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In Development – Play to Your Strengths, Play to Reality

So…

Last week I caused a bit of a hubbub elsewhere by writing about how some of the “unspoken” rules and expectations that show up in casual play can be a little offputting to an outsider. You can read the full version here, but the concise version is “clear social contracts are best.” If you want to play without counterspells, or with only tribal cards, or whatever, that’s cool, just be up front about it and don’t tell people they suck for not playing Magic “your way.” With a little search-engine-fu, you’ll find more of the conversation that followed elsewhere.

That’s not today’s topic, but it feeds into it.

One of the complaints of our stereotyped “casual” player who hates the stereotyped “competitive” environment is that it doesn’t let them play the game they want to play. Maybe this means getting to hardcast Emrakul, or perhaps it means playing a game where Serra Angel is relevant outside of the Limited environment. This is a stereotype, but the issue is clear.

We’d like to play Magic “our way,” but if we want to play beyond our kitchen table, we have to play in the “real world.”

But – and this is the big “but” – we can still play Magic “our way” even in the “real world” of our local FNM, a PTQ, or MTGO Dailies. In fact, we probably have to play it “our way.”

Strength >>> Weakness

Coincidentally with all this discussion of casual versus competitive play and wanting to “play the game the way I want to play it,” I happen to have recently read Now, Discover Your Strengths. This book, written by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton of Gallup, is a distillation of Gallup’s wide-ranging analysis of successful people in all walks of life.

The punch line from Gallup’s research on success is that successful people focus on enhancing their strengths, rather than trying to patch up their weaknesses.

This is a worthy topic for discussion outside of Magic, but it naturally has application within the game as well.

There are a number of excellent articles out there about being brutally honest with yourself about your Magical shortcomings – your deficiencies in game play and deck choice and design. This plays right into our expectation that the way to get better at stuff is to patch our weaknesses and become a more well-rounded player. But if we go along with Gallup’s empirical results, while it’s very important to recognize our weaknesses, it’s critical to identify, acknowledge, and build on our strengths.

When Gallup talks about strengths they don’t mean aptitudes (“Susan is good at math”) or learned skills (“Bob is a qualified deep-sea welder”), they mean general ways of approaching the world that you can apply consistently and to great positive effect. For example, one of the Gallup strength categories is “Ideation,” which is a fascination with finding connections and offering new perspectives on familiar challenges. I’ve taken the Gallup Strengthsfinder test myself, and two of my top five strengths are “Context” and “Communication,” which means that I am the kind of person who probably enjoys thinking about the past and finds it easy to put my thought into words.

Which might explain things like this.

Note that the Gallup definition of a strength is not even just about the fact that you are good at doing things a certain way and tend to do them that way, but that you take pleasure in doing them that way. So it’s not just that I can crank out 3,000+ words for a weekly column about Magic, it’s that I like to do so.

So if a strength is something we do well, consistently, and with some amount of happiness, then how can we identify and usefully apply our Magic strengths?

What is a Magic strength?

If we’re going to identify our own Magic strengths, we need to spend a little time thinking about what a strength even is, in the context of the game. Obviously, the Gallup-defined strengths actually apply to how you play your game, and if you feel like plunking down twelve or thirteen bucks for the book, that’ll give you access to their online test and your own results. I’m not really recommending that as a game play tool, but it does make sense that strengths that apply globally apply to how you play a fantasy card game.

Unfortunately for us, we have not surveyed a couple million highly successful Magic players to ask them how they think, to try to divine their strengths and then use that to compile a list of Magic-specific strengths. So it’s left to us to carry out a more anecdotal evaluation based on our observation of players at all levels around us. Here are some examples of what I consider to be Magic strengths as exemplified in players you’ll have heard of.

Unshakeable cognitive tempo

Or, in less bombastic language, “consistently crisp play, technically and in terms of pace.”

My first-round opponent in last weekend’s ChannelFireball Spring Series 5K championship was our very own LSV. Luis is a prime example of this strength, enough so that you’ll hear Brian David-Marshall talk about it during the coverage for the PT Berlin top 8. Even while chatting with me and shoulder-to-shoulder with other active games at a crowded first-round table, Luis maintained a consistent pace of precise, accurate play.

