Mixed Messages – Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Forums

As we know, Magic strategy is largely a forum of opinion. Everyone has their own take on the strongest deck, the first-pick card, the bombiest of bomb rares… but how, in this age of Information Overload, can we sort the wheat from the chaff? Richard brings us an insightful article that tackles this most nebulous of concepts…

As a writer, people like to tell you when they think you’re wrong. Some of them also like to tell you when they think you’re right.

You’ll get forum posts like:

"Wow, great deck. Any sideboarding tips for the Blue Control matchup?"

Sweet! My deck must be awesome. This guy even asked for sideboarding advice on a specific matchup, which means he’s probably going to switch to this deck for his next tournament. Clearly, I am on to something here.

"I stopped reading as soon as I got to the decklist. You know some of those cards aren’t even playable in Limited, right?"

Damn, I really screwed this one up. Why can’t I just play the Best Deck(TM)? What’s the matter with me? I’ve got to scrap this thing before I torpedo my chances at my next tournament by playing it.

The problem, you see, is that these two forum comments will often come right next to each other, talking about the same article.

Even if you aren’t a writer, you’ll get the same treatment in your everyday Magic experience.

"That deck is amazing, man. I seriously can’t wait ’til you take it to [insert large upcoming tournament]. It pretty much cannot lose."

"Are you seriously still testing that deck? You do know it actually loses to everything, right?"

Instinctively, you want to listen to the guy giving you the thumbs-up. After all, you think you’re right. If he thinks you’re right, too, then clearly you’re not insane or just missing something. Somebody out there agrees with you. This makes you want to stick to your guns and keep doing what you’ve been doing.

Of course, there will also be the times when four or five people are all screaming at you that you’re wrong, and the one guy backing you up just doesn’t seem to compensate. This, of course, makes you want to switch gears, concede your point, and move in with the majority.

Neither of these attitudes will get you where you want to be.

Let me tell you a story about Tooth and Nail. At the beginning of last year’s Standard season, Tooth and Nail was an established deck from Mirrodin Block (and the previous year’s Standard season) that had just lost all its Onslaught cards and gained some new ones from Champions of Kamigawa. There were a number of debates going on. (Many of these will seem silly in hindsight, as we now know how they turned out, but bear with me.)

1) Cloudpost or Urzatron?

Gabriel Nassif nearly won the Block Constructed Pro Tour playing Cloudposts, and they had brought success to a great many Mirrodin Block Grand Prix and PTQ players already. Granted, the Tron was not legal in Block – so who’s to say whether or not it would have been successful? – but there was clearly a precedent for the success of Cloudpost.

Furthermore, the Tron took up three times as many colored mana slots, making a two-color Tron list all but impossible when all the mana fixers in the deck were busy searching up more colorless Tron pieces. This was a serious downside, as the most successful Block Constructed build was splashing Red… but was the Tron really any better than Cloudpost in the first place? So went the debate.

2) Sensei’s Divining Top?

This sounds ridiculous in hindsight, I know, but a lot of people genuinely thought the Top had no place in this deck. Even the world’s most popular Magic writer had this to say (at the time) about the card he referred to as "Sensei’s Divining Stains:”

I have no respect for the Top. I think it’s a bad card and I think that most of the decks that play it are a few cards off optimal.
Michael J. Flores, in “Some Snappy Title (With Entwine)

To be fair, the card was a bit of a head-scratcher at first glance. Clearly it doesn’t give you card advantage, and it’s a bit too reminiscent of Sage Owl variants to be obviously Constructed-worthy… and anyway, just how many times do you have to shuffle before you’ve gotten your card-plus-mana’s worth? Tooth and Nail had gotten by just fine without the thing in the past, so why bother making room for it now?

3) Solemn Simulacrum?

Okay, so I lied – they weren’t all debates. This so-called issue was agreed upon pretty much everyone at this point; the consensus was that he unquestionably did belong in the deck.

I mean, look at him! He’s a three-for-one! How could you not play a three-for-one?

I wrote an article around this time that said, using fairly detailed explanation and even a bit of experimentation for supporting evidence, the following.

"Play the Urzatron. Play four Sensei’s Divining Tops. Do not play Solemn Simulacrum."

There were several other innovations that I offered that were never picked up on (except for Birds of Paradise, which later became popular on Magic Online), but these three were the boldest statements the article made.

And you know what? People told me I was wrong.

"Two Tops is fine. Three is pushing it. Four is too many."

Forum poster “disrupted”

"I can’t really say anything on the Top, but 4 is at least 1 too many "

Forum poster “asm”

Even my own editor (at the time), good man Ted Knutson, inserted the longest editor’s note I’ve ever seen in any Magic article – a full paragraph, in fact – into the article, in defense of Cloudpost.

By the time Regionals that year came and went, and the various builds of Tooth and Nail had seen battle at Friday Night Magics and in testing circles around the globe as Nationals approached, pretty much everyone was playing the Tron. Pretty much everyone was playing four Divining Tops. Pretty much no one was playing Solemn Simulacrum.

In hindsight, I was right about all three – yet many well-respected people at the time were insisting I was off my rocker. Hell, I wasn’t even a Featured Writer yet at that point. What did I know?

Here’s my point. The following things do not contribute, in any way, to whether you are right or wrong.

1) Everyone’s telling you you’re wrong.

