Fishing Lessons - Learning to Fish
This is an article that has been in the making for quite a while. Ever since my earliest theory and strategy articles were being put up I have had friends and fans describe my work using the clich of “Give a man a fish he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will never go hungry.” For a while I thought I was just getting lucky. I didn't know much about Magic writing and was merely putting down what I knew. It wasn't until I first wrote that I hated deck-review articles that I realized why that saying kept being applied to my articles.
It is because I talk about the game instead of the pieces.
I had no real desire to finish this article anytime in the near future but a forum poster applied the parable to my work again in my first article here on Starcitygames.com. He cited a Zvi interview done by Bill Stark. I watched it and the on-topic parts were specific to what this article was about. Zvi is a Magic idol of mine and the things he was arguing were practically the exact notes I had typed up for this piece. If I were weak-minded enough to believe in things like fate this would be an example of it that I would use.
You are not good at Magic. Stop looking for decklists and sideboarding guides. They will not help you become better at Magic.
The problem is the public doesn't think that these things apply to them. Everybody wants the latest tech from Japan or California or Germany. They want the PT decklists and the want them complete with sideboarding instructions and basic maneuvers. As Zvi eloquently puts it “They just want the fish and they want it under twenty minutes and they want it served on a bun. There's no fine-dining here.” It's so true and so sad.
Are you trying to win a PTQ? The odds that a mere decklist would help you do that are infinitesimal at best and let's say you hit your fraction of a percentage: then what? You fly to the Pro Tour taking days off of work/school/watching TV in your underwear and spend hundreds of dollars on hotel and food and cards. You are not going to win the Pro Tour. There are too many rounds to variance everyone out again and the players are too good to hand games back to you when you punt. Where will that leave you? With a PTQ Top 8 pin a booster box you got to travel a bit and you're down more time and money than you would have been if you hadn't won the PTQ. You also got 2 or 3 pro points.
Good for you.
If you are okay with that then that is okay with me. If you hit at the PTQ then you have achieved your minor goals despite the slimmest of margins. If you're anything like me which I think is far more realistic in the competitive gaming community you would be crushed to find that you aren't what you thought you were (or you would just chalk it up to variance and start grinding again).
If you don't think this applies to you you better be at least level 4 if not more like level 6 or a casual player. If you consider yourself competitive and aren't putting up real results you need a reality check.
A lot of people think that “winning attitude” articles and “study harder” articles will help them too. They won't. There are hundreds of them out there and each one is as worthless as the last all the way back to the first ones. One of each is all you need. Once you've had your fill you've either learned the lessons or you haven't. There are different takes and different writing styles so maybe one speaks to you more than another. Maybe one version of these articles is relatable to you while others are not. All of that aside you either pick up the necessary lessons or you don't.
My father has a friend that deals with homeless people asking him for change in a refreshingly peculiar way. He doesn't ignore them or lie to them nor does he give them the money that he has earned for nothing in return. He simply states “I don't give my money away.”
He doesn't give his money away. Brilliant. Well you know what? I don't give my fish away. (Yes you are the bum in this scenario.)
People are going to laugh this article off and think I'm talking about someone else. Other people will become defensive and choose to be offended. Others still will have a small realization but won't act on it (or will for a while before returning to form because people don't change). I hope that you are part of the teeny-tiny minority that realizes how badly you truly need to learn to fish.
Some people just say they aren't deck builders and leave it up to such specialists but as Zvi said you are building a deck every time you sideboard (or draft or play a sealed tournament). If you don't understand how a deck works how are you going to know how to reconfigure it against a rogue deck with a blue envelope on the line under 2 minutes?
The way that decks come to be is important no matter how counter-intuitive that seems. The process of building a deck is vital because it shows why certain cards were added/shaved what interactions and matchups specific things are for and the way the deck handles in dynamic situations.
In life we don't learn lessons by studying nonstop. We figure something out discuss life strategies discover a pattern then we ponder them. We consider them and think about them and time passes. We mature and the lesson assimilates itself into our being through that very passage of time.
Deck building is no different and anyone who tells you that decks don't have inherent knowledge that is comprised within it through its development and maturation is either lying to you or ignorant. You need to be privy to that knowledge if you want to truly access a deck instead of just using it. It is the difference between playing a deck and piloting it.
I'm getting off track. More on deckbuilding in a moment but first back to you not being good at Magic.
