If you throw your Two Cents out there 6.25 times, do you come up with Two Bits?*
This is me pretending to be Star City’s sometimes resident curmudgeon, Jonathan Becker (hint, hint). There have been some features, both interesting and just controversial, that have been thought-provoking for me; this article includes my reactions to a bunch of the stuff that has been posted either on the front page or the forums of this site over the past couple of weeks. If it wanders around or seems a little different from the work that you’ve come to know and love (or ignore) from yours truly, blame Jon Becker. Hate mail goes to t0ng0 n@ti0n @t h0tm@il d0t c0m.
1.) I also see dumb people, but I get help from smart people
First up we have name-dropping know-it-all professor, Ted”mixedkNuts” Knutson. Part of my coming onto Star City as a feature writer actually entailed working on Ted’s Magic University, for which, as you likely know, I have not done any work. Ted means well. Really well. He has an enthusiasm for cataloguing Magic theory that I greatly applaud. He has a terrible definition of virtual card advantage.
Ted’s definition of virtual card advantage:
“Card advantage combined with the added benefits from the act of making your opponent’s cards, whether in play, in their hand, or in their library, ‘dead.'”
I disagree greatly with this definition, and would pose an alternate one. Everyone seems to have a different definition of card advantage in general, but they also seem to agree when it is occurring, at least in simple principle. For the purpose of my definition of virtual card advantage, I am borrowing Eric Taylor’s definition of card advantage, which helped win him Dojo Writer of the Year in 1998:
edt on card advantage:
“Card advantage is any process by which a player obtains effectively more cards than his opponent, for instance by Ancestral Recalling, netting 3 cards for 1, or by playing Ensnaring Bridge so that 1 single card nullifies several creatures.”
That being said, here is my distinction on virtual card advantage:
Virtual card advantage differs from”traditional” card advantage in three ways:
a. Traditional card advantage generally implies a change in zone (hand to graveyard, in play to graveyard, library to hand, etc.)
b. Virtual card advantage is more contingent on player behavior but has the same net result.
c. The termination of traditional and virtual card advantage hinges on a different condition. With regular card advantage you can counter a Hymn to Tourach two-for-one by drawing a Fact or Fiction; with virtual card advantage you can end a Vodalian Serpent playing Moat by deciding to attack into it (whereby the Serpent eating one of your paps translates into regular card advantage).
Just to make sure, I decided to take my definition the source, the man who coined”virtual card advantage” at the end of the last millennium.
“[Your distinction] [s]eems fine to me. You know I don’t care a hell of a lot about definitions, because it is the idiots that spend 10 pages of a report defining virtual card advantage, while the true master will define the game state and then say ‘Oh by the way that’s virtual card advantage, not regular card advantage.’ You gotta keep your eye on the prize, and the prize is: getting better.”
If there is a true master of Magic writing, it is edt. Keep his email response in mind. We’ll probably touch on it again.
2.) Oscar Tan on Card Advantage and the Graveyard
Please forgive me, because this one is a little old. I have been too busy writing about Green creatures, making the wrong play, and Green creatures to address this topic.
“Additional Rule 5: Cards in the library, graveyard and removed from game zone do not affect CA until:
“they cause a card to enter or leave your hand
“they cause a permanent to enter or leave play on your side of the board
“they cause a card or permanent to become ‘dead’
“they make a”dead” card or permanent useful again”
I think Oscar’s counting system is a little arbitrary and too long, but this rule is just wrong. Like it’s absolutely wrong and will make you play badly if you follow it. Here are some examples as to why:
ffej does nothing:
Draco is -1 due to a card in the graveyard. Please note that the card in graveyard did not cause a card to enter or leave any player’s hand, cause a permanent to enter or leave play, cause a card or permanent to become dead, or make a dead card or permanent useful again.
