Mana Screwed! – The Importance Of Randomness In Magic

Getting frustrated by the variance in Magic is a common experience for many players. But what would Magic be like without that randomness? Would we even still be playing the game today?

170-person PTQ. Round 8, game 3, playing for Top 8. You are on the draw and keep a seven-card, three-land hand with Grixis Twin that has the combo, a
Preordain, and an Inquisition of Kozilek against Valakut. Five turns later, you have the Deceiver Exarch in play and just need your fourth land against
a tapped out opponent to kill them. You draw your third Splinter Twin and slump down in your chair. You end your last turn knowing that the only thing
keeping you in this tournament is a fleeting chance that the FBI will bust in and arrest your opponent, mistaking him for a world-renowned jewel thief
and sending him to Bulgaria for trial.

Unsurprisingly, that doesn’t happen. Cue the 100-yard deck toss, promises to quit (FOR REAL THIS TIME, GUYS!), and a tilt-trip to the dealer
booth to get a quote on your binder.

It’s natural to get frustrated with the game when that happens. It may even seem like the mana system in Magic is the worst part of the game, and
we’d be far better off without it. Yes, it does add randomness to the game, but that doesn’t make it bad. It makes Magic what it is.
Costing a card at RRR instead of {3} means that decks that want to play it are forced to either not play cards that cost BBB, play a shakier mana base,
or risk not being able to play the cards they want to when they want to. Slots have to start being dedicated to mana fixing, and the opportunity cost
of playing cards comes into play.

Almost every format is defined first and foremost by its access to mana. It makes Legacy what it is as much as cards like Force of Will and Lion’s Eye
Diamond. Limited formats with fairly similar cards can play out totally differently depending on the access to mana fixing and multicolor lands.

The Versus System, along with countless other games, strived to eliminate mana screw and reduce the number of ‘random’ losses. The
complexity of the game, and penalty for making mistakes, was also ratcheted up a few notches from Magic, which helped skill be the determining factor
in more games. Versus, despite having one of the best possible intellectual properties for a card game, failed to catch on with the casual crowd
because of its complexity; it failed to keep its Pro Circuit Qualifiers stocked with new players because they weren’t willing to try to get lucky and
win a seat in the big game. Sure, the Magic pros who wanted to make a buck switched over and found success, but the company could not profit from just
those players.

People will complain left and right about the randomness of losses, but it’s needed to keep things interesting. Texas hold ’em isn’t
the most skill intensive version of poker, but it’s the most successful because it’s easy to understand, and anything can happen on the
river. That makes it exciting.

Playing Against Randomness

Mana issues aren’t the only thing that is random in the game, but they are by far the most easily observed. You can draw nothing but answers when
you need a threat, too many low-curved creatures when you are hunting for a finisher, or just the wrong removal spell at the wrong time. Nothing you
can do can prevent these things from happening now and again. Once we’ve accepted that, we can begin to work through them as much as possible.

Magic is a game that is fought on two fronts. The first is against your opponent and their deck; the second is against your own deck. If you’re playing
only the first battle, then you’re going to lose when your deck doesn’t cooperate and give you exactly what you need. It’s not enough to
put yourself in a winning position when you draw good cards; you have to make sure you aren’t simultaneously setting yourself up to lose when you
don’t. The best players in the game understand this, and it’s one of the reasons they put up better results than you or I. They don’t
inherently draw better; they just know how to play a wider range of hands, make more draws into ‘good’ draws, and set themselves up to

Most successful competitive games, from poker to Scrabble, have enough of a skill element to let good players win most of the time but just enough luck
to give the bad players a shot. It means that the players who are willing to spend the time and effort moving from ‘good enough’ to
‘excellent’ and who learn to combat the randomness will have an edge against people who are unable or unwilling to do so, but they are by
no means guaranteed victory. You can call it a flaw in the game, but there’s also a good chance that you won your own fair share of unearned
victories in your early days, and without those, who’s to say that you wouldn’t be doing something different with your life right now? You may
not even have known how lucky you had to get to win some of your early games, and probably didn’t care. You were just happy that you beat someone
you knew was better than you, and it emboldened you to stick with the game. After all, you can be paired against the best player in the world and draw
exactly what you need to win the game, or you can get paired against a small child and lose to an equally epic string of cards.