Being offended at me calling you bad is obviously the typical reaction. But guess what? Greatness isn't typical. There are maybe 20 people in the entire world that aren't completely horrible at this game we all love. I suspect that if the people who beg for decklists spent half of that time working on their technical game they would see their likelihood of making the Pro Tour multiply. People don't want to work on their technical game. They just want a fish and they want it on a bun.
Pick orders are the Limited version of decklists by the way. If you draft often and examine what is happening at all times following basic strategy and learning from people around you then you are miles better off than if you memorized the pick orders. You will know the pick orders from your inherent knowledge and ability for Magic and will have the flexibility and know-how to understand when to go against the “typical” pick as well as the ability to adapt to extra factors like table settings and unusual packs. You will also be far better off for the next limited format and the one after that. Also you will be learning more and more as you draft or play again and again. If you were to rely on pick orders your knowledge would remain fairly stagnant and would require a reboot every time another set comes out.
Imagine two people in a special 2 person PTQ. They are to play some large number of matches heads up playing multiple decks against multiple decks so that there are multiple matchups being played throughout the tournament. One person has taken the time to work on his technical play and has developed his lists himself but he's no mastermind and his lists end up identical to what would be considered the stock versions of those decks. The other player has been using his time to pick up decks he got from pros for the past 7 PTQ seasons reads sideboarding guides and tournament results instead of testing and gets offended when StarCityGames.com writers call him bad at Magic. The latter player has Saito's list Conley's list Ben Rubin's list Chapin's list Juza's list Gerry's list and Paulo's list. The former player just has those stock builds of the major archetypes.
Who in your heart of hearts do you think will win that PTQ?
Now which person are you?
The fact is the latest decklist from the Pro Tour isn't worthless. It is obviously better than what you and your idiot friends would have made. That is because you are not experienced and dedicated deckbuilders. Those things come with a lot of time and a lot of practice. The two key things that people don't realize about just blindly playing a pro's list:
1. That introduction about how the deck was made that you skipped over to get to the decklist is more important than the decklist and the sideboarding guide and the tips and tricks combined. You have a chance to witness the writer go fishing and maybe pick up a thing or two about how it is done. They can teach you how they built the deck so that one day you can build one as well. Instead you fast-forward time to where he caught the fish and is handing it to you in under twenty minutes on a bun.
2. While it is true that a good decklist with well thought out sideboard plans is beneficial to one's PTQ (or GP or PT or FNM) success it is less of the make-or-break factor than people seem to think it is. It is more of a 25 yard head-start in a marathon. The race is decided before you lace up your sneakers. The winner? The guy with the fun - wait for it - DAMENTALS.
People are ashamed to go over their technical game cuz like they are like so totally beyond that. Guess what professional athletes practice more than anything else? Fielding ground balls shooting free-throws perfecting their footwork or whatever the fundamentals are for the sport you like.
Vince Lombardi the greatest coach of all time is a legend of strategic and motivational mastery. He was hired as the coach of a Green Bay Packer team that had just gone 1-10-1. I'm sure you've all heard this story before but I'm in too deep to stop now. He was practicing plays and running drills and got so fed up with the poor play of his team that he gathered them all in picked up the pigskin and stated “Let's start from the beginning. This is a football.” He walked his team through the entire game in the most simple and basic terms possible going to the absolute root of fundamentals.
They had their first winning season in 10 years. The next year they lost the championship game by 9 yards. Lombardi said it was unacceptable and would go 9-0 in playoff games from then on. They won the championship the next two years later winning 3 titles in a row via another championship as well as the first two Super Bowls.
And he would start every season the same way. He would take his squad veterans and rookies alike and show them a football. He would hold it up and state “this is a football.” He would describe it to them in great detail; about its size and shape and the way it can be carried or thrown or kicked. He would then walk them out onto the field and simply state “this is a football field.” He would walk them around every inch of it describing to them the shape and dimensions as well as the names of the markings on the field.
He did this every…
They would win and win and win and every season began the same way. He understood the importance of a true dedication to the fundamentals.
Post-Script: The final edit and decision to print this article that has sat on my computer for a few months was spurned forward by the recent discussion of what it means to be a deckbuilder and of the hive mind in the Magic community started by Patrick Chapin. I strongly recommend reading his last few articles as well as Information Cascades and watching his full interview on The Magic Show. I also strongly recommend the Bill Stark interview with Zvi Mowshowitz. These people know what they are talking about and you would be smart to pay attention.
Next week I have a follow-up article on the media of Magic and what you can do to be moving in the right direction. See you then.