Deep Analysis - Turning Outplay, Misplay, and Mastery into Results
"Dredge doesn’t reward your ability to outplay your opponents very much."
Only recently have I come to grasp some of the deeper nuances of how outplaying an opponent in a game of Magic actually translates into results. This is not a topic I can ever recall reading about but it has especial relevance to my format of choice Constructed. By the end of this article I hope you come to disagree with the above quote as much as I now do.
However that conclusion is a fair way off. Let’s start with something simple.
What does it mean when you "outplay" your opponent in a game of Magic? If it simply means that you play better than he does over the course of that game then I would say there are four broad situations in which you can say you outplayed him:
1) "I made fewer mistakes" - Your mistakes were fewer in number than his.
2) "I made less relevant mistakes" - In total the mistakes you made contributed less to the outcome of the game than the mistakes he made.
3) "I successfully bluffed him more often" - You successfully influenced enough of his otherwise-correct decisions and made him choose the wrong play more often than he did the same to you.
4) "My successful bluffs mattered more than his did" - In total the bluffs you pulled off contributed more to the outcome of the game than did the bluffs he pulled off against you.
As we all know even a game in which you do all four of these things is not necessarily a win; Magic would not be Magic without the luck component. This is why people often complain that they outplayed their opponents but still lost.
Most often it has been my experience that one player outplays another because of one of the first two situations: one player makes more mistakes or more damning mistakes without you artificially inducing him to misplay. I don’t see bluffs or Jedi Mind Tricks taking games nearly as often which makes them all the more remarkable as war stories when they do happen.
As such my view of what it is to outplay someone fundamentally agrees with Antonino DeRosa’s misplay-driven philosophy on the skill of Pros. His comment on the subject can be paraphrased as "We almost always win the games we are supposed to win [based on the luck of the draw] but our opponents often throw away the games they are supposed to win." In other words if both players play tightly and do not make mistakes then it is up to the matchup and the luck of the draw to determine a winner - but if one player plays tightly and the other does not the odds greatly favor the side that is lacking in relevant misplay.
That’s simple enough but what do you consider a misplay? Mike Turian was once asked if he had ever played a perfect game of Magic. He responded that so much a blink at the wrong time could disqualify you from playing a perfect game of Magic and I agree. Giving your opponent a "tell" that he can use against you can absolutely cost you the game and anything that you do (but could have chosen not to do) that is more likely to cost you the game than win it for you is a misplay. If it cost you the game and could have been avoided I can’t see it being anything else.
To Mike Turian most Magic players probably make hundreds maybe even thousands of tiny misplays every time they play a game. Nearly all of them are extremely minor however and even fixing most of them would rarely change the eventual outcome of the game. That’s why we often say that a mistake we made "didn’t matter"; if making the correct play would not have changed who won the game the mistake was irrelevant to the outcome. (Note that it always matters in the grand scheme of things even if it does not change the outcome of an individual game. It is far from acceptable to hand-wave any mistake away as irrelevant even if it did not keep you from winning the game at hand.)
What does this say then about the first situation I listed - "I made fewer mistakes" - in which one player can claim he outplayed the other? Okay you made fewer mistakes. So what? You might have been John the Robot Tell-Free Master of All Expression staving off hundreds of tiny misplays while my numerous tells gave away my entire hand… yet for all that you still cast two Pact of Negations on my turn with only nine mana out. Your one misplay obliterated your chance at victory while mine were relatively inconsequential to the game’s final result.
In general the number of mistakes a player makes in a game is far less relevant to the outcome than the overall consequences of those mistakes. Forgetting to attack with a 1/1 flyer for three turns in a row can be registered as three separate mistakes - significant ones even - but even taken together they are not nearly as bad as blocking your way into an on-table kill for the opponent instantly ruining your chances at victory in a single combat step. I would go as far as to say that the boast that "I made fewer mistakes" is hardly even noteworthy. How relevant were those mistakes man? That’s what matters to me.
