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In Development – Think More and Play Better

Working as I do at the interface of biology and computation, I have a strong interest in the idea of classification.

Biology is rife with fuzzy areas. You can start by defining life and work from there. Is a cat alive? Sure. Is a bacterium alive? Sure, except maybe when it’s so adapted to living inside other living things that it can’t quite fend for itself”¦but then, babies can’t fend for themselves all that well either, so let’s chalk up another one in the “alive” column. Is a virus alive? That’s tricky, since it’s basically a tight little bundle of instructions that hijack the machinery of living cells into making new copies of the virus. I’m going to pass on that one.

That said, if you want to compute on anything – that is, to ask questions and do calculations with computers – you need to have pretty strictly defined objects, categories, and classifications. I can’t use an algorithm to predict the metabolism of an organism from its DNA unless I’ve first told the computer, in no uncertain terms, what a protein is, what a metabolic reaction is, what a gene is, and how these things tie together.

However, in putting things into categories like this, we always end up making compromises. Think about how test grades work. Have you ever received an 89.9% on a test, garnering you the B instead of the oh-so-close A? It feels unjust at the time, but it makes sense. If your instructor is going to assign letter grades, there must be defined cutoffs. If the instructor gives you that A anyway because 89.9% is “so close” to 90%, then why wouldn’t they give that same A to the student who scored an 89.8%? After all, that’s just 0.1% away from your score, and you’re arguing that your score was “close enough.”

This may sound like a segue into an article about coming in ninth on tiebreakers, but it’s not. Instead, I wanted to talk about how we classify decks, and how that can dramatically influence how we play with and against those decks.

It’s just X

There’s a tremendous amount of design space in any Constructed Magic format. Yes, even in Block, late in a PTQ season. Although there may be clear, broad archetype categories, specific card choices can have a tremendous influence on how each individual deck plays out. It would be great if we could keep that in mind when we think about the metagame, build our decks, and play.

But we can’t.

It’s not feasible to maintain a giant database of deck lists in your head, and we unfortunately aren’t able to memorize some kind of checksum for each deck that we can “unpackage” into the whole deck list at will.

Instead, we say, “Boss Naya” and understand it to mean something that looks more or less like the list that Tom Ross designed for PT San Diego last month. From this simple mnemonic, we know that the deck is in white, red, and green. We know that it contains some number of copies of [card]Wild Nacatl[/card], [card]Ranger of Eos[/card], [card]Scute Mob[/card], [card]Ajani Vengeant[/card], [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card], and so forth. If we’ve played with or against it, we may have some idea of how it tends to operate.

There’s a lot we don’t know, as well. We don’t know if our specific opponent has chosen to run some number of [card]Baneslayer Angel[/card]s in the main deck. We don’t know if they have altered the mana base to make it more or less reliable. We don’t know if they were in a silly mood when they came to the tournament that day and have a [card]Realm Razer[/card] waiting for us in the sideboard. Finally, we don’t know if they’re going to play the deck the way we’ve seen other people do so, or the way we played it in testing.

As a consequence of all these factors, there’s some risk to us in saying, “It’s just X” and tossing a deck into some general category we’ve heard of before.

How miscategorizing your opponent’s deck loses you games

Are you on the Jund-hating bandwagon?

I’m actually not. I like the fact that the nominal “best deck” in Standard right now is actually reasonably affordable. I also appreciate that it wins games not via comboing out dramatically or a highly reactive draw-go strategy, but by attacking with creatures and trying to control the board. Although Jund’s card quality is excellent, the deck fundamentally operates along the core, interactive axis that Magic R&D tries to have as the “default” mode of Magic play.

Jund is an excellent example of miscategorization in action.

If you looked at the finals of PT San Diego and said, “Ugh, it’s Jund again” and tuned out, then you probably just miscategorized what you were seeing. Consider the following lists:

5Color Blood as played by Michael Jacob at GP Seattle 2009

Jund as played by David Reitbauer at Worlds 2009

 

Jund as played by Simon Gortzen at PT San Diego 2010

Would you say these are all “Jund” decks?

