This article, the first section at least, is in part a response to Chris Mascioli excellent Leveled Thinking; I talked to Chris a bit last week and described a specific example of leveled thinking IRL (or at least the gaming equivalent of IRL), and he thought it might make a good Flores Friday.
So here goes.
Part I: Metagaming Cammy
A few months ago I decided I wanted to get more serious at Street Fighter.
In 1992, Street Fighter II was my Magic: The Gathering (a couple of years before there was any Magic: The Gathering). I played it for hours on my Super Nintendo in the afternoons after school and hung out in smoky green velvet halls and shopping mall video arcades, learning about hustling pool and general misbehavior, piloting primarily Chun-Li.
I wasn’t dexterously adept enough to play finesse fighters like Ryu or Ken (at least initially), plus I was drawn in—like so many—by the aesthetic of Chun-Li, who is the first great female fighting character, tastefully illustrated.
I bought this book for Bella for Christmas. It is gorgeous, huge, on gorgeous paper. Chun-Li looks great while wearing—respectfully—a costume inspired by traditional Chinese dress.
Anyway flash forward to 2011, when I have rediscovered Ryu, Ken, and Zangief. Modern technology allows me to jack into Street Fighter IV literally any time, whether on the treadmill, killing hours on the subway, on a coffee break in a cushy / plush Starbucks easy chair, or even on the can in between meetings. Because “there’s an app for that,” I can tell you that I have logged at least 20 hours a month playing Street Fighter for each of the last several months.
Now when I decided I was going to start playing ranked matches, the character I of course went with was Ryu.
I had spent, at the time, more time playing Ryu than any other character, and I was proud of my ability to “beat the game,” even taking out the computer playing Akuma himself (on occasion)! [This was a big deal to me at some point.]
Anyway, I was going to be paired primarily against players of my own level.
My opening attempts at Ryu were awful… I probably lost something like my first 20 ranked matches.
It wasn’t just that I wasn’t really good enough to compete against skilled human opponents (some of whom were Japanese, Korean, or Brazilian players who had logged thousands of ranked matches), but it was that I was playing Ryu.
Everyone plays Ryu.
I mean there are d-bags who play Akuma in ranked matches, but the vast majority of players learn on Ryu and specialize at least at some point on Ryu, and most importantly are used to beating other [even good] players playing Ryu.
It was like going Caw-Blade into a field of all Shiels, Sacher, and other-Flores. Wasn’t I the best deck? In reality, I had just stacked the deck against myself from the outset.
After those first few dozen losses, I realized something: Almost everyone I was playing against had more experience than I did. The same tools, the same technology, but many more devoted hours at the same task. I was never going to succeed on this model. In order to compete, I was going to have to give myself an unfair edge…and the edge I chose was (unsurprisingly) to go rogue.
I decided to specialize in the character Cammy.
Cammy is a close range fighter. Unlike Ryu, Ken, Akuma, Guile, and many other iconic Street Fighter characters, Cammy does not have any kind of a “fireball” attack—she has to do everything up close and personal.
Cammy is a girl. She is slight and rendered slim. My kids also ask why, every time she wins, Cammy flashes the audience her butt; I have no good response to that, but I have read that all the reserve the Street Fighter designers put into Chun-Li (beautiful but essentially super respectful and fully clothed) got thrown out the window with Cammy (the second female character in the series). In practical terms, Cammy, being a girl (not even “a woman” really), yields her relatively low toughness. She takes substantially less of a beating than, say, Zangief (the original “tank” of fighting games).
“Why does Cammy always show you her butt when she wins?” -Bella and Clark
What Cammy lacks in a ranged attack and toughness she makes up for—at least a little bit—in speed. But what she really packs as an exploitable edge is a special attack by the name of Spiral Arrow.
Spiral Arrow is Cammy’s answer to a Ryu / Ken fireball (Hadoken), a move that allows Cammy to quickly travel a short distance across the screen and simultaneously attack the opponent low. In Street Fighter, there are three basic zones…jumping, standing, and squatting. You can’t block a jump-kick while squatting but can only block a sweep to the leg if squatting. Here’s the (at least initially) weird thing: If Cammy is attacking you with Spiral Arrow (ostensibly a “standing” attack), you can only defend if you are squatting. My gamble in deciding to specialize in Cammy was that most other human players at my initial level would not know this.
