The Optics Of Magic

Want to be the best in the world? Want to make the right play every time and prove yourself to an excited viewership as you claim your trophy? Is there no way you’d have missed that Eidolon trigger in the finals of a Pro Tour? Read on!

This past weekend, a lot of misplays and sloppy shortcuts occurred under the camera at the Pro Tour. Some of the world’s best Magic players forgot triggers, made poor attacks, sequenced incorrectly, and so on. And the public outcry was thick. Armchair coaches and armchair experts from all over the Magic community were quick to pounce on each of these moments.

Meanwhile, NFL great Tom Brady was recently suspended for four games for allegedly throwing dubious footballs during the first half of a playoff game from last season. Meanwhile, there was a social media fuss about the tragedy of a much-beloved lion being shot and its relative importance to yet another police killing of an unarmed black man.

And all of these things, as unrelated as they may be, have a lot to teach us about what I like to refer to as Optics.

Optics is traditionally a scientific term dealing with various kinds of light and how they behave within the field of physics. These are not the optics we’re talking about.

The optics we’ll be discussing today will pertain to, for a lack of a better definition, “the feeling of the way things look.”

Generally speaking, the more information you have about a situation, the better you’re able to “see” it accurately. For instance, let’s start with Tom Brady and his glorious flat footballs.

In case you’re not much of a sports person, the short of it is that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady allegedly used footballs that were deflated as a means to gain a competitive advantage in an important playoff game. The consequences of the NFL’s investigation were that Mr. Brady was to be suspended four games in the upcoming season.

In essence, it’s easy to get just this information and conclude that law and order has been served.

This is probably a good place to mention that I’m not a big football fan and that I couldn’t give less of a crap about Tom Brady, the New England Patriots, or any part of this whole controversy beyond what it has to teach me about Magic cards.

Consider the following tidbits:

  • Reports vary as to how many of the Patriots’ footballs were underinflated and by how much. There were twelve total balls, and the team had anywhere from one to eleven of them underinflated. Nobody seems to know for certain.
  • The second-half balls were guaranteed correctly inflated as per league officials who examined them and adjusted them.
  • Tom Brady threw an interception during the first half (that’s bad, kids) and did not throw one during the second half (that’s good, kids).
  • Brady’s team led 17-7 at the half. They scored 28 points in the second half (remember: footballs were good to go by all accounts at that point), and the opposing team had positively nothing. Goose egg. Zero. The ultimate in failure and disgrace.

So, again, I’m not emotionally invested in any of this, but the point is that the reality of the situation is in the details, not the one-line headline. This is the difference between the optics and the reality.

Let’s move to another current event: that dentist that shot that lion.

Now, nobody has actual statistics on the exact level of outrage over that incident versus the latest in a long line of disturbing police scandals, but that hasn’t stopped people from generating statements in the vein of “lions are more important than oppressed minorities now apparently” and other forms of sensationalist nonsense. Is it an accurate statement? My inclination is to say “of course not,” but if enough people publicly produce that flavor of statement, and it excites others into believing it’s true and regurgitating it, the collective consciousness of the social media storm merges and creates something with a certain projected reality.

Whether it’s true or not is irrelevant. The point is that it looks bad. That’s what we mean by “optics.”

Now, let’s go back to the Pro Tour.

One of the most awkward moments of the Top Eight coverage of the event came when eventual champion Joel Larsson evidently missed an Eidolon of the Great Revel trigger that should have put his opponent at two less life. This was in the tournament finals of all places.

Assuming there were no dubious outside circumstances — his opponent distracted him with a nefarious and unnecessary judge call, Sigrist performed an action in-game that didn’t allow Joel proper time to announce his trigger, etc. We have no reason to suspect anything like this happened — this is what we refer to in Magic games as “screwing up.” You may have seen it as “mistake” or “punt” in your studies elsewhere. (As an aside, I prefer to use “punt” only in the most glorious of contexts, the kind of game where you’re so favored and have such high percentage likelihood of victory that the only way to describe your inexplicably suicidal loss is to picture yourself wrapping up your once-promised victory into a small ball-shaped object and then proceeding to kick it as hard, far, and high as you possibly can across the convention center parking lot.)

We can all agree that Joel screwed up. That’s not the issue.

This is where optics come in.

Joel may or may not have screwed up several times on camera up until this point. His opponent may have also made plays there were poor or incorrect. The issue is that the response from the player base was so overwhelmingly negative on this particular play only that it gave most of us an incorrect view of not only Joel and the particular game or match in question but also the game of Magic as a whole.

In other words, most of us are not viewing Magic in a way that’s accurate or conducive to winning.

Magic is a competitive game, and the goal for a lot of us when we compete is validation. We want everyone else to know we’re as good as we think we are. And because most of us can’t play Magic all the time and we can’t be in the competitive spotlight all the time, we spend an extraordinary amount of time insisting that our views of a given game or choice are correct. We feel that by talking about what’s right or wrong in a Magic game, we’re projecting the authority of an expert, a paragon of Magic that for some reason or another everyone else just hasn’t heard of yet.

There were a lot of people talking about Joel’s missed trigger. There were not a lot of people talking about Joel’s decision not to mulligan a land-light hand that game. Obviously, in a deck with such a low curve you don’t need that many lands to have a board presence and not taking a mulligan there could have very readily been correct. This is in contrast to Joel’s obviously incorrect missed Eidolon trigger.

But consider earlier in the Top Eight when Joel drew some very specific outs to win a game in which his opponent opted to take a safer route rather than press for an immediate game win. Joel’s opponent, Stephen Neal, took what was probably the correct approach given the information he had at the time – but unfortunately, Joel just happened to have the top of his deck working hard for him. Stephen probably played very well, but the optics of the situation are that he’s a punting donkey that gave a Pro Tour quarterfinal away.


Optics are dangerous and buying into them can make you look foolish. Stop doing it. There are too many Magic players out there analyzing the optics of a play based on the outcome instead of concentrating on the math and the buildup to those scenarios. This is why people get so frustrated when they lose to a topdecked burn spell. Guess what? Their deck had sixteen of them and they’re in there for a reason.

The optics of the situation indicate your opponent was lucky. The reality of the situation is that your opponent had a really good chance of killing you. Because you’re so invested in your own outcome, you not only color the reality of the percentages but you also stop thinking about them altogether.

Based on that missed Eidolon trigger, the optics of the situation indicate that you should have a Pro Tour trophy instead of Joel Larsson. The reality of the situation is that Joel had a very busy weekend, didn’t know his opponent’s hand, and has probably had to think about a lot of intense Magic things over the last month — each of which was more important than making sure he convinces everyone else on social media he’s a great player because “he’d have never forgotten that trigger!”

I’ve written several articles over the years that tie real life to Magic. It’s one of the things that makes this game so phenomenal to me.

Optics are just another piece of that same idea.

Any idiot can point out that someone missed a trigger. Hell, Joel Larsson knew it and he’s the idiot that missed the trigger!

It takes a much smarter idiot to realize we’re all idiots when it comes to this game. Be ready to calculate why his decision to not mulligan was right or wrong. Be ready to explain to yourself why his sideboarding strategy was off by a card. Be ready to remember that playing against the best in the world for three days straight isn’t the same as hanging out at home and checking in on games in between doing your laundry.

If you want to get better, if you want to start your own trophy room, if you want validation, don’t just be loud. Don’t just get caught up in the optics of the game that everyone else sees. Learn the reality of the game that so few others do.

Be ready.