As I said my experience has been that most players outplay their opponents by making fewer or less-relevant misplays than they do. You can technically attempt a bluff any time you like but only in a specific set of circumstances will it actually pay off. Even the most advanced bluffsters in the world will find some games - many games even - where the opportunity to utilize their skills simply never arises.
One play always comes to mind when I think of bluffs and Jedi Mind Tricks and for the life of me I can’t find the original article that describes it. I’m almost certain it was on magicthegathering.com and when I described the play to Adrian Sullivan he said he remembered it as well - but was also unable to locate its source. I will reproduce it as best I can remember it; if anyone has a link to the actual story please post it in the forums for clarification.
Jon Finkel is holding Counterspell and Hydroblast and expects his opponent Kai Budde to be holding a counter or two of his own. Kai plays a threat leaving two mana open and the counter war begins. Clearly Jon will Counterspell the threat but if Kai uses an actual Counterspell to thwart Jon’s counter Jon’s Hydroblast will have no targets and Kai’s threat will resolve. Jon’s only hope is that Kai tries to stop his Counterspell with a Pyroblast (the only relevant Red spell Kai can play here) instead of a conventional Blue counter. There’s a twist though: if Kai is holding both Pyroblast and some other counter Jon has to convince the German Juggernaut to choose Pyroblast instead of Counterspell.
Whether Jon thought the situation through in the blink of an eye or just intuitively knew what to do I may never know. Regardless the play was nothing short of masterful. With Kai’s threat on the stack he flicked his Volcanic Island then quickly reached for two other Blue sources with which to pay for his Counterspell. The flick was subtle; he couldn’t dramatize it or Kai would know it wasn’t genuine - but Finkel knew that a player of Budde’s caliber would notice it.
His opponent did notice it and so the thought process began. "Jon nearly tapped that Volcanic Island" Kai presumably reasoned "but he stopped himself because he realized that was his only Red source. If he needs to keep Red open he’s got to be holding Pyroblast. That means if I Counterspell back here he will Pyroblast my counter and I’ll lose the fight. If I Pyroblast here on the other hand his Pyroblast will have no targets." Thus Kai used one of his remaining two mana to Pyroblast - not Counterspell - Finkel’s original counter. Finkel triumphantly responded with Hydroblast and won the exchange.
It takes so much to execute this play. People write entire articles espousing the importance of "playing to maximize your outs" - but in this exchange that was step one. Before he could go any further Jon had to realize his only chance of winning a counter-war was if Budde was holding a Pyroblast for his Hydroblast to target. Step two was noticing that Kai had two mana open and could potentially stop Jon’s Counterspell with a Counterspell of his own. Step three was realizing that it was critical for Kai to choose Pyroblast over Counterspell if he had both. Step four saw Jonny Magic decide on a mechanically difficult bit of acting - how do you make a hand motion subtle enough that a master like Budde won’t recognize it as a ruse yet pronounced enough that he will still notice it in the first place? - as the solution and step five saw him execute it brilliantly to win the exchange. That’s how far ahead he had to think to make this play come together.
Even if I’ve misremembered some of the details on this story it is a phenomenal example of how to create a situation in which the opponent can misplay - the ultimate bluff the Jedi Mind Trick. If Finkel just drops his Counterspell onto the table and stares blankly at his opponent waiting for a response all hope rests on the outcome of Kai’s cost-benefit analysis on the merits of Pyroblast versus Counterspell as the response. Given that the Juggernaut could expend a two-mana counter while he has exactly two mana open and save the cheaper counter for a rainy day odds are not good that he will choose the Pyroblast. By steering Kai’s choice toward the incorrect decision Finkel created a situation in which his odds were better than if he had merely played his part in the game without error.
You could look at this and say that Finkel "merely" made the right play; that anything less than the masterful play that he settled on would have been a mistake. In fact Jon "There is the one right play and then there is the mistake" Finkel would likely see it this way himself. As with DeRosa and Turian I agree with him. In this case failing to expertly bluff your opponent really could lose you the game and as such anything short of that is a misplay.
It’s weird to think of it that way isn’t it? That you should fault yourself for failing to be less than an absolute master even when absolute mastery is all that will win you the game?
