In a change to the previously advertised schedule, I need a little more time to collate all the data from assorted Grand Prix tournaments around the world, so that particular little bundle of joy goes untouched this week. Instead, I want to introduce you to the character at the centre of this week’s drama. Our intrepid Magicateer, whose name has not been changed to protect the innocent, regularly attends Friday Night Magic – on a Wednesday, naturally – at my local store. I confess that when I started running events there I expected to get very little out of it other than the satisfaction of some woolly-headed notion of “putting something back” into the game at the grass roots. Well, I do indeed get that satisfaction, and it turns out that the mainstays plus supporting cast number about 20 now, which is extremely healthy for what is essentially a small town in the middle of nowhere. However, something completely unanticipated has happened as a result. As most of you know, in one guise or another I’ve pretty much always been a teacher, whether it’s singing, jazz piano, directing film and theatre, or Magic. And that, of course, is where this article is heading. Not, before you run away screaming, into the whys, wherefores, hows, and howfores of teaching new players to play Magic. Rather, I’ve found myself attempting to answer just about the hardest question you can ever get asked:
By and large, this utterly terrifying three letter word is added to with bonus information from my fledgling players, but whatever comes after “why” doesn’t initially matter. What matters is that I’ve been confronted time and time again in recent months with Magic issues that I simply “know” (whatever that might turn out to mean) the answer to, but when asked the dreaded “W” I’ve had to go right back to square one, and argue the case for many of the principles of deckbuilding and strategy that longtime players hold as self-evident. So today, with the invaluable help of Andy, I’m going to tell you what I told him when he called me on my assumptions and asked, “Why?”
Andy runs the store where we play. He’s really a computer gamer of the murder-death-kill persuasion, and kind of agreed to learn to play Magic largely just to keep his hand in and have a look at what all the fuss is about. Being the store owner, putting decks together is a relatively, though not entirely, simple process. But there are factors that mitigate against Andy building decent decks.
1. Andy’s time is very precious. He runs a store. He has a wife and young family. He loves computer games. This leaves little time for Magic.
2. Andy doesn’t have a Premium subscription to StarCityGames.com. Yes yes, I put this somewhat flippantly, but it does serve to underpin the point that although there’s a huge amount of information out there, Andy doesn’t use his modem to access it. There’s also an argument about how useful such densely-packed theory and practice could be to someone who has probably 25 matches lifetime experience. Be honest, how many of you after playing the game for three months would understand the sideboard strategy of Mike Flores‘ latest Extended PTQ-buster? Come to that, how many of you understand it after 10 years of playing the game? So, Andy is at a disadvantage in the Information War.
3. A slight inclination of the cranium is parallel to the lowering and raising of a solitary oracular interface when considered from the perspective of a vision-free equine quadruped. (A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind horse.) The problem here is that, when I get to the shop half an hour before we’re due to start, Andy is putting the finishing touches to his Standard deck. Frequently, he will be sharing airy banter on what constitutes the best cards to finish things off with Matt, who has also been playing competitively for approximately 9 seconds. Now seems as good a point as any to say that these are smart people – I’m on record as saying I don’t believe anyone dim has ever managed to play Magic for more than a couple of duels. The price of entry on an intellectual level is staggering. So I’m not for one minute suggesting that these two talking together about deck ideas is bad. It’s just that, if they want to get better quickly, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that they do, then there are other players in the group who they could more profitably converse with. Like Gary for example, or James or Chris, who by all sane reckoning are the three stars in our FNM firmament.
4. This is an extension of the previous difficulty Andy has. See, not only is he faced with the awkward prospect of the blind leading the blind, Magic is a game that positively delights in its fundamental perversity. You may think that an odd word for me to choose, but I’m not using it in either a derogatory or lascivious sense. But time after time, we can all point to occasions where we have agreed with our equally intelligent and coherent companions about the value of a card, or a deck, or a likely metagame, only to find endless capacity for humble pie on the long journey home after the PTQ. If you’re still unconvinced, here’s a few perversions that Magic absolutely revels in :
(a) So, here’s a land. A Forest is a land. It’s a basic land. A Plains is a land. It’s a basic land. This land here is called Temple Garden. It’s a Plains, which is a basic land. And it’s a Forest, which is a basic land. And it’s a non-basic land.
(b) Here is my 3/3. There is your 2/2. There are any number of occasions when your 2/2 is better than my 3/3, in the abstract. Oh wait, and my 3/3 gets better or worse depending on what color it is.
(c) I run my 2/2 into your 3/3, and every half-decent player tells you that YOU CAN’T BLOCK. What on Earth am I talking about, you can’t block? Of course you can block, your 3/3 is bigger than my 2/2. Well, of course you can block, but you shouldn’t. Probably.
(d) You can’t do anything without mana, and there are cards that ensure you don’t get mana.
