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In Development – Magic Effectiveness Project – Strength, In Your Words

Do you normally name your cards?

I don’t.

Last week I took a little excursion in that direction when I decided that the Fauna Shaman was a researcher in the vein of Jane Goodall, working with a misunderstood creature rich with hidden skills and complexities. Since then, I’ve realized that only one of my copies of Fauna Shaman can really be Jane Goodall. It’s only logical, then for the other Fauna Shamans in the deck to include the other two women who were trained by Louis Leakey, Birute Galdikas and Dian Fossey. This left one player to be named, so I went with a contemporary primate researcher in Mireya Mayor.

You can learn more about this august assembly of 2/2s for 1G by clicking here – they’re positions 7-10 on the list.

Jane Goodall is perhaps most well known for her twin discoveries that chimpanzees use tools and that they eat meat (in fact, they actually operated in a coordinated fashion to hunt monkeys, which you can watch a somewhat creepy video of here. She did not necessarily know in advance that these things would be true… instead, she saw them while simply observing chimps for months and months in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania.

No, I’m not about to suggest that all Magic players are chimps. Instead, the important point is this – sometimes, we just have to see what’s what before we can develop a hypothesis or a structure. That’s the entire point of the MEP survey, and today I want to share a taste of the structure that’s starting to develop from simply asking you, the players, about how you experience Magic.

But first, an ad

Well, not really. But my hope is that if you haven’t already responded to the MEP survey, today’s taste of the results will inspire you to share your stories and participate. In fact, as a special bonus, if you were put off by having to write an email or fill out a document, you can now go and provide your answers online:

Click here to take the MEP survey.

Thanks to Daniel Vinson for suggesting the web-based version.

You can also still grab one of the forms below:

MEP questionnaire (.doc format)

MEP questionnaire (.docx format)

MEP questionnaire (.pdf format)

…and mail them to me at magic (at) alexandershearer.com.

Sift through sands, find inspiration

A lot of my work happens at the interface of computation and biology. The perpetual difficulty is that computation thrives on rigid characterizations – after all, it’s really hard to design an algorithm to go buy you a tie that “looks nice.” In fact, the only way you can handle a problem like this is by either rigidly pre-coding a list of “nice ties” or by making a system that learns and then teaching it by showing it ties that you think are nice. Suddenly, we’re back in the fuzzy territory where you, the person, have to talk about what you think and how you’d classify things.

An example of this at the interface of computation and biology is the Gene Ontology project.  This is, essentially, a bunch of biologists all over the world saying things like, “You know, I think serine-type endopeptidase activity sounds like a reasonable molecular function.”

This is the goal with the MEP results as well. From what is intentionally a very free-form set of responses, I’m simply going through, noting things that stand out, and seeing over time which of these show up again and again.

Today, I’m going to touch on some of the early standouts, letting you hear what you all have to say about them. Hopefully, this preview will inspire you to send in your own answers, if you haven’t, and will get you thinking about what it means to be “good at Magic.”

Practice, practice, practice

Is this really a surprise?

Practice comes up again and again as a discussion point in the survey responses. Most of the time it’s mentioned in a positive light, as a necessary element in success. Here are some of the things we all had to say about practice:

I simply played all the time, five drafts at the shop during the week, then FNM, then Saturday morning t2, and a MODO draft or two on most nights…

…you need to put in the hours, there are no shortcuts.

Practice, practice, practice…

…and its close cousin:

Playtest, playtest, playtest.

…playing Magic on a regular basis with the goal of improving your game will help more than any strategy website. In the end, it’s the work you put into your game that is going to take you far, not the work of others.

Not all people can be Jon Finkel. But I do believe anyone can win a Friday Night Magic with enough practice.

Of course, not everyone is down with Magic. Perhaps following in the footsteps of Gadiel Szleifer, one respondent wrote this about how they practice:

I don’t.

This is a good point to pause and consider the point of the project. While most people would likely agree that practice is important to your success at the game, a minority of respondents emphasized it in their surveys. In other words, while all of us acknowledge the importance of practice, only some of us enjoy practice enough to have it be “on the tip of our tongues” when we’re asked about the game.

Here we’re seeing the essential point of this project – we all know that practice is important, but only some of us will find that it’s “our thing.” If the commentary above resonated with you, you may actually find that a drive to practice is one of your strengths.

