A few months ago, Gavin Verhey wrote an article titled “The Impalpable Aspects of Magic,” which had some interesting advice in the article. He starts off with a conversation between Max McCall and himself about our very own Jonathon Loucks and warns Max to be careful about his top 8 match against Jon, as Jon had “the aura,” warning Max to play appropriately. This implies that Max should somehow alter his play based on Jon having the aura, versus situations/days when Jon does not.
Later on he writes, “When you are playing against somebody who is on a hot streak, I feel like you need to respect that they are running hot and play conservatively.”
Gavin’s a good friend of mine and he’s got a wonderful mind for the game. He has a very good, clear mind that is adept at cutting through a lot of the chaff and misinformation, and is capable of presenting things in a manner that has helped me become a better player and theoretical thinker. He’s one of the best people I know at seeing the big picture, and he’s a terrific player on top of all that.
But here, Gavin’s wrong. And not only is he wrong, but he’s advocating the opposite of what you should do.
This isn’t a “rebut Gavin’s article” piece. But Gavin’s article about “the aura” (which has since become a bit of a running joke – and to his credit, Gavin’s got a pretty good sense of humor about the mocking he’s taken as a result of that piece) of how illogical thought processes can seep into anyone’s brain and cause you to play suboptimally.
Most, or all of this, should be common sense. However, there’s a difference between knowing a concept and internalizing it. Entire business careers are made by people taking common sense and getting their audience to truly understand and practice what they should already know.
What happened in the past has no bearing on the future.
1) You’ve been flooded all day, just drawing nothing but land after land each game. You look at your opening hand on the play that has one land and a bunch of two-, three-, and four-casting cost spells and decide that because “this is one of those days where you get flooded,” you decide to keep.
2) You’ve mulliganed five times in your last six rounds, and you look at a hand that’s very questionable, where you need to draw two lands in your first two turns to have a realistic chance of winning the game. You’ve had such poor draws that you’re “due to draw out of it one of these times” and keep your hand.
3) You are running 28 lands in your control deck and have a two-land hand that becomes a very strong hand if you draw a third land. You are on the draw, but you’ve also been manascrewed a lot and have missed a lot of land drops. You mulligan.
None of these decisions are correct. Maybe it is right to mulligan those hands in some situations, but regardless, the thought process that led to those decisions is 100% wrong. The universe is random, and the universe doesn’t care if you’ve been manascrewed or not. You are no more or no less likely to draw the land you need based on how flooded or screwed you were throughout the day.
To use a simpler example, if I flip a coin twenty times and it comes up heads twenty times in a row, the odds of me getting heads on my next flip is still 50%. The coin does not remember what it has flipped. The universe doesn’t care what just happened.
Evaluate the situation based solely on what’s happening NOW and not what happened in the past.
This only applies to decisions where probability is the only factor. Obviously if they have a [card]Fireball[/card] in your M10 draft, you aren’t going to head into game two thinking, “Well, I won’t play around Fireball because the past is the past and has no bearing now.”
A truly random distribution will often not look random.
This is a complaint I hear a lot on Magic Online, where people think the shuffler is not random at all, as players run into large mana clumps or mana screw.
Let’s look at two sequences of numbers:
2 2 2 2 2 1 2 2 1 1 2 1 1 2 1 1 2 1 1 2 1 1 1 1 1 1 2 2 1 2 2 1 1 2 2 1 2 1 1 2 2 1 1 2 1 1 1 1 1 1
1 2 2 1 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 1 2 1 2 2 1 2 1 1 2 1 1 2 2 1 2 2 1 1 2 1 2 1 2 1 2 2 1 1 1 2 1 2 2 1 2 1 1 2
The first sequence has a series of five 2s, hits a stretch of 6 1s, and finishes off with another series of 6 1s. The second sequence has only one string where you have three or more in a row.
One of these sequences was generated by a random number generator. The other was created by me in an effort to appear random. Which do you think is which?
The first one was created by the random number generator, despite looking less random. Randomness isn’t about not having clumps or strings of letters.
Where this translates to your Magic game is that you might be shuffling just fine, and you still will have days where you seem to just draw land after land, or hit no lands all day. It’s important to look at other factors like shuffling and see if that’s the culprit, but there’s also a good chance that’s just the way randomness works. If you play enough Magic, over time it’ll even out and you’ll get a reasonable distribution of lands and spells when averaged over a large number of games.
So please, stop complaining about the shuffler.
Luck should not dictate decision-making.
Feeling lucky? Feeling like you have the aura? Terrific. Don’t play any differently than you normally would. When you do, you are shortchanging yourself. Gavin wrote:
“I have had my fair share of events where I’ve held the unbeatable aura, and thinking back at each one of them I was incredibly relaxed and confident. In a play I would endlessly chide my past self for today, I kept hands with one land, Isamaru, and a glut of two-drops on the play multiple times at U.S. Nationals 2006″¦ And I always got there with my second land drop.”
