I didn’t plan on writing another article. While I had received moderately positive feedback from my previous articles, I had thought there was only so much I could squeeze out of the fish-out-of-MODO-water story of a grinder at Worlds. Our Fearless Leader Steve Sadin asked me to write an article about the preparation of an online player learning the craft of shuffling pieces of cardboard. (Steve, as you may remember, recently claimed the Editor-in-Chief throne by ousting Ted Knutson who had previously ousted Craig; only the most foolish seek positions of leadership at StarCityGames.com).
Flashback to the Sunday before Worlds. Having landed in Narita Regional Airport after a 15-hour flight, I groggily take in what it’s like, not only to be in Japan, but to be on the eve of a Magic tournament. Walking out of baggage claim, I see a guy carrying a Magic-branded messenger bag and introduce myself. After exchanging the required shibboleths, I discover it is Scott Larabee of Wizards Organized Play. Scott laughs when he learns who I am and says that after introducing MODO (Magic Online) PTQs and the Magic Online Championship Series, Wizards expected “at least one of you” to make the Pro Tour.
(As an aside, a few minutes earlier while standing in line at the airport for immigration, I noticed the only white guy in line looked suspiciously like Michael Jacob, beanie and all. I questioned (silently) whether it was him because he looked a lot shorter than in all the coverage photos, but then I noticed he was carrying a Robert Jordan novel. Only a Magic player would lug a five-pound book the size of a small dog halfway across the world. I blame the Wizards events photographers and their penchant for the low angle.)
Anyway, if they expected others to make it to high-level sanctioned play without much live experience, then maybe there might be someone out there who finds this helpful. I did learn much about the difficulties of transitioning to live play. While this is primarily targeted to MODO players, I hope that anyone looking to take a similar path to the Pro Tour finds something to take away.
Lesson number 1: You cannot replace live play
I learned pretty early on that advice like “don’t forget triggers” and “keep track of the board state” are pretty much red herrings. Sure MODO makes things easier by acting as sub-bookkeeper, and you’ll lose if you don’t replace them, but you still only have finite resources to dedicate to what’s actually happening inside the game. Your ability to think strategically will suffer if you have to use active brain cycles to replace MODO’s assistance.
I remember telling people that the first few paper matches didn’t really feel like Magic. It’s not like I suddenly forgot the rules of the game, but I was spending so much effort reading the board and reading my hand and organizing cards that maintaining the game took precedence over actually playing the game. It’s as if someone said, “When someone plays a Tarmogoyf, take it off the table and replace it with an orange. When someone plays a Wild Nacatl, take it off the table and replace it with a fig.” It’s still Magic underneath it all but unfamiliar on its face.
I’m a huge fan of the
Getting Things Done
system of organization. GTD recognizes that the things we do are now increasingly more complex and comprise of a million different tasks, big and small. Organization of those tasks (e.g., “what do I do next”) threatens to swallow what productive time we allot to the tasks themselves. This system is built to make organization of those tasks as automated as possible (e.g., “do this”). Once you have your To Do list written with some minimal attention to relative levels of urgency, you just do them and don’t worry about the rest of the list until you have to.
Applied to paper Magic, part of it has to come with sheer familiarity with paper play. Starting out, my aim was to find shortcuts that process all the available information to replace the assistance MODO supplies at a minimum of effort.
Having plenty of dice, counters, and tokens around helped. A pile of dice next to an Ascension reminded me of the trigger when I scanned the board. Using card tokens was also key. Reading boards repetitively became quicker and more accurate when I didn’t have to remind myself that random objects were actually things. If you don’t have card tokens available, rip a card in half; it’s at least card-like.
I found it helpful in the flow of the game to force myself to pause at my opponent’s end of turn (at first just because I was forgetting triggers) and just read the board before jamming all my cards right side up. After a couple games, it became habit and let me take my mind off of “don’tforgetAscensiondon’tforgetAscension” enough that I made myself pause at other regular “stops” even if I had nothing to do. It allowed me to internalize the game state as a whole on an ongoing basis, letting my decision-making process springboard off of that familiarity, instead of starting the process anew at the beginning of every decision tree.
