Sullivan Library – Winning at Magic: Lessons in Respect

The StarCityGames.com $5,000 Standard Open Series Comes to Nashville!
Thursday, October 29th – In this fascinating article, Adrian Sullivan looks at the role of Respect in magic: The Gathering. While there’s the expected bevy of advice regarding respecting your opponents, there’s a healthy dose of strategic insight and game theory included here too…

In the aftermath of Austin, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about respect, and how it impacts the game. Much of the thoughts in this article come from conversations I’ve had with Brian Kowal, John Shuler, Zvi Mowshowitz, Brian Kibler, Owen Turtenwald, Gaudenis Vidugiris, John Stoltzman, Richard Feldman, and others.



At its simple and most obvious level, respect is always a good place to start when it comes to sportsmanship. Conflicts over the meanings of what is respectful abound (the “good game” controversy, for some), but ultimately, playing in a way that is respectful to your opponents is just classy and a good practice. There is a reason you see professional sports figures often acknowledge each other after games. It is out of respect.

But while this is a good thing to keep in mind, grounding you for every game, there is oh-so-much more to it than simply that.

Magic, Standard (and deckbuilding and more)

In the aftermath of the StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open in Philadelphia, there was certainly a lot of analysis over the results. An incredible five Jund lists made Top 8, and an amalgamation of those lists resulted in a match with the champions list! Astounding! Only three other lists made Top 8, a Red Ball Lightning deck, Ted Renner’s Vampires list, and the incredibly influential Boros Bushwhacker.

Commentators spent much of the next days noting the lack of Baneslayer in the Top 8, as well as a lack of Cruel Ultimatum anywhere near the top. These results, they claimed, we probably deeply flawed. The metagame was simply too new. In fact, we should discount these decks for any meaning. One writer, in particular, was pretty scathing of Boros Bushwhacker.

One of the things to remember when we’re looking at decks that have succeeded somewhere, it doesn’t necessarily mean that those decks are actually good. At the same time, particularly in new formats, what is good might not necessarily be what we are accustomed to.

I’m sure that, by now, many of you have tried out Christian Calcano’s deck. It’s no joke. This deck is a real monster, and it definitely beats down harder than I imagined it could. Yes, it has cards that might be ostensibly “bad” like Goblin Guide (though I’d contest that claim), but it is wicked, wicked fast. I’ve already played far too many games where I’m at 7 on turn 3, on the draw, and I just feel doomed before the game has begun. Rest assured, if you didn’t already know so, this deck is something real.

Similarly, Vampires is also real. One can build it in a fashion closer to the border of aggro- and midrange-aggro, as Ted Renner has done here, or one can take it to larger extremes in either direction, and make it into a more pure aggro deck, or a midrange-control deck. Whatever the case may be, with Renner’s list, we have a kind of starting space.

Neither of these lists is necessarily perfect. Few lists are, and those that are usually only maintain that “perfection” for an event or two before the realities of metagames come crashing down and force them to change. But regardless of the potential imperfections of these lists, one thing is clear: they need to be afforded a degree of respect.

When we look at lists like these, it’s important to remember that they were quite successful in a competitive field. While it’s possible that the field in Philly on that day was somewhat softer than might normally be expected, I’d bet that that isn’t the case. If you’re going to win an event with 300-500+ people, as has been common at these $5000 Open events, as the rounds progress, you will absolutely be playing against stronger and stronger players, even if you do also play against some people that are weaker.

Philly is nestled right in the midst of many, many Magic communities. Players from New York City down to Washington D.C. are all within a quick shot of Philadelphia. From that alone, you’re going to be drawing on pools of players that can be very highly skilled.

And further, what do we mean when we think of “good” these days? In one of the rounds of my most recent PTQ, I played against someone who is a solid player, though they’ve never managed to make the Pro Tour. They’ve been playing tournament Magic seriously for six years. These days, that isn’t such a phenomenally high number.

Look around you at events and ask yourself how long the people you see have been taking this game seriously. I knew when I played my friend Matt Severa in another tournament that he was probably the most experienced player in the room (playing seriously in tournament since at least 1995), but that there were many players in the room who had been playing that way for about that long. Hell, most of the players that were there had at least a few years of taking the game seriously under their belts.

