Kobe Playskill, Part 2

Let’s go ahead and take a look at the implicit assumptions that go into the “Split Second is Bad” argument. In order for that stance to be sound, it has to be true that the chance to respond immediately to a spell will, over the course of a large number of games, enable a more skilled player to win substantially more often than a less skilled player.

Now to the part of the series where I lay out a thesis, support it with facts, and arrive at a conclusion. As opposed to, you know, just stating what I think and hoping people listen. Like I did last time out.

As I said before, this all came about from a forum discussion in Bennie Smith opinion piece on Split Second. I’d advise you to go read at least the first page of the discussion to get a better understanding of the “Split Second is bad” argument, since the summation I’m about to provide is certainly not comprehensive.

Basically, the mechanic’s detractors argue that Split Second takes away skill from the game, because in not allowing a player to respond to a spell, it decreases that player’s ability to make decisions. The fewer decisions made in a game, they argue, the less skill-intensive the game can necessarily be.

The point I made in the forums, and the point I’m hoping to flesh out over the next several pages, is that the crucial decisions you make in Magic are not limited to the ones that affect the game-state immediately as you make them.

Let’s go ahead and take a look at the implicit assumptions that go into the “Split Second is Bad” argument. In order for that stance to be sound, it has to be true that the chance to respond immediately to a spell will, over the course of a large number of games, enable a more skilled player to win substantially more often than a less skilled player. While my point – that Split Second substantially increases the impact of play skill on the outcome of a match – doesn’t actually depend on this point being false, I’m nevertheless going to try and demonstrate that it is for the sake of illuminating what I feel to be some very important points about what it means to be “good” at Magic.

You’ve got a Grizzly Bears and a Ghost Warden. Someone Sudden Shocks your Grizzly Bears. It dies.

You’ve got a Grizzly Bears and a Ghost Warden. Someone Shocks your Grizzly Bears. You tap your Ghost Warden to save it. It lives.

Was what you just did an instance of play skill?

I don’t really understand what kind of “skill” you’d be using to make this play. It’s more like you’re just reading cards. You just used Ghost Warden to do explicitly what it’s designed to do. Almost anyone with a basic understanding of the rules of Magic would be able to do this, and it’s not going to be a giant shocker when they do. The crowd doesn’t rise with one collective gasp, mouths agape at such an astonishing feat. Hell, a basic computer program could make that play. “I want to keep my guy alive. Now I did. Tight.”

Now, it could be argued that because there are a number of factors to consider when using your Ghost Warden besides simply saving this one Grizzly Bears, you had to exercise play-skill in choosing to save the Bears as opposed to doing one of any number of other things (keeping it untapped to save it from, I don’t know, a Sparkmage Apprentice, for example). That’s fine, but it doesn’t really address the issue. If you recognize all of those other possibilities, and choose to tap the Ghost Warden anyway, you’re still simply exercising the basic function of the card.

Moreover, if the opponent used Sudden Shock instead of Shock, he would only be depriving you of this one particular possibility: using the Ghost Warden now instead of later. Essentially, he made a choice instead of you. I suppose this might shift the burden of whose play skill was the determinate factor at this particular point in time, but the net amount of possible decisions remains the same. Every choice your opponent makes is an opportunity for him to screw up, and these screw-ups are every bit as important to the outcome of a game as your own good decisions.

Also, it’s not even clear to me that you outplayed your opponent given the information at hand. This, by the way, is a different issue from whether or not your actions constituted an instance of play-skill. If you have a Sphere of Law out and your opponent Shocks you, clearly you “outplayed” him in the literal sense even though you didn’t make a play at all. You’re net score is zero, his is minus-one. Zero is bigger. Congrats.

But in the Grizzly Bears example, he should clearly be able to see that you can tap your Ghost Warden to make sure the Shock doesn’t kill your guy. Now my opponents are going to seize on this example and say, “Right, but if he had a Sudden Shock and didn’t see this, he’d still kill your guy anyway, so the bad player benefits from Split Second. Neener Neener Neener.” There are two problems with this line of thinking, though. First, neither of these possibilities involves you doing anything to demonstrate your superior skill; the only variables involve your opponent’s play. Thus neither of said possibilities can advance the “Split Second takes away play skill” argument, because Split Second only affects your decisions. But the second possibility is that Split Second actually took away your opponent’s ability to make a strong play.