One issue we have in interfacing computation and biology is that many working biologists have very fuzzy ideas about how to categorize things. For example, a lot of biologists might say they know what counts as a “gene,” but if you ask them for a specific definition, they don’t really have on. They just “know it when they see it.” Similarly, your rule for what counts as a Jund deck could range from “having the colors black, red, and green” through some more specific definition that’s based on detailed card choices or how the deck plays.

The fuzzier your definition is, the more you’re going to have trouble fighting against these decks. Let’s take a look at the three lists above.

5Color Blood is what passed for an aggro deck in late Lorwyn-Alara Standard, with a host of aggressive creatures backed by a limited package of removal and some high-value disruption. It runs twenty-six lands both because it has to and because it can get away with it in an environment where a lot of the decks are similarly flooded with lands that enter the battlefield tapped. Despite this land count, its curve tends toward the low end, with seven two-drops, sixteen three-drops, eight four-drops, two five-drops, and one lone copy of Cruel Ultimatum clocking in at seven mana. The paucity of ones, of course, is a consequence of all the tapped lands. 5Color Blood tried to win games by running out some aggressive dudes, and then using the limited, yet high-quality removal and disruption to keep the opponent off balance long enough to win.

Reitbauer’s Jund list is a pretty good stock example from pre-Worldwake Alara-Zendikar Standard. It has some tailoring for the Jund mirror, but it’s a good representative regardless. It features twenty-five lands and a more evenly distributed curve featuring five one-drops, six two-drops, eleven three-drops, eight four-drops, three five-drops, and two six-drops. This is fundamentally a midrange deck, in that it will try to be aggressive against dedicated control builds, but packs a lot of removal in the main deck to take the control role against opponents that are more aggressive.

Finally, we have Gortzen’s Jund list from San Diego. His deck runs a whopping twenty-seven lands and twenty-nine total mana sources – that’s almost half the deck dedicated to mana. The deck runs four one-drops, six two-drops, eleven three-drops, six four-drops, three five-drops, and three six-drops, with those five- and six-drops being big, potentially game-ending fatties. The deck also runs six creature lands, which lets it leverage its giant supply of mana into late-game attacks. This is, in essence, a control deck.

I know this is a simplification, but bear with me. If these three samplings of Jund decks through time are, in order, aggro, midrange, and control, then what happens if you simply think of them all as “Jund” and never revise your opinion of what Jund is?

Right. You lose a lot of games.

Know the Matchup

As Mike Flores taught us, mis-assignment of game role equals loss. If you don’t properly appreciate who the beatdown is in the matchup, then you won’t approach it correctly. Similarly, if you don’t understand the other traits of the matchup, then you are likely to play your cards in the wrong order, sideboard incorrectly, and generally feel like you’ve been mugged when you lose 2-0.

Sticking with the Jund example, if you assume that Jund decks are a certain thing, and that Jund decks play a certain way, then you will be quite surprised when the opponent deviates from your assumptions. They might, like Simon Gortzen, not just autopilot out a Blightning on turn three. If you assume that “that’s what Jund does,” then when your opponent casts Sprouting Thrinax on turn three instead, you might believe that they can’t possibly have the Blightning, go ahead and cast your Garruk and make a Beast token, and then complain that they’re “so lucky” when they Blightning Garruk to death the next turn. In our theoretical example here, you may imagine that they must have topdecked the Blightning, because otherwise, why didn’t they cast it on turn three? Isn’t that “what Jund does?”

Jund now is not Jund from last week, much less Jund from two months ago. If you’ve placed all the Jund variations into one broad category in your mind, it may be inducing you to completely misunderstand the matchup and causing you a lot of frustrating and potentially avoidable losses.

How miscategorizing your deck loses you games

“Jund has evolved into a smooth, aggressive deck that seems fairly skilful to play. The Jund mirror might be my favorite matchup for a very long time, as I think that good play gets rewarded.”

That’s Manuel Bucher, from his tournament report about PT San Diego.

