Breaking Through – Independent Thought

Each week, dozens of articles are produced that help a player with his or her game a little bit more than the last week. Articles on theory or skill-teaching are released on a regular basis that all contribute to a player’s skill set. Sometimes these articles are just decklists and tournament info, but even then, a player is able to gain knowledge about some part of the metagame which allows that player to learn better assessment and metagaming skills. Theoretically, and I suppose in application as well, players should be improving at a fairly rapid rate due to the wealth of information available to them.

Applying what you Learn

It is true that players on the whole are much better than in years past, but what holds players back from applying more of the skills they learn either in articles or from game play situations? The information on how to improve is rampant, but one of the issues is that most players cannot grasp exactly where they are and therefore from where they should begin to improve. Trying to do too much when you are not capable will not allow a player to gain much of anything in the form of improvement. Likewise, practicing skills that should have been, or already have been mastered, will obviously not add a lot to your game.

If you look at Magic in a light similar to schooling, it becomes a little easier to explain. Take an average 3rd grader and teach him high school algebra and you are likely to lose 99% of the information in translation alone, as the 3rd grader is just not ready to acquire the information. Take that same 3rd grader and teach him skills he would have learned from 1st grade though, and you either end up boring the child, or hindering his progress as you are effectively holding him back.

To help players understand exactly where they are in the scope of skill then, there have been a number of categorizations, but each category is unique. These all look to rank a player in some way, to give the player a better idea of where he is positioned. Olivier Ruel has written on the subject, as have I before, but there is no one hierarchy that can encompass all factors within a player’s game and still be practical enough to be useful.

This is why, rather than lumping all of a player’s traits into one category, multiple categories are needed and that when assessed properly, can propel the player to a place where they are streamlining their efforts of improvement. Today I would like to discuss an area that does not get much publicity, yet it is pretty simple in scope and application. For a lack of a better all encompassing term, I will refer to this as Independence Demographics (ID for short).

Everyone can remember back to a time when they first started playing. Lightning Bolts were cast targeting the opponent on turn 1. Everything was played before you attacked. And you would chump block that Grizzly Bears with your Llanowar Elves at 20 life on turn 2 because, “Why would I want to take damage?”

This is a time when there are no rules to follow in the context of correct play. Sure, the rules of Magic are at a foundation, but there are no rules in place that dictate proper play. These players are not maximizing their instants, instead using them main phase and so on. Essentially, they are virgins to the unwritten laws that govern competitive play.

These are the base of our little demographics hierarchy. They encompass all that is new and fresh and are thus the players that belong to group A, or level 1, or whatever bullet point you wish to dazzle the page with. For consistency purposes, we will just be simple and call them tier 1. These players think independently in an almost reckless way at first glance, but when examined more deeply, we can see that they actually aren’t thinking very independently at all. Instead, the rulebook, that is the actual guidelines of play created by WotC, is their strategy guide. If it’s in the book, it must be used!

Moving up the chain of command, we reach the middle class of independent thought. These are the players who have reached a level of competitive play and have begun to develop habits because of that. Through the consumption of articles and media, play experience, and general consensus, these players have learned to follow the “rules” of strategy.

This involved them playing instants at the end of the opponent’s turn, playing creatures in the second main phase, and using burn spells in Limited as removal and not direct damage. These are all things that are going to be correct a vast majority of the time, and are in place to help shortcut players looking to improve their game. The issue comes due to the fact that these rules for competitive play develop to a point where they are blindly followed. This is what separates the tier 2 players from the tier 3.

Once you hit tier 3, the players begin to define their own set of rules. While the basic rules of engagement for strategy are still in place, players now understand when to utilize the exceptions or in some cases, define their own set of rules. This is the tier that is more likely to main phase their Esper Charm because they know that otherwise they will miss a land drop, or to cast Terminate on their turn just to avoid Sejiri Steppe tricks.

In Limited these players are more likely to board into another color in order to answer a threat or play cards that are otherwise considered bad by the community. Luis’s love (or at least respect) for Razor Boomerang in Zendikar/Worldwake draft is a perfect example of this. Even after taking, playing with, and ultimately winning because of the card, there were still viewers that would comment in the forums about how he should have played card X over it. Those players have not been able to advance to tier 3.

