Feature Article – Lies My Larry Told Me

“At Gambling, the deadly sin is to mistake bad play for bad luck.”
(Ian Fleming – Casino Royale 1953)

This may be the most important magic article you read all year. It’s far more likely that it actually won’t be but if you don’t read any others then it will win the title by default and winning by default is still winning. Just ask Yohan Blake.

I should start with a little disclaimer. The topic of this article has been written countless times before and will be written countless times again. As such most of what I say will not be new to most of you, although it will take a slightly different form.

So now you’re probably asking “well why are you wasting yours and our time with this article at all handsome stranger?”

Well kind but misinformed reader, for two simple reasons.

Firstly, because new players are starting the game all the time and it is these type of articles which teach one of the more important lessons any magic player can learn.

Secondly, because I want to write a short series of articles on understanding probability in magic and I felt an introductory article like this would help me pad out the total number of articles in the “series” allow me to cover the basic fallacies related to probability in magic and provide a contextual starting point for the series.

So let’s begin.

I would like you all to meet Larry.

Larry is a local player at my FNM. He’s a nice enough. He’s the type of guy who stays up all night watching anime and then complains about how unlucky he is that he slept through his alarm and was late to his job at the video store.

He’s an assistant manager there. It’s not his dream job but it’s where he is at the moment. He was going to study to be a forensic scientist like the guys on CSI but he wasn’t lucky enough to go to a good school and he didn’t get anywhere near the mark he needed in mathematics.

Considering the bad cards he’s been dealt though Larry is doing alright. Speaking of cards, Larry loves Magic. He plays FNM every Friday and has a decent win percentage. He’s even been to a few local PTQs although he always get’s unlucky at the bigger events. He’s said on a number of occasions if there was one thing he could change about Magic to make it a better game it would be the luck element. If there was no luck involved Larry knows he’d win so much more. It seems like every match he loses comes down to him being unlucky or his opponent being lucky.

Like in the final of FNM last week. Larry kept a 5 land hand with [card]Goblin Fireslinger[/card] and [card]Furyborn Hellkite[/card]. His opponent was playing a blue white deck with a bunch of flyers and card draw. Larry knew his deck was way better than his opponents. His opponent didn’t even have proper removal for Christ’s sake. All his “removal” was either bounce or wussy semi-removal like [card]Pacifism[/card]. “Umm if you bounce it I’ll just play it again next turn” said Larry at one stage.

When his opponent cast [card]Pacifism[/card] on his [card]Gorehorn Minotaurs[/card] Larry laughed. “As soon as I draw one of my 5 [card]Fling[/card]s that [card]Pacifism[/card] is going to be looking pretty stupid”.

Larry knows that in limited removal is king. That’s why he always goes red or black. It’s common sense.

Despite this his lucksack opponent was beating him down in game 1 with flyers because Larry had only drawn 3 non land spells in his 6 draw steps: a [card]Gorehorn Minotaurs[/card], a [card]Shock[/card], and a [card]Lava Axe[/card]. Finally he gets to 7 mana and slams the 12/12 dragon on the board. Larry smirked knowing that it would allow him to block one of his opponent’s flyers and then [card]Lava Axe[/card] plus activate [card]Goblin Fireslinger[/card] for lethal on the next turn.

His opponent untapped, cast [card]Pacifism[/card] on the [card furyborn hellkite]Hellkite[/card] and swung for the win.

“So Farking Larky!!” exclaimed Larry.

He couldn’t believe it; his opponent had the exact right card to win at that point.

Game 2 Larry kept a 6 Land hand on the play because he figured that he drew so many lands last game he couldn’t possibly draw too many again. Unbelievably for Larry he drew nothing of relevance and dies quickly to his opponent’s lucky draws.

“You’re so lucky” Larry says to his opponent. “If there wasn’t so much luck in this game I would’ve won that.”

His opponent says “good game” and reaches out his hand but Larry declines. “I can’t do that right now, not after that, it wasn’t a good game.”

It’s always been this way for Larry. Some people are lucky and some just aren’t. Larry just isn’t.

It’s like that PTQ he went to last year. He copied LSV’s latest winning deck list almost exactly. He made a few minor adjustments by removing the 4 [card]Preordain[/card]s and a land and adding 3 [card elesh norn, grand cenobite]Elesh Norns[/card] and 2 more [card]Sun Titan[/card]s.

