Four Magical Myths
Lately, I've been watching a lot of reruns of an awesome show called “Penn & Teller: B.S.!” (That's not exactly what the show's called — but this is a family site.) The premise of the show is simple: Each episode, Penn and Teller choose a popular belief to disprove... Something that most people buy into, but which has very little basis in fact. Then the dynamic duo investigates it, and exposes the parts of it that are myth. Penn and Teller demonstrate to the viewers exactly why people ought to think twice about supposedly reasonable ideas they have taken for granted.
Magic has its fair share of commonly-accepted myths. Today, I hope to expose some of these Magical falsehoods for what they really are:
Magical Myth #1: Milling Away Good Cards
John is playing Dredgeatog against Affinity. He lost the first game, but in the second game he's managed to stabilize at a healthy sixteen life against an unimpressive attack force of Frogmite and Blinkmoth Nexus. Both players have no cards in hand. John decides to use this opportunity dredge up his Life from the Loam. He has a couple of fetchlands and a Barren Moor in the graveyard, so this choice is well-justified.
“Ugh!” he says. “Look at all that juice! Worst dredge ever. Thanks a lot, Life from the Loam.”
John plays Life from the Loam, cycles the Barren Moor, and draws Pernicious Deed. He slams down the enchantment, destroys his opponent's entire board, and wins the game a couple of turns later with Psychatog.
Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, the exact same game of Magic is taking place... Except in this one, John decides not to dredge that Life from the Loam. Instead, John draws the Smother that is on top of his library. The Affinity player draws and plays a Cranial Plating, attaches it to the Frogmite, and attacks for seven damage.
“Ouch!” John thinks. “I could really use a Pernicious Deed about now.” John draws Counterspell — the same Counterspell that was milled away by Life from the Loam in the alternate universe. “Bummer,” he says. “That's not a Deed.”
The Affinity player draws and plays an artifact land, so John takes eight damage. He enters his draw step at a precarious one life and rips another Counterspell. Facing certain death, John extends his hand in defeat, signs the match result slip, and flips over the top card of his library — just to see what was coming up next.
He slaps his forehead. “Of course it was the next card. God, I hate Magic.”
“Thanks a lot, Life from the Loam” indeed.
My point is this: Milling away “good cards” means nothing over the course of your average, medium-length game of Magic. All that matters in most games is the specific card waiting on top of your library when you reach your draw step. Since your deck is randomized, you have just as good a chance of drawing any one of your cards in any one of your draw steps.
Yes, it's demoralizing when you Mental Note away two cards you really wanted. But, it's no reason to get angry and think about cutting the Mental Note entirely from your deck. The Note had a chance to peel away two lands you didn't need and move the card you were looking for from “four draw steps away” to “right on top.” People tend to remember the bad mills they get, and overlook the good ones. Unless you're setting up your deck with cards like Sensei's Divining Top, it's all completely random.
A lot of people were afraid to play Commune with Nature during Kamigawa Block Limited. “What if I put my Dance of Shadows on the bottom of my deck? That would suck!” Well, what if your Dance of Shadows is already on the bottom? That turn 1 Commune is the only way you'll ever see it.
Seriously, folks, don't freak out about this stuff.
For the sake of thoroughness, I will mention that Milling away good cards is relevant in very specific situations. It becomes an issue, for example, when you remove one-ofs from your library that you were planning on tutoring for. It's an issue when you're playing a very long war of attrition in which victory by decking may come into play. It matters when your deck has a very small number of threats, all of which you must fight to keep in your deck (In the Flores Blue mirror match in Standard, for example, you don't want to be Milling away any of your creatures for any reason. If you lose copies of your Meloku, Jushi Apprentice, and Keiga, you might find you are left with no ways to win).
A majority of the time, however, Milling past random unknown cards doesn't hurt you one bit. Don't worry about it!
Magical Myth #2: All Card Advantage Is Created Equal
I'm going to tell you a secret. I just found a card that's going to totally break the Dredgeatog mirror match wide open! It's an affordable three-mana instant, it can easily net you up to five-for-one card advantage in the right situation, and it's got a built-in resilience to countermagic. Yes, sir - Sprouting Vines certainly is a beating.
So whaddya think? Did I just totally break the Dredgeatog mirror, or what?
What's that you say? I'm only drawing lands with the Vines? Lands are cards, too! Putting more lands in my hand is still drawing cards, right guys?
