Friday, November 9, 2007

Magic: the Gathering: A General Analysis

This article will be analyzing the following points:
i. Myth Busting
ii. Efficient Gameplay
iii. Deckbuilding & Play-testing
iv. Tournament Scene
v. Wrap-Up

Myth Busting
There are some common misconceptions among players about this game. One of the most important misconceptions involves the judgment of a player’s skill. Many players think that just because they beat someone, that someone is of lower skill or a “noob.” This does not make sense. No one in this game can win every match, which is mostly due to the luck factor in this game, so you can never judge a player skill just because they lost a match. The correct way to judge a player’s skill is HOW he plays the match. If that player plays unnecessarily fast, makes many mistakes, uses rules-lawyering tactics and/or cheats, that player’s skill level probably is not that high. Furthermore, you can probably gauge a player’s skill level by his “playing theory.” “Playing Theory” is the way a player plays and how he thinks/strategize. But note that just because a player’s playing theory is unorthodox does not mean he has a low skill level. A player’s “playing theory” can be unorthodox, but still successful. Obviously, if their “playing theory” is unsuccessful and is constantly a losing theory, then that player has a low skill level.

Another myth that is worth busting is that more experience will equal more accomplishments and more skill. This is not correct. There are players who have been playing longer than some pros, but do not have as many accomplishments or skill level than those pros. For example, “Black_Elf,” is a player who has been playing this card game for over ten years. You would think he’d be a top player, right? No! This player is probably, at best, average. This is not just a one in a bunch thing. There are many players who are similar. They have been playing for a long time (some have been playing since this game was created), yet they do not have a high skill level and have little to no outstanding accomplishments. So experience is not the reason why certain players are outstanding. All the experience you need in the experience of play-testing a certain meta-game and of course, the experience of the rules so you know not to break them. However, in certain cases, it is not as simple as you will see in the next misconception.

The next myth is connected to the previous myth. Many players think just because one person plays M:tG in person and not online that he is automatically better than a player who plays solely online. This is not correct. Online players are put into two groups: players who do not feel they are good enough to play in-person tournaments and players who are unable to play in-person tournaments. In this myth, we will be addressing the latter. There are online players who have more important obligations in their life that prevents them from having the money and/or free time to play in-person. For example, many online players are school and paying to buy cards and travel to tournaments does not suit well with tuitions. Furthermore, since online players do not play in-person tournaments, one cannot predict how they would do in an in-person tournament. Therefore, you have no basis for comparison, so you cannot automatically say an in-person player is better than an online player.

The next myth is about in-game playing. I have seen a lot of people play unnecessarily fast and constantly rush their opponent, but their opponent is not stalling. Those players who play unnecessarily fast are the same players who think playing fast is a sign of a good player. This is not true. On the contrary, playing unnecessarily fast is a sign of weakness, because it is easier for you to make mistakes and they probably do not realize they are making mistakes until after the game. Additionally, even if they realize they make their mistake, they continue to play unnecessarily fast. Players who play at a moderate pace and think his/her moves through without rushing themselves, have the best chance to make little to no mistakes during the game. Making no mistakes drastically increase your chances of winning, especially if your opponent makes mistakes.

The next myth is actually related to articles. Furthermore, it is related to M:tG advicein general. Many players rate an advice from a pro player higher than the advice of an average player. Now, this is not a bad thing in general, but there are specific cases where a player’s mindset is in the wrong place. For example, if Writer A writes an article, but Reader A has never heard of this player, then Reader A will completely ignore the article and not even read it. Reader A potentially lost out on some good advice or “deck tech.” Another example is if there is a Writer B. Writer B is a pro player who has reached the top 8 of a Pro Tour before. Reader A read the articles of both Writer A and B. No matter what Writer A says, Reader A will automatically listen to Writer B. This example can be taken further and suggest that although Reader A understands and agrees with what Writer A is saying, Reader A will still listen to Writer B even if the advice Writer B is not solid advice or if Reader A does not totally agree with it. This is a disappointment that Reader A will take in advice just because the name of the author and not because the advice makes sense or is skill-increasing. Just because someone is a pro player does not always mean his advice is good. You should be the judge and not just agree with someone just because he does well in tournaments. There are some players who are able to play good, but they suck at explaining and analyzing. I mean, Antonio De Rosa is a pretty good pro player and he thought Evangelize was an answer to Simic Sky Swallower.

