Flow of Ideas - Everything you Know is Wrong
“Two minutes left in deck construction,” blasted through the hall as the judge gave a confirming nod that my sheet was fine. I scurried past a line of people with decklists in hand to find my friends who would no doubt be jabbering, either bemoaning their luck or showing off the most insane Sealed Deck they'd ever seen.
“Pool?” asked Alex, a single word summing up a kaleidoscope of meaning.
I nodded. “Solid,” I told him as I passed it over. “Not the best ever, but it certainly has the potential to make Top 8—”
“Or go 6-2,” teased Paul.
“Yeah. The usual.”
Alex thumbed through it a little faster than normal and gestured at some generically good cards, a classic tell, meaning ‘I really only asked you about your deck so I could show you mine.' As if on cue, Alex used his tail to whip the deck out of his back pocket.
I began thumbing through it. It was just as advertised; no leaky plumbing or mice infestation here. Some of your usual culprits showed up – Contagion Engine, Hoard-Smelter Dragon – but the commons lined up nicely too.
“Wait until you get to the back,” jostled Mike from behind me.
My hands skid past a land clump as I reached the final three cards. I rolled my eyes and the phrase “So lucky!” – a sequence of words I usually delicately balance on the tip of my tongue – jumped out into the air. I laid them out on the table and pointed, as if revealing them to the universe would provide some sense of cosmic justice.
Everyone else shook their heads in agreement.
The dingy echo of the loudspeaker began to writhe in my ear canal. “Players, pairings for round one are up. Please find your seats!”
“Don't forget those,” I said, pointing to the cards on the table.
Alex nodded and went over to scoop up his three Golem's Hearts. “Wouldn't want to lose these.”
What if everything was different?
What if, somewhere in the midst of human evolution, something changed? One tiny annoyance was weeded out, or one new feature was added. Modify one thing and everything changes.
What if humans had tails? What if we had never evolved away that versatile rear limb? Can you imagine what the world would look like today?
Let's say that we end up in a similar society and that we weren't all so preoccupied with swinging around on trees to learn the basics of speech. The world would be completely different. Our cars would have another pedal controlled by our tail, and trees would line streets like sidewalk chalk so we could swing to where we were going. People would dress up their tails like Hollywood actresses dress up their dogs, with accessories and clothes. Windows on tall buildings would have to be shut overnight for fear of a burglar swinging inside your home.
And that's just one possible outcome.
Many of you might know this as the butterfly effect. Aside from being one of Paulo Vitor's favorite movies of all time, it's the idea that if you change one tiny thing in the past it can have enormous repercussions in the future.
What if you hadn't tripped and spent a few more seconds in the store?
What if you hadn't gone to the supermarket that night?
What if you never went to that party and met her?
What if you had cast that Inflame?
The list goes on.
While the idea of this effect amuses me to no end as “what if” questions are posed and thought out, the truth is it has little significance. We can ask ourselves these questions, but they don't matter. We don't have the luxury of living in an alternate universe where the 43rd card from the top was shuffled slightly differently and the cheering bid for a topdecked Lightning Helix comes up as a Mountain. We have to live in our reality.
…For the most part.
There's one time when considering an alternate course of history is helpful: evaluating norms.
Humanity evolved along one branch. One long, strong, important branch – but still only one branch. Everything around us is the way it is because of how we chose to make it in the formative stages of our culture.
The same is true for Magic.
Everything we know about Magic has evolved from one line of theory. It all started with whatever the people who pushed their thoughts forward in the early usenet days – the Mike Floreses of the world – believed, and it spread outward from there. From there everything was set into motion and common principles were slowly put into place. Always play first. Cards that just gain life are bad. Card advantage is king. Pick removal highly in Limited. These are all tenets of the game that people lean on like Roman pillars; nobody would think to question them anymore. They're just perceived facts of Magic.
But what if everything we know is wrong?
What if cards that gain life are criminally undervalued? What if drawing is often better than playing? What if people had written about interaction advantage instead of card advantage from the very beginning?
We could continue along this path and never notice a difference. However, that's not the only option. We can challenge these notions to correct our course of thought.
Let's go back to Golem's Heart.
In the alternate universe that opened this article, Alex was thrilled about his triple Golem's Heart Sealed Deck. In our reality, most people who looked at that pool would mock his choice. Why? Because life gain is bad.
But is it?
