I’m proud to announce that I’ve been nominated for the 2007 Magic Invitational, under the Storyteller category. I was fairly surprised to be receiving a nomination, as I don’t consider myself a storyteller. Although the category is intentionally mysterious and open-ended, the vision behind it, as explained when I inquired, is “who brings Magic to life?”
Instead, let me try to bring Life to Magic. In today’s article, I’m going to take some time to reflect upon life and Magic.
But first, let me address some questions raised in response to last week’s article.
Kevin Binswanger wrote in the forums:
Can I get you to talk about taking Pact versus taking Brainstorm in that hand?
Here was the situation:
Flash is on the play and played turn 1: Land, Brainstorm.
GAT plays turn 1 Duress with a Force of Will in hand, and sees this:
Pact of Negation
Pact of Negation
The question posed was: what do you take with Duress?
The answer I offered, surprisingly, is Brainstorm, not Pact of Negation.
One thing that occurred to me is that they are obviously hiding cards; they are going to get the top card of their library back. This is either Flash or a tutor for Flash. I suggested taking Pact of Negation for a few reasons:
1) They only have two mana. If they have Flash they can run out turn 2 Flash next turn with double Pact backup. I’m assuming your hand can’t beat that or you never would have taken Pact.
2) They only have two mana. In this case, they cannot go turn 2: fetch, Mox, Brainstorm, Flash. In other words, Pact has a more immediate effect on the game state.
3) I want them to go to Brainstorm. Seeing five extra cards is really good, but the opponent’s hand is already really good. They have the option to replace Brainstorm, Brainstorm, hidden card with three random cards. They’re obviously not going to replace either of the Pacts or the Hulk, so the only slots that can change are the Brainstorms themselves and the card they buried (which is likely better than what they are gripping).
4) If I turn off Pact, they’re less likely to go for Flash with only one counter backup on turn. If they cast Brainstorms, they can’t win until turn 3.
With regard to point 1, Kevin raises the question, well, what if the Flash player hid a Flash on top?
The problem is that if you assume that, you will lose regardless. They still have a Pact of Negation in hand to stop your Force of Will. Consequently, you have to play as if your opponent didn’t just put a Flash on top. You are automatically out of the game if we assume they have a Flash on top. Therefore, the only logical course of action is to assume that something else is sitting on top of the Flash player’s library and plan accordingly.
It’s true that if they have a Merchant Scroll on top, then the better play is probably to take Pact of Negation, but only marginally so. Double Brainstorm with Fetchland is almost the functional equivalent of Merchant Scroll here, with the upshot that Flash could just dig up Flash on the first whiff with Brainstorm.
So, with regard to point 2, it’s not true that they can’t just combo out here, even after double Brainstorming. It’s true that Pact has a more immediate effect on the game, but that’s a given. We have to make the assumption that their top card is not Flash and then make the play that maximizes our chances of winning based upon that assumption. That assumption further implies that they probably are not going to win next turn, but Brainstorm at least gives them a chance of pulling that off. Furthermore, as I described in the article, in those cards they are likely to see another pitch counterspell anyway. Brainstorm indeed became another Pact of Negation.
With regard to point 3, you’re forgetting that there is also a card on top of their library. In addition, you rightly point out that Brainstorms themselves will be replaced. But that’s all that needs to happen. Brainstorms here are tutors, in a sense.
4) Turn 2 Flash after being on the play… you don’t think that Flash will go for it with counter backup? After GAT played turn 1 Duress, the Flash player is probably safe assuming that the GAT player has at most one counterspell. Finally, as I already explained, casting Brainstorms are on turn 2 does not preclude a turn 2 kill. Playing turn 2 Fetch (break it), Brainstorm will show you three fresh cards, one of which could easily be Flash. Not to mention the presence of Black Lotus and Lotus Petal in the deck, in addition to cards like Demonic Tutor that can find them.
Finally, Kevin wonders:
Mind telling what the card they hid with Brainstorm was (if you remember)?
The card I “hid” on top was Summoner’s Pact.
Why? Think about it from the Flash player’s perspective.
