Is That Your Card?

Some thoughts on players’ uncanny attraction to terrible cards; if you want to know why everyone says your favorite card totally sucks in Format X, this is the place to learn why.

I used to have a clever trick that involved a deck of cards.

“Here,” I’d say, tossing the deck into a friend’s hands. “Now. Most magicians, when doing an act of prestidigitation, actually want to hold the deck. Instead, I’ll let you shuffle the deck any damn way you choose.”

They’d shuffle.

“Good. Now most magicians would cut the deck themselves; you do it. Now pick a card, any card, and memorize it – done that? Excellent.

“Now most magicians would put it back for you; I won’t. Just put it back anywhere in the deck. That’s right, shove it on in there. Now, most magicians would now shuffle and cut the deck themselves in a futile attempt to pull the wool over your eyes; I, however, am above such chicanery. Shuffle and cut the cards any way you see fit.”

Looking suspicious, they’d shuffle and cut the cards and then place them on the table in front of them. Triumphantly, I’d pound the top of the deck as if summoning a Morphling, snatch the top card off, and wave it in front of their faces with a flourish.

“Is that your card?” I’d shout.

They’d mutter that it wasn’t.

“Well,” I’d say, shrugging as if it really wasn’t any of my business,”Most magicians would have found your damn card.”

Two thumps on the snare and a crash on the cymbal. Henny Youngman lives.

But one day, I was at the local college cafeteria and I saw a cute little goth chick* that I’d had my eye on for awhile. I went over, whipped out the deck of Bicycle-brand playing cards, and started up my line of patter.

I finished, flicked the card before her eyes, and said,”Is this your card?”

“Oh my God,” she said, clutching her chest. “It is! How’d you do that?”

In a better world, I would have been very mysterious and nodded sagely. “I’ll never tell,” I would have said cryptically, and created a mystery that she would still be wondering about, late at nights when she’s pondering the mysteries of the universe, to this day. How did he do that? Was he really magic?

Instead, I grabbed the card out of her hands. “It is? Holy f**k!”

Well, as it turned out, it was good enough for her.

Pretty soon we started dating, and had a wonderful, open-ended fling for about eight months. So that was a pretty lucky card.

However, I don’t count on it happening often… And in fact, in the fifty or so times I’ve done that since, it hasn’t happened again. (But if it does, you can betcher fur that I’m ready to act like it was Meant To Be.)

Now, here’s the lesson as it applies to Magic:

Is that your card?

I’ve heard it time and time again in drafts, Constructed, and Limited. “Don’t knock Touch of Invisibility, man – that won me a game once!”


As humans, we’re notoriously bad at understanding the odds. A study showed that a fake psychic working a crowd could get away with fifteen wrong guesses to every correct one before they started to doubt him. The crowd, desperate to believe, just chalked the fifteen up to psychic static and weighted the one correct guess far heavier than they should have.

We’re trained to remember wins; it’s a mechanism ground into us by evolution, because if we realistically understood what little a chance we had of accomplishing anything significant at all, we’d never do anything.

(Nor is this necessarily a bad thing all of the time, I should add. Studies have also shown that in tests involving shooting games, optimists radically overestimated their scores, thinking that they hit about three times as many targets as they actually did. Pessimists were glumly accurate. Optimists, however, learned quicker, had happier lives, and tended to accomplish more, thus proving that a bit of delusion never hurts.)

But too many pro wannabes discuss cards based on the single win it got them – a memorable win. “Flametongue Kavu?” they scoff. “Sure, it can do things, but I’ve had better luck with Tahngarth.” Or, perhaps a little more realistically (but not by much),”I win more with Skizzik.”

You see it a lot on the internet; people attached to bad cards because they’ve had good luck with them, and they put them in every Type 2 deck they build. It’s even worse when it comes to Limited, which is admittedly an even trickier field to nail a”good” card down in… But you’ll see the suckiest of players touting blowzo cards like Kamahl’s Sledge, or Carrion Rats, or Centaur Veteran as cards that”you gotta play” because”Hey! They’re good! Don’t knock ’em!”

Stop right there.

Are you asking whether this is your card?

