More Ways To Win - Following Sun Tzu's Advice
I started writing a different article for this week. I thought it would be pretty cool to talk about specific matches I've played over the years and the lessons that I've taken away from them. I've been playing Magic since Revised, and I've been reading strategy articles almost as long. It seems like every Magic writer eventually gets around to making a list like that.
“This is the match that taught me about card advantage.” – Beginner's breakthrough.
“This is the match that taught me to sometimes concede a hopeless position to have more time to play game 3.” – More advanced insight.
Lists like that can be helpful, and I might do something like that in the future, but what made me change my mind this week is that I kept finding myself quoting Sun Tzu's “Art of War.” Suddenly, I realized that he has a lot to tell us about winning at Magic, and maybe I should make that the focus of my article, rather than random anecdotes. For example:
“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
How many times have you sat across from someone, and either you or they have already mentally checked out? Maybe you're the best player in your region and your opponent immediately groans the moment they realize who they're paired against. Oh no, they have to play you! They have already resigned themselves to losing. It should be no surprise when they actually do lose, because they were already expecting it before they even drew their first hand.
Henry Ford once said, “Whether you believe you can or you can't, you're right.” You usually have to believe you can succeed before you succeed. Confidence can take a while to come, though. Just “fake it until you make it.” Once you have some wins under your belt, you'll find it a lot easier to have faith in yourself.
A lot of people don't know this about me, but I go to the restroom between almost every round at a big tournament just to wash my hands, take a deep breath, and mentally collect myself for the next round. I look myself in the mirror and swear to myself that I'm going to win. These promises to oneself are hard to break—it's like programming yourself for success. I know it sounds corny but it seems to work for me, so I'm probably going to stick to the ritual!
I think Sun Tzu would've approved. Look at the next quote:
“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”
Many writers have talked about the importance of having the proper attitude. For me, this quote says it all. Here is a great military tactician saying that you have to visualize your endgame. In that endgame, you've already won—now work backwards. How did you get to that point where you won? Do you think hoping you're going to win is going to be enough? You have to believe that you can win.
When I played against Splinter Twin in the Top 8 of the last constructed PTQ and I was playing Valakut, I felt pretty hopeless. Know what I told myself? It was a simple mantra: “Sometimes Twin just falters; I'm a good player, my deck is good, I have to be ready to take advantage.” I didn't play to respect counters, I couldn't afford that luxury. I knew that if I could untap with Primeval Titan then I would win—and I did. Now I'll be the first to admit that I was pretty lucky, but I can also say with complete certainty that he made several play mistakes.
Maybe he was overconfident because he had such a good matchup.
But, wait, don't we want to be confident? Didn't I just tell you that?
“Confront them with annihilation, and they will survive; plunge them into a deadly situation, and they will then live. When people fall into danger, they are then able to strive for victory.”
We strive harder when our back is up against the wall. When we imagine an easy victory, we are subconsciously programming ourselves to not try as hard. This is how you find the space between confidence and arrogance:
When you are confident, you know you can win. When you are arrogant, you know that you can't lose. Look within. Do you think you've got a bye because you're paired up against a new player, you have a good matchup, or for some other reason? Things are rarely as simple as they appear. I mentioned this in my article, “Perilously Comfortable,” and I shared the saying that the best swordsman in the world doesn't fear the second best swordsman—he fears the worst, because he's unpredictable. I've since learned that the quote is from Mark Twain.
“There are some things that can beat smartness and foresight? Awkwardness and stupidity can. The best swordsman in the world doesn't need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn't do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn't prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do; and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot.” – Mark Twain
The best thing is to train yourself to be more alert rather than less when you are put into a situation where you don't feel challenged. You don't want to ever feel comfortable or at ease. Self-satisfaction is the mother of all play mistakes.
That's why Sun Tzu also advises, “pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance.”
Maybe that's just mean, but…
“All warfare is based on deception.”
I remember reading a story years ago about how Jon Finkel lied to his friend, Steve OMS, about whether he had drafted a Kirtar's Wrath or not. Believe it or not, there was a bit of an uproar over the whole thing. Bill Stark wrote a good response to the incident right here on StarCityGames.com.
