magic: the gathering – eliminating small mistakes


The four years I’ve taken off of competitive Magic have been interesting ones. When I stopped playing competitive Magic, I was working as a server at a local Italian chain restaurant and flunking out of undergraduate school. Since then, I’ve co-founded a wildly successful finance company (which I ran into the ground), worked for an Internet poker site as a data analyst, worked for Microsoft, and have developed a much, much stronger understanding of statistics, mathematics, and gaming theory (as well as traditional economics-based Game Theory).

Now, I’m not going to say that the experiences that I’ve had in the past are the reason that I’ve done well in the last two big tournaments I’ve played (outright winning the Standard Mox tournament and T8’ing the Extended PTQ), because I’ve gotten lucky in both and have made numerous simple play errors that could have cost me games. However, what I’ve always known but only recently fully appreciated is that Magic (like any other game) is a series of interactions that start well before the first card is drawn in the game. The game is full of small edges and decisions that are so minute that even top players simply ignore them. For example, see Gabriel Nassif’s 2009 PT: Kyoto deck. It contains 61 cards because he had no idea what to cut! The rationale behind such a move was simply “I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to cut,” and the implied reasoning behind it is “It’s not a big deal anyway.”

The lack of real statistical analysis of the game of Magic – despite the long history and the big payouts – continues to amaze me. People will justify playing 17 or 18 land in a limited deck just by glancing at the casting costs, or they’ll play 3 of a card instead of 4, or they’ll play a “miser’s” Loxodon Warhammer in the sideboard. All of these decisions make small, but significant impacts on the game in general!

For example, do you know what the probability of drawing Kataki, War’s Wage + two land (one of which is a white source) in game two vs. Affinity? What is the combinatorial possibility that the Affinity player will draw Path to Exile + a white source and have it open on your turn? What is the impact of the game if you play Kataki? What about when he Paths it?

People assume that if you play Kataki that you win vs. Affinity. Okay? Is that good enough? Why not maindeck it? What’s the difference between Kataki and a random zoo card, like Sulfuric Vortex? What is the estimated metagame, and what will the best players be playing? What is the likely spread of matches?

Very few people consider these advanced variables – and I’m not one of them! I don’t yet know how to account for all these variables, but I do think about them conceptually.

In-game play skill is something that we all focus on – not missing on board kills, not tapping our lands incorrectly, and maximizing damage per turn are all things that most players need to get better at. These are the things we focus on because they have immediate and sudden impact on our games – but no one really remembers siding out Thoughtcast for Thoughtseize against TEPS and understanding what the real difference is.

Humans tend to overrate dramatic (and recent) events in their lives. Did you lose because you couldn’t draw Myr Enforcers and you lost games to Spell Snares? The answer is clearly playing more card drawing spells to mitigate the effects of counterspells! We are not built to think about small edges – what about always shuffling your opponent’s deck between activations of fetchlands? What if they “innocuously” put an Ancient Grudge in the middle of their deck, hoping that you’ll cut to it? Assuming that they have 47 cards left in their deck and you cut to that card 1/10 times rather than sufficiently randomizing the deck, what’s the impact on your game? If they draw it, it’s huge. If not, you will likely forget about it – yet that’s the type of results-oriented analysis that we must ignore if we want to become better players.

I see this line of thinking on SCG forums all the time – they discount the concepts of the Sligh mana curve and diss cards like Tattermunge Maniac because they suck. Well, of course it does – but that’s not the point. There were few better players in the game than Mike Pustilnik at playing cards on turns one through five in limited, and though the cards he played were often inferior, that wasn’t necessarily the point. Magic is a game of developing a plan and executing it – not drawing the best cards.

When you playtest 100 games, are you sure that’s enough? A good baseball analogy would be to watch a team that has a .300 hitter and a .280 hitter and to watch 100 random at-bats of theirs. Without seeing the scoreboard, could you possibly tell which one was which? It’s very unlikely – the .280 hitter will have MORE hits than the .300 hitter in many situations (too lazy to actually do the math, but you can do it if you like – Google “Standard Deviation”). All it takes is one or two games where you draw your Kataki and your opponent does not draw Path to Exile to form ideas that are not necessarily based on reality.