So, looking at Calcano’s list and Renner’s list, I know that I’m going to respect their accomplishment. I’m going to try to play out their lists, as registered, for a while before I decide that I can make some changes that are going to “improve” them. It’s possible, for example, that the 1 Eldrazi Monument might be a mistake. But my initial playing of Renner’s deck leads me to believe that 1 might be just the right number. If I’m just going to go on gut, it’s possible that it might lead me to the right place, but, particularly in new formats, I need to really see what a deck can do before I think it’s okay to start tweaking it. Once a format is deeply developed, and you are intimately familiar with how these decks work, tweaking or outright changing successful decks without playing them can be far more reasonable, but particularly in the beginnings of a format, you’re just making a mistake to do that. Looking at Boros Bushwhacker on paper, I would not have imagined it was nearly as powerful as it actual is. Sitting down, playing against it, playing with it, I feel confident that I wouldn’t want to change a single card of the main — at least not right now.

Respecting the lists once they are out is one thing, but another thing that is important to do is respecting the lists that you don’t even know about yet. In the lead up to Austin, Gaudenis Vidugiris was trying to get together time with me for playtesting, but the realities of my obligations to other things made this all but impossible. In the end, we got together for two long sessions. By the end, he had settle on a Zoo deck made by fellow Madisonian Jasper Johnson-Epstein:

We played a bunch of games versus alternate builds of Zoo, and they all ended 50/50. I tried to throw some home-brews against it, but basically none of them stuck. Ultimately, though, I was somewhat shocked at the progress he and Sam Black had made thus far. It didn’t feel like Pro Tour prep to me. Here, a week out from PT, I knew that they didn’t really seem to have any inkling of what needed to be done in the mirror. They apparently believed that Zoo was the best deck, thus far, but they hadn’t been jamming Zoo-on-Zoo again and again to try to break the mirror.

Take, for the sake of argument, their idea as correct. Pretending that Zoo is the best deck, we have to imagine that there will be people out there who will figure this out too. They will also find a Zoo deck. This isn’t like saying that if you discover that your awesome secret tech deck is the best, presuming that everyone else will too. It is saying that for a deck as commonly understood and known as Zoo, if it is the best, people will figure this out. Thus, you’d better be prepared for the mirror.

Here’s the thing: at the Pro Tour there are a lot of smart, dedicated people. While not everyone is going to do the work, some people definitely will. If you aren’t confident in your Dark Depths deck, for example, this should be reflected in your playtesting confidence. If you’re beating Dark Depths, but you haven’t put a lot of effort into making Dark Depths good, maybe you shouldn’t consider your success against that Dark Depths deck all that highly. If you’re kinda beating your build of a deck that you think is “bad,” expect to do far worse against someone who has put in the effort on that archetype, even if their effort is even somewhat misplaced.

Pro Tours are odd things in that they typically have an unexplored aspect to them in this way. The best kind of preparation for a Pro Tour generally tries to build the entirety of the metagame. If you can best model what the Pro Tour looks like, then your solution to that model is likely to be the most appropriate to a tournament. Preparation for other events works similarly: if you know what the format looks like, what you end up choosing to play is going to be closer to a “reality” of what is good within that format than someone who hasn’t chosen to figure out the format. What makes Pro Tours (and a few other tourneys) different is the newness.

We can’t necessarily know that any deck in a new format is going to be good or not. What we can know is that in a competitive event people will try to do the best they can. You can’t prepare for every specific threat that could come out of the ether, but you can put in the work to combat things, at the very least, more generally.

The biggest thing of beauty, to my mind, with this deck is that sideboard.

God, just look at it!

It’s really quite simple. It actively puts down hate for Affinity, but other than that, it just doesn’t want its opponent to play cards. Meddling Mage, Blood Moon, and Ghost Quarter are all there with a singular purpose in mind: whatever you’re playing, let’s try to keep you from playing it.