It’s not difficult to see how this could happen. There are any number of possibilities where your opponent’s only out involves you tapping your Ghost Warden on your main phase, and him being unable to Sudden Shock it instead of the Grizzly Bears for whatever reason. In those cases, he’d have to rely on your to make a mistake, but the Split Second actually takes away that possibility. Now, this sort of situation is not likely to arise often, but you have to consider: if he’s Shocking your Bears when you have Warden open, clearly he’s up to something. Therefore, not only does the ability to respond to a spell not always guarantee that your play skill will have an impact; sometimes, it’s actually to your benefit not to have an opportunity to screw up.

Now, I illustrated my example with an obvious on-board trick, but it’s still equally true with something like a Giant Growth that involves that same situation with limited information. Even if it involved something more complicated like Flashing a Scryb Ranger in response to a Lightning Blast on your Werebear, untapping a Deepwood Drummer, and pitching the Forest you just bounced to save your guy now that you have Threshold, it’s not clear at all that your inability to respond to that spell would make the net amount of play skill in the match go down. Sure, you made a three-step play, but in the end all you were really doing was reading cards and playing them accordingly. Just because something works out favorably doesn’t at all imply that it took skill to make it happen.

Of course, it is important that a player master all of these “my-opponent-does-something-and-I-respond-properly” plays. I’ve punted many a game where, for example, I’ve tried to enchant a 2/2 with Verdant Embrace while my opponent has six mana open and a Strangling Soot in the yard. But it wouldn’t take “skill” to either avoid or make this play as much as it would simply paying attention.

Yeah, you’ve got to become perfect at doing all of this. I have watched Richard Feldman masterfully execute an entire game, molding his win around his opponent’s misconception of how good a particular card was in a matchup, only to completely throw it away by pointlessly casting Echoing Truth on an unimportant card that was totally irrelevant to his strategy. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how well you create an opening to drive to the basket if you can’t lay up your two points.

At the highest level of play, though, it’s not going to be good enough to simply not make mistakes. Hardly anybody will straight up raw dog botch a turn, forgetting to Remand a spell for no reason or whatever. Pro Tour-level Magic generally involves the execution of competing strategies, with the winner being the person who chose the best strategy to employ. It’s from this principle that I derive how Split Second actually adds skill to a game of Magic, far from taking it away.

First, though, I want to cite some examples that prove, or at least show, how Magic ends up working this way. I suspect that a lot of people won’t really believe me when I say that Magic skill goes far beyond what most people ever even see at something like Friday Night Magic.

I’d be negligent if I didn’t include the masterful final match of Pro Tour: Kobe, which eliminated any doubt in people’s minds that Jan-Moritz Merkel was, at least for this tournament, the real thing. Look at the way he used those Coral Tricksters! You don’t see that kind of balls-to-the-wall aggression from most people, but Merkel knew what his deck needed to do in order to sustain a winnable position. That damage had to get dealt early before Edel could stabilize. I guarantee you that at least 75% of the people in that exhibition hall were confused as hell as to what was happening on the big screen – I know I was. But that’s why we were all sitting and watching from the sidelines while Merkel was battling with Magic cards. The Brine Elemental play, of course, will be the one that’s remembered – and Willy’s early-alpha-strike-misplay – but the game was about a lot more than those particular turns.

We’ve got tons of other examples. Budde’s excellent New Orleans finals where he created a situation that allowed him to topdeck Morphling for the win. The Finkel-Maher Worlds final where an untimely swing from Maher’s Phyrexian Processor token after he cast Crumbling Sanctuary cost him the game (he wasn’t thinking strategically about Finkel’s own Processor). Basically any Limited game that Nico Herzog has ever played. All of these involve instances of strategic thinking – or lack thereof – that win or lose games even though nothing has gone right or wrong definitively on one particular turn.

