The Real Problem

Some time ago, Ben Bleiweiss started a bit of a ruckus over the “decline of American Magic.” He wrote that “The single most problematic element hurting American Magic…is a highly destructive communitywide attitude.” I propose the following: The single most problematic element hurting American Magic is our inability to argue with one another.

Some time ago, Ben Bleiweiss started a bit of a ruckus over the “decline of American Magic.” He wrote that “The single most problematic element hurting American Magic…is a highly destructive communitywide attitude.”

I propose the following:

The single most problematic element hurting American Magic is our inability to argue with one another.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I do not mean to say that American Magicians are incapable of disagreement, just that the argumentation that follows – you know, the part where disagreement becomes progress – has been lacking of late.

Let’s look back at the last Extended PTQ season’s metagame for a second. We started off with the usual decks – those that were played in the top eight of the Pro Tour at the beginning of the season, plus the Rock, because some number of people will always play the Rock.

As of Feburary 5, 2005, well into the PTQ season, Aluren was considered little more than a kiddie deck. If I walked up to you and told you I was taking Aluren to a PTQ on that day, your response might have been anywhere from “yeah, good luck with that,” to “mise well just bring Slivers, amiright?”

The next day, a Japanese man by the name of Masashi Oiso waltzed in and out of an American GP with $2,400, on the back of his Cavern Harpies, Raven Familiars, and Alurens.

On February 6, 2005, Aluren was a very real contender for the title of “best deck in the format.”

So what happened between 2/5/05 and 2/6/05? If Aluren was bad on 2/5/05 and insane on 2/6/05, something must have happened in the interim to convince us it was good. Someone must have written an article or something, explaining to us that we were looking at it all wrong. That if you played card X instead of card Y, all of the deck’s supposedly bad matchups turned around and became favorable. That if you stacked things right, you could go off around hoser Z, and that if you played N practice games against your worst matchups, they would all improve by P percent.

None of that happened, of course, but still it was all but unanimously decided on 2/6/05 that the deck was good again. Did we all suddenly get a whole lot smarter? Did something just go “click” in the back of our heads that made us see the error of our thinking on 2/5/05?

Nope. It had to do well at a major tournament before we’d respect it.

On March 5, 2005, Macey Rock was little more than a kiddie deck. If I walked up to you and told you I was taking Macey Rock to a PTQ on that day, your response might have been anywhere from “yeah, good luck with that,” to “mise well just bring Slivers, amiright?”

On March 6, it became a part of the metagame when Grant Stuck made Top 8 at a Grand Prix with it. What happened on 3/6/05? Did we all suddenly get a whole lot smarter? Did something just go “click?”

Nope. It had to do well at a major tournament before we’d respect it.

Folks, this is no way to live.

We’re caught in a vicious cycle – we play our decks, secure in our understanding of what the current “best decks” are and confident that we have the tools to beat them…then when a major tournament happens and it turns out we were wrong about non-contenders X, Y, and Z, we just shrug and say “I guess now it’s good.”

How did Masashi Oiso know to play Aluren on 2/5/05? Did he peer into his crystal ball and go “Ooh! That smudge reminds me of the art on Cavern Harpy! I think I’ll fly across the ocean and play Aluren in an American GP with it!”

Yeah right.

I’ll tell you what he did. Masashi got it into his head that Aluren might be an off-the-radar enough deck to be a good choice for the GP, so he sat down at a table with some of his friends and asked them what they thought of the idea.

Then, instead of doing what Americans tend to do in such situations (in which we explain to whoever proposed the idea that he is completely off his rocker, and inform him that if he doesn’t shut up about his damn pet deck in thirty seconds we’re going to kick him off the playtest team), they sat down and argued about it.

Someone told Masashi he was wrong, that Aluren would be a terrible choice, and tossed out an argument to prove his point. Perhaps something along the lines of “It doesn’t goldfish fast enough to beat other combo decks.”

Again, I’ve seen many American conversations start off like this and very nearly go in the right direction. Unfortunately, more often than not, they instead end up with something more like the following:

“It does so goldfish fast enough!”

“No it freaking doesn’t!”

“Does so!”

“Does not!”

“You’re total stains, barn.”

“Shut up. You’re the nut low.”

Meanwhile, someone back at Masashi Oiso table responded, “Are you sure it doesn’t goldfish fast enough? Why don’t we go goldfish it and find out?” Then they proceeded to proxy it up and goldfish it.