So what can categorizing ourselves tell us in our efforts to improve? Well, as with anything in Magic that can point out mistakes, first you must be willing to be honest with yourself. If you are that 3rd grader, convincing yourself that you read at a 9th grade level will just throw you right back under the bus and have you barely treading water. We are looking to make up ground here, so being honest is a vital component of the exercise.

This exercise can tell a player a lot about things he needs to work on though. We are always looking for ways in which to improve our technical play, but mistakes of timing or rule keeping are going to be very difficult to recognize unless you can determine, even being told so by others, that you are in tier 2. Running your Terminate into an opposing Negate when they were tapped out just half a turn before is obviously wrong, but the issue here is that a player who is likely to do this would not recognize it because according to everything he has ever read, instants should be used as such. He has trained himself into making a correct play based on tons of practice and reading, so expecting him to realize this issue at the snap of a finger is unreasonable.

Just as it takes some amount of repetition to get a person to form a habit, it takes equal or more time to break that cycle. At the end of the day, these are what the “rules” of strategy are that we are taught; habits. So, allowing the player to see where he fits into this scheme may just be the best way to get him to begin self-correcting his mistakes. As he makes plays, he is more likely to assess those plays both before and after the fact to a more thorough state. This allows a player to grasp the times where rules are meant to be broken.

There are endless accounts of rules being followed too strictly. Whether it is a player casting 3(!) Sign in Bloods to draw cards while his opponent is at 2 life, or failing to Path to Exile your own wall after missing a land drop. These plays originate as outside of the box thinking and slowly get incorporated into the fabric of the tier 2 rules set.

The Change

Remember the giant hype around the m10 rules changes? Damage on the stack was said to have made the game deeper in strategy, when in reality, it has just become another rule that tier 2 players used to oppress tier 1 players (as they should have, mind you). Damage on the stack did not allow more options; it just fit into the neat strategic givens that all players would follow. Occasionally a tier 3 player would be able to abuse this fact, but rarely at that. The strategy surrounding combat was so uniform that players took the habits to heart. Then, with a change, no longer would combat come out as uniform. Sure there would still be common situation to arise, but nothing like before.

This type of breakdown can be seen in deck building as well. I have been heralded as a Spike Rogue for some time, and I could never figure out why that was a descriptor that set me apart. Then, using this work up, it all made sense. Rogue players by definition cannot be tier 2 players. They like to play by their own rules, which puts them into one of two camps. The vast majority of rogue builders will unfortunately fall in the tier 1 category. These players are not following the rules just to make that claim. There is little rhyme or reason here, which is why these type of players often get scrutinized. I was once here and understand how it works. The image is bigger than the results.

Following a tier 2 set of rules would have you win much more, but you would rather go 6-2 with some concoction than dare be seen hoisting a trophy with Jund or Faeries. Because of this mentality, it is very difficult to break through to tier 3, which is inevitably where the other rogue camp lies. This time, they are still breaking some of the rules, but doing so for justifiable reasons. Instead of simply being different for the sake of being different, you are now making card choices or play decisions to gain a strategic advantage.

The line here may be thin, and it is easy to occasionally relapse into a tier 1 rogue builder, but with a good head on your shoulders and an understanding that winning is what matters at the end of the day, the urge is able to be contained. Image will only get you so far; eventually results are going to be required or your efforts will all be for naught.

Ultimately, how each player comes to conquer the transition to a tier 3 thinker will be different, but each will begin in the same place: accepting that you are taking too many situations as a given and allowing others to do the work for you when you are potentially capable of solving these situations in unique and better ways. It is going to be best to learn to incorporate independent thought with the group-think that the Internet provides to maximize results. Even then, you are able to academically criticize the common thinking and arrive at the same decision point only after investigating its path.

The biggest step is to simply realize that all of the givens are actually not and move on from there. With a little time and effort, eventually you will be processing information on your own terms and hopefully expanding the “rules” for the rest of us. The more minds we have contributing to a problem the better solution we can arrive at so long as each mind is willing to bring something new to the table. Stay independent but not to a point of self-corrosion and the world of Magic opens up for you.

Thanks for reading.

22 thoughts on “Breaking Through – Independent Thought”

  1. so me boarding in crab umbra for my 6/6 islandwalkers that always got narcolepsyed to ravage sam black in an 8-4 makes me tier 4 right?

  2. “The line here may be thin, and it is easy to occasionally relapse into a tier 1 rogue builder” — Couldn’t help thinking about your PT San Juan report haha.