The point is that having incomplete or wrong information leads to making mistakes, and when your opponent makes enough mistakes, you win the game.
There are numerous ways that we try to hide information from our opponents. We'll shuffle so they can't see the bottom of our deck or shuffle our sideboard into our deck before pulling out fifteen cards. We move cards around in our hands, we throw out the odd comment, and we make conversation; these things are all parts of the battle.
Imagine that your opponent drops an Island during shuffling. Are you going to tell me that you aren't going to use this free knowledge? Could you avoid using it, even if you wanted to? And a better question, why would you want to? If your opponent has three byes on rating, won't you automatically think they're good? If they're playing seventy cards, won't you just as quickly assume that they suck? What if they're playing sixty-one cards? Does that mean anything?
In my experience, it usually means they are playing control.
I made the Top 8 of a PTQ a few years ago with B/W Tokens. At Regionals, right afterwards, I got paired up against someone and made a subtle display of taking out Faerie and Kithkin tokens and “hiding” them under my deckbox. The moment I laid an Island, my opponent just about flew out of his seat. His eyes were as big as saucers and his jaw dropped. “You tricked me!” he said. But of course, why would you imagine that someone wouldn't go to those lengths? And why would you ever think it might not matter? Haven't you ever kept a hand against control that you wouldn't keep against aggro, or vice versa? Haven't you overextended because you knew they weren't running maindeck Wrath of God?
Of course information matters. Everything matters.
Someone once asked me, “Why would you drop a hint that you have Day of Judgment in your deck, when the chance of it making a difference is so small?”
The answer is simple: because there is a chance that it WILL make a difference. We don't always know which seeds we plant will grow.
I played a guy once in the Top 8 of this big local tournament years ago. He had a great deck, and so did I. My deck was a Winter Orb/Armageddon lock deck. He played and used Jester's Cap on me. The problem was that it was game 3, and I only had three win conditions left in my deck. I desperately wanted to win and could not stand the thought of it ending right there like that. So I quickly formed a plan!
I was holding a copy of Winter Orb in my hand and I knew that he would only see three Winter Orbs when he was looking through my deck. Well, players in his situation often do just what he did, move cards he was contemplating exiling to the front of the deck. I absolutely couldn't let him realize that I only had a few ways of winning left. So the moment that he moved a Winter Orb to the front, I made a calculated intake of breath and slumped in my seat. He looked up, then back down, and then immediately proceeded to take out all three Winter Orbs that he saw. He didn't even bother looking at the rest of the deck!
I locked him out of the game the following turn.
Another time, I played someone in FNM the night before the City Championships tournament I was playing in (which I ended up winning, qualifying for Nationals where I made Top 16). The FNM was draft, and my opponent had played Makeshift Mannequin on one of his creatures. When I attacked and offered him an easy trade, he paused, ever so briefly, at which point I saw an opportunity and I took it.
I said, in a very resigned way, “I guess if you have the Earthbrawn, you're golden.” Somehow, he took this as the cue to play the pump spell on his Mannequin, at which point I informed him that he had just killed his own creature!
I was quite proud of this play and still am. Not only did I correctly deduce what card was in his hand from his briefest of hesitations but I told him to play it on his creature and he did! It was a huge blowout. It set the stage for my whole weekend where I was just “on” and played some really excellent Magic.
Trusting in my ability to read my opponent has taken more work than developing the ability itself. It's yet another place where confidence comes in. I can't count the number of times that someone doesn't play around something, they lose, and then as some kind of consolation to themselves, they say, “I knew you had that!”
But if you knew I had it, then why didn't you play around it?
I won a Standard Championship at a game convention recently. In the finals, my opponent was holding only one card, and my board was just a Llanowar Elf, but he had no creatures so I was still doing better than he was. I drew a Dungrove Elder and, even though I didn't have much of a clock and he only had the one card, I declined to play it. Sure, it could've been a land. He might've been bluffing. After all, why wouldn't he hold a land just so I might play around a counter? It wouldn't have cost him anything to do so.
