Deep Analysis — Investment
At the risk of sounding like Kyle Sanchez, here's a story about me and a girl.
Junior year in college, I take a Fiction Writing class and meet a girl. Good writer, thin, eyebrow piercing, Facebook profile says she likes Firefly. I'm single and interested.
I work a Firefly quote into a bit of class participation; she catches it and compliments my taste in TV shows. We run the chats, and it comes out that I've never been to one of her favorite St. Louis pizza places. I suggest we grab a bite there sometime; we do, and end up back at my apartment. She's very shy, but things go well enough that my roommates, who heard things through the wall, threaten endless mockery of my manhood if I hadn't at least kissed her before taking her home. (I had.)
Eyebrow Piercing Girl and I dated until her previous (longtime) boyfriend came back into the picture and announced that he'd never technically broken up with her. Er, okay. She went back to him, and I was randomly owned.
Has this ever happened to you in Magic? You see a deck you like, sleeve it up, playtest it, really like how things are going… and then the environment changes, through circumstances entirely beyond your control, and you just can't compete anymore.
It's really disappointing, isn't it?
You want to hang on, because the deck is your baby. You put all this time into it! You playtested it! Tuned it up! Fixed its worst matchups! Worked the Firefly quote into your class discussion! Followed it to its favorite pizza place! You're invested!
Economics bores the hell out of me, but it does have a handy little term called Sunk Cost.
Sunk Cost is a cost you've already paid, and cannot get refunded. If you buy a movie ticket for $10, you're out $10, and you're not going to get it back - even if you decide not to see the movie. The price of the ticket was a sunk cost.
Why is this term useful? Let's say you buy a movie ticket for $10, for the sole purpose of taking a girl there. You don't even want to see the movie – it's a chick flick, after all – you're in it for the girl, and that's it. If she calls and cancels, stubborn folk who have a poor understanding of sunk costs (or who choose, irrationally, to ignore them) will go see the movie anyway. They've paid for the ticket already, and damn it all, they're going to “get their money's worth” even when their money's worth is nothing at all! So they go to the theater, cross their arms defiantly, and sit through a chick flick they didn't want to see in the first place because it makes their $10 expenditure feel somehow justified.
A deck, unlike a girl, won't leave you when there's nothing more either of you can get out of the partnership. If you can't see the writing on the wall, it will stick with you as you put up disappointing finish after disappointing finish, right through to the end of the season.
Say you're testing the deck you're most familiar with against the format's new contenders, you're trying to modify this and tweak that and salvage a matchup here and there… and you keep coming up short. You're just not putting up the playtest numbers that you were at the beginning of the season, and your lackluster tournament results are reflecting it. You've got two weeks until the next PTQ, and you know there's a better deck choice out there. What do you do?
If you think you can learn to adequately pilot the new deck in two weeks' time, jump ship.
People will tell you that you should stick with what you know, because you won't be able to play a new deck as well as you would your old standby. Well, so what? As long as you're not punting every other turn with the new deck, who cares if you can play the old deck like a master if you still can't get results out of it? It doesn't matter if you're the best pilot in the world – if you're getting beaten up in the playtest arena, how can you expect to fare any better in the tournament itself?
It's tough to make the decision to jump ship, because you've put all this time and energy into learning the deck – but those are sunk costs. You're not getting your time back, you're not getting your energy back, and so the only way you can dig yourself even deeper into this hole is by insisting on dragging the deck to another tournament so you can X-2-drop with it again.
People figure it out eventually, but sometimes it costs them one or two precious PTQs worth of failure to do so. They feel afraid to switch decks before putting up a bad result because they are so invested in the deck they've been playing, and only after a 1-2-drop or two do they realize they should have changed in the first place.
So, again, let's say there's a PTQ in two weeks. Your standby is not testing well. It's not resilient; it has failed to adapt. If you keep testing it, trying to squeeze every possible percentage point out of its deficient matchups, right up to the night before the tournament… you'll probably still do poorly. Then you'll sigh, throw your hands in the air, and finally pick up the other deck.
But now you've lost two full weeks of testing! You could have spent that time playing the other deck – and not only that, you could have run the superior choice at the PTQ in the first place, and had an actual shot at taking home the title. In fact, if you'd left the tournament site with two weeks worth of testing experience and a PTQ's worth of practical applications under your belt, you could be close to mastering the damn thing by now, instead of starting from scratch because you were too hesitant to switch decks a fortnight ago.
It feels like there's a price you pay when you abandon your investment, but there really isn't if the investment has become worthless. Nevertheless, there will be no shortage of signs that make you want to second-guess your decision.
Remember Eyebrow Piercing Girl? After she went back to her previous boyfriend, she informed me that he would be graduating this year and leaving town, while she and I would still be in St. Louis. It looked like the environment was about to shift again, allowing me to mise something positive out of my time investment after all.
Going back to Magic, this is a lot like what happened to me this past Extended season. I started off investing a ton of time and energy into Tenacious Tron. Then Destructive Flow got popular, and I concluded that my investment had become worthless. I didn't think I could win a PTQ with it anymore, and so I quickly turned my back on it in order to get a head-start on testing an alternative. (In retrospect, I made a mistake by failing to make good and sure the deck was actually too vulnerable to the hateful, new environment – but that's another story.)
Then Flow waned in popularity and suddenly Tron looked like a good choice again. I had mised my way into getting value out of my investment after all! Again, feeling no attachment to the alternative deck I had been playing – what were two weeks of play experience compared to the two months I had put in with Tenacious Tron? – I jumped ship a second time, having identified an opportunity to profit from an investment I'd thought had long since been relegated to the Worthless Pile.