But wait! Can we not say that it was the Intuition that generated card advantage in some Dismiss-like fashion? Not really, because the Intuition did not have any direct interaction with the Earthquake (imagine it went for triple Accumulated Knowledge instead), but just to clarify, consider a very slightly different board position:
Seth has five mana open and taps out for Earthquake.
Zvi still knows that this could be a bad beat and makes the only play available to him: tapping his Merfolk Looter.”How lucky,” exclaims Zvi, as one of his Wonders his the grumper (where it belongs, I might add).
The only difference in the above two scenarios is that Wonder, rather than Island, is the card discarded. Clearly the card advantage that shifts Seth’s play from a +2 to a -1 is the operation of Wonder in the graveyard. Again, Wonder did not fulfill any of Oscar’s conditions, nor can we really say it made Earthquake”dead.” Earthquake did its job, it just happened to not kill any creatures. For all we know, Zvi and was on five life and Seth is still gripping a Mogg Fanatic… but that is not part of the calculation at hand.
That being said, it seems to me Oscar wrote his card advantage rules in reaction to Geordie Tait recent card advantage series. I happen to disagree with a lot of what Geordie wrote, but still think he’s an all right guy and one of the most talented writers in the Star City stable. I understand that his theory of Effective Card Advantage tries to quantify qualitative differences in card exchanges, but I would go about describing”effective” card advantage differently:
Either of the plays where ffej or Zvi is able to dump a Wonder in the graveyard seems like a -1 that cost Draco or Seth their Earthquakes with only damage in return, but what they”effectively” do is generate +4 cards, because failing these plays, ffej or Zvi would lose three creatures. The effective count is four, not three, because Wonder trades for Earthquake at +1 and”saves” the in-mortal-peril Merfolk Looter, Arrogant Wurm, and Aquamoeba at +3 without the use of an actual card. Had the example been Wild Mongrel rather than Merfolk Looter and one card in hand (Wonder) rather than none, the pure trade would have been zero (Wonder for Earthquake), and the net effective trade would have been +3 rather than +4.
Jon has a Caltrops in play that has been holding off the above beaters, three mana open, and one card in hand.
Jon resolves the effect of Caltrops. Prior to damage being put on the stack, he also plays Mental Note. Jon is a lucksack and turns over Krosan Reclamation. He then plays Krosan Reclamation from the graveyard, shuffling two irrelevant lands from Brian’s graveyard. Jon’s Krosan Reclamation has no interaction with any active card, and there is no spell or ability on the stack other than Krosan Reclamation.
Upon resolution of Krosan Reclamation, Brian loses Threshold, and then both his creatures.
Brian: -1 Mental Note
Brian: +1 Mental Note
Jon: 0 Caltrops
Brian: 0 Nimble Mongoose
Brian: 0 Werebear
Jon: -1 Mental Note
Jon: +1 Mental Note
Jon: 0 Krosan Reclamation
Brian: -2 Nimble Mongoose, Werebear
Jon: +2 net
These are just the simple examples. There are much more complicated ones that involve virtual card advantage but probably no one wants to go through those.
It’s possible that I’m now edt’s idiot spending ten pages on a horse that’s already been beaten to death, so I’ll move on.
3.) The Right Play… Does it Exist?
I said when I wrote the article the first time around that the existence of a single right play and some large number of wrong plays was going to be a hard fact to swallow for some players, especially those who have”a hard time with patriarchal explanations of the universe.”
User Sonderblade wrote a fairly long forum response saying why he thinks that there is no optimal play, instead saying that I was representing such as”a move that most closely conforms to the rules of what we have been taught is an optimal move.” As an example, he said that it might be right to tap a Coastal Tower in the presence of open Plains and Islands because the opponent might then play”a spell something like ‘deal one damage to target player for each untapped non-basic land he or she controls.'”