This wasn't a case of playing scared— I knew. I just knew that he had Snapcaster Mage and would flashback a Dissipate. I even went so far as to try to put the fear in him. I said, “I even know your last card is a Snapcaster.” His look of shock only confirmed my suspicion.
Turns out, I was right. The card was Snapcaster Mage. But what if it had been a land? What if he had just been cleverly bluffing the whole time?
Well, I imagine that falling for his deception would've cost me the game. So deception is important, really important. As evidenced by the Finkel/Steve OMS incident, it's going on even before players sit down to draw their first card.
“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”
A lot of what Sun Tzu had to say was about misleading the enemy (i.e. your opponent). When you think for a long time before deciding to keep a hand, you are revealing that it is a questionable keep. At Nationals, one of my opponents seemed to be looking at one of those questionable kinds of hands. I decided to help out by suggesting, “If your hand is that bad, why don't you just throw it back?”
He snapped, “No I'll keep it.” Because, well, you should never do what your opponent suggests!
Unfortunately for him, he had kept a one-land hand that never got there. Too bad! I guess it was some consolation that he still went on to Top 8 afterwards, while I lost on the pair down. Sometimes life just doesn't seem fair!
But you know, some of these stories are a good example of Sun Tzu's next advice.
“Opportunities multiply as they are seized.”
It always seems easier to play Magic correctly when you're not actually the one who's playing. You watch from the sidelines, sometimes groaning inside because what you often see is that players make mistakes or give away information and their opponent doesn't capitalize on it. Some of us laugh when we walk by a table where a couple of inexperienced players are squaring off, and they each have like a hundred creatures in play. You can't help but wonder: how did the game come to this? Almost always it is because there were windows where one or both players should've acted, but failed to. This is not so different from chess, when a player has a superior advantage but seems to have difficulty actually closing out the game.
Usually, if someone makes a mistake and you take advantage of it, you start having even more options and more lines of play. This is something that even experienced players have trouble with. I recently overheard one of them saying that they always slammed their spells down into possible countermagic. After all, they aren't going to play around a card that their opponent probably doesn't even have…
But the alternative of waiting until you have three extra mana for every spell so you don't get Mana Leaked seems extreme too. I think the right course is what I say in every article: balance. When is anything ever right all the time? If you can afford to play around a card, then you play around it. If you can't, you don't. It's really that simple. There is no rule of thumb that you should always do anything.
Imagine that your opponent is representing Mana Leak and you're on the draw. Do you just slam down some awesome two-drop and hope it resolves? Do you play any two-drop at all? You could wait until turn 3 and play it then, when your opponent is hoping to play Forbidden Alchemy that turn for example. There are a lot of ways you can go, but when an opportunity presents itself, you need to be ready to take it.
As a side note, I often do have a script running in my head for how I expect my turns to play out. If I know I'm planning to tap out on turns 3, 4, and 5, then sometimes my plan is, “counter nearly any two-drop they play,” because otherwise that Mana Leak is going to languish in my hand until at least turn 6. My opponent might even be able to play around it by then.
So I would add that having a plan is part of being able to seize an opportunity. If you don't know what you want to do, how are you going to even see the opportunity arise to do it?
Sun Tzu emphasizes this point by saying this:
“Move not unless you see an advantage; move not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical. If it is to your advantage, make a forward move; if not, stay where you are.”
Doesn't he sound sort of like Yoda there? It makes sense. If Jedi were real, Sun Tzu certainly would've been one.
Many players would do well to heed this advice. I watched more than one counterspell war between Splinter Twin decks over some card that didn't even matter. I've seen players play out more and more irrelevant creatures with no hope of breaking a stalled board. When your opponent has a Serra Angel and you draw a Runeclaw Bear, at least consider that you might get more use out of it by not playing it. Sometimes things will matter that never mattered before and sometimes things that almost never matter will be crucial. The best thing is to stay open to possibility and not put yourself on auto-pilot.
But back to the idea that Sun Tzu could've been a real life Jedi…
“The clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy's will to be imposed on him.”
