The Beautiful Struggle – The Art of Simplicity in Magic

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The learning curve can slope both ways; while you have to learn a lot of stuff to go uphill from “bad” to “decent,” at some point too much knowledge can screw up your head and send you back downhill to “bad.” Eventually, improvement becomes an issue of thinking less about the game, rather than more. The higher level of players you face, the more your game needs to simplify, rather than get increasingly complex.

Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just a punch, a kick was just a kick. After I’d studied the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch, a kick is just a kick.
From The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, by Bruce Lee

Here’s the thing about Magic, and for my money it’s the reason why Magic is one of the great games, like chess or poker: The game is just as easy or complicated as you want it to be.

There’s enough room for the folks like Mike Flores and Zvi Mowshowitz who could write — in those two cases, have written — a full-length book about the game, and there’s room enough for pros who put on a carefree, happy-go-lucky attitude about what plays and decks might be good or bad. Even the kitchen-table players can have this contrast; some casual games might have metagames and counter-strategies, while others are just all about who can assemble the coolest plan for victory.

One thing which is pretty much universal, though, is that people who are trying to advance to that tougher level tend to view the game as more complicated that it used to be. You watch someone make an advanced play, or maybe you figure out such a play of your own volition, and you start to realize just how deep the game’s tactics can run. You start to think that someone like Kenji Tsumura, while he may be playing with the same rules that you are, is somehow playing an entirely different game.

I’m not unfamiliar with this feeling; I experienced it in college and shortly afterward, when I had temporarily quit playing Magic and was instead playing tournament chess. Actually, the gap seems even wider in chess because there is no random element to the game. When a grandmaster outplays you it not only feels like he’s playing a different game, but that you couldn’t ever become good enough at that different game to beat him.

Anyway, my point is, you will not get better at any game until you stop thinking like this. I’ve seen it in chess, both with myself and my former students, and I’ve seen it in Magic.

Not only are the masters playing the same game as you, but it is not nearly as deep for them as you are making it out to be. The learning curve can slope both ways; while you have to learn a lot of stuff to go uphill from “bad” to “decent,” at some point too much knowledge can screw up your head and send you back downhill to “bad.” Eventually, improvement becomes an issue of thinking less about the game, rather than more. The higher level of players you face, the more your game needs to simplify, rather than get increasingly complex.

One big reason you need to simplify is to keep your thought process from getting too contorted. Imagine that you’re playing a game of Limited which goes something like this: You are on the draw, and your opponent plays a 1/1 creature of some sort on turn 2. You play a vanilla 2/2 creature on your turn 2. On the opponent’s turn 3, he attacks with his guy.

Someone who’s playing Magic for the very first time would likely block, and lose his 2/2 to a trick such as Giant Growth. After having that happen once or twice, he would start to learn not to block, in the same way that a dog will learn not to leave the yard if it gets an electric shock for doing so. Eventually, our hypothetical player might learn why he is not blocking, perhaps because he is starting to discover the concept of racing. Then he might realize that the opponent is just as smart and knows all of these same things, so a bluff is possible. Obsessing about the bluff might lead him right back to the beginner’s decision, to block. He’s learned a lot along the way, but if he is still blocking and walking into tricks, has he really made any progress?

The reality is, you gain much more from simplification. Think about it: the worst that can happen is that you block, and the opponent has a trick to kill your guy while saving his own. All you really need to do is decide, based upon the contents of your hand and your deck, whether you can tolerate that turn of events or not. Sometimes you might not mind trading your guy for the opponent’s trick, especially if all he’s trying to save is a barely-relevant 1/1. So there’s no need to obsess over the possibility of a trick, or whether your opponent is capable of a bluff. The only question you have to ask is simply, “What’s the worst that can happen, and do I care?”

Another key reason to simplify is that thinking complex stuff about the game can actually make you overconfident. Maybe you can read your opponents better than the average person, but it doesn’t really matter if you have read your opponent for a card that you can’t beat. I had this problem at the PTQ at Worlds last weekend, against an opponent armed with Profane Command; somehow, knowing that he had it didn’t make the Command any less awesome.

