Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz (a.k.a. “the monster”) and fearless Puritan Natural Philosopher Daniel Waterhouse thusly:
“pi/4 = 1/1 – 1/3 + 1/5 – 1/7 + 1/9 – 1/11 + 1/13 – 1/15 + 1/17 &c
“If you sum the series, it will slowly converge on pi. So we have a way to approach the value of pi – to reach toward it, but never to grasp it… much as the human mind can approach divine things, and gain an imperfect knowledge of them, but never look God in the face.”
Magic matchups are like that. Probably you don’t know, can’t know, won’t ever know by what percentage exactly Heartbeat of Spring drubs Ghost Dad, but you can get to the 22/7 that makes your wrong math oh so manageable. If you play the same matchup for hundreds or thousands of hours (assuming better-than-competent play and correct strategies on both sides of the table, possibly with participants switching sides every ten games), you can reach the limit – or close enough to the limit – to assign a percentage to the matchup. Just for the sake of argument, let’s say that Heartbeat approaches a limit of 70/30 over Ghost Dad. Assuming the said percentage serves as our fundamental axiom, the important thing to take away is that limit cannot be exceeded by either side via any means within the game itself.
Around 2000-2001, before Kai made his years-long run of first place finishes, everyone, from top players like Baby Huey and Bob Maher, to dilettantes who had simply read a couple of lines of the online coverage, to Kai himself, said the same thing about Jon Finkel: The reason he is the best is that he wins games no one else can win (Jon, conversely, did not assess what made him different, or better, in the same way at all). When I was in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, my friend Antonino De Rosa told me the great big hallowed secret of the upper tiers of the gravy train: “We’re not that good. We just win the games we are supposed to win… If the other guy wants to throw away a game he is supposed to win, we take it, but otherwise, we’re not that good.”
When we talk about edges, we are talking about methods that make it seem like the mathematics holding the universe together can be bent, folded, or twisted into victory, but really, it just comes down to stealing percentage from the opponent while making the appropriate play on as many stacks as possible yourself.
For reference: Realizing How Bad You Are
The Actual Edges:
In my experience of Magic, there are only three possible avenues to get an edge:
1) Forcing Bad Play
3) Operational catch-all / Operations Management
Please note, again, that there are no “great” plays. There are no heroic plays that allow you to steal victory where a lesser player would have lost. No. Unless the opponent tosses the game in the graveyard himself, all your amazing plays are doing is propelling you towards your correct limit, where the player who is supposed to win actually does. I once cited Gabriel Nassif – a player I revere, by the way – for two reasons: 1) his undeniable deck design, which he used to rule Constructed Magic for more than a year, and 2) his unique ability to defy his own bad play. Nassif is this player who can make a horrendous on-board lapse that plunges him into the depths of no return, the kind of play that would make Billy Moreno turn red or wilt like old spinach… but via some alignment of the stars, combined with tenacious clawing against the cliff-walls of adversity that reduces his fingernails to crimson ribbons, he is able to get his head above water and eventually salvage victory… to the tune of a relentless string of Top 8 finishes and a Pro Tour victory with Nova. I always thought there was some special skill that the Yellow Hat had, but Jon’s analysis is consistent with his ubiquitous paradigm: Even if he makes a mistake, Nassif is a great player; he wins because he just stops f***ing up.
Sometimes the path isn’t clear or well lit. But remember what Ant said: Win the games you are supposed to win, seize the wins the opponent gives you, and you look like a superstar. The sooner you let go of the idea that you can make some kind of amazing plays – or that these plays even exist – the sooner you will be able to reach your best limit in tournament Magic.
For reference: Magic: The Intangibles
This brings us to our first and most important edge: Forcing Bad Play
If you are down 30/70 in the Heartbeat matchup, you have 21% to steal before you can win a game. The average tournament player makes more than one mistake per turn. If his mistakes are innocuous enough that he never registers the fact that he is making them (“I played a flawless game,” or “That wasn’t a mistake, it was a ‘judgment call,'” are two common things you will hear at the 4-1 table of a PTQ), you only get, say, 12% from him in the six turns on average that it takes for Heartbeat to put Ghost Dad down, and that’s not enough, even assuming your play is flawless and you aren’t giving percentage back (which is an awfully big assumption, even for this hypothetical). Given the fact that your amazingly tight play will force you to an upper limit of 30% likelihood of winning, your best chances to win are a) he is manascrewed (preferable, and part of the sum total of possibilities that gives you three games out of ten to begin with), or b) you trick him into some horrendous swindle, failing which he would have won.