It doesn’t matter what you’re playing, from the perspective of Rubin Zoo, it can bring in answers. I haven’t played the matchup of Rubin Zoo versus Affinity, but I’m willing to bet that it has some rough spots, or there wouldn’t be the Kataki there, supporting the three Ancient Grudge. Ancient Grudge doubles as a great weapon against the expected arrival of *LU decks, which were certainly in attendance (even if they did poorly).

I’ve said, in numerous conversations, that we need to respect the capabilities of our opponents to come up with decks and ideas for a format that we haven’t considered, and we have to prepare for it. We have to assume that maybe someone did the work that they needed to to succeed. I remember being asked, “Well, if you don’t know what someone is going to play, how can you have a sideboard for it?”

For Pro Tour: Hollywood, despite a bevy of play errors, I ended up with one of the top performing Red decks. A big part of the reason why was definitely the side. It didn’t matter what I might play against, even if it were a surprise, I’d have something to do. Jaya could come in in attrition wars, as a means to fight big monsters, and versus Blue permanents. Keldon Megaliths could come in for attrition wars (and to fight Burrenton Forge-Tender). Word of Seizing could come in against big creatures and Reveillark. Everlasting Torment could come in against Persist, life gain, and big creatures (particularly in conjunction with Jaya and Megaliths), and Wild Ricochet could come in for the mirror, for Commands, and for “weird cards.”

Literally, at no point in the tournament was I at a loss for a card to sideboard. Why? Because my sideboard was built with the idea that it should have respect for the abilities of my opponents.

Even in the aftermath of matches with unusual decks, we need to respect what just happened. If we look at a result and just decry it as an example of our opponent getting lucky, we could miss a whole in our deck or strategy. Worse, we could miss out on a great deck opportunity.

At the Sunday PTQ in Grand Prix: Phoenix, four of my cohort had made the Top 8. Most of us were playing my Counter-Phoenix deck. I had the misfortune of being paired against a young Matt Sperling. I’d heard about his deck already, from a few other players who had been mocking it. It just seemed too weird to them, perhaps. He slaughtered me in a quick two games, and it was immediately apparent to me that he’d updated my oft-mocked PT Junk deck, and really done some fantastic things to streamline it. After the event, I rebuilt PT Junk, inspired by Sperling’s list, and it had some wild success (most notably being played the next week by two players in a 200+ person PTQ, and having them meet in the finals). In my strong advocating of the deck at the time, a skeptical Kai Budde spent a few hours playtesting against it with Trix before confirming, yes, Junk smashed Trix. If I had just ignored Sperling as a “lucky kid” with a weird deck, I couldn’t have refashioned Junk into such a powerful deck for that moment.

So much of what we do in Magic really relies on respect if we want to succeed. On some level, results matter, but on no level do funny looks matter — at least if all we’re counting is winning. Magic is an ever more competitive game, it seems, and so giving our fellow competitors respect seems critical in getting the most out of the vast amount of information out there. If we don’t respect the fact that our opponents are usually trying to win too, we give up a lot of opportunity for growth.


The value of respect, itself, bleeds into other areas of a game, too. For many people, there is such a desire for respect that it ends up getting paired with something far more insidious: a desire not to look bad.

A long time ago, I was talking to Zvi Mowshowitz about sports. Now, those of you who know me particularly well know that I’m not all that into most mainstream sports, particularly team sports. Zvi, on the other hand, cares a great deal about sports, and in true Zvi fashion, approaches an examination of sports with a great deal of intellectual rigor.

Gun Show

Zvi was talking over my head, claiming that the teams were assigning far too much weight in their valuation of some particular draft pick set (perhaps their first picks? No idea, really), and as a result, football at large was just constantly reaffirming this same mistake, year after year, because the decision-makers didn’t want to look bad and get fired. Fans, like those in charge, expected that a certain thing was correct, and even if something else would result in better results for a team, it would never happen because of this pressure to not look bad.

He went into the reasons, but I had to assure him I just didn’t have the background to know if he was right or not. Hell, maybe he wasn’t. But if I know Zvi, I’m willing to bet that whatever draft strategy he was advocating employing here would probably be brilliant. Somehow this lead me to comment about how I hated football, partly because it never struck me that decisions were made with a proper understanding of classic and romantic game theory. Zvi went off on kicking, and I had a good chuckle to myself hearing his passion for the game.

