Monday, October 17, 2011

History Lesson #2: Where is Magic Going? (Bonus Post-Script Rant)

Starting this off, here is a list of the double-faced cards in Innistrad as if they were cards with no transform capability. (This list is in alphabetical order)

Bloodline Keeper, 2BB, Flying, T: Put a 2/2 Vampire into play with Flying, 3/3
Civilized Scholar, 2U, T: Draw a card, then discard a card, 0/1.
Cloistered Youth, 1W, 1/1
Daybreak Ranger, 2G, T: ~this~ deals 2 damage to target creature with flying, 2/2
Delver of Secrets, U, 1/1
Gatstaf Shepherd, 1G, 2/2
Grizzled Outcasts, 4G, 4/4
Hanweir Watchkeep, 2R, Defender, 1/5
Instigator Gang, 3R, Attacking creatures you control get +1/+0, 2/3
Kruin Outlaw, 1RR, First Strike, 2/2
Ludevic’s Test Subject, 1U, Defender, 0/3
Mayor of Avabruck, 1G, Other Human creatures you control get +1/+1.  1/1
Reckless Waif, R, 1/1
Screeching Bat, 2B, Flying, 2/2
Thraben Sentry, 3W, Vigilance, 2/2
Tormented Pariah, 3R, 3/2
Ulvenwald Mystics, 2GG, 3/3
Village Ironsmith, 1R, First Strike, 1/1
Villagers of Estwald, 2G, 2/3

I didn’t include Garruk since for the purposes of this article we don’t need to talk about Planeswalkers.  You can probably guess where I am going with this, but if you didn’t, here is another sort of list:

Krovikan Vampire, 3BB, At the beginning of each end step, if a creature dealt damage by ~this~ this turn died, put that card into play under your control, Sacrifice it when you lose control of Krovikan Vampire, 3/3
Krovikan Sorcer, 2U, T, Discard a nonblack card: Draw a card, T, Discard a black card: Draw two cards then discard one of them, 1/1.
Hipparion, 1W, ~this~ can’t block creatures with power 3 or greater unless you pay 1.
Pale Bears, 2G, Islandwalk, 2/2
Balduvian Shaman, U, T: Change the text of target white enchantment you control that doesn’t have cumulative upkeep by replacing all instances of one color word with another, that enchantment gains Cumulative Upkeep 1, 1/1
Balduvian Bears, 1G, 2/2
Folk of the Pines, 4G, 1G: ~this~ gets +1/+0 until end of turn, 2/5
Barbarian Guides, 2R, 2R, T: Choose a land type, Target creature you control gains snow landwalk of the chosen type until end of turn.  Return that creature to its owner’s hand at the beginning of the next end step.
Goblin Snowman, 3R, Whenever ~this~ blocks, prevent all combat damage that would be dealt to and dealt by it this turn, T: ~this~ deals 1 damage to target creature it’s blocking, 1/1
Balduvian Barbarians, 1RR, 3/2
Balduvian Conjurer, 1U, T: Target snow land becomes a 2/2 creature until end of turn.  It’s still a land, 0/2
Freyalise Supplicant, 1G, T, sacrifice a red or white creature: ~this~ deals damage to target creature or play equal to half the sacrificed creature’s power, rounded down.
Mountain Goat, R, Mountainwalk, 1/1
Flow of Maggots, 2B, Cumulative upkeep 1, Flow of Maggots can’t be blocked by non-Wall creatures, 2/2
Mercenaries, 3W, 3: The next time ~this~ would deal damage to you this turn, prevent that damage.  Any player may activate this ability, 3/3
Tor Giant, 3R, 3/3
Lhurgoyf, 2GG, ~this~ power is equal to the number of creature cards in all graveyards and its toughness is equal to that number plus 1, */*+1
Orcish Librarian, 1R, R, T: Look at the top eight cards of your library, exile four of them at random, then put the rest on top of your library in any order, 1/1
Dire Wolves, 2G, Dire Wolves has banding as long as you control a Plains, 2/2

Again, if you couldn’t tell, the second list is from Ice Age, arranged to correspond with the first list by rarity and/or at least casting cost.  What is humorous, and the goal of this juxtaposition, is to demonstrate that by and large you would probably rather play most of the creatures on the first list, despite the fact that they have been effectively neutered in terms of the modern game by having their transform sides taken away.

The history lesson for today is that even crappy, untransformed versions of creatures from 2011 are leaps-and-bounds better than the creatures of 1995.  So what does this mean?  Well, in this article, we will be discussing how much the game has changed, not only in the power creep attached to creature design, but the actual play of the game itself.

