Magic: The Intangibles
I think of Magic as a battle of percentages. You will see in my deck analysis articles that I often use language like "this deck is 60% against that deck" "this matchup is close to 50/50" and so on. The easiest place we can see the percentages that define who wins what games is in deck matchups themselves where Mind's Desire is too quick for StOmpY and Tooth and Nail can outlast the average Mono-Blue Control... But the matchups themselves are not the only places where this math tocks and ticks; it just so happens that these are the only percentages that most Internet articles typically address. Over the course of this article you might just learn that deck matchups are not even necessarily the most important.
Getting Lucky and Avoiding "Tilt"
At Pro Tour: Atlanta Chris Pikula and I watched Tim Aten get his face smashed. Tim was coming off of a Grand Prix win in a Top 4 that included Chris's Max Fischer Players; the Deadguy founder's respect for Younger TAten was obvious as he watched the Invitational competitor's position worsen and slip.
Tim was on the ropes in one of those games where winning is not a realistic or near a possibility. He kept drawing ineffectual cards that weren't going to get him out of his opponent's superior board position un-manascrew him or draw him out of the adverse bombs... And certainly none of his cards was going to do all three at once.
"He's so good" said Chris dreamily as Tim drew yet another 2/2 for five.
"How do you figure?" I queried. I had been playing with Tim since he was knee-high to a grasshopper and had been told that he was a strong player... But up until his recent success on the grander stage -- the Star City column notwithstanding -- I've always thought of him as the kid who beat my Steel Golem/Disk deck with a Scragnoth (I won that tournament though) or "the medium talented" PTQ winner from edt's seminal "Call Me 'Mr. Scrub.'"
"You know how when you're losing and you start to play like spit? You make all these mistakes because it doesn't matter any more?" (NOTE: Chris didn't actually say "spit.")
"Of course. I throw away cards in those games all the time."
"Me too... But Tim doesn't."
A deceptively vital amount of holding your percentages can be reduced down to this element of technical play. Tim's skill doesn't actually translate to "never give up" (because sometimes giving up is exactly what you have to do to maximize your chances of winning given the rules and structure of a real tournament) but it does ultimately come down to the fact that anyone can win the landslide games; the champions are the players who can win the hopeless ones.
The best example in the history of all Magic occurred in the Top 8 of Pro Tour: New Orleans 2001. Probable Hall of Fame inductee Darwin Kastle was beating definite consensus Hall of Fame inductee Kai Budde down with Crosis the Purger — and not surprisingly Kai was both on a short clock and without grip.
Off the top came Kai's fourth Illusions of Grandeur. "This will buy me a couple of turns" thought the German Juggernaut as he deployed the pricey enchantment and prepared for yet another wing-flapping bus accident to connect to his face.
Pow! In came the
Dragon Legend Legendary Creature - Dragon fierce for six even when the opponent had no hand. Darwin was far from winning the match but had this game in his sights. After paying his cumulative upkeep what did Kai find on the top of his library but... the Donate? The rest is history and a catsup-covered hat.
Did Kai get lucky? Indubitably. But he also famously pointed out that when one plays tight Magic it often looks like one is "getting lucky" because of his ability to grab hold of the opportunity. A lesser player in a desperate situation often scoops 'em up is never able to seize the precious and narrow glimpses of hope that Fortuna sometimes bestows on the truly tight — but the great player turns tiny chinks into portholes then crawls through them while the stunned opponent is busy trying to pick his jaw back off the floor.
For my part two of the most memorable games in my nine year career as an off-and-on professional player involve exactly these sorts of plays out of desperate straits:
In the Top 8 of a Limited PTQ I eventually won I was color-screwed in a Game Three as my opponent's G/W beatdown deck marched on and on. I remember fighting back literal tears confident that I had not only the better matchup with my U/W but the best deck in the Top 8 that if I lost it would be the cruelest injustice ever to hit the world. Refusing to succumb I eked out every life point to prolong the game desperately grabbed at the top of my library for mana deployed chump blocked crossed my fingers... and eventually Time Spiraled into Herald of Serra with Rewind backup.
At US Nationals 1999 I started off 5-1 won my first two matches on Day Two (one of them against the brilliant Dave Humpherys) then slid the next two matches. In order to stay in contention I had to win an impossible Game Three where I could not find a second Swamp... but had to survive getting beaten down by multiple en-Kors.
