Friday, December 16, 2011

The Real Next Level Part Two

The Real Next Level: Part 2


                Now that certain actions have been taken that suggest the DCI is willing to act as necessary when cheaters are unmasked, it means that diligence in the future will be key to making sure that something along these lines does not happen again.  Community policing has proven to be effective, and if players are more aware of the possibility of illicit actions being employed by their opponents, it stands to reason that those actions will not be as popular.
                Of course, you can argue that in this instance, the cheater profited to the tune of over $10,000 in cash and prizes, so the deterrent may not be strong enough, but I still prefer to believe that the environment can change.
                Since I spent the last article outlying a tongue-in-cheek guide to cheating, I thought it was only fair to take the time in this post to explore some of the options for improving your win rate and +EV that are well within the rules and aren’t “sleep well and eat a healthy breakfast” – not to say that this is bad advice, but it is akin to books on writing that offer hints to starting your career like “get an agent” and “network”.  In both cases, the advice is solid and relevant, but probably isn’t something that you didn’t already know before.
                The following list may contain suggestions that you’ve seen in other places, and I apologize for any redundant information, but I’ve found that employing these strategies may lead to the same incremental gains potential that some of the cheats mentioned in the last article do.

5 Ways to Improve Your Win Rate that Don’t Involve #twoexplores

1)      Sit in the Right Place – When you first walk into a large tournament hall, notice the enormous number of posters/signs/flashing lights that typically accompany major tournaments.  All of these things are capital “d” distractions.  Whether  you are consciously aware of your surroundings, or have the ability to “get in a zone” and focus on your game, the reality is that your mind is forced to filter the things happening around you one way or another.  A really simple trick is to sit so that you are not facing the bulk of the tournament crowd.  At the top tables this can be a major advantage; since if you are facing a relatively quiet wall and your opponent is staring at 700 milling people and @cspranklerun, you can rest assured that your mind is dealing with considerably fewer stimuli that can make it impossible to make the correct mulligan decision.

2)      Take Breaks – Playing live Magic is physically and mentally draining.  Sitting around your friends’ money draft discussing pick orders and the playability of some 23rd common versus another land is not letting your mind relax.  I’m not recommending taking up smoking, but getting away from the tournament hall and doing something other than thinking/talking about/playing Magic is another easy way to click the dial on your win rate up another small notch.  Some professionals prefer to stay “focused” concentrating only on the upcoming match and playing your best—see Woods, Conley at Worlds (RIP) 2011—but for most players, this is dramatically counterproductive.  Analyzing your possible misplays or celebrating clever card-slinging is important, but it can be even more useful to do so later than right away.  Odds are, if you focus so much on not accidently playing the second Plains when you needed a Forest to cast Darkthicket Wolf, you might miss that you have a Spectral Rider in hand this game that you didn’t the time before.  So relax, go outside, call your significant other and talk about 2 Broke Girls or Rick Perry.

3)      Avoid Traps – Oftentimes, players fall into believing that some action they took directly precipitated their loss or win.  These tend to be “obvious in hindsight” sorts of errors or successes that actually create issues in the future.  You know that you do this if you’ve ever found yourself saying something like: “Well, on turn 3 I cast Ponder and shuffled, even though I would have flipped my Delver if I would have ordered it right.  But if I would have kept those three, I would have lost to her Olivia on turn 6, so in retrospect, I made the right play.”  You didn’t make the right play, you made the wrong play, and you got rewarded incorrectly for it.  It happens, but don’t start passing up 3/2 creatures with Flying for one because you might get lucky and top-deck a timely Dissipate when you do. 

4)      You Can’t Read Your Opponents—I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but most players are not psychic.  The ability to “read” your opponents and determine what they have in hand is one of the most overrated “skills” amateurs and semi-pros believe professionals have.  The truth is that in the overwhelming majority of situations, the correct play is available to be made regardless of your opponent’s hand.  The game has changed to this, it didn’t used to be like that, but spells are much less powerful than they ever were before, so the value of mind-tricks and recognizing “tells” has gone down considerably. 