(e) Magic is a game of spells, yet we have spells that make other spells effectively not exist.
(f) Although we have 60 cards in our deck, just ONE from our Sideboard can completely alter the path of a match. How can that be, when most sideboard cards are rubbish most of the time? And besides, if they’re that good, why aren’t they in the maindeck?
Magic is a game where virtually the entire world of design and development is predicated on making as subtle as possible the point at which the smart player can look at 2+2 and make 5. Or, to give a slightly fairer sum, make 2+2=4.03, because that’s enough of a difference from the poor guy still using sensible rational everyday thought who’s still adding up to 4.
5. The next two handicaps facing Andy are also linked, although they are subtly different, despite at first glance appearing almost twinned. So, Experience. Or, if you prefer, miles on the clock. Andy has so few duels under his belt that there are vast numbers of cards that he has yet to confront, even within the current Standard environment, and even within the relatively small group of cards available in Standard that are clearly Tier 1… he won’t yet have seen them all. Now I don’t know about you, but every time a card bends me over a table, I notice. Sometimes, after I’ve stopped being sore, I’ll remember to add it to my “cards that every bugger who beats me seems to be playing” list. What’s good? Whatever wins is good. I’d rather have a database of 1000 matches than 10, and that really counts against Andy. Time will take care of this, but this particular method, although it can be substituted or covered for in various ways, fundamentally can’t be cheated. Your internal Magic motor is running every turn of every duel you play for as long as you’re involved in the game, and the only way to learn more experientially is to play more.
6. I’m running out of reasons why Andy is going to find Magic tough going, like every new player, but here’s the last one for now. Historical Perspective. If we haven’t even got as far as showing him the Tier 1 cards in Standard, how much more mind-blowing would it be if we started wittering about Combo decks from Ago? I’m by no means a historical expert, but I have been playing since 1997. That means I’ve physically held the 75 cards that make up Pros Bloom and beaten opponents from a position of negative life. That means I’ve watched Fruity Pebbles in action. That means I’ve seen the creators of The Solution from 2001 explaining how it came to be. That means I’ve been beaten by Sligh, Affinity, Teps, Boros Deck Wins, Ophidian Blue, Dirty Kitty… I’ve seen Bargain, Smokestack, Masticore, Rishadan Port, Dust Bowl, Necropotence, Dark Ritual, blimey, I’ve even beaten people with Counterspell and Force Of Will. Now I may not know every card that goes into any one of these or a thousand other decks, but I do know roughly what they do, and how they go about it. In other words, when a new set or deckbuilding proposition comes along, I have a historical frame of reference, a context in which to set my challenge. Right now, Andy doesn’t have this, and it’s one of the biggest hurdles to overcome for a player wanting to be really good at the game. Just as every generation believes that they invented sex — let’s face it, your parents never had sex, and I know for certain that mine didn’t — every time a new deck comes along somebody assumes that it’s shiny and new and sparkly and wholly unique. As they say in the world of comedy, every joke ever has been told a million times. There are no new jokes to find. There’s just different ways of presenting the old ones. Magic is a bit like that, notwithstanding the obvious caveat of Block Formats with rule-warping Keywords.
So, in summary, this is what Andy and every new player like him has to overcome:
1. Time Restraints
2. Losing the Information War
3. The blind leading the blind
4. Magic is Perverse
5. Lack of Experience
6. Lack of Historical Perspective
In time, any or all of these can be partially, largely, or even wholly negated. Before we get to the specifics of Andy’s deckbuilding issues, I hope you see the value of what we’re establishing here. Sure, it sounds like we’re mocking a newb, but that’s absolutely not what’s going on here. Let’s invert the list, and suddenly we have a shopping list of what it must be like to be someone like Guillaume Wafo-Tapa:
1. Plays all the hours God sends.
2. Reads, analyses voraciously.
3. Has powerful network of contacts, colleagues, testers and deckbuilders.
4. Understands the Perversity, and sets out to discover that .03 difference.
5. Thousands upon thousands of matches under his belt.
6. Knows the history of every major archetype from the roots up.
In short, by attempting to understand why Andy will need a bit of careful nurturing, rather than “Your deck is rubbish!” we’ve discovered at least some of the keys to becoming one of the best players the game has seen.