Listen to what other people say – and be open to changing your mind if you think they’re making a good point – but don’t give up your position just because they’re squawking at you. If their arguments fail to convince you on their own merits, and they still won’t shut up, then just tune them out.

It’s entirely possible that your ideas are correct and unpopular, and nobody else has figured it out yet.

The key is to listen to the argument itself, not the number of people making it.

2) You’re not a pro.

Just because you’re not a member of the gravy train, doesn’t mean you’re automatically wrong if those who are happen to be doing something else. Likewise, if you are a pro, doesn’t mean you’re automatically right.

Nothing I just said is anything but common sense, but you’d be surprised how many people reflexively accept what someone else says just because he’s a better Magic player overall.

If you’re a pro, you’ve been successful at Magic. That just means you’ve been right before; that certainly in no way proves that you’re right now.

Lots of pros are "merely" good players who frequently get their information from other pros rather than finding it out for themselves. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, just that you shouldn’t always take format advice from a guy just because he shows up in feature matches all the time. Go read Gadiel’s entertaining report from Pro Tour: Charleston. Notice the part where he didn’t test? You might be more inclined to hit up the PT Champ himself for decklists than his teammates, McDaniel and Pelcak – after all, his resume sparkles the most – but in this particular case, you would have been getting your advice from the least knowledgeable member of the team.

Really, all a Pro Tour pedigree means is that a person is not incompetent. You can assume, for example, that he has not derived his testing results from six games against his cousin and his eighty-two card deck, while watching Family Guy, drunk – and, worst of all, without playing any post-sideboarded games.

3) You’re not a writer for a big-name website.

All these things I’m saying apply to guys like me, too. Just because I get a profile picture next to my titles, doesn’t mean I’m right. Listen to what I have to say, then figure out for yourself if I’m full of it or not. Just like you should for anyone else.

(I’m sure some extremely clever person who didn’t like this article will quote some or all of this paragraph on the forums. Just watch.)

4) You’re not as loud or sarcastic as your detractors.

Busting out a clever quip like "Sensei’s Divining Stains" in a discussion might make onlookers say "ohhhhhhhhh," or possibly "you got served," but a wordsmith’s clever one-liner does not an argument make.

Feel free to crack a smile at the impressive presentation of the argument you’re hearing, but only listen to the reasoning behind it. When the dust settles, the correct answer is what you’re really interested in, and the entertaining wrapping around the argument – no matter how entertaining it might be – will sidetrack you if you focus on it instead of the argument itself.

In other words, just because I sound really cool when telling you I’m right, doesn’t mean I am.

You know what the easy way is to tell when a person’s right or not?

There isn’t one. If anyone could do that without putting any effort into it, they’d have unraveled the mysteries of the universe long ago by process of elimination.

What you can do is cut out your knee-jerk reactions to what people tell you, and focus on whether or not their arguments make any sense.

Don’t follow any voice for your strategy advice except for the voice of reason. Don’t blindly accept the views of the majority (the masses), the most outspoken (the writers), the most previously successful (the pros), or even to your own gut instincts. Listen to what they have to say, weigh all the pieces information you have accumulated against one another, and finally reason through to the answer for yourself.

Why do this? Why force yourself to be impartial even when all your instincts are telling you to wander off and pay attention to other things? What’s the advantage?

Figuring out when the unpopular opinion is correct might just be the fastest track to success in Magic there is. I cleaned up on MTGO with that Tooth and Nail deck because, even after weighing all the negative things people had said to me, I remained convinced that I was right. I beat all sorts of players who were better than I was, and who had spent more time tuning their decks, simply because I had figured out something they all hadn’t.

Then there was the guy who did a bunch of playtesting for a big tournament with a group of his friends. The team came up with a consensus "best deck," and most of them played it… except for this one guy – the guy I’m talking about – who decided he had a better idea and split off from the majority. You can see his smiling mug here.

A few articles back, I wrote about a B/W deck for Regionals. Someone posted on the forums:

"My favorite was definitely this Ironic Gem: ‘This is Regionals. There will be suboptimal aggro decks running around left and right.’"

Forum poster “shadybaldwin”

Ouch! Using my own words against me. What a sharp-witted fiend, that guy. Really cut me to the quick.

But he sure didn’t do a damn thing to actually convince me (or anyone else) that there was anything wrong with my deck. He took a clever jab at me, but if you cut through to what his actual argument was, all you find is something to the effect of “your deck sux lol.”

I don’t think the three guys (out of four total pilots that I am aware of) who made Top 4 with the deck at Regionals thought my statement was ironic.

Gerry Thompson, on the other hand, who I talked with for a couple hours in the last few days before Regionals, nearly convinced me to make several drastic changes to my deck at the last minute. (I decided not to mainly because the tournament was so close at hand.) Why? Because he made good points. Not because he’s a pro, not because of his witty repartee, because he Made. Good. Points.

This is how you navigate the mixed messages. When some people are telling you you’re right, and others are telling you you’re wrong, you have to look past your knee-jerk reactions to the way the advice is being presented, and figure out if what they’re saying is right or not.

That’s how you become the guy who’s leading the pack with your cutting-edge technology, rather than chasing after the more successful guys, trying to figure out how they’re always one step ahead of you.

Until next time.

Richard Feldman
Team Check Minus
[email protected]