a.       Any sort of example for this is inherently flawed, but I’m going to attempt one anyway.  Keep in mind that this is for illustration only.  Game  two, you have a Fiend Hunter in play that is removing a Big-Scary Monster.  You are at 8 life, your opponent is at 3.  The enemy has left up three mana and you are facing down a 3/3 Elder Cathar that is tapped from attacking you (you blocked with a Festerhide Boar and your opponent played Ranger’s Guile).  Your opponent has one card in hand, you have no cards in hand.  Does your opponent have Rebuke or Village Bell-ringer or Spidery Grasp or Midnight Haunting or Ambush Viper or nothing?  The obvious answer is: It doesn’t matter.  At all.  This is a simple situation, I admit that, but knowing what your opponent has in hand is irrelevant.  Whatever card they have, you have to attack.  A number of pros and players would probably hold back unless they had a “read” that told them it was a land in their opponent’s hand.  Because they might draw their Angel of Flight Alabaster or Rebuke of their own or any one of the 13 cards left in their deck that represent an out to the 3/3.  But if you are correct in assuming any one of the tricks I just listed for your opponent, then they are massively favored to win the game any way, no matter what you draw and if you are incorrect and they don’t actually have anything, then you will force them on the defensive after just one more swing.

I know that the example is not particularly complicated, and you may even have a differing opinion, but remember that I am trying to suggest tiny ways in which you can gain percentage points in your future match-ups.  It is possible to get a read on your opponent and “know” what they have, but for most players, it is usually better to not worry about it.  I’m not recommending blindly running your best spells into Mana Leak or swarming the board into Day of Judgment, but the situations in which players steadfastly believe that their opponent has some magical ability to see into their souls and play around their game plan are usually situations where your highest percentage play is to just go for it (or not go for it, whatever the case may be).  The Mana Leak is still going to be there next turn and the Day of Judgment isn’t going anywhere.  They might even draw another one or two by the time you decide you can “fight through the counter war”.

5)      Play in the Moment—Often, players, especially good players, plan ahead.  You know what you are going to do over the next few turns and you know how you are going to do it.  I’m not going to attempt to argue against that, but more people need to be aware of how fast Magic shifts now.  Especially in Limited.  If you can learn how to respond correctly right now, you will be better positioned to press your advantage in the endgame.  Mike Flores used to talk often about “sculpting an endgame” and dozens of writers exhort their ability to visualize the board the turn that they win and then work backwards to figure out how to get there.  What this amounts to for those of us who don’t live in Magical Christmas Land is a strategy that is about as useful as listening to John Edwards or perhaps akin to the Army watching you play GI Joes in your backyard to pre-empt Cobra Commander’s nefarious plan to take over the world.
a.       Let’s say your “visualization”--or “random-ass completely made-up dream scenario” if you will—involves Kessig Cagebreakers attacking alongside six Wolf Tokens when your opponent is at 7 life.  Then your opponent opens with Dream Twist, binning the Cagebreaker.  Sure, you adapt, and now you imagine winning with Spider Spawning tokens swarming out of your graveyard.  Then your opponent casts Curse of Oblivion.  Time to adapt again, and you plan on beating down with Deranged Assistants and Orchard Spirits.  The game plays out, and you lose the turn before your Spirit would swing for lethal when your opponent flashbacks Silent Departure.  You just wasted tons of mental energy and formulated a game plan that was mostly irrelevant, since attacking with random dudes is basic Limited strategy. 
Again, I’m not trying to say that pre-visualization is completely useless (yes I am) but that I think your time could be better spent elsewhere.  Staying in the moment and focusing on what to do with the cards you have is a critical skill that people tend to ignore because they love to believe in the top of their deck.  To go back to suggestion three: don’t fall into that trap.


I am not trying to craft a frame of reference that is going to replace the enormous output from the most influential thinkers the game has seen.  Everything that I’ve said is not necessarily the absolute best sort of strategy, instead, I’m trying to suggest tricks and minor tweaks to any one’s repertoire that can improve your game in the short term and help shore up the foundation to becoming a better player.  Having realistic expectations is critical to moving forward.  Setting attainable goals is the hallmark of improving oneself. 
If you aren’t willing to Ancestral Brainstorm (and I do hope you aren’t), then finding other options to help make your decisions easier is crucial.  And easy.  Nothing I’ve suggested is that complicated or difficult to implement, and there’s no downside to trying it out.

I’ll be back soon with some Innistrad Limited and Constructed discussion. 

As always, thanks for reading.