Let's say you deploy a turn 2 Golem's Heart. If you and your opponent both have plenty of artifacts – as most Sealed Decks will – it's probably good for eight or more life over the course of a game. Additionally, it moves your metalcraft closer to coming online.
Now, does every deck want two-mana gain eight life? No, and we don't know very much about Alex's deck. But in this format, a lot of the games are just about having time to deploy your strategy and not get run over. You would pay two mana for a card that gave you that crucial extra turn your deck needed… wouldn't you?
While Zac Hill was in Malaysia, he wrote an article on Shards of Alara Limited where he goes on about the strengths of Marble Chalice. Some of the local Malaysian players valued cards completely differently than we do here in North America, which forced Zac to reconsider his stance.
What did he find? To quote Zac, “Marble Chalice is actually very good in aggressive mirrors.”
Have you ever cast a Marble Chalice that wasn't coated in sharpie? And yet, here we are, in a world where a card that slowly gains life, at a rate perhaps equivalent to Golem's Heart, is a card that is “very good” in aggressive mirrors.
If you're just trying to stall to hit the turn for your bombs or gain the upper hand in a beatdown battle, maybe you should consider giving Golem's Heart a try. It's not as bad as it looks.
But I know the majority of people won't. They'll just continue to leave their Golem's Hearts in their sideboard, oblivious to whether or not it's a good fit for their deck. Why? Because, once again, pure life gain cards are bad.
That phrase means nothing. If this was anything else and you just said something was bad with no justification, people would ask for you to back it up.
“The New England Patriots are bad.”
“Hamsters are bad.”
“Screwdrivers are bad.”
Any one of those things would invoke questioning. They would want to know why you think that. When I point to the Golem's Heart in your sideboard and ask if you considered playing it and you tell me “Golem's Heart is bad because life gain is bad,” can you answer why life gain is bad?
Assuming you have your wits about you and an answer in mind, you might answer, “Because life gain doesn't affect the board and just raises a total to stall out the game.”
But what if that's all your deck needs to do?
Look at Conley Woods. He is constantly reevaluating every card in every situation, ignoring common beliefs about what the card does. Once I saw his double Living Destiny, double Emrakul deck run the table.
Does that mean Living Destiny is a card you should always play? No – but it's also not unplayable. All Conley does is try to make the right decision for what his deck is trying to do, not the decision that adheres most commonly to popular opinion.
Life gain isn't bad; it just most often doesn't fit the strategy most decks are trying to play. There's a big difference. It's like saying “black is bad” when your deck is R/W. Of course black cards don't belong in your R/W deck! That doesn't mean they're unplayable.
These binary beliefs people have about Magic have hurt their overall ability. They allow you to make the right choice 80% of the time, but that other 20% of the time they force you to follow blindly and miss opportunities.
Another belief people follow blindly is how to choose between playing and drawing.
It is common convention to always play. Always, always, always. “The extra card isn't worth the tempo,” many will tell you as a stock answer they pulled off their mental grocery aisle. With the exception of Sealed Deck, where some people believe it is right to choose to draw, you'll almost never see a player choose to go second. In fact, it's even in the rules: if you win the dice roll and look at your opening hand, it's assumed you're going first.
Would you believe me if I told you that occasionally it was right to draw not only in Sealed, not only in Booster Draft, but in Constructed as well?
Years ago, I was talking to Alan Comer about the non-question of playing or drawing. I won the dice roll and remarked about how everybody always plays, and it's not even a question. Alan smiled and told me, “You'd be surprised to hear that in some European countries, they believe exactly the opposite.”
At the time, I was a bit taken aback. Since then, I've taken Alan's advice to heart and drawn when I feel it's in the best interest of my deck to draw. If I have a slow Booster Draft deck, and my opponent's deck is also fairly slow, I'll almost always choose to draw. If we're both aggressive beatdown decks that are both looking to trade off creatures, I'll often draw as well.
It may sound preposterous, but what if I told you that by going second, it means you got a free Divination in your opening hand? Doesn't that sound enticing? That's the tradeoff you're making. In any matchup where you'd want to start with a free Divination, it's usually right to draw.
But what about in Constructed? “It's never right to draw in Constructed,” people will tell you.
Except, of course, for when it is.
Famously, David Price wrote an article all about drawing in the red mirror. He discussed how the matchup is about attrition, not tempo, and with no ways to get extra cards on your own, every card was crucial.
Though controversial, over time, people began to adopt Price's notion.