In both cases I had to get a little lucky. (Okay the second time around I had to get a lot lucky.) I had to hit repeatedly with Cursed Scroll with multiple cards in hand or find an Island to stave off death on board. But like Kai said playing tightly even in the face of a rapidly sliding table and steep odds gives you the opportunity to seize luck when it comes calling.
Contrast this kind of play with my first round of Regionals this year. Had I blocked my opponent's Kokusho I probably would have won; as I didn't I let him get me with the double Legend attack... This was probably on the order of "a 40% mistake." That is it shifted the percentages by a huge chunk moving from almost sure win...
...to a sure loss.
Protecting the Margins
For at least a short time in the early part of this century the center of the Magic universe was unquestionably and once again Neutral Ground New York. Jon Finkel returned to his position of Magic dominance flanked by friends like Steve and Dan OMS bolstered and propped up by a cadre of professionals and amateurs alike all eager to join Jon at the top of the Magic echelons. Dave Price was getting screwed out of the Top 8 at every turn at every other tournament but was living the dream as a traveling Magic professional. The Grudge Match was producing decks with names like Replenish Napster ZevAtog and even Eye-Go. The most drunken and befuddled members of the core Neutral Ground group whose fingers stretched as deep as Philadelphia or even the capitol were making Top 8s... even if they did pass Savage Firecats for Werebears once there.
Before blackjack poker and the women broke up this inimitable group's focus on Magic Eric Kesselman created a new theory on winning and mistakes. Probably it came from playing with Jon who was at that time more technically adept at the individual plays that make up a well-executed game of Magic than any other player to touch cardboard... Eric said that it was incorrect to dismiss "the little mistakes."
You know these: the innocuous land tap is the most common ("Don't you tap that Coastal Tower!" Jon would often scream during testing correcting Pikula's turn) but there are all kinds; missing a ping with a Tim at the end of the turn using your Sensei's Divining Top at the wrong time overvaluing a Divining Top (even more common) wasting a mana bluffing the trick you didn't have instead of the trick you did putting a redundant Pulse of the Forge into your hand instead of a Solemn Simulacrum against Black on turn 2 when you weren't going to play either... The small mistakes come in many shapes. What they have most importantly in common is that they are glossed over time and again usually unidentified by the players who make them.
Kesselman's theory was that these little mistakes add up. Half a percentage here half a percentage there... Make enough of the tiny lapses go so far as to refer to them as "judgment calls" and the opponent becomes favored... or if he is already favored they help to hold his percentages. These mistakes become tells; they let the other guy know that when he goes for the Big Turn you might not have enough blue to counter every one of his threats. They tell him he doesn't have to risk it all this turn... You're going to give him a free untap and draw so don't worry!
What many players fail to see is that in the block/check/counter frenzy of an interactive Magic duel every little thing compounds with every other. Sure tapping a Coastal Tower when you have eleven untapped Islands and Plains and the opponent has only one card in hand might not represent much but that just means that the percentage you give away when making this mistake is small; it does not mean that you are not making a relevant mistake at all... Combined with other mistakes it is exactly the kind of thing that can give the opponent the opportunity he needs to reverse an ostensibly hopeless game — either the open he needs for the perfect turn you didn't realize he was sculpting or the bait he needs to walk you into a bigger flub.
At Pro Tour: Columbus Gary Wise made a seasoned proclamation: Though one of Magic's all time great old men a Pro Tour Champion and successful player known for both wise words and Limited skills Gary left the gravy train to become a sideline reporter. Like Chris his experience and — forgive the pun wisdom —followed him into semi-retirement.
"Your ability to succeed at the top levels of Magic is directly related" Gary told me "to the ability to control your tells."
This floored me. I was getting ready for "minimize your mistakes" the same thing that I had heard over and over from teachers like Finkel and Steve advocates of that narrow vision that allowed them to see only one play: the right one. Gary's position introduced an important dissenting opinion. Everyone at the top levels makes the right play most of the time regardless of talent or preparation. The reason we point out mistakes is that they stick out like sore thumbs when good players make them. Everyone wins the landslides can capitalize on the manascrew — that is why new formats at the Pro level are so seldom dominated by reactive decks. The distinction at the top is the ability to win the close ones.... and controlling your tells becomes vitally important when you assume that the other guy will make the right play if you give him the right information.
Gary's Potato Nation teammate Mike Turian once told me that he thought he had never played a perfect game of Magic. Not once. This is a daunting statement considering the fact that Mike is considered one of the best beatdown players of all time and better at correctly assessing when to bluff a trick when attacking in Limited than perhaps any other mage in the game's history. That's a rare skill at any degree let alone the best one.