Despite what most people would like to admit, I think the tendency of most players is to rely on chance to win games instead of skill. They want there
to be a skill element, of course, but they also love putting themselves in positions where a good amount of luck is required to win. People are far
more willing than they should be to keep hands that are nigh unplayable unless they draw multiple lands in the first three turns but are
‘unbeatable’ if they do. Or hands with six lands and their best card, with the assumption that if they just don’t draw any more for a
few turns, they’ll be in great shape. This works out just enough of the time that people are willing to ignore the fact that a mulligan will almost
certainly give them a higher win percentage in the long run.

Understanding the random nature of the game may not mean you’ll win every coin flip, but it should at least give you a better idea of when to get into
coin flip situations and when to stay out of them. If you’re a real dog in a Mono-Red matchup, but your seven on the draw has three Kor Firewalkers and
one Plains, you may be better taking the risk than going to six. If you have a good matchup, then you can get away from incredibly tempting hands like
that to improve your overall win percentage. If your opponents are not as good at making the same decisions, you’ll win more games in the long run. It
may not make the game as skill intensive as chess, but it also doesn’t turn it into Chutes and Ladders.

As an example, when making mulligan decisions, do you just tell yourself, “As long as I draw a land in the top __ cards, I’m fine?”
Or do you consciously think through what your plan is if you don’t draw a land? You may have a Show and Tell in your hand and two Ponders, but do
you know what the plan is if neither of those reveals an Emrakul or Progenitus? What if the first Ponder reveals other good cards in your deck? At what
point are you willing to pitch Show and Tell to Force of Will? Consciously thinking ahead about non-best-case scenarios, even in general terms, lets
you make the hard decisions more easily when they come up and should keep you from going on full-blown monkey tilt when they do.

It’s easy to play to or against outs. My opponent needs to draw one of his three remaining Wraths in 35 cards. I need to draw a removal spell in
two turns. You can probably figure out the math in your head. Playing to game states is hard, and playing against the randomness of the game is even
harder. You could try to keep a dozen or more running calculations in your head on every aspect of the game, but unless you have a superhuman intellect
that is better suited for solving the rest of the world’s problems, I wouldn’t suggest it. You don’t need to know how you’re going to
react in every possible scenario; you just need to know that they exist and have good starting points for each category. If my opponent wipes my board,
this is my plan. If my opponent plays a creature I can’t deal with, this is my plan. If we’re in a race and he clearly takes the lead, this is
the plan. Keeping your brain open to all the possibilities lets you make plays that are beneficial in the greatest number of scenarios.

I’ve watched countless games, especially in Limited, where players go out of their way to get into a topdeck war. Most people don’t like
complicated board states, and they feel like they need to use everything in their hand to keep their opponent slightly behind. They love to say
“I win unless my opponent does this highly unlikely thing,” even when it isn’t all that unlikely. It just feels unlikely.

They’ll waste removal on creatures that would’ve traded with theirs in combat or pump spells that make bad attacks merely even. Just because you
drew all of your removal in the top half of your deck doesn’t mean you have to use it right away. Your opponent is drawing at least one card a
turn too, and you can’t assume they’re all blanks. Especially in the later rounds of a tournament, you have to assume your opponent got there by
having good cards in their deck. Being ready to deal with a future bomb on your opponent’s side is just as important as maximizing the advantage
your bombs will give you.