Yesterday Steve, Paul, and I went to Jonny’s to test for PT Charleston. We tested for about five hours, and then it was about 10:30 at night. That can only mean one thing with most of us having to go to work the next morning (and Steve having to catch a 5AM train to Toronto): the commencement of a Ravnica/Guildpact/Dissension draft. Unfortunately. I ended up opposite Jon and had Jon feeding me; in the first game of our series, Jon won in about two minutes (no, really) with his powerful deck. I had played a naked Tin-Street Hooligan on the second turn, which ended up being awful as I eventually scooped to a board including Rakdos Signet, Transguild Courier, and other artifacts.
In the second game I played Gruul Signet on the play and passed. Jonathan answered with Dimir Signet. I windmilled down my Tin-Street Hooligan and picked up a Mountain with Simic Growth Chamber, ultimately answering Jon’s curve into Grand Arbiter Augustin IV with consecutive Gruul Scrappers and a Master Warcraft to tie the match 1-1.
I’m not going to claim the greatest player in the history of the game went on tilt due to my second-into-third turn plays, but his trash talk after a lopsided Game 1 immediately ceased. He was quite fixated on the play, though, “I can’t believe you held your Tin-Street Hooligan on the play… I can’t believe you would be that bad.” To which I just smiled and said, “I put the read on you.”
A lot of the time, players don’t understand where their wins and losses are coming from. I’ve lost more PTQs than I can remember in long matches that were effectively decided on the second or third turn. The scripted play in Ravnica Block draft is turn 2 Signet… But NOT if you know the opponent is holding a Tin-Street Hooligan. You will wait on the Signet until you have enough mana to use it as a color filter, unless you can use it to bait the Hooligan away from a more important card, or the opponent just plays it out as a 2/1; if you are short on lands, it’s actually worse to run the rock out if you know the Hooligan is coming. In this scenario, I made an evaluation based on the fact that I knew Jon had three Signets and a Transguild Courier to not open on the default two-drop on the play. I didn’t even have a key four… I just figured that I would be getting more value by waiting.
In this case, Jon handed me ~21% in a matchup where he was probably favored about three-to-two. That doesn’t mean that he ceased being the best player on the planet or anything… I showed him in Game 1 that I was willing to play unkicked Tin-Street on turn 2; by not playing it in Game 2, where that play would be better than a Signet the majority of the time, I effectively telegraphed that I didn’t have it. He made a decision based on what turned out to be misleading information… which is why I got to win that game (Jon, of course, took it in three).
There are many ways that you can use bluffs and seemingly sub-optimal plays in order to gain huge percentage in a matchup. The problem is that if you are wrong, you just give away value – meaning more ground – in a duel that you are already not favored to win. For example, had Jon not had a Signet on his second turn, I would have given up two points and possibly lost the game with him on one. Returning to our original problem of Ghost Dad on Heartbeat, consider a technique that my teammate and friend Paul Jordan used during the PTQ season:
Paul would actually watch his opponent to see if he were sideboarding a lot of anti-combination cards into his deck, ostensibly removing the Shoals and Pillories. When this occurred, he knew that he would be getting the most value out of his Dragon sideboard. As a Ghost Dad player, there are various degrees to which you can use watching the opponent and game psychology to force errors and steal percentage. The default for many Heartbeat players is to just transform. They see the potential of three or even four Cranial Extractions crossing the incumbent Kami of Ancient Law quartet, and have no interest in trying to win that kind of a fight. I think this is generally wrong, because Heartbeat just retains percentage – albeit less devastating margins – if it stays a combination deck. I saw Paul repeatedly force his opponents to re-cast the same Cranial Extraction two or three turns in a row… Forget about the fact that he has an eight-to-four (sometimes eight-to-three) advantage on two-mana Blue instants against four-mana Black sorceries, and that he is likely to win immediately should he untap on his sixth or even fifth turn. The math generally says there is no need to transform… He’ll keep the advantage.
However, look at it from the Ghost Dad perspective. You can watch if the opponent is bringing in a bunch of cards: if eight or more cards move, they are probably combination pieces being exchanged for Meloku, Keiga, Ryusei, or Vinelasher Kudzu. When the opponent does this, that is exactly the time to not take out your creature kill for disruption: Your Pillories will be good.