Ben Snyder
Stormskull on MTGO

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Real Next Level

The Real Next Level: 10 Essential Cheats for Aspiring Professional Magic Players

                In honor of Alex Bertoncini’s StarCityGames Invitational and Player of the Year win, I wanted to update an article I wrote eight years ago.  The thing to understand before continuing further: Magic is at its heart a game of chance.  There are skilled players; people who can calculate odds on the fly and adjust their plays in real time to shifting possibilities presented by their own situation and by their opponent’s game plan.  There are, indeed, correct plays to make in almost every situation, and making the wrong play can be brutal.  Players who make the right play time after time are going to be more successful in the long term than players who don’t or can’t.  Having said that, the average tournament will involve no more than forty games played, a ridiculously small sample size, and the average deck/pilot has no better than a 60-65% chance to win any individual game.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Extra 2%: #MTGOP

Obviously this article started off a very different animal, in which I was going to discuss all sorts of Magic-al tidbits, specifically about the incredibly complex and difficult Innistrad limited environment.  I do plan on finishing that piece at some point, but I’ve been asked to address a few other issues first.

If you can’t tell, Where the Meat Comes From has been a bit of a flop, which is disappointing, to say the least, since it involved a tremendous amount of work and had a lot of potential, at least at first.  So, as of Friday, November 4th, the website has officially closed its doors.  The previous editors have been kind enough to hand me the keys to the car, so I’ll be using it as my own blog for now.  If anyone is interested in submitting content, you can use the old email address, and I’ll do my best to take a look at it, but for the most part, this is going to be a one-man show for the time being.

I don’t have a publishing schedule anymore, so the updates will likely be more erratic, but I’ll try and keep posting them on the Battlefield and links on Twitter, etc. 


Enough about sad depressing news, let’s talk about how awesome Magic is right now.  Except, wait, that’s a whole barrelful of disappointing news, too.  I cannot imagine being a semi-professional player outside of the United States any more.  I do not believe that it is possible to exaggerate the negative impact of the new announcements on the world-wide growth of the game. 

Having said that, I need to express my own opinion on the impact of the changes, which is very different from the professional community at large.

I have been trying to explain for weeks, if not months, that Magic has changed dramatically in recent years.  The biggest point that I would make is that for someone who was around for the beginning of the game, to see its explosive growth has been akin to watching your brother’s daughter grow up to be an international celebrity.

Many, many people who have very loud voices in the community do not seem to remember that this game was born in basements, nylon tents, brick cafeterias, and around kitchen tables.  For years, if you didn’t live in New York or on the East Coast in general, your only outlet for playing Magic was with your friends.  The Duelist Convocation existed (I once had a four digit DC number, sadly, I use my 6 digit DCI number now—and I think they added some digits in front of my code, although I’m not sure) but that mostly related to league-style play in comic book stores, and tournaments where the judge performing rulings was never suspiciously the guy who always managed to win the event (wait, that’s exactly what happened).

Now, people who are not involved in gaming at all have friends or significant others who have or still do play our great game.  In fact, it is not unreasonable to suggest that most of the people that you will ever meet will have some sort of an idea that Magic exists.  Because you may not see it the same way, I want to emphasize my next point: this is outrageously awesome to me. 

I have met random women in bars that know of Magic, and Finkelgate has successfully nabbed dates for my friends.   The world of 2011 is not the world of 1995, and I’m not even talking about the clothes (or those depressing hair-styles). 

What does this have to do with the OP changes?

Namely, it all calls into question the point of the Pro Tour any longer.

The overwhelming majority of all Magic players will never sit down in a PTQ.  Of those players who do, only the tiniest percentage ever qualified for a PT in the first place, and a fraction of those that did so ever played multiple events.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that if you are reading a Magic related article on the internet, you are probably familiar with the names of almost every single person affected by the Organized Play changes. 

Am I trying to imply that I am apathetic to their plight?  Not at all.  One of the biggest reasons that I stuck with this game over the almost two decades that I’ve been playing is because I occasionally got to taste the succulent goodness of the luscious gravy train basket.

What I am trying to get at is that it has never made sense to me that Wizards of the Coast runs the Pro Tour.  I wrote an article in 1999 for the love of all that is good and decent that suggested that the Pro Tour should be privatized and sponsored.  The crux of my argument hinged on the idea that I saw Wizards moving toward trying to present Magic as timeless—a hilarious point since the game had been around for six years at that time—and accessible to everyone with the recent dumbing down of the rules.

The truth, of course, is that the game is still impossibly complex for many people, even today, but I do believe that R&D is closer to what I envisioned as their endgame than ever before.  It is infinitely easier to teach Magic to someone right now than it has ever been.  Yes, there are complicated elements and odd corner cases, but for the most part, it is possible and I have taught a friend to play with those sample decks they give out in stores in about 30 minutes or less, and we will have fun playing.  As much fun as I had in 2003?  Probably not, but a damn good time is had nonetheless for someone whose board game experience was limited to an unfortunate Sorry! party when she was twelve and Words with Friends on her iPhone since.