Note that the pace is not particularly frenetic, nor does it alter a whole lot even as the game play situation changes up. I think the single largest pause was after I stuck an early Sparkmage in game two, which I assume locked a Lotus Cobra in Luis’s hand and required a slight update in his game plan.

I think we all like to believe that we can learn this kind of play, but that’s probably not the case. Some people are naturally going to undergo significant shifts in tempo, where they have “obvious” turns and “tank” turns requiring very different amounts of time.

Or, to put it another way, no amount of practice ever let Frank Karsten play faster, and rushing him just means he makes more mistakes. That said”¦

Deep analysis

Frank Karsten is a prime example of someone whose biggest strength is occasionally at odds with winning tournaments. He is analytical in a way most of us aren’t, both before and during his games. The upshot of this very thoughtful approach to the game is that Frank can come up with some spectacular plays not because he’s being inventive on the fly but because he’s spent the time leading up to the tournament and in each and every turn of the current game running complex decision trees forward to explore every possible game state.

At least, I imagine that’s what the inside of his brain is like. Regardless, when Frank was able to cast [card]Gifts Ungiven[/card] as a sort of double [card]Entomb[/card] against Akira Asihara (as highlighted here I don’t believe for a second he thought of that idea right then. Instead, it was in his vast inventory of things he’d already figured out about the contemporary Standard format and the use of each and every card in it – much like the infamously comprehensive pick order list he developed for Pro Tour Nagoya.

The upside to having this strength is, well, it can lead to a lot of wins. The downside is that it can also lead to some frustrating draws.

Crystal-clear recall

Have you read one of Paulo’s tournament reports?

Yeah, even though I take more notes than most I can’t typically reconstruct matches the way he can, well after the fact.

It may be odd to think of this sort of post hoc action as a strength – after all, it’s pretty much about reconstructing an event that’s over and done with. That said, it’s obviously a strength in preparing for your next event, and in building a library of experiences that will shape your decisions concerning things like deck selection and building a mana base.

Again, let’s be clear that these are not all traits that everyone necessarily has, can have, or even needs to have to do well at this game. Tom Ross placed ninth at PT San Diego and just won a PTQ, among his many other victories. Here’s his summary of his round four match up from that PTQ:

I lose the die roll.

I don’t remember much from this match as all the Jund games now began to blend together. I sided the usual and nothing truly interesting happened.

Is it worth Tom’s time to try and develop an eidetic recall of all of his Magic matches?

Probably not. He seems to be doing fine with the tools he’s using right now.

So, those are some examples of what I’d tend to think of as Magic strengths. We don’t have a comprehensive, survey-based list, nor do we really need one, but this kind of thinking gives us the ballpark for identifying our own strengths.

Filling out your strengths inventory

With some prompting from those examples, it’s now time for us to try to figure out our own Magic strengths. As we try to identify them, remember that our qualifiers are excellence, consistency, and pleasure.

Excellence – We’re good at applying the behavior, way of thinking, or approach to the world.

Consistency – We do it pretty much every time, reliably and repeatably.

Pleasure – We enjoy doing things that way.

We really do want to hit this trifecta when describing a strength. I know, as I’m sure you do, people who are consistently excellent at a certain behavior or skill set, but absolutely loath doing it. They may have a knack, but it’s not their thing, and as a consequence it will so drag them down in the long run and they won’t be able to ride that strength to success.

There are no proven methods for identifying your Magic strengths, but here are some ways we can get there from here.

What do you think they are?

Sounds obvious, I know.

What do you think is really good about your game, just as you’re thinking about it right now, sitting there and reading this article. For example, are you particularly good at figuring out when to “go for it?” in the face of countermagic or other disruption? Is that your absolute favorite moment of the game?

Do you get reliable reads on your opponents? I mean, really, spookily reliable? Is this a lot of fun for you when you pull it off? Are you one of those players who lists the cards you think your opponent has, and are you right more often than not?

Sitting back and thinking about it myself, I’ve realized that I’m really good at, for lack of a better phrase, “not losing.” Not only do I have a talent for eking out that extra turn via a surprising series of defensive moves, I also really enjoy it. Some of my favorite match wins have come on the back of marathon game ones where other players would have conceded early on, but I saw a way and a reason to stay in and managed to win out.

What would your friends say?

