Sam Stoddard – How Do You Win?

Friday, September 10th – The man who created the idea of a Fearless Magical Inventory is back with another game-changing concept to shape your play!

Introductions are hard, or at the very least awkward. My name is Sam Stoddard, and I’ve been playing Magic for just about forever — sixteen years minus the occasional three-month “I hate this game, I quit” hiatuses, only to be lured back in as soon as the next Prerelease rolled by.

Although I haven’t put up any significant results as of late, I did have a reasonably good run between 2005 and 2008 when I managed to win PTQ after PTQ and then cash in at just about every Grand Prix I played in before life (a.k.a., “getting a real job”) took a toll on my ability to put the time I needed into the game. I still have goals I want to accomplish in Magic, however, and as things have settled down a bit in my professional life, I look forward to making another run at the big game.

I still can’t put the time I want to into actually playing the game, but I do spend a lot of time thinking about the game — and not just the physical game, but about the theory, thought, and underlying reasoning behind why I (and most every other player who competes), makes the decisions that we do.This really began a few years ago with a concept I developed called the Fearless Magical Inventory that helped me quite a bit to break out of a slump. Numerous other players have told me that it did the same for them.

With this column, I hope to dig deep into why we do the things we do, how to improve on those things, and offer some hard-earned advice taken from years of trial and error.

Now that we can put the introduction aside, I have a question for you: How do you win a game of Magic? I don’t mean that rhetorically: how do you, personally, win a game of Magic? Not as in “reducing your opponent’s life total to zero” or “casting Tendrils for a million,” but the game states and sequences of plays that lead you to victory. Close your eyes for a second and run through a typical game in your head. Don’t think of your last game, or even a specific game, but the general state of a typical game you win.

Got it? How did it go? Did you slowly build up an insurmountable defense? Did you kill your opponent with fast creatures before they could play any of their good spells? Did you trick your opponent into making a big play, only to blow them out of the water with something totally unexpected? Chances are, whatever you thought of is indicative of the kind of player you are — and as such, they’re what you generally want to do when you play.

When I think of winning a game, I think of attacking with guys, combat tricks, and racing my opponent’s more powerful spells. I think of combat because I’m primarily a Limited player and I like aggressive decks. That is the stock image in my head, and it’s what I’m good at. I like to take the initiative, get an early advantage, and get my opponent to play defense. I try my best to put my opponent on the ropes early on so that any of my attacks can be lethal if they make one wrong move. It puts me in the driver’s seat, and forces them to play the combat game, which I am probably better at than they are. (Hopefully.)

This is the game I’m most comfortable with. When I have an aggressive deck, especially in Limited, I feel like I could take on any player in the world. I may not be better than them, and I probably can’t outplay them all the time, but I know that I will put up a good fight. I feel confident with this deck type.

This is both good and bad. There is a saying: “When you’re a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” When I’m playing, I generally default to positioning the game to get into a state that I am most comfortable with, even when it isn’t the right way to win a particular game. The value of a single strategy is very dependent on the situation, and it’s very easy to play yourself into a game state that is bad for the format, your matchup, or just your deck. Sometimes I’m playing a control deck, and all I want to do is get into combat against a deck that is better at it than I am. Sometimes I’m playing an aggro deck, but my path to victory is to slowly pick away at my opponent’s life total with my one flyer and muck up the board with my ground creatures. Unless I consciously attempt to look at the game and play several turns ahead, I will drift back to the type of Magic I am used to.

People have a comfort zone. They like to play the areas of the game they understand well, and not in the areas where they don’t. As I said, I am an aggressive player. I like to be constantly doing things. I like it when the board changes a lot. I feel very uncomfortable with drawing for my turn and passing. It just doesn’t feel like winning to me — it feels like I’m losing the game. I want to be constantly doing things that are visibly pushing the game in my favor.

Logically, I understand that sometimes drawing a card and passing is pushing the game in your favor. That doesn’t mean my heart understands it. There are plenty of matchups where you will sit across from your opponent, happy to play Draw-Go until you have accumulated enough gas to make a run at it. There is the Dark Depths mirror, for instance, when one player would often have the combo in play but try to hold off on using it until they thought they could sufficiently protect the token — evaluating the risk to the token against the possibility that their opponent would draw their own Dark Depths and put them both back to square one.

I suck at games of chicken. When possible, I try to avoid them, and would have been outside of my comfort zone in the Dark Depths mirror. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t have won, or wouldn’t have done well, but it would have required a lot of effort on my part to constantly keep my urge to make a big play in check. I’m sure over time I would have learned to play the matchup correctly, and probably become more secure with playing that kind of Magic, but it would have taken a while to break down all of my bad habits.