Will you suddenly have the matchup advantage on its face? Probably not. However, you will have a much better chance than you would have if your opponent has Dragons and you have Disenchants. All of a sudden you will be playing a matchup that will probably take ten turns to conclude rather than five or six, meaning more opportunities for your opponent to err… and its not like your opponent won’t be giving you 1-2% that he doesn’t even notice every turn.
What are the downsides? As with my match against Jon, the biggest potential hurdle you will face is being wrong. What if he juked you? What if his sideboarding was Bottled Cloisters rather than Clouded Mirrors? Unless you get one of those rare manascrew gifts, you probably aren’t going to win a sideboarded fight with ~12 dead cards in your deck. That said… What’s the harm? In this case, you might not be giving yourself the best look at your 30%… but you weren’t favored to win anyway.
Back when Jon was playing a lot of tournament Magic, it was generally acknowledged that he got several free wins per tournament for no particular reason. He could be playing against an eventual Pro Tour Champion, and his opponent would just toss a game into the bin just because he was playing against Jon Finkel. You can never underestimate the power of force of personality in a game as psychological as Magic… Just don’t mistake its existence with something superhuman. Magic is the kind of game where the kid around the corner can beat the best players in the world if he makes the right plays. Forcing mistakes as a source of a potential edge is directly predicated on the idea that people are not making the right plays, and that you can control to some degree when they err and what errors they make. To put it another way, when Ant says that the best players “win the games they are supposed to,” he is basically saying they don’t make these mistakes.
The “free wins” Jon got were usually the result of an opponent assuming “he had it,” and making plays contrary to, um, the math (you can steal a lot of turns, by the way, if the opponent is convinced you are holding a two-for-one and refuses to commit more than one threat). In effect, they gave him free cards, free looks, and free life points on a consistent basis. Storied players, from next year’s returning miser Patrick Chapin to our current World Champion, control the pace of play with their frenetic styles. Many times the opponent doesn’t even know that the pace of his play is being influenced, or that he is committing small errors due to unaccustomed sloppiness driven by speed, racking up the percentage points for the mysterious tempo king across the table, turn after turn after turn. Sadly, forcing mistakes is sometimes out-and-out malicious, and players use intimidation tactics and so on to bully their opponents. This is generally frowned upon by DCI officials; while I would not recommend this route, it is important to understand exactly why bullies are doing what they are doing, and, in a concrete sense, the true effect on the game: a bully doesn’t want you to think out your turns; he wants you cowering meekly in the corner, from where you are less likely to run the tightest plays.
Magic strategy sites exist for various reasons, but I am pretty sure that 90% of those reasons can be boiled down to the idea that the perceived biggest edge you can have over an opponent, in any tournament you enter, comes from just having a better, newer, more creative, more unusual, more brutal deck than the guy across the table. Over the course of any given day, you make hundreds of decisions; I am definitely in the camp that says the most important one – more influential over your ability to win than every other decision combined – is completed before the first round is announced.
Some players approach tournaments with no intended edge from the Deck category. I lump all PTQ players who copied last week’s Top 8 archetype from Swimming With Sharks into this group. There is nothing wrong with being in that group, by the way, just as there is nothing wrong with playing a deck that obviously has power enough to take a win in another city… It just boils down to the fact that if everyone reads Swimming With Sharks, then you aren’t getting any percentage unless you picked the exact right under-represented Top 8 deck and the rest of the tournament fails to adapt at the same speed that you do. Why is this?
Essentially there are two ways to get an edge on Deck. The first one is that you just have a deck with a greater likelihood of winning than any other deck. For example, full on Trix had unearthly percentage due to playing all the most broken cards in its format (Mana Vault, Dark Ritual, Demonic Consultation, Duress, Necropotence, Vampiric Tutor, and Force of Will) and, just for kicks, gaining 20 life in the middle of its sequence, essentially erasing the first few turns of from even the most ferocious beatdown decks; sometimes, just because it was feeling particularly spiteful, it would play almost all basic mana and laugh off your Wasteland draw. It is obvious that in the 2000 Extended format, which probably never reached equilibrium, it was probably just right to play Trix (you can substitute Ravager Affinity for Mirrodin Block, and so on). You gain percentage with decks like these because you sit down and you start the game with an 80/20 edge against some generic opponent. You basically have to give up 30% in errors before the opponent even hits a coin flip to win; if you hold yourself to 49% in costly errors playing a deck that only gives you a few turns to screw up, you tend to be golden.