Yeah, it turns out that there's a pretty big difference between the two-for-one card advantage generated by Kodama's Reach and two-for-one card advantage generated by Gifts Ungiven. Not all card advantage is created equal. Yet, most people will tell you they like Solemn Simulacrum because “it's a three-for-one.” Sure, the Simulacrum might add three cards to your board and/or hand, but the first of them is guaranteed to be a basic land and the second is guaranteed to be a 2/2 creature — plus there's no guarantee you'll ever even see a third card generated by the Solemn one! In many cases, you'd be better off casting Concentrate to get an immediate, tangible return on your one-card investment.
The same principle goes for cards like Wood Elves and Carven Caryatid. They both technically generate two-for-one card advantage, but how good is that when one of the “ones” is a wall or a 1/1 creature? These cards are fine when they have synergy in your deck, but don't assume they're just a good deal all the time. Carven Caryatid won't help you beat a Heartbeat of Spring deck in and of itself, and the turn and three mana you wasted digging for an answer to Heartbeat would have been better served by playing Naturalize or Wear Away in the Caryatid slot to begin with!
Remember that simplifications like “one-for-one” and “two-for-one” are just useful for determining the value of comparable effects. Both Solemn Simulacrum and Concentrate can net you three-for-one for the cost of four mana, but the results and applications of these three cards are vastly different. Moonring Mirror and Honden of Seeing Winds might both generate plus-one card advantage each turn, but certainly the Honden has much more practical applications.
Not all card advantage is created equal; no matter how often people may talk like it is. Make sure you read the fine print on the card before buying into the hype.
Magical Myth #3: The Relevance of Land Thinning
Here's a hypothetical conversation between John (remember him from above?) and his friend Bob.
Bob: “I'd say leave Reach in. It generates card advantage, whereas Farseek will only ever replace itself.”
John: “Okay, but Farseek can be cast on turn two to accelerate my mana. This lets me cast a third-turn Gifts Ungiven. I can't cast Kodama's Reach until the third turn — but there's nothing at the five-mana mark I'm really interested in accelerating into on turn 4.”
Bob: “Kodama's Reach also thins your deck more, so it decreases your chances of topdecking a land in the late game. Don't you want to draw spells instead of land in the late game?”
Both players initially start out with relevant points. John wants to run Farseek because it has more synergy with his key spells. Bob wants to fit Kodama's Reach in the deck because it generates card advantage. But then Bob had to go and bring up land thinning. Oh, the humanity!
Okay, supposedly one of the advantages of running Kodama's Reach over Farseek is that the Reach thins a land from your deck. Fine. That's valid. However, let's perform a theoretical exercise. Let's suppose that when you cast Farseek, you not only fetch a land as normal, but you take a second basic land and draw a big red “X” on it. This Swamp represents the land you would have put into your hand had you cast Kodama's Reach instead of Farseek.
Now, I'd say your average game of Standard ends between turns 12 and 15. That means you've got approximately a 15-20% chance of drawing the Swamp with the “X” on it in during the nine to twelve draw steps between turn 3 (when you would have cast Kodama's Reach) and turns 12-15.
Well, a 15-20% chance of drawing the Swamp with the red “X” is essentially a one-in-five shot. So mathematically, it's unlikely that you'd have drawn that Swamp in four out of every five games. Still, 20% is still 20%, but would even 20% have mattered?
Consider these five scenarios:
John gets to the late game, draws the Swamp with the red “X,” and wishes it were a different card. However, John is already in control at this point, and has the game won anyhow — rendering the land thinning aspect of the Reach irrelevant.
John casts Farseek on turn 2, and draws the Swamp with the Red “X” on turn 3. He plays it as his regular land drop and goes on to win the game with a third-turn Gifts Ungiven. Once again, the Swamp was irrelevant.
John gets to the late game, needs to topdeck a good spell to win, and draws the Swamp with the red “X.” He loses that game, but looks at the top of his library and sees that it's a card that wouldn't have helped either — so even if the Swamp had been thinned from the deck, it wouldn't have mattered. For a third straight time, the Swamp with the red “X” was irrelevant.
John gets to the late game, needs that topdeck, draws the Swamp with the red “X” and loses. The next card is one that would have helped the situation, but a peer at the next few cards on top of the deck reveal that he would have lost eventually anyhow. Say it with me — the Swamp was irrelevant!