In Patrick Chapin's book, he talks about building rapport with your opponent. I had a friend who always played linear white aggro decks. He had a lot of experience with them and he played them well. He also played blindingly fast. The funny thing was that he was so good at building rapport that many of his opponents would speed up their play to match his, maybe not even realizing it. Of course, they were playing at a level where he was comfortable and they were not, so he would have the advantage.
Even though he hasn't played the game much in years I still see similar cases all the time, where players are lulled into playing the game their opponent wants them to play. When it comes to speed of play, in particular, I always force myself to stay with the pace that I'm comfortable with. If an opponent ever rushes me, and it doesn't matter if I might be playing slowly or they just think I am, I always suggest they call a judge. If a judge thinks you are playing too slowly, they'll tell you.
Usually, in this situation, my opponent does call a judge and the judge finds there's no problem and wanders away after a few minutes. In my opinion, it's always seemed that this whole scenario is about establishing some kind of dominance. Maybe that's reading too much into it, but there are a ton of other examples I could use. In any case, don't worry about this kind of thing. An opponent has only called a judge on me for my pace of play a couple of times in seventeen years.
Pace of play is only a very small subset of the ways that you can end up playing your opponent's game. Sometimes players do that with take-backs. “You're not going to let me take that back? Are you serious?”
What about you? Are you serious? Because I'd suggest not making mistakes if you don't want to be called on them.
Sometimes stuff like this is controversial so I want to make it clear that I have a specific ethic that may differ from the ethic some other people have when it comes to games. To me, the rules of the game are pure, they are the law. To paraphrase David Sirlin from his book “Playing to Win,” if the rules are that I can't use the same cheap move four times in a row, I'll just use it three.
I'm a min/maxer at heart, always have been, always will be. I've played Dungeons and Dragons and made broken characters because the rules said I could. Fun is an area that I let other players worry about. The rules of the game are my code and within that structure, I find enjoyment. As I suggested in my last article, “Commander Fundamentals,” the competitive mindset and the spirit of the game are not at odds. Every player is ultimately playing because they want to have fun.
That being said, you're playing your opponent's game if you let them make you feel bad for holding them accountable for their screw-up. I usually just shrug and continue play. There's no reason to get into a philosophical debate with your opponent because this is just FNM, or some other local event, and apparently you are therefore not allowed to care so much about winning. Because that would make you a Very Bad Person™ of course.
Also, you're playing your opponent's game if you think they're doing something fishy and you don't call them on it. People come to me all the time with stories about how so and so cheated them. My response is always the same: “Why didn't you call a judge?”
Competitive players sometimes have this stigma for being jerks who take things too seriously. Yet these same players don't call a judge for fear of being thought of as a jerk. At Grand Prix Montreal, there were even a few instances where I didn't call a judge. Let's be honest here, someone who is truly a jerk is probably calling a judge more often than necessary, not less. Competitive players are just normal players. There is nothing better about them, and nothing worse either. And just like anyone else they can fall into the trap of letting their opponent do this or that.
You shouldn't “let” your opponent do anything. Your whole objective should be to thwart them at every turn!
So don't play the game your opponent's way. Most of the time, they'll try to manipulate you in even more subtle ways, so be alert.
One of the comments to my Montreal tournament report suggested that I was being paranoid because I put forward the idea that some people would be nice to seek an advantage. Well, that is life—we're not just talking about something that happens in a game here! The funny thing is that most people are not “out to get you” but, when you're playing a card game like Magic, that's what your opponent is doing by definition!
Don't let them seduce you with their kind smiles and friendly handshakes—they want your trophy!
Don't assume anything is what it seems. The masters do not play the game this way.
I know because a Jedi named Sun Tzu said so.
P.S. A few people have asked what I think they should play for a Standard deck right now. I'm planning on talking about that more in my next article. For this week, my opinion is something like classic U/W control or maybe U/B. However, I think Standard is fairly wide open and that any of the existing decks could be restructured to deal with whatever your local metagame is. It might even be time to give Mike Flores' U/R deck a try, since there are so many fewer Dungrove Elders running around.