The Tantrum Potential: An Exacting Formula To Find How Likely It Is That Your Opponent Will Explode

I’ll wager that there are very few dust-ups over a game of chess; you have no excuses in chess. Magic, on the other hand, well… There’s no other game where you have to stroke your opponent just to keep him from blowing his top at the table. How many butts have you kissed to keep things civil when there are land-drops being missed? A thousand? More? I know I’ve puckered up and smooched a few landflooded behinds in my day.

Hi again. Let’s get on this mission like Indiana Jones. I’ve long been interested in the way that Magic players cope with victory and defeat – so let’s explore the issue a little. It’s a part of the game that is seldom perused with an open mind. Let me direct your attention to one of the most unlikely truths of the game – the fact that when gamers clash and the end is near, the spellslinging strategy is almost overshadowed by a bout of mood jockeying.

Oh, the games we play! Not with cardboard spells, you understand; No, those exploits are well documented. I’m talking about the games we play with each other when we’re eye to eye at the table, going for all the glory. The verbal games, the mental games. I don’t think one article could do the vocal gymnastics of Magic justice – but I won’t be talking about idle banter today, or even about trash talk. Instead, I’m going to write about the unwritten code of conduct that governs that most uncomfortable of gaming situations – an imbalance in luck at the worst possible time.

As a game and as a social experiment, Magic has a lot of corners around which to peer. Readers, you’ve been playing Magic for a while, so answer me these questions:

  • How are you supposed to act when you win and have no business winning?

  • How are you supposed to act when you lose and have no business losing?

Be honest, and think before you answer.

My answer?

“It depends.”

In a perfect world, every winner would accept the congratulations of the vanquished with humility and class, perhaps passing on wishes of”better luck” in subsequent contests. The defeated player, having given the best possible effort, will walk away from the table slightly disappointed, but not disheveled overmuch in either appearance or spirit.

Then someone would break out the folk guitar. We’d all sing”Kumbaya” and have s’mores.

Now, you and I both know that the world is many things… But”perfect” is not one of them. When planeswalkers get heated, the above scenario is a pipe dream that sits off to the side, while reality barrels on through in a wave of bad sportsmanship. Putting questions about color balance and the like aside for now, I believe this to be the greatest problem in the game today.

Magic is a mental sport, to be sure, but the rewards for perfect play often take time to show themselves. It isn’t so in chess, where luck is no factor – or even in poker, where you can”play tight” and get your money in only when you have the best of it. Magic is an animal all its own.

In Magic, you can lose games that are totally beyond your control right out of the gate.

This isn’t so in chess or poker. In chess, of course, both players start with the same resources, and the variables are few. It is a contest of pure skill. Grandmasters can go decades without losing a game. If a chess juggernaut like Gary Kasparov were to try playing Magic, he’d hang up his wand inside a week. Why? Because despite Kasparov’s knowledge of gaming systems, his keen mind for all possible lines of play, and his quick learning curve for games in general, he’d still get rolled by the second-turn Mongrel Squad every so often. What line of play do you have when you’re facing down the Smoke-A-Pound Hound, you don’t draw a Smother, and the enemy grip is Wild Mongrel #2, Basking Rootwalla, Circular Logic, Arrogant Wurm, and Wonder, going first?

To the chagrin of many, punching your opponent in the face doesn’t count as a line of play. Sorry, comrade. We call it a”bad beat.” I guess you don’t have those in chess, huh?

Long story short, Gary would start whining about god draws and his own underdraws, he’d go have a hot dog, drop at 1-2 after getting mana screwed against James Beaton and trash talked the whole way, and return to chess wondering what the hell he was thinking to get into this lunatic game in the first place.

Better to play on a checkered board, where all things are equal. Bobby Fischer never had to apologize to his opponent for starting the game with three queens, a king, and twelve rooks. Was Ruy Lopez known to get in an opposing ear about how he was going to”2-0 him”? I don’t think so.

“Yeah man, sorry…that was a pretty good draw. Mate in two moves.”

– The alternate universe Bobby Fischer

Three queens again? That Bobby is such a lucksack!

And what if a”World Series Of Poker” champion were to take up Magic? If your hole cards are the two of clubs and four of hearts, and the opposition is representing a pair of kings, you fold when you’re at the poker table. Just the ante is lost, and nothing more. A pittance, and you’ve got a hundred hands or more to make it up.

