The Beautiful Struggle – Sun Tzu and You

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If you’ve heard of The Art of War (the book, not the crappy Wesley Snipes movie), then I’m sure I’m not the first person to tell you that many of its lessons apply in all of life. As it went for turn-of-the-millennium Chinese war, so it goes in modern war, business, sports, romance… and, since this is a Magic strategy website, you can bet that it also applies to Magic.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
From The Art of War

If you’ve heard of The Art of War (the book, not the crappy Wesley Snipes movie), then I’m sure I’m not the first person to tell you that many of its lessons apply in all of life. As it went for turn-of-the-millennium Chinese war, so it goes in modern war, business, sports, romance… and, since this is a Magic strategy website, you can bet that it also applies to Magic. Laying traps, making the enemy fight on your own terms, striking the enemy where he is weak: all of them are worthy Magic strategies which you might have first seen in Sun Tzu’s opus.

The quoted section above, though, presents us with a problem. What exactly does it mean to “know yourself” and “know your enemy” in Magic? Especially at the PTQ level, it’s pretty rare to play someone that you actually know. Most of the time you’re playing people you’ve never met, or perhaps someone you know by reputation due to their success in past PTQs. Most of the time your opponent is a blank slate.

I first started thinking about this after I made Top 8 of a Magic Online Premiere Event last weekend, thus qualifying for the OTJ II Championship (an invitation-only Magic Online event). The format was Ravnica-Guildpact-Dissension Sealed Deck, and the deck I had built was pretty ugly:

Hour of Reckoning
Faith’s Fetters
Courier Hawk
Screeching Griffin
Shrieking Grotesque
Exhumer Thrull
Galvanic Arc
Hypervolt Grasp
Greater Mossdog
Gruul Scrapper
Siege Wurm
Orzhov Signet
Wrecking Ball
Riot Spikes
Centaur Safeguard
Golgari Rotwurm
Guardian of Vitu-Ghazi
Mourning Thrull
Selesnya Guildmage
Skyknight Legionnaire
Thundersong Trumpeter
Boros Garrison
Rakdos Carnarium
Sacred Foundry
Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree
5 Forest
4 Plains
2 Mountain
1 Swamp

Sure, there are some powerful cards there, but the mana is all over the place. Any deck which is going to struggle to have Skyknight Legionnaire on turn 3, or which is likely to play Gruul Scrapper without haste, is not going to impress me too much.

After a first-round loss to Alex Kim — you may recall Alex from this edition of The Magic Show — I was pretty sure the deck was poo and that I was headed nowhere. I then ran off five wins in a row to make Top 8. I’m still not sure exactly how I won those rounds, except that I always felt like I knew more about my opponents and how they would play a given situation than they knew about me.

For example, in one round I noticed that my opponent had decided to fight my Selesnya Evangel and Vitu-Ghazi by dredging his Necroplasm over and over; thus, I mixed up my plays so that while it appeared that I was still trying to win via damage, I was also trying to deck him. My opponent realized his decking problem far too late and I was able to run him out of cards. In another round, I was able to manufacture an advantageous damage race by using my opponent’s reluctance to activate Seal of Doom; I played out my small fliers, which got quite a bit of damage in while he saved his Seal for something bigger, and then after he finally used it on a Gruul Scrapper I played the Siege Wurm I had been sandbagging.

I’ve written about reading opponents, and patience, and various other psychological tactics for use in the game. In the end, though, all of this kind of stuff is just part of trying to know your opponent. Knowing yourself is a bit more challenging.

On the most superficial level, “knowing yourself” can mean knowing your deck, backwards and forwards. I mean you should be able to look at your hand, board, and graveyard and deduce how many copies of a given out remain in your library. You should have your sideboard memorized so that there’s no issues with presenting an illegal deck in later matches. You should know how you plan to sideboard against a given matchup before you even walk into (or log on to) the tournament site.

Of course, all of that stuff is more like what Mike Flores once called Operations Management. Knowing yourself is a bit more complicated than that; it’s more the ability to be self-aware of the mistakes and good plays that you are capable of making.

In another Premiere Event, using the Time Spiral Block Constructed format, I was playing the U/G deck that Jonathan Stocks took to the Top 8 of Grand Prix: San Francisco. I had added Brine Elementals to the sideboard — it baffles me why anyone would not want to have Brine somewhere in their 75 if they are also running Vesuvan Shapeshifter — but the main deck remained exactly the same.

Now, you might recall that in last week’s article, I said that I thought U/B/x Mystical Teachings was the best deck. I still think that, provided the Teachings deck has Void. However, one thing that I definitely know about myself with respect to this block format is that I shouldn’t be playing the Teachings mirror. I’m not the best at it, and more importantly I hate it. I learned this during my last PTQ, where I played Teachings: the mirror just sucks all of the fun out of Magic for me.

I’m not sure why this only happens in the Teachings mirror, and not in other control mirrors; I didn’t mind playing mono-Blue versus mono-Blue earlier in the season. But that’s not the point. The point is that I knew going into that PE that the “best” deck was not the right choice for me on a personal level. I hadn’t played a single game with the U/G deck before entering the PE, but I knew my own mindset and how the deck would suit me. I made Top 4 (although, as I told half a dozen people that day, I was pretty lucky to get three game wins due to Slaughter Pact*).

Other times, knowing yourself means playing into your practice and preparation. I would not want to pay money to play my very first games with the Pyromancer’s Swath deck from Japanese Nationals:

Most combo decks, especially those where a large number of cards are drawn (or, in the case of Dredge/Ichorid combo, are made available to be played) require you to know yourself very well. You really have to trust your ability to calculate the right path to a win, your ability to focus on what is important, your ability to calculate your outs on the fly.

Of course, just about anybody who picks up a combo deck thinks that they’re a calculation genius, and very few are. That’s why it’s not easy to know yourself. Most people know only the self they would like to be, and substitute that for the self they actually are. It’s not a tragic admission to say to yourself, “this deck really isn’t for me” or “I have no clue what’s going on in this matchup.” In the long run it’s much better to know that you have those weaknesses, than to delude yourself into thinking that you have no weakness at all.

This article written while listening to Talib Kweli’s “Eardrum.” That’s not a cut-and-paste from last week. This album is so damn good that since I bought it, I literally haven’t listened to anything else in my collection. Beg, borrow, download, I don’t care what you do: if you love hip-hop, you must own this CD.

mmyoungster at aim dot com
mm_young dot livejournal dot com
mm_young on MTGO

* At this point each of the half-dozen people LOL’ed and asked, “how can you get a Slaughter Pact win on MTGO, where they remind you of the trigger?” Well, one poor soul played Slaughter Pact when his only Black sources were River of Tears, so I didn’t really have to do anything. Two others Pacted me during combat, and then in post combat I bounced their only Black source with a Cloudskate. Must be nice to be mm_young, right?