The Magic Show #4 – Laying Plans

This week’s edition of the Magic Show – Magic’s only video-based article series – looks at the noble art of warfare. Just how can the writings of Sun Tzu be applied to the cardboard craft of spellslinging?

[The following is a transcript of the video, which you really should check out.]

Hello everybody and welcome to The Magic Show. I’m your host Evan Erwin, and today I want to talk to you about The Art of War. Due to time constraints, we’ll cover the live prerelease coverage next week. But I promise it’s worth it.

Written thousands of years ago by the one and only Sun Tzu, The Art of War a book so powerful, and so true, it has been reprinted over and over again. Funnily enough, under many different titles. Many famous strategists spend their lifetimes gathering up strategic knowledge piece by piece, culminating this knowledge into another long-winded tome in what you can learn in just a few pages via Sun Tzu.

So why is The Art of War important and how does it relate to Magic? That’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Now before we get started we need to get a few caveats out of the way:

First, this will not be The Art of War from beginning to end. The first chapter of the book is called Laying Plans and I’ll be talking about a few points from it.

Secondly, this video is a direct inspiration from Dan Paskins, The Ferrett, and Dave Sirlin whose excellent articles made me do this thing.

Lastly, this is my interpretation. One of the cool things about The Art of War is that everyone interprets certain things differently, but the strategy remains.

Also: Beware the yomi. What the hell is that? We’ll get to that later.

The Art of War begins where a lot of Magic games do: Laying Plans

“The art of war is of vital importance to the state.”

Your life total is of vital importance. You will lose if you don’t have one. Granted, so is your library and poison counter total, but those are more strategy-based than the “default” way to beat someone in Magic.

You must always be aware of your vitality and what you can do with it. Regarding life as a resource is something that is an absolute necessity for control players. Aggro players need this skill as well, as mirrors are determined by he who can swing the vitality pendulum his way.

“All warfare is based on deception.”

Let that one sink in a little. It’s a classic line from the book. Warfare, with guns, is based on deception. War, with geeks and cardboard, is based on deception. Being clever is great, being funny and interesting and talkative are fantastic traits…if you want to be an actor. But if you’re a Magic player and you’re serious about this winning thing? It’s a friggin’ war and don’t you forget it.

And war is based on deception just like Magic players are convinced that Magic is a game based on information. And deception is simply skewing the information at hand to your advantage.

“Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.”

Once upon a time, there was a Magic player. And that Magic player was playing against a very bad opponent. The opponent’s deck featured all stars like Sadistic Augermage and the most efficient creature he ran that the Magic player had seen so far was a Mourning Thrull.

And the Magic player, sure of his win, decided that he would crush his opponent, just like Sun Tzu said. So he put his two best creatures on the board while his opponent dumped his whole hand on the board, full of in efficient weenies and substandard cards.

Then, sure of his win, his opponent threw down a flashy creature for spite, and swung all out.

That was when the opponent, feigning his ignorance, crushed the Magic player entire.

With two cards left in his hand, and nine mana on the board, the opponent played Cackling Flames and in response played Twinstrike, wiping the Magic player’s entire board clear.

Our Magic player, unable to recover, is quickly crushed under the weight of “substandard” creatures. And while the subsequent game made him more careful, his cautiousness was not rewarded and rather punished, as the opponent had merely adjusted his playstyle to battle just that strategy. It was as if he knew what was in the Magic player’s head all along!

The Magic player, still in shock, wondered how he went 0-2 in what was once an unquestionable matchup.

There is nothing like feigning ignorance or intelligence before revealing your master plan to your opponent.

In the comics, villains are always outdone because they would explain how brilliant they are instead of just being brilliant. And that’s a tough thing. If you’re going to win the matchup, and I mean you have no doubt in your mind, if you can feign a downbeat demeanor and fool your opponent into not paying attention and making mistakes, then you sir are a good Magic player.

Many Magic players find this out on their own, and take many years to do so. And while it takes years to master, the first step is in knowing it exists, then learning how to do it yourself.

Of course I could also be making obligatory poker references at this point, but for my and Geordie Tait sake, I won’t.

“If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him.”

This is a phrase that I think applies to control versus control matchups. If you’ve ever seen Wafo Tapa take on the mirror, boy, are you in for a boring match. Draw, Go, is a popular Blue mage phrase, but getting a threat to resolve is even harder.