The other main way to get an edge on Deck is to play a Rogue deck. Usually, Rogue decks suck. If they are good, they tend to be good only during short windows… When they are very good, they win one tournament, at which point they either cease being good or become stock decks that people copy from Swimming With Sharks. You probably knew all of that, so what about the important part, i.e. “How do you get an edge from a Rogue deck?”
A large number of Rogue decks prey on formats at equilibrium. Here is a superb example:
In the summer of 2004, people basically played Goblins or Affinity. This deck crushed Affinity at a 9-1 clip or thereabouts, and was better than 70/30 against non-Bidding Goblins. Kibler said he liked this deck because, unlike most Rogue decks, it was actually insanely powerful… However, that was not the only incentive.
Besides just playing “predator” to a known format’s most likely participants, the best Rogue decks give you an advantage in that the opponent doesn’t know your cards. Hopefully you know all of his cards. This kind of an imbalance of information gives you a tremendous edge because you can play to your limit (whatever that limit might be), whereas your opponent gives you strategic and tactical percentage turn after turn with bullet-ridden play. He might mis-evaluate what is important. He might play around a card you don’t have, or more likely, play right into a card that you do have that he never expected to see.
The trick of the best Rogue decks is that while you play unusual cards, you generally want them to be good ones. For example most people didn’t have Gnarled Mass in their playables boxes when I qualified with Critical Mass, but Gnarled Mass was still on par with cards that were being played in the format such as Takenuma Bleeder and company. When Kibler played my G/W deck to Top 8 at the 2004 US National Championships, one of his Swiss matches was, sadly, against Elf and Nail. Elf and Nail was a horrendous matchup… But I guess it is less horrendous when the opponent reads your four Windswept Heaths and otherwise microscopic number of basic Forests as a reason to remove his Vernal Blooms. Thanks to a disastrous – maybe 50+% – strategic sideboard swap, Brian dispatched this player with his Tooth and Nail-like transformation with relative ease when that non-Affinity, non-Goblins fight would usually have been more than 70/30 in favor of Elf and Nail.
Deck is potentially the most important component to this whole branch of theory. When you see an unknown at the top tables of a Limited PTQ, you can bet that the edge he has is coming from bomb rares: he starts out with the advantage against most every opponent. In Constructed, the Deck component gives you that baseline, that 70/30, which dictates the fortunes of your matchups. When playing Rogue decks, yes, any advantage you get beyond the limit of a matchup percentage is essentially coming from mistakes on your opponent’s part.
Most of the rest of the edges you can get in Magic are Operational. That is, they have nothing to do with the actual strategy, tactics, or game play of a Magic duel, but rather the methods and materials by which a duel is played. I try to exploit as many edges that I (ethically) can, but when you talk about “edges” with Ken Krouner, he wrinkles his nose like some deodorant-free sweaty gamer just walked by. The reason is that almost all cheating falls under this category. I am not going to get into the ethics of cheating: there are rules, and when you violate them, you should be punished according to the penalty guidelines. Obviously I have spent 1/3 of my life dedicated to furthering the theoretical elements of this game, and no amount of strategic or tactical advantage can defeat clever cheater, so I am very much against it. That said, it is important to see and understand the Operational catch-all and its role in establishing or protecting an edge.
Imagine you have a matchup where one deck beats another deck except in cases where it is horribly manascrewed. This powerful deck wins against the opponent’s fastest draw: It just has to string together lands and spells. The reason the DCI frowns on stacking your deck is that in a case like this one, mana weaving erases any ability – rightful ability dictated by a mathematical limit – of Deck B beating Deck A (as in the stacked universe, Deck A is never manascrewed). It’s just bad policy that mushrooms into everyone worrying more about figuring out a better way to weave than innovative deck design and tight technical tactics. The other reason, of course, is that, at least to some degree, winning is no longer dictated by Magic. It’s no longer about making the right decisions, bluffing the pants off the other guy, or picking the right plan. Cheating, like steroid abuse, becomes a slippery slope that ruins the game in the long run.
I already wrote a bit on Operations Management, so I’ll just plug that again as a “for reference.” In this context, I am just trying to introduce the idea that there is a fairly broad area where you can protect your margins by playing new sleeves, making sure your lands all have the same picture, and so on, and whereas your ethically-challenged neighbor might romp there to set his mana or draw extra cards. Healthy Operations won’t give you an edge, but sloppy Operations, like making mistakes, can erode your percentage if the opponent is paying attention.
In sum, please make sure not to present 61 cards (unless you are Becker… or Nassif… or playing against me, I guess).