I mentioned above that many people playing against Jund think that Jund is “the deck that casts turn three Blightning.” The trick is that many people playing Jund believe that as well. They believe that Jund must cast the turn-three Blightning and must run three or four copies of Bituminous Blast in the main deck. By having this giant “Jund” category that has these unchanging rules about what that deck is, they are completely non-adaptive, and haven’t realized that turn three Blightning is not the best possible default play. These players end up thinking that the Jund mirror is all about luck.

They may also believe they’re exceptionally unlucky these days.

Notice that Manuel B said that “Jund has evolved.” Even though his Jund list didn’t evolve in the same direction as Simon Gortzen’s, he nonetheless actively considered how the deck needed to change, and how his piloting of the deck needed to change.

Similarly, consider the comments I’ve received in prior columns when I’ve presented a G/W/x deck that does not include Baneslayer Angel. Some players have a “G/W/x” category in their head, and one of the strict rules of this category is that all the decks in it run four copies of Baneslayer. These are the players who run the risk of having a tremendously bad day when they face a couple copies of Gortzen-style Jund in a row, with some ten or more sideboard cards coming in to conclusively crush them in games two and three of each match.

Returning to the Jund example, it’s clear when I’m playing against a player who has one giant, non-updated Jund category in their head and is playing the default plan for that creaky old category. They run out their cards in the prescribed order, and I can play around their removal with ease. On the other hand, a Jund player who knows what their deck is supposed to do this week, at this tournament will make active, intelligent choices that are responsive to the metagame. They know that they are not just tossing Bituminous Blasts at the board and hoping to “run well” on the cascades.

You have room to think more

A little while back, I wrote about tournament tools that less you think less about administrative stuff and focus on the game. One of the goals of that kind of toolbox is to let you enjoy the game by being able to think about the actual game.

Of course, you have to want to think about the game for that to work.

I’m positing today that tossing decks into these broad, ill-defined categories will keep you from enjoying and succeeding at Magic. You may be doing this if you look at Stoneforge Mystic Junk or Boss Naya and just write them off as “bad decks” because they don’t run four main deck copies of Baneslayer Angel “like they should.” Similarly, if you can’t see how Simon Gortzen’s Jund deck is a significant shift and update from Reitbauer’s build, then you’re probably doing this as well.

We definitely need some degree of categorization so that we aren’t just trying to memorize an infinite number of seventy-five card lists, but these categories should be regularly reassessed, and should never keep you from thinking actively every time you see a new list or face a new opponent.

I am fascinated by both flashy, novel deck designs and small adjustments in known archetypes. This is why I tested the Worldwake creature duals in Jund when the set came out. On my first glance at the Worldwake spoilers, it seemed as if these lands would allow a visually subtle yet operationally powerful adjustment in Jund decks – and I was right, and they did.

When I saw Gortzen’s Jund list at San Diego, I was excited by the significant change in direction he’d made with the deck. Half the deck is mana! Thus, it was disappointing to see so many players simply put his deck into their overly broad “Jund” category and write off the finals of PT San Diego as “more of the same.” It really wasn’t, and it’s not especially surprising that the winning list from the ChannelFireball.com 5K the week after the PT was a Gortzen Jund list. I have to imagine that some portion of Jimmy Dela Cruz’s opponents put him into their big, inaccurate “Jund” category and completely misplayed against him as a result.

I’ve pitched the idea more than once of coming up with a “high concept” for your deck. This is a one-line summary of “what your deck does,” done much in the same way as high concepts for movies. Last week, for example, I differentiated between Baneslayer Junk and Stoneforge Mystic Junk by asserting that Baneslayer Junk’s high concept is “The last fatty kills you” and SMJ’s high concept is “Every card is a threat.” If you have one big “Junk” category in your head, you will automatically play, and play incorrectly against, at least one of these two decks – they simply don’t have the same high concept.

Don’t sleepwalk your way through Magic. Don’t just say, “Oh, it’s Jund, here comes the Blightning” and turn your brain off. Figure out what your specific deck does. Figure out what this opponent’s plan is in this match, right now. You’ll have fun, you’ll do better, and you’ll suddenly realize just how interesting the game is right here and now, where it matters.

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