Removed From Game – Learning From Zvi

The StarCityGames.com Open Series returns to Atlanta!
Monday, April 26th – If you want to learn what Zvi Mowshowitz thinks Now, you know what to do. If you want to learn what Zvi Mowshowitz thought Then, he’s written a book to help. Rich goes inside the pages, and finds out why Then is every bit as important as Now.

I think history is pretty awesome. It tells you about stuff that happened, and, if you’re smart, can give you some clue about what might happen in the future. To my mind, one of the biggest mistakes we can make as Magic players is to attempt to reinvent the wheel every time a new set comes out. For every Rise of the Eldrazi that attempts a brave new world, there’s a Worldwake that gently builds on what came before.

Of course, history comes in many forms. In Magic, we can talk about old cards. We can talk about old decks. We can talk about old tournaments, and old players, old rules, old combat tricks, old ways to win, and old ways to lose.

We can also talk about old ideas, and that’s where the idea for this column came from. When I was starting out in 1997, there were two names who were 100% required reading. One was Mike Flores, and the other was Zvi Mowshowitz. Both authors have found a home in recent years under the publishing umbrella of Top8magic.com, and both have published collections of their internet offerings. Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I should probably tell you that ‘The Magic Almanac: Top 8 Magic 2010’ is a rather large book that will be published very soon by that very same Top8magic.com, and it may not entirely surprise you to learn that said book is written by the Pro Tour Statistician (me) and the Pro Tour Historian (Brian David-Marshall).

However, this column isn’t about that book — I’ll be telling you more in the weeks leading up to publication between now and Pro Tour: San Juan — but about ‘My Files Part One’ by Zvi. When I started playing, my desire for knowledge was insatiable, and looking back I feel as if Zvi was incredibly influential in whatever understanding I may have about the game. But did he really, or am I just fondly looking back to a time when everything was new? If I read those same Zvi articles from the late 1990s again, am I going to find the towering journalistic juggernaut, spraying out Magic wisdom left and right? Or am I going to find something much more ordinary?

I decided to find out. I knew that I was going to find it an entertaining exercise, and a walk down memory lane was guaranteed. But how much could I point to a new player in 2010 and say, ‘Have a listen to Zvi, lad, he knew what was what, back in them days when men were men and ferrets were scared.’ By the way, if you don’t know how to imagine that quote in a Yorkshire accent, I recommend you erase it entirely from your cerebral cortex, lest it give you nightmares.

So, to business. The last thing I want to do is distil 472 pages into a single article, so I set myself a time limit. How much could I learn in just two hours alone with the Zvi of Ago? Well, this:

‘From the very beginning, you could see Zvi’s trademark attributes of high-level theoretical insight, detailed technical analysis, and the touch of playful arrogance natural to someone who see so clearly through the veil most of us don’t even know exists.’

That was from Justin Gary’s foreword. Apart from the playful arrogance bit, because that’s the bit that makes people want to punch you, could any decent Magic writer really aspire to more? Gary goes on to chronicle a classic case of Positive Visualization. That’s a topic for an article all to itself, but you’ll get the idea from this:

‘I decided I was making Top 8 in Chicago, even though I had no idea how or with what deck, and tested like mad. I did make Top 8, and proceeded to get smashed in the quarterfinals by Brian Kibler.

That’s like when you hit the top of the deck, say “land, please” so you can cast a Wrath Of God — and draw Coastal Tower. As I always say to myself in situations like that, “be more specific.” This time I decided it was block, I was broken in block, and I was winning.’

That was Zvi talking about his preparation for Pro Tour: Tokyo 2001. That’s Pro Tour: Tokyo 2001. Which he won.

‘Good Bad Rares — Dream Halls, Ancestral Memories, Jokulhaups, Wood Sage, Emessi Tome’

You don’t even need to know what any of these cards do. The lesson is that Wizards have always printed cards, often at Rare, that are, by most objective views, Bad. That’s fine, as long as you remind yourself from time to time that there are decks waiting to be made that exploit these weird cards, and can turn out to be incredibly powerful. Is there a Bloodchief Ascension deck for Block? How about Training Grounds?

From Zvi’s recent commentary on his early writing:

‘In a lot of my early articles I tried to make use of cards that I would never waste my time on now. I had a lot of fun with those explorations, and that time taught me how to recognize that a concept won’t work in practice no matter how appealing it was in theory. The biggest service I provide in my set reviews and one of the major benefits I provide to teams is knowing when to throw cards and decks to the wolves, and that came from trying far too hard for far too long far too often. ‘

Knowing when to pack in your latest great idea is a huge skill, and I’m not sure it can be achieved without going down the Zvi route of the ‘far too hard’ system. If you’re prepared to put the time in to acquire that skill, then you’re going to be extremely useful to players who simply haven’t learned when to let go. It’s also worth saying that without tinkering at hundreds of ideas that don’t lead to a Tier One deck, it’s very hard to work on one that does.

Tournament reports used to be all the rage, and unless I’ve imagined it, there’s now a Facebook group dedicated to exactly that branch of Magic writing. I’m still not entirely sure of the origin of Props and Slops, the end section where you give shoutouts to the things you approve of, and the things you don’t. Here’s a couple that caught my eye:

Props — Brian David-Marshall: For realizing that every Zvi match is a feature match.