 One of the biggest secrets that I have come across in the last two years or so is that variance has assumed a much larger role in the actual play of Magic than ever before.  Where a Trix player in 2002-03 could feel confident that in a one hundred game set against Sligh they would win 85 to 90 games, a Splinter Twin player could only realistically expect to win 65 to 70 games or fewer against Goblin Guide Aggro in 2011. 

Another illustration is a concept that I call the “Limited Fundamental Turn”.  I understand that the term has been used elsewhere, and differently, but when I examine a Limited format, I try and figure out at which point of the game I can determine the winner barring high variance “topdecks” or massive misplays.  Essentially, when is “everything over but the crying”? 

For example, in M12 Limited, your typical game will take between 5 and 8 turns total to be over.  This is not only ridiculously fast, but the Fundamental Turn happens even faster.  Given that each player will typically be drawing off the top by turn 5, they only have a realistic prospect of seeing between 13 and 15 cards out of their whole deck.  Assuming they are not “flooded” or “screwed,” we can also assume that 5 to 7 card out of those are lands, meaning that they will rarely see more than 8 actual spells.  Assuming a 15 to 8 split between creatures and removal and you can see that, on average, a player will cast 5 creatures and 3 removal spells per game. 

This is what makes Bloodthirst so integral to the M12 environment, if you only get to cast 5 creatures, the Bloodthirst creatures are typically so much better than their equivalents in other colors, that they just outclass the opponent’s draw.  Of course, if Bloodthirst doesn’t trigger, then the cards are worse on average, so the opponent’s creatures become capable of outclassing their equivalents. 

Put this all together, and you can be reasonably assured of analyzing the board state on turn 3 or 4 and by doing so, knowing which player is going to win the game.  That becomes the “Limited Fundamental Turn”.   My argument follows that this creates an incredibly high variance environment where your starting hand and deck-building prowess is infinitely more important than your play skill.  I began to win dozens of 8-4 queues in M12 because players did not seem to realize that because of the format they had to take drastic steps to combat the “randomness”. 

My biggest jump in expected value from drafts came when I started to build ultra-aggressive U/W and R/B decks with only 15 land.  Sure, sometimes I would be mana-screwed and I would lose in the first round, but with an ACMC (average converted mana cost) less than 2.35, in matches where I drew 3 or 4 lands (instead of 5-7) I would win merely by virtue of overwhelming my opponent with either fliers or giant Bloodthirst guys simply because I had 2-4 more real cards than they did.   Here is an example of the type of deck I was drafting by the end of the format:

3 Tormented Soul
2 Goblin Fireslinger
1 Goblin Arsonist
3 Duskhunter Bat
2 Goblin Piker
1 Child of Night
1 Onyx Mage
2 Stormblood Berserker
1 Blood Ogre
1 Vampire Outcasts
2 Shock
1 Incinerate
2 Dark Favor
1 Wring Flesh
1 Goblin Grenade
1 Sorin’s Thirst

8 Swamp
7 Mountain

At first glance, that deck is probably less powerful than typical B/R ‘thirst decks, with no Doom Blades, no Gorehorn Minotaurs, only 1 Blood Ogre, and no rares.  But I can all but guarantee you that it would beat any M12 deck on the play.  A below-average hand will still flop four to six creatures on the board by turn 4, with 3 or 4 removal spells for their plays.  

For the record, I didn’t drop a game and my third round opponent didn’t offer to split until I won game one on my turn five (Turn 1 Soul, Turn 2, Berserker attack down to 19, Turn 3 Goblin Arsonist and Favor on Soul attack down to 12, Turn 4 double Duskhunter attack down to 7 with Arsonist dying to blocks but killing Gideon’s Lawkeeper, and Berserker was Pacifism-ed on his turn, turn 5 Wring Flesh the Stormfront Pegasus, Shock the Gideon’s Avenger, swing for the win.) 

I won Game 2 on turn 4 when he missed his third land-drop and didn’t play a spell.  (Turn 1 Goblin Fireslinger, Turn 2 Tormented Soul, Goblin Arsonist, burn EOT to 19 Turn 3 Stormblood Berserker and Soul, attack to 17, burn EOT to 16, Turn 4 Dark Favor on Soul, attack to 5 and Goblin Grenade to the face with two cards in hand).   He showed his hand, which plus his discards meant he had Skywinder Drake x2, Divination, Griffin Sentinel, Benalish Veteren, Frost Breath x2, Ice Cage (which he could have played), Chasm Drake, and Guardian’s Pledge.  In what format should that hand not be good?

Admittedly, the point of this is not to illustrate that I could build one deck and win three matches in a total of 25 turns, but that it happened in almost every draft.  That is so much faster than anything we had ever dealt with before, and I engaged in dozens of conversations in the Draft Room and online about the situation.  Over and over again people insisted that I was wrong, and that play skill was still somehow important or even the most important element of the game play.  (Many insisted that knowing when to chump block was critical, and how to make “value” attacks, obstinately ignoring the fact that a properly constructed M12 deck ignores both of these skills). 