You play turn 1 Brainstorm and your hand becomes:
Pact of Negation
Pact of Negation
Clearly, the first card you want to put back is Heart Sliver, but then the question becomes, what do you “hide” on top?
This is a tricky question. My first instinct was to put a Brainstorm on top. But here’s how your hand appears if you do that:
Pact of Negation
Pact of Negation
Brainstorm becomes the clear Duress target if they have a Duress. The Flash player wants to induce the GAT player to take a Pact of Negation here, not a Brainstorm. But showing double Brainstorm and bluffing a good card on top, Pact of Negation becomes more desirable as a Duress target. Taking one Brainstorm seems, at the outset, silly if they have another one anyway.
Despite the fact that I was piloting both decks, I bluffed myself and then made what I felt was the objective best play anyway with the information available from the GAT player’s perspective. It turns out, however, that I was wrong. You need to take Brainstorm. Perhaps if the Pact of Negation had been on top, then the choice I did make would have been more justifiable.
In retrospect, I think the superior play would have been to put a Pact of Negation on top. This would have made the remaining Pact of Negation all the more tempting and concealed the fact that you have another waiting. In the end, it didn’t matter: Flash won anyway.
At the end of this article, I will present an abbreviated analysis of the Flash versus GAT matchup, post-board, as I promised last week.
But for now, let me return to the issue of the Magic/Life balance.
Who Are We?
Magic players come from all walks of life, and represent all ideologies, all ages, and all nationalities. We speak different languages and inhabit different societies. What binds us together is a passion for a game that transcends borders and cultures.
Virtually no one who plays Magic prioritizes Magic in the schema of their life, at least intentionally. Whether we are teenagers in high school, college bound young adults, or professional men and women with families, the Magic player is something else first.
While many Magic players are young adults, the Magic-playing population is growing up.
Like many of you, I started playing Magic when I was in middle school. I’m now 27.
I think an eye-opener for me was a PTQ I attended this year. I played in my first PQT in years during the last Extended season. The crowd was a nice mixture of older professionals, young adults, college students, working people, with a small smattering of even younger players. While “Friday Night Magic” may cater to a younger crowd (the pre-teens and mid-teens whose parents eagerly drop them off at the local card store for the evening), the PTQ crowd resembled more of a Vintage tournament scene than the Friday Night Magic crowd.
Magic is a game that will gray as it ages. And that’s not a bad thing. Adults bring with them more disposable income, a mature attitude (hopefully), and a sense of perspective. Reportedly Wizards conducted a market study to figure out why PTQ attendance had dipped a few years back. What they discovered was that many people who enjoyed playing tournament Magic did not enjoy the shenanigans, attitude, and general behavior of what they perceived to be common to adolescent and late-teen males. Nasty remarks, rude behavior, and a poor attitude were reportedly things that drove away adults who are lucky enough to have an afternoon away from their girlfriends, children, or wives to sling cards.
In fact, this is one of the reasons that I think Vintage should be so alluring to many older players. The Vintage crowd is an older crowd. People who play Vintage need not only a grasp of the mechanics and rules that pervade all formats, but they need to be comfortable playing with every card ever printed. There is sort of a progression. Vintage Magic little resembles Block.
And in watching the Vintage crowd evolve, I think I have a glimpse into Magic’s future. Every once in a while, a regular Vintage player announces that they are going to quit. Generally, this sort of announcement coincides with a major life change. Some people find out that they are having a baby, others are thrust into new jobs with little free time, and still others move into other hobbies (World of Warcraft supposedly took out a good chunk of Vintage players). Change is a constant in life, and many people come to the decision that they don’t see a place for Magic.
After six years of watching people come in and leave Vintage, what I’ve noticed is that a significant proportion of the people that “quit” eventually make their way back. I’m not talking about after a few months or even a year. I’m talking years later. I’m probably a case in point.
I quit Magic when I was sixteen, for a number of reasons. The first and most important reason was that I was in High School with college in the near future. Magic took up a lot of my social and free time, and even ate into my academics. Another reason was that they phased out Magic as I knew it and invented Type II. I loved Black Lotus then as now, and refused to play in a format without Moat and Mana Drain. Another reason was that many of my friends were slowly easing out of the game. In addition, at that time there was a sense that Magic was more a fad than a game you could enjoy for years to come.