I think that it is unlikely that someone can argue the reality that Magic is closer to Chess or Monopoly than it has ever been, and I think that means the company can continue to move away from the Pro Tour model of the past towards something with far more Grand Prix and those type of tournaments, all of which are incomprehensibly more profitable than PTs. 

Where I’d Like to Go

With all that out of the way, I want to list my dream for the Pro Tour.  I’ve tried to keep it as realistic as possible, using an easily identifiable model for comparison.

       1)      Start by selling the Pro Tour to StarCity or a similar company.
       2)      That company runs the tournaments, provides judges and product, and is responsible for developing marketing, etc.
       3)      To pay for these associated costs, sell tournament sponsorships.  This will require a dedicated sales staff to develop relationships with major corporations who might be interested in doing so, but the beauty of our game is that there is an unlimited pool of incredibly talented employees who would give their left arm to work in a Magic related field.  (Having worked for a major national corporation for almost five years, I have been involved in conversations where HR actually brought up Magic and the ridiculous ease with which WotC can hire employees that most companies have to pay headhunters to try and attract)
      4)      Create a stable environment with tournaments that run on the same weekends and same times every year.  Remember, the Grand Prix can stay with Wizards, since those no longer provide invitations to the Pro Tour anyway, and it is possible that the two companies could coordinate scheduling plans since the new Pro Tour would have a set schedule that Hasbro could schedule around.
a.       I would start with 15 events stretching from May until November (so that the final Chase for the Championship could end coordinating with the holiday shopping season, building interest for the brand and casual players)
b.      For example:
                                                               i.      Second Weekend in May: Tournament
                                                             ii.      Fourth Weekend in May: Tournament
                                                            iii.      Second Weekend in June: Major
                                                           iv.      Fourth Weekend in June: Tournament
                                                             v.      Second Weekend in July: Tournament
                                                           vi.      Fourth Weekend in July: Tournament
                                                          vii.      Second Weekend in August: Major
                                                        viii.      Fourth Weekend in August: Tournament
                                                           ix.      Second Weekend in September: Tournament
                                                             x.      Fourth Weekend in September: Tournament
                                                           xi.      Second Weekend in October: Start of the “Chase”, Major
                                                          xii.      Fourth Weekend in October: First Cut of the Chase, Tournament
                                                        xiii.      Second Weekend in November: Second Cut of the Chase, Tournament
                                                        xiv.      Third Weekend in November: Third Cut of the Chase, Tournament
                                                         xv.      Fourth Weekend in November: World Championship, Major
      5)      In this system, all tournaments would be open events with an entry fee except for the Majors, which would invite the top 200 Pro Points holders from each previous “season”, in a style similar to the old Master Series.  The other 100 participants of the Major events would be invited based on recent performance—the Top 16 from each of the 3 immediately preceding tournaments, with invites passing down, 40 PTQ slots and 12 sponsor exemptions.
      6)      The Pro Point system would be brought back along with the PPC, to cultivate a professional lifestyle.  The PPC would be run by the Tour and paid for through revenue generated by advertising and the Pro Tour Store.
      7)      Notice, too, that this leaves literally dozens of weekends for WotC to continue to schedule Grand Prix throughout the year, and coordinates with their own plans for the brand.
      8)      The cost of each of the Majors will be fixed at $4M
a.       Broken down approximately to $750K prize money, $1.25M venue costs (including staff, etc), $2M in plane tickets, PPC expenses, related costs
                                                               i.      Prizes for the Majors would be
1.       $200K for 1st
2.       $100K for 2nd
3.       $50K for 3rd and 4th
4.       $15K for 6-8th
5.       ($510K) $8,000 for 9-16th (64,000)
6.       $4,000 for 17th through 32nd (64000)
7.       $2,000 for 33rd through 64th  (64000)
8.       $1,000 for 65th through 128th
9.       $200 for 129th through 300th
      9)      The feeder tournaments would each cost $250,000 to put on, with a scaling prize pool based on paid entry fees with $50,000 added to the pool
    10)   This design packages each Pro Tour Major Event to sponsors as a less than $3M total investment by a single sponsor (if they wanted to put on their own event with exclusive signage and branding) with revenue and advertising generated by the 3 feeder tournaments.
a.       For example, 3M Corporation Sponsors Pro Tour Duluth, Pro Tour Madison, Pro Tour Omaha, and Pro Tour 3M Championship in Minneapolis.
     11)   If it sounds like a pipe dream because of the inflated pay outs and costs, keep in mind that Target Corporation spent over $1B in advertising during fiscal 2010, meaning that the sales staff of the new Pro Tour would only have to provide enough incentive to convince an ad exec to allocate 0.3% of their advertising revenue on this promotion.
     12)   MLG – an independent gaming tour, has had continued success with games that are played by far fewer individuals world-wide than Magic, and they are still growing, with web presence on ESPN3 and other outlets.

