By way of introduction, I’m Matt Sperling, author of the book Tix-Rich: How I Made Millions on MTGO by Trading With the Bots. That’s what I’ll be talking about today…just kidding, I realize you don’t care who I am and I also realize that I know nothing about trading for profit online. Instead, I’m here to discuss a style of playing Magic that differs from the idealized but unreasonable way to play that most people advocate.
On this site and others, in articles and in countless threads on message boards, you may have encountered the ridiculing of individuals who practice being “results oriented” or “emotional rather than logical.” Some truth is contained in this backlash against being “results oriented” or “emotional,” but a few important caveats often go unmentioned or understated. Magic: the Gathering is a complex game which presents many situations where our instincts or intuition can lead us astray. Many experienced players that I greatly respect may try to convince you to change the way you naturally think about a game of Magic. I want to caution you not to throw away the useful aspects of the things you may already be doing.
THE VALUE OF BEING EMOTIONAL AND INTUITIVE
“I felt like it was a decent hand” is sometimes met with a vitriolic, “That isn’t a good reason to keep the hand.” Don’t be fooled, sometimes this is a good and valid reason to keep the hand.
When making a decision in Magic (or anything), one has three choices: one can try and make the best play “automatically” or “instinctively” (by just asking themselves “what feels like the best play?”) without engaging in any careful reasoning, one can use reasoning alone, or one can use some combination of both “feeling” and “reasoning.” To avoid attempting to precisely nail-down the differences between various similar words/concepts, I describe this tension in the basis for our decisions in a game in terms of “logic” vs. “emotion”, even though those terms may be slightly misleading. The concepts “logic” vs. “emotion,” “conscious” vs. “subconscious,” and “reasoning” vs. “intuition” are all interchangeable ways of describing the same concept which I will now turn to.
The benefits of detaching yourself emotionally from games of Magic are often discussed in articles and among Magic players generally. Less frequently discussed are the costs of such robotic or emotionless play. Many people will urge you to play as logically as you can, in part by trying to suppress or ignore the emotion you feel during the game. I disagree. The reason is two-fold: 1) we have limited attentional capacity (I can’t watch TV and talk on the phone at the same time; others can do multiple tasks, but we all have finite capacity); we cannot think logically about everything that is going on in a complex game like Magic, and 2) emotions can fill the gap in our attentional capacity by informing our decisions without the need for any conscious thought. Let’s take an example: the often discussed “who is the beatdown?” problem. Put another way, a player needs to know who benefits from an aggressive stance and who benefits from a defensive stance at any particular moment in a game. Put yet another way, perhaps most simply, how does one know if making each player take 3 damage (perhaps by attacking with a 3/3 when they have a tapped 3/3 waiting to attack you back) is desirable (this is how this becomes a decision-making problem rather than merely abstract mind-wandering)? There are logical elements to be sure; but if one plays enough Magic he/she may develop a reliable emotional response to this situation that can inform the decision with much less thought. A good player who plays enough will likely feel either confident or anxious towards trading 3 damage with the opponent, depending on the situation.
Where emotion can lead us astray is where a situation looks typical but is actually counter-intuitive in some way. You need to practice enough to become good at spotting these situations. In fact, logic may not help you either if you haven’t encountered similar situations enough times to even consider all the potentially relevant cards. Another pitfall could be one strong emotion preventing other emotions or rational thinking from taking place. Frustration is perhaps the most dangerous emotion a Magic player can (and will) encounter. Losing a close game or losing a game to the opponent’s apparent luck or your own apparent mistake often result in a poorly played next game or next match.
In an attempt to shut off this negative reaction, you may be urged or tempted to not become emotionally invested in the game or the outcome of any one game. After all, if you can learn to just prepare as well as you can, and make the most logical decision you can each time, you’ll be playing as well as you can, right? Unfortunately none of us have enough time or brain-power to think about every decision with logical precision. The complexity of Magic essentially eliminates the option “play entirely logically, relying only on conscious reasoning.” Last I checked, the only Bots on MTGO are in the trade room not the draft room. We need emotion to aid us, and yet people sometimes ignore or attempt to suppress it. The ability to roughly estimate distances between objects just by looking at them is not useless just because one owns a ruler or tape-measure. Often you will not have the time or incentive to get the ruler out! The same is true of the “tool” of logical thinking. You need something else to rely on where you can’t decide which play is more logical, or you don’t have time to fully contemplate the situation.
Take for example the decision of whether or not to counter a Divination on turn 3. It may be important to trust your “feeling” about how important 2 cards are for your opponent and how important the Cancel is to you, without taking the time to contemplate the many ways the next several turns might shake out. Even if not necessary, for some players it might be more valuable to listen to your “gut” rather than try to figure out all the variables. I personally am one of these players. After playing many games of a format, I develop a feel for decisions like this, and in M10 draft I will sometimes counter the [card]Divination[/card], and sometimes not, depending not upon a conscious breakdown of the pro’s and con’s, but rather on how important it feels to counter it. I do occasionally pause and think (not often enough as it turns out; my impatience is why I think I have had trouble breaking through on the Pro Tour level despite several attempts. We all have things we need to work on), but I need a good reason to go against my instinct. Practice at a format impacts how I feel on subsequent occasions (see section below on being “results oriented” for more on this). Following the advice of those who urge you to leave your emotions at home when you go to a tournament is dangerous if you wish to get to a level of skilled and intuitive play.
If you have a habit of ignoring your emotions during a game, or haven’t really thought about it, please spend some time listening closely to your emotions. Try and figure out if there is something you can gain from it, as I have. The two steps I would practice is thinking a few times a game “How do I feel about this option vs. that option, and what are the one or two things that would most likely change how I felt”. For those of you who already strive to play intuitively, practice recognizing the exceptions to the paths your intuition leads you on. It is true that relying on fear, confidence, or frustration can sometimes be disastrous. But avoiding this “common pitfall” needn’t lead you into another one. If you have the time to practice and hone your intuition/emotion, you can strike a balance between emotion and logic, using both tools.
THE VALUE OF BEING RESULTS ORIENTED
Let me first echo the rallying cry of those who urge players to not put too much stock in the results of any one decision, i.e. “don’t be too results oriented.” But how much is too much? I want to add a footnote today to the argument that “where the result is only one of many possible outcomes of a decision, don’t focus on the results or use results to justify the decision.” The important caveat to this rule is that being results oriented is a poor strategy only in the absence of reliable evidence of a specific causal connