Sullivan Library – Getting Value From Discourse

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Wednesday, January 20th – In Magic, strong opinions abound. Of course, without the proper framework for intelligent debate and discussion, disagreements regarding our game often lead nowhere. Today, Adrian Sullivan shares his insight on gaining the most out of strategic discourse…

There is a lot of value in going out and listening to people saying things you think are wrong, even if you radically disagree. Before Cass Sunstein was given a place in the Obama administration (as Information Czar) he wrote a book, Republic.com 2.0, which said, among other things, that one of the dangers of the internet was the way it became an echo chamber. If you believed, really believed, that George W. Bush actively planned to flood New Orleans, or if you believed that Obama was a secret Muslim, or if you believed that Jef Mallet was actually a pen name for Bill Watterson (and, hey, maybe it is…), on the internet, Sunstein says, you can find enough people that agree with you that you can make an echo chamber that will sustain your belief, even in the face of evidence.

The nature of Magic has a double-edged nature with regards to this. Foremost, Magic knowledge is often defined by its empirical nature. We can test again and again and again and see results. We can look to major events and see the results of them. If, for example, we believe that Vampires is a bad deck, we can go to the results of various events and see that there is empirical data to suggest that it is so.

But on the other hand, any serious student of Magic will tell you that Magic results are notoriously swingy in small sample sizes. If we’re talking about a single tournament, a player running hot can give us a spectacular result. Once you’ve gotten to the single elimination portion of the tournament, you are really talking about a small sample. It is a widely held truism that most Magic tournaments are probably not won by the best deck in the room. The best deck in a Top 8 could get a nightmare matchup. It could get mana-flooded. The pilot could make a sideboarding error. But if you believe that a deck is the best deck in a format, it is all too easy to take a result (“It won the event!”) and run with it, using this as evidence for your claims.

Getting a full handle on what is the capital T “Truth” of a matter is always a risky proposition. Unless you are talking about closed, defined systems (like math), we are constantly going to butt up against the perspective problem. From wherever we are situated, our biases are going to monkey with our reads of a card.

Take a card like Path to Exile. For a long while, I was one of its biggest detractors. Looking at it from a card advantage perspective and a mana development perspective, I was abundantly sure that the card was garbage. “But I’m okay with playing with garbage,” I’d say, “so long as it helps me win.”

Well, I was wrong. The card isn’t garbage. Far from it. At the same time, it is full of major problems that make people over-value it, and often misplay it. There is a real cost to the card, and it is a significant one. People that ignore this fact do so at their peril.

What happened to change my perspective? Well, partly it was that I couldn’t ignore the empirical evidence all around me. Again and again it was seeing inclusion in decks that were winning. A mountain of evidence was piling up. But the other factor was more valuable: my dislike of the card was butting up against my friend Brian Kowal’s constant praise of the card.

BK and I have been working together on Magic decks since about 1996. Between the two of us, we’ve done a lot of work that I’m very proud of. Each of us has been off the path on a card or a deck before, but talking about our thoughts was always a huge space for development for each of us. When it comes to the game, I know each of us has a huge amount of respect for one another.

And so, when BK is arguing up and down that Path is great, and I’m coming back with how bad the card is, the opportunity for dialogue emerges.

This is a key moment. It happens in disagreements all of the time, in any venue. Handling this properly in Magic is a great way to get a better understanding of the game. There are a finite number of wins that are available in any given Magic event, and it is a zero-sum game. If you want to be winning these, you have to give yourself the proper edges. One of these is simply knowing about the game more than your opponent.

The key about these moments of disagreement is the result of true dialogue in disagreement. If one person is invested in being correct, it doesn’t matter whether they are correct or not; they are not going to improve as a player. If someone is invested, on the other hand, in understanding, even if they hold the wrong position and at the end of the argument continue to hold the wrong position, they will walk out of the conversation at worst the tiniest bit better for it.

A part of it is the idea of articulation. If you’re forced to discuss your reasoning, you can actually come to real moments of revelation in regards to the knowledge that you already have. Maybe you’ll come to realize that the key to a matchup is fighting Blightning wars unless they are already on the ropes. Maybe you’ll gain a new insight into why Mind Sludge is or isn’t valuable. At the same time, as your partner in the debate articulates their own opinions, you’ll find yourself having to explain why you think they are wrong in ways that will further your own opinions.