I could go on and spend even more of my time developing an abstract for a business that is not likely ever going to include me in its design or execution.  I’m not going to.  The point is that it could be done, and for considerably lower revenues than people expect.  I’m sure you have friends like mine, who with limited previous business experience and no direct capital were able to raise $750,000 to start their own comic book store.

It is possible to scale the numbers back even more, I could see a Pro Tour with a $1M total prize over the course of a year still having success.  I put this model together because I think it fosters an environment most conducive to a real professional lifestyle. 

As it seems WotC is hell-bent on destroying what remains of the Pro Tour we recognize, I strongly advocating the evolution of the game towards something along these lines.  It may be an exercise in futility, but I would love to see it come about, and I hope there are enough people who share my passion that it might someday happen.


(Innistrad limited in the next article.  I promise.)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

History Lesson 3: The Limit of Skill

                I have spent more time on what I am about to discuss than probably any single other subject in my entire life.  In fact, I once wrote a book on it, although the text has been lost to the ravages of a nomadic existence and several computer updates, I’m trying to pull most of the concepts and ideas back together, so we will see if I can get a solid monograph constructed at some point.

                Essentially, you can sum all 80,000 words up in one sentence:
·         Concerning any human activity not bound expressly by direct manipulation of all integral elements, there exists a point at which the outcome of random chance exceeds the ability of the actor.

As a Magic player, this relates to you because at some point, unrelated to your playtesting, theory,
or skill, luck begins to affect your results in important and unalterable ways. 
                Ashley Moray wrote an interesting article on StarCity last week that is notable for several reasons, but the issue I am writing about today involves her contention that given a large enough sample size, luck cannot explain your lack of success or your excess of it.  She is trying to suggest that if you are a skilled player, you will learn to ignore or move beyond mana screw, top-decks, or unbeatable match-ups, and enter some vaguely Elysian plane wherein your actions always dictate the outcomes of your game.

                It is my contention that the converse is actually more accurate, and in this article I want to explain why it makes sense so that next week, we can explore how we can either take advantage of the notion, or what needs to be done to minimize the damage. 

First, Ignore the Man Behind the Curtain

                Any article that suggests that luck does not factor into our game is trying to pull the wool over your eyes.  There is an anti-gambler’s fallacy at work here, known usually as the Myth of Horatio Alger.  Several notable, intelligent, and rational players fall victim to this concept.  They believe that if you work hard, practice every day, and generally lead a good life, that good things will happen to you. 
                Before we can get into anything more complicated, you need to understand that this myth is patently untrue when interpreted to mean that doing such things directly affects the outcome of such activity.  Whether it is in Magic, or life, pursuing this course of action does not guarantee anything.  One of the most important things to learn is that there is a man behind the curtain, and all you can do is maximize your opportunities to become friends with him.

Second, You Are Playing a Game of Chance, not Skill

                This is probably more misunderstood than any other issue at the basic theoretical level of Magic.  R&D has been specifically designing the game to increase the effect of random chance on the outcome of matches in order to appeal to the widest variety of players (they have even said so).

                Good players, skilled players, win more often at Magic not because they have some secret ninja ability that allows them to “make the right play” but because they recognize and understand—even subconsciously—that the game is random and they play in a certain way to minimize the impact of that randomness.

                If you haven’t figured out where I am going with this yet, I’m going to stop taking the roundabout way and arrive directly at my point:  You win games not in spite of the randomness but because of it.  A well-tuned deck and course of play is designed and executed to minimize the random elements of the game and people do not seem to understand what this means!

                For example, Kai Budde’s Morphling topdeck was widely regarded as the “luckiest” moment in Pro Tour history—until Craig Jone’s Lightning Helix, of course.  Commentators and the general public were constantly talking about the importance of how Kai was “playing for that top deck”.  Flores has said on multiple occasions that Kai knew what he had to draw in order to win, and then played in a way that “allowed him to get lucky.”  But no one ever seems to comprehend that this is the very basis of the game at every stage: pre-game, sideboarding, and post-match. 

                It flabbergasts me that people use this notion as a defense of skill, rather than as a head nod towards the reality of luck.  If Kai had not drawn the Morphling on that exact turn, there would be considerably fewer people who even know about the incident, let alone still talk about it.