The last myth is a rather silly one, but it’s a misconception in which some players believe. Some players believe the outstanding players have a natural talent for this card game. If you think logically, you will realize how absurd this belief is. Someone’s ability to play a strategy game is not innate. There is no game-playing ability that is innate. Everything a person does in life is learned. As I said, this myth is absurd, but I still had to point it out.

Efficient Gameplay
Now that you guys know that experience and natural talent are not the reasons why the top pro players play outstandingly, it is time to analyze the real reason. The real reason the top players do so well is because God likes them better. No, I’m just kidding! The reason these players do so well is because they play efficiently. They play efficiently to the tee. Everything they do is the best thing to do to win. Even the order they play their lands (in multi-color decks). But do not be discouraged. The way they play is not because of some secret advice they received. It is because they pay attention to detail. Being an efficient play is all about paying attention to detail. Playing this way starts off when you draw your opener. For example, if you are playing aggro, you have to think “Is this hand fast? Do I have a good mana curve opening?” If you do not know what your opponent is playing (game one), then you have to decide if your hand is a good opening to get your deck to do what it does. Then when you do know what your opponent is playing (Post-board), you have to think “Will this hand be able to deal with the opponent in early game? Will I survive until I can stabilize (control vs. aggro)? Is this hand resistant to hate (combo)?” Additionally, every deck needs mana so you also have to ask “Do I have enough lands to get started? If I keep this hand, what are the chances that I will get land [Insert number] on time (the later in the game you need to hit a land drop, the more likely you will get it in time; keeping a three-lander and needing to hit land four on time is better than keeping a one-lander and needing to hit land two on time). Also, you have to incorporate any mana accelerators you have to start with (e. g. signets).

Playing efficiently of course does not stop at openers. Once you have decided on the opener that will give you the best chances of prevailing in the game, you now have to play that opener and the cards you draw in the best way possible. Pay attention to a lot of details. For example, if you really need to hit a land drop, do not sacrifice that Terramorphic Expanse just yet. If you really need to draw a certain card, do whatever you can to buy yourself at least one more turn. If you get that extra draw phase and draw that card and you win because of it, then you have just won the game because of your efficient gameplay. Some may call it luck, and to an extent it is, but you, as a good player, know there is luck in this game, so you set yourself up to the point that if you are lucky enough to draw that certain card, you will win. The average player may just give up or they will not try to set themselves up for that certain card. This type of efficiency takes advantage that there is some luck in this game. You know you need a good topdeck and you try to give yourself as much time as possible to get that topdeck.

So now, we have covered openers and playing the luck factor in the end game. Now, let’s do the in-between. The best thing to do each and every turn is to stop a think for a second. Then think of the best possible play for this turn. This includes which land you play. Also, it has to be the best possible play, considering what deck your opponent is playing. For example, if you really want to play a turn two Castigate and the lands in your hand are Plains and Caves of Koilos, it is best to play the Plains. If you topdeck Swamp, you can play Castigate without taking any damage, while if you play the Caves of Koilos first, no matter what you topdeck, you will be taking one point of damage to play that Castigate. That one damage may come back to haunt you later. Do not be afraid to stop a think sometimes as you want to make every play count in the long run.