Turned out it did goldfish fast enough. Good thing to know, huh?

Then they sat back down at the table, whereupon someone else said, “It can’t beat Red Deck Wins. Its mana base is too fragile.” To which the Masashi might have responded, “Maybe so, but if it beats everything else couldn’t we find a way to deal with that matchup?”

The end of this discussion found Oiso hoisting a trophy for magicthegathering.com’s photographers, while us Americans got busy grumbling and marking up proxies for Havenwood Battleground.

It’s not that we’ve lost our touch. It’s not that we’re a bunch of jerks to each other. It’s that we just have no idea how to turn a disagreement into a productive argument.

I may not be a gravy trainer, but I know something is amiss when Americans figure out some tech and Europeans are the first ones to use it at a tournament. You know how long it took for someone to figure out Aether Vial was good?

Like five seconds. Zvi Mowshowitz trumpeted this card as early as his freaking set review for Darksteel, and wrote an article advocating Vial Affinity more than three months before Frank Karsten made Top 8 at a GP with the deck.

Did anyone listen? Nope. Did anyone argue? Nope. Everyone just wrote it off as “I’ll believe it when I see it,” then closed their eyes until the Top 8 results pried them open at GP: Zurich. The idea was there all along-someone had proposed it, opened it up for discussion, and even offered us a preliminary decklist to start working on. But we ignored it.

Now don’t get me wrong-I am not advocating the blind acceptance of every off-the-wall deck that comes along. That would be even worse than dismissing new possibilities. I’m saying we should take the five seconds it takes to give a reason when we’re telling someone they’re wrong. Don’t say “No, you’re an idiot,” or “No, that’s just bad” – say “No, here’s why that’s bad.”

Let me tell you a story. Over the course of the pre-banning Standard season, I played a lot of Standard on Magic Online. In my early playtesting sessions, I came to the conclusion that Tooth and Nail ran more smoothly with Birds of Paradise and four Divining Tops.

By the time I was ready to start hitting the 8-man queues, I had ended up cutting every single copy of Oblivion Stone, Mindslaver, Mephidross Vampire, Triskelion, Leonin Abunas (though I did play two Platinum Angel), and Duplicant from the deck. Oh, and I also maindecked four Plow Unders.

So how do you think that worked out for me? If you think the deck did poorly, stop for a second and think about why. What does the deck lose when Oblivion Stone and Mindslaver are removed? What matchups are harder without Mephidross-Triskelion and Duplicant? How much worse are two Platinum Angels than Abunas-Angel?

Be mature about it. A lot of readers would see this list of changes and say, “You’re just a damn fool. You cut like half the staple cards in the archetype – why should I bother explaining to you how you screwed up? Just go look at a netdeck and figure it out for yourself.” Don’t do that – trust me, you’ll learn something just from going through the process of explaining things to someone else, as I hope to demonstrate in a minute.

So seriously, stop and think about it for a second. (I know that realistically most people will keep reading – hell, I would – but for those of you who actually go back and read over that list of things I changed, and then think about why those changes helped or hurt the deck, bless you.)

Okay, so here’s the thing. Say you concluded my deck sucks. What if I sat down with you and argued for hours upon hours about how my changes were correct? What if I said “Oblivion Stone sucks,” and gave you a reason? Would you take the time to argue with me? If you countered my argument and I came back at you from a different angle, would you keep going back and forth with me? What if my arguments held water, and I could (at least on theoretical grounds) show that there were several compelling reasons to make these changes? Would you listen?

See, if I had told them the whole truth – that the deck I just described earned me more than three hundred tickets in prizes in the span of two months, primarily because of the modifications I made to the standard build – most readers would have been ten times as interested in hearing how the list I came up with differed from the average Tooth and Nail build.

“I guess now it’s good.”

Imagine how much different this section would have been if I had started off by saying I was successful with the deck. Take this opening paragraph for example:

“I learned a lot of things about Tooth and Nail in the pre-banning Standard season by playing the deck on MTGO. I ended up making over three hundred tickets in pure profit, solely by running the deck in eight-mans and by top eighting and winning various premier events. I learned that if you played Birds of Paradise and Sensei’s Divining Top, you powered out Tooths so fast and so consistently that you didn’t even need Oblivion Stone or Mindslaver. I tried the deck without them, and found that I now had room for maindeck bullets like Plow Under for the mirror, and didn’t need to bother running answers like Duplicant or Mephidross-Triskelion because I was killing so fast with Kiki-Colossus or powering out the 2x Platinum Angel lock against Affinity that a need for answers never even came up.”