Before Pro Tour Honolulu last year, I discussed the idea of drawing in the Jund mirror match with several of my friends. I had figured the extra card really mattered in a matchup defined by attrition and Blightning, so maybe the free Divination was what you needed. In fact, my playtesting data even showed the deck on the draw was winning slightly more than when on the play. I was universally told I was wrong and to not be results-oriented with my playtesting data.
When the Pro Tour happened weeks later, Jim Davis chose to draw in all of his Jund mirrors – right into a 33rd place finish.
After he published his strategy, I don't think I saw a Jund player choose to play in the mirror for the duration of the Block season on Magic Online.
See a trend here? Drawing in Constructed isn't the right choice… unless a pro tells you to do it. Then it's okay.
Why do you need their validation? If your testing shows you drawing is right, then by all means,
Pro Tour New Orleans 2003 was one of the most broken Pro Tours of all time. Widely remembered as “Pro Tour Tinker,” the decks that were played were completely degenerate. Games were over at blazing speeds as people used a combination of Voltaic Key, artifact mana, Tinker, Metalworker, Chrome Mox, and Goblin Welder to put opponents into a Mindslaver lock within the first few turns. And if you weren't doing that, you could always just Mana Severance-Goblin Charbelcher combo someone out. The decks being played were at an unprecedented level of strength.
In a format where you could control someone else's turn as early as turn 2, how much of a percentage advantage do you think players who won the die roll had? 70%? 80%?
Try less than half.
The DCI had the players' records who won the roll and who won the match. The results were that 47% of players who won the dice roll won the match. That means that more than half the time, the winner of the match won one or two games on the draw.
Some might try and argue that Magic today is different from Magic in 2003. They might say that tempo plays more of a role.
Seriously? You're going to complain about your opponent's modern-day turn 2 Putrid Leech on the play when back in 2003 sometimes you were just dead before turn 2?
That's not even fair.
This isn't all to say that you should draw all the time in every matchup. In some matchups, that's suicide. But in others, it's actually correct. It's just not an automatic decision like everyone assumes; if you have every reason to believe you should be on the draw in a matchup, you don't have to wait for a pro to steal your thunder in the Top 8 of a Pro Tour. Next time you sit down to test, ask yourself, “Would I rather have a free Divination in this matchup than go first?” Give it a try. Play eight games on the draw and see how you do.
You might be surprised.
The pitter-patter of a lightweight stampede bounced off walls as children ran into the next room and their parents retreated. The carpeted floors gave way to classroom after classroom, filled with the newest equipment, promising projects, and teachers who taught for the love of the profession. One of the more weathered teachers stood in the hallway, watching the last of the children part with their parents and run into the next room with eager faces.
“Mrs. Verhey… do you have a moment?” A mother with blonde curls streaming down her sides like luminous tendrils spun to face the first-grade teacher.
“I want to talk to you about your son. He's—”
“Is there a problem?” interjected the mother, tone carrying a combination of protection and worry.
“No, it's not that,” the teacher reassured. “In fact, he's excelling in nearly every field. His reading comprehension and math is far above his peers, and he's always happy to lead classroom discussions and help other students. Just the other day, I caught him explaining how ‘noon' and ‘midnight' can both be at 12:00 to another child.” She took a moment to readjust her blouse and make contact with the mother's eyes. “He's incredibly talented. However…” She unclipped her purse and began to feel through cookie crumb-covered papers to find something in particular.
The teacher found the slip of paper she was looking for and pulled it out, her free hand gesturing toward it. “This is the problem.”
“It's a cute greeting card with a picture for his teacher. I don't see the—“
“Look, I know you see it too,” she said, her index finger drawing a line across the squiggly hieroglyphics on the page. “Everyone has a weakness. His is handwriting. We've tried working with him closely, asking him to mimic his peers. He tries – but it hasn't worked.”
“He'll improve in time.”
“I've talked it over at length with the principal. Look, Teresa, we all love Gavin. He's a joy to have in the classroom. But we can't let him move onto second grade until his handwriting improves. We're going to have to hold him back.”
The mother began to move her lips, but the words took the form of little more than a confused hiss. “I don't… understand.”
“If you want my advice,” said the teacher, “get him on a computer now. Those things are what we're all going to be using in a few years anyway.” She paused. “I've worked closely with Gavin, and I know he deserves better. This is our decision. If you disagree, you can always take him elsewhere or teach him yourself.”
The world spun as Teresa weighed her decisions. The universe leaned in to hear the words that would define the child's life.
“No… He'll stay here. I'll work closely with him and make sure he passes this time.”
