Sullivan Library - The Fear and Deckbuilding
I’ve been posed a question many times:
What are the five most influential Magic articles of all time?
It’s an interesting question. Even though I’ve answered it before I think it is worth answering once again. The thing about this question though is that it is kind of deceptive. The articles that this gets me thinking of are not necessarily the best. They are however articles that deeply influenced Magic.
In my current way of thinking it probably goes something like this:
#1 – “Schools of Magic” – Rob Hahn April 1996
This article has some deep flaws certainly. The biggest one is just how dated it is and how in its very nature it is doomed to be. The next biggest is conflating decks/player preferences with actual strategic “Schools.” That said though this was the height of strategic writing when it was crafted and it inspired the creation of The Dojo which defined what it was to be a Magic: the Gathering magazine. Frank Kusumoto (rightly) read Hahn’s piece and decided enough was enough; this information had to be put on a website and he began the archiving of select USENET News articles eventually making The Dojo the place for Magic by such a long shot it is kind of funny. Sure I may be biased because Rob was my boss when I worked at the Dojo and a fellow member of the old-school mailing list/think tank Cabal Rogue but if you’re reading this website the mere fact of its form and the dedication of its writers to a certain kind of standard rests on the shoulders of this one.
#2 – “Who’s the Beatdown” – Mike Flores January 1999
This article would also be in my Top Five “Best of Magic” list for a number of reasons. Once again Mike and I worked together both in our job (as Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor of The Dojo respectively) but also collaboratively again in Cabal Rogue so some may accuse me of bias but hell this article is good. But in terms of influential this article gave people their first real lesson in actual theory. Ironically this article would likely be deemed “too short” these days but its value is just inestimable.
#3 – “It’s All About the Dinosaurs” – Jamie Wakefield December 2000
This is the kind of writing that made a ton of casual players want to become tournament players and with good reason. It is inspiring. Hell if you ever manage to find a copy of his book reading it will make you hunger to run out and Q ASAP. Jamie always did his own thing and he often did it with so much sheer joy for the game that he has always struck me as the Barometer for the game. (Again another Cabal Rogue alum but don’t worry there won’t be any more…) He ends his sign off of the article with “Qualified with Mono Green” unconsciously just epitomizing the Timmy nature of his game. And speaking of…
Monty Ashley put it well when he said that this article very much crafted how everyone in the game tends to visualize themselves. This article is also one of those articles that has been read by far more people than most others if only because it existed on the pre-“improved” mothership website at Wizards. Further in many ways Rosewater is the de facto voice of the game for many people precisely for articles like this which make oh-so-many of us tune in. Even people who haven’t read the article or its many take-offs still view themselves in these terms. Me I’m a Spike with Johnny tendencies.
#5 – “The New Pool Halls” – Brian Hacker May 2001
Coming in just under one thousand words Hacker’s little article is the companion piece to Wakefield’s entire history of writing. Where Wakefield helped bring the casual and semi-casual player closer to the world of tournaments Hacker’s challenged the people already in that world to step up their game and begin imagining themselves as Pros. There were already some people that existed in the game who essentially were living that kind of life. Hacker however took them all shoved them at the drafting tables and told them that there would be the true accounting of their skill. In many ways this was just the first public baby step towards Magic players imagining the game in terms of EV and guiding some of them down that slippery slope towards poker. More than that though it definitely is the place that also captured in words the braggadocio of the game. Unfortunately tournament Magic has nearly always been a game filled with punks with few to no manners and this article while not for them certainly helped give them all the more ammunition with which they would measure others to find them lacking.
What are some of the best articles though?
There are so many great articles. To me the hallmark of the very best articles is the way in which they could be applied to the game for an incredibly long time (perhaps forever). Someday I’d like to go through the heavy work of examining everyone’s work and cataloguing them but that does seem like a heady task. Of the above certainly Flores’s should be included; it might even be his best work and it would definitely be in my Top Five Best list.
To my mind this is the kind of article that marries theory to play and shows you how thinking about the game can help you win more. It uses examples from the moment in time that it was written but can be applied forward. Don’t be so afraid to lose that you make your beatdown deck about answers. Have your deck be about questions when you’re the beatdown.
There is something unspoken in here that is bigger though. Let’s quote it again:
“Don’t be so afraid to lose…”
Right there. There you go.
This is the trap. And it is a trap that hits so many people.