The problem with this is a misunderstanding of what makes good play. I read an analysis some years ago that said that the best players play properly because they narrow the field of possibility to smaller numbers than mediocre players and thus have a smaller likelihood of making a mistake (if Bob automatically narrows his options to play A and B, he cannot make error C or D that Matt can make). Think about Sonderblade’s universe where we cannot predict the right play because we consider the possibility that our opponents might play cards that don’t exist. It would definitely be impossible for us to develop interactive plans because we would have literally no idea what was coming… we could not even make educated guesses.
We don’t live in that universe, though. As active readers of strategy sites, we are armed with information. We have a better understanding of what cards are good and what cards will be in our opponents’ decks. Look back to one of my old articles, The Ten Greatest Battles of All Time. In the commentary to the number one battle, I talk about how Steve OMS made a difficult play for me to see, despite my superior familiarity with the deck. What was Jon Finkel response?
“… if you keep testing with me and Steve, that will be the only play you see!”
That’s right. The best players narrow their field of vision. They don’t even consider the possibility that their opponents will waste deck space on cards that don’t actually exist. If you want to get better, the first step is to try to think like Jon Finkel. Realize that there is only one play and that you have to find it and try to make it. Stop being preoccupied with things that don’t matter.
Tony Tsai once told me that he was bad at Cabal Therapy because he always missed.”When I play Cabal Therapy,” said the Shark,”I always try to name the card that will wreck me. Last round I named Smother. This idiot had Boomerang. So he wrecked me with Boomerang. Obviously I beat him anyway. Who plays Boomerang in Psychatog?”
I once had every opportunity to make the right play and didn’t. It was the same tournament where Steve OMS made the best play and Jon Finkel won the National Championship. We all played the same deck. I was riding an undefeated record in Constructed of 2-0/4-0, and had a Feature Match with Donnie Gallitz. Donnie was playing a modified version of my deck.
Late in game one, I had a Phyrexian Negator and Donnie had a board full of nothing and no cards in hand. It seems to me that all the modifications Donnie made had made the deck worse. He had Masticores that I Eradicated and nowhere near as good of a sideboard. Anyway, I’m smashing him with Negator and I will kill him in the next two turns. I draw Skittering Horror. If only I had drawn a land, a Duress, or anything completely irrelevant! Why did I not rip Perish? I play the Horror and hit Donnie to two life, but am in a situation where I can only keep two permanents. Almost certainly they should be Phyrexian Negator and Skittering Horror. At least they should be Phyrexian Negator and Swamp. I keep Skittering Horror and Rishadan Port. Why? I was afraid no hand Gallitz would top-deck a Vicious Hunger and Jokulhaups me. As Seth Burn put it, I played not to lose, so I didn’t win.
Donnie drew a Skittering Horror of his own, which was able to hold off my Horror long enough for Donnie to recover.
By drawing a relevant card, I actually played worse.
Dave Price pointed out that even if Donnie’s deck were 50% Vicious Hungers – which it clearly could not have been – I should keep Phyrexian Negator because he had no Thrashing Wumpus, so I had a 50% chance to win the next turn no matter what if I kept both creatures.
I won game two in dramatic fashion but Donnie won the Feature Match when I stalled in game three. The wheels fell off at that point. I proceeded to lose to Replenish and then lose to a g/W Rebel deck of all decks! Not only is it vulnerable to the usual anti-Rebel strategies, it adds Green creatures to make sure the main-deck Perish isn’t dead. What a way to ruin a day. Sigh.
The moral of the story is if you waste your efforts thinking about far flung possibilities, especially when they are impossible, you will lose focus. Like edt says, keep your eyes on the prize.
4. The Right Play… We’re not Finished Yet
User ddubois followed up with a more realistic set of arguments against the One Right Play theory.
“If I get the gist of your argument correctly, it is that at any given decision point, there is a play to be made, and that of those plays, one of them will have results that are more likely to win than any of the other decision paths available. So there exists an arbitrarily large set of decision trees for any MtG scenario, beginning with the play in question, that encompasses the nearly-infinite amount of opponents’ deck and opponents’ hand possibilities in your format/metagame. And let’s say that you could, given nearly-infinite time, ‘grow’ all of branches of all trees for each possible subsequent play from that initial MtG scenario, finally coming to a conclusion that one play was .007% better than the other over the course of a few quadrillion games.