I was right.
If Cammy goes Spiral Arrow on you, not only does she hit you (provided you aren’t squatting + blocking), she knocks you down.
Cammy knocks Ryu down with Spiral Arrow.
For me, the decision to specialize in Cammy was like the Moneyball of casual Street Fighter. Cammy lacked what many old-school baseball scouts might have dismissed her for in pre-Billy Beane analysis. She didn’t hit with power. She didn’t “field”…but Cammy—especially against lower tier players—has a hell of an on-base percentage.
When I was rated anywhere from 0 to 500, even the 800 range, I would almost always open on a super quick Spiral Arrow, consistently knocking my opponents down. Then I would knock them down again. Then probably a third time before they got their bearings (not very many people pick Cammy, you see, so most players would be initially disoriented by her combination of speed up close and facility for knockdowns).
Then, when my opponent finally figured out he had to squat to defend, we would begin our “fair fight”…but unfair (of course) in that I was ahead by a solid advantage in life total. Plus, I knew how to dodge their fireballs and absorb Dragon Uppercuts to set up my equivalent, often as a two-hit. Not fair, not fair at all.
This was my initial metagaming in Street Fighter, my initial graduation from Level 0 thinking… I knew what I had (Ryu), but I wasn’t good enough to compete against more experienced players with the same tool.
I used essentially an information imbalance (the same thing I would do in Magic metagaming) to advance in Street Fighter and eventually fought my way to the 1,000 and even 1,200 level.
Part II: My All-time Favorite Match
Now after my decision to put my focus on getting good with Cammy, I did.
I am unambiguously competent at Cammy. I shudder to say I am actually “good” because that’s a pretty relative term. That said, I am confident in claiming unconscious competence. If I touch you, I can consistently execute the next three moves that chain off of whatever I did to break your block. If I can corner trap you, hit you an extra Fierce more than 75% of the time. I can worm my Quick Spin Knuckle past your defense (or around your Sonic Boom) to open you up for a devastating Super or Ultra attack that will deplete a massive percentage of your life total, probably hitting you 10+ times in the process. I still have problems with players who are as good as I am who choose to play Akuma (and I would consider Guile and Zangief generally “bad matchups”), but for as many matches that I lost early with Ryu, I have more than made up for those with win margin with Cammy.
My training with Cammy was like my devotion to deck design in the era of UrzaTron, Kuroda-style Red, or the first of the many Mono-Blues. If I lost a matchup to a player I didn’t know how to beat, I would log into the Dojo and set the computer on Grueling. I would fight the same character over and over again until I could beat the computer—at its best—to my satisfaction. I learned over time that Cammy can’t stand and fight with Balrog, that she needs to make him come to her; I learned how systematic a fight with M. Bison should be (There is very little Bison, who hits much harder, can do to avoid Cammy just blocking and counter-striking); I learned that if you let Dhalsim start teleporting all over the place, he is just going to hit you three times and set you on fire, so the best strategy is to go mono-offense (Dhalsim has even less durability than Cammy and not a fraction of her speed).
Like I said, competent. Dedicated and competent, I guess.
Once I was rated 1,000 (achievements are at the 500, 1,000, and 1,500 ratings), I quickly noticed something: I was now being paired against a different caliber of player, and every single one of those commensurately rated opponents did the same thing when the match started.
Can you guess?
They all ducked.
Almost 100% of the time, the opponent’s first action was to squat.
It was like ding-dong, level up; all of a sudden all of your opponents are going to play this different way. Instead of getting hit, getting knocked down, 1-3 times to open… They just didn’t.
I lost maybe my first three matches at the new tier before I realized what was going on. I would Spiral Arrow; my opponents would be waiting in the correct defensive stance; I would chip them for a miniscule amount of damage, but Pow! They would get me with a two-hit…a Dragon Uppercut, something much more savage than my simple proposed knock down.