We all want to crush, right?

One of my particular quirks is that I derive a lot of joy from close games. The conventional wisdom is that our goal is to win; therefore, we want to find the “Super Scissors” deck that not only beats Paper, but also cleaves right through Rock and smashes normal Scissors to bits. This is the heart of the advice to “play the best deck,” and it may well lead us to take the game a bit too seriously. On the other hand, my favorite match win in all the PTQs I’ve played in consisted of one forty-seven minute game between two controlling decks, where I took the game on a clutch misplay by my opponent.

As it happens, I’m not alone in loving that kind of thing:

I really enjoy playing in large, competitive events PTQs, as the sense of competitive play is never higher than at these events.

This is actually an essential part of my pitch for going to PTQs – it’s fun to face challenging opponents. One survey respondent describes their “ideal” tournament experience like so:

Play a good deck against good players, having skill-testing and challenging games…

Which is a sentiment that others share about what an ideal tournament is like:

Winning, but having to play good games. Meaning I would hate to win a tournament if two or more of my opponents had to excessively mulligan or had really bad draws.

This is a good example of a trope that has showed up a number of times, but which is on the “uncommon” side among the results.

In other words, even if you find that not a lot of the people around you share your strengths, that doesn’t mean they’re not real and valid. This is important to keep in mind when you’re participating in a community, especially one whose demographics live heavily in the male, 14-26-year-old side of things. The typical Magic player and, by extension, Magic writer, forum member, or dude sitting next to you at FNM, tends to believe that the stuff they know or that works for them is correct. As a consequence, when you have one of these minority strengths, you can find yourself doubting whether they’re actually strengths because everyone around you spends their time tearing them down.

On bluffing and reading

In cases such as “practice” and “competition,” we can see a strength based on the fact that it is mentioned in a positive light. People who think practicing is good tend to talk about practice, with very few exceptions. On the other hand, some Magic strengths stand out as such because they generate such polarity in their answers.

Or, to put it another way, you can tell that something is important either because (1) everyone agrees on it or (2) everyone vigorously disagrees on it

Welcome to our discussion of bluffing and tells. These two areas that I suggested as possible topics of discussion on the survey generated a wealth of responses, with a tendency to push toward the poles – either you think it’s a good idea, or you don’t.

Let’s start with tells.

Some of us aren’t particularly good with tells:

Never been good at tells.

I’m not good at reading people.

I am terrible with tells, so I try to avoid using them whenever possible, even if I am fairly sure of them.

Whereas others among us think that it’s actually a bad idea to try and read tells, either for them personally or for Magic players in general:

I mostly concentrate on my own game / cards and so don’t really watch my opponent too much. It’s probably an area that I should try to improve in.

I think it’s better to focus on playing my deck correctly for the board state [rather] than trying too hard to get inside their brain. Usually, thinking too much about tells and such makes me make mistakes.

On the other hand, there’s definitely a contingent that believes in reading an opponent’s tells:

I’m no expert, but there are signs that you can pick up on that can give you the edge.

…I spend a great deal of time during every game trying to read my opponent…

Yes and yes. I can often forecast what the opponent has in their hand from their play, how they arrange their mana, what mana they have open, sometime even when they mouth their options to themselves.

…and finally, some of us believe that not only should we be looking for our opponent’s tells, it would be hard not to, because everyone sucks at hiding their tells:

People’s fingers, particularly when drawing cards and tapping mana, often tell you exactly what’s going on in their hand. Also, some folks are bad with audible sighs and shoulder slumps.

Most Magic players are so bad with their tells that it’s rather obvious what is going on.

…most Magic players don’t even try to hide anything. Beyond those that reveal their hand, or their deck when shuffling or whatever, you can often tell people’s hand strength and if they “have it” without trying very hard.”

Tells are SO easy in Magic. An opponent who complains about a bad hand normally HAS a bad hand.

This brings up an important point about how humans interact with our strong points. Although some of us are aware of the things we’re good at, the nice folks at Gallup who ran the original strengths survey discovered that people frequently underrated their skills in their strongest areas because it just seemed so intuitive. Look at our last survey respondent above. For that player, it would be hard to not see all these hideously obvious tells people have all over the place. Heck, they can’t make it through a game, let alone a match, without the opponent basically telegraphing their entire game plan.