"What about short games?" I asked. "You know the ones where your decisions don't matter — you're manascrewed or he's manascrewed or — "
Mike stopped me and said that each hunch of your shoulders or glance down at your hand the measure of time between priority passes every close reading of the opponent's seldom played cards can be a potential mistake because they can cost you if the opponent is watching. (And it gets worse if the opponent is Finkel.) On the scale of "tight play only" this might not make a lot of sense — but consider how much virtual card advantage passes between players purely on their acting or not. If you read Matsu-Tribe Sniper three times it might mean that you are holding a flying creature; the wrinkle on your face might say that it is a 1/1 the calm in considering your next drop that it is a 3/3. If you pass without making a play it might be a signal not to attack that the Sniper has other work to accomplish than a point or a trade or a waltz into a combat trick depending on the position of the board.
That kind of unchecked perusal might tell your opponent — the one who is correctly reading you already — that you are not holding the Hinder he passed you and that it is safe to go for his big Legend the next turn.
Or maybe you're bluffing him.
Back in 1998 Bob Maher gave me a list of the worst of my many bad tells. I am generally a sloucher but sit up straight when I have the nuts. I overvalue consistent mana development and sculpt my play around it rather than maximizing my ability to make drops on tight land (like Alan Comer) or bluff action when I have too much mana (like Chad Ellis). I am far too reliant on avoiding combat and position my creatures desperately to prevent attacking and blocking from both sides of the Red Zone until I think I can break through. Worst of all I look at my fanned-out graveyard scoop it up and put it back on the table in a big pile each and every time I start doing the math for the big finish.
I have tried to correct many of my tells — and through a lot of concentration now no longer shuffle all my lands to the right side of my hand whenever I pick up my opening seven (I'm sure 90% of you do either this or the opposite every single game whether you realize it or not). I have tried to go poker-faced like Steve OMS to the point that I sometimes enter an unshakable trance of apathy during play; the other night during playtesting Paul chuckled at my complete lack of emotion when Tony's Ink-Eyes stole my Arc-Slogger (they figured apparently wrongly that there would be some reaction).
This too is a possibly dangerous course because in my case at least mock apathy can lead to real uncaring... resulting in not recognizing the danger of the opponent's ostensibly non-lethal Kokusho attack and essentially blunting your reaction to the point of not paying attention to the basic elements of the game. Maintaining one face of your game — the one that doesn't give away your hand or plan — can cloud the awareness that comes from a healthy terror in the face of a giant threat. It is probably better than my default play though which involves jumping out of my seat when I Unforge the Sword of Fire and Ice on that there Troll Ascetic — play equally commented-on by observers fans and passers-by as the non-reaction natch.
Like the tells themselves the mask is something that needs to be controlled.
Winning the Coin Flips
The ultimate skill of Jon Finkel at his height reduced to its germ was the ability to hold even his tightest margins. Players during Jon's era as the best in the game would talk about how he could like a stage magician win the closest games the games that no other player could win by pulling veritable rabbits from his hat while the hyperbolic and charismatic among the professional elite would say things like "the difference between Jon Finkel and me is the difference between me and the worst player in the room."
What Jon could do was turn an unfavorable match a little bit at a time until it was 51/49 in his favor... and then ride that percentage difference into a check-mark in the win column usually by ending the game before the opponent could draw out of it.
Consider Jon's legendary Draw-Go v. Forbidian playtest series against Chris Pikula — himself one of America's finest at the time — where Jon would win all the games on one side of the matchup for hours trade decks and then win all the games on the other side. How did Jon do this?
Finkel was a master at figuring out what was important. His signature was reducing all the disparate elements that compose a game state to a single fulcrum and then focus on that one thing until the entire game tipped in his favor. Depending on the matchup it might be life total cards in hand holding instants until an end-step flurry laying more lands or saving even redundant removal for a key permanent. While the opponent was busy managing all kinds of resources considering the variables maximizing his card advantage tapping mana or trying futilely to play around Jon the Machine would push and push at the one thing that mattered until the game fell into place.
In the course of this effort he did two things very well:
1) Jon capitalized on the opponent's mistakes. Every lost percentage point every mistapped mana every tell and certainly every serendipitous open from the other side of the table was squirreled away until Jon hit that magic tipping point.