Two personal stories that may or may not have any relevance to the situation follow:


One of the playtesting games that sticks out in my mind was during the Odyssey/Onslaught block Regionals where Psychatog was going to run rampant. I played mono-black control, and one day at the Gamekeeper, I was playing a series of games vs. an unknown player from across town who was fielding U/G Madness. At the time, I fancied myself a fairly decent player, having recently run my Extended rating up to and over 2050 with mono-blue Forbiddian in weekly tournaments. There was a turn in the mid-late game when my opponent had Arrogant Wurm and Wild Mongrel with two cards in hand and no lands untapped. I drew my card and had the following relevant cards in hand:

Chainer’s Edict
Mind Sludge
Haunting Echoes

I was going to simply cast Mind Sludge, wipe my opponent’s hand, and pass the turn with no creature in play. He’d attack me to 7 life, and I’d kill his guys and take over with Haunting Echoes on the consecutive turn. However, my friend Steve Landen (no longer Landen these days) said over my shoulder: “Kill that, kill that, say go.” That seemed like a better plan for some reason, and I Smothered his Mongrel and Edicted his Wurm and passed the turn. What could possibly happen with an Edict in the graveyard?

My opponent untapped and cast Upheaval and played a Basking Rootwalla.

Now, Upheaval was not very common in U/G Madness (at least maindeck), but my opponent included it in his decklist to help fight vs. the “unwinnable” mono-black matchup. He would go on to play Upheaval in every decklist he could possibly cram it into, including Wake, which ended up being very, very good.

I lost this matchup because I failed to consider the only way I could lose, and that would be an Upheaval or some other crazy effect in his hand. Mind Sludge would have been the overwhelmingly correct play, but I let the irrational fear of taking damage get into my head.

My opponent, Cedric Phillips, would go on to better and bigger things, but I have no doubts that you are aware of them.


Since moving to Seattle, I was afraid that I wouldn’t find a playtesting group to seriously work with. I was surprised to find a lot of quality players who had an open mind to letting me play with them, which is a stark contrast to the cliques I knew in the Midwest. Of course, I had known some of them from the GP circuits (Noah Weil and I played a match at GP: Oakland, and I slopped him in a SCG article of mine because he complained of mana flood – I hope he forgives me for that!), but none of them were really my “friend.”

You can tell a lot about a Magic player by the way he carries himself, taps his lands, and thinks about his options. While playing in Cleveland, I could tell that Tim Aten was the best player in our area just by the way he thought about the game and the way he played his games through. While it took some time for him to acheive the success I always knew he would attain, he eventually did get there. He inspired me to think about the game in a different way and got me playing on a better level as a result. I never put in the work to get to the levels that he did, and while it’s not clear that I ever could be that good, his mind plus his work ethic was clearly rewarded in the long run.

I feel much the same way when I watch Charles Dupont (Aceman) play Magic here, with the exception of course being that everyone knows who he is already – he’s a MODO superstar. The way he theorizes about the game and simply considers his options in friendly games like Cube drafts for no money amazes me. We have discussions about small edges, and he sees things on levels that I haven’t ever considered. The thing that we both have in common is that we know our limitations – he doesn’t spend much time on Constructed because he knows the marginal increase in winning a PTQ (that he doesn’t have to pay for due to States) isn’t worth his time, and I don’t spend all that much time on Limited because I am aware that I will probably never be a great Limited player. My expertise (however small it may be) has always been in analyzing Constructed formats and being good at ad hoc formats – the few times I’ve had success in Limited formats (GP: Oakland) have been the times when the set is new and people have not had the time to work with it on MODO over and over again.

As I begin my new leg of this competitive Magic journey, I hope to learn a lot from my playtesting partners and friends in the Seattle area. I can honestly say that I’ve played better than I was while playing in Cleveland in just two short months, and I can see many, many ways that I can improve my in-game skills and my approach to the game in general. For once, I feel quite optimistic about improving as a player and a theorist in general.

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