In Development – Think Less and Play Better


At some point during the first year or so of Magic‘s existence, the word came down that players were strictly forbidden to take notes during a game. Curiously, the most vociferous argument against this rule came not from highly competitive players who wanted to leverage the power of notes for victory, but from people who liked writing tournament reports. It turns out that it’s incredibly difficult to write a report when you need to recreate eight or so rounds strictly from memory.

Since those early days, we’ve received a number of helpful changes to the tournament rules. You can take notes during play, you can place reminders on your deck, and with the latest change you can even refer to a sideboarding plan in between games if you like. These are nice changes, as they let us apply some tools that reduce our cognitive burden and let us concentrate on the actual play of the game.

As a consequence, I’m a little confused that many players don’t avail themselves of note-taking or any of these other tools that make it easier to just play.

Standard operating procedure

If you look around online, you’ll find a couple nice articles discussing standard operating procedure (SOP) in Magic. Your SOP covers how you do things, including everything from getting to the venue with time to spare all the way through how you shuffle your cards. Here’s my SOP for PTQ or higher-level events, in brief.

The evening before the tournament I put my deck together and make sure it’s in decent sleeves. I set that out with some dice, any tokens I’ll need for the deck, a playmat, and a notebook or notepad. I also like to have a deck list printed out ahead of time. Having this all set up means no rushing in the morning, and that I’m not begging my way around the venue for those last few cards, and then hustling to fill out my deck list as round one begins.

During one of the PTQs in the last Standard season, my first opponent was rushing to fill out his deck registration sheet as the first round announcements were being made. Knowing his deck list certainly helped me decide on whether or not to keep my opening seven.

There’s a kind of cachet to rushing at the last minute, just getting your deck together, and then going on to win the tournament. Of course, as Nicholas Taleb would remind us, we only hear from the rare cases who won while underprepared and not so much from the many people who lost because they rushed. Personally, I don’t like stress. If I came to game, then I came to game in a relaxed, good mood with a bunch of materials I prepared the night before.

Once I’m in a match, I always start by shuffling my deck and doing a final pile shuffle to count out my cards. I’ve never lost by handing over a 59 or 61-card deck, and don’t plan to. I also include a pile shuffle to count my opponent’s deck as I shuffle it. I have yet to Game Loss someone for presenting an incorrect deck, but I have run into the occasional 61 and 62-card builds. During the previous Standard, a 61-card count was often enough to put the opponent on Five-Color Control, and in other cases, a higher card count can cue you to an inexperienced player.

During the games, I take notes. I track changes in life totals as well as contents of revealed hands, random reminders, and anything else that I think will help me out.

The point of doing all of these things, of having all of these SOPs, is that it means I just don’t have to think about things other than playing the game. It lets me start the tournament alert and happy, and means that I don’t have to waste time remembering things I could simply have written on a piece of paper next to me.

Let’s look at some of these elements in more detail:

Tokens aren’t just an aesthetic choice

I’m perplexed by my fellow players who bring a deck that they know generates tokens, yet don’t have any kind of reasonable item to represent that token. If you’re running Bitterblossom and tearing up little pieces of paper to represent the Faeries, you’re doing something wrong. There are two big reasons to make sure you have a nice pack of cards or plastic dinosaurs to represent whatever tokens your deck generates.

First, tokens that are distinguishable by type and that can show tapped or untapped status prevent game-state ambiguities that in turn lead to messy rulings that waste your time, stress you out, and may lose you a game. During a Lorwyn Block PTQ, a match next to me came to a crashing halt when it turned out that the Kithkin player was using the exact same token for both Spectral Procession’s spirits and Cloudgoat Ranger’s Kithkin. This led to an ambiguous blocking choice and a follow-up confused combat step and, finally, a judge investigating for ten minutes. I have no idea how that turned out, but the break clearly derailed both players. How well do you remember your game plan after a ten-minute pause?

Second, time you spend trying to find some tokens during the game is time you’re not spending playing the game. You’re distracted and may lose track of the game. You’re also wasting time in the round. If either issue leads you away from a win, you’re going to feel awfully dumb that you didn’t just grab some tokens or rule insert cards and keep a pile of them handy for your game.

My preference is to use fun tokens, with visually distinct variations for each token my deck generates. Lately, I’ve been running decks that can make beasts, soldiers, and gargoyles, so I need to have three types of tokens handy.

For anyone who’s watched me play and asked, “What are those?”, my current tokens are Citadel Combat Cards, circa 1989.

Using reminders

Courtesy of the Future Sight pacts, we can now place reminders on the top of our decks so that we don’t miss upkeep effects. Even in a post-pact Standard, there can be any number of reasons that we might want to pause during our upkeep to take care of something. We’re also going into another Extended season, so it’s not out of the question that you’re going to find yourself running Slaughter Pact yet again in the near future.

I know some players think it’s a scrub move to put a marker on top of your deck. At Pro Tour Hollywood, Charles Gindy made a very nice play with Slaughter Pact to kill off Sygg, then placed a marker on top of his deck. When an audience member sitting next to me called Gindy an “amateur,” Zvi Mowshowitz turned around in his chair and said, “When you’re playing for $40,000, you put the marker on the deck.”

It may be exciting and challenging to play with a handicap, but it’s also kind of dumb. If you lose because you could have used a reminder but didn’t, you’re suddenly that football player who injures himself not during the game, but during his endzone celebration.

