In Development – Seven Magic Moments


You can never think of everything.

Every so often I have these conversations with someone in my field where they casually say, “Of course, you know,” and then go on to tell me some vital piece of knowledge that totally restructures an experiment I’m about to do.

The trick, then, is to talk to people as much as you can so that these revelatory moments happen before you do the work and not after. It’s just so much better to have your worldview reshaped ahead of time, rather than discovering after the fact that your entire process was wrong.

That’s why you talk to your friends about Magic, read articles like this one, and generally keep up with what’s going on in the world of the game. With this in mind, I’m going to take a step away from contemporary material for a moment and spend some time today recommending that you take advantage of the vast wealth of video coverage that’s available out there.

When I returned to Magic after a significant hiatus, I was pleased to discover that there was an archive of Pro Tour top eights stretching back for several years. It was quite valuable in helping orient me on how the “new” game rules worked, and generally getting reset on what constituted “good” play. It was also an accessible way to learn about formats that I’d missed, which has more relevance than you might initially imagine if you’re new o the game.

Whether you’re new to the game or a long-time player, there’s tremendous value in not just watching all this video coverage, but watching it repeatedly.

How and why

We’re flush with video coverage these days. You can find the official video coverage for each Pro Tour in the Event Coverage Archive. GGSlive archive their videos of various GPs and other large events on their YouTube channel. And, of course, you can watch MTGO and live event videos right here at ChannelFireball.

I don’t typically sit down and just watch coverage videos. Instead, I tend to run them in the background while I’m doing something else. That way, I can tune in and out and pay attention to whatever catches my attention on that run through. Thus, I might notice a particular set of plays one time around, and then focus on something completely different the second, third, or fourth time I happen to have the video on.

If you’re also motivated, you can strip the audio track out of your favorite video from the official coverage and just listen to the audio commentary in the background while you do something else.

So what’s the upshot of all this? Why am I recommending that you watch coverage once the event has passed?

Concisely put, you can learn things about the game from watching coverage that you won’t pick up from watching your local games. This isn’t just an issue of watching good players – after all, if you’ve watched some of the recent live feeds of the various “open” events, you’ve seen some exceptional misplays. Instead, it’s the opportunity to watch the ebb and flow of a normal game, to see how other people play, and to do it more than once so you can pick things up that you can miss in a single pass.

Although I’m advocating watching the entire coverage, I have a sort of “highlight reel” of favorite moments from the official coverage that point out the kinds of things you can pick up from watching this stuff more than once. I’ve included my top seven here, along with explanations of just what I think we can learn from each.

No need to tilt – Randy Buehler at PT Chicago 1997

We’re in game four of the finals of Pro Tour Chicago 1997, with Randy Buehler up two games over one against David Mills. Randy has been land-light for quite a while in this game, and he’s constrained from playing his Lake of the Dead by Mills’ Dwarven Miner, who threatens to keep Randy stuck on two land while a Frenetic Efreet beats him to death. Then this happens:

We’ve all had that experience of making a misplay that was far from subtle. You’re focusing on some other aspect of the game – maybe that attack you just made – and you briefly go on autopilot and make a horrible misplay. It’s especially easy to go fully on tilt at this point and cascade into failure for the rest of the match.

You may just be unsettled by your error, or you may suddenly feel like you no longer deserve to win. Either way, you’re in trouble if you let what is fundamentally a single point error spawn a cascade or poor play that will lose you the game.

I appreciate this clip because Randy barely twitches after making a strict misplay and goes on to exploit his opponent’s misplays to take the game, match, and Pro Tour win.

Play to your outs – Craig Jones at PT Honolulu 2006

We all know this one. Craig Jones is playing Olivier Ruel in the semifinals and appears to have completely lost control of the deciding game in their match. Olivier has taken over, and Craig isn’t going to have creatures or a life total for much longer. Here’s how it plays out:

My favorite moment in this clip isn’t the topdeck. Honestly, if I wanted to feature a spectacular topdeck, I’d include Nassif’s Cruel Ultimatum, which is probably the most beautifully theatrical moment in Magic.