At the time he explained it quite simply “card draw helps you find your bombs late game, but you know what helps you draw your bombs even better? Having more bombs, obviously.”

Despite his “superior” list Larry went 0-4 and dropped from the event. He was almost always manascrewed and he only cut 1 land from the list. That’s plain unlucky he thought. Some games he even ended up mana flooded. Clearly it’s not that he didn’t have enough land, he just didn’t have enough luck.

Larry has said on a number of occasions he’d be better of playing chess because that’s a game without luck. He’s never really been good at it but if he tried he knows he could definitely complete in big tournaments. Chess is a pretty nerdy game though so he thinks he’ll just stick to Magic.

So that’s Larry.

So now you’re all thinking, Larry’s a half wit. Why is this guy writing an article about a dips**t player at his local FNM?

The answer is simple. Larry is not alone (well technically he is alone, because he’s quite a dislikeable person but he is not alone in his line of thinking about magic and “luck”.)

While Larry may personify the extremes of this flawed perception of the game, in reality, to different degrees, we all have an inner Larry.

Whether it’s because we don’t even consider the probability of any particular interaction or because we are too lazy to really look at where it went wrong. It is just easier to listen to our inner Larry than to take responsibility for our failures. We were just unlucky.

No matter what we do Larry is always there with the right words to make us feel better and unburden us of any responsibility.

“You got manascrewed – Unlucky!”

“Thanks Larry”

“Your opponent top decked the winning card – Unlucky!”

“Thanks Larry”

“Don’t worry, it happens to every guy at some stage”

Wait wait… that last one wasn’t Larry.

Anyway… despite how good it may make you feel the truth is, Larry is a liar!

Magic is not a game of luck.

Magic, like life, is a game of probabilities, and while players sometimes do genuinely get lucky, (achieve a result despite the odds being against them), more often than not what appears to be “good luck” is actually the result of good preparation and foresight.

“I’m a firm believer in luck, and I’ve found that the harder I work, the luckier I get.”
Thomas Jefferson

Something that is truly “lucky” is one in which you have no, or relatively little, control over. The greater the influence you have over something happening, the less it can be considered “lucky”.

Almost every aspect of a game of Magic which appears to be luck based can be traced back to a decision one of the players had previously made. Whether it’s adding that extra land to the deck, not mulliganing that questionable hand or choosing to play first when you really should have gone second. Every decision you make will lead you down a path to where you are faced with situations that appear to be lucky or unlucky.

When an armed robber gets shot and killed during a bank robbery we don’t think “wow how unlucky” because he knowingly put himself in a position where he could be shot and killed. When you refuse to mulligan a 2 land hand with only 5 drops on the play and you lose on turn 6 with only 3 lands in play it’s not you being unlucky. You put yourself in that position. You didn’t know it was definitely going to end that way, but you should have known it was a strong possibility.

But Larry doesn’t realise this because he doesn’t even try to. He’s much more content in convincing himself that it wasn’t his fault, he was just screwed by lady luck (and not in that kinky way he’d like but is afraid to tell people about). Larry lies to himself, and your inner Larry lies to you, whether you realise it’s a lie or not, it’s still a lie.

But if it makes us feel better, then where is the harm in believing Larry’s lies?

The harm is that if you don’t know why you actually lost, how can you possibly learn from it and prevent it from happening again? How can you ever get better?

Knowing when you’re inner Larry is misleading you is the first step to acknowledging your own play mistakes and taking actions to prevent repeating them.

In an effort to help you with this I’ve compiled a list of the most common lies Larry tells.

Lie Number 1 – “I got manascrewed last game, I’m bound to draw more lands this game”

This isn’t limited to the drawing of lands. The lie relates to any assumption of what you will draw based on what you drew in the previous game.

Like all of the lies Larry tells this lie is not limited to games of magic. This one is actually so common it has its own name outside the world of magic. It’s known as the gambler’s fallacy and it’s one of the reasons casinos make a lot of money out of gamblers who believe they have a solid grasp of probability but really don’t.

Explained simply, it is the misguided belief that deviations from expected behavior in a game of chance indicate that future deviations from expected behavior in the opposite direction are more than likely.