This type of adaptation comes up even more in-game than it does in the process of choosing your deck. A common rookie play mistake is getting dead-set on a gameplan and failing to abandon it even when a better one presents itself.
Let's say you know you'll never out-damage the opponent's White Martyr recursion in the long game, but you've got Faith's Fetters in your deck to deal with the opponent's Chronosavants. So you decide to deck him, and proceed accordingly until he casts Wrath into your countermagic, in hopes of removing your random utility creature (that has been attacking all game) - which, by the way, has taken him all the way down to six life.
If you're a complete rookie, you let the Wrath resolve on the grounds that you've been playing these past dozen turns with an endgame of decking in mind. You've been saving your countermagic to force through Faith's Fetters on Chronosavant (and defend it from getting Wrathed back in the graveyard), and letting this one Wrath go is one fewer counter you'll need to hold later.
The crafty Magician, however, will recognize that the time spent saving up counters and refraining from using targeted card draw on himself in order to pursue the decking plan… is sunk. It is irrelevant. All that matters is winning the game, so he will counter the Wrath and continue beating down with the dork, as that option has become more viable than the decking option.
Two turns pass by, and the opponent resolves a dork of his own to block. Not White Martyr – which would have recovered all the damage you'd done so far – but rather Weathered Wayfarer, which only stops you from attacking.
Now the (merely) crafty Magician will dig for a way to remove the opposing blocker, so that his dork can finish the job. The expert Magician, however, will re-evaluate the decking strategy. Burning the targeted draw spells on himself would preclude him from falling back on the decking strategy (as the opponent has a couple – if fewer – targeted draw spells himself), so using them to dig might end up screwing him if the opponent found an answer to his tiny clock. The right play might very well be to switch back to the original strategy, now that the incentives for backing out on it in the first place have disappeared. Investment is nothing; making the right play is everything.
Back to the story.
Summer came, and I found myself at my friend Tom Mooney's house before our planned road trip from St. Louis to Los Angeles. I had promised Craig an article and was planning on staying up until 6am to write it, sleeping in the car while Tom took the first shift driving. I met an unfamiliar brunette at Tom's house – his sister's best friend, who had just started summer break as well.
The brunette asked if Tom and I would like to grab a bite to eat with her and one of her male friends from college. I wasn't hungry, had a long night ahead of me, wasn't optimistic that I'd get anywhere with her if she was bringing another guy along… buuuut she was cute. That's always the catch, isn't it?
What were the odds I'd end up getting anywhere with her? Terrible. Even if we did hit it off, would it be worth forfeiting my shot at a post-summer relationship with Eyebrow Piercing Girl, who I knew to be a good thing already? After all, I'd already invested all this time in Eyebrow Piercing Girl, then had her taken away from me by the whims of the... environment, and then got her back when the situation changed again. After all that, would I really be willing to take a chance on a long shot who didn't even go to the same school that I did?
Jumping back to Magic again (‘cause I bounce like a Beeble), the most important lesson to be learned from the concepts of investment and sunk costs is to always be on the lookout for opportunities, no matter how recently you've made your plans. It's patently awful when you feel so invested in a plan that you won't consider changing it even when it has become worthless, but it's still plain-old bad when you justify the same thing on the grounds that the current plan isn't actually worthless – just less awesome than the potential alternative.
When you have the chance to try out something new, with no real downsides other than a sour taste in your mouth if it proves better than the option you've already invested time in, try it out! I'm a Constructed player by trade, but no more compelling example of this comes to mind than Sealed deckbuilding. If you're ready to register your deck with thirty minutes to spare, don't just register it and walk off! Try out different configurations. Experiment. It might feel like you've gotten as much out of this card pool as you can already, but that's exactly how it will feel until the moment after you discover you should be focusing on the color you were originally splashing, and splashing a completely different third color.
“If it ain't broke, don't fix it,” is crap. If you can do better - without risking it all in the process - do better.
Have you ever gone into the tank for what seems like an eternity, trying to figure out a play for your next turn, untapped, drawn a card, and then second-guessed the play based on what you drew?
It's easy to look at the new card and say, “I might be able to come up with a better play using this, but I probably won't. The one I've got in mind is already sweet enough,” choosing to stick with the original plan out of nothing more than – let's face it – laziness. The fact that you spent a full minute staring at the board on the opponent's turn does not matter; all that matters is that you find the correct play for this turn, right now.
Again, now that you've spent all that time in the tank, trying your hardest to figure out the best play, the only way you can screw up is by making the wrong play anyway.
The correct approach is to stop, spend another minute re-evaluating your options impartially, and figure out if the new play is better than the old.
Beeble it back to Tom's house.
The odds are very much against my getting anywhere with the brunette, and I am still very much invested in this potential future relationship with Eyebrow Piercing Girl. I'm not involved, mind you – an important distinction for some (myself included; I don't cheat in Magic or on girls), but, to be fair, not for others – but as I'm still single at this point, there are simply no downsides to accepting the offer to grab food. I do.
Was it worth the effort? Did we hit it off? Did anything ever come of it?
At the end of the summer, Eyebrow Piercing Girl decided to stay with her boyfriend and go for a long-distance relationship, even though neither was optimistic that it would last. It did; they're still together today.
The brunette's name is Maggy Hillen. Not only did we hit it off, we turned out to be pretty much – are you ready for this? – perfect for each other. She's asleep on the bed behind me as I write this, wearing the engagement ring I recently gave her.
Seriously, what were the odds?
Hell if I care!
Until next time, may you never get married to decisions that you can reevaluate with no downside. Instead, may you get married only to the girl of your dreams, and to nothing less than that.
See you next week.
PS: I swear I'm not such a robot that I actually treat dating and relationships like solving a series of Magic plays. It's just a handy parallel, you dig?