The teacher smiled. “Good choice. I'm sure he'll be just fine.”
A few weeks ago, Patrick Chapin linked this video of an abridged version of Sir Ken Robinson's RSA talk in an article. If you haven't watched it yet, it's one of the best videos I've watched all year.
I've spent a lot of time in the past few weeks thinking about what Sir Ken said in light of my unique perspective.
I have one of the most unique educational experiences you'll ever hear about.
I recognize that everyone has different experiences in school that shape their lives. No two educations are the same. However, that's not what I'm getting at. No. My entire education is so radically different that I think you would be extremely hard-pressed to find many people with the educational backdrop I have.
When I was in first grade, I was pulled out of public school in favor of homeschooling. The next time I entered a classroom, I was sixteen – and starting college.
Last week, at twenty years old, I graduated college.
It's been an unusual education, to say the least.
Sir Ken's talk resonated with me on an extremely high level, particularly because I can see many of the things he talked about in action. I moved directly from an environment featuring many of the aspects of an “ideal learning model” to the mainstream world of the University of Washington – and saw myself change as a result.
I went from an environment that I had more or less full control over, where I learned topics in the style that best fit me using more diverse, engaging tools than a lecture-based classroom with reading and homework due. In several cases, I even ended up self-teaching entire subjects to myself. My creativity and divergent thinking were at a high going into my late teens.
Four years later, and I can't say I still have all of that.
Don't get me wrong; the college experience has been incredible, and I've learned things at my university I could've never known otherwise. I'm graduating with a great GPA and a plethora of close friends. However, I can't help feel like I came in as a polyhedron and I've been reshaped into a square. I've been changed to fit standards, but at a cost. I can push out five-page essays better than ever before, and I can tell you about the writing styles of people at the top of my field. I can write poetry and fiction just like how my teachers wanted.
But what about my creativity? What about the ability to explore new areas that haven't been as rigorously traveled? That sense has dulled. While I appreciate what I've learned, I can't help but feel like there must've been ways to teach the same kind of material without forcing students to lose a part of themselves in the process.
These same kinds of concerns are prevalent in the Magic world.
The educational system is hard to change. Its roots are too deep to be modified in a short span of time. Magic, on the other hand, is something we have direct control over.
Look at some of the most genius minds in the game. The Patrick Chapins, the Gabriel Nassifs, the Conley Woodses all around us. Do you believe they think about Magic in a one-boxed style with a canned set of rules? Of course not! While they know of the already established roads in Magic, they aren't afraid to trailblaze.
If you're always just following the past, you're going to end up one step behind the next best thing.
So let me ask you a question: how many different uses can you think of for a Lightning Bolt?
This test mirrors the Breakpoint and Beyond study on how many uses somebody can think of for a paper clip. If you didn't watch the video (and you really should) the basic idea behind it is that the people who are better at divergent thinking can come up with more uses for a paper clip than those who are worse at it.
So let me ask you again: how many different uses can you think of for a Lightning Bolt? Try it, and then continue when you're done.
No doubt you picked up the easy ones. Killing an opponent on three life. Killing a creature. Killing a planeswalker. Then there are some of the more complex ones that might have not came to mind immediately, like adding one to storm or fueling a combo kill finish when you have Call to Mind and Time Warp along with a fully ascended Pyromancer Ascension. This general area is likely where most people will stop coming up with ideas.
Then there are answers on an entirely different level.
An efficient way to finish your opponent with Djinn Illuminatus. A cheap way to trigger your Spellweaver Volute. A versatile way to reduce your life total for Reverse the Sands. A kill condition for a deck that has infinite mana by way of constantly untapping its permanents by putting the Bolt on Isochron Scepter. A way to fuel and kill using Eye of the Storm.
If those answers somehow seem overly trite and predictable to you, keep in mind that's only with Lightning Bolt. Imagine the possibilities if you ask the same question of, say, Fauna Shaman. The amount of possible interactions you can find is innumerable. Yet, many players won't list any but the most obvious choices.
Why? They have blinded themselves to the possibilities.
I've been there for Conley Woods' brewing sessions. I've seen how his mind works, and I can tell you it works differently from the average player. He considers every possibility of… well, everything. If you want to excel at the highest level, if you want to build the best decks and be the best player you can, you have to be able to master a divergent thinking style and apply it to your game.