I had to develop a muscle memory for playing paper cards, and the only way to do it was by playing actual games of Magic. As I etched more administrative gameplay elements into my brain, I was free to handle the more important things and actually play the game instead of pushing cards around. Obviously I’m nowhere close to where I ought to be, but for now I’m satisfied with “competent.”
As I alluded to above, the central feature of the GTD system is the To Do list, and the thing that makes it tick is by breaking tasks down into Next Actions. If your list contains an item like “Write that paper on [x]” you won’t actually ever do it so long as there’s something else on your list, and when you actually try, you’ll spend a ton of time figuring out how to start (or at least, that’s what happens to me). Instead, your list should break each item into things that you can actually do (e.g., “Make list of sources from bibliographies.”) If you’re faced with separate concrete tasks, it’s easier to start while juggling other tasks and easier to know how to go about doing it.
With that being said.
Play more paper Magic, of all sorts. Acquire tokens, dice, pens, paper, and something to carry them all in conveniently so you actually have them when you start the game. Analyze mistakes made in mechanical game play to see if there’s an automated solution you can use to prevent it from happening (e.g., place a coin on top of your deck as part of your procedure for resolving a Pact).
Lesson number 2: Ignore the guy across from you
This isn’t so much of a lesson than a rant, relying mostly on limited experience and a lengthy, potentially strained analogy, so feel free to skip or correct me in the forums.
One of the things I hear a lot about playing on MODO is “but you can’t read your opponent,” which is a consideration I pretty much dismiss out of hand. I admittedly have little-to-no experience with reading opponents specifically in Magic, but I’m basing this primarily on how it works in poker.
One of the things I hear a lot about playing online poker is “but you can’t read your opponent.” This viewpoint is based on a gross misunderstanding of how poker works, constructed from depictions in movies and television. In these cases, the cards are dealt, and the hero is inevitably poised with the dilemma “Does he have it, or not?”
Poker is at its heart not a binary game. It’s a game of ranges and percentages. Imagine a table with all the possible hands. When your opponent is dealt her hand, her range is the entire board. As the hand progresses, that range gets narrowed down by the actions she takes, decreasing or eliminating the chances of her having certain hands. Your actions in turn will depend on how well your hand matches up against her predicted range. Very generally speaking, your value will be determined by how many of those remaining hands lead to a win (and what it costs) and how many of those remaining hands leads to a loss.
In such a case, you are technically “reading” your opponent, but the primary sources of information you have are the actions they make. If
an opponent raises in first position with all other things being equal, you can read them for a strong hand
because they raised from first position
When poker pros are reading someone, they generally do not pluck their opponent’s hands out of thin air; they use their observations to bump the percentages on the chart one way or another, and if the percentages line up, maybe it changes their actions (consciously or no). More importantly, sometimes it doesn’t! Sometimes a line of play and the resulting odds as so overwhelming, they have to take a certain action even though their read of their opponent’s demeanor tells them otherwise. If you don’t have a proper grasp of the fundamentals and what goes into making the correct decision absent a read, you’ll be unable to make the proper decision once you factor the read in.
In Magic, you can find information at every turn: you get to see the majority of the cards your opponents play, you get to see them pass multiple decision points a turn, and you know possible cards they could have. Admittedly, you’ll need to use every available advantage to reach the highest echelons of the Pro Tour, but I know at least for myself, there are easier and more substantial gains to be had with developing fundamentals, instead of worrying about subjective or unreliable physical tells. At the very least, let proper technical gameplay first be the basis for your decisions, and then if something provides compelling evidence, factor that in.
Lesson number 3: MODO is a tool, MODO is a crutch
In my interview with BDM, I foolishly declared that obviously the average MODO player had to be better than the average paper player (without the internet available at time of writing, I can only hope my actual words were that diplomatic). I cited the fact that MODO gives you access to way more games of any format and opponents of generally higher caliber.
Likewise, knowledge is plentiful and readily available via the flood of decklists on MTGOnline.com. The concentration of decklists collected and the testing hours in any given list is ever rising. You can use the lists to track the metagame virtually in real time. MODO is a powerful tool that I can’t imagine doing well without.
