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

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