Going back to the history lesson, playing old formats with the new rules is something that fascinates me, as I’ve taken down several Urza’s Saga, Tempest, and Mirage queues armed with terrible, terrible decks with high creature counts and low curves.  Sure, you have double-Pestilence, and that’s awesome, but my four creatures on board are going to have you at 11 before you untap for turn 5. 

That is a crucial lesson to learn for older players.  The game has changed and it is faster in Limited.  I have an article coming out on Friday about Innistrad sealed and draft, and while that format is much slower than M12 the Fundamental Turn is not actually that much higher.

What about Constructed?  The point I have been hammering home in several articles is that you simply do not have the “edge-on-deck” that used to exist.  This is one of the reasons why my own Constructed rating fell as far as it did.  I was fantastic at exploiting metagames and coming positioned so that my teammates could dominate tournaments by virtue of having a better deck than any other team at the venue.  It didn’t matter if the opponents were better players; my guys brought tanks with side-mounted machine guns to Shaolin martial-arts battles.  Yeah, your kung-fu was stronger, but you were getting hit with a hail of hot lead, good luck dodging three hundred rounds per second. 

But here is the sad truth about the state of the game in Constructed: everyone has access to tanks now and the tanks are nearly identical.  This does mean that the players who completed the optional four hundred hour training course are better pilots, but it also means that the players who didn’t can sometimes just get lucky and nail them with an armor-piercing slug from three miles away.

One analogy that I caught on Twitter came from a Magic/Poker pro, where he described poker tournaments in much the same way.  In 2003, when a professional sat down in a cash game or moderately sized tournament, he (or she) was equipped with almost DI tools that the amateurs simply didn’t have, from advanced statistical analysis to boring EV calculations.  Fewer pros won the huge WSOP events from sheer variance, but the money was flowing like oil in the Persian Gulf.  Today, more “pros” are winning poker tournaments, but they are generally from the faceless mass of “Internet whizzes” whose offline accomplishments are dubious at best.

I’m willing to stake the claim that you will never see another player win back-to-back Constructed Grand Prix ever again.  Furthermore, there will never be another Jon or Kai or even Phoenix Foundation whose dominance is so absolute that they are the odds-on favorite in any tournament they play.  The game is just not built to support that kind of virtuosity any more.  You can argue that this is a positive change, as the rules changes and developmental philosophies currently in place make the game more accessible (I certainly find it much easier to teach the game now than I did in 1997—just ignore the whole “ordering-blockers” rule and you can teach a new player in about thirty minutes).  I’m also not going to stop playing because the game is over-simplified now, even though it is.

But it is important to realize that you need to practice different elements of your game now.  Judges are on hand to guide you through complex interactions, both players are responsible for the curious notion of “maintaining the game state”, you can get the Oracle text of any card legal in the format you are playing at any time by request, and any of the things that I just named would have been considered anathema ten years ago. 

Do I miss my free wins?  Damn right I do.  Does it bother me that anyone can be told at any time during a match (if they ask a judge) that pointing a Fireball for 0 at my three Illusions (3R) will kill them all?    Yup.  I should be rewarded for knowing stuff like that, and my opponent who doesn’t should be punished.  That was one of the best parts of the game.  If my opponent waited until after Illusions of Grandeur’s  “Gain 20 life” ability resolved to Disenchant it, I should benefit, and I should be able to blow my opponent out of the water by putting damage on the stack and flickering my team.  But I can’t any more.

Proponents of the new version of the game argue that none of these things made me a better player, just a “rules-lawyer”.  I disagree vehemently.  Being able to slowly eek out an advantage by grinding the CawBlade mirror until you know exactly when to cast your spells is one thing, and performing jaw-dropping plays like sacrificing both your Nihil Spellbombs and destroying your remaining creature so that Oblivion Ring has to target your opponent’s first Oblivion Ring, freeing your Liliana  is quite another.  I can do the second thing, I’m not very capable of doing the first, and so my biased opinion is that the second type of player should not be ostracized or ignored.

Going back to the beginning, it used to be that you were both playing terrible cards, so knowing that you wanted more of them became the first lesson that you learned on the way to becoming better, now I can be up seven cards, with a four to one creature advantage, and they draw an Inferno Titan and I just lose or even worse (since bombs have always existed) they draw some thirtieth pick common that happens to be good in that one particular situation and just blows me away from nowhere. 

The complaints about the transition from a stack-based game to a board-based game are real and valid.  Our lesson from history today is that sometimes we can’t learn from the past, except to learn that we have to be able to evolve from it.