We’re bad self-evaluators, much of the time – at least, when we don’t have some kind of framework, or the willingness to fact check ourselves against history. In this context, it’s good to check in with the people you know and trust, folks who’ve played with and against you on a regular basis, and who hang out and watch your matches when they’ve finished theirs.

Remember how I mentioned getting reliable reads, above? I know, and I bet you do as well, many more people who think they get good reads than who actually get good reads. If you thinking you’re awesome at reads, you might want to check in with your (hopefully honest) friends and find out if that’s actually the case, or if you’re drowning in confirmation bias and recalling the few spectacular times you were right instead of the massive majority of times you were very, very wrong.

I’m pretty poor at reads, but I don’t think I’ve ever suffered from the illusion that I’m good at reading my opponents.

That said, I’m told that I have a pretty surprising recall for historical situations and weird rules interactions, which fits in with that whole Gallup “context” strength, and is probably obvious in what I write about and how I write about it.

Checking in with your friends is a good chance to both fact check your own impressions and to learn about strengths you never properly pegged yourself as having.

Reviewing your notes

This one is hard in paper Magic if you don’t take assiduous notes or have Paulo’s photographic recall, but it’s pretty feasible for MTGO.

Basically, watch your replays. After you play in a 2-person Standard event, a Daily, or whatever, actually watch your replays and see if you can identify anything interesting or noteworthy in how you play, and how it contrasts from your opponents’ play styles.

I’ve only done this a little bit, but one approach I’ve found useful in applying replays as a tool to divine my Magic strengths or to just get a better feel for my play style is to actually block off the view of my own hand in the replay. Imagine that you’re watching a replay from someone else’s game and try to evaluate the plays with no insider knowledge about one player’s hand.

Be critical. Get judgey, even. Which plays from either player impress you, and what’s your overall impression of the game? Does one player seem to be controlling the pace of play, or otherwise influencing the overall flow of the game? Does it feel as if one player is a step ahead, or pulling off plays that clearly surprise the opponent?

If you divorce yourself a little bit from strongly identifying with the player who is, well, you, that can help you be a little more objective about listing the strong points for “that player.”

What’s awesome?

A core element in a Gallup-style strength is the idea that you aren’t just good at the area in question, but you really like it, too. So another good analytical tool here is to just start listing out things in Magic that you think are awesome. “Things” is an intentionally broad descriptor here, covering cards, decks, formats, plays, and even players.

For example, one question you can ask yourself is “If I had to play someone else’s published deck list in a given format, which one would I play?” If I sat you down right now and said, “You’re playing in a Standard PTQ tomorrow, and you have to use a deck list that’s won a PTQ in the current qualifier season,” what would you pick? If you keep asking yourself questions like this across multiple formats, does a trend show up?

The frequent copout answer that’s given to this kind of question is, “I picked deck X, it’s the best deck.” Real results tend to highlight the flimsiness of that ostensible reasoning, though. On June 19th alone, PTQ wins went to Conscription Mythic, Jund, NLB, Turboland, RDW, and URW Walkers. Was one of those archetypes the “best” deck?

It’s likely that you tend toward certain designs based on some affinity between your strengths and the deck’s features. We can dig a little deeper into this kind of question by asking not just “What decks do I like?” but also, historically, “What have I actually played, and how did I do?”

It’s possible, of course, that one of your strengths is flexibility, in which case you may be genuinely ambivalent about specific deck choices – and a lack of pattern across your choices will, indeed, reflect this.

Similarly, if you think the best plays are intricate, planned-in-your-head-in-advance combo kills, that may point to something about your intellectual approach to play – as contrasted with someone who is all about on-board aggression, pushing tempo, and so forth.

Sweet. So how do I apply these ‘strengths’ once I figure them out?

Good question.

The fundamental idea behind a strengths-based approach is that you will almost always win by pushing your strengths harder. Thus, it’s going to be about setting up a play environment and deck choices that support your strengths.

Let’s use, as an example, the strength I identified above, which I somewhat jokingly call ‘not losing.’ Based on my personal observations, talking with friends, and a detached evaluation of my own play record, this is a genuine strength in my play. I have a lot of single-game match wins where others would have folded. I have an affinity for complex, on-board interactions and eking out an incremental advantage that keeps me in the game just a little bit longer each time.

So, how do I play to this strength? Well, let’s reverse that a bit and ask the corollary question – what happens if you get one, or a few more, turns?

