I think that every Magic player wonders about how much luck is in the game at some time or another. Maybe it’s after we have been losing for awhile, or not getting the desired results. Maybe it’s when some kid no one has ever heard of wins a Pro Tour or a Grand Prix. Maybe it’s when we’re trying to justify to ourselves why we should keep playing this game.
After all, why keep playing if it’s just luck? Mise well gamble instead, am I right?
Of course, as many have pointed out, players like Finkel and Budde have proven that there isn’t as much luck in this game as we might like to think. I’m here to ponder how they do it.
There are thousands of decisions in each game of Magic – many obvious, some not. Do you play a land or not? Which land? In your first or second main phase? When do you cast your spells? How do you tap your mana? Do you double block? What if he has a pump spell? How do you split the Fact or Fiction?
Okay, I’ll stop.
Let’s split all the games of Magic that you play into three distinct groups:
In group A are the games that are absolutely unwinnable. If you draw one land and nine spells, all the perfect play in the world will get you nowhere in these games.
In group C are the games that are pretty much unlosable, given a basic pro level of play. Maybe your deck is flat-out better than the other person’s deck, or they get manascrewed or manaflooded, or you just draw the right cards and they don’t. As long as you play your creatures and cast your spells, you will win these games.
But the interesting group is the one in the middle – group B. It is composed of those games that can be won or lost depending on subtle differences in the way you play. The games where after you lose, you sit there thinking,”Maybe if I had held back for the long game instead of trying to race I could have won…” Those are in group B. The games where choices in sideboarding, attacking, blocking, when to cast spells, land tapping, bluffing, and anything or everything else decide the outcome.
The question is, how large is this group?
Well, assuming no drops and no day 2 cut, the average player at a Pro Tour will go 7-7. Kai, on the other hand, is probably averaging something like 10-1-2. If we assume that Kai wins all the games in groups B and C (all the games he could possibly have won through perfect play), and the average pro instead wins half the games in group B, that means something like eight or ten matches are decided by games in group B.
This is no exact science, but it does serve to show how many games can be decided by good play vs. poor play, or perhaps even excellent play (plays which are above and beyond what most people, including me, might notice).
So how does Budde do it? He certainly can’t just”get lucky” at five Pro Tours. And he certainly doesn’t rules lawyer his way to the top 8, as he proved against Svend Geertsen at Pro Tour: Nice. Budde allowed Geertsen to put a counter on his Repentant Vampire a full turn late, even after judge Rune Horvik had said it was too late to alter the game state. That act of kindness ended up costing him not only the first game, but also the match. (As a side note, Kibler conceding to Malherbaud with lethal damage on the stack in order to let him into Day 2 was also quite admirable; I don’t know if I’d be able to bring myself to do that, although I guess it is easier to part with DCI points once you are on the train.)
I don’t think anyone considers Kai to be a cheater.
The answer is: He’s just that good. There is no such thing as a perfect player, but Budde is apparently the closest that anyone has ever come. And the results are amazing.
Granted I think he gets some help from the fact that he has such a fearsome reputation. Budde’s opponents in the early rounds of a Grand Prix or a Pro Tour are probably not used to playing against the best in the world. They will make mistakes. They will second-guess themselves because Budde is sitting over there waiting to laugh at their stupidity (or so their inner voice tells them). Reputation alone certainly wins him a match or two in any given large tournament.
But the rest is pure, unadulterated skill.
People talk about how the pros seem to topdeck the card that they need right when they need it most (Kai, in particular, has had several high profile topdecks in the last year). Pros obviously don’t have the power to will cards to the top of their deck, so how do they do this? Well, a good example is provided by Forsythe’s match coverage of one of the rounds of Pro Tour Nice. I’m going to paste a long portion of the coverage below:
“Bram attacked for three in the air again, bringing Fung to two. He then tapped out to Acceptable Losses Fung’s Mongrel.
“Here’s where it gets interesting. Fung had two cards in his hand: A Muscle Burst (good for +4/+4) and a random card. Bram has eleven life and no untapped blockers; the Crackling Clubbed Skywing Aven is his only creature. Fung had an elephant and a Petravark, as well as the Mongrel, plus five Forests and one Mountain.
“Should Fung save the Mongrel with the Muscle Burst?
“He chose to, making it 6/6. Bram sacrificed the Club, and Fung discarded his last card.
“Fung untapped. He could attack Bram for seven- not enough – but if he drew Fiery Temper, he could madness it, making the Mongrel 3/3, just enough for eleven total damage. He drew…
“Sonic Seizure. The sad part about the situation was that if Fung had NOT saved the Mongrel, he would have won with that draw. He would have attacked with the elephant and the Petravark for 5, Muscle Burst for 4 more, and Seizured for 3, discarding the random card.
“There were two other relevant cards in Fung’s deck that he could’ve drawn – one was Krosan Archer that would have kept the Aven from killing him for a turn. It is unclear whether or not saving the Mongrel would have had an impact in that scenario. The other possibility was Pardic Firecat, which would have won him the game if he had NOT saved the Mongrel: 3 elephant + 2 Petravark + 2 Firecat + 4 Burst = 11.