It was only mid-way through college that I came across it again, well over four years later. I hadn’t remembered anything about the game, but like riding your bicycle after years of driving a car, it came back to me, and I haven’t stopped playing since.
Most people who “quit” Magic are presented with opportunities later in life to play once again. And again, many of the people who face that decision will affirm their earlier choice. But when circumstances change, when time frees up a little more, or when another hobby becomes less interesting… or perhaps one day when people begin retiring or have kids who may become interested in the game, the cost/benefit calculus changes. Finally, the commitment is lessened. With MTGO and draft, anyone can enjoy Magic with a minimal investment. The biggest barrier to playing Magic isn’t cards, it’s knowing how to play. Plus, it’s too alluring to ignore. Imagine you quit Magic in 2000 and just recently began to look at the game again. There’s been seven years full of new cards to explore. Curiosity mixed with fond memories is an explosive recipe.
Magic In the Future
Which leads me to think about Magic’s future.
While I can’t really prove my view, I see Magic right now in its early adolescence. Magic fitfully survived the growing pains of childhood and has blossomed into something stable, yet clearly evolving.
Fourteen years from now, Magic will no doubt look as different today as it did in 1993. With 8th Edition, new frames were tacked onto the front of a very old Magic card back. With Future Sight, we’ve gotten a glimpse of an even greater deviation from the Magic card printed in Alpha (just look at Street Wraith). And I have no doubt that thirty years from now it will look even different. Most of the changes in Magic aren’t as jarring as the obvious changing of the frame. I remember my shocked stupor when 4th Edition changed the White mana symbol soft emanations of a sun to the jagged edges we see today. Sometimes, even new card types are invented, as with Equipment.
Beyond the look of the cards, the design approaches and styles have changed and will continue to change. The philosophy of design, the understanding of the color pie, the relative power levels — these too will ebb and flow, change and evolve. To name a few examples, I remember Odyssey was printed with the view that most of the playables should be printed as uncommons. I also remember eras where the development teams created a card pool with clear playables and unplayables in Constructed instead of simply trying to print as many playables as possible with a narrower spectrum of power. We’ve seen White ascend and descend once more. I’ve seen Black change from the color of weenies in 1994 to a far more powerful control role in 2006, with cards like Mutilate paving the way of the unthinkable Damnation.
New mechanics will change the way the game is played. Storm is probably the best example of this. But other examples have made their impact: Madness, Flashback, and Dredge all stand out.
I’ve also watched judging philosophies change. I remember the days when you could ask an opponent to desleeve his deck. We’ve moved from a strict knowledge-based assessment of the rules (once, Gerard Fabiano Demonic Consultationed for “Humpus Wumpus” and lost), into intent-based standards, to something else entirely within the last six months with the advent of the new Magic Floor Rules.
Although I don’t play Magic Online, from what I hear, MTGO has changed Magic once again. It enables busy adults to draft at odd hours of the night. It hones testing to a fine point. It offers people a way to engage Magic without having to travel to a store to face an opponent. It offers an outlet for other formats when your friends and casual crowd play something else.
But the core that is Magic will remain. Through card face changes, new design approaches, new card types, and even new rules, the core is intact.
I believe that the most profound difference between Magic thirty years from now and Magic today won’t be the tens of thousands of new cards, the new formats, or new designs… it will be the way we think about Magic.
Most change occurs slowly and only appears significant after the accumulative effect is observed. Imagine measuring your height at eight years and two months old, and then again a month later, and then again two months later. You won’t notice that big a difference. But measure your height at four, and then nine, and then sixteen, and the difference will be profound.
Similarly, I believe the way we think about Magic, the way we understand it in our lives and its place as a hobby is slowly, but critically, changing. Our perception of Magic in 1995 was that it was little more than a fad, perhaps like the Pog. As Magic became more competitive in the late nineties (from what I’ve read), the advent of the Pro Tour changed the way we saw the game.
I believe the most significant change in how we see Magic in the future is that people will come to see Magic as a stable but recurrent element of their lives.