Everyone comes to Magic with their own prejudices about what is good, bad, and what “winning the game” means. What you value as the most important thing in Magic isn’t always what is really important — and if you are playing to win the game in a less effective way, then your opponent it is going to be an uphill battle.

I figured out Zendikar Draft right away. I was lucky – my default strategy was incredibly good in that Limited environment. I know a lot of people who struggled for the first few weeks because they were constantly trying to build the Pillarfield Ox deck, certain that a 2/4 in an environment full of 2/1s would be great. They came to the environment trying to play control, only to find that their toolbox was much sparser than usual. When they looked at the environment, they saw one where 2/4s for four were good, instead of one that demanded that you have powerful two-drops.

On the flip side, I had a real hard time winning a game in M11 for a while because the same strategy wasn’t nearly as good. U/W aggro was great, but everyone else realized that at the same time, and I was generally fighting for it on both sides of me. I tried other color combinations with the same strategy, but I couldn’t win a draft with R/G, W/R, or any other color combo you care to mention. I defaulted to drafting U/W aggro if there was even a hint that it was open, usually with a strong eighteen-card deck plus five do-nothings. Once I started to expand my horizons and draft some other strategies, I found I had more success.

It’s easy to try something new when you hit a slump. Sometimes these prejudices are hard to break because they tend to work out well, to a point. I know a guy who loves card advantage. Not drawing cards per se (though he does enjoy that, too), but getting two-for-ones. In his mind, that’s how games are won — through incremental card advantage, and incremental card advantage only. You play, and play, and play, and at some point you are five or six cards up on your opponent, and they can’t win. The weight of those five or six cards are just too much for his deck to come back from. It’s very hard for him to ever give up the opportunity to get a two-for-one, and I’ve never seen him give up the opportunity for a three-for-one. Ever.

That isn’t what Magic is about all the time, though. He started playing in an era when individual card quality (and especially creature quality) was much lower. Getting up five or six cards on your opponent was backbreaking, especially in Limited. These days, individual card quality is much higher, especially on creatures, and it’s very easy to play a powerful spell at the right time and make up for the loss of five to six cards earlier in the game.

That’s why, as a general rule, simply getting card advantage is no longer as relevant as directing the game state into a place where your cards are better at advancing your path to victory than your opponents’ cards are. Being up six cards against a burn deck is awesome — unless you’re at one life, when a third of the cards in their deck will be lethal. It’s much better to be even on cards, or even down, but at a life total that is going to make it difficult for them to catch up.

If all you do is two-for-one your opponent a lot, you are going to win a lot of games — and this player does win a lot. Enough so that he doesn’t go out of his way to look for more efficient ways to play. I’m sure if he spent some time watching very different players play out matches, and trying out other strategies, he could pick them up and be a better player. But it can be very hard to give up something that is working on the off chance that you will find something that will work better. There will be a lot of losing between point A and B, and it’s very easy to keep getting the wins you are getting, while chalking up the losses to all being a part of the game.

As players, we need to try new things. We need to reexamine everything we think we know on a fairly regular basis or we are going to get stuck in the past. When we get very good at a play style, we can usually shoehorn our games into that style and have a modicum of success. As long as we are happy with that level of success, we won’t get any better. We need to try out new styles of play, new decks, and new strategies to get experience with them. No matter how aggressive your deck is, there are going to be times when you are not the beatdown, and if you don’t know how to play a deck as the control deck, you are going to be fighting a losing battle.

The next time you sit down to play Magic, take the time to think about what you are doing, and consider the alternatives. Look at how you are playing. Even if you’re winning, consider how another course of plays might have turned out. Read articles on drafting and see how other people’s pick orders are different from yours — especially if they have a different play style. Try and figure out what their biases are, and see how it affects their overall series of plays.

One of the most exciting things about Magic is that there are hundreds of different ways that each and every match could play out. The more you pigeonhole yourself into one style or one common play sequence, the more likely that you will become overly specialized in it and shy away from other strategies. If you want to compete at higher levels, and not just do well enough at the PTQ level or below, you are going to have to learn to get out of your comfort zone. The more you play strategies you aren’t as comfortable with, the more you will get used to them, and the wider and wider your comfort zone will expand.

Then, one day in the finals of a PTQ when you are forced to play your Mono-Blue Control as the beatdown, you can be confident in what you are doing, and have a much better chance of winning the match.