“The moral here is that it pays to know your deck and know what the most likely route to victory is. In this case, Jeff could have figured out that there was one card he could have drawn to win the game if he saved the Mongrel (Fiery Temper), two cards he could have drawn to win the game if he didn’t (Pardic Firecat and Sonic Seizure), and about 25 cards that didn’t matter. What happened in actuality was Fung remembered he had Fiery Temper in his deck but not the other two, so he mad his decision based on that incomplete information.”
I don’t think that Fung is a bad player because of this – far from it! He did what most people would have done. But I would argue that Kai, in the same situation, would have known the contents of his deck and chosen not to save the Mongrel. Kai would have won that match. Kai would have made top 8 from that position.
And to the spectators, it would have looked like a lucky topdeck of a Sonic Seizure.
The best pros are able to put themselves into positions where the card off the top of their library has the maximum chance of winning the game. The reason worse players don’t get the topdecks is because they don’t maneuver the game position so that the topdecks will matter. How many times have you drawn a card which seems good in the situation you’re in but, isn’t quite good enough to win the game? I know it’s happened to me. Maybe if I had played the last couple turns a bit differently, that card would have been a gamewinner…
The easiest application of this is in limited decks that have a bomb like Kirtar’s Wrath in them. Say you’ve drawn nine land and three spells and are almost destined to lose this game. It’s a not a bad idea to play and make decisions as if Kirtar’s Wrath is the top card of your deck. If it isn’t, you lose anyway. It’s the only card in your deck with the raw power to change the outcome of this game. But if it is, you’ve just had a”pro topdeck” and maybe you can come back and win this game. And when everyone around you says”how lucky!”, maybe it isn’t just luck. Maybe the fact that you held back on casting a creature (which wouldn’t have stemmed the tides anyway) made all the difference after you ripped the Wrath off the top.
Anyone can play the matches in groups A and C correctly. If that Wrath was never near the top of your deck, that game was in group A. If you’re the one with the great draw and your opponent is drawing nothing, it’s in group C. But a game where you are winning and your opponent draws his bomb is certainly in group B (especially if you have prior knowledge of what to look out for). Did you play the game as if that bomb was the top card of his library?
Time to lose, then.
What would Kai do? He’d do everything possible to maneuver into a position where he still wins if that card is drawn. Know they have Upheaval in their deck and you have a huge creature advantage? Maybe you should Butcher your own creature. Stranger things have happened.”Upheaval insurance” can go a long way towards guaranteeing a win.
I still remember a team draft we did at Dhuse’s place with Eugene Harvey and me against Dhuse and Mike Turian. I was playing blue/black against Dhuse’s blue/white with Upheaval. In game 1, Dhuse beat me by stalling out the midgame and then casting Upheaval with a bunch of mana floating. There wasn’t really much I could’ve done about it.
In game 2, I sided in some cards that are good in the control mirror and off we went. I had a strong midgame and eventually got into a winning position and was even able to cast Insidious Dreams for two to make sure nothing could go wrong. I agonized over what to get and eventually decided on a Faceless Butcher and something else…. I think I ended up Butchering Dhuse’s only blocker away and pretty much swarmed him.
What Eugene was squirming about beside me (though he couldn’t tell me until after the match) was that I was completely walking into Upheaval. Not only had I discarded the Innocent Blood, one of the best anti-Upheaval cards in my deck, to the Dreams, but then I had Butchered one of his creatures. I would have been facing down an unwinnable board position had he drawn the Upheaval. Thankfully he didn’t, and it was on to game 3.
(Note that I am telling this with the benefit of hindsight. At the time, I had no idea.)
I had an amazing hand in game 3 with a bunch of fliers and a bit of removal and I quickly took control of the game, as he seemingly had just an Aquamoeba and a lot of land. Since the Aquamoeba couldn’t block the fliers anyway, it was swinging in each turn and I was declining to block with the fliers I had played, not wanting to slow down my kill. He had enough land to flip it to 3/1 and not miss a land drop for quite a few turns and eventually I ended up at eleven life, having just played Soul Scourge with enough fliers to probably kill him next turn. Aquamoeba swung again, so I declined to block with the Scourge, figuring a few life points wouldn’t matter and I didn’t want to give him six back by blocking (three from the nightmare ability and three from the next attack).
Well, you can probably guess what happened. He switched again, bringing me to eight, then floated mana and cast Upheaval, bringing the Aquamoeba back down immediately. I didn’t have Innocent Blood in hand, and all of a sudden the unloseable game was very much lost. I never recovered and eventually succumbed to quick beats with all my expensive fliers stranded in hand.
I deserved that loss and I deserved Eugene’s lecture on all my mistakes afterwards. Given my commanding board position, I should have started blocking the Aquamoeba – at least with the Soul Scourge, if not even earlier. Normally it wouldn’t have mattered, but I wasn’t playing as if one of the cards in his hand was Upheaval. And because of it, I lost a match that was almost in group C. In game 2, I almost threw away another sure win because I Butchered his creature. I probably could have even afforded to Butcher my own. It was one of the best examples ever of how not to play right into your opponent’s bombs, as opposed to around them. Thankfully, we still won the draft on the strength of Eugene’s insane green/red deck.
I probably won’t forget that match for a long time, as I’m determined not to make the same mistakes twice.
What would Kai do, indeed.