… well how else do you think Finkel got to where he is? Low standards? When faced with a situation where only an elaborate bluff will save him he doesn’t play conservatively. He knows that doing so would lose him the game and that doing anything that will lose you the game - when you could make any other play to change that outcome - would be a mistake. So he pulls out the Jedi Mind Trick the situational play to end all situational plays and brings home the win against all odds.
"How did it turn out? Was Kai actually holding both Pyroblast and Counterspell?"
Josh Ravitz would say "It doesn’t matter" and you and I both know he’d be right.
As much as all this talk about misplays and mastery makes for lovely conversation the real value to a player comes from translating the concept into results. Which Magical decisions are informed by a knowledge of which misplays and outplays are most relevant and when?
Besides the plays themselves the first answer that comes to mind is deck selection. If tournaments were resolved with identical robots piloting each deck we would see fairly consistent win ratios when various decks clashed. With actual Magic players at the helm though things are obviously different. As we all know decks' win ratios vary based on the skills of the players.
Some decks are intrinsically complicated (TEPS in Extended Teachings from Time Spiral Block and so forth); these decks give their pilots ample opportunities to misplay meaning skill is practically a prerequisite for choosing them. Other decks are more straightforward (Enduring Ideal in Extended U/G Beats from Time Spiral Block); these decks offer their pilots fewer chances to doom themselves. If you are a perfectly skilled pilot of course it doesn't matter how many chances to misplay the deck offers you — you can pass each test as you encounter it and the list will function as though it were the most straightforward deck in the world.
On the flip side some decks offer the opponent new opportunities to misplay. I've noticed that these decks are often the same complicated ones that offer their own pilots more chances to misplay as well. Such decks are natural choices for a skilled player; if a deck is so complicated that it creates ample opportunities for both pilot and opponent to make relevant misplays — but only the pilot knows how to dodge those misplays — then choosing that deck will give your opponents extra chances to throw games away without really hurting your own chances at success.
By factoring in a deck's ability to create relevant misplay situations on either side of the table you can choose a deck that gets better matchup percentages at an actual tournament than it will in a playtest arena against comparably skilled and informed opponents. In many cases you can get far better results which is how superstars wielding mundane technology-free known decklists can take down entire tournaments with them to the bewilderment of onlooking deckbuilders. Nothing swings the odds in your favor like presenting an unwitting opponent with multiple opportunities to chop his own head off.
For a practical application of this I will turn to my experience in the current Extended PTQ season. As always happens when a new format rolls around Zac Hill and I did lots of talking over the phone about what to play. At first I was all about Domain Zoo (and wrote about it) right up until Doran came out at which point Zac suggested Springleaf Affinity and Dredge as powerful alternatives. I didn't know much about Dredge but he insisted that he knew about an Akroma build from PT: Valencia that was nuts. As my Washington University troupe and I road-tripped to and from St. Louis to California for Winter Break I tested the hell out of Dredge on my laptop. As usual I made changes tune-ups and so forth and then came back and discussed the results of my playtesting with Zac. He tested some more and confirmed that our version was the real deal and you can read about the resulting decklist here.
Unfortunately I have no results to confirm or deny the deck’s power in a tournament setting; the fates have persistently conspired against me this PTQ season. Extended is my favorite PTQ format and yet I’ve had one Saturday commitment after another every single weekend a PTQ has been in range for me. (As if to kick me while I was down I learned that the St. Louis PTQ landed right on the week-and-a-half out of the year I was in California.) Zac’s Pro Points already equated to a Q so he didn’t PTQ with the deck either - leaving us with only theory to substantiate our claims about the deck’s strength in the format.
Advocating a deck like Dredge without results to back it up has exposed me to a variety of comments from naysayers which brings us back to the quote at the beginning of the article: "Dredge doesn’t reward your ability to outplay your opponents very much." Assuming this was something I hadn’t considered before in my deck selection process how do I proceed when someone tells me this? Do I agree and acknowledge that perhaps Dredge is not making a very good use of my playskill or do I disagree and play it anyway?