For a moment, I even considered I might have to abandon playing Cammy.
Does everyone know how to beat me at this level?
It turned out that they did, but I didn’t.
I no longer had my freebie opening cheats, but through my focus on training matchups, I had become an actually facile Cammy player…and anyway, where I was now rated, I had nowhere near the skill level to compete using any other character.
Believe me, I tried.
Which brings us to my favorite match of all time.
Cammy versus Cammy, or, practical leveled thinking.
I saw my opponent was Cammy, and I also saw that he had logged over 800 ranked matches.
This led me to immediately assume two things:
- My opponent knows about the Spiral Arrow opening.
- At this rating tier, he also knows to duck.
In my imagination, in the milliseconds before the fight even started, I was running the numbers.
What is he going to do?
What does he think I am going to do?
Does he think he is smarter than I am?
So what do you do here? Do you assume he is going to duck? Given the fact that you are both 1,000-rated players (and he has over 800 matches), is he going to insult you by opening on a Spiral Arrow himself?
I did something completely wild.
Rogue, if you will.
The pre-Worlds 2011 Conley Woods would have been proud of me.
The computer told us to start.
He ducked—just like I thought he was going to do. His first action, the flow of his fingers, told the little blond stack of scantily-clad pixels to squat.
I didn’t. I assumed he would give me the respect of not opening up on a Spiral Arrow. I was also pretty sure that he would duck because I assumed he knew that most of Cammy’s unique attacks don’t hit a squatting opponent.
When you dash, you double-tap left or right, and your character makes a quick burst in that direction. The time my opponent took tapping down, I used to dash right at him. If you do this to a waiting (and ready) Ken, you will almost certainly be hit 3-5 times, set on fire, and tossed backwards by his Shoryuken Dragon Uppercut.
Against Sagat? You are very likely to eat a Tiger Shot.
But I just knew other-Cammy was going to duck.
I got right next to him/her and wrapped my legs around his/her neck for a Frankensteiner.
Cammy’s throw, the Frankensteiner, is named after wrestling great Scott Steiner’s specialized hurracanrana…from, you know, before he was so roided up he could never imagine doing an acrobatic move like that. This is Cammy putting the Frankensteiner on Dhalsim.
I threw him.
Back when we played Street Fighter II in 1992, throws were common. Part of that was because we didn’t know any better so were always jumping around into each other’s Dragon Punches, plus (especially in the arcade) I played Chun-Li (who can throw opponents in the air), plus I wasn’t good enough to focus on juggling opponents between specials and combos even when I became mechanically dexterous enough to execute a Shoryken.
But in 2011-2012?
Let’s just say a throw is much less common.
In some circles, a throw is like a throw-down, an insult. And to open?
My opponent freaked.
He went flying and immediately snap-Spiral Arrow’d to close the distance (remember, Cammy is a close-range fighter, and Spiral Arrow rockets her towards the opponent). I was waiting with a squat. Bam! Crouching Medium Kick + Cannon Spike.
He moved to close the distance again. Bam! I was waiting (again).
On seven consecutive sequences that match, I correctly anticipated my opponent’s play and literally leveled him. I knew the exact play to do right back to not only get him, but get him twice.
I have never felt so good in a game of anything.
So when my opponent disconnected rather than give me the glory of the BPs I had just earned, I etched it into my memory—and now this “Magic” article instead of seething about some a$$hole DC’ing on me. My only regret is that I couldn’t record the match because of his premature DC. I would have liked to keep it forever.
Part III. Metagaming and Leveling in Magic.
I have mentioned this exact point a couple of times this year already, but it bears repeating.
When I initially started playing ranked Street Fighter matches, who did I start on?
