Flow of Ideas - Decision-Point Theory
Suzanne bolted out the classroom door hand gracefully sprawling away from around the door’s metal doorknob as she pushed back and walked toward the building’s exit. I grabbed the edge of the door as it swung in toward the classroom and pushed it back with a smile setting it aside for myself and the rest of the students to exit through. I stepped out and began to move toward Suzanne at a pace which was faster than I would normally walk but relaxed enough to not seem like I was intentionally gaining on her.
I studied her figure blonde hair tied back with wispy strands falling to the side of her face and brown eyes partially concealed by tinted blue-rimmed glasses with a butterfly design emblazoned on each side. She took a step toward the glass-paned door which marked the exit of the building and moved her hand toward its aging brass handle. I had to say something before she left or we would assuredly head different directions; there was but split a moment in time where I had to make a decision each which diverged unto its own set of consequences: I could either act or continue to stride ahead as if nothing happened. I wasn’t about to let the latter happen.
“Hey. Where did you get your glasses?” I asked. Well that was awkward.
She froze then turned to me with a smile. “I got them back home at a shop near my house.”
“Oh that’s very cool! They look really nice” I said walking side by side with her out on the grassy pathway. “Where do you live?”
“I’m from Nevada. I live in a pretty small town just near the border but it has a lot of small shops which specialize in items you can’t really find elsewhere.”
We began to walk back toward her dorm swapping brief glimmers into each of our lives during the journey. Her dorm was positioned far off campus and I considered parting here since I had a meeting with some friends I was going to be late for but opted to continue walking.
I stood in front of her monolithic brown dorm “See you at class tomorrow” I offered.
“You too” she said flashing a smile as she closed the dorm’s door behind her. I retreated back toward campus hoping I wouldn’t be too late for my meeting.
Think about what you just did.
Life is a sequence of decisions. Each decision we make will influence our life and lead to a string of new decisions which in turn leads to more decisions and so on. You made a decision to click on this very article and as a result you read the above story and are letting these very words run loose in your mind. You make decisions all of the time without even thinking about it.
Now think about the story. What is going on here?
This innocent conversation like any of the others we have on a daily basis was fueled by choice. There was a decision-point – a moment where I had to make a decision I knew would causally form a major result – where I had to choose to either talk to Suzanne or continue to walk then another when I opted to continue walking with her instead of heading back. They both have cause and effect relationships which are identifiable to an adept thinker before the effect happens. These examples are fairly easy to identify; for example in the latter decision point continuing to walk with Suzanne was going to cause me to be late knowingly frustrating my friends who were waiting on me in the short term while leaving Suzanne for my friends would frustrate Suzanne in the short term and deprive us of additional time talking. The ability to pinpoint what causal effect a decision is going to lead to is an invaluable life skill.
Okay. What does any of this have to do with Magic?
Well one particular area where decision-points are both easy to find and crucial to identify are in games of Magic. Each game resembles an unfolding decision tree. Each player is making decisions which subsequently lead to another set of decisions. If I choose not to block your creature next turn it’s going to be around next turn without additional intervention and the turn after that and so on. If we don’t trade Grizzly Bears on turn 3 you are still going to have that Bear around to help double block the Rhox Brute I’m going to play two turns down the road. If you Terminate their Hill Giant instead of trading yours for it when you’re at three you will still have a creature but you will be out of removal if the card in their hand is another creature. If you end up losing to the 5/5 hiding out in their hand it’s because you opted to not trade Hill Giants.
What can looking at these decision-points tell us about a game of Magic? By looking a few decision trees ahead you can figure out which action is the better option whenever you are given a choice. Let’s look at a more in-context example.
You’re playing Faeries versus Mono Red Burn in Extended. You’ve managed to stabilize at four with a board featuring plenty of lands including a Riptide Laboratory. (But no Mutavaults.) Additionally you have an Umezawa’s Jitte in play but with no counters on it. In your hand is a single Flashfreeze and your opponent is playing off the top. Your opponent has a board of four lands one of which is a Great Furnace. He draws for the turn taps a Mountain and plays a Mogg Fanatic.
You have to make a choice here which will undoubtedly alter the course of the game. It’s not just a question of countering Mogg Fanatic it’s a question of determining which outcome of that spell is better for you.
If you let Fanatic resolve the game turns into being all about that Mogg Fanatic. You have to not let that Mogg Fanatic kill you before you can find a creature to put your Jitte on. If you let the Fanatic resolve then end up dying to it three turns later it’s because you chose to let it resolve at this juncture.
If you counter the Fanatic the game turns into a race between draws; a question of who can draw action first. If your opponent draws a burn spell they will send you spiraling down to a precarious one life at best or shuffling up for the next game at worst. However if you draw a creature before they draw adequate burn you will get Jitte active and pull the game out of burn’s reach.
So which outcome would you rather face?