I was talking about this recently in two separate conversations one with Patrick Chapin and one with Richard Feldman. As far as thinkers in the game go these two approach the game very very differently. Still we all have one major thing in common: we want intellectual rigor in our approach to thinking about the game. And we all agreed on one thing:
Being afraid of what people will think is an invitation to mediocrity.
I get to this point in The Big Lie of Good Cards. The moment we begin to fear what people will think is the moment that we turn our heads away from rationality (if we haven’t already).
One of the most egalitarian things about Magic is that it is largely a meritocracy. If you play against a deck that is full of silly looking cards like say Captured Sunlight it doesn’t matter if the deck looks silly. If it is good it can still crush your face. The goal of a game of tournament Magic is winning it. I’ll play One with Nothing if the deck running it is a winner.
Figuring out what is actually winning and actually losing is a part of the key here. Empirical data is deeply important. PV recently wrote about his fears going into Barcelona – should he play his Swans deck or not? In his mind he was afraid that maybe he had simply made some mistake in his playtesting and that his Swans deck could not possibly be as good as it looked.
This is a real issue. For many years in my early career in Magic I know that my test numbers were generally skewed off. Even after I had gotten over the things that were deeply skewing my data I still caught hell for it. I remember Seth Burn in particular raking me over the coals. I reminded him off our work on Chevy Fires (of Zvi’s “My Fires” fame) and asked him if he thought that our playtesting of the time had resulted in skewed numbers or if some of the decks I’d shown him in the time since had failed to give the results I claimed. He replied with a quiet somewhat chagrined “No.”
There were a lot of things that I was doing wrong then. These days the biggest error in data-collection I’m probably making is probably not playing enough Magic (i.e. making my standard deviation too high). Having good empirical data is absolutely the key in overcoming The Fear as it applies to deckbuilding. If you trust in your data (and you are right) it should generally be a good guidepost to the correctness of playing one deck or another regardless of what it looks like.
I’ve said a lot about empiricism in Magic in the past. Playtesting whether in sit-down sessions well before an event or on the fly in the tournament is a great way to get empirical data. The big issue with getting your data as you go in an event is just how little data you are acquiring. Even if a deck is the most common deck ever in a tournament you’re unlikely to get more than a handful of games against it.
Before my Top 8 with Ponza at a PTQ this last season I sat down with Andre Crivello a player from the Milwaukee area and just gunned game after game against Affinity. I hadn’t tested the matchup at all and it seemed likely to me that I’d end up playing against Lucas Duchow in the finals. Duchow didn’t end up making it to the finals after all but the twenty or so games I got in gave me the perfect board plan for the match and also gave me a healthy sense of exactly what to mulligan for if I needed to.
If on the other hand there had been some flaw in our work all I would be doing is learning the wrong lessons. Imagine for example that my opponent hadn’t been playing competently but instead had been too cautious every time. His tentative play if uncorrected could very well poison my data so that I’d have the wrong idea of how difficult the matchup was and how much I’d have to do to actually win it.
So it is with any playtesting. But when you’re building something particularly if it is something new there is nothing more important than getting this part right. A part of what PV was afraid of was that he must have done something wrong. Thankfully he was given some great advice essentially being told that he “probably knew enough about the game to know if [he had] something that was actually good or [not].”
I think this was the exact right thing for him to be told. I imagine him thinking about his situation and saying “You know what I know I did good work in testing this out. I’m going to trust it.”
This is the critical hurdle for all of us. We have to honestly look at our game and our preparation process and determine the confidence level we have in our results.
Be honest. How often have you played a deck you knew you didn’t really know enough about? If you are playing a deck for the fun of it that is no big sin. But if you are playing the deck to win it not knowing your confidence level in the data you have is pretty rough. When it comes to net decking of various sorts a lot of the data you can somewhat trust in by merely trusting in the work of others. Of course Guillaume Wafo-Tapa put in the work. Of course LSV did. Antii Malin’s burn deck from Worlds is clearly a deck that was heavily worked out.
When you’re forging a new path though this step is critical. Richard Feldman goes into this in his penultimate article and it is worth remembering. Every time that you ignore your empirical results in order to justify playing your new pet deck you are all but guaranteeing yourself poor results.
We need to ask ourselves every time what PV was essentially asking himself: “Did I do the work? Is it right to want to play this deck or is my data not worth trusting?” If it isn’t you’re essentially playing the lottery. PV looked at himself and could honestly say he did the kind of work that made him trust his own results. The moment you decide you want to be like PV is the moment that you can start expecting far greater returns in your tournament life.
For everyone I know out in Hawaii or on their way best of luck! I know I’ll be cheering for the many Madison guys out there…