At face value the quote seems like a reasonable claim. Consider the evidence:
Win or lose a game against Dredge is usually decided in the first few turns by either a crippling hate card or victory for Dredge. Fewer turns means mathematically fewer potential opportunities for me to outplay the opponent.
The contents of Dredge’s hand are often irrelevant meaning the opponent is often working with near-perfect information as to what I have available to do to him.
Aside from attacks and blocks the Dredge player will interact very little with the opponent casting perhaps one or two Cabal Therapies Darkblasts and/or Crippling Fatigues over the course of the game.
Besides Cabal Therapy and Dread Return which cost zero mana Dredge will almost always play one spell per turn.
Dredge will only cast a handful of different spells during a game many of which are redundant (Careful Study Breakthrough Tolarian Winds) and the opponent can usually narrow down which spells the Dredge player will be playing next turn to within three or so candidates.
Compare this to a baseline of Doran. Doran is interacting with the opponent constantly. Vindicate Putrefy Jitte Therapy Thoughtseize Duress Profane Command… not every Doran deck plays all of these but the threat of each remains omnipresent from the opponent’s perspective. And predictable? Sure you can expect to stare down a 4/5 5/5 or 5/6 at some point during the game but it’s all up in the air from there. The deck attacks you with a variety of different spells from a cadre of straightforward disruption spells and undercosted fatties to a series of curveballs like Treetop Village Eternal Witness the threat/answer/reanimation spell/plumbing repair kit Profane Command and the mighty Gaddock Teeg.
There is no question that Doran’s opponents have ample opportunity to misplay against them. However what of the follow-up question? How often will the opponent’s misplays translate into actual game wins for you? Keep that question in mind while I quote Tiago Chan’s article from last week on the subject of a few matches he witnessed at a PTQ.
[Later on] Mono-Blue was at 20 Tron was at 10. Tron had no permanents other than lands while Mono-Blue had Spire Golem and an equipped Umezawa's Jitte with six counters. Tron [played Venser] during Mono Blue’s attack step targeting Umezawa's Jitte… Mono-Blue let it resolve and removed six counters from the Jitte. He used three to gain life and three to pump the Spire Golem... when his opponent was at ten.
[In another game] Tron’s opponent cast Duress and forced the discard of Thirst for Knowledge leaving Decree of Justice. He then attacked with Gaddock Teeg a key card against Tron into the Decree of Justice losing the Gaddock Teeg. This wasn't strategic decision... he just forgot about the Decree that he’d seen earlier that turn.
Why do I remember these plays and why I'm I telling you about them? Because in all of them the player making the mistake still won the game. Everyone at all levels of tournament play makes mistakes but it's so hard to actually gain any profits out of them.
Once again I agree with Tiago; it is indeed often difficult to profit from the opponent’s misplays because so many of them are not relevant misplays. Doran is set up to allow the opponent ample opportunity to misplay but much do those misplays contribute to the outcome of the game? What’s the worst that can happen if I don’t play around your Putrefy or Vindicate? Most of the time I will just sacrifice some board position. This will decrease my chances of victory granted - and sometimes quite a bit - but rarely will I outright lose because I forgot the opponent could have had Putrefy or Vindicate or because I played wrong against his Tarmogoyf or Duress. I really have to do something like basing an entire race on the assumption that the opponent will not drop a Doran in my way or tapping out to expose a critical permanent to Vindicate before a misplay on my part actually tilts a game I was going to win into Doran’s favor.
Now let’s say you play a deck that gives the opponent lots of opportunities to misplay - and to relevantly misplay at that. Next Level Blue is a great example of such a deck; not knowing how to properly play against cards like Counterbalance active Vedalken Shackles Cryptic Command and even just Counterspell can turn a face-value favorable matchup into a disaster area. Players who play spells as they draw them into Counterbalance plus Top or who send small waves of creatures into Vedalken Shackles rather than building up a swarm force or who forget that Cryptic Command can tap down their entire team… these players frequently punt games to Next Level Blue outright when they make such blunders.
Besides Next Level Blue you know what makes another great example of a deck that serves up relevant misplays for the opponent to make? Dredge.