Ok, same scenario — late game, need topdeck, draw the Swamp with the red “X.” This time around, the next card in my library would have turned the entire game around — and drawing the Swamp that turn caused me to directly lose the game. Finally, the land thinning mattered here — or did it?
Remember my point about how Milling yourself doesn't matter most of the time? The same goes for drawing random cards off of the top of your deck. There's no guarantee that the unseen card after the Swamp with the red “X” will matter in any of the above games — it comes down to luck of the draw. In the average ten to fifteen-turn game of Magic, thinning one land from your deck will only matter around 20% of the time. And in that one game out of every five, it's highly unlikely that drawing that Swamp will prevent you from drawing that one card that will prevent you from winning the entire game. Even if you draw that land, the odds are in your favor that it won't drastically affect the outcome of that game. Sometimes, it'll even help you win.
So why worry about land thinning?
I usually don't. I acknowledge that land thinning is far from inconsequential... In theory. Much like the mythological idea of card advantage, the idea that thinning one card out of your deck will matter in the long term pales in comparison to other important game play elements — say, the fact that Farseek accelerates your deck to a turn 3 Gifts Ungiven whereas Kodama's Reach does not.
Also keep in mind the following: The faster the environment, the less land thinning matters. There are specialized exceptions (such as Mana Severance/Goblin Charbelcher decks, or two-land Vintage Goblin Charbelcher decks), but for the most part the 20% figure stated above is the high end of the spectrum. If you're expecting to play against highly aggressive decks that kill by turn 4 or 5, that percentage drops to the low teens. One note though: Bear in mind that the converse is also true about land thinning — the slower the environment, the more important land thinning becomes — but, I'm talking Mono-Blue Control on mono-Blue control here.
Magical Myth #4: Fancy Terminology is always Pertinent
Card advantage. Tempo. Acceleration. Velocity. Magic has developed an expansive lexicon over the years, and it's easy to forget that not all of the terms in it are always applicable to every deck or every situation. I often hear people say a card is good because it “generates tempo.” Is that always good? Not necessarily. A Mono-Blue Control deck could generate tempo by playing a second-turn Boomerang on the opponent's only land. That would, in fact, put the Blue player ahead on tempo... But if he doesn't end up using that tempo advantage to help him win the game, did it matter? Was it worth wasting that Boomerang if he couldn't capitalize on the play? What if he finds himself one answer short of handling a Genju of the Spires late in the game? That Boomerang certainly would have been better served by not being used to generate tempo back on turn 2.
Sometimes card advantage is bad. Say you're looking to set up a damage-on-the-stack trade, with the intent to save your guy with Peel from Reality. If you're too low on life, you might be better off served bouncing your creature and an opponent's attacker before damage goes on the stack, to help staunch the bleeding. In this case, waiting to play the Peel so you can keep card parity might leave you in an unrecoverable position. You'd be better off on the losing end of card advantage to attain a more favorable board position.
You may notice that these two examples can be reworked to show a positive result. That Boomerang should be used as removal later in the game rather than for tempo early in the game. That Peel from Reality should be used for tempo to slow down your opponent rather than as a way to keep card parity.
The lesson to take away from this is that, while these terms are not irrelevant, you must be careful with them. How many times have you heard this conversation?
John: “Hey, why'd you Boomerang that land on turn 2?”
John: “Ahh...” (Nods sagely.)
Don't do this! In and of itself, “Tempo” is a very poor answer to that question. There's always more to the story. Maybe the answer should be “I thought the tempo advantage was worth the lost card.” Perhaps Bob could answer with “I figured this was when I could get the most tempo out of the Boomerang.” But terminology alone does not a good point make.
I guess this point isn't so much a myth as a common mistake. It's easy to let fancy-sounding words do your talking for you. Remember, just because your argument sounds correct does not make it correct. When you're using terms like “card advantage”, “tempo”, “interactivity”, and “velocity” to answer complex questions, make sure you're not oversimplifying your answer. Think your answer through, and realize why - or if - your answer applies to this situation. Otherwise, well, you've missed the point and might end up completely wrong.
Magic is a ridiculously complicated game. Many pearls of wisdom seem perfectly intuitive, so a lot of people assume conventional wisdom is correct, without digging for the real story.
Hopefully, this article has helped to cleared up these four common Magical misconceptions. May they never again cloud your decision-making process.
Until next week,
Team Check Minus