In Development – Magic Effectiveness Project, Part 1 – RFC (Not That RFC)


There was an excellent response to last week’s column. I think that makes a lot of sense – we all want to be able to not only succeed, but to do so in a way that relies on and plays to our strengths instead of forcing us to gut through things we don’t enjoy. One of the strongest responses was, “Can you do more of this?”

I think that’s an excellent idea. With that in mind, I’m embarking on a series of columns, snappily named the “Magic Effectiveness Project,” to explore what Magic-specific strengths exist, with an eye toward helping all of us find the simultaneously most enjoyable and most helpful path toward improving our game.

Over in the science business, when a major funding agency is planning on supporting a new research initiative, they issue something called an RFC. Rather than the meaning you may be used to from Magic, this stands for “Request for Comments” (although my usual funding agency, the NIH, calls one of these a “Request for Information”). This is where the people at the agency present an outline of the project they’re thinking of developing or funding, and then ask for comments from stakeholders. For example, if you check out the recently released National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap (note before clicking – that’s a 7.5 meg PDF) you’ll see my name in the (long) list of participants in a workshop after the Department of Energy asked for comments on their research plan.

For the purposes of any initiative about Magic, you’re the stakeholders.

So the goal of today’s piece is to outline what I’m thinking about doing, both to give you a preview of what you can look forward to and, more importantly, to solicit your comments and thoughts. Your engaged interest is important, as all of you are going to be important contributors to getting something useful out of all this. This won’t be all I’m going to write about in the coming weeks, but it’s going to be a recurring feature, and it depends on your support.

But first of all, let’s look at why we’d even want to do this.

Why do we want to know how to be better?

Before we launch into trying to figure out a more coherent, positive approach to determining what make people good at something, we should pause briefly to ask ourselves why we want to be “better at Magic.”

I’ve written before about playing to have fun. I think we need to emphasize that it genuinely is all about having fun, because there are few other legitimately defensible reasons for spending a ton of time on Magic instead of other activities. Calling event regulars “pros” and talking up the money one can win can while playing can make Magic sound like a career path, but in terms of time spent to the money you can pull in, there are many, many better ways to do it. To give a sense of the scale we’re talking about, here are the nominal, pre-tax, Wizards-event-based earnings of the top ten earners from 2009:

Kibler, Brian – 51,700
Nassif, Gabriel – 48,710
Mitamura, Kazuya – 45,150
Coimbra, Andre – 45,000
Watanabe, Yuuya – 26,050
Scott-Vargas, Luis – 25,990
Juza, Martin – 24,700
Reitbauer, David – 24,600
Ikeda, Tsuyoshi – 24,300
Hebky, Michal – 21,800

Yes, there are other tournaments and side events where you can pull in some “income,” but even these most successful earners didn’t pull down enough money in 2009 to justify choosing to play Magic instead of spending the same time, say, investing, playing poker, or just doing a job.

And, of course, the typical prize money pulled in by the majority of PT competitors in a given year is nothing at all. Magic isn’t a career path – it’s an awesome hobby with the bonus that we can sometimes win some cash off of it.

So if it’s not about Magic as a career path, what is it? Why would we want to figure out how to be better at the game?

Put briefly, getting better at the game is fun. Winning is fun, success in general is fun, and most to the point, understanding the path from where we are now to being better players is much, much more fun than banging our heads against invisible walls as we try to improve areas where we just aren’t going to improve.

Magic is an intrinsically fun game, but we’ve all had the experience where we have a mismatch between our skills, our understanding of the game, and how it’s working out in practice. Maybe it was that first time our friend busted out a land destruction deck at the kitchen table, or perhaps our first Extended PTQ where an opponent ran a Mind’s Desire deck out against us. That second experience was mine, and it was both very confusing and informative – I realized I hadn’t researched the format nearly as well as I thought I had.

As we saw last week, we primarily want to figure out the “best ways to get better” so we can reduce these disjunctions between what we want to do and what reality does to our plans, so that we don’t have the mysterious frustration of stuff just failing.

So, being successful and having a clear path to success is fun. What do we mean by “success?”