Instead, I like “Char you.”

Listen to the debate between Mike Flores and Randy Buehler leading up to that moment. Mike is bent on mitigating damage, and Randy is convinced that the right play is to burn Olivier and hope for a good topdeck.

This is the ultimate “play to your outs” moment, and I love the fact that the live crowd of players watching the event all make noise when Craig casts Char because they know that means he’s made his decision to play to the topdeck out.

It’s difficult to find the balance between caution and risk, and Magic video coverage is a great place to find “worked examples” of players making the right and wrong decisions about risk and caution in very high-stakes situations.

Knowing how the game works is part of the game – Frank Karsten at Worlds 2005

After a marathon quarterfinals, Frank Karsten finds himself yet again locked in the longest match in the semifinals against Akira Asahara and his Enduring Ideal deck. After being up two games to none, Karsten is back to even after losing to two resolved Enduring Ideals in a row. In game five, he finds himself once more facing a resolved Enduring Ideal, with two legendary dragons in hand, but no way to safely cast them without losing them to Confiscate. Here’s what happens next:

This was a big “Say what now?” moment for me. You can Gifts for two cards? Here’s the card text for Gifts Ungiven, in case you’ve forgotten it:

Search your library for four cards with different names and reveal them. Target opponent chooses two of those cards. Put the chosen cards into your graveyard and the rest into your hand. Then shuffle your library.

If you’re still confused, here’s some highly relevant text from the Comprehensive Rules:

701.14b If a player is searching a hidden zone for cards with a stated quality, such as a card with a certain card type or color, that player isn’t required to find some or all of those cards even if they’re present in that zone.

In this case, Gifts Ungiven asks you to search for “four cards with different names.” Since your library is a hidden zone and “different names” is a stated quality, you don’t have to find four – or indeed, any – cards.

Watching Karsten do this at Worlds 2005 was my first exposure to the ‘hidden zone’ rules. You can generally expect to see all sorts of high-level rules knowledge being busted out on video coverage, especially of PT-level events. Use of the stack, in particular, is much better at PT events than at your typical FNM or mid-level local tournament, and watching it is a good way to get a feel for how you can really maneuver within the game.

It’s more than a little ironic, given that I’m pointing you to the semifinals for this positive use of rules knowledge, that Karsten pretty much lost the whole event to a giant rules fail on the part of everyone in the finals. For the record, Seedborn Muse doesn’t trump Yosei, the Morning Star.

The basics matter – Takayuki Koike at PT Valencia 2007

Koike is down two games to one in the quarterfinals, piloting Zoo against Shuhei Nakamura and his U/W Tron deck. Almost immediately, something comes up:

That’s right, Koike screwed up his sequencing. Just as it’s useful to see all the circumstances where players make mistakes and don’t tilt, it’s just useful to see how often people make those mistakes.

I’ve heard this expressed as “everyone is terrible at Magic,” a sentiment I dislike because it’s not at all actionable.

Instead, I like to be aware of how often people make mistakes even in the highest levels of play because it highlights that you can play in an error-resilient fashion. It’s unrealistic to imagine that we’re going to ever manage perfect play, although perfection is a nice aspirational goal. Instead, it’s good to be exposed to high-level play that includes errors so you can learn which errors are recoverable and which aren’t.

Not to pick on Koike, but messing up your land drops is on the bad side of things. That said, if you read coverage in general or watch the Worlds 2006 top eight, you’ll see that even soon-to-be-hall-of-famer Gabriel Nassif is prone to making exceptionally large mistakes from time to time, but nonetheless manages to move on for the win more often than not.

It’s not nearly as useful to just try and make “fewer mistakes” as it is to discover which kinds of mistakes are critical, and which are just bumps on the road to victory.