The game still features a lot of random elements, and your typical PTQ will still only invite about 5-10% of participants to the elimination rounds. At the end of the day, the odds are not in your favor no matter how skilled you are — especially in Limited, where you could just receive an awful deck or get matched up against decks that are tough for you to beat. In my own effort to simplify, I try not to think about what skills I might have that the opponent might not (or vice versa). I just think about what gives me the best odds to win a match from here, where “here” could refer to deck construction, mulligans, the attack step, anything.

In the end, though, you need simplify just because it’s tough to have to make the same complex decisions over and over again. Consider a very famous case: Flores’ article Who’s The Beatdown? One of the hardest things to do in Magic is to make a plan (or build a deck) to beat the same plan that you have: beatdown versus beatdown, control versus control, etc. You have to determine which are the most important cards and tactics in the matchup, and it’s not always intuitive what they might be. Eventually, you want to boil the whole thing down into the answer to a three-word question, because you just can’t do all the analysis at the table while a match is going on.

In addition to the examples that Flores has in his article, you might consider the U/W Mind’s Desire mirror from the Extended format of a few years ago. As indicated in Osyp Lebedowicz tournament report from Grand Prix: Boston, the most important strategy in that mirror was to be the reactive player. Generally, the person who tried to go off first would be exposing themselves to the second player. Although not every card in the Mind’s Desire deck worked at instant speed — the namesake, obviously, as well as the Sapphire Medallion-type effects and the Merchant Scrolls are all sorcery-speed spells — very important cards like Turnabout, Cunning Wish, and Brain Freeze obviously do, allowing the second player to combo off in response to whatever attempt the first player would make. So you end up in this odd situation where, despite both decks having almost no countermagic and very few answers to opposing threats, the winner turns out to be the player who best adopts the role of control deck.

The thing is, there’s really no need for so lengthy an explanation as the previous paragraph. Once you have enough experience with the game and its ins and outs, all you need to do is ask yourself, “Who’s the beatdown?” and a look at the card type for Cunning Wish and Brain Freeze will likely give your answer. (For those of you who didn’t know, a combo deck is “the beatdown” if it tries to combo off as soon as possible, so in this case the answer is clearly “not me.”) The more familiar you are with your deck, the simpler your decision should become — all you really have to do is answer that one question correctly, then you have a baseline to govern every decision you’ll make in the matchup.

Interlude: Random Thoughts From Worlds

** It seems like every time I have gone to a large convention center for a tournament, the non-Magic halls were housing Magic’s arch enemies: cheerleaders, Promise Keepers, high school basketball, and the like. At the Javitz Center last weekend, the other major convention in town was devoted to anime. I guess it was an improvement? I mean, if I publicly admit to liking some of those costumes, a camera team from Dateline NBC is going to jump out of the bushes when I get home tonight.

** If they ever offer bets on “Amount of time a men’s public toilet at a Pro Tour or Grand Prix is kept clean,” I don’t care what the line is, I’m taking the under.

** I couldn’t attend the Friday morning PTQ for Hollywood, but Brian David-Marshall informed me that the sleeper card in Extended is Treefolk Harbinger, because it can search for either Ravnica duals or Doran, the Siege Tower, who would be the format’s premiere creature if not for the existence of Tarmogoyf.

Back to the Article

While I was at Worlds for the Kuala Lumpur PTQ on Saturday, I had an interesting conversation with Flores and Josh Ravitz, which in part inspired this article. Flores and Ravitz had teamed up to play in the Two-Headed Giant qualifier for the Win a Car tournament, and at the time they were off to a solid 4-0 start. This led me to wonder what decks they might play in the Standard-format car event, should they qualify.