Setting our definition of effectiveness and success

If we want to study strengths that we can focus on to achieve success in Magic, we probably need to define “success.”

The definition I’m planning on using is utterly straightforward, but perhaps surprisingly flexible.

Success means winning.

Before anyone flips straight to the comments to write a rant, let’s expand on how we want to define “winning.” When I refer to winning, I mean winning at all competitive levels of the game, where “competitive” refers to play in tournaments with entry fees or other gateways (e.g. needing to win a PTQ to get on the Pro Tour), with defined play and deckbuilding rules and the general expectation that the players involved are operating to the best of their abilities within those rules. I’ll further narrow this to just cover head-to-head formats, which allows things like Team Constructed from PT Charleston, but not any form of multiplayer free-for-all.

Lest this sound too constraining, consider that it includes these types of tournaments, among others:

Pro Tour
Grand Prix
(N)K events (e.g. the ChannelFireball Spring Series 5K)
PT Public Event
MTGO Daily Event
MTGO 8-4 Queue

Whereas it excludes pure kitchen table Magic, games in the various MTGO Casual rooms, and most multiplayer events.

If you’re confused by the wide range of events I plan to include in this survey, consider that success means being good at what you do. Stepping away from Magic for a moment, it’s possible for one person to be a very successful business executive, running a company, and another person to be a very successful A/V tech working in the same company. Regardless of how we might externally judge the person’s success, we have to remember that they can be amazing at what they do, regardless of what they’re doing.

Returning to Magic, that’s why it’s valuable to roam outside the confines of the PT and look at people who are consistently successful at FNM, or European Legacy events, or whatever their competitive avenue of choice is.

On the flip side, I’m choosing to leave “casual” gaming out of this survey because it’s not really my interest and it’s much, much trickier to define and track “success” at casual play. Are you a successful EDH player because you win a lot, or because the other people you’re playing with like you a lot? Well, it depends on your group, right? In contrast, no matter what kind of tournaments a competitive player attends, it’s easy enough to ask them the question, “Do you tend to win?”

So, to summarize, we are interested in players who frequently win prizes in head-to-head tournaments that have either an entry fee or some other gateway mechanism.

With that understanding in hand, let’s move on to how this survey will be carried out, broken down into interviews, historical review, and analysis.

The interview portion

In last week’s article, I presented some notional ways to approach understanding our own Magic strengths. If you took a crack at understanding your own strengths this way, most of them basically involved sitting down and asking yourself some questions about, well, yourself.

Unsurprisingly, a major portion of this survey will involve asking successful players to talk about themselves.

The original Gallup study that inspired last week’s article did not actually come out of a rigorously pre-defined set of questions that were posed to highly successful people. In fact, there’s no way it could have – the researchers involved did not know, starting out, what was going to promote success. Heading in blind, they could easily have discovered that the root of all success was buckling down and focusing really hard on fixing your weak spots. The discovery that effectiveness is born from building on our strong points was not a foregone conclusion.

My intent here is to put together a survey that features a series of “talking points,” intended to spur the player being questioned to give more detailed answers than they might otherwise. This is going to be especially important because, as you’ll have noticed from your local store and Rich Hagon’s Magic podcasts, there are a lot of taciturn players in our community.

I am, of course, happy to have players just ramble on about themselves and their gaming experiences, but as a spur to richer replies, I plan on including questions like these:

What’s your ideal tournament experience?
What’s your typical tournament experience?
What’s the best tournament experience you’ve ever had?
Conversely, what’s the worst?
What’s the best play you’ve ever made?
Did you think of it on the spot, or was it one you’d considered in advance?
How do you prepare for a tournament? Do you prepare?
How do you prepare for Limited formats?
How do you prepare for Constructed formats?
How do you pick a deck for a Constructed tournament?
If you had to play a Standard tournament tomorrow using a PTQ-winning deck from the last month’s tournaments, which one would you pick, and why?

This is just a sampling of the kind of questions I’d like to use to provoke some more in-depth replies from our respondents. It’s also an area where I would particularly appreciate comments from all of you. Which questions would you suggest as real conversation starters for your fellow players?