Third, Do You Feel Lucky?

                I have mentioned in this column (and my other one) about how match-ups have evolved to the point that almost any two deck s are very close to 50-50, usually deviating only by a maximum of 10% either way. 
                This issue is where the name of my other column comes from, The Extra 2%.  Finding the miniscule edges, and trying to create a situation (usually by large sample sizes) where those edges allow you to eek out wins, is the fundamental guiding principle behind improving in games of chance. 
                To give the single most important example, poker professionals make money by understanding exactly when to take advantage of a situation that favors them by fractions and always making the correct decision when that choice comes up. 

                So wait, it sounds like I am agreeing with Ashley, right?  Well, yes.  But I disagree with her conclusion.  Proponents of poker love to make the statement that the game involves considerably more skill than opponents of the game perceive.  This is factually correct, but it is flawed for the same reason that Ashley’s conclusion is flawed.  Poker is a game of chance that involves skill.  By contrast, golf is a game of skill that involves chance.  By the same token, Magic is a game of chance that involves skill (more skill than poker, although not as much as people wish).  The other side would be a game like Magic, but with perfect information, and perhaps a die roll to influence the outcome of creature combat (I tried to find a game like this, but I couldn’t, and I apologize for that, I know they exist). 

                You can even simulate that game by playing with no hidden cards at all.  Try it sometime and see how you do.  Hands, libraries, everything revealed at all times.  Some players even do this while playtesting.  One thing you’ll quickly realize is that even with perfect information, sometimes you just lose.

                To conclude this section, when we look at a big tournament, say a Grand Prix, with the largest sample size possible in a single tournament setting, the difference between 8-2 and making the second day or going 7-3 by losing in the last round, is not going to be because of skill, but because of random events that happen during those last games.  The larger sample size actually works against you because it gives more opponents more opportunities to win via fluke circumstances. 

                To illustrate, let’s look at the result of a series of coin flips with a slightly weighted coin so that it comes up heads more often than tails.  If you were gambling on the outcome of 100 coin flips, you would choose heads to come up more often, and it goes without saying that you would usually be right.  In fact, because of the weight, you would win this gamble more than 55% of the time.  Again, this seems like I am agreeing with poker professionals and Ashley.  Here is where the gambler’s fallacy comes into play, because in a tournament setting, it isn’t all of the other coin flips that matter, it’s the last one.  You could win everything other flip, but if it comes down to it and the darn coin comes up tails, you are riding the pine birding the feature matches, and that is the limit of skill.


                I hope that this is a clear discussion of the concepts in play.  Remember, it took me almost 80,000 words to explain all of this before, so I understand if it isn’t making complete sense yet.  Essentially, the end result of all of this is going to be, hopefully, that you come to understand that if you are playing the game correctly, it won’t be some games that you lose to top-decks or mana screw, the ONLY games you lose will be due to top-decks or mana screw.

                This should, in turn, provide a psychological boost as well as improvement in your record, by helping you to understand that you cannot actually control the outcome of the game.  In life, as in Magic, all you can do is make it so that if you happen to wait on George Lucas’ table, he will like you enough to invite you to audition for his next sequel.  Most importantly, you’ll know that that reality is actually pretty darn ok.

Friday, October 21, 2011

On Writing: Part Ten

One thing that I always remind people who send stories to me, or who ask me to comment on their work, especially if it is a long piece, is that there is a certain amount of danger involved with “too many cool things”. 
While we don’t exactly get overwhelmed by explosions, cursing, violence, and rape, the reality is that the more you put in to a story, the less likely any one part of it is going to have the kind of impact you are looking for it to.  This parallels what I said in an earlier entry, that there is such a thing as too much complexity, even in an 80,000 word novel.

The reason War and Peace is so difficult for most people isn’t the length or the words themselves, it’s keeping track of a thousand different characters and dozens of events, some of which are not related to each other at all.  And, let’s be honest, your novel probably isn’t going to be a classic of Russian literature.
Most of the time, I try and focus on one or two characters, even in a long piece, and let the smaller cast experience more.  Giant legions of Twitter followers and hundreds of Facebook friends aside, most events in any one individual’s life only involve a few people anyway.

Since I mentioned that I would eventually expand on my rant about “compelling background stories”, now seems to be a good time to explore my conception of a well-developed character.