Take note

How do you track your life total? With a twenty-sided die? Do you let your opponent track both life totals? Both options are suboptimal, and the second one actually violates the Magic tournament rules. We have a lot of power available to us by dint of our ability to take notes, so it’s worth getting into the practice of using them. Before I go into how I like to use notes, here’s the text from the January 1, 2010 edition of the Magic tournament rules concerning notes (under section 2.9, Taking Notes):

Players are allowed to take written notes during a match and may refer to those notes while that match is in progress. At the beginning of a match, each player’s note sheet must be empty and must remain visible throughout the match. Players do not have to explain or reveal notes to other players. Judges may ask to see a player’s notes and/or request that the player explain his or her notes. Players may not refer to outside notes during games. This includes notes from previous matches.

Between games, players may refer to a brief set of notes made before the match. They are not required to reveal these notes to their opponents. These notes must be removed from the play area before the beginning of the next game. Excessive quantities of notes (more than a sheet or two) are not allowed and may be penalized as slow play.

Players and spectators (exception: authorized press) may not make notes while drafting or registering a card pool. However, they are allowed to do so when constructing a deck.

The most basic thing you should be doing with your game notes is tracking life total changes and why they occurred. This means more than just writing 20, then crossing it out and writing 16, then crossing it out and writing 18, and so forth. Instead, you want to actually write in the changes while tagging them with the source. That might look like this:

-4 2x pumped Lynx
+2 Gladehart

This is nice if you want to reconstruct your game for a tournament report, but it’s also an important element in avoiding incorrect life total changes and winning those occasional disputes over reality. This is especially key whenever we’re playing with fetch lands, as those incremental points of life loss can mean the difference between winning and losing and are really easy to miss.

This is also why it’s a good idea to read out both life totals every time you’re marking a life total change. The above sequence might sound like this:

“Lynx hits me. Sixteen to twenty.”

“Cast Gladehart. Play a land. Gladehart triggers, life totals at eighteen to twenty.”

Assuming your opponent is still at twenty life, of course.

Just as I recommend tracking life total changes in this way, I also recommend tracking game state changes. My own interest in reconstructing games after the fact led me to start noting things like, “Blightning kills Nissa,” but you want to track this information as well so you can demonstrate that, for example, that Blightning did not deal three damage to you. Similarly, just scribbling “Deathmark kills Knight“ means you’re rather less likely to have a future dispute over which creatures should or shouldn’t be dead. You especially want to note “invisible” state changes, such as an Elspeth having been cashed in for her ultimate ability, since these abilities have no other marker that they’re in effect.

All this discussion of disputes may make it sound like I’m expecting us all to run into a parade of cheaters. I’m not. However, any two people can easily disagree on reality when it comes to a combinatorially complex game like Magic. Like the token example above, we want to make our lives as easy as possible. Why rack your brain trying to recall where damage did or didn’t come from when you can just scribble “Catacombs” on that -1 and know?

Having the ability to write notes also gives us some additional in-game options. Did your opponent ambush you with an unexpected card in game one? Go ahead and write the card name across the top of your notepad as you go into game two. I like to head my notepads with reminders about cards that I think are critical in the matchup – basically, the stuff I want to play around. You might be concerned that this means your opponent will know what you count as important, but if they’re spending that much time reading your upside-down notes, they’re not concentrating on the game.

I also like to record when each game ends just in case my opponent ends up taking forever to handle their sideboarding. It hasn’t come up yet, but if someone decides to take six minutes to sideboard, shuffle, and present, I’m going to call a judge and point at that time on my notepad.

Finally, remember that your notepad only needs to be blank at the beginning of the match. Did you scout your opponent’s deck and see some key cards? Draw your opening seven, then write those cards on your notepad. Once your match has started, it’s game on and you can write pretty much whatever you want on your notepad – it doesn’t just have to contain current game state information.

Those sideboarding plans

The change that allows written sideboarding plans is recent enough that I don’t have extensive experience with it. The window for sideboarding, shuffling up and presenting is narrow enough that you don’t want to spend a lot of time consulting notes when you really should be swapping cards in and out. You should also have spent enough time practicing with your deck that you have a good, intuitive feel for how to switch cards around depending on the matchup.

On the other hand, why not?

Given that we’re allowed to have sideboarding notes and that even the best players find themselves locking up mentally from time to time, there’s no reason not to just have some sideboarding notes along for the ride. If you never need to consult them, that’s great. However, you might find yourself, like Andre Coimbra at Worlds this year, pulling out a little piece of paper to remind yourself how your deck is meant to work in a specific matchup.

If this feels amateurish to you, I can only refer you back to the Zvi Mowshowitz quote above. Losing is pretty much always more amateurish than anything else.

More structure, better play

The overarching goal of all this structure that we can build into our SOP is to remove cognitive load. The less random trivia we’re trying to float in our mind, the more we can focus on game play elements such as the game state, our opponent’s actions, our cards in hand, the opponent’s demeanor, and so forth. It may seem like a bother to scribble down a word next to a life total change instead of just marking the change, but the ability to shortcut a potential disagreement over life totals by just reading the causes from your notes makes it totally worthwhile.

In other words, the effort we put into developing these structures pays off in letting us simply sit and play our best possible game of Magic. Regardless of what mix of “fun” and “winning” constitutes your goal for a given game of Magic, that goal is best served by setting things up so that you can just play the game.


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