Back in Mirrodin there was a land called Stalking Stones, which gave a mono-Blue player (basically) an uncounterable creature. This allowed you to leave up counter magic and activate the 3/3 Stalking Stones at the end of their turn. Nowadays, there is no Stalking Stones and there is no Blinkmoth Nexus in Standard. Those options are gone.

Sometimes the threat needed in the mirror can be a Jushi Apprentice, and that’s where Spell Snare comes in. Sometimes it’s about Remand, and Remanding your own spell nets you both a card and a counterspell, as their target is now null and void. However, you trade the ability for the spell to actually resolve, and again, getting a threat to resolve is your goal.

To Remand their Remand means you will have to deal with it later. But resolving a threat wins the game, not the worry of Remands in their hand, nor the cleverness in countering their spell without actually getting an advantage in the matchup. They still didn’t let you resolve the spell, in fact, in a way, you did their job for them. They traded a card for the inability for you to hurt them in the future.

In that context you would think you should never ever Remand your own spells, but there are thousands of minute details we’re not covering here. There are always times when that is the right play, but you must also realize what is important in matches such as the Wafo Tapa mirror.

If he is “secure at all points” then that means he has the time and resources to potentially beat you if you get into a counter war. If he is in superior strength, you need to do whatever is necessary to stay alive. Evade death as long as possible. This includes Repealing Dragons or threats just to save a few life points or draw out that counter.

“These military devices, leading to victory, must not be divulged beforehand.”

Your military devices are the spells in your deck. And above all, you must never ever divulge the contents of that deck unless absolutely necessary. If your opponent knows your deck or what type of deck you’re playing, then they must not know the cards in your hand. You must not let them know or allude to them. Better, if you can feign a card you don’t have, then they’ll play around phantom threats or answers, biding you time to win.

Ask yourself this: How important is it that you have a counterspell, versus the notion that your opponent is convinced you have one? What is the power in both? Do you act the same way when you’re feigning a counterspell as when you’re actually holding one? Take note of your body language, your actions, and your tells as they relate to this aspect of the game.

Blurring the line of making your opponent think you have a counterspell versus actually having one is a skill that those who win big tournaments have mastered.

A Quick Yomi Primer

What the hell is yomi? Yomi is a Japanese word meaning “knowing the mind of the opponent.” It is, at its core, a guessing game. However, it’s a “guessing” game that is very much precise. Yomi is outthinking your opponent.

I’ll take Dave Sirlin’s excellent example:

Let’s say you were to bet on a game of rock/paper/scissors. We’ll play 10 rounds of the game, with a $1 bet on each round. Which move should you choose? It makes absolutely no difference whether you choose rock, paper, or scissors. You’ll be playing a pure guess. Since your move will be a pure guess, I can’t incorporate your expected move into my strategy, partly because I have no basis to expect you to play one move or another, and partly because I really can’t have any strategy to begin with.

Now consider the same game of Rock, Paper, Scissors with unequal payoffs. If you win with rock, you win $10. If you win with scissors, you win $3. If you win with paper, you win $1. Which move do you play? You clearly want to play rock, since it has the highest payoff. I know you want to play rock. You know I know you know, and so on.

Playing rock is such an obvious thing to do, you must realize I’ll counter it ever time. But I can’t counter it (with paper) EVERY time, since then you could play scissors at will for a free $3. In fact, playing scissors is pretty darn sneaky. It counters paper – the weakest move. Why would you expect me to do the weakest move? Are you expecting me to play paper just to counter your powerful rock? Why wouldn’t I just play rock myself and risk the tie? You’re expecting me to be sneaky by playing paper, and you’re being doubly sneaky by countering with scissors. What you don’t realize is that I was triply sneaky and I played the original obvious move of rock to beat you.

Double-speak or no, this mathematical phenomena is part of game theory, and the essence in figuring out what your opponent is going to do is yomi. Mr. Sirlin refers to “levels” of yomi, that is, levels of complexity in any given probable situation.

I’m sure you can imagine the myriad of decisions that go through your head as you choose to play one spell over another. Depending on the mana they have, the games you’ve played so far, and your ability to read your opponent, you may play differently. Act differently. Talk differently. Try “bold” moves that you wouldn’t think would work otherwise, because you got this opponent figured out.

I mean, just look at him, playing that Sadistic Augermage and Mourning Thrull.

What could possibly go wrong?

Until next time, thanks for watching.

Evan “misterorange” Erwin
dubya dubya dubya dot misterorange dot com
eerwin +at+ gmail +dot+ com
Written while listening to flyleaf’s self titled record.