Integrating Magic into the Life of an Adult
The way I envision Magic in the life of busy adults is perhaps no different than how I see my uncles play golf. Both of my uncles are avid golfers. A free day spent on the golf links is pretty much as good as it gets. Much as many busy adults spend free time playing golf, watching a movie, or spending an afternoon on some relaxing but engaging activity, that is how I see the future of Magic.
And it becomes circular. As the player base ages gracefully, spending an afternoon at a pre-release or at a local Legacy tournament will seem like a more respectful and worthwhile endeavor.
This is one reason that I think Legacy (and in some cases Vintage) is a nice “fit” for the adult Magic player. Legacy is a format that remains essentially stable in terms of its card pool. No sets rotate out. And the decks age and change slowly, very little from year to year. You can show up at a tournament once a month and essentially play the same deck and enjoy the same experience. You don’t have to learn a new suite of tactics or test against a new pile of decks. If you’re worried about the Threshold versus Goblins matchup, it isn’t going to be wildly different than it was in 2005. You just have to clean off the rust.
Similarly, in Vintage, players can play the same decks for years, and they are rewarded for it. The reason is that the card pool is so deep that, as Talen Lee writes, “Vintage outmodes tech” too fast. New tech can be beaten not simply with old tech, but by playing your deck differently. This is a consequence of the sheer number of play options offered up at every turn in Vintage.
In fact, extended “breaks” from Legacy and Vintage can be rewarding. In late 2005, I became deeply involved in a relationship that left me essentially no time for Magic. When I resumed playing five months later, I picked up my old combo deck, and went undefeated at a 35-man tournament in Cleveland. I was playing full-bore forward thinking with background knowledge of the format instead of relying on pattern recognition, and I played some of the best Magic of my life.
But even outside of these Constructed formats, I believe that you can pick up any draft, new or not, and deploy most of the skills you’ve ever picked up to perform. The weekend before last, I played in the first draft ever with Time Spiral block. Although I personally went 2-1 in a six man, two-team draft (mostly because of a critical misplay that denied me the final two points of damage), our team won the draft and I managed to put together a broken deck despite having very little knowledge of the “format.” I had a blast. I had to read most of the cards that were passed my way. But most of the key skills are applicable regardless of the actual card pool: how to build a mana curve, how many land to include, reading color signals, creature/spell ratios, basic card evaluation skills, etc.
You don’t have to strive for the Pro Tour to enjoy competitive Magic as a regular, enjoyable hobby in the life of a busy adult. Magic is inherently accessible, regardless of card needs.
That’s one of the great illusions people harbor: that they are limited by card constraints. While it is true that there are often scrambles for cards before major tournaments like Regionals, in my experience most cards can be acquired by a light amount of trading, borrowing, or plain drafting/purchasing without significant expense. The most important barrier is, and will remain, skill/knowledge. In Vintage, I believe that the knowledge barrier is more significant than anything else. Most Vintage tournaments are at least ten proxy, which automatically reduces the barrier to playing to something approaching the cost of Legacy.
But this knowledge, once again, can be deployed over time. Once you understand how to play a Mana Drain deck in Vintage, you can use that same know-how two months or two years from now.
Life is a series of opportunities. We all have talents and abilities that often better suit us for particular endeavors. But more than having a great education or excellent training, extraordinary success simply results from being in the right place at the right time. However, it’s not all luck. It’s hard work too. You have to be prepared to take advantage of opportunities when they arise, because you never know when they will. My personal view of life is that success in life is defined by being prepared to take advantage of opportunities do arise.
Quitting Magic when I was 16 was one of the best decisions I could have made in my life. I had formative years in college to figure out exactly who I was, what I wanted to do, and what I thought about the world around me, before I was confronted with the option of playing Magic again. By the time I was 20, I was in a much better place to think about and consider the role I wanted Magic to play in my life. I’ve pretty much committed myself to only playing the Eternal formats with my Magic time. As a busy adult with many commitments and responsibilities, there is only so much time for me to spend playing Magic. I made the decision that I want to play the format I enjoy most. It’s not that I don’t like Standard, I just enjoy Vintage too much to justify playing anything else.