Hell, sometimes even the smallest decisions can make a difference. I played against Gabriel Nassif during the second round of Kobe. In Time Spiral Draft, one of the fastest and most tempo-oriented formats in recent history, Nassif was choosing to draw. Why? Well, as it soon became evident, he had three Smallpoxes, a whole host of removal, and a Candles of Leng that would win it for him eventually. But, in the short term, that extra card would make all the difference if all he was doing were casting one-for-one removal. If you’re not thinking strategically over the long term, you can’t possibly even realize that.

Moreover, during the third game, I actually decided to play first even though I understood why he was drawing. Why? I had two Corpulent Corpses and two Errant Ephemerons, so I could exploit the tempo advantage greatly without falling victim to Smallpox. Moreover, haste was extremely good against his deck full of sorcery speed removal that couldn’t really deal with me casting several threats per turn. But if I was going to win before being beaten by the Candles, I had to get online fast.

When he quipped, “Well, I guess one of us is wrong” after I chose to play first, I just smiled. I honestly don’t think either of us was incorrect. But if you approach the game turn by turn, and never think about how the match is likely going to end, you can’t even begin to make any of these decisions, and these are the type of decisions that truly win games.

Just ask Flores: if you establish strategic superiority over an opponent, and he doesn’t know it, you’ve won the game before you’ve cast a single spell.

Notice that I’ve tried to use a few examples from Limited Magic, because I think this aspect of Limited often gets overlooked. During the draft, if you don’t understand early that Empty the Warrens could be your primary route to victory thanks to a Coal Stoker, a Think Twice, and three Suspend spells, then you’re going to value cards incorrectly as a result. While you’re playing, if you don’t know what’s in your deck and how you can play to make sure your Fortify is an out against the Crookclaw Elder and Errant Ephemeron that are going to kill you in two turns, then you’re costing yourself more money with every attack you fail to take.

In Constructed, obviously, the applications are more pronounced. Strategic, long-term thinking is how you construct a sideboard that 1) deals with your expected vulnerabilities, 2) fits with your overall game plan, and 3) trumps your opponent’s trumps. There are several amazing examples of this: Osyp’s Giant Solifuges; Mike’s Boseijus and Fireballs; Richard and I’s Psychatog-sideboard Dark Confidants; Billy’s Hierarchs, Glares, and Vitu-Ghazis; and Cunningham’s Grand Arbiter/Dovescapes.

Not that sideboarding is the only application of long-term strategic thinking in Constructed, obviously. Pat Chapin’s “Flag Burner” is so effective in part because it plays more and better Demonfires than every other deck. CAL was so good for a few weeks because it had better Life from the Loams against the control decks, tons of disruption against the combo decks, and a trump (Confinement) against the aggro decks – all in the main! It had strategic superiority against basically everything in the format, because whatever plan a deck had to beat it – this was before Ichorid – its own plan was straight-up better.

So finally: how on Earth does this show that somehow Split Second adds skill to Magic?

The mechanic forces people to think strategically.

Play a few games against a U/G deck with Stonewood Invocation to see what I’m talking about. That card wins games out of nowhere that no other card in Magic could win. Because of that, control decks that are accustomed to playing in a particular way against that card now have to completely alter their game plan so that they aren’t just kold against it. Condemn, which is normally a giant house, now is blank. Mortify, Repeal, Skred now all have to be sorceries. Wrath is even better than usual because it blanks a card in the opponent’s hand.

What this does is reward people who think a few turns in advance as opposed to those who simply stay on autopilot and sling spells. If you play around the Stonewood – demonstrating your knowledge of the metagame and your realization of the fact that you suddenly have to account for a whole host of different possibilities – you’re making it much more likely that you are going to win the game. If you ignore the card, you’re going to lose to it much as you would to any format-defining spell that you choose to be ignorant of.

Anything that forces a player to take more information into account, to think further in advance, to compute and construct more risk-reward scenarios and act based on an accurate appraisal of them – anything that can do all of that is a good, good thing indeed.