“Even if all of that is true (and technically it isn’t, because within your nearly-infinite set of decision trees, somehow you have to arbitrarily weigh relevance of each tree, given that any opponent in the metagame is more likely to be playing Psychatog than TurboGrollum) – who cares? You may claim that there exists an optimal play in theory, but in my more pragmatic opinion, if the optimal play cannot be determined, then it does not exist.”
This argument is technically right when taken in a vacuum, but misses the point entirely. Again, there are lots of possibilities as to what can possibly happen, but there is a much smaller subset of possibilities of what will actually happen. The best players narrow those possibilities and reject a large portion. Remember that making the right play will often yield card advantage such that the opponent’s cards become irrelevant, further narrowing the scope. Sometimes you will have a bad draw yourself and have to make the right play, however limited your mana development or threat base, and that you will have to play tightly for even a small chance of stealing the win.
Keep in mind what edt said. Keep your eyes on the prize.
But that being said, ddubois is right in at least a very literal sense. Sulli (Adrian Sullivan), as well, is a notorious rejector of the One Right Play theory (as I once was). Compare One Right Play to Newtonian physics. Newtonian physics does not properly describe the universe. Modern physics has done a lot to change how we look at the movements of celestial bodies and things like magnetic attraction, and itself changes rules once in a while. However, Newtonian physics is still taught. Why?
Because even if Newtonian physics isn’t strictly true, it does an awfully good job of describing the physical universe within the scope of normal human experience on the planet Earth. Unless you are planning to travel at relativistic speeds or measure bodies that expand at a rate different from the rate by which your measuring device is expanding, Newton’s genius should be more than enough for you.
By the same token, if most of the best players on the Tour all agree on one line of play, and you think differently, at least accept the possibility that your mode of thinking could be wrong. Even when they mis-evaluate the cards that compose an opponent’s Constructed deck, the disparity in relative card power between expected and unconventional cards is often enough to counterbalance incorrect intuition at the Pro level. This is why so-called”rogue” decks sometimes win PTQs, but tend not to perform as well at the top tables of the Pro Tour. Amateur players often play directly into a rogue player’s strategy (especially when rogue decks appear in the middle of an established season) while the top players at big events try to keep to the tightest decisions, minimizing things like playing or tapping the wrong land.
“Here is another good rule of thumb. It actually is similar to the wallet rule. If you think someone may be cheating, treat them like a cheater for purposes of the game. I probably get cheated a lot more than I used to. I am too old and too out of the game to be concerned with watching my opponents like a hawk. Some things are still automatic, but generally if someone wants to cheat me these days they easily can. In fact on several occasions I don’t notice until a while after that a cheat or a mistake has happened.”
I think that a less arbitrary rule is to treat everyone like they are cheating. Chris Pikula used to shuffle everyone – even close friends – who were not members of Team Deadguy. Why? If he treated even friends with an aura of suspicion, he could not be accused of selectively acting like a jerk to those who he really thought were cheating; honest players are never hurt by the opponent shuffling their decks, and today, shuffling prior to a duel is actually part of Level III+ Rules Enforcement.
Chris’s Deadguy teammate Dave Price actually taught me a lot of other anti-cheating techniques. One of the most unique is to count your opponent’s library on the third turn. Very highly skilled cheaters can tell you that they have a certain number of cards in hand while hiding others, so counting permanents in play and adding them to cards in hand will not always give you an accurate card count. The library, however, will not lie.
The tightest cheat I ever saw (or ever caught, as some of my friends have corrected me), was drawing an extra card with Sulfuric Vortex in play. The player in question took the top card of his library, laid it down, commented that he had forgotten to mark Sulfuric Vortex damage, laid his hand on top of the extra card, marked the damage, recovered his hand, and then drew his (second) card for the turn. His opponent – a Pro Tour player – had no idea anything fishy had occurred. This works with pretty much any upkeep effect, but, in some cases, only if you are nice enough to let the opponent back up.