So, onto the dreaded collection of “Whys” that are about to be unleashed. For our last FNM Standard evening, Andy decided to build a Goblin deck. One of the great things for new players about this whole Tribal deal is that it moves so seamlessly from Amazing Draft Deck to Crap Standard Deck. That sounds like I’m being trite, but I mean it. If I knew nothing about archetypes or historic powerhouses or efficiency or tempo or card advantage, nothing, I could quickly get a feel for how the Lorwyn and Morningtide tribes work together. Week 1, I play GW Kithkin with a few Elves. I go 1-2, but that Wizened Cenn sure was good, when I got to cast him. Two weeks later I draft GR, with a bunch of Elves and a bit of removal. I go 1-2 again, but discover that at least when I kill a few things even my less exciting Elves seem to be capable of doing nasty things. Then I draft UB Faeries, and go 2-1. I’m very excited, because pretty much all my cards seem to interact in some way with each other. At this point I’m ready to build a Standard deck. Already, after just three drafts, I’ve learned an important lesson about synergy, even though I may not have heard of the word as such, or even if I have, synergy may not yet have acquired it’s Magic Capital letter — Synergy. Watching those Faeries do their thing was more than enough to tell me that working together is just better than working alone. So I think maybe I can play Faeries. But I really liked the Wizened Cenn. What was the problem with it? Sometimes I couldn’t cast it, because my Elves and Forests kept getting in the way. Okay, so what if I play only Kithkin or only Elves? Now I won’t have mana issues, and both my White and Green decks will start to resemble more closely the UB Faeries deck that I nearly won my draft with.
This, (apart from being a simplification) is also a tiny tiny glimpse into the massive journey that is first duel to first deck. Even so, I trust you can see that those Tribal transitions are a nice helpful step on the deckbuilding path for the new player. Now Andy, for whatever reason, likes Red. I think he likes to kill things, and as we know Red’s traditionally quite good at that. In the same way that he just accepts as truth that Faeries Shalt Be Black Or Blue, he understands that Goblins Art The Red Or The Black. Already, Andy’s ditched over half the cards available to him. I’m now going to fastforward very rapidly to the point at which Andy has his seventy five cards sleeved and is more or less good to go. He understands that the deck probably won’t be amazing, and is actively seeking advice on what cards might be better than those he has. For the purposes of what we’re trying to accomplish here — in essence attempting to discover “How We Know What We Know Is What We Know” — his decklist is unimportant. What’s important is the bit where he says â€˜Why’?
I take a look at the first Standard deck Andy’s ever built on his own, and I’m really impressed. He’s already passed the stage where he’s going to ask “Why is Land good?” (Because it lets you cast your spells, and without land there can be no spells. Unless you’re playing TEPS. Just a little tidbit for the Extended fans.) He has plenty of land, and he’s also passed the point where he’s going to ask “Why isn’t this Auntie’s Hovel a bit bad because I have to reveal something if I want to have it appear untapped? Why aren’t I better off with a Mountain or a Swamp?” (You’re frequently going to play what you reveal soon after anyway, possibly immediately. Sometimes you don’t need untapped mana, and can just let it appear tapped. Yes, sometimes you can find it’s your desperately needed land off the top of your deck and you lose the game because it came into play tapped. More often, on the balance of probability, you’ll find its ability to behave as if it’s either a Mountain or a Swamp on any given turn outweighs this.)
Onto the spells. Andy has quite a lot of good monsters, and a few bad ones. At the heart of what’s going on is the notion of Curve. I tell him that with Wort, Boggart Auntie taking up 4 slots in the deck (yes, maybe that’s a conversation for another time, but I’m not into information overload just for the sake of it), to play 4 copies of Tar Pitcher and 4 copies of Caterwauling Boggart is over-egging the four-drop pudding.
Set aside for a moment that I’m actually going to tell Andy with regret that he should probably be playing zero copies of either of these spells in a Standard event. Instead, let’s look at some of the issues that three-letter word is making us confront, and explain:
1. What is Curve?
2. What is a good Curve?
3. Why do different decks utilise different Curves?
4. What is Tempo?
5. What is Efficiency?
6. What does Cheap mean, and does it equate to low cost?
7. What is Investment?
8. What is my deck trying to do?
9. What is the SWOT analysis for my deck?
Help me, Obi-Wan KeFlores etc etc.
Pause a moment. How many of these questions would you attempt to elucidate with Andy, twenty minutes before he starts Round 1?
I understand that a lot of you are very busy people. But if you have some time this week, I’d like you to do me a favor. It won’t do any harm that in the process you’ll probably learn an awful lot about what you do and don’t know about Magic when confronted with the question “Why?” What I’d like for you to do is explain to me in the forums what you would say to Andy. Will you use those Capitalised Magic terms, or is that too complex? Will you use fanciful analogies to explain some of the theories? Will you revel in some and completely hide others from him so as not to confuse him?
So, a reminder of your homework:
Explain to Andy why twelve four-casting cost monsters is too many in his deck, and why Tar Pitcher and Caterwauling Boggart shouldn’t be in there at all. And if you’re the sort of soul who enjoys this kind of assignment, write it as you’d say it. (“So, the problem you’ve got is this, mate. First of all, if you ever want to cast two of these guys on the same turn you’re going to need eight mana, and how often do you get to see eight mana in Standard?”)
Next time around, I’ll give you my answer. And because you know I don’t use one word when twenty will do, it’s a monster.
Until then, as ever… thanks for reading.