Flores Friday - Escalation Of Errors
Here is the situation:
Our hero is playing a Mono-Black Mercenaries deck.
Our hero's assumption, coming into this, the first PTQ of the Masques Block Constructed era, is that the baseline deck will be Rebels (probably Mono-White, though possibly G/W or B/W) and that Rising Waters – at least in the traditional mode – is “dead” due to the post-Pro Tour banning of Rishadan Port (at least that's what Alan Comer told me).
Our hero battles through the first game valiantly.
I mean who didn't see that one coming? One deck is based on playing like a 5/5 for six, and the other one is based on Countering target Spell and bouncing say a 3/3 for five for one mana, probably using an Eye of Ramos and locking down the other player's ability to continue to tap mana – Winter Orb style – with Rising Waters.
Our hero, despite his original assumption RE: Rebels, is at least somewhat prepared for this eventuality. He saw Rob Dougherty sideboard in Spineless Thug at the United States National Championships and decided that he could ape such a strategy (you know, of bringing in some kind of 2/2 for two). The idea is to come in before Rising Waters can lock down all the mana and get some beatdown on, eat up some life points, close it out later.
Okay, game two commences.
First-turn Cateran Summons!
At this point our hero actually got up and started running around the room yelling like a small child.
Was it out of joy? That his tinger of a plan went off without a hitch?
He didn't even play the Silent Assassin on the second turn.
Our hero declared – and though this occurred on July 1, 2000, he can't recount a more memorable one – that he had just made the worst error of his “career.”
So it was turn two Chilling Apparition instead.
I became so enamored of my “clever” plan of multiple Cateran Summons feeding into the one Silent Assassin (essentially a redundancy / curve plan) that I missed my actual broken one (and I use the term “broken” loosely, but really, go and look at what kinds of creatures were available) of first-turn Hypnotic Specter.
I mean second-turn Hypnotic Specter actually got there, and I beat up Sean a bit for a bunch of cards before he could gain control of the game, but this error both cost me a card (the one I would've nabbed on the second-turn attack with Chilling Apparition), a point of damage (from the attack), and the use of one mana on the second turn (though I'm not sure I would have had anything to spend it on if I had been forced to cast turn 2 Cateran Summons... Though having a B open to regenerate Chilling Apparition isn't the worst).
What kind of mistake is this?
To be honest, it is not a systemic one.
I called it a “d'oh!” but you can call it a brain fart or a fumble or some kind of selective aphasia. It's the kind of mistake that you won't make if you simply pay attention. Some might argue that it's the kind of mistake that you won't make if you simply don't build your decks with clever side plans (but I think that having a redundant way of spending early game mana into threats was probably very valuable in this case).
Things to keep in mind:
Pay attention - Look at all the cards in your hand before you commit mana and cards (this is probably something you should do anyway, and more-or-less at all times).
Prioritize and plan - What am I going to do now? What am I going to do next turn? In 1995, I read an article by Beth Moursund that argued that players on the beatdown (though she did not use that term) should try to plan to do the maximum damage next turn. While this may or may not correctly intersect with what's scarce and what's valuable in the here and now (there were no super-duper combo decks in that era), it's still something I keep in mind.
Scarcity - In the real world, and to an extent in Magic, scarcity and value go hand in hand. Why is gold more valuable than copper? Why do we launch a thousand ships to wage war over Helen (that one and only Helen) but not Plain Jane (not to be confused with Mary Jane... you know... Watson-Parker)? Something rare and wonderful is considered to be more valuable, and demands more resources, than something commonplace. A two-card combination that is likely to win the game is much more valuable than – let's be honest – a 2/1 on turn 2 (a middling Limited play); so if I had been playing attention, this would have been the play to make.
I won game two even with my imprecise play. Chilling Apparition hit Sean a couple of times, and he was spending lots of mana on creatures that I killed with Snuff Out variants various. Sean got mana-screwed in game three, so I pulled out the match.
I lost to Dennis Tsao's Story Circle in round three (Dennis was my only game loss in the Regionals 2000 Swiss, prior to the Top 4), but I won into final round, where I lost to Terry Meixell on an illegal play (he triple-blocked my lethal Cateran Slaver with a Swamp in play). Josh Ravitz saw it but did not stop the play.
I remember this so vividly because I probably would've won that PTQ (seven Rebel decks). However that non-qualification put me on the road for the entire summer of 2000, where I made roughly DI Top 8s with white decks, built the foundations for most of my high-level understanding of Magic, and forged my most important friendships with Josh Ravitz, Paul Jordan, Tony Tsai, and so on.
Still would have liked the Week One Q.
2. Striving for Scarcity, part I
I'm sure you have been in this spot before.
It's turn 2.
You think this one through.
Well I was going to Duress him again, you begin. But now I have this brand spanking new, shiny Hymn to Tourach and/or Gerrard's Verdict I can play. Not only do I get to maximize my mana, but I get a second card out of it! Detour!
I think that the majority of tournament players switch paths in this spot.
Their operating rules go like this:
Ooh! I get to spend more mana (more, much more, on this in the next part).
Ooh! Card advantages!
You know how this one goes.
He discards two irrelevants, combo dude proceeds to kill you on his next turn, despite your disruptive card advantages.
What's the problem here?
Isn't two mana spent better than one mana spent and one mana fallow? Isn't two cards for one better than one card for one? Didn't you make the “right” play?
Despite the fact that most players probably switch gears in this spot, they are probably wrong to do so.
One thing I didn't describe is what was in the opponent's hand.
Most of you have been in that spot, or a spot like that spot, so you knew where this was going, anyway.
The issue here is that autopilot rules based on card economy are generally flawed. The notion of “card advantage” in the abstract is overvalued by most players because it's something that is taught to them early in their careers.