2) Jon constricted time. He was the absolute master of the long game because of his ability to eke opponent mistakes into favorable positions but would never give the opponent a spare turn if he had the chance to win immediately. Not one for draws Jon would almost characteristically switch gears into an Alpha Strike or seemingly low percentage — but measured — creature play in order to rob the opponent of even one draw step.
Another implementation can be seen via the most famous screwjob associated with the otherwise shining name Finkel — a story that involves a rare first pick with Day Three on the line. Jon was passing to his friend Steve OMS a master drafter himself who correctly put Jon on White by subtracting the viable picks from the packs Jon left him. After the draft Steve asked Jon about his Odyssey first pick where Jon told his longtime friend and Antarctica teammate that he had taken Wayward Angel... But prior to their Feature Match edt informed Steve that Jon had actually beaten him with Kirtar's Wrath.
The story ends with a vengeful Steve "ending Finkel's career" or some such with a vindicated 2-0 (though history tells us that Jon in fact played on Day Three at some point after this match). The question is how important is the card in the opponent's hand?
The best players in the game can stare across the table and play optimally against the Wayward Angel say 98% of the time (whereas I have perfected the art of correctly reading the opponent's hand... and making the wrong play anyway). The difference that makes Finkel legendary among even the elite is that the other 2% of the time he will play "wrong" Magic against an Angel... but the opponent will be holding Kirtar's Wrath.
The important thing to understand here is that Magic matchup percentages are the sum total of particular relevant elements of the game. Some of these things are tiny like tapping the right mana when land is abundant. Some are hugely important like knowing which 2% of the time the opponent has the rare other than what you've prepared to beat. In a recent tournament I was frustrated after losing to "Ponza" with my Kuroda-style Red deck. As one of the trials I tested most I knew that "Ponza" was about a 9-to-1 matchup in my favor and had already defeated the deck twice on the day. In one game of the loss I was flooded in the next I mulliganed to five and ate a Molten Rain — the classic sequence in which one loses an automatic matchup.
In hindsight I can see the error of my frustration. The matchup isn't 100%. You lose a game in ten — or even a game in three or five if not a match — and when you do it's for a reason; in this case the reason is the classic one. Something lines up a certain way that can be repeated and you don't take it home. You win almost all the games where your spells come out... But that's the definition of a blowout matchup. You only lose when your draw sucks and he can capitalize: my opponent fulfilled just that condition in his victory.
Forcing Like Finkel
If you know what makes a matchup tick you can make (or at least aspire to make) the plays that Jon at his height made: the ones that mattered. At the same time you can force exactly the mistakes that rob the opponent from fulfilling his matchup victory conditions. In I believe his final Top 8 (and certainly one subsequent to the OMS lie that ended his career) Finkel famously used his Sparksmith to kill a Wirewood Herald; his opponent correctly searched Timberwatch Elf into his hand... where it remained until his life fell to zero points.
Finkel — with no other Goblin in hand — put The Fear of the machine into his opponent's Timberwatch Elf. It refused to hit play lest it be destroyed... but was instead made impotent by a masterful bluff and virtual card advantage.
Forcing the opponent to give you a 40% mistake like "not playing his Timberwatch Elf against a Red Deck with no ostensible way to kill it" is easier than you might think. This past Extended season at Grand Prix: Boston I was playing my Red Deck Wins deck against the hated Life. For reference here is the deck Josh Ravitz used to make Top 16 of the Grand Prix the same deck I played:
4 Cursed Scroll
2 Fledgling Dragon
4 Grim Lavamancer
4 Jackal Pup
4 Lava Dart
2 Magma Jet
4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Seal of Fire
4 Volcanic Hammer
4 Bloodstained Mire
4 Rishadan Port
4 Wooded Foothills
4 Ensnaring Bridge
4 Electrostatic Bolt
4 Sulfuric Vortex
For the purpose of this example it's very important that you pick up the subtle templating of this version of RDW. What does it play? What does it not play that might be common?
My opponent took Game One easily... I was about 50% against Columbus-era Life sideboarded but needed to steal percentage to win such a coin flip. Therefore knowing I was about to lose the first I made sure my opponent put me on Magma Jet for game two.
In the second I got exactly the position Red Deck Wins wants against Life: mana disruption against a mana-light opponent. I led with Jackal Pup but my opponent was unafraid even given his resource-tight draw. There was no way I could disrupt his game plan as he had a basic Plains and all the right cards for a safe turn 3 to 4 combo. On his second turn the hated Life slammed down Daru Spiritualist into my Magma Jet deck flashing Nomads en-Kor and Worthy Cause.
And you know what? I'm not even good.