Try that in Magic and you’re in for a long, long day. You lose a lot more than the ante. You lose the game. And if you get a dog’s breakfast for your next hand as well? You’re out of the match.

Can you imagine that in poker? Survey the scene with me, if poker and Magic were intertwined:

The seasoned shark looks at his cards in a game of straight up Texas Hold’em. Three of clubs and seven of hearts. The right play is just to fold – it’s too expensive to see the flop at this table. Of course, there’s no folding in Magic, so he has to run ’em, and he does, and of course he gets wrecked. 0-1. His opponent WAS holding those Kings (double Compost or double Standstill or double Something-That-Wrecks-Him); he knew it all along. He just couldn’t do anything about it. As soon as the eyes of the enemy were alight with that unmistakable mischief and the words”I’ll keep” were headed his way, he knew it.

But so what? You can’t fold and get out of the way of the freight train, can you?

In poker, you can chase a risky action and get burned, but at least it is your choice to chase that action. In Magic, you take what you get dealt and sometimes you just get buried like an old bone in the backyard.

And that, dear reader, is the heart of the matter. People just can’t deal with losing when they perceive it to be beyond their control. I’ll wager that there are very few dust-ups over a game of chess; you have no excuses in chess, nor do you have any in poker when you take a bad beat. Magic, on the other hand, is a minefield of human interaction. There’s no other game where you have to stroke your opponent just to keep him from blowing his top at the table. How many butts have you kissed to keep things civil when there are land-drops being missed? A thousand? More?

I know I’ve puckered up and smooched a few landflooded behinds in my day.

There are unwritten Magic etiquette rules for this sort of thing, and they only exist because people can’t deal with losing when, in their mind, it just isn’t fair. I know this from experience, because I pull beauties like that all the time. I sigh, I shake my head, I put my cards down in disgust.

Let me feed you a couple of scenarios. How often have you experienced these?

Scenario 1:

You’re playing at FNM and you’re in the finals against someone who usually beats you. Your opponent stops laying land on turn 2. He shakes his head and says “unbelieveable” after missing his third turn land-drop.

Now, as soon as he misses that land drop, you’ve got some options, and they are all terrible.

Do you:

a) Prepare to smooch some serious rear with a statement like “Man, that’s brutal”, followed by “Sorry man, that wasn’t even a game” after you win?

b) Remain totally silent, pretty much killing the social aspect of the game?

c) Make a joke that he probably won’t find funny (e.g. “Landscrewed, huh? Yeah, I have skills!”)

d) Transcend the situation and run a victory lap

e) Try to discuss the game state, and strategy and so on, as you normally would

A quick note about option E: Never do this. If I’m landscrewed and getting pounded by something janky like a Cephalid Constable, I don’t want to hear “Yeah, I tested this guy a lot and figured he’d be good.” Remember, in a landscrew game, you are not allowed, by the rules of Magic etiquette, to act like it is a normal game. You’ll get nothing but contempt for such brevity.

Incidentally, if your opponent is one of the very few serious players who can handle losing an important game to mana screw, there is a sixth option:

f) Continue playing normally and have fun, not letting the whole thing dampen the fun of the game for either of you.

I have some bad news for you: There is no such thing as a serious player who can handle losing an important game to mana screw. The only exceptions happen when you’re already qualified, already guaranteed money, and so on… And those games aren’t really”important.” Likewise, games that you can handle losing are not”important.” Important games are the ones you really, really, really, really want to win.

Anyone who can walk gracefully away from a manascrew or unbeatable opposing draw in an important game is a better man than I, because this beleaguered scribe simply cannot do it. Before I leave the table in such a situation, I have to at least say something snarky, like “Gee, that was fun,” or “I can’t believe that bull***t,” or the ever popular “#$%&!”

Why? Well, because it’s not right. It’s not fair. All the basic children’s things. (Gee, you’re sure priming Wayne Alward’s pump – The Ferrett)

Scenario 2:

It’s an important match at a high K-value event. You have one Lightning Rift in your otherwise-average draft deck, but you do have ten cycling cards. Your opponent has a very good B/G deck that includes a Naturalize in the sideboard. You play your Lightning Rift on turn 2 both games and just win, and even when your opponent does board in the Naturalize, he doesn’t draw it. He also doesn’t draw his Silklash Spider or Visara the Dreadful in either game.