On one hand you don’t really want to be in a topdeck war against a burn deck. Their draws are going to outclass yours because they have fewer lands in their deck and they only have to resolve any two of their spells to beat you at this point. On the other Fanatic turns off receiving Jitte counters if you find a Mutavault and is likely going to be good for at least two points of damage this game putting you on dead to any burn spell. Additionally there’s the threat of this Mogg Fanatic just killing you if you don’t draw any non-countermagic in the next few turns. In this position I would counter the Fanatic and choose to make the game about our draws rather than risk losing to the Fanatic alongside a burn spell over time hoping I can draw a creature before my opponent can kill me. (Or find Sulfuric Vortex.)
Countermagic is skill testing because it creates several of these decision-points over the course of the game which is why a more skilled player is more likely to achieve victory playing with permission. However in a similar way removal also serves as a gateway to enter decision-points through. Take this position for example.
You’re playing B/W Tokens against Faeries in Standard. You’re at eight and have a pair of Spectral Procession tokens alongside a Glorious Anthem with a Mutavault back in the ranks. Your opponent is at thirteen and has a Bitterblossom with an untapped token a Spellstutter Sprite and a tapped Scion of Oona but is stuck at three lands and has three cards in his hand. He didn’t play anything on your last end step or during his main phase but when you went for an end step Terror it met the aforementioned Spellstutter Sprite leaving him with only a Sunken Ruins untapped. Your hand consists of a Path to Exile. It is your precombat main phase.
That Scion of Oona is a tempting target for Path. Pathing the Scion would allow you to crunch in for seven possibly only four or five should your opponent choose to double block a token or triple block a Mutavault. The problem here is that Path ramps your opponent up to four mana and if your opponent has a combination of two Mistbind Cliques or Cryptic Commands you’re just dead. Considering your opponent hasn’t played any of the three cards in his hand prior either he’s clogged on Spellstutter Sprites and Bitterblossoms or he has his dangerous four-cost spells lurking in his hand.
If you attack see if he blocks and Path the Scion the game might as well turn into Texas Hold ‘Em. He’s going to lay down his hand look at what’s on the table and either he has the Cliques and Commands and you lose or he’s been holding other cards and you are in a great position to win.
If you attack he blocks and you choose not to Path your board is going to mostly trade and you still open yourself up to losing if he draws a land. By holding back and choosing not to Path you are trying to play for your future draw steps – drawing an Ajani or another Anthem – and make any additional countermagic in your opponent’s hand good. However you also don’t automatically lose the game if your opponent has a duo of four casting cost spells by making either of these plays.
So which outcome would you rather face?
Part of me wants to take the risk. The allure of crushing my opponent if he doesn’t have the right cards is a strong one especially when you’re in a board state where you’re falling behind and have to take some risks. However doing so can’t be right. Unless his hand is absolute garbage he didn’t play anything during your last end step which is indicative that he has a combination of Mistbind Cliques and Cryptic Commands – and I’d rather not make the play that just outright loses me the game. However holding back can’t be right either. By holding back you are just giving your opponent more time to find their fourth land and subsequently crush you. You have to remain aggressive; you have to attack. I would attack with all of my creatures see how and if he blocks then let damage resolve. Even if he draws a land and goes for a Mistbind Clique I can safely Path it out of the way and get in for more damage. It’s still going to be an uphill climb but I think it gives me a better chance than the all-in play of Pathing my opponent’s Scion.
Decisions like these come up in every game of Magic and being able to identify them can make you a much better player. Not only in foresight but in hindsight. One of the ways I became a lot better at Magic is whenever I would lose a game I would figure out which play led me to lose. Often there was a single play – a single decision-point – within the game that led me down the dimly-lit street of defeat. Whether it was Limited or Constructed I could look at how I blocked the way I played a removal spell the spell I chose to counter and see what the ramifications of that play were. For example I kept losing games in Limited and found it was often correlated to losing to my opponent’s last huge creature. Their single 5/5 would often be the creature which took me down and I just couldn’t stop it. What decision led me there? Well after reviewing several games over a long period of time I found I was just often casting my removal too early. By looking at where I went wrong I could figure out where to correct myself in the future.
Doing so is made especially easy to do by the recent re-addition of the replay feature on Magic Online. Back when you could watch replays on the 2.5 server I would go through each game I lost looking for the reason. Sometimes it would take me two three or even four viewings but eventually I would find the single decision-point which changes the course of the game. I’ve began to do the same thing now that replays have returned on the 3.0 server and it still holds true: every time I lost it’s because I made a mistake somewhere – a choice made at a single decision-point which shaped the rest of the game.
Track your decision points and see where they lead and you’ll find that the same game can have drastically different results based on a single decision. By looking ahead during the course of a game you can figure out the best play to make and by looking back at a game when something goes awry you can figure out the best play to make in the future.
I’m looking forward to talking to you guys about this article and about some of the common decision-points you’ve recently found yourself in. If you don’t have an account to post a reply to this article you can e-mail me at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com. Otherwise see you in the forums!
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online Lesurgo everywhere else