No, no, no! You should not make decisions based on you having any aura, unbeatable or otherwise.
Jeremy Fuentes had the aura as well when he top 8ed a recent Extended PTQ. Things were coming up roses for him and he clearly had something intangible about him. He was unstoppable. He said like he felt like it was his day. He had The Aura.
“¦until the top 8 happened, when he kept a reasonable hand, but didn’t draw the land he needed in time, and lost.
Oops. Nice Aura. What made the Aura go away? The Aura blessed him for the day, but then it left. Did it find someone else? Did it leave to go to the bathroom? Was it going home to see its girlfriend?
Luck only exists after the fact. You can observe someone and say they are lucky, and that’s all well and good, but it only applies to what’s happened so far. It has nothing – absolutely nothing – to do with what’s going to happen.
Psychological factors are not luck, but proceed with caution.
All that said, people can and often do give away information based on body language, and some of the tells they give off aren’t immediately processed by the conscious brain, but are picked up by the subconscious. You might subconsciously sense that something changed with their draw step and that maybe this attack isn’t the best idea, or maybe you have a sense that they have the [card]Cryptic Command[/card] that blows you out.
These things do happen, but be careful. I often see players try to channel their inner Daniel Negreanu and try to be clever and make cute plays because “they had a read on them.” It’s far more likely that you can figure out what was in their hand based on the cards they played previously. If they didn’t Cryptic Command your Big Important Spell that probably shouldn’t have resolved, they probably don’t have a Cryptic Command in their hand this turn unless they just drew it. Josh Utter-Leyton’s recent article illustrates this concept very well, and it’s probably best to employ that tactic of hand-reading rather than relying on having a feeling. Because those feelings are often wrong.
Emotion is never a reason to make a decision.
Positive emotion is great for maintaining drive, keeping yourself focused, keeping yourself off tilt, but any time you make an in-game decision because you are emotional about it, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.
You should not do things because of ego, out of fear of looking stupid. A friend told me a story recently that illustrates this concept well. He had a Siege-Gang Commander on the board and an active Merfolk Looter on the table. His Siege-Gang Commander got Lightning Bolted, and my friend didn’t think he had a counterspell or anything to stop the Bolt, so he didn’t use the Looter in response. The Commander died, and then after all that happened, my friend Looted and drew an Unsummon, now the worst card in his hand. He didn’t want to discard the Unsummon to the looter, because it would make him look foolish for not looting when his Siege-Gang Commander was getting killed, so instead he discarded a different, better card. A couple of turns later he found himself behind, and the card he discarded would have been more useful than the Unsummon he should have tossed away to the Looter.
If you’re playing against your elderly grandmother, you should still play optimally and take advantage of her mistakes just as you would against an average PTQ player.
Let’s say you’re faced against LSV at your next Grand Prix and want to make some cool play to impress him, to show him that you’re not a donkey. The cool play isn’t the best play, but darn it it’s pretty cool! You Cryptic Commanded back your own land in response to an Anathemancer, when you could just counter it and Identity Crisis the next turn. Don’t try to impress people with neato zingo play if it’s not the best play.
Any time you make decisions based on anything but finding the correct play, you’re handicapping your chances of winning. Emotion is almost always going to work against you if it seeps into your decision-making.
What would have happened doesn’t change the fact that you made the right/wrong decision.
Mulliganed a one land hand on the play that would have been pretty good if the top card of your deck is a land, but otherwise terrible? Great. Good decision to mulligan it. Stop looking at the top card of your deck. Whether or not the top card of your deck was a land does not change the fact that you made the right decision.
One of my biggest pet peeves is in testing when I’m discussing whether or not I made the correct decision, and someone else says, “Oh, it doesn’t matter because he had a [card]Cryptic Command[/card] in his hand.” No, it does matter. Based on the information I had, I want to make sure I made the best decision. If I make a good decision or a bad decision and both are blanked by a Cryptic Command, it doesn’t invalidate the need to figure out what the best decision is.
Even worse is when you’re figuring out what the correct play is, and someone just looks at the top of the deck and says, “Oh, you would have just ripped three straight lands in a row so you would have lost anyway.” Stop it. Just stop. You can only make decisions based on the information you have, and you are trying to make the best decisions based on that information. Get your freaking hands off the top of my deck when I’m trying to figure out what gives me the best chance to win the game.
This isn’t exactly groundbreaking theory work, but it’s important to read and internalize.
Common sense really isn’t all that common, and I see people making these mistakes all the time. It’s difficult to remove emotion from the game, but you’ll find yourself better off if you do so, and you’ll find yourself less prone to mistakes.
Next up: One more PTQ
I’m headed to Vancouver next week for another PTQ. I’m bringing my lucky rabbit’s foot, so that should give me an edge when I’m keeping sketchy hands all day. I can’t wait! I’m a little sad that Standard’s going away because I found myself liking this season after semi-dreading it at the start, and then we get a break before the Prerelease and subsequent Zendikar Sealed PTQs.
zaiemb at gmail dot com