Ryu is the ironically Japanese all-American boy of the Street Fighter universe. He is the main character of the original iteration of the game and by far the most popular overall. He (along with sprite Ken) is also the “best” (not counting Akuma, who is basically Ryu-plus) from an old-school baseball scouting perspective. Ryu can hit, and hit with power. He has foot speed and a good arm…all the skills. Ryu has a down-up reactive attack (Shoryuken) that—expertly anticipating—will defend you from any and all jump kicks; Chun-Li and Zangief don’t. He has a fireball (Hadoken) that can hassle the opponent from across the screen, keep big tanks at bay, and keep idiots honest (Cammy and Vega don’t); he even has a hurricane kick that can take him across the screen at speed like Spiral Arrow. Ryu hits hard, and his Super and Ultra combos are ridiculously 1) easy to set up and 2) unbelievably low risk (if you try to Ultra with many other players, and miss, you are probably going to get killed, not just hit…not so with Ryu).
Ryu is Caw-Blade at its height. The best of the best of the zeroes.
Of course I started on Ryu.
…And as you know, I was not successful.
Let’s see how good you are at leveling your thinking.
You look at scads and scads of Top 8 decklists. You see the same deck make so many Top 8s. Paper. Paper. Always paper…
What do you play?
Most players—who are thinking at Level 0 honestly—choose paper.
This propagates the vast numbers of the same negative-EV “Deck to Beat” decks making Top 8s over and over and over again (Jund, Faeries, etc.).
The obvious answer, once you apply even a drop of metagaming, is to play Scissors in this case, not paper.
If “everyone” is playing paper, if you also choose paper, you are just setting yourself up for a 4-4 day (unless you are vastly more skilled than other paper players, and it is a skill-intensive mirror).
Rock is in a lousy spot in a format that is half-paper. You are going to run into bad matchup after bad matchup. Good old rock. Nothing beats rock (except paper).
Metagaming is just one way we utilize leveled thinking to gain an unfair advantage in Magic. How about in the course of a regular old game?
I have long been a proponent of using your removal on your own turn, especially when playing against a blue deck. The main reason is that while you don’t necessarily get the best results, your spell generally has the highest likelihood of actually resolving, so you tend to get what you want at a basic level most often.
Say you have a Galvanic Blast and your opponent has just tapped out for a Mirran Crusader. In many cases you might be overjoyed to play your Galvanic Blast immediately, cash in the one-for-three (on mana) and go about the rest of your game. This might be especially inviting if you still have spare turn two mana.
Now what if you think your opponent is a Level 0 Timmy [or even excited Level 0 Johnny] (“what do I have?”) who just happens to have a copy of Angelic Destiny and the fourth land in his hand? Your reading of this player is that he cannot help but play that fourth land and smash down the Angelic Destiny, exhilarated, in the hopes of ka-pow’ing you for more than half your life total in one swing.
Even though you have basically a 100% shot at getting the Mirran Crusader right now—a figure that is going to be quite mixed up once his Seachrome Coast or whatever untaps if he is a competent Level ~2 Spike—your reading of what the opponent might have, and consequently what he is going to do with that, is the principle driver of your ability to get not only the Mirran Crusader in a one-for-three on mana, but two cards (including the Angelic Destiny), the commitment of seven mana (more than the cost of the average Titan), and the full value of two whole turns out of the other guy.
In sum, a ton.
As you can see, the application of a modicum of leveled thinking can get you quite a bit of additional value in even commonly occurring events in games of Magic: The Gathering. It also can open up a can of worms, depending on how good both you and your opponent are.
What’s the tight play?
(Tight play being defined as low but predictable returns.)
How about the greedy play?
(Greedy here being massive returns… If he does what you want, but no certainty of even killing the 2/2 otherwise.)
What play do you make at what level?
Is waiting a Level 1 play, or a Level 4 one?
Now if your opponent moves to Level 2 (“what does my opponent think I have?”), we once again have a game. No player of any ability is going to play the Angelic Destiny into any certainty of a Galvanic Blast, no sir. If he slow-plays it, you can probably expect to take about four damage, then try to kill the Mirran Crusader at the end of the opponent’s turn (depending on what else he does).
Of course if you once again draw on your Level 1 thinking (“does he have a Mana Leak?”) you might want to wait until you yourself have four mana in play, so you can pay for the potential permission spell.