Despite having a much better perspective, I haven’t always made the right decision. A girl I was trying to date wanted me to travel to visit her the weekend of GenCon. After several weeks of talking, she wanted me to spend the weekend with her. I decided I’d play cards instead.
This was a pretty big mistake. GenCon is a bustling, madhouse of activity. Although I tried to call her at various points during the weekend, I couldn’t stop thinking about her, and it definitely affecting my game. And a brief conversation I had with her on Sunday did not go so well. But even worse was the message sent by my trip to Indianapolis (for those of you who are curious, no I did not tell her I was going to “GenCon” – I merely explained that I was going to be hanging out with friends at a trip that was long-planned. All true.) At some perhaps unconscious level, the message I sent her by my actions was that she wasn’t as important as my trip and/or that a long-distance relationship wouldn’t work. In the end, I ended up being with her for nearly two years, but only after months of trying to undo my mistake.
Magic is a very addictive game. The game can be analyzed and examined at an abstract level that makes it something of a puzzle. Only it’s a constantly mutating puzzle that requires continual analysis. Since you pilot a “deck” against an opponent, you become familiar with your deck – learning its strengths and weaknesses. Like a song you’ve incidentally committed to memory, when it hits the radio you feel the endorphins rush when you hear it. It’s the pleasure of comfortable familiarity. Only with your deck, you get to try to match wits with someone who hopefully shares that familiarity with theirs. And not just that, you get to see if you can paper over the weaknesses you know are inherent in your deck with psychological warfare, technical know-how, and plain old bluffing and baiting.
Magic is that song you never get sick of and sing in the shower. It’s also very abstract and symbolic, and is easy to analyze in those terms. Magic is nicknamed “cardboard crack” for a reason.
But it must always be kept in perspective. No one quits Magic forever, but taking an extended break (even for years) will help you put Magic in its proper place when you return to the game. And you will.
Until next time,
(Don’t forget to vote for me on Friday!)
Post Script: The Flash versus GAT matchup, post-board.
Rich Shay hates losing on turn 1. In the two Vintage tournament matches I played him last year, three of my four game wins were on turn 1. When you don’t get a main phase, there are only some many tactical options.
Rich Shay also hates losing to Flash when he doesn’t get a turn. So he came up with this sideboard plan:
+ 4 Leyline of the Void
+ 2 Leyline of Singularity
This is a clever sideboard plan. Leyline of the Void is effective at stopping the Flash combo because Protean Hulk won’t trigger. Similarly, Leyline of the Singularity stops the Virulent Slivers from dealing lethal damage. Only one will survive to attack.
A nice bonus of this plan is that the Leylines are also effective against Ichorid. Leyline of the Singularity stops the multitude of Bridge From Below tokens.
So I tested this sideboard plan. I ran it a number of times and felt that it was strong, but still not perfect. There were games where Flash could bounce the Leyline and then easily win because the GAT player’s stuffing Leylines into its deck stunted the decks general development and clogged hands.
Once I got a feel for how the matchup played out, I recorded a set of ten games.
Here’s what happened…
GroAtog brought in six Leylines, and Flash brought in Duresses and another bounce spell.
Here’s how the games played out.
(Gat is on the play in the odd numbered games)
No Leylines, Flash wins easily through turn 1 Duress.
Turn 0 Leyline of Singularity. Flash had turn 1 combo with Force of Will backup. Before Flash can bounce, GAT plays Leyline of the Void. Flash scoops.
No Leyline, but GAT has Force of Will + Misdirection. GAT wins.
No Leylines, but Flash mulligans.
Turn 0 Leyline.
GAT is also able to play turn 1 Duress with Force backup.
GAT has two turn 0 Leylines. Flash mulls to five and loses.
GAT has two turn 0 Leylines.
No Leylines. However, Leyline of Singularity is the first card GAT draws on the draw. GAT powers through Flash.
GAT has double Leyline.
This is a clear game that GAT would not have won without Leylines.
Turn 0 Leyline.
So, the Leylines came up in six of the ten games and won all of those games. However, in retrospect, the Red Elemental Blast would have won at least four of the games that GAT won because of Leyline.