…and that’s why, in personally inventorying what we’re good at in the game, it’s best to just speak freely for a while and see what comes up. It helps to have a prompt – and this is why I provided so many potential prompts on the survey. Are you good at reading tells? Combat math? Some other aspect of the game? You may not know it because it just seems intuitively obvious to you…but it’s a strength nonetheless.

This also highlights one other value in identifying these kinds of strengths – understanding the environment you’re playing in. Maybe you’re bad at reading tells, but you really do need to keep in mind that in any given match, you may be paired up against someone who is convinced that you “don’t even try to hide anything” from them.

In other words, it’s not just about your own lines of attack, but also your opponents’.

Bluffing, like tells, generates some very polar opinions. For example, some of us think bluffing is just rock-solid awful:

Bluffs are terrible in Magic.

…and others roll out a bluff whenever they possibly can:

I bluff quite a bit…

I bluff all the time.

Interestingly, the conversation around bluffing reveals another way that we can identify something as truly being a strength – sophistication. A number of respondents wrote back without a simple yes/no answer, instead discussing the strengths and limitations of bluffing in Magic:

The issue with bluffing in Magic is that your opponent needs to be able to realize that a bluff could be happening.

I tend to bluff whenever I think I’m playing someone good enough to fall for it. Many people, I find, are imply not good enough to play around cards, and if bluffing forces me to make a suboptimal play, I usually won’t bluff unless I know the player I’m against tends to play really tightly.

The chances are that if you can give a nuanced answer in this vein, you’re looking at one of your strengths. After all, if you can tune your degree of bluffing to the ability level of your opponent, and this is something that comes to mind to talk about with others, you’re a clear step above others in this area.

The same “rule” applies across the board in all of these areas of strength.

I once heard a definition of “geek” that boiled down to “your interest in the area is so strong that it gets in the way of your social interactions.” A much milder take on this concept might be that you know you’re in an area of strength when your level of conversation on the topic tends to bore the people you’re talking to – as long as it’s not something they’re also strongly interested in.

One respondent took me off guard by asking me to not reveal that they almost never bluff. That earned a laugh – it hadn’t occurred to me that I was collecting such strategically valuable information! If, you know, I get paired against one of you and remember your name from the results and remember what you talked about in your answers.

I wouldn’t worry too much about that problem. My memory’s decent, but not that good.

With a little help from…

Francis Crick insisted that the core secret to his success was spending time with people who were “smarter” than he was. Although I’m always a little dubious that he really found people who were “smarter” and not just “as smart as,” the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA (among many other things) really did benefit tremendously from simply being in the company of other smart, motivated researchers.

Apparently, so do a lot of you.

I’ll close out today’s highlighting of the early MEP results by imparting the pleasing news that many of you credit your success to being able to hang out with a smart group of friends.

The biggest factor was/I having smart people around me.

What has played the biggest part in my success, in my opinion, is my peers. If it wasn’t for them, I would be terrible.

Basically, I have learned from people that are better than I am.

Practice, practice, practice, and a good group of friends to continue to try and improve our game.

Certainly, you can see this at work in the recent successes of Team ChannelFireball, or in any random picture of the group taken at a PTQ.

Tell me your stories

This is just a sampling of the kinds of strengths that turned up in the preliminary evaluation of MEP survey results. There are more, of course, and I expect to try and narrow down not only a list of “strengths” but an understanding of what each one means.

You can help here by taking the survey if you haven’t already. Any and all results are helpful – I’ve received everything from brief replies to a few key questions all the way through multi-page discussions and turn-by-turn breakdowns of favorite plays. It’s all welcome, and it’s all useful. Grab one of the forms, or click on the survey link and answer online.

Click here to take the MEP survey.

I’m going to wait a little longer on your individual survey results before I go into more detail about what you’ve all said – I don’t want to skew your answers too much. I’ve also received a generous offer from a collaborator to try and do some statistical analyses of the results, which will only benefit from more responses – so send more!

In the interim, future MEP articles will turn to the “public record” of Magic, looking at game play and writing to see what we can learn about the strengths of individual players from our shared history of the game.

In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you again. Now that you’ve seen some examples of how your peers talk about the game, has that changed what you think of as your Magic strengths? Can you name one strength for each of your friends, or for the last five opponents you played against?

Discussion

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