In stark contrast, Gerry was explaining to me how “MODO makes you bad.” He thinks it is too easy to plateau at an adequate level of competence and get stuck there. You can play at a sustainable level (what the kids describe as “going infy”), but your skill set may be miles short of what is required at the pro level.
For example, all that decklist information provides way too much temptation for the lazy. If I want to play a format I’ve never played before, I can scan the various 4-0 decklists, see what’s winning, pick what looks like the most real version, paste it into MODO, and buy whatever missing cards from a bot in about ten minutes. The result is something that for the most part is 1) a real deck 2) a real version of that deck and 3) well positioned in the MODO metagame.
This is good enough for MODO. There are very few events that matter in new formats, so you can mostly afford to let the mob be your deckbuilder. Provided you are at least somewhat proficient with the archetype, you can pull a list from the aether even for the larger events and be okay. You may suffer somewhat from an
problem, elegantly applied to Magic by Patrick Chapin, but if you aren’t looking to break the format, the few percentage points you give up won’t matter all that much.
The problem is that what leaves you prepared for MODO cannot translate well to paper play. Most obviously, the Pro Tour level typically has formats that are new or at least in somewhat uncharted territory. If you don’t have the tools to build, test, evaluate, and tinker with a deck, you will be SOL.
Even if you’re playing an established format, however, the ability to read a metagame, choose a deck, and tweak it accordingly is important.
As an extreme example of this, heading into the third day of MOCS, a number of us could reach the finals with a 4-0 record in Standard. Having been put out of my misery in the main event, I had the entire day to figure out what I was going to play, ultimately deciding on the Caw-Go list featured in coverage the day before. I figured it had a good plan against Valakut and beat the pants off of aggro, so I then set my sights on beating the mirror. I spent three hours playing the mirror and ended up with Elixir of Immortality, which recycled gas in the mirror but more importantly recycled Squadron Hawks. I entered MOCS feeling pretty okay.
What happened? I played three Valakut decks and one U/B deck whose Duresses I couldn’t handle. There was no aggro anywhere. My metagaming consisted entirely of pre-siding a fourth Tectonic Edge and adding an M11 barely-playable into my sideboard. I should’ve known given the players (and based on the main event results alone) that there would be a ton of Valakut and control. I had the time and information but didn’t have the confidence to make the drastic changes I should have to give me the 4-0 I needed. In retrospect, the call should’ve been U/B with Memoricide and the Duress/Inquisition suite pre-sided.
I understand that not all players are deckbuilders. Many are tinkerers or just solid technical players, but it’s at least important to understand how to read a metagame and figure out if you need to jump ship or whether you need to rebuild or choose a new sideboard. Mindlessly scavenging netdecks might sometimes result in the right deck choice, but why leave it to chance?
The MODO fake formats (Pauper, Classic, Standard Singleton, 100-Card Singleton) are decent training grounds to keep these skills active when you don’t have time to dedicate to keeping up on Standard or Extended. There’s less preexisting material for you to leverage off of, so you’re forced to maintain your own deck. The metagame has more continuity week-to-week and moves slower because of it, so you have time to digest the format (as opposed to, say, Standard where you can only really see a fraction of the meta at any given time). With the large, somewhat arbitrary cardpool, there are often unexpected answers for holes in your strategy, which makes good practice for finding new tech in real formats. I mean, who was expecting Squadron Hawk or Wall of Tanglecord this year, or Head Games last year, or Silklash Spider a few years back?
Build a deck from the ground up, even if it isn’t any good (say, a Time Spiral deck for Legacy). Build a deck for a fake format and play every week for some period of time.
What’s the difference between a Ringer and a Grinder?
Despite the fact that the titles are sometimes used interchangeably, there’s a substantial gulf between a Grinder and a Ringer. Grinders are content to grind out meager wins at a low level and don’t look to move up levels. A ringer, on the other hand, is someone who’s deceptively good because his skills are honed in another arena. This is what separates the grinders from the ringers. Succeeding on MODO is certainly a goal in and of itself, but it should be an ancillary benefit to developing your game. A large concern for anyone trying to break into the next level has to take their game off of cruise control and not be content just to rack up wins where they are. Here’s to more ringers taking on the Pro Tour in 2011.