Zen and the Art of Ignoring Luck
Just a scant few weeks ago I braved the trek to Colorado Springs to participate in the last Limited qualifier of the season. The deck I received was solid, sporting several large creatures and a few key removal spells. By the end of the fifth round I was teetering on a precarious 3-1-1 record, vying with a handful of other 3-1-1s for a spot in the top 8. As luck is so often wont to do, she stuck her tongue out and sent a raucous razzberry in my general direction. I produced my final win against the lower ranks of a 3-2 player. I am granted the ignominious rank of 4-1-1 with the worst tiebreakers. My reward is 10th place, a few boosters and a wave goodnight.
Shall I spend this article decrying the injustice of the swiss system, sending a call to arms to end such barbarism?
Nah. Besides, Charles Mousseau has done a fine job of this already. [I find it ironic that these days saying Charles Mousseau, King of Controversy has done a"fine job" is itself, a controversial statement. - Knut]
After more than a month of anxious delays, the Mirrodin release went live this past weekend. To entice disillusioned Magic addicts to renew their habit, a platinum carrot was dangled on computer monitors. Whoever achieves a 5-0 record in release leagues would obtain a special edition Platinum Angel avatar. My penchant for carrots was rewarded. I received a solid pool hosting large creatures, several removal spells, and the infamous Loxodon Brokenhammer.
The road to round 4 was paved with the indistinguishable remains of my previous opponents. Unfortunately, that abhorrent face of lady unluck peeks in at the darndest times. Ten lands and five spells later, Magic Online flashes me a query asking whether or not I'd like to play first. Sadly, there is no option to request lands beyond the two in your initial draw. The Angel avatar was snatched from the maw of this addict.
Someone once mentioned to me that they believed the Magic Online shuffler favored the higher-ranked players. Should I spend this article postulating how Magic Online has been inherently designed in casino fashion to always favor the house? I can already conjure a myriad ways to tailor your online experience to your spending habits.
Though I might enjoy a temporary indulgence of whine, I will still be sans a Platinum Angel avatar.
Still, I would like to talk about luck.
Luck is defined in the dictionary as"a chance happening of fortunate or adverse events." In other words, a random event that can produce a positive or negative effect with no particular proclivity towards one outcome. If luck were purely a synonym for a random event, we'd all inherently understand that a stop at Taco Bell to taste the new tortilla mutation would be a better investment of a few dollars than a couple of lottery tickets. Gambling establishments would fall to ruin, parks would no longer receive regular maintenance, people would flee in droves upon encountering disheveled campsites and outhouses, the infrastructure of America would collapse...
But I digress.
The term luck is a connotation that is shrouded in psychology. When someone bemoans,"just my luck...etc., etc.," she is under the impression that random events tend to negatively affect her."Better lucky than good!" is a standard colloquialism that emphasizes the belief that random events can lean in one's favor. Obviously, a series of random events, by definition, won't produce a strong result in the positive or negative direction. However, we like to think so.
How does a page-long narrative on the concept of luck apply to Magic?
Let's envision a world where there is no such definition as luck and everyone understands and accepts the natural randomness of Magic. The local area hosts ten Magic players with skill levels that should assure a regular seat in the top 8 of any given PTQ that hosts approximately sixty people. If one were to trend the performance of these individuals over the course of several PTQs, the number of appearances of each individual in the top 8 should be approximately equal, with the occasional debut of a less talented player*.
Compare this with what you see in your local community. You've ascertained ten players to be of top 8 caliber. However, only four of those ten seem to follow your assessment and regularly star in the top 8. The other six are only special guests.
What differentiates these two groups of players if it isn't skill?
How many times have you heard,"I would've made it if it wasn't for (insert perfectly-timed sequence of unlucky occurrences)?"
Could it be that luck truly is an important factor?
In the random realm of Magic, bad draws are inescapable. However, the tournament structure is devised to reduce the impact of such randomness. Matches are best two-of-three. Intentional mulligans are allowed. Swiss pairings reduce matches of lopsided skills.
What the tournament structure can't prevent, though, is how you react to your situation. Maybe the perception associated with luck is affecting these players.
