The Zombie Cutthroat Tell

Magic Online behaves in a fundamentally different way when you have a morphed Cutthroat on the table (or Putrid Raptor, or Skirk Volcanist, or Proteus Machine). Even clicking”OK” as fast as possible, a tapped-out Cutthroat player doesn’t come close to the 0.1 seconds that MODO typically takes when you are tapped out; people know this and can play accordingly. In fact, I have. And so have other players. But there is a way around it…

Hi, folks. I took the train back from Montreal and boy, are my arms tired – mostly from carrying a duffel bag filled with rancid clothing, deck boxes, binders, toiletries, and scorepads with match results on them. Perhaps someday down the road, God willing, I’ll actually try to piece a tournament report together out of the shambles (and it’ll be a good one, too – the world deserves to know the full story of how Jeff Fung wagered on a game of Sorry!, then pulled out the bet by ripping a ten off the top of the deck to bring OMC’s last man home, simultaneously breaking the spirits of Mike Bower and bringing down the house) but for now, I figured I’d talk about a new issue that’s cropped up with Magic: Online.

Ever play poker? A fine game – probably more skill-based than Magic, though the skill involved is more mathematical and intuitive, with much less room for creativity. Poker only has fifty-two cards, but they all interact in a wonderful way, producing rough beats and good times and all the territory in between. One of the things that poker has in common with Magic is that you can glean a lot of useful information from watching your opponent. This is a lot more useful in face-to-face play than it is online (where various avatars battle it out in poker rooms across the net) but there is still a place for”reading” even in the virtual game.

Some poker players have”tells,” allowing you to extrapolate the contents of a hand just by watching how they act. In online poker rooms, some reads are done by watching how a player interacts with the interface. For example, if a player at your Texas Hold’em table is betting, was it a lightning-quick (near instantaneous) raise, or a somewhat hesitant bet? In other words, did he or she have the”raise in turn” button checked, or was the bet manual? These are little things that might affect they way you play a hand.

Until recently, Magic: Online has never really had these sorts of mechanical concerns. Now though, with the release of Scourge, there are some big tells out there – and they’re ones that don’t exist at all in the real world!

I’ll admit I’m a little worried about this, because I personally think that it’s very important for Magic: Online to mirror the flesh and blood game. Close adherence to the general shape and size of”real life” Magic means that this wonderful program will be a more valuable testing tool and a better companion to the”real life” game. I think that’s a reasonable way to keep Magic: Online growing – a digital sidecar to the motorcycle main course. So what happens if the online game starts to differ too drastically from the accepted pure form of magery? Well, I don’t want to alarm anyone, but it means that for the purposes of the playtester, there may be a boogeyman – or even boogeymen – in the house.

Okay; let me break it down for you, like MC Hammer used to do before he became a preacher and then disappeared into obscurity. If you’ve ever played MODO, you know that when you are tapped out and you have no possible way to use instant-speed effects, the game goes through every phase without passing priority to you. MODO says,”Well, he couldn’t possibly do anything anyway, so let’s not even ask him.” You sit there while the game merrily passes priority for you, twiddling your thumbs, until such time as you untap and regain the potential to produce mana or at least generate some sort of effect.

Here is an example, just so you understand exactly what I’m talking about. Let’s take four hypothetical MODO players in a rousing Limited match against, oh, say… Geordie Tait. They’re doubtless up a game already.

Player One

IN PLAY – Four forests, three mountains (all untapped), Wirewood Guardian.

IN HAND – Mountain.

Geordie Tait has a Hundroog in play and goes to his attack phase. (Hundroog attach! – The Ferrett) Even though there is no possible effect that Player One could generate (though it is theoretically possible, I suppose, that he might want to manaburn), he still gets to do whatever he likes before passing priority back to Geordie, essentially saying”OK” to the attack. Player One can tap and untap mana to try and bluff a trick, or simply wait for 45 seconds before passing back to show either a deep lapse into thought, or a weak bladder. Sure, the fact is that there is a Mountain in his hand and nothing he can do to change the game state even one pixel, but nonetheless the game allows him a range of options, and it also offers him time.

Player Two

IN PLAY – Four swamps, three forests (all untapped), Nantuko Husk, Symbiotic Elf, Wirewood Symbiote, Timberwatch Elf.

IN HAND – No cards.

Facing down the same Hundroog with no mana available, Player 2 likewise is given a chance at every phase to use his many available effects. Sure, sacrificing the Symbiotic Elf during his own declare attackers step might not make much sense strategically for Player 2, but the game has to provide that option – it wouldn’t be Magic without the opportunity to blow it. As each phase goes by, the game dutifully makes sure to offer Player 2 his fair chance to use his Nantuko Husk or Wirewood Symbiote. Both are instant-speed effects that cost no mana, so it makes sense, even with him having no cards in hand and no mana untapped.

Player Three

IN PLAY – Four swamps, three forests (all tapped), Twisted Abomination, face-down Haunted Cadaver

IN HAND – No cards.