Far too many people are loathe to test the often un-fun Dredge matchup believing that the contest is all about how many hate cards they draw; as a result they never learn how to properly play against it. Even good players make awful judgment calls against Dredge when they are not familiar with it. I was playtesting against a solid Magic-playing friend of mine (he last played in PT: Prague) who was piloting Enduring Ideal against my Dredge. He led with Leyline of the Void (I bounced it with Chain of Vapor and he lacked the second Black necessary to replay it) dropped Invasion sac-lands on turns 1 and 2 and followed with turn 3 Burning Wish for Enduring Ideal and another sac-land poised to go off next turn with so much as a Sacred Foundry in hand.
As an old hand at Dredge this play surprised me. Although I had had a slow opening because I had kept a hand with Chain of Vapor a discard outlet and only one dredger I fully expected him to fetch Morningtide from his sideboard and empty out my graveyard to reset me instead of going for the gold with Ideal. However he did not realize the danger he was in and went for Enduring Ideal and the next-turn-kill instead. I dredged into Cabal Therapy removed his Epic spell and won two turns later.
Later in the set he had the option of shutting down my Ichorid plus Narcomoeba beats and taking aim at my life total with Form of the Dragon or waiting for an Enduring Ideal to arrive from the top of his deck. Rather than risk losing his Form to a Therapy before he could cast it to stop my offense he cashed in his lands to play it. Two turns later I flipped over Akroma for the instant kill. In the interim his deck had served up a Divining Top which located the Enduring Ideal he could no longer afford; his overvaluation of the Form’s ability to plausibly win him the game (all I had to do was find Akroma in four turns; this was not especially daunting given the size of my graveyard) cost him everything.
In another game against Domain Zoo the same playtest partner curved out with Mogg Fanatic Gaddock Teeg then Watchwolf plus Kird Ape. Brutal no? On my own third turn I flashed back Crippling Fatigue on Teeg then reanimated Akroma (sadly Mogg Fanatic stopped the Zombies) to end the game two turns later. Had he held open Stomping Ground to protect Gaddock with the Gaea’s Might in his hand instead of playing the Ape I would have had to dredge into a Therapy before I could have reanimated Akroma - likely causing me to emergency-block the Watchwolf and lose my Angel of Wrath to his Gaea’s Might or else die to his on-board damage.
My opponent made one relevant misplay in each of these games. Only one.
Each time he was stone cold dead two turns later.
Now granted Dredge is not the type of deck that rewards you for being a Jedi as some other decks do - but even when playing those decks the opportunities to bluff the opponent into an actual game win are few and far between. Instead Dredge rewards you for being the kind of implacable wall DeRosa talks about where your opponent will throw away games to you as long as you play tightly enough to not throw them away yourself.
You make a miscalculation against Doran your board position gets worse. You play incorrectly against one of Next Level Blue’s most dangerous cards you’re in a deep hole. You make the wrong choice against Dredge you are dead.
Numerically the opponent’s overall opportunities to misplay against a Dredge player are low but who cares? In terms of the relevance of each of these plays - their propensity to alter the outcome of a game - misplays against Dredge lead the league in my book. Taking both things into account I’d put Dredge’s overall ability to translate opposing misplays into wins (what we really care about) right up there with Next Level Blue.
If you play Dredge well and do not throw away games to the opponent he will throw them away to you. That is how Dredge allows you to outplay your opponents and while it doesn’t make for as good of a story as the bluffs and the Jedi Mind Tricks a deck’s ability to complement your playskill matters only as far as it wins games for you.
Keep this in mind when you are choosing a deck. If the list interacts with the opponent a lot how much do those interactions contribute to the overall outcome of the game? You can play a deck that gives the opponent a dozen decisions to make per turn but you are only gaining value if his inability to correctly make those decisions will translate into game wins for you. Never forget that you can significantly outplay someone simply by making no (relevant) bad plays yourself. Finally take care not to put too much stock in a deck based on its propensity to create bluff situations… until you make sure those bluff situations will actually win a game for you more than once in a blue moon.
See you next week.