Santiago, from The Old Man and the Sea, has always been one of the most interesting protagonists that I have encountered.  The beauty of the character is in his simplicity.  What the reader knows about him is that he is poor, old, and that he fishes in the open water off the coast of Cuba.  It sounds like I am over-generalizing again, but that is almost entirely the extent of the background we are given about his character.  And yet, no intelligent critic would ever dare to suggest that the old man is one-dimensional or weak.  Even if you do, it is often with the understanding that the story itself is more like a parable, or an ancient myth, passed down in the telling.  Yet, it is neither of those things; it is an intensely personal revelation of the profundity of the human soul and the majesty of trying circumstance.

In fact, in the story, he is the kind of character that a creative writing major would likely devote seven or eight pages of blasé exposition to.  Thankfully, Hemingway ignored the impulse, and shrank the narrative until we had exactly what we needed.

There are only two characters in the book; three if you count the marlin.  And they are the only characters that you need to tell that story.  It is my contention that if we were all a little more willing to build stories that way, we would all have far more interesting stories to share.  

The Extra 2%: Last Man Standing

I don’t get a lot of comments about the articles on this website (I’m still trying to decide how disappointing that is) but one person (she doesn’t even play Magic) did message me on Facebook with a lesson that stuck with me enough to want to talk about more in depth.
Essentially, her position was that for someone who spends as much time and effort on the game as I do, I come across as not enjoying it that much.  Her advice was to remind myself of what I love about the game and maybe I would have fun again.

I’m not sure, to quote somewhere I can’t remember, if this is “Alanis irony” or “real irony”, but ironically, after submitting my rant Sunday afternoon, I’ve gone on an incredible streak on MTGO with UW Shape Anew.

As of this writing, I have won 28 Standard 2-man queues and lost only 4.  Here’s the breakdown:

Opposing Deck
Match Score
Game Score
Game Win Percentage
Wolf Run Ramp
Township Tokens
Mono-Red Aggro
UW Blade
UW Control
UB Control
Mono Black Infect

Basically, this is exactly what I needed to happen in order to make me feel like quite an idiot for writing the whole 4,000 word opus I sent in on Sunday.

Some Analysis

Wolf Run Ramp is a plague on MTGO right now.  I made the mistake of not recording the names of the players I squared off against, so I may have been playing the same guy over and over, but I highly doubt that.  I’m genuinely surprised by its popularity, since it really isn’t that fun to play.  But, as Sondag proved during the SCG Open, you can play like an idiot and the deck will still pull wins out of its ass for you, so maybe that explains the prevalence of the archetype.

·         More importantly, as you can tell by the results, I’m extremely happy every time my opponent opens with Copperline Gorge.  The deck has almost no way to beat UW Anew.  It plays 6 relevant cards in 3 Beast Within and 3 Slagstorm, and if they are holding up mana to cast those spells in response to your Shape Anew, then they aren’t casting any spells at all, and eventually you can Shape Anew with counterspell back up, or Snapcaster Mage it back after they blow their relevant cards.  Sometimes, you just slowly kill them with Myr and Blade Splicers because they know that if they tap out at any point, they’ll be staring down the ichor-dripping maw of a Big Dirty Robot. 

·         The deck initially ran 2 maindeck Twisted Image as a way to deal with Spellskite on the draw.  Spellskite is currently becoming more popular again, but Wolf Run doesn’t play them often.  The losses to the UW and UB decks were primarily because of Spellskite, as my current build does not have a lot of ways to deal with it.  So, lesson number two?  I’m adding Twisted Image back into the sideboard, and they may even find their way to the main (the imagined expression I see on my opponent’s face when I block their Nexus with mine and Twisted Image theirs after they pump it with Wolf Run is so hilarious that even thinking about it makes babies smile).

·         Mono-Black Infect’s Memoricides are annoying, but hardly the end of the world.  If they turn two Distress into Surgical Extraction, into Memoricide, it becomes much more difficult to deal with.  As Mono-Black Infect grows in popularity, Mental Misstep may be needed to curb Surgical Extraction issues.  You don’t want to Mana Leak an Extraction and walk into Memoricide…

·         The Goblins deck I played against was interesting, although it had no real way of winning against me.  But it drove me nuts that he was playing with Shock over Galvanic Blast.  I’ve said this a million times, but it bears mentioning again.  Even if all you have are 4 Inkmoth Nexus and 4 Shrine of Burning Rage, you have to run Blast.  Even if you only have 3 Shrine and no Inkmoths, you run Blast.  Basically, there is never a situation in which Shock is better than Galvanic Blast, and you should never be playing it, unless you already have 4 Galvanic Blast in your deck, and need more for some really bizarre reason.  Or if you forgot that Galvanic Blast existed.  Which I totally didn’t when I first started testing the new Standard.  (Ok, yeah, I did)

Why I’m Grinning Like an Idiot Again

If you, for some very strange reason, are reading this without having read my “History Lesson” from Monday, go back and take a look.  But to sum it up briefly, one of the reasons I was so angry and disappointed by Zac Hill’s development article that was featured on the Mothership was because he listed a bunch of things that Wizards has essentially solemnly sworn to never allow to happen again, all of which happened to be the things that made Magic fun for me in the first place.

