Part 1: When Lauren Lee Pulls the Trigger
Last Wednesday night—as with most Wednesday nights—I hung out at my friend Jon Finkel's house to watch movies.
A bunch of stuff happened between A and B (the salient parts of which have been distilled into this re-write) but the weirdo part is that when I got home I decided to grind Magic Online queues unproductively all night (the first all-nighter of any stripe I had accomplished since circa March 31 1999)...and penned a Flores Friday somewhere around 4 AM.
So apparently fourteen good—if sleep-deprived/madcap—ideas make for one mediocre (generous there) article. KYT liked it; Patrick said it just needed a little bit of attention but Lauren brutal flip card she has become took aim and fired a round of bullets into poor "Borrowing Liberally"… And we mutually agreed to disassemble into a larger number of more coherent articles.
This one at least has a very good voice.
Part 2: "If I wanted to do homework I would have done better in school."
So back to that Wednesday night.
Many of you already know this but for those of you who don't when Lan D. Ho moved to New York a few years back he stayed with Jon for a while before getting his own place. Lan—known to some of you as the Dwarven Miner-packing CounterSliver player in the finest GP Top 8 ever held on American soil to others as the visionary behind I Came to Game and still others as the onetime Underground teammate of such luminaries as Brian Kibler and YT—is a one-man social force of nature. And while Lan was living with Jon he started Movie Klub which is the once-a-week anchor where a bunch of awesome people hang out to you know watch movies.
Lan can connect beautiful fashion students chunky-spectacled hipsters amateur pole dancers gamers gamblers softhearted lawyers socialist hedge fund managers genius marketing executives and the occasional Magic enthusiast with a single thread of social savvy. Really if you think about the limit of what Magic can help you manifest in real life it's an evening of True Grit and gourmet banana pudding a few doors down from Sloane from Entourage.
Which occasionally puts you at about 9:30 or 10 PM with a column to write (ergo the following):
MichaelJ Lord and Master of All He Surveys: Jon tell me something smart.
Jon Finkel: Huh?
MJLaMoAHS: I am feeling kind of disconnected. Just tell me something smart that no one else knows and I will go pass it off as an article I wrote.
JF: Oh! You want to interview me! I can do that! I am actually set to do another "ask me anything" on reddit!
MJLaMoAHS: No no! I don't want to interview you. I just want to topdeck something controversial that I can build an article around... Or like some secret tech RE: how you play that other people don't play (or whatever).
JF: Playing Constructed sucks. The metagame changes too quickly.
MJLaMoAHS: That's bad?
JF: I guess it's not "bad" per se but if you are a good player you have to do a lot of homework. And if I wanted to do homework I would have done better in school.
Finkel Takeaway One:
Jon has no desire to do homework.
MJLaMoAHS: Um... Hmm... Why don't you just tell me why your Spirits deck isn't dominating Standard anymore? After #PTDKA it seemed to me like it was going to be the best deck. Now no one plays it and the old U/W Delver is back as the go-to build.
JF: That's easy—you probably know anyway—Corrosive Gale is too much of a beating. It beats us badly but other Delver decks can side it themselves!
MJLaMoAHS: Yeah they don't even have any natural flyers... No that isn't interesting enough; like you said everyone already knows it. Something else.
Finkel Takeaway Two:
Spirits isn't dominating Standard because Corrosive Gale is widely played.
Wait a minute!
Can we do something with this?
Here's a simple chart I just put together based on data from the last several StarCityGames.com Standard Open Top 8 results illustrating how many Corrosive Gales can be found in the sideboards of the contending decks:
You can see in the first week of Dark Ascension Standard there are no Corrosive Gales at all. There was a Drogskol Captain deck or so but Esper Spirits wasn't a "thing" in the sense that multiple Hall of Fame players (including the luminary Jon Finkel) hadn't just crushed a PT with it.
In the next week—about the time of Pro Tour Dark Ascension—still no Corrosive Gales. The stuff was too new.
You see as many as ten Corrosive Gales in a Top 8 with multiple decks running four copies in the sideboard in consecutive weeks.
We live in the age of the 24-hour news cycle it seems. Perhaps the fear of Corrosive Gale is already higher impact than Corrosive Gale itself. I am reminded of arguably the greatest Finkel takeaway of all time: focus only on what matters.
I dunno about you but this seems like a takeaway that might be instructive for say the upcoming Invitational (a pretty important upcoming Standard tournament).
Just for fun:
I decided to track the presence of sideboarded graveyard hate in the Top 8s of Legacy Opens over the same time period. There was a stretch about this time last year where graveyard hate was woefully under-represented (which helped prompt me to play Cephalid Breakfast in the Edison Open)... As you can see there were as many as 27 sideboarded anti-graveyard cards in the Top 8 last week.
So we can't say graveyard hate is particularly under-represented.
Some interesting things to note:
- When Dredge was a viable Extended deck an average of four graveyard hate cards per deck in the Top 8 (i.e. ~32 in a Top 8) was insufficient to stop a Dredge PTQ win.
- Adam Prosak won with Dredge in a week with 22 anti-graveyard cards in the sideboards that weekend (and of course Legacy is a more powerful format than Extended).