Well, first of all, you haven’t lost the game yet. That’s handy.

Second, you have the chance to access more of your deck and make more plays.

Third, your opponent has the chance to access more of their deck and make more plays.

This third point highlights the potential drawback of this strength – on its own, it keeps you in the game, but does not automatically knock your opponent out of the game. If I don’t pay attention to my own tendencies in this area, I’ll preferentially build and select decks that emphasis this strength, and while they will give me amazing tools to stay in the game, I may forgot to include tools that will let me close the game out.

This is where we want to remember that, fundamentally, we play games in the “real world” – whether that’s FNM, MTGO, PTQs, or the Pro Tour. I may adore complex board states, combat math, and gaining incremental advantage, but I am never going to play in an environment where every opponent will be my willing dance partner and go through the motions of playing this kind of game with me, only to let me win “my way” at the end.

This is where playing Magic “our way” runs right up against the wall of the “real world.” But as I promised in the introduction, playing to your strengths lets you do both.

So, what should someone with an affinity for endurance and incremental advantage do to make sure they can nonetheless thrive in the “real world?” Well, here’s one solution, yanked from day two of PT Valencia 2007:

Rock ‘n’ Nail (Zac Hill)

This is a deck that does all the things I love – it disrupts combo decks, clears the board, slows down the enemy’s offense, gains some life”¦and then it caps it off with a Tooth and Nail for some combination of unsolvable creatures, effectively ending the game right then and there. That’s a solid way to use an extra turn or two!

Is there an analog to this in our current PTQ environment? Sure there is:

Mythic (DelayingScheel5)

This isn’t pure Mythic, but rather is a sort of hybridized deck that has some planeswalkers, Cunning Sparkmages to control the board, and then Mythic Conscription as a finisher. More generally, a number of designs ranging from UW Control through NLB have seen variations that basically just pop in the Sovereigns plus Conscription package to give controlling or incremental decks a one-shot finisher.

If I’m going to continue to be good at eking out turns and incremental advantage, I think one of the best possible decisions for my future play will be to include this style of game-ender in my deck.

If you’re saying, “Well, yeah,” keep in mind what I’m not trying to make myself do. I’m not saying I’ll just go on and play a pure Mythic deck, as I generally don’t do as well just attacking with some big dudes. Similarly, I neither enjoy nor am I as good at doing burn math and scorching people out with Red cards, so I’m not going to just play RDW because it’s done well recently as an archetype.

It’s about playing to our strengths, but doing so in a way that interacts favorably with the real world.

Let’s go for a second example before I close this one out. As I mentioned above, I’m not particularly good at reading my opponents.

I used to really dislike playing against decks featuring countermagic. I’d wind myself up trying to figure out whether they “had it” or not, and then I’d just doubt myself into not making a play and get locked out by the opponent. And this isn’t really shocking, given that I was basically trying to play into a weakness – I wanted to “know if they had it” while being bad at reading the opponent.

But there’s something else that I’m good at, something for which I have a real affinity – and that’s understanding that odds are odds, likelihood is likelihood, and there’s no such thing as luck except as a retrospective description of things that have already happened. In other words, I know that if their deck is running four Negates and three of those suckers are already in their graveyard, they are highly unlikely to be holding the fourth. I know this is true even if the last few times I ran into this situation, I happened to hit the low percentage case where they did have the counterspell.

The practical consequences of accepting and playing to this strength are manifold. First, I no longer waste needless energy and add pointless hesitation by trying to figure out what the other player is thinking. I’m bad at that, so why put a lot of effort into it? Second, I can act with the confidence that I am making the statistically correct play – and the logical outcome of that is that I am making the statistically correct play more often, and, per statistics, it works more often. Third, since I can figure out likelihoods and recall deck lists much, much faster than I can try to suss out what my opponent is thinking, I burn less time and don’t either accrue Slow Play penalties or run out my match timer.

Taking your strengths to the bank

As I’ve mentioned before, if you tell yourself you suck, you’re going to suck. If you instead take the time to try and understand your strengths, you have the opportunity to shape your choices around your strengths and bring their full force to bear every time you show up to a game.

It’s certainly a different way to think about things, but it’s powerful, and can let you play better Magic and relax and enjoy yourself a little bit more.

So what are your Magic strengths? How can you play to them in the “real world?” Let us all know in the comments.

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