This line of thinking is common with players playing casino games such as roulette. Gamblers see black come up 5 times in a row and mistakenly believe that the next number has a greatly increased chance of being red. In reality the odd of being black or red are still the same (slightly under 50% because of the presence of the number 0 which is not red or black). While the law of large numbers would indicate that over an extended period of time the proportion would be close to even, in the short term it is actually far more likely to see clumps of the same color together rather than have a close to perfectly even distribution.

In magic terms the fact that you drew 15 from 17 lands in game 1 with your draft deck has no bearing on the number of lands you will draw in the next game. The presence of too many or not enough lands in a previous game should never be a consideration in whether or not to take a mulligan.

Despite this making sense, we all do it. Larry can be quite convincing when we are too lazy to do another round of shuffling or don’t want to mulligan into an even worse 6 card hand.

Lie Number 2 – “My opponent got lucky and top decked the perfect card to win”

This is one of the most common lies Larry tells. It doesn’t matter what type of event it is or how many people are there, someone is always convinced that their opponent cheated them out of a win by top decking the right card at the right time.

There are so many things possibly wrong with this line of thinking it’s difficult to know where to begin. The problem in part stems from our brains tendency to over emphasize the final line of play in the game and ignore the multitude of events and possible errors leading up to that point.

Perhaps the top decked card was a bomb that completely blew you out. But could you have played around it? Could you have played in a way that would have resulted in you winning the turn before your opponent “top decked” that card? Were there any errors you can think of which ultimately resulted in you not winning earlier? Were there any errors which left you in that position where you could not win if your opponent played that card?

A lot of players whine about auto-losing to a “bomb” when in reality had they played a tighter game the bomb would not have had the devastating effect that it did. Admittedly there are cards like [card]Umezawa’s Jitte[/card] which in more situations then not are just “I win” cards, but a lot of “bombs” can be beaten by a player who plays tightly.

Now other times the card that was “top decked” isn’t even what would be considered a “bomb”. It’s just the right card for that situation. In that circumstance all the same questions as above have to be asked as well as was that card the only one of its type that would have won the opponent the game at that point?

If the card is a removal spell then it’s quite likely that there are multiple cards in the deck that would have done the same job. How many turns did the opponent have to draw that card when they needed it? If there was 3-4 removal spells left in their 26 card library and they had 3 turns to draw one then perhaps their “top deck” wasn’t quite as lucky as you may have originally thought.

So next time your opponent top decks a card to win the game ask yourself these questions.

1. Is this the only card that could have caused this result?
2. How many turns did he have to draw it?
3. Did I make any plays that are obvious mistakes which led me to this point?
4. Could I have played in a way which would have ended the game before my opponent could draw this card?
5. Could I have played in a way which would have allowed me to not lose to this card?
6. If yes to either of the above two, would playing in that way have been the correct decision based on the information I had at the time?

Essentially, it’s extremely rare that one particular card will determine the outcome of a match on its own.

An additional point to remember when looking for possible errors is that all errors aren’t necessarily play mistakes.

Sometimes not picking up on signals that are in front of you is just as big of an error as making a bad attack.

While it may feel like you were extremely unlucky for your opponent to cast and possibly draw overrun the turn before you were going to win, there is likely a number of things you could have done which would have allowed you to either win earlier, or not to lose to [card]Overrun[/card], even if you didn’t know for sure your opponent had it in the deck.

If you’re in an m12 draft and your opponent is running a G/x deck then there is already a good chance that he has an [card]Overrun[/card] in his deck because green tends to be heavily under drafted, meaning that the choice uncommons are more likely to be passed, and that without these choice uncommons it’s unlikely a player would be playing green.

Secondly, looking back at the preceding turns was your opponent playing in a way that would indicate he was trying to maximize the amount of creatures he has, i.e. preferring to take damage rather than make even trades etc. If so, then perhaps he was holding [card]Overrun[/card], or playing in a way to guarantee a win if he did draw it.

What about a scenario where your opponent top decked an [card]Incinerate[/card] to win when you were on exactly 3 life. This may seem lucky, but how many [card]Incinerate[/card]s are in his list? Are there any other burn spells that would equally have got him there? How was it that you were sitting on 3 life exactly? Did your opponent at some stage make an attack that looked unfavorable to him but would leave you on exactly 3 life?