Now, I’d like to think that this was at least partially self-mocking. In the current climate, as a Hall of Famer, any time he plays he draws a crowd. It’s possibly closer to true than it’s ever been.

Props — Jon Finkel, for being the best player in the history of Magic and going 13-0. But please realize that just because we don’t measure up to your god-like standards (and how many people do?) doesn’t mean we’re bad players.

I am constantly amazed at the way many players will imply, suggest, insinuate, or flat out state, that their opponent is (insert your word of choice for mental subnormality). Players of Magic are not stupid. They may not be as good as you, or as well prepared, or as connected to players with the best decks, but stupid they are not. Magic has a bar to entry that almost entirely precludes stupidity. The game is simply too complex for anyone dim to get anywhere near a meaningful tournament. I’ve taught thousands of children, and plenty of them would come under the heading of less than supersmart. Not one of them would have a prayer with Magic. I repeat, I have never, EVER, met a stupid Magic player. Players who insist on belittling opponents unnecessarily display a startling immaturity. Stop it please. You’re better than that. And so are your opponents.

My next examples come from a set review of Urza’s Saga. Surely, you may be thinking, a set review for a bunch of cards that came out last century can’t be of any practical benefit? I disagree.

Rune of Protection: Black — Grade B
Rune of Protection: Blue — Grade D-
Rune of Protection: Green — Grade C-
Rune of Protection: Red — Grade B+
Rune of Protection: White — Grade D+

On the face of it, all these cards were functionally identical. How could he grade them so differently? This was one of my first exposures to the Metagame. Red had the hardest time dealing with cards like Runes, and Black also struggles. More to the point, nobody was playing Blue at the time, so that one was virtually worthless. It was a simple lesson, but one that gets used every single time a cycle gets printed. They’re never all equal, because the Metagame ensures that they can’t be.

1U: Counter target red spell. Play this ability as an interrupt.

This is where knowing your Magic history comes in handy. Many people look at this and think it’s great. But I see it as being one extra mana over Deathgrip and Lifeforce, in the color that already has this ability in abundance and against the deck where those three mana are going to be the most important.

If you can truly understand what’s going on under the hood of Magic, you’re going to save yourself a ton of time. This kind of analysis, combining historical understanding with current knowledge of the Metagame, is exactly what you want to be aiming for as you piece together your understanding of a Format. This is also a way of understanding the idea of whether a particular card has a ‘hole’ that it can fill. It doesn’t matter what it does, or how good it is. If there’s something better in the slot, it’s not getting played. Anyone remember what happened to Douse?

While we’re there, anyone remember Horseshoe Crab? In Limited, you got to do a delightful thing known then as ‘machine-gunning’, combining the Crab with Hermetic Study, turning your Crab into a super-pinger. Here’s the irreverent take of Zvi:

All around you can hear the cry: Crab tech! Infinite mana, damage, cards! Win friends and influence people! All these combination decks require Earthcraft, Fertile Ground to get going, or something similar. First, I trust WotC not to have missed anything this obvious. Second, three card infinite combos with two decent but not useful cards and one worthless one are par for the course. By all means, though, check it out.

The thing is, the hype is every bit as true today as it was then. Whether it’s for a Combo like this, or ‘Huge Monsters! Annihilate! Polymorphed 15/15!!’ we can’t resist playing with all the new toys. You look at something like Training Grounds and Sphinx Of Magosi, and you see the possibility. As Zvi says, by all means, check it out.

Dark Ritual
It’s even better than it used to be.

My precise feeling first time around are somewhat hazy now, but I suspect I had to read this a few times to get what Zvi was driving at. Trying to get a handle on the value of a single card on one turn of one game in one matchup in one Format is hard enough. The first time you discover that a single card can not only have thousands of different interactions, but that each and every one of those interactions can regularly change in their value and effectiveness is the moment that most new players either throw up their hands in horror, or press the go button and vanish into the bowels of the game headfirst, possibly surfacing for air years later, if at all.

Parasitic Bond
Enchant Creature
During the upkeep of enchanted creature’s controller, Parasitic Bond deals 2 damage to that player.
Get over it. These NEVER worked.

I laughed out loud at this. There’s something genetically wired into new players. The idea of a boring card like this going all the way to deal twenty damage single-handed is somehow irresistible. And Zvi’s right, it NEVER works.

I was almost out of time, but then I found this pearl of wisdom. If proof were needed that Zvi is as relevant now as he was then, this was it, and it comes from an article called ‘In Defense of Green’:

Now, the fundamentals. Green is the best color because it has the best mana sources and the best cantrip creature (Wall of Blossoms), its mana sources count as creatures, and consistent mana is the key to Magic.

As a big fan of everything Zvi has brought to the game, it was a big thrill to do a Deck Tech with him at Pro Tour: San Diego about his deck ‘Mythic’. Where did he begin building the deck? With Green, and with mana. Efficient mana, mana acceleration, stable mana. Rise of the Eldrazi is a set that quite clearly features more mana acceleration than any set there has ever been. There’s a Block Constructed Pro Tour coming up next month in San Juan. Want to bet against Zvi putting all that mana to good use?

For those of you who simply must know such things, I got about 15% into the book when my self-imposed time ran out. I genuinely wasn’t sure what I was going to find, but I got a lot more than I bargained for. I think you probably will too.

Until next week, as ever, thanks for reading,