I’ll be honest with you: At the tables, I am mostly a Level 0 player. I like to figure out the best thing I can do well before the tournament and jam that thing out there. It is so much better, hopefully, than whatever my opponents figured out at Level 0, I can just out-power them on the merits. This thinking is prevalent in lots of my deck designs, which are straightforward and unambiguously muscular, jam packed with whatever I decided was the best. Almost every writer who has ever written about my actual execution in games versus success in planning over the course of a format—Becker, Chapin, Zvi, Heezy—will say the exact same thing: Mike’s success in play and design is contingent on how encyclopedic his knowledge is of everyone else’s decks.
Contrast that style with Patrick Chapin decks, which can have seventeen different one-ofs and a mana base only the pre-Team ChannelFireball Brian Kibler could love. Patrick has a burning desire to be able to shift levels and needs all seventy-five tools in order to hit the right card at the right time. His possible returns are obviously massively higher but require a devotion that cannot be approximated by almost any other player. Both styles of decks can be successful, but they tend to serve different kinds of successful players. Patrick has out-performed even Jon Finkel consistently, when both are playing the same (Chapin) deck. On balance, Osyp Lebedowicz—who is a Pro Tour Champion, Grand Prix Champion, cash tournament winner, and one of the best deck designers of all time…but also holds down a full-time Marketing Director job—tends to be much better rewarded by the straightforward.
Ultimately, I have problems dealing with leveled thinking past Level 3.
I am actually pretty good at reading most opponents, but at the PTQ level, it is rare to face an opponent with even Level 1 skills, so reading skill lets you play the opponent in an uneven contest of, say, Magic-versus-Chess kind of like I did in the Cammy-on-Cammy…and not much else.
Incidentally, I was overjoyed that BDM was actually the guy in the booth for the notorious Karsten-Soh Bluff-Double-Bluff Top 8 match. At the time, I was the regular color commentator for PT webcasts, but Brian had this one. He did a vastly better job than I could have.
Part IV: Everything Else
I put out a call on Twitter for some ideas for this article (most of which was devoted to the conversation I had with Mascioli, ultimately)…but I thought I’d get some Q&A done anyway:
What’s the most criminally underplayed (non-mythic) rare in Standard? Satchel is not an acceptable answer.
I am going to go with Snapcaster Mage here. Snapcaster Mage is a pretty unambiguously Top 10 card in Standard, but I still think it is underplayed. There are lots of decks that play, like, two. I was having a discussion with one of my best friends this week; he had played two copies in a B/U Control deck and was telling me how he held them for bombs whereas I was talking about using Thought Scour in the new Standard to jazz up the ability to get quick access out of them. Why wait, you know? The only reason is that he was only playing two.
Runner up would be Green Sun’s Zenith. How is this not a four-of in almost every deck that has it, particularly those with bullet sub-suites (and any number of Birds of Paradise greater than zero)…that also play Sphere of the Suns? I can make a case for Green Sun’s Zenith in all kinds of decks where it isn’t currently played; this will either be exacerbated or alleviated given the discovery of the Glissa + Ratchet Bomb engine and the printing of Dawntreader Elk.
Top 10 Standard cards headed into the PT obviously!
I think my list would look something like this:
…So heavily skewed towards Humans, Delver, and swordsmanship in general, with a nod to good green. All the small creature decks from Strangleroot Geist to some Humans and most Delvers use Sword of War and Peace.
I have Ratchet Bomb as maybe the most important removal card in the format as it can not only play Wrath of God but answer Honor of the Pure or Intangible Virtue…plus Bomb on zero takes out an Insectile Aberration, right on time! Glissa + Ratchet Bomb completely holds off Hero of Bladehold. Lots of “bomb” in that Ratchet Bomb.
I don’t see why not.
The card itself is very powerful, and it has some obvious synergies with Strangleroot Geist (one of the most powerful cards in the new set). I think that with the innovations around Glissa we have seen out of Conley and others, there is yet some value to be extracted that hasn’t been uncovered by the MTGO Hive Mind yet. I would tend towards a red supplement BTW, rather than white, though I appreciate the desire to go Grand Cenobite on they ass.
I would think that it is pretty important.
Increasing Devotion isn’t exactly an economical card, so if you want to include it, I think you want to cram in every scrap of awesome. It’s just so expensive.