    Nice article. Obviously this tier system can’t correctly categorise player skill — nothing can, but it’s definitely something to think about.

  3. Haha, I remember picking up a razor boomerang in my sideboard and siding it to completely destroy a RW aggro deck. My opponent still thought it was 100% unplayable even as I dismantled his entire army without spending a card. Props to LSV for realizing that 5 mana for 1 damage has its uses.

    Speaking of underrated draft cards, I would also like to point out that Aura Finesse is not as bad as it looks. I’m fine maindecking it if I have some sweet aura’s (Domestication in particular) to use it on. Its an absolute beating to gain control of stuff at instant speed (in response to a pump spell? ^.^) and cantrip. Doesn’t hurt to move Drake Umbra to a new creature when the old one gets Ousted, either.

  4. I think your categories are accurate, but what I could really use is a better understanding of tier 4! In Spiral Dynamics*, the authors theorize a hierarchy of worldviews, and observe that individuals and societies tend to move through the same worldviews in the same order over time. They hypothesize the existence of a worldview–which they name “Coral”–that will ultimately replace modern philosophies, but they don’t explain what it is, as they are not sufficiently advanced as thinkers to understand it. I have tier 3 habits, and yet I do not play on the Pro Tour, so there’s a threshold of thought that I have not pierced: a 4th tier, at least. Can any of these professional writers explain what tier 4 is as clearly as tiers 1-3 were explained by Conley?


  5. One of the things I respect most about Conley is that he doesn’t think like everyone else. When people bemoan something, he figures out how best to beat it. When they ignore something, he exploits it.

    Conley, this was a great piece, and I would love to see future expansion on the idea, or possibly have the tiers split into smaller sub-groups in order to show how each person(s) can improve, and what habits those players at those levels need to incorporate in order to move up another level.

  6. Adam Nelson, the way I was interpreting the article was that each aspect of the game, such as deck building, making proper plays, and even side boarding(though this wan’t mentioned), is separately rated. In other words, you can be a tier 3 at making correct plays and still be a tier 1 deck builder, so you won’t be winning any tournaments. That said, I think the tier 4 you referred to happens when you’re an all around tier three, and think outside the box and consider all possibilities in every aspect of the game.

    EdH, I’d say player skill is the result of which tier you’re at in all other parts of the game, rather than the thing you’re trying to assess in the first place. But I suppose that depends on your definition in the first place.

    PelakkaIwantYourbabies, In order to NOT find this article useful, you either have to have never been on a losing streak or you’d have to be in denial about bad plays you’ve made recently. For me personally, this was extremely useful. I make mostly good plays in game, but like Conley said in the article, I run unique decks for the sake of not running jund/superfriends/bant. Despite knowing the meta game and attempting to build to fight it, I was working backwards because my “rule book” was telling me to. After reading this article, I’m going to change the way I look at deck building completely. In addition, I’m going to begin examining more angles of each situation, because the most common may not be the best. You should probably reread the article and reexamine your play/deckbuilding. I think this article is great, and it’s a shame you’re not getting value out of it.

  7. Pingback: MTGBattlefield

  8. SpoonSpoonSpoon

    Thing is, you can keep breaking down these “tiers” infinitely without much thought. I think that there’s a big step between your tiers 1 and 2, and would have had a 1.5 at “makes sensible plays assuming no tricks”. It took me a few months of playing to realise that double blocking my opponent’s 4/4 with my 3/3 and 2/2 was actually a good trade.

    Tier 2 players would be thinking about potential tricks in this situation, but I think the real tier 1’s would often just chump with the 2/2. I know I did many times.

  9. Great explanation of independent thought, and un-learning bad habits, but I can’t help but feel that forcing it into a tiered structure is holding the whole discussion back. You can’t divide something as complex as all Magic players into distinct tiers; it inevitably breaks down upon close examination of specific cases (e.g., oneself).

    Also, don’t talk down about shortcuts. If everyone took the time to think independently about each play in a game, we’d never finish an FNM, let alone a GP.

  10. I made a rule one day because I got owned by a opp.
    I was playing UWr and he is playing Blightning Wins.
    I had 2 walls, a soldier and a Elspeth
    and he attacked with Hellspark.
    I blocked him with only one wall.
    He cast 2 Bolts and kill my wall, and my elspeth, if I had blocked with all my creatures this would not happened.