Though drawing extra cards is the main way for cheaters to get ahead, a second level cheat that was popular about seven years ago on the Pro Tour was to deliberately under-draw. You could skip a draw in the midgame and then call the judge, indicating that your opponent had drawn too many cards, possibly getting him a game loss. This technique seems to have fallen out of favor in recent years.
While eating unending Brazilian steaks with the Shark, Danny Olmo, and visiting GP Champion Antonino DeRosa last week, I was surprised to learn that Antonino did not even know the basics of table shuffle (or pile shuffle) cheating. Without going into details of how you can manipulate your deck via table shuffling, be wary of any player who ends his shuffling process with a four- or five-pile table shuffle, and then presents his deck. There are multiple methods of four- and five-pile”shuffles” that do not randomize the deck, but instead either perfectly distribute mana or reset the deck to a pre-shuffling perfect configuration. Josh Bennett once told BDM that seven piles is the optimal table shuffle number because it is coprime to the number of cards in the deck; however, there is also a fairly obscure seven pile cheat.
Like most tournament players, I table shuffle every match for a couple of reasons. First of all, it ensures that I am presenting the right number of cards. Secondly, it distributes mana clumps. Distributing mana clumps is not the same as randomizing your deck; in fact, it is the opposite. No one other than Mike Pustilnik (who considers table shuffling a waste of time) seems to object to the practice in principle, but any table shuffling that is not accompanied by sufficient riffle shuffling is illegal, and in many cases, intentional cheating.
I am posting the link so that you can be better informed about what shady tricks your opponents may be engaging. Please don’t use this against people at the next PTQ, or, if you do (and get caught), blame Rob and not me.
6.) Finding the Tinker Deck In Onslaught-Mirrodin Standard
M. W. Gribbin made a great attempt at updating”Finding the Tinker Deck” for the current Standard. For those of you who never read the original, the goal of the process of finding the Tinker deck (rather than the article of the same name) is to look at the existing decks in the environment and assign them to the appropriate archetypes.”Tinker” is one of the most powerful strategies, and involves using mana acceleration such as Birds of Paradise, Grim Monolith, or Tinker itself to force down powerful and expensive cards like Saproling Burst, Verdant Force, or Phyrexian Colossus. Other processes include assigning Blue Skies or U/G Madness to the Counter-Sliver / Aggro-Control strategy or differentiating between true and board control decks.
Gribbin’s exercise itself yielded a solid article, but I think he got some of the details and assignments wrong.
Affinity: Counter-Sliver / Weissman
I actually think that depending on build, Affinity can run the spectrum from Tinker (using Broodstar, in the same vein as the Suicide Brown Tinker deck rather than the more typically controlling permanents) to Stompy (fast plays and few or no counters). Affinity lends itself to a lot of customization, but I think Counter-Sliver is a reasonable approximation.
I think this one is wrong. Slide seems like a pure board control / prison deck to me. It also doesn’t fulfill the core requirement of Necropotence decks, being one-for-one plays powered by a third part card drawing engine (as differentiated from self-contained card advantage engines like Wrath of God).
This one is trickier. If Gribbin had chosen a Sligh list with more Goblin Sharpshooters and Sparksmiths I would have agreed, but as one forum poster commented, there is not much differentiating the list he chose from StOmPy other than the color choice.
B/W Control: Weissman
Consider Gribbin’s description:
“What happens when you take U/W Control and MBC and smash them together? Well, if you’re playing Extended, you just created Dump Truck. But if you’re playing Standard, you just made a mess of a control deck that doesn’t know quite what to do with itself. The solution? Take out Blue. The best of Black and White come together to form yet another control variant, B/W Control.”