No need for expertise – Li Bo at Worlds 2009

The team event for Worlds 2009 was mixed format Constructed, featuring one Standard match, one Extended match, and one Legacy match. The finals saw Austria taking on the unexpected Chinese team, including Li Bo running Merfolk against Benjamin Rozhon’s Ad Nauseam Tendrils. This one’s not so much about the game itself as it is about what Brian David-Marshall tells us:

After taking down the win against Rozhon to seal the team victory for China, Li Bo was 6 and 0, lifetime, in Legacy.

That’s awesome, made even more awesome by the fact that there was no sane way for Li Bo to learn all about Legacy in advance. Instead, he figured out how his deck worked, and then was willing and able to figure out each matchup while he was in it.

The Pro Tour coverage in particular is full of stories like this that can help reset your attitude about the level of play you’re capable of. If you think you can’t make the jump to the next level, whatever that is, there’s surely some element of the video coverage that will make you reconsider, where it’s an awesome story like Li Bo’s or the simple realization that even playing for $40,000, people can make goofy misplays.

A Mimeofacture to read your mind – Tomohiro Kaji at PT Charleston 2006

It’s the finals of the team PT at Charleston, and Tomohiro Kaji is playing against Celso Zampere. In game one, Kaji would really like to know whether he should try to cast a Simic Sky Swallower. It’s a likely game-winner if it resolves, but Zampere’s deck runs countermagic. What to do?

What about this:

This is my all-time favorite PT play. I’ll quote the official coverage on this one:

Thanks to the magic of Mimeofacture, un-timed rounds, and open decklists, Tomohiro was able to figure out Celso’s entire hand through the process of elimination.

That’s genuine out-of-the-box thinking, with a strong dose of situational awareness. Kaji realized he had an opportunity to combine perfect deck list information – only available in the top eight – with perfect deck information from the Mimeofacture to generate perfect hand information.

Would you have thought of that? Would you have thought of that as a way to check for a clear path for your game-winning play?

Our minds are not super-flexible by default. As a consequence, it’s good to be exposed to people who are simply thinking differently about the game. Maybe it’s Kaji abusing Mimeofacture at Charleston or Shuhei Nakamura always taking the bigger pile of cards in the Fact or Fiction split at Valencia. This is sort of the “play style” corollary to the game rules point I illustrated earlier with Karsten’s Gifts play. Would you always take the bigger pile in the Fact or Fiction split? Is that even good?

It’s hard to say whether Shuhei’s Fact or Fiction algorithm is good or not, but watching someone else do it forces us to think about our own default plays, and the plays we might have been completely overlooking as our habits have ossified over the years.

Mixing it all together – Makihito Mihara at Worlds 2006

It’s game five in the quarterfinals, with Mihara and his Dragonstorm deck against PV and his Boros deck. Mihara is pretty much dead next turn, so it’s time for him to go off and kill Paulo. Unless something goes wrong

How many of the bullet points above does this include? Mihara screws up something utterly basic – his mana count – then stalwartly refuses to go on tilt, plays to his outs, and wins. There’s a little bit of “out of the box” thinking here as well – Mihara picks up a Warning for Slow Play while he’s trying to figure out what his outs are, but why not? The worst that can happen here is a Game Loss for Slow Play, and you’re already facing that loss to creatures and bun if you can’t pull it together this turn.

There are some people who like to just say that Mihara just lucked out here, but that doesn’t acknowledge that he kept his head, played to his out, and then made it. We might imagine that his subsequent multiple PT top eights and a GP win would run that “just lucky” thought out of your mind. He had to engineer the opportunity to get lucky, and he did just that.

There’s another good little lesson built into this clip, too. Notice what a good sport Paulo is after being topdecked right out of the top eight.

More generally, the video coverage is full of these awesome situations and the full range of responses, from players who buckle under pressure to those who keep their heads and just do something cool.

What’s your highlight reel?

Do you go back and watch the coverage more than once? What are your favorite moments, and what do they exemplify about the game?

I think if you’re serious about the game, whether serious means “dedicated to making the PT and winning an event” or, “it’s how I choose to spend my Friday night,” there’s a lot of value in going back and watching the coverage more than once. You may just find yourself learning more about the game than you expect.

These are some of my favorite moments. What are yours?


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