Also, let’s just be honest; people loathe to mulligan anything but the worst hands. Six is one away from five, and five is the point where people
begin recounting their wins with, “I never thought it would happen to me.” Once again, bad sevens usually lead to games that are mercifully
quick and are less memorable than drawn-out, close games lost on a mulligan, which is a convenient scapegoat. Nobody can fault you for losing a 15-turn
game where you started with six cards; after all, you were down a whole card! How can anyone be expected to beat such an overwhelming deficit?

Reducing Randomness Through Better Deckbuilding

It’s not like we are totally at the mercy of a die roll when playing Magic. The best decks are created to reduce variance as much as possible and
give the pilot as many opportunities as possible to outplay their opponent. Yes, it’s possible to run a deck with four Mindcrank and four
Bloodchief Ascension with no tutors and just get there on turn 4 some amount of the time, but relying solely on that strategy is never going to bring
long-term success because it lacks consistency. The version of the deck that did well at StarCityGames.com Open: Orlando managed to do so by
incorporating that combo into an aggressive B/R deck that could win without drawing it. The creator of that deck understood that putting all of his
eggs into that basket was folly and found a way to make the powerful combo work without using it as a crutch.

That isn’t always the case. Most people, if left to their own devices, tend to have first drafts of decks that are as powerful as possible
without much consideration about what their opponents are going to do to try and stop them. They may play a few discard spells to protect their
Splinter Twin combo, but there isn’t much consideration for what happens if their opponent makes them discard their threats. Or they live in
Magical Christmas Land where Lotus Cobra never dies, and it always comes out turn 1 with the help of Chancellor of the Tangle. There isn’t as
much consideration about the hands where things don’t go according to plan or when their opponent has a few answers.

Like the mulliganing example earlier, these decks tend to work out just enough that many people don’t feel the need to adjust the deck to have a
better spot on the power vs. consistency graph. That is a good thing, though, as it means that people will keep getting tricked into playing these
lists, and if you can get away from them, you’ll do well in the long run.

One of the reasons Caw-Blade has had so much success at winning tournaments is that, much like Valakut before it, it goes out of its way to make sure
that every game plays out just like the last one. And unlike Valakut, it also has myriad cards that allow for meaningful interaction to allow for the
better player to get an advantage. Cards like Stoneforge Mystic and Squadron Hawk are ideal for getting out of the hole after a mulligan, and having a
few different tutor targets means you are less likely to draw all equipment and no creatures. Because of all that, games tend to play out in pretty
predictable ways. Everything works well together, so it’s rare that you draw spells that are ever dead. The deck also plays a lot of land to
reduce the odds that mana screw is the cause of a loss, and you have enough to do with the mana that mana flood is rarely a death knell. In short,
it’s the most constant deck in the format. Spinter Twin and RUG both have more powerful plays, but they can’t put up nearly as high of as
win percentage.

Making the Best of It

Although Magic doesn’t reward perfect play every time, it does reward you for playing well over the long run. Not only that, but it rewards you
for constantly improving. If the better player won every match, you wouldn’t need to play perfectly, just better than your opponent. It would
lead to complacency in all but the top circles of the game. The randomness inherent in the game means that you have to strive for more if you want to
win. Being a little better than your opponent isn’t enough to swing the odds heavily in your favor; you have to be a lot better.

The randomness also means that you can’t assume that because you won, you played well. It adds a level of complexity to the game that requires
you to dig through layers of false-positives and false-negatives to determine where you are and what you can be doing better. Going 0-2 two PTQs in a
row, then winning the third doesn’t mean you have reached enlightenment; it could mean you had two bad runs, or one really good one, or something
else entirely. It’s this complexity that keeps us coming back and keeps us competing, striving for the top, even when we are out matched. It
gives us hope that if we play our best and find every edge that we can, we can get a lucky break and take the whole tournament down. Randomness
isn’t the fatal flaw to the game; it’s one of the things that makes it great, even if it has led to more than one deck being chucked into
the garbage, street, fire, or ocean in retribution. May they rest in peace.


Sam Stoddard
samstoddard at gmail dot com
@samstod on Twitter