A lot of the time what looks like a perfect top deck is actually only “perfect” because the opponent played in a way to put himself in a position where that card would win the game. Perhaps rather than taking the bait and blocking in a way which allowed you to 2 for 1 your opponent, you should have blocked in a way that actually kept you from being in incinerate range.

While Larry may think that after the fact it is pointless to look back and think about these signals, it’s important to do so, so that next time you see the same signals you know to be aware of what your opponent may have. Simply putting it down to your opponent being lucky will only deny you the opportunity to realise what could have been the better play or what signals your opponent was unintentionally sending.

Lie Number 3 – “It wouldn’t have mattered anyway because…. *insert instance of opponent “getting lucky”*”

This lie is a slight variation on the one above. Some players are able to see that they had made errors which put them in a position to lose but remarkably still ignore them. This lie involves the dismissal of your own errors simply on the basis that your opponent got lucky. One of Larry’s favorite lines when being directed to a play mistake is “It wouldn’t have mattered anyway…” before referring to some aspect of the game where his opponent “got lucky”.

Sometimes the truth is it wouldn’t have mattered. But if you dismiss all of your errors on the basis that your opponent was going to do something powerful later anyway then none of your errors ever truly have an effect on the game.

This lie is based on a type of fallacious argument known as “affirming a disjunct.”

Essentially it works on the following premise:

I either lost because I was unlucky or because I played badly
I was unlucky
Therefore I didn’t lose because I played badly.

The logic in this argument is obviously flawed when it’s spelt out like that but Larry can be convincing when we want to believe it wasn’t our fault that we lost. There are plenty of circumstances where you could lose both because you played badly and because you were unlucky.

Always look for the errors you made and be mindful of the effect they had on the game.

Lie Number 4 – “I went versus my bad matchups all day”

This is another one that gets thrown around a lot at tournaments by players who have lost. Leaving aside the first question of whether or not the matchup in question is actually a bad matchup the biggest issue is why you chose to play that deck in a tournament where the metagame was so unfavorable that you would see your bad matchup on multiple occasions.

While occasionally, you could just be unlucky and manage to play against the 3 life gain players in the event, odds are that if you are playing your bad matchup more often than not then you either severely misjudged the metagame or you chose to play the deck and hope to avoid the bad matchups. Either way this is not luck. This is poor deck choice on your behalf and you should accept the responsibility.

It’s not as simple as saying “don’t bring a sword to a gun fight.” Sometimes the deck you have is the most powerful deck in a vacuum, but if there is something about the metagame that will accentuate your decks weakness, then run something else.

Using the metaphor above a gun may strictly be a better weapon then a sword, but if the fight is underwater, then a sword trumps gun in most cases (although both are not exactly strong). Having the best deck in a vacuum is not the same as having the best deck for a particular event.

Lie Number 5 – “I won so it must have been the right play”

This is another one you often here being discussed at large tournaments. One player validly questions a particular line of play and instead of being able to support the reasoning behind that play logically in relation to the alternative, Larry simply states “well it won me the game didn’t it?”

The problem is the next time a similar set of circumstances arises, your inner Larry is likely to convince you that it is again the correct play when really the chance of winning on that play is a long shot and you were in fact defying the odds when you won with it the first time.

In Poker terms, imagine a game of Texas hold-em. You have a 2 and 5 off suit and another player, who unbeknownst to you has pocket aces, raises the blind by $20 and you choose to call and see the flop.

The flop reveals two 2’s and a 5. The other player again raises which you call and in the end your opponent reveals his pair of aces, which loses to your full house. Now you won because of it, but does that mean it was the correct play to call a raised blind with your original hand? Should you do the same if you were in similar circumstances again?

For those Larry’s out there the answer is no. The fact that you survived after your parachute didn’t open doesn’t mean you should save money by not paying for one the next time you go skydiving.

This list is by no means exhaustive and I’m sure there are many more that others can come up with.

If this article could be summed up in one sentence (which embarrassingly for me it can) it would be; When you think you have lost as a result of luck, take a second to look at all the factors that led to that loss and determine whether the loss could be more accurately attributed to any errors on your own behalf that you can be mindful to avoid when faced with similar circumstances in the future.

While listening to your inner Larry may help you feel better in the short term it’s not going to help you improve as a player in the long run.

manabogged on MTGO and Twitter


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