Several years later, I was traveling to a PTQ with fellow Madisonians Ben Rasmussen and John Stoltzman (now dearly departed to far off Vegas to continue making his living at the poker) when I brought up this conversation. Rasmussen is a big football-head, and I came to discover John was as well.

“They punt like dips!” John exclaimed. Essentially, if you look at the hard and fast data, it almost never makes any sense to punt. The studies of Berkeley economics professor David Romer (the forty-two page .pdf, “It’s Fourth Down and What Does the Bellman Equation Say?”, is here, and well worth skimming if you’re into either football or applied game theory) make it really clear that if you care about EV, in nearly every instance that tend to occur in games, punting is simply the wrong call.

But why don’t these teams make these decisions? It’s partly the question of appearance. If they don’t get there, it looks bad. Fans get upset. Owners might fire someone. Coaches tend to ignore these decisions (and often don’t even consider them in the first place) because it is to their personal benefit to look good, even if their stated goal is to win.

The Cannon and The Thimble

In many ways, this reminds me of my long ago elementary school days with Monopoly. Now, as Richard Garfield’s kids have said, Monopoly is a game meant to be played and not won, but that didn’t stop me and friends of mine from trying to win. I remember when we discovered something very interesting: we’d play with a player who we hadn’t played with before, and if they chose the thimble or the iron, they tended to be very good players.

Lone Ranger
I didn’t have the language for talking about it then, but this tidbit came back to me when I was heading up to a PTQ this last weekend in Minneapolis. Somehow or other, several of the Madison guys were talking about bad games (Is Candyland better or worse than Monopoly?), and Matt Severa said he played the Thimble. The Thimble was where it was at. Matt is someone who takes games very seriously, and I started to think back to childhood and our observations of the Thimble (and the Iron).

When I’d play crappy games like Monopoly, it would usually be with extended family, typically over some holiday. A cousin, or an uncle, would pick the Thimble, and if they were male, often you knew they’d mean business. But why? I wouldn’t have been able to say so, then, but now I’d say this: the pieces that most men playing tended to pick were the aggressive pieces — the Battleship, the Cannon, the Horse and Rider, the Race Car… People would practically clamor for these pieces. When a man took the Thimble, it usually meant he didn’t care what you thought about him. Overall, we took games pretty seriously in my family. We constantly played Euchre (and its superior cousin 500, not to be confused with Rummy 500), Risk, Monopoly (or Monotony, as my mom called it), Backgammon, Scrabble, and a host of others. Taking the Thimble might not have had the same meaning in other families, but in mine, it would have been associated with femininity. A man taking that was displaying a casual confidence in himself — he didn’t need the Race Car to feel tough, he was just going to win.

In many ways, this reminded me of my work as an editor for a business writing company. We would do peoples’ resumes and occasionally a client would select a rose or pink colored paper. Every time that this happened, it was always the same kind of person: someone super gritty and tough. A retired army colonel, a marine drill sergeant, a hobbyist marksmen. It was like they were claiming this color as a way to say, “Hey, I’m so masculine, even this pink is tough when I’m rocking it.” They pursued success without a concern that they wouldn’t be taken seriously because they believed in themselves enough that it couldn’t matter.

In many ways, this is exactly the space we want to occupy in our own game. If you’ve done the work, the concern for how something looks is so, so much less important than the results. Yes, it might look goofy, but does it really matter if you’re winning? I think about the Charles Gendron Dupont deck from Austin that I discussed last week: was he embarrassed by his 3 Teetering Peaks? Well, if he was, he suppressed the embarrassment enough to play it, likely ignoring calls from people that it wasn’t a card worthy of Extended. The result? A Top-16 finish in the Extended portion of the tournament.

Respect is something that ties into many of the best ways to approach the game, from many different spaces within it. Whether it is respecting your opponents at the table, your imagined opponents preparing throughout the world, or just respecting yourself, giving real weight to respect is a critical part of improving your performances. Yes, you want to be confident, but stepping too far into being driven by ego is a sure way to limit your game.

Enjoy your Halloween. I know I will!

Adrian Sullivan