I was obviously aware of this deck by that point (I had been writing about it for two weeks) but since MTGO didn’t really have Innistrad yet, I had only played it in one live tournament and a couple of playtesting sessions.  I mean no disrespect to the people I played with, but they weren’t exactly fantastic players, either.  So, while I presented them as such, the results weren’t really spectacular.  Now, having played in some Gold queues and 32 2-man events, I can say that I feel like my deck is the best deck in Standard and actually have data to back that up.

What’s even better is that I said something about making the cards seem bad, so that only a small group of players (mostly my friends and readers) would have access to the deck.  This is exactly what happened.  Out of the fifty or so matches I’ve played total online (including Tournament Practice matches) approximately forty of my opponents have conceded to lethal Blightsteel with a “play real cards, noob” or “you are such a f-c-u-k-i-n-g bad player” or “I can’t believe you spent 80 tickets on Snapcaster for that pile, you idiot”. 

Hey, thanks to Elspeth jumping from 12 to 20 tickets, I’ve already made my monthly goal of 200 tix.  (Unfortunately, the Liliana’s I bought at 35 are down to 17, so I lost a bit there, but I’ll hold them for a while, mise)

Innistrad Limited:

After playing two PTQs, a Sealed event, and a dozen drafts, I can fairly honestly say that the format is robust, entertaining, and dramatic in ways that I haven’t experienced playing Magic before.  There is a huge difference between the skilled players and amateurs, and I am excited to keep going with the drafts and Sealed deck events.

A few notes:

·         Invisible Stalker:  This is the worst card in the format to play against and the best card to have in your deck.  Like Snapcaster Mage in Constructed, having one or two of these feels like cheating, and once you have any relevant equipment, it actually is cheating.  Rolling Tremblor and Tribute to Night are the only realistic methods of dealing with the card, and Tribute doesn’t even work after turn three.  Yes, Blasphemous Act can kill it, so sure, we’ll put that on the list, but if you are resolving Blasphemous Act, then you were going to win any way.  Same goes for any of the other rares or Mythics that can take him down.  The biggest thing I have to put in this section is: DO NOT PASS INVISIBLE STALKER OVER ANY NON-MYTHIC INCLUDING MOST RARES.  If you do, expect to lose to it, every time.  In 14 Innistrad drafts, I’ve had Invisible Stalker 8 times.  I’ve won all 8 of those drafts, almost always on the back of the 1/1 for 1U.  I’ve lost 4 drafts, and in every case, I lost to Invisible Stalker. 

·         The other rares and Mythics are not nearly as gamebreaking as Invisible Stalker.  For one, if you are playing blue, Dissipate and Lost in Mist are real cards, and they are worth playing.  Frightful Delusion is not a real card, but if you don’t think that they will play around it (even accidently), then you can side that in, too. 
·         Some key cards I recommend always picking up when you have a chance:

·         Rolling Tremblor – Against R/B Aggro, Army of the Damned, Invisible Stalker, Humans
·         Naturalize  and Urgent Exorcism– This format has tons of relevant enchantments and artifacts.  I play Naturalize main in most decks, Urgent Exorcism I play main in all decks.
·         Purify the Grave – Goes around the table usually, but it’s a key counter to many cards.

I’ll add more to the list, and suggest some building strategies possibly next week. 

The Infinite Challenge

                Most writers seem to be doing this, so I thought I’d have some fun with it as well.  I started with $100 and 9 packs of Innistrad.  Through investing and playing, my goal is 1000 tickets by the end of November.  In this section, I’ll list any speculation I’m doing, and also track my performance in the queues.  So far this week I am at 76 tickets and 24 packs.

                There is a PTQ in Arizona this weekend, so I should be in the Mesa/Tempe area on Saturday.  If you game in the area, come on over and say hi, and hopefully I’ll be able to show you my PTQ winning deck with 3 Invisible Stalkers and 2 Silver-Inlaid Daggers (I really don’t care what else is in the deck at all if it has those five cards, it should never lose a game).  

                Until next time,

                 @snglmaltproof, BJSnyder8478 at gmail dot com, or Stormskull on MTGO