Until next time,

BJSnyder8478 at gmail dot com.  Follow me on Twitter: @snglmaltproof

Post-Script:  I wrote this article a week ago, and since then, Zac Hill wrote a Feature for the mothership that further explained Tom LaPille’s frightening logic behind “dumbing down the game”.  In that article he included the following list of things that Wizard’s R&D believes are “bad” for Magic:

·         "Prison" control decks, which aim to lock players out of the resources to cast their spells, while grinding out a slow, gradual long game
·         Land destruction decks that never let the opponent get off the ground
·         Lightning-fast combination decks that end the game as quickly, and noninteractively, as possible
·         "Draw-Go" style counterspell decks that do nothing except counter the opponent's spells
·         Resource-advantage decks that aim to make Magic a contest of raw attrition

My favorite decks over the 18 years that I’ve played this game are (in chronological order):

Stasis—Violates Rule 1 and Rule 5
ProsBloom—Violates Rule 3
CMU Blue—Violates Rule 4 and Rule 5
Nether-Go—Violates Rule 4 and Rule 5
 Ponza—Violates Rule 2 and Rule 5
 PIRATES! (mono-blue land destruction)—Violates Rule 2 and Rule 5
Trix—Violates Rule 3 and Rule 4
Cognivore-Oath—Violates Rule 3, Rule 4, and Rule 5
Harvest Heartbeat—Violates Rule 3
Twiddle Desire (my unanimous #1 favorite deck)—Violates Rule 3
Flash-Hulk—Violates Rule 3
Destructive Flow—Violates Rule 1, Rule 2, and Rule 5  

Essentially, I said on Twitter that Zac’s article was the most depressing article in years, because it was basically R&D throwing two middle fingers in my face and telling me that I will never again get to play Magic in a way that is fun to me. 

I play Magic competitively, not to “do cool things.”  But, oddly, I am an unrepentant Johnny. I need to build decks better than other people.  I like combinations that other people don’t see.

 I don’t mind losing a match because I am piloting Tempered Steel and I happen to play against the guy with 4 main-deck Ancient Grudges.  I absolutely HATE it when I am piloting Tempered Steel, have a completely dominant strategy over an archetype in every conceivable facet, but my opponent randomly happens to have kept a hand with their singleton Ancient Grudge, which allows them to steam roll me.

I love the randomness of Magic, and I realize that it seems as if I wish it were a game more like Chess.  But I don’t, not at all.  I hate Chess, and I don’t really even enjoy most of the “deck-building” games like Ascension.  The reason I was always attracted to Magic, the single thing over everything else that kept me coming back to the game for more than 3/4s of my life, is that if I studied hard enough, I could build something that would be completely unbeatable. 

That aspect of the game allowed me to drive fourteen hours for PTQs or to travel to Grand Prix’s around the world, because I had the possibility of beating better players than me, not because they got land-screwed, or I randomly ended up with a better 7 cards then them, but because I had strategic superiority. 

Now?  I can’t do that.  The sets are, according to Tom and Zac, designed specifically to make all types of decks equal.  Yes, play skill COULD become more important, and sometimes you see evidence of it, but the reality is that the game has changed to where VARIANCE now has an infinitely higher impact than it ever did before.

That, to me, is disappointing.  Again, I’ll never stop playing the game, and I will keep trying to play tighter, to mulligan more effectively, and to identify weaknesses in the metagame.  But after almost two decades, it is very unlikely that my skill level will ever change.  (Gladwell suggests that 10,000 hours of deliberate, careful practice is the route to mastery of a skill.  I’ve played, read, studied, and practiced Magic for nearly 12,500 hours at this point—if it hasn’t happened yet, it will never happen)

I believe strongly that Magic has the potential to accommodate everyone.  My “Juicy Fruit” deck never won a Pro Tour, and the comments section in the articles I wrote about it were filled with “a three card combo as fragile as this one is terrible, it could never win” but I used it to get 9th at Champs, I won two Moxes and close to two cases of Champion’s and Betrayer’s of Kamigawa.  My Constructed rating went from 1832 to the high 1900s because I had the best version of that deck and I played it well.

Why can’t Magic accommodate that?  I love the current Standard format, but I never feel as though I’m winning games because I’m a better player or I have a better deck, and I never feel that I lose matches because I’m playing poorly or have a worse deck.  Instead, it feels like I win when I draw well, and I lose when I don’t.  What’s worse is that the data I collect on MTGO suggests that I’m completely right to feel this way.

So I’m left with what appears to me to be a hollowed-out, decaying shell of the game I’ve grown up alongside.  It feels like what happens when the artist friend you have finally gives up on her photography and says, “You know, I’m just going to accept that 9-5, and Dave’s proposal…I just can’t do this anymore”.  Her life might end up better, but it is, to me, the most depressing thing in the world that you’ll never know what might have happened.

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