During the game, there may also be times where you can make plays depending on what you think the opponent is holding. Let’s say you did not get a look at your opponent’s hand. You are playing aggro and you want to apply pressure, but your opponent has four Damnations in his deck. You see in his grave that he already has 2 Damnations. You have to think what the chances are that he has another ready or that he will topdeck one. Depending on how early or late in the game, the possibility varies. If he just played the second one the turn before, the probability of him having the third Damnation is low. Also, if you do not apply pressure, you are giving him extra turns to draw his control cards. Checking the opponent’s graveyard every now and then will give you an idea of how to play your hand because if three out of four copies of a certain card are in the opponent’s grave, there is a low chance that he has the fourth. Additionally, you have to analyze the way the opponent plays his turn. Take into the consideration the way he attacks, what he plays and what mana he leaves open. In constructed, if you know what archetype he is playing, you should probably know what cards are in his deck, so you can make an educated guess at what cards he might have in his hand. For example, if you are playing against Red Blink-Touch, you are playing aggro and your opponent passes his turn with about eight mana open, without playing anything, he most likely has a Bogardan Hellkite ready to flash into play. If you take that into consideration, you can take preparation to be screwed as little as possible if the opponent does actually have the Hellkite.

Efficient gameplay is all about paying attention to detail. Even the slightest detail is helpful. That is the difference between the average player and a player who gets to the top 8 of a Pro Tour. To recap, efficient gameplay is a) analyzing your opener, while considering what your deck wants to do and what deck you are up against, b) thinking every turn to analyze your board, your opponent’s board, the amount of cards in his hand, the cards in his graveyard/RFG and what your opponent did the previous turn and then making the best play and c) squeezing out as many extra draw phases as you can in order to make that lucky topdeck.

Deckbuilding & Play-testing
Okay, this is obviously an important factor in this game. This is what you do before you even have a chance to play efficiently in a tournament. First, let me get something clear. Netdecking falls under this category. I know there are people out there who complain about people netdecking. Those who complain about originality are the ones who will never make any outstanding accomplishments in this game. Netdecking does not mean you will win a tournament. You need to be efficient in your gameplay to win a tournament. Netdecking is not enough, so just because someone netdecks a good deck does not mean they are supposed to win. So basically, there is nothing really wrong with netdecking. You can have fun and be original, but when you want to win a competitive tournament, that fun, original, casual deck is not what you want to use.

When you decide on a final decklist, you have to consider many things. You have to consider the meta-game: what decks are popular? You have to consider match-ups: what deck will give you problems? What can I do to even up the chances or make my chances better than that deck? Of course you have to know what your deck wants to do, but while you know that, you have to consider when you want to draw certain cards? Depending on what time in the game you want to get a certain card (most of the time, it depends on the card’s mana cost), you can figure how many copies of the card to include. Do you need a certain card (or type of card; like do you want a turn one 1cc mana producer?) in the early game? Mid-game? Late game? Does my deck use tutors (which act as a copy, draw-wise, as the card you want)? Do I have cards that draw more cards? These are all questions that you should consider depending on what your deck wants to do. However, none of this will matter without a proper mana-base. When constructing your mana-base, you have to consider up to what land drop do you want to hit on time, consistently? Do I need mana accelerators? If so, how many? By what turn do I need this particular color? All of these factor in when deciding on a decklist with a smooth, efficient mana-base and figuring out how many copies of certain cards are enough for the decklist (by not putting in unnecessary copies, you have more slots for other card possiblities).

The next step would be card choices. This involves card quality. In a format, if you want a certain card, you should look at the cards that your format allows and choose the best card in that category. For example, let’s say you are building a Solar Flare list. You want a card that can draw and dig in your deck so you get to your business spells faster. You find two good candidates in Compulsive Research and Foresee. However, you can only fit four copies in your deck so you have to choose between the two. When analyzing these cards, Foresee would be the better choice. Compulsive research digs three cards deep. Foresee can dig up to six cards deep (putting the 4 cards you scry to bottom and drawing 2 = 6). The card advantage to both is usually plus 1 card. However, with Compulsive Research, if you do not have a land to discard or you cannot afford to discard a land, then you basically just cycled some cards. Furthermore, Foresee can sometimes allow you to know what your next card is going to be. Therefore, you can play your turn even more efficiently because you know what card is on the top of your deck. Additionally, your Solar Flare list runs 6-7 signets, so you can, at times, get Foresee on turn three (the same turn you would play Compulsive Research). In this case, Foresee would be the clear choice.