  11. This article really has got me thinking, especially the part about going 6-2 with a rogue concoction… That is a chronic problem for me. The most recent iteration was me finishing with a 6-2 record at Nats Qualifiers in Michigan using a W/ub Allies aggro-control deck. Long story short, I had pretty good matchups across the board except for a virtually unwinnable Mythic matchup. The deck performed as expected, beating UW twice, Jund twice, Rdw once, and a random deck once. However, the two losses came once to deck malfunction (extreme mana flood in a game three against my third UW opponent) and one loss to Mythic (my virtually unwinnable matchup).

    I guess

  12. I guess the hardest lesson for me is learning that wining with the Jund and Faeries of the world is still winning. Perhaps the most insightful thing I heard was after that Nats Qualifier, when my buddy said to me, “you know, wtb all the hours you put in mastering and fine-tuning that homebrew deck you played, you got a good result but not a qualification. Can you imagine how well you could have done if you had just put all that effort into mastering and tuning a deck like UW or Mythic?” I think that my goal is going to be continuing to search for a rogue deck that can give me a real edge, but also k owing when to give up that stubbornness and just pick an established deck with enough time left for me to really learn that deck. I would be particularly interested in your thoughts on this Conley, if you have the time.

  13. crush_card_virus

    The tier analogy makes a lot of sense if considering how players think about each action, though 3 of them would seem to simple. Instead of this system being based on who is better or worse, it seems to be more about who is independent or dependent, T1 being independent, T2 being dependent, and T3 being interdependent. Yes, it would seem that being T3 is better than T1 or T2, though T1 and T2 are most likely in the same situation. It does seem like that the majority falls in to T2, though.

  14. Conley, this article was pretty insightful, but what do you think are the various categories that constitute a player’s skill set? e.g. deck building, reading the meta, mulligan skill, drafting skill, etc.
    idk if that’s murky language but i think you understand what im asking. what are the specific areas of his or her magic game a player should rate with this system. clearly one could use it on their game as a whole, but i believe it to be more practical if one looks at each area both separately and as a whole, and so it would be helpful of you to perhaps expound on the various categories and aspects of play.

  15. There’s definitely a distinct separation between players in tier 3. I think you’re missing a tier of players who think about what their opponent’s hand is – in your article you only mention people who can do exception and play around on-board tricks, but there’s another set of people who get reads, can analyze the risks and rewards of playing around tricks, which tricks to play around, etc (tier 4 you might say).

    Most anyone who’s been playing for about a year has reached tier 3 (well I hope…this game would be really boring if you were just a tier 2 player…). Article on getting reads/playing around tricks pl0x!

  16. fixedatzerolol

    really a nice read, but – and I want this to get of off my shoulders – whatever happened to your microphone in your Channel Conley draft – please, PLEASE get this fixed ASAP. I hardly understood half of what you said. And this being a non-native english speaker who has lived in Tennessee for almost two years. My american-english is definitely not perfect, but what the heck? You sound like talking through a stroboscope backed up by some Tesla reel .

    Nonetheless, glad to have you on the Channelsquad!

  17. Nice one. I’ve been thinking of some categorisation system recently, and my conclususions were quite the same. Just never tried to express it with words and share with other people – so GOOD JOB, Conley.
    Personaly I think I’m a 3rd grader, who still has some bad (most of the time correct though, as you said) habits, like a 2nd grader. Sometimes I do something at local tourney and some ppl say it was wrong – they have their habits and the habits tell them I should play diffrent way, but I KNOW it’s them who is wrong. But sometimes something disturbs my attention, or I underestimate my ooponent or something and I make a mistake. I understand it, I can admit I screwed up, and when I think about it later I know what was the right way. But then it’s too late. That’s why I think there is one more tier – tier 2.5. This is for players who already made some steps for greater understanding, but still didn’t practice etc. enough to become real PRO. Right now I am reading some articles, drafting a little bit and playing as much as I can (money is crucial here – I am just a teenager without a lot of cash so I can’t play as much as I wished to).
    @Conley, do you have some advices for people like me, who wish to get better and become really really good players? Other than “play more” I mean, because this one is just too obvious 😛

  18. Quite the impressive article! It is good to see such clear and effective thinking put into easily understandable words. Well done, I love it!

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top