The decision making for this one starts as soon as you lay the Rift on turn 2 in the second game. Your opponent is going to lean back in his chair and say “Bull***t!” or something similar, and your reaction is going to set the tone for the rest of the match.

Do you:

a) Do nothing, remain silent, win, and then get subjected to innumerable variations of “How lucky!” as every passing turn sees you more and more in control of the game, with the opposing bombs and Naturalize nowhere in sight. This will be capped off with a nice round of swearing after the game ends with no sign of Visara and friends.

b) Pucker up! If you want to get through this one without incident, you’d better start apologizing for your draws, and quick! Do whatever you can to get the game back to normal Magic again, because the”tension” version isn’t much fun.

c) Lie. “Well, I do have two of them.” I have defused countless “how lucky” situations by doing exactly this – but it doesn’t work in Rochester draft. It sure makes the match more civil for a time, though.

d) Start talking smack.

e) Try to discuss the game state and strategy, and so on, as you normally would.

As usual, E will not work. The only players who use option E are those who don’t realize they are winning due to sheer luck. There is nothing more annoying to an opponent than some guy who thinks he is winning by virtue of skill when nothing could be further from the truth.

There are no good options, and by now you’ve probably grasped that point. There’s no good way to proceed when the screws approach, or when you draw a Birds of Paradise, Fires of Yavimaya, and four Flametongue Kavu against that Junk deck to knock it out of Regionals, or when the Mongrel goes on autopilot and leads you to the promised land, leaving a trail of Circular Logic’d Wrath of Gods in his wake.

Isn’t it a little sad? The things we have to do and say in order to justify things that are, for better or for worse, just plain luck? Fate? Destiny? Sometimes when I play Magic, I feel less like a strategist and more like a diplomat, a harried bureaucrat who has the unenviable task of keeping things civil while the beatings commence.

Maybe someday I’ll have the maturity to stop that feeling from coming over me when I miss that third-turn land drop (and you know the feeling, yes you do – it’s an “OH COME ON!” indignity that creeps through every pore), but until then, I’ll be sitting at table 31 like a lump, with my opponent cajoling to my fickle moods and vice-versa.

The hell of it is that occasionally we’ll both get a good draw and the match will be fun as fun can be. It happens pretty often, often enough to keep my head from exploding, but not nearly as often as it should. Not nearly as often as we all would like.

Now, without further ado…10 Rules Of Magic Etiquette. We shouldn’t have to follow these, but human nature is such that most of us tend to give it the ol’ college try, all unknowing.

1. If you have only one copy of a card in your deck, and dominate more than one consecutive game by drawing it (with no Tutors to speed it into your hand), you must apologize or acknowledge that you were lucky. Or both.

2. If your opponent has not drawn a satisfactory number of land, while you have, you must apologize. Repeatedly. Multiply this apology by an order of magnitude if this phenomenon repeats itself in consecutive games.

3. If you play a second-turn Sparksmith for more than one consecutive game, and it is not removed immediately the turn thereafter in at least one of those games, you must apologize for your luck.

4. If your opponent has to take a mulligan while a game down, two mulligans while 0-0 or a game down, or three mulligans at any time, you must apologize and feign regret about how you were “hoping to have a good game.”

5. If you are playing a three-color deck and have all three mana types out on turn 3 in more than one consecutive game, you must apologize.

6. If your opponent at the time is playing a two-color deck and getting color screwed, you must further apologize, at length. You might want to add in something like “I don’t know, I’m pretty lucky” in a bewildered voice.

7. If your opponent taps out for a bomb creature and you have your one Cruel Revival ready in more than one consecutive game, you must apologize. The higher the K-value, the more profuse the apology.

8. If your opponent got shipped garbage during the draft and you were passed pure gold, you are not allowed to say anything while you beat him. Exceptions should be made for opponents who only think they got shipped nothing, but actually mispicked about seven times.

9. As mentioned above, no”normal” conversation shall be permitted during a flood, screw, mulligan-fest, or luckburst. It is best to get it over with as soon as possible and with a minimum of fuss… And normal conversation is out of place when an opponent is fuming and about to raise up and bust a cap.

10. If both players sideboard four cards, and you draw four copies while your opponent draws none, you must apologize for your luck.

The amount of luck gives you your base value. Your catalysts, your multipliers, are money and pride. Season to taste with factors like general grumpiness and stress. Actually, there’s probably a formula here.