After you have come up with a decklist, you should start play-testing in preparation for the tournament. You can analyze the match-ups in your head and judge which deck would have the advantage in each match-up. That is not a bad thing and sometimes, if you do not have enough time to play-test, it is all you can do. However, if you have the time to play-test, then play-testing is what you should do. If you get a feel for the match-up, see how the decks in the match-up respond to each other and analyze how much your deck wins/loses in the match-up (through trial-and-error testing; playing multiple games pre-board and post-board), then you will know what changes, if any, you need to make. Furthermore, it will be easier for you to play efficiently during the actual tournament.

Tournament Scene
Some may not think this, but the tournament scene does have something to do with your success. Playing someone in-person is much different from playing someone online. You already have a good decklist that you have prepared for the tournament meta-game and you now use your critical thinking skills to play each turn efficiently. However, now you have to deal with body language. Body language can clue you in on what your opponent may have. This is another detail you have to pay attention to so that you can play efficiently. Body language tells how weak or strong your opponent thinks he/she is. Although, this is a good thing, in-person playing can also be a bad thing if you let your own body language clue your opponent in on how strong you are; in terms of board position and what cards you have in your hand.

Bluffing is way to fool your opponent into playing into your hands. If you have a strong hand, but play weak, then you can cause your opponent to become overconfident and walk into your trap. However, bluffing is a thing that people have gotten used to over the years. People can now tell when someone is bluffing, as even when you bluff you might have a certain “tell” that still tips your opponent off. So, what should you do? The best thing to do, is show neither strength nor weakness in your body language. Keep your body language constant and relaxed. If someone is relaxed throughout the whole match, you cannot tell when his hand his strong or weak. Therefore, you take away the possibility of him analyzing extra details depending on your body language. Furthermore, since this is a game of fun, why not joke it up with your opponent? Throughout the whole match, if you just joke around and have small-talk, you can a) prevent your opponent from predicting your plays from reading your body language and b) possibly distract your opponent and cause him to make a mistake (even a little one). However, if your opponent is set on fully concentrating and not taking your bait for small talk/joking, this strategy may not work.

Another thing you have to consider during an in-person tournament is endurance. When you are playing online, you can probably recline in your computer chair or go relax and eat something in your kitchen between rounds. However, when you are playing an in-person tournament, you are in the same space the whole tournament and you do not exactly have a play to sit back and relax. Staying in the same place for several hours may get tiring. Furthermore, you are in a crowded place and there may be spectators watching you. This can be nerve racking and affect your plays. The best thing to do is stay relaxed and not let it affect you. Just stay calm as if you were in your own house (which I assume is your comfort zone). The last thing you want to do is make mistakes because you are nervous. Making small talk at these times is also good as it loosens you up if you do indeed get nervous. You should make the tournament scene the last possible thing to have any effect on your game.

There are several myths that are not true about this game. Also, you should not be intimidated if you face someone like Kenji Tsumura or Gabriel Nassif. The only difference between them and the average player is that Kenji and Gabriel know that critical thinking is the key to this game. Efficient playing comes from thinking critically. The faster you realize that, the more successful you will be. Analyzing the details of this game IS critical thinking. By analyzing, you find little ways to improve the efficiency in your gameplay. And by improving your efficiency, you increase your chances of winning. Pro players do not have a magic spell. They are human like the rest of us. The reason Japanese players win more is because they are natural critical thinkers because of the way they are raised. I mean think about it. Do you know how advanced the Japanese are compared to the rest of the world in terms of technology? Those guys really use their noggin. However, that does not mean you cannot use your noggin in the same way. You just need to pay attention to detail, logic and make good use of your analytical skills. You should make yourself an efficient player, then make sure you reach for the top. Do not make reaching day two your main goal. Make reaching the top 8 your main goal and day two being a stepping stone for your main goal. I mean, if you are taking a test, would you reach only for a 75 or reach for the full 100? Then after you reach that top 8, reach for that first place trophy. Anyone can do it if they know what they are doing. Until next time…