Many players enter Magic as tabula rasa – a blank slate. It's their first encounter with anything on the same strategic scope of Magic, and they have no clue where to begin with Magic strategy. Given enough time, we'll shape them with our ideals and, just like with my college experience, turn their rough marble polyhedron into a polished bronze box. For the most part, that's good. They have to learn the principles of the game somewhere.
On another level, it's almost like we're brainwashing them with our ideas.
I've taught a lot of people how to play Magic. Not just the rules of the game, but also basic layers of strategy. Every now and then, I'll make a suggestion different from what my student wants to do, and they'll ask why.
When I try and reply, I begin to realize that I don't really know why we always do something like choose to play even if our deck can afford to start a turn behind, or why Spell Pierce doesn't see more maindeck play despite hitting crucial spells that have to resolve in every matchup. While I find something smart and knowledgeable to say, confidently asserting my suggestion, often, all I'll be thinking is, “That's how the game/format evolved. But why should it stay that way?”
If you look at any given format, the entire path the format is set on begins with the first major tournament heralding the new season. If one tiny thing changes – if, say, Spell Pierce shows up in a handful of winning lists or one deck makes Top 8 over another – the format unfolds in a completely different way. Entirely different decks rise up to combat those decks, which happens over and over as the metagame folds and refolds like a napkin.
What if, say, the R/B Vampires deck had been popularized at the beginning of the season? What if it was played at US Nationals? What if the entire format had warped after Nationals to beat Vampires? Everything would be different. We would be in a different place, talking about how the trump to Valakut Ramp was discovered and pushing that deck aside. People would have discovered certain cards sooner, and different variations on Vampires would have been built to combat different decks as they evolved.
Before you know it, the path has been altered. Before you know it, everything has changed. And before you know it, everything you know is wrong.
The tournament in the back of the Wizards of the Coast store began to clear out. It was just some league play but enough to satisfy the tastes of children yearning for some competition.
My brother and I picked up our yellow-trimmed Pikachus and green-backed Bulbasaurs and stuffed them into plastic bags that we carried as though they were filled with jewels. We had lost miserably, but we were in it for the fun. Simply playing our favorite game against new opponents and seeing new cards was enough of a thrill. These kinds of outings happened rarely, but we cherished them. At home, we were just stuck playing against each other over and over again in an enjoyable, but tiresome, process.
Mom was waiting at the front, errands finished and ready to collect us from our card-slamming endeavor. We walked forward, escorted by the Wizards lady who so kindly watched over us as we played. She and Mom were on good terms – the perfect time to try and pitch a sale.
“Did you guys have a good time?” the lady asked. My brother and I nodded while she turned to our mother. “You really should bring them around more often.” She paused. “Were you guys interested in any packs today?”
My head swung toward Mother for approval, but I could already see her trademark move of inhaling while bobbing her head back and forth. It was a clever move – she looked like she was considering her options, and then when she said no, it would look as though she put thought into it, quashing our pleas.
Fortunately, the Wizards lady had studied Mom's habits and managed to interrupt her before her fatal head-bobbing came to an end. “You know,” she said, “your boys are growing up. They could use something more intellectual – and more mature.”
I watched her slowly waltz her way toward the other side of the room. My ten-year-old heart began to pound. Please let it be, please let it be, please let it be… “Have you considered Magic?” she offered to my mother. “It's rated one of the most intellectual games out there. It's a great game for growing boys.”
Yes! I trembled with excitement. I had wanted to play Magic for the longest time. I knew my Mom would have none of it, though. “Too violent and adult,” I knew she would tell me. I never asked. Yet, on the home computer, when nobody was looking, I would go to Magic sites and look at the card images and read up on the game, trying to understand what was going on, minimizing the window if anybody walked by. My brother and I would converse about it in secret, talking about pieces of the game neither of us understood. Over a year ago, I had given up chances of playing Magic, but somehow fate had handed me a chance to finally get my hands on some of this cardboard pornography.
I acted interested in the best way I knew how: generic noises. “Ooooh!” I slipped out. “Let's check that out!”
Reluctantly, yet slightly intrigued, my mother followed the Wizards lady back into the Magic corner. She started her sales pitch again, and I knew that was my cue to keep quiet. I watched carefully, observing. She held up what was immediately recognizable as a starter set, showing it off. She handed it over to my mother for review. The decision was literally in her hands.
She flipped it over and read a little, listening to the tail end of the sales pitch. I knew it was now or never to get that starter set.
I watched her expression change. I knew the verdict was coming. My mother took a breath in. “Not today,” she handed the product back and smiled. “Maybe another time.”