Emotion is integral to human nature. When circumstances provide us with seemingly good or bad fortune, our immediate response derives from emotion. When faced with a situation that requires continued intelligent response, emotions sometimes obscure the thought process. The result: poor decisions.
Let's take a look at this from the perspective of a Magic game. It is necessary to win this match to secure your spot in the top 8. The first game is decided by the strength of your deck and play decisions. The second by the dearth of land. You've made the decision to draw first in the final game. The lands still don't want to come out to play. You swear you can hear the deck sniggering as you perform the first mulligan. The six-card hand decides to get in on the teasing - a sole Mountain accompanied by a Gold Myr.
You've succumbed to the last few unfortunate events and slam the cards back on the deck without noticing the rest of your hand: Pyrite Spellbomb, Leonin Den-Guard, Leonin Scimitar, Skyhunter Cub. The trend of one-land/no-land continues until you've whittled your hand to a measly four cards. The game is sealed when a turn 2 Slith Firewalker takes too many chunks from your hide before you can conjure any defense. Nothing left but to lament to any friends foolish enough to wander within earshot.
Without the frustration of luck clawing at your reason, what would you have done with the six-card hand? If you draw a second land, you will have the resources to cast all spells in hand. You have two chances before you miss a land drop. The draw is of such high quality that generating a second land on turn 3 will not severely impact your development. The Pyrite Spellbomb enables a fourth chance to seek the absent land. This is one instance where a better decision would have been to accept the six-card hand. Unfortunately, the concerns over luck immobilized good judgment**.
Or are you the personality that always has to contend with lucky opponents, ones who could beat the shell game blindfolded?
This, psychologically, can also play havoc with your emotional neutrality. It's just as easily to get rattled by an opponent's good draws.
Case in point: Your opponent takes to the air with a Somber Hoverguard. Check. You retaliate with Tel-Jilad Archers. Check. He draws and moves a Bonesplitter into position. A Leonin Scimitar from the flanks strengthens your opponent's position. Checkmate.
With your artifact removal exhausted and only nine points to buffer your demise, you emotionally resign. The Archers throw themselves under the trampling foot of the Hoverguard. The mind reels at its own thoughtlessness when your last draw reveals what would have been the last potential savior - the second Archers.
Intelligence was not blinded by science, but the perceived luck of your opponent.
Let's add a twist of lemon and offer a brew to absorb: What percentage of time is devoted to mulling over someone's luck in past games? How does that compare to analyzing mistakes in lost games?
Luck doesn't pander solely to decisions in games. Recollect last Friday against that oddball Goblin deck packing four Blistering Firecats. Your deck was a charred remnant after your opponent belched out cat number four. That last cat must've singed your logical thought processes as well. The rote sideboarding strategy against Goblin decks was pitched in favor of every scrap of fast removal.
Your late-game answers looked on piteously from the sideboard as Rorix batted cleanup for the second game.
Lastly, we mustn't ignore the insidious mulligan. Come, recline on my replica Freudian couch so that I may perform some rudimentary psychoanalysis...
How do you feel after you declare a mulligan?
How does this feeling affect your decision to mulligan in the future?
How does your response change if I mention that since Grand Prix: Kansas City I've mulliganed ten times in fifty-nine games (one double-mulligan) and won five of those nine games, including the double-mulligan?
Luck is like the theory of existence, Santa Claus, and the Field of Dreams. Belief equates to reality.
Learning to ignore fortune is challenging in a game that is pitching you curveballs with every draw. It takes a lot of self-discipline to keep your head down and listen to the whispers of rational thought that are drowned by the vociferous arguments of emotion.
Unfortunately, I cannot provide the directions from here to the bliss of Vulcan discipline. I still have my own Tourette Syndrome-style moments. However, I have discovered that each time I can successfully banish luck from my vocabulary, I find myself one step closer to the brass ring. The same can apply to you.
So, next time you start feeling the surge of indignation from lady luck's unfortunate hand, remember that no one bothered to bring the requisite selection of cheeses.
* This is not a rigorous math proof, but yes, accept all simplifying assumptions required to generate an even playing field for all individuals involved.
** As luck would have it (heh), I found myself in an almost identical situation yesterday - game 3, couldn't lose, mulliganed to six, chose to draw, similar one-land hand. I decided to keep. The first card I drew was Glimmervoid.