So I tested this game plan:
+ 3 Red Elemental Blast/Pyroblast
+ 1 Fire/Ice
– 4 Quirion Dryad
I ran that sideboard plan in a number of games, experimenting sideboard options for Flash.
Unfortunately, Flash’s sideboard options are much less exciting.
The first constraint is that there is nothing you can easily or obviously cut. The deck looks like this:
10 counterspells (4 Force of Will, 4 Pact of Negation, 2 Misdirection)
13 combo parts (4 Flash, 4 Hulk, 5 Slivers)
11 tutors (4 Summoner’s Pact, 4 Merchant Scroll, Vampiric Tutor, Demonic Tutor, Mystical Tutor)
1 bounce (Chain of Vapor)
5 draw (1 Ancestral Recall, 4 Brainstorm)
There is really nothing to sideboard out of that.
Here are the sideboard-in options:
Red Elemental Blasts
You obviously want at least one more bounce spell if they bring in Leylines (especially since Leyline of Void plus Leyline of Singularity is gg).
Swarm is my preferred choice, but generally considered bad because:
1) It slows you an entire turn (which in this matchup can be game).
2) It dies to Fire/Ice (which I bring in anyway).
3) It doesn’t stop Duress.
4) It gives them time to find more Duresses.
Duress isn’t very good because it’s basically worse than Pact of Negation (the latter is free). Duress is only slightly better because you can actually get lucky and hose GAT (plus you get information).
Here’s an example of how Duress can provide critical information. Here’s a Flash hand:
Pact of Negation
Duress off an Underground Sea here gives you information you need to know your next move. If they don’t have any counterspells after your Duress resolves, you can probably just combo out. Otherwise, you can choose to Scroll for a Pact of Negation to go off next turn.
As for REB, why would you play this over Pact?
So, you have three options, only Duress is the one that people say is any good.
But what you sideboard out for duress? My sideboard plan was: – 4th Summoner’s Pact, – 1 Pact of Negation, – 1 Misdirection.
Not ideal, but I don’t see other realistic options.
I ran the Red Elemental Blast plan of GAT against the Duress plan of Flash, and the matchup was decidedly in GAT’s favor. It wasn’t quite as dominant as the Leyline plan, but it better “fit” the deck. GAT will win most of the games that Leyline would have won with REBs. The only difference is that Flash will win those games where it is on the play with counter backup that Turn 0 Leyline could have stopped. Instead of having somewhere between an 75-85% matchup advantage with Leylines, it’s probably closer to 65-75% with REBS + Fire/Ice.
However, with the REB plan, you have to play more carefully.
Here an example of a potential misplay from one of my test games.
GAT’s opening hand:
Red Elemental Blast
Force of Will
Force of Will
Force of Will
GAT is on the play and goes:
Underground Sea, Mox Ruby, Mox Emerald, pass
Flash: plays Mox Ruby, Polluted Delta, pass.
Now, here is the trap. If GAT taps the Sea to play Opt, Flash can respond by playing Flash. Although GAT can Red Elemental Blast it, Flash can play Force of Will to protect it and GAT has no more Blue spells to pitch to Force to protect the REB. Do not make mistakes like that.
I’m going to leave you with a game that presents a question of the correct play. Let me know what you would do in the forums.
Flash mulliganed to six, so I decided to keep that hand. The Brainstorm has the potential to reveal REBs and Duresses, and Scroll can find Force.
Flash plays Mox Sapphire, Brainstorm, Mox Ruby, and passed the turn.
GAT draws Time Walk.
GAT plays Time Walk off Tropical Island and a Mox.
GAT untaps and draws Underground Sea. What is your next move? I’ll listen for your answers in the forums.
In summary, GAT was pretty much murdering Flash post-board. Before testing this matchup at all, my initial suspicion was that Flash would have the favorable game one and then GAT would have a favorable game 2 and game 3. Instead, what I’ve discovered is that GAT has a favorable game 1 and a super favorable game 2 and game 3. Nonetheless, Flash remains a deadly deck. It can win on turn 1 while there is little you can do about it. Ultimately, GAT has a nice array of options, while Flash’s options are limited and space is cramped to implement them.