Sounds a lot better when I start off by telling you it actually wins things, doesn’t it?

Problem is, there’s no way to tell whether or not a deck wins tournaments before those tournaments happen. That’s why you need arguing – to be able to tell what to bring to the tournament on the day of the event itself.

Keeping with the Tooth and Nail story for a second longer, I remember around the fourth or fifth Premier Event I attended, I was testing out an especially radical idea: playing two Chrome Moxen in the sideboard. See, it had come to my attention that in the matchups against other Green decks, there was almost a one-to-one correlation between the player that cast Plow Under first and the player that won the game, so I tried taking the drastic measure of boarding in the Moxen to make sure I cast mine on turn four even when I didn’t have a Birds or an Elder in the opening grip.

After watching one of my replays, someone in the chat room started the following conversation:

SomeDude: lol look at what this one guy is playing

SomeDude: tooth and nail with chrome mox haha

Me: yeah, that’d be me

Me: it’s experimental tech – it’s stupidly important to cast plow under first against green decks, so i thought they’d probably be worth the sideboard space

SomeDude: LOL and birds of paradise too

Me: what’s wrong with birds?

Me: they don’t interfere with your 2-spot, still let you play reap and sow on turn three and tooth on turn four, and they give you extra mana for divining top on turns 2-4

SomeDude: you’re the best, guy.

SomeDude: how is your constructed rating 1850 with that jank :/

I then proceeded to spend the remaining half an hour until the round started loudly advocating the merits of the Birds and explaining why I was trying Chrome Mox out, but all the guy was interested in was telling me how awful I was and demanding my DCI number so he could check my real-life ratings. Most of the other members of the chat room chuckled along with him, and some tossed in some jabs of their own.

Time passed, Premier events came and went, and I kept posting Top 8s with my Birds of Paradise build. Then I started noticing something – slowly but surely, other people were trying out my tech. Pretty soon I started to see the one-mana flyers popping up in quite a few other Tooth and Nail lists, and shortly thereafter I found myself writing an article (“Tuning up Tooth and Nail“) for this here website detailing my changes.

Today on MTGO about every other Tooth and Nail player I run into plays Birds of Paradise. True story.

Now I realize I probably came across as more than a bit of a braggart telling that story the way I did (and I apologize for that) – but there’s a very important moral to be had here.

Go back to the part where I was talking with SomeDude about the Birds and the Moxen. Look at the type of things that were said in that conversation. Nothing of any value ended up coming out of that exchange. Nothing at all. He called me an idiot, I tried to explain my logic, and we went back and forth beating our heads together getting nowhere at all.

But what if we had argued? What if he had said “Birds are bad because they die to E-Bolt and Magma Jet” and given me an opportunity to counter with “Against Red decks’ land destruction you won’t be Toothing until turn 7 or 8 anyway, by which time you will have found a second Green source through your draw steps. In that case the loss of acceleration only matters if you somehow manage to play an Urza-land every single turn from turn two onward.”

SomeDude also could have pointed out, “The number of times Chrome Mox will turn a game around against Green decks is too small justify a sideboard slot.” And he would have been absolutely right – I eventually cut them myself for this very reason. But I had to figure that one out the hard way, on my own. Maybe if we had spent that half-hour arguing about it instead of just shouting at one another, I might have come around to see his side of things and could have gotten rid of the Moxen much earlier. Or maybe he might have come around to my point of view on the Birds, and decided that maybe they were a good fit for the deck after all. In either case, everyone in the chat room would have benefited from the discussion, even if all we ended up doing was slinging around counterarguments for half an hour without changing each others’ minds.

So the next time you see a Ponza list with three Kumano and three Arc-Slogger, don’t just say “That should be four Sloggers, two Kumanos, n00b.” Ask him why he’s playing three and three. Explain why Slogger is more powerful, and see what he has to say. Maybe he knows this already – maybe he actually has a damn good reason behind his configuration. Who knows? Maybe in a month you’ll find yourself making use of his tech. In any case, you’ll both get more out of the discussion than you would have if you had just told him to “fix” his list without stopping to explain why.

Because until we start doing this, we’re always going to be one step behind the Masashi Oiso of the world.

Until next time, take ‘er easy, Dude.

Richard Feldman

Team Check Minus

[email protected]