I think B/W is Toolbox. Given the description of a deck that does a bunch of things reasonably well, but does not specialize in anything in particular, this deck is fairly similar to The Rock and other archetypal Toolbox decks more than Weissman… B/W Control cannot ever take full control of a game because of its lack of counters. No matter how far ahead, it can fall prey to top-decked cards like Decree of Annihilation, where a true control deck might not.
Why is finding the Tinker deck an interesting or useful exercise? For one thing, it can inform how you play a match. If you know about how decks of a similar nature interacted with one another in the past, you can predict how they will interact with one another in a different format. Some cards will get more or less powerful reprints, while core cards like Dark Ritual may disappear, but certain things remain constant. If you bust out a powerful threat on turn 2, your opponent’s options are restricted. If you have Mana Leak backup, you might just win on turn 3 or 4; if you are playing a deck based on mana acceleration and you draw only mana or only expensive spells, your recipe might not be quite there. If your Counter-Sliver deck is trouncing your beatdown deck in testing, maybe there is something wrong about your beatdown deck’s plan (or something very right about your Counter-Sliver deck!). Finding the Tinker deck is just another tool that you can use to inform your deck decisions, playtesting, and assumptions about a format before and during a tournament.
That being said, Gribbin got a lot of things right, and I appreciate the shout-out.
[I have absolutely been beaten into submission. MichaelJ is the ultimate namedropper. How I could have ever thought otherwise is beyond me. – Knut]
6.25.) Anti-Valentine’s Day Album Release Party
This coming Saturday (Valentine’s Day) is my friend Marianne’s album release party for The Wrong Marianne. Marianne is my wife’s oldest friend and used to room (at different apartments) with me, Amber, and altran. The Wrong Marianne is extremely kick ass and I think it will launch her to superstardom. I often think back to this night in 1994 when Jeff Wu asked me to go to the Grogg Shoppe on Coventry road to see some girl called Jewel. His hard sell for this show was”some chick that sounds kind of like Frente.” [How could you not love Marvin the Album? – Knut] I didn’t go – instead electing to play Magical cards with Wortho and assorted children at Uncle Eli’s store on a Friday night – and have regretted it since.
Anyway, said Album Release Party is on Valentine’s Day. Probably you are alone. There will be other alone people at this Anti-Valentine’s Day Album Release Party – some of whom, I assure you, are cute and available girls – so you may not be alone at the end of the evening. No guarantees, but honestly, you’re alone, right? What else would you be doing alone on Valentine’s Day that you couldn’t be doing at this happening fiesta? The party is at Luna Lounge, which is an amazing venue that has featured everyone from Janeane Garofalo to, well, Amber and is the bar that the gang took me to get drunk on my 25th birthday after we ate unending Brazilian steaks (that night was capped off by our not being allowed into Ben”Manascrew” Murray’s club on account of it being lesbian night).
The Wrong Marianne Anti-Valentine’s Day Album Release Party
171 Ludlow St. b/w Houston & Stanton
Party starts @ 8:00pm
Band goes on @ 9:00pm (ON THE DOT!)
If you need a harder sell, Luna Lounge Is Around The Corner From Katz’s Deli. There is no cover. Zero. Nada. Nil. Probably you will want to drown your loneliness in a mighty fine corned beef sandwich, and then drown said sandwich in ale (or lager, pilsner, or stout), around the corner, at Luna Lounge, for the release of the soon-to-be-classic, The Wrong Marianne.
If you need an even harder, veritably adamantine, sell, I, Michael J. Flores, will buy you one (1) shiny beer**.
Up next: The return of Jonathan Becker.
* Actually it is slightly more than one bit.
** Restrictions apply***
*** Said restrictions include that you are of age…
*** … and that, upon attendance, you buy a copy of The Wrong Marianne****
**** Which, if you have any taste, you will want to buy even without enticements of hops and barley because it is so kick ass, which you will probably only find out if you attend this happening Anti-Valentine’s Day Album Release Party.