The plain fact is that any card in Magic has pulled off a win somewhere. Somewhere, someplace, there’s someone who won a match thanks to Pale Moon. A maindecked Obstinate Familiar has probably saved someone from an untimely demise in some shop. Vile Consumption remains stolid in someone’s mind because dammit, he won with it.

The question is not whether you won.

The question is whether the conditions that got that win are likely to happen again.

Sure, Touch of Invisibility can win a game for you – if you have a creature that can deal fatal damage, if your opponent isn’t packing instant-speed removal at the right time, and if you have the mana open. Nobody’s denying that it can win, or that you can draw into the card that’ll win it for you.

The question is, would a better card have gotten you more wins?

Look at it seriously. If you’d had another creature, might that not have won – and won with less effort? Or if you were packing better removal, might you not have destroyed the blockers and obviated the need for the Touch in the first place?

And even if you’ve won on multiple occasions with it, think about the odds, chumlet; you’re playing that damn card every chance you get. Isn’t it more likely that if you always play it, you’ll win multiple times with it?

It’s the Sligh rule; Sligh isn’t always a good Extended deck – in fact, it usually isn’t. But it’s cheap to build, and at some tourneys 50% of the field shows up with it. With those odds, it’s much more likely that some schmuck will luck out, get the right matchups and manascrewed opponents, and blitz his way to a Q.

Doesn’t mean it’s good; after all, there were still forty-nine other decks that didn’t make it. It just means that there was enough of it there that it was far more likely that if somebody was going to luck their way into the Top 8 with a bad deck, that deck would probably be Sligh.

Likewise, if you always play with Touch of Invisibility, the chances that it will eventually find its day in the sun go up. That doesn’t mean that it’s a card you should include; it just means that if you’re always playing it, the set of circumstances where it can win you a game will be likely to.

That does not mean that it’s a good card.

(If you don’t understand that concept, then do yourself a favor and pick up a book on odds.)

Good cards are generally the ones people agree on; I hate to say it, but your sole voice is nothing compared to the thousands of people who play Magic.** If R/G decks are everywhere; if Tahngarth was any good in them, he’d have proven himself in enough matches that people would routinely throw a ‘Garth or two in.

Likewise, we’ve all tried Carrion Rats and Touch of Invisibility in draft. You don’t see these cards in the decks of top players. There is probably a good reason for that, and you really need to think about it.

(Which is not to say, for example, that you couldn’t build a solid Constructed deck around Tahngarth… But plopping him wholesale in a net deck is a sign that you’re probably missing out on an important concept. Likewise, there are some very rare Limited decks where Carrion Rats could be good. But that simply means that you really need to tailor a deck around that card’s strengths – unlike, say, Flametongue or Cabal Torturer, which are good no matter what deck they’re in.)

If everyone’s saying”that card sucks,” they’re probably right. Don’t get suckered into the”I won with it” trap – playtest it thoroughly to make sure that it’s as good as you think it is. Try other cards in its place, the cards that other people recommend, to see whether they’re right. Watch for how often the other,”better” cards beat you, and think about how well your pet card would have done if it was on the other side of the table.

If it’s genuinely better after you’ve tested the alternatives extensively, then maybe you’ve stumbled onto something…

But for God’s sake, don’t listen to your inner psychic, who guessed right a sum total of once.

Hey. I got eight months of some mighty satisfying strange off of a lucky draw, which is more than most people get from a Touch of Invisibility. But you won’t catch me claiming that”You kidding? Random Draws Tech is tha bomb!

Sometimes, you really have to play the odds.

Signing off,

The Ferrett

[email protected]

The Here Edits This Here Site Here Guy

* – Okay, she probably wouldn’t be cute to you. I admit that I have a vast fondness for the zaftig, the thick, the BBW; in short, I’m a chubby chaser. But damn, in my eyes she was worth a box of Kleenex.

** – Wizards says six million people play Magic, which is the largest piece of BS I’ve ever heard. If six million people played Magic, do you think that an attendance of 600 people at a Grand Prix would be record-breaking? Don’t fool yourself; based on my numbers, I say the number of serious Magic players is 50,000 tops.