In reading the work of numerous authors and in having debates about Magic with all manner of people, I’ve found myself coming to some of the more startling revelations about how Magic works. One of my favorite foils in this regard is probably Mike Flores, though it usually didn’t have the dialogic framework that would have been best for both of us. When Mike would hold an opinion or write something, and sometimes I’d just be aghast at how wrong I thought he was. I actually feel a lot of my best writing may be behind me simply because Mike isn’t regularly saying things for me to vehemently disagree with. Some of my best epiphanies in the game have come out of disagreements with Mike, Patrick Chapin, Zvi Mowshowitz, Eric “Dinosaur” Taylor, Richard Feldman, Zac Hill, Brian Kowal, and others.

In working through the whys of your disagreement, you can often just get a better understanding of how Magic works. Among my writings, for example, I think my article “The Big Lie of ‘Good’ Cards” was one of the best examples of this. It was in the organizing of my thoughts for that article that I best articulated the reasons why “good” cards aren’t the only ones that matter.

If you have a partner in this process, like I do with Brian Kowal, you’re in the best position. If both of you are firmly invested in just figuring things out, but you hold opposing views, you can continue to challenge the weak points in each others’ frames of thought and really get closer to an accurate modeling of the physics of the Magic universe.

My friend Matt Severa recently talked about this with regards to draft. Matt is a great player in his own right, but he also used to live with Mike Hron, and they’d host drafts constantly. In Matt’s opinion, one of the best influences Hron had on Madison Magic of yesteryear was providing a foil to people as they would discuss drafts. If you held an opinion on a card, the odds were good that Hron would tell you that you were wrong. But, Matt said, as you worked through your reasoning with Mike, and as he tried to pull it apart, you’d get all the better at explaining why or why not Logic Knot was a valuable card in the draft.

Mike didn’t just play the antagonist foil, here, either. If arguments were convincing, he’d give the card a try, and not just once. He’d give it a go many times to see for himself. In this way, even if he disagreed with someone’s opinion, if he had a sense of a good argument there, he’d give the argument a chance. For Matt and Mike, their partnership was a fantastic one for Limited, and was definitely a part of the reason that Hron would win in Geneva — many of his opponents in drafts simply hadn’t had someone to work through the format as thoroughly with, probably because they didn’t have someone challenging their thoughts about what was good, often enough.

Aside from the oppositional approach, there is also a lot of value to be gained in playing the oracle to the others as students. The question, “Why?” is one that most students ask. Explaining why, even if people just take you at face value, is another way that you can gain a greater command of the knowledge that you hold. This is partly why graduate schools usually tie teaching into the requirements for their most promising students; the universities know that one of the best ways to really master a certain kind of knowledge is to teach it. You’ll have to explain and re-explain, again and again, why the play, “Turn 1, Bolt you” is bad, and you’ll understand it all the more (even to a point where maybe you can understand when it can be correct).

Being married to your ideas is what you don’t want to be doing when you’re going through this process. Regardless of the degree of certainty you have in something, you should be looking at dialogue as an opportunity, not a challenge. Too many people get into these moments and they don’t look for the opportunity to increase their understanding. Even if you are right, there is still a possibility that you could understand the why of why you are right better. It is only when we close down the possibility of being persuaded that we cease to be able to improve in a subject.

Practically, the opportunities to go through this process are abundant. Magic is a game that revolves around many things. Card valuation is one of the big ones. The question, “Is this a good card?” is one that will be asked again and again and again, endlessly. Every time that this conversation happens, our possibility for understanding is increased. Where I look at a card like Join the Ranks (a spoiled Worldwake card) and think that it might be contingently very powerful, another player might say that Allies are not nearly good enough for consideration in draft. When someone brings up the potential power of Dragonmaster Outcast for Constructed, I might believe (as I do currently) that it has a potential home in a Ranger of Eos deck, but is probably ill-suited to anything that is hyper aggressive. If someone else believes that I should be thinking about it more in all manner of decks that plan to get up in curve, once we’ve talked it out (perhaps again and again), I might not ever change my opinion, but if I’m not open to the possibility of being persuaded, I could miss out on real value in my understanding of the card.

Paying attention to what everyone has to say about this game takes a lot of work. Clearly you don’t have to pay attention to everything. If someone tells you that Lightning Bolt costs Blue, you can know that this is false. If someone tells you that Vampires wins every event, you can look at the results and see that this is false. But if someone claims that Vampires is good, and they give you reasons that aren’t blatantly false, taking the time to listen to their opinion and see if there is anything of value to be gleaned from it can only do you good.

Until next week, when we’ll have all the cards in the world to argue over…

Adrian Sullivan