WinnerGoodLuck is like this:

0.5 = you are not particularly lucky or unlucky

1 = a bit of luck, outdrawing the opponent slightly, seeing good cards for the matchup

1.5 = a nice piece of luck, you have one Lightning Rift and draw it in your opening hand!

2 = How Lucky! You need a savage rip and peel it off the top like you own the place, plus your draw is solid otherwise

3 = You Lucksack! You draw almost everything you need, including sideboard cards that you only have one copy of.

4 = WTF? You couldn’t draw better if you went through your deck and set yourself any draw you wanted. You don’t mulligan, ramp right up to the amount of mana you need (all colors) and then draw a spell for every turn afterward.

LoserBadLuck is like this:

0.5 = your opponent is not particularly lucky or unlucky

1 = little bit of bad luck, your opponent misses his fifth-turn land drop for a while and is holding a Silklash Spider, or he or she mulligans once but keeps a fair second hand

1.5 = opponent is quite unlucky – he plays multiple copies of a crucial card, but doesn’t draw one the whole match!

2 = How Unlucky! Your opponent needs to draw one burn spell for four turns, and has twenty in his deck, but draws two goblins and two mountains!

3 = Who Does That? Opponent sideboards in nine cards and doesn’t see one of them, or takes a double-mulligan, or gets landscrewed or color screwed.

5 = As If! Opponent double mulligans in both games, and then gets manascrewed in both games.

Money is like this:

1 = no prize at stake

1.5 = FNM

2 = Swiss of PTQ

3 = Top 8 of PTQ

3.5 = finals of a Nationals grinder, PTQ or other major event

Pride is like this:

0.5 = you are far better than your opponent and you both know it

1 = you and opponent are equally skilled

1.5 = opponent is far better than you, and you both know it

2 = you are far better than opponent, but he doesn’t know it

3 = opponent is far better than you, and you don’t know it

Agitation is this:

0.25 = Opponent is already on the train, has split with someone who is winning, or otherwise doesn’t care

0.5 = Opponent is a friend

0.9 = You apologize for your good luck and for the opposing bad luck at least three times, and are fairly persuasive.

1 = You say nothing and let nature take its course.

1.5 = You try to apologize but are so insincere that your opponent knows you are full of it.

2.5 = You ignore the fact that the game is a farce and try to tell your opponent about how you “knew this was a good matchup”

4 = You talk trash despite the fact that your opponent hasn’t drawn a land since the Triassic Era.

{WinnerGoodLuck(Money) + LoserBadLuck(Pride)} x Agitation = Tantrum Potential

Always apply this formula from the point of view of the winner.

For example, say you happen to beat an opponent with second-turn Lightning Rift two games in a row, in the Top 8 of a PTQ. You’re a better player but he doesn’t think so, and despite the fact that he has Naturalize and Nantuko Vigilante after boarding, he never draws one. You remain silent throughout much of the match, only announcing your spells as necessary, no small talk. The match is about as fun as having toenails pulled, but you get through it.

Tantrum Potential is: {1.5(3) + 1.5(2)} x 1

That comes out to a 7.5 on the infamous TANTRUM SCALE. This rating manifests itself in numerous grumpy laments, a death-ray stare, and a halfhearted, empty-eyed handshake.

The problems that gave rise to the rules and formulae above are unfixable – Magic will always be a game of skill and luck. When human nature changes, though – when everyone is secure enough to realize that they don’t have to complain, to realize that the opponent knows he or she is winning by luck and doesn’t plan to claim otherwise – then maybe we can retire this age-worn code of mulligan conduct and get back to just playing.

Will we ever be able to say what we really mean? Will we ever be able to say “Yeah, you’re getting screwed, but in the end it all evens out – you’re going to play someone next week and he is going to get screwed. All things being equal, it comes down to skill”? I don’t know. No one stuck on two land would find much solace in such a declaration.

For my part, I’ll try to bitch less when I’m getting the shaft, but it’s a long road ahead. Land is fickle, you understand. Yes, land is fickle, Cruel Revivals sometimes come in bunches, and old habits die hard.

Geordie Tait

[email protected]

P.S.: I challenge you to apply this tantrum formula to a situation from your own playing experience. I think you’ll find it to be quite accurate, and it might be fun to try once or twice.