I mean, yes, in the abstract, two cards of equal value are better than one card of the same value. However in the case of Duress versus Gerrard's Verdict, the cards are not going to be of equal value.
What is the nature of disruption against a combo deck?
Generally speaking, if you get off a single piece of disruption against a combo deck, your expectation is to put them off of their combo by one turn. If you get them for a single unique piece of their machinery, the assumption is that they have to reassemble that piece, which takes a card or a turn, and they're usually built in redundant enough fashion to do just that (it just takes a card or a turn).
That is why, traditionally, slow threat decks like The Rock have not been over-performers against combo decks, whereas decks like Suicide Black and Miracle Grow (or U/G Madness) have been superb against them. One kind of deck may have the disruptive chops, but it takes so much time getting card advantage or putting down one medium-expensive threat that the combo deck can reassemble; on the other hand, the latter type of deck has a 2/2 or bigger in play already, is putting combo on a clock, and is just using disruption or light counterspells to buy one more turn, and that turn (or string of turns given a string of disruption spells or counterspells) is enough to win the game while combo is twiddling for another Twiddle.
The error in this case is that a Duress – especially after we saw his hand with the first-turn Duress – is probably good enough to unlock a unique piece of the combo, buy us another turn (or maybe more, as we have the two-for-one discard on deck); whereas going straight into the two-for-one can end up hitting irrelevant cards.
Again, this is an issue of scarcity.
What is rare and valuable in this case versus what is commonplace and commoditized?
If the opponent is a combo deck, and he has only one copy of Piece Number One but a couple of extra lands, it's pretty clear which is rare / scarce / valuable. Yet this notion of a two-for-one being better persuades most of us to make what is often the wrong play.
Here is a similar one:
It is turn 4 of game three of the Top 4 of the Northeast Regional Championships. Our hero is battling with Napster, and the opponent is Sayan Bhattacharyya playing the deck he co-invented, U/W Replenish.
The mages have split the first two games.
It is game three. Our hero opened up with a Duress, but Sayan – having kept a one-spell hand – played that solo spell, an Enlightened Tutor, and found Circle of Protection: Black. Our hero has a Thran Lens somewhere in his deck, but the Circle of Protection: Black is like a thousand Time Walks right now.
So it is turn 4, and our hero – with eight cards in hand – plays Unmask.
Sayan's one spell is Mystical Tutor... Which he again plays in response.
Now while he hasn't got any other spells in hand, Sayan has been fooling around with an Attunement, so you know what that means. The spell he got was Replenish, and soon, the board was looking a lot less friendly.
Our hero paid four mana for the Unmask... with eight cards in hand!
I only lost three games all day, and that was the third of the three.
Sayan went on to win the Regional Championship; he finished just out of Top 8 at the US National Championship, on tiebreakers.
What was scarce in that situation?
As I had eight cards in hand, it wouldn't have cost very much to pitch one of them for the alternate cost on Unmask, leaving open mana for Rapid Decay. If I recall, I had an extra Skittering Skirge that I couldn't play (one already in play).
As many players would in the same spot, I overvalued the notion of a single card. The single card I didn't pitch ended up costing me a lot more than one card. The notion of a Rapid Decay – a spell in hand that we point at the graveyard – smacks, inherently, of “card disadvantage” when in fact counterspelling Replenish is worth more than a single card.
The trick in this spot would've been to realize that my many was more valuable than a card in hand, and that I was giving up all my options by tapping it.
For once, this is a mistake someone other than our hero made.
In fact, it was coming off an opportunity given to him by his opponent, off a game one misplay. To be fair, both players had been playing for more than ten hours, and these errors took place at umpteenth-o'clock, in the first round of the Top 8 of one of those newfangled StarCityGames.com Standard Opens.
Ali uses the Preordain to find a seventh mana, then taps for whatever Engine.
I think that the error Ali made is one that many players are actually more liable to make the better they get at Magic.
We have this notion of utilizing all of our mana and this other notion of playing a land every turn, and sometimes the two together can be deceptive. Neither one is “bad”… in fact, the reason we have these notions is that more often than not, we want to play a land and more often than not tapping more mana is better than not tapping most or all of our mana.
The question, once again, comes down to what is scarce.
In this case, Ali had plenty of mana. At least, he had enough to play whatever spells he had. Despite the presence of powerful sixes in his hand, the rare and lovely jewel was actually his Preordain. The error was trading the Preordain for another land. You see, in this case, our Grand Architect (because, let's be honest, that's what Ali himself is) traded the mighty Preordain for a land he didn't really need.
The game was very close, and Preordain could have been better used to get a spell and might have turned the tide in favor of the Architect.
Bertoncini went on to make the finals, losing to maybe the only more decorated Open Series player, Gerry Thompson.
Over the course of this article, we've looked at an escalating ladder of errors. From the beginning, there was the “oops” kind of mistake... The kind you don't typically make if you're simply paying attention. Then we went up to the next sort of mistake that comes from correction of evaluation. Finally we hit the kind of mistake that is systemic in that as we get better, we can reinforce plays, habits, and so on that make it more and more likely that we will make this kind of mistake.
What all three had in common was being anchored in the notion of scarcity.
All economics is the study of scarcity. The failure of card economics is that we for the most part see cards as the most scarce, most revere-able thing in our Magic universe, and to too great an extent, we see cards as commodities.
Improving our understanding of Magic, and ultimately our play, comes from loosening the hangman's knot of card advantage from around our throats and evaluating more on the basis of what's most valuable in our present situations – whether a two-card combination, a particular card, free mana, or the potential of a future play – rather than simply maximizing by rote.
In other words, I made most of these mistakes already... So you don't have to.