The historical portion

We’re blessed with a wealth, or perhaps even an embarrassment, of tournament coverage. There’s the official site coverage over at Wizards for the Pro Tour, GPs, and various Nationals, as well as tournament coverage on other sites and individual tournament reports. There are videos bulwarking all this text coverage, as I’ve highlighted before.

I’m proposing a general review of available tournament coverage in all these areas. As with the interview portion described above, there can’t be a rigid plan going into this review, as we don’t have an up-front idea what kind of patterns may develop. As I described last week, there are some strengths, such as Luis’s consistent, crisp play, or Frank Karsten’s thoughtfulness, that make themselves clear in the official Wizards coverage. I’m confident that additional strengths will arise out of these and other materials.

In addition to reviewing written and video coverage of tournaments, I’m also planning on taking a careful look at what people write about. As you may recall, one of the features of a genuine strength is not just that we’re reliably good at the thing in question, but that we like to do it. Reasonably enough, people tend to write about the things they like. Even if Joe Magic Columnist says that a deep analytical approach to Magic is the only way to game, if he keeps writing about exciting snap-judgment moments and winning tournaments with no preparation and seemingly even less sleep, it’s a fair bet that his strengths truly lie in that area, no matter what he tries to insist.

The plan is to put the emphasis on how players experienced success. The logic behind this is twofold.

First, a player having a successful run at a given tournament is probably playing to their strengths, whatever they may be. Although everyone needs a bit of luck to win, it’s highly unlikely that luck can carry us through a tournament if we’re playing against our strengths.

Second, while it’s possible for a bit of bad luck to knock a player out of contention – after all, two losses means you’re out of the running for an MTGO PTQ top eight – it’s really unlikely for bizarre good luck to run someone up to the top of a tournament. In other words, a bad result can arise from two bad matchups, but a good result probably didn’t come from having amazing matchups through the entire event.


As I mentioned earlier, it’s impossible to go into this kind of project with predefined analytical categories. After all, if we knew all of the relevant Magic strengths in advance, we wouldn’t need to carry out the analysis.

So what to do?

Eventually, strengths do need to be sorted out, clarified, and defined. As with most knowledge, if it can’t be sorted out into some kind of useful categories, it’s not very helpful when we try to apply it (to, for example, getting better at Magic).

This part is very notional right now, but in general outline, it works pretty much like how we can start to develop a structure for a web site via tags. I might, for example, watch some video of Frank Karsten playing and note that his play style is “deliberate,” or perhaps, “thoughtful.” These traits clearly show up again in Frank’s writing, but I may also start to see them in interview responses from other active players and in game play coverage and articles from other players over the last several years.

Eventually, certain tags will likely show up as “frequent flyers” among successful players at all levels, and that informs us that they likely describe a particular strength that is relevant to Magic play.

Clearly, this is more about investigation of qualitative traits and less about finding statistical metrics. In other words, we’re not going to come up with a magic equation predicting a winning player from their personality. Rather, our interest is in understanding the qualitative strengths that power effective players so we can identify the ones that describe us best, and in so doing, figure out a fun, engaging way to get better at this game that we love.

Your role in all this

In introducing today’s piece, I described all of you as stakeholders in this process. As such, your input is essential. This, right now, is my Request for Comments. Do you want to make a suggestion concerning possible questions for interviews? Ways you’d like to see historical information addressed? Considerations for analysis? Thoughts about the structure of this survey generally?

If you have thoughts in any of those areas, I’d appreciate your input. You can write your thoughts in the comments below, or email them to me at magic(at)alexandershearer.com. The “official” comment period starts now and continues until the evening of Sunday, July 11th, although I’ll happily accept comments after that – I’m just planning on releasing the survey questions on the week of the 11th, so input ahead of that date is most helpful.

In the meantime, I hope everyone is enjoying the M11 fervor. I’m personally pretty stoked by this new core set, and think in both this set and its immediate predecessor, Wizards has managed to truly revisit the feeling of opening a Beta pack from way back in the day.


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