Flores commented that he was quite taken with the Faerie deck. Not the U/G Scryb Ranger deck that made the Top 8 of GP: Krakow, mind you, but the U/B deck which was played to a 4-1 finish by Zvi Mowshowitz in the Standard portion of Worlds:

4 Cloud Sprite
4 Nightshade Stinger
4 Spellstutter Sprite
4 Oona’s Prowler
4 Scion of Oona
4 Mistbind Clique
4 Cryptic Command
4 Familiar’s Ruse
2 Psionic Blast
1 Terror
4 Faerie Conclave
2 Pendelhaven
4 River of Tears
4 Secluded Glen
5 Snow-Covered Island
2 Snow-Covered Swamp
4 Underground River

2 Dodecapod
3 Flashfreeze
1 Pendelhaven
3 Peppersmoke
3 Sower of Temptation
3 Terror

Ravitz was not so high on the deck, and I tended to agree with him. The interesting thing I realized while we were talking, is that someone coming upon our conversation cold might have thought it was not too many steps up from a forum flame war. Some choice comments…

Ravitz: “The Green deck has a three-power guy on turn 2. You have a 1/1 that can’t ever block. Good luck.”
Flores: “If [the Faerie deck] untaps with four mana up, don’t plan on resolving another spell.”
Me: “I don’t know, Nightshade Stinger is such a sh**ty creature.”

All of these comments seem to be completely ignorant of the deck’s strengths or weaknesses. Ravitz seems to be ignoring the fact that the Faerie deck can remove a turn 2 Wren’s Run Vanquisher, or try to race it with an Oona’s Prowler. Flores seems ignorant of the fact that there are only four Mistbind Cliques in the deck, and thus you won’t always have one on cue. I seem ignorant of the fact that there are other creatures in the deck, such as Scion of Oona or Spellstutter Sprite, who want a 1/1 Faerie in play on turn 1, regardless of whether it can block or not (and, really, who blocks in Constructed anyway?).

Of course, none of us were ignorant of any of those things. However, simplicity is all about boiling a given situation down into its most important components, and ignoring that which is irrelevant. The most important thing about Zvi’s deck is that it is a tempo deck: it’s all about putting the opponent on the back foot, and keeping him there long enough for your flying army to finish the job.

If you read between the lines, you see a deeper debate here. The argument that Ravitz and I were making is that it’s hard for this deck to be the tempo deck in this specific format, because being the tempo deck means that you have pressure that you will defend with your countermagic or tricks. How can you claim to have pressure when the best you can do coming out of the gate is a 1/1, and the least you can expect from an aggressive Green opponent is a 3/3 Deathtouch on turn 2? Flores in turn is answering that question by saying that whatever the early-game failings of the deck might be, they’re made up by the raw late-game power of Mistbind Clique and Cryptic Command.

All three of us understood the complexities of playing a deck like this, but at some point you have to simplify. That’s why our debate could come down to platitudes like “Mistbind Clique is awesome” and “Nightshade Stinger sucks” without any loss of how complicated the deck can be.

(The Flores/Ravitz team eventually went 6-0, putting them in a position where winning either one of the final two rounds would guarantee them first place on tiebreakers. They lost both rounds. Bad beat.)

Simplicity and You

As you might imagine, there’s a risk in writing an article like this (aside from the “people might hate it” risk that every writer has with every article). Namely, I’m running the risk of making That Guy sound like a genius. You know the guy I’m talking about: the one at your local Friday Night Magic, or perhaps in an online forum, who informs you that you are the worst and doesn’t bother to elaborate. After all, if simplicity is the best, what could be simpler than “u suck”?

The thing is, keeping the game simple doesn’t mean you are ignoring all of the deep stuff that you spend your time leaning. You don’t stop reading articles by Flores or Feldman or anyone else who can break down a strategic situation into its component parts. You don’t stop wondering why Tiago Chan made a different pick that you would have at each juncture of the latest Drafting With Tiago. You don’t stop trying to read your opponents or bluff them. You don’t think That Guy must be right just because he’s keeping his criticism of you simple.

What you are trying to keep simple is your own thought process. There’s no need to turn it over and over in your head if you can make a solid plan by asking, “Who’s the beatdown?” or “What’s the worst that can happen?” Really, you’re just trying to keep yourself organized so that you don’t find your train of thought becoming something like, “Well, I know that he’s capable of a bluff, and he knows that I know that, and I know that he knows I know that, and he knows that I know that he knows…”

At the end of the day, it’s just like I said at the start: Magic can be as complex as you allow it to be. There are a lot of players out there who are unable to sort themselves out and are defeated by all that complexity. Hopefully, this article will let it be the other way around for you.

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