In contrast to the first two shmoes, Player 3 doesn’t get a chance to do anything – he’s like a punching bag until he has his mana untapped. When his honorable opponent Geordie Tait passes priority, the game zips onward to the next phase and once again gives Geordie priority, a process that takes less than a second. There is no discernable pause. It’s all done at warp speed. Like, we’re talking fast – if both guys are tapped out at the end of Geordie’s main phase, it ends up at Player Three’s upkeep like 0.01 seconds later.

Got that? Good.

Okay, here is the important one:

Player Four

IN PLAY – Four swamps, three forests (all tapped), Twisted Abomination, face-down Zombie Cutthroat

IN HAND – No cards.

Raise your hand if you see the problem here. From Geordie’s point of view, the board is exactly the same – one enemy Twisted Abomination, one enemy face-down creature. However, the game behaves differently. All of a sudden, Magic: Online has decided that Player 4 is worthy of”thinking time” that Player 3 was not! Each time Geordie passes priority, the game pauses and waits for Player 4 to hit”OK” to pass priority back.

Why does it do this? Because Player 4 has the option to use an effect, that’s why. The Twisted Abomination’s regeneration ability costs black mana to use, so it can’t be the culprit. Geordie’s conclusion? The morph creature must be Zombie Cutthroat (or Proteus Machine, but Proteus Machine is far less playable).

The bottom line is that MODO behaves in a fundamentally different way when you have a morphed Cutthroat on the table (or Putrid Raptor, or Skirk Volcanist, or Proteus Machine). Even clicking”OK” as fast as possible, Player 4 doesn’t come close to the 0.1 seconds that MODO typically takes when you are tapped out, and Geordie knows this and can play accordingly. In fact, I have. So have other players.

Just tonight, I was playing Jay Elarar in the first round of a draft, and his third-turn morph was obviously Zombie Cutthroat just because of the time MODO was taking with him tapped out. I’d gone first and I had a face-down Battering Craghorn, and I was just about to attack (probably not the best of plays with the advent of the Cutthroat anyhow, but bear with me) but when the game made a 1.5 second pause in between the end of my first main phase and the beginning of the declare attackers step, I knew it had spent that time asking Jay if it was”OK” to proceed, and as a result I kept my Craghorn home and avoided tempo disaster.

I asked Gary Wise about this very thing at Canadian Nationals, and he said to me that the pause might not be so unnatural as to differentiate it from basic lag, but it’s painfully obvious to me after only one draft that it’s nothing like lag and that Zombie Cutthroat is just hopeless for surprise value online if you ever happen to tap out to play it (which will pretty much always be the case on turn 3).

If you’re astute, there’s all sorts of illicit information you can get about opposing morphs. If a player has one opposing morph and the game starts pausing when he’s tapped as soon as he lays his second mountain, the morph is, 100% for sure, a Skirk Volcanist (he now has the option to pay the morph cost). If an opponent is tapped out and there are no pauses, but he has a morph and a Twisted Abomination and you return the Twisted Abomination to his hand with Echo Tracer and then the game starts pausing every phase, you know that the morph is Putrid Raptor – the game now has to pause in order to give your opponent the chance to toss his Abomination to the Raptor’s morph cost.

And, of course, if the game has been pausing for a good long while and suddenly stops doing when you drop your opponent to four life or lower, then his morph is definitely Zombie Cutthroat and not the Raptor, Proteus Machine, or Skirk Volcanist. He can’t pay the life, ergo the game need no longer ask him”OK?” at the end of ever phase. The funniest one is probably when the game starts pausing inexplicably when a blue player taps out to put a Bird on the table. Raven Guild Initiate, anyone?

The most unfortunate part about all of this stuff is that these tells don’t happen in”real” Magic (and don’t get up in arms with me – I certainly believe that MODO is just as legitimate as the original incarnation of the game), so we find ourselves in a situation where certain cards are less valuable online than they are in reality. Zombie Cutthroat is nuts in reality, but if your opponent can play around it with 100% accuracy online, why draft it as highly? More importantly, if cards are going to devalue online because of tech issues, then how can you get a practice draft in without asking yourself if it really did you any good?

“Duhhh…. I lose to Cutthroat a lot more at these PTQs than I do online!”

Beating Jay Elarar because I knew his morph was a Cutthroat and was able to play as such the whole game (including hitting it with a four-point Torrent of Fire when he was playing green and had like seven mana untapped, something I wouldn’t have tried if the possibility had been there that it could be anything else) didn’t exactly fill me with any sense of accomplishment. I then went into the second round and got wrecked twice by Frontline Strategist, a morph that still actually, you know, works correctly. It would have been refreshing had I not been swearing and hoping that my opponent be afflicted with painful rectal polyps.

IMPORTANT BULLETIN! (Stopping the”Cuts” tell)

As it stands, the Cutthroat will never gain anyone even an inkling of tempo or card advantage against a good player – but there is a way to fix this. According to some members of the J’s (the best MODO clan out there – hi guys!), changing your settings so that the”You can only announce a spell or ability when you have the mana to pay for it” is unchecked makes MODO behave like every morph is Zombie Cutthroat – stopping at every phase even when you are tapped out. I haven’t tested this myself, but I believe it works.

See you guys next week. Keep it tight.

Geordie Tait

[email protected]