Why was Tristan Thompson picked over Enes Kanter for the Rising Stars Challenge? Obvious Cavs bias by NBA #jazzfanlife
Most evaluations of NBA players center not around their total contributions or overall efficiency, but simply how many points they score. Carmelo Anthony, for instance, is starting (!) in the East despite being ridiculously detrimental to actually winning. The Knicks were disappointing for most of the year, but now that Melo is out, they have been winning Winning WINNING…on the back of an undrafted Harvard guard.
This single-minded focus on points scored helps Thompson (7.1 PPG) relative to Kanter (5.1 PPG). I would agree that Kanter is generally superior to Thompson in most statistical areas, but in a marketplace that only cares about points scored (not even how many shots it took to make those points), Thompson has Kanter covered. Sorry bud!
You should expand on which cards perform above the curve.
I agree! I plan to, forever; at least until I figure out a better working model for Magic.
why can’t I just play your legacy breakfast deck from 11 months ago and just clean house?
You probably could.
I hadn’t been as confident with any deck as I was with that deck in some time. The removal of Mental Misstep is a huge boon for the strategy. Good luck! Go get some free wins :)
did you participate in the pro tour fantasy draft Facebook app? If so, what/whom did you pick and why?
I didn’t really put too much rigor into every pick, but here is what I did and what I was thinking at the time:
Planeswalker – Garruk Relentless
This seemed like the most reasonable planeswalker to me. I don’t think Sorin will be so wildly successful out of the gate that it will eclipse Garruk, and Todd Anderson finish this past weekend will only help Garruk’s popularity. The other choice would be Liliana of the Veil, but I think Strangleroot Geist and Lingering Souls are going to keep Lilly out of the winner’s circle at a high volume this PT.
Large Creature – Primeval Titan
Wolf Run has been waning in popularity in recent weeks, but I still think Prime Time is the best large creature (if we’re splitting it that way).
Medium Creature – Geist of Saint Traft
More cross-deck popularity than some of the other reasonable options. Not only is it played in both Humans and Delver, some control decks are siding it. That third deck is what put the ghost over Thrun in my mind (where Thrun can be played in both green aggro and as a big spell sideboard slot).
Instant – Mana Leak
Seemed like the best one, as it is played in both Delver as a four-of and in most control (regardless of second color). I don’t know about the continued livelihood of Midnight Haunting given new options.
Sorcery – Lingering Souls
Speaking of which… :)
Honor of the Pure
Is the coverage this weekend going to be beautiful because you’re going to be in it?
I am not headed out to Hawaii until the 17th, meaning I will miss the whole Pro Tour, but I might catch Patrick for about a day (who is taking extended vacation). My wife and I are celebrating ten years together via ten days in Hawaii…but not actually attached to the PT this time.
That said, I am doing two SCGLive dates this season, so watch out for those, as they will be beautiful!
In sum, “no.”
Part V: Decklist
I suppose if I were actually qualified for the PT I would have teamed up with some of my friends, but I am not / did not and didn’t start working until I started getting the midnight phone calls this week.
The biggest issue for me is that MTGO has made me lazy. Go back and read how I basically got in the virtual gym every day to train Cammy to beat every hard matchup. I used to do that for hours on Apprentice, playing against myself, or setting up long Sundays battering down the IRL apprentices with sharpies and disfigured Vs. System cards. The ease and facility of MTGO has, in my opinion, taken a bit of the testing edge off. You get to play, you get to play a lot, but you don’t necessarily set up to play what you should when you should, unless you set it up beforehand.
That said, I did brew this, and it seemed to be playing nicely. It is not 100% tuned, of course, but probably serves as a reasonable starting point for those of you so inclined:
You can see the set limitation already. First blush is I would consider the Elk as a four-of.
So, Wolf Run mashed up with Genesis Wave. With Wave decks, you can’t compromise on card types. You need to show a little discipline… You end up controlling Delver of Secrets with a ping from Chandra rather than a fast Galvanic Blast.
Nothing like getting off Chandra + Genesis Wave for 6+ more than once; great against counterspells, of course.