- Not all graveyard hate cards are made equal... You can't invalidate a Grafdigger's Cage in play (other than by destroying it) but you can a Tormod's Crypt or Knight of the Reliquary for Bojuka Bog in any number of ways... I counted Ground Seal even though it's a poor kid sister by any estimation.
Again just for fun.
… But one more thing:
I don't know how predictive the recent Grand Prix was but there were 23.
Okay... Back to Jon.
JF: Mana screw is good.
JF: Mana screw is good because it forces you to play the game from lots of different starting positions. Sometimes you don't have enough land. Sometimes you have too much land. Sometimes they don't have enough land. It makes the games more varied and forces you to think more broadly so you get better and better at playing in unexpected positions. Like imagine you are "supposed" to win 75% of the time but you can win 80% of the time. Or they are supposed to win 75% of the time but because of mana screw—because of how you each deal with these situations—they only win 70% of the time. Over time that is a lot of value for a great player. That is why mana screw is good.
Finkel Takeaway Three:
"Mana screw as conditioning."
I think the answer is obvious to anyone actually interested in winning games of Magic: The Gathering.
Anyone can win obvious games. When the opponent is mana screwed you typically have a massive advantage. You're "supposed" to win those games just as you're supposed to win games where you have a matchup advantage or your opponent makes a glaring mistake. What's interesting to read about in Magic is how to win games you aren't "supposed" to win!
I think what's interesting about Jon's comment here is that he sees mana screw almost as a conditioning exercise. If you're mana screwed and you can pick up 5% here (or your opponent gives up 5% there) you're talking about one of the things that separates elite players from everybody else. Surely you've had the experience of playing an opponent who missed his third land drop? Maybe he even discarded twice? Didn't it really suck when he came back to beat you? If you're like me you fixated for hours or even years afterward walking through the things that you could've done differently.
I doubt that anyone reading this is actually going to take action... But you can probably train this skill. In other articles (i.e. building sideboards) I've advocated playtesting a certain way like starting with sideboard cards in hand in order to see if they even work in the matchup; why not play mana screwed on purpose? The goal wouldn't even be to win every game... Just to see how well you can make decisions while horribly frustrated. It might actually matter!
Mark LePine actually made Top 8 of a World Championships keeping zero lands in his worst matchup (Mono-Blue Control versus Red Deck Wins). He had two Sea Sprites eventually topdecked two lands and despite having a pretty scary first couple of turns ended up making an ultimately productive decision to keep.
MJLaMoAHS: Ooh I like that. Still give me something else.
JF: Magic Online creates an artificial upper limit on how good players can be at Limited.
MJLaMoAHS: Huh? I thought the constant repetitions on Magic Online were what was driving Limited ability in this generation of PT players.
JF: No. Most of them aren't very good. I think it's because of Magic Online.
JF: When you play Magic Online you aren't playing with people. Three-vs.-three team draft isn't the same as drafting on the PT but I think it is a good format. It teaches you things that never come up and that you never have to learn playing on Magic Online. When [name redacted] drafts a really terrible deck and he is on my team—but he has a good memory of what he passed—we have powerful information. I take the time to go through his cards and help assign his playables. He can win one or even two matches with the help of teammate collaboration that he might not have been able to do on Magic Online. On Magic Online he might have mis-built his bad pile and that would have been that. 0-1. But in team draft sometimes we can find things that don't seem like they are good to begin with but over time by working through things together and playing against other good players—our friends—we can come up with things that can help win games on the PT...using cards no one else ever even considers (or has the chance to play) if they train only on Magic Online.
Finkel Takeaway Four:
Magic Online creates an artificial upper limit on how good players can be at Limited.
It's important to note that he isn't saying Magic Online makes players "bad" at Limited. In fact it might actually improve most players' abilities at Limited (especially if they would have no practice otherwise)... It just creates an artificial upper limit.
Limits are interesting in Magic. What is the limiting factor in Constructed Magic? The player or the deck? It's pretty obvious it's the deck (some players will vehemently argue otherwise; they are wrong). You can give the best player in the world (say Luis Scott-Vargas) a viable deck...say a viable Standard deck. Now give a passable/competent Vintage specialist some kind of busted Vintage deck with full Power Nine and mana-and cards-breaking regalia. Is Luis going to win a lot of games? Very unlikely. He might make tight play after tight play...but he is ultimately going to be limited by the capabilities of the cards in front of him. A much less talented player with a more powerful stack—and in this hypothetical a stack with a massive power level gap advantage—is simply going to win much much more often.
That's the kind of limitation Jon is referring to I think. He isn't saying Magic Online makes you worse per se but just as mana screw can be instructive by forcing you to play from typically unexpected and uncomfortable positions... So does playing IRL draft with competent teammates and opponents versus "just" on Magic Online.
You draft a train wreck on Magic Online you're going to 0-1 with your head hung nine times out of ten... But when your buddies are counting on you to grab at least one win—and they are there to help you find the hidden playables in your disaster stack—you get to take away additional technology that can be applicable at the PT level.
IRL three-on-threes (at least according to Jon) seem like the surest way of figuring out that embarrassing (if sometimes even more embarrassingly effective) Dromad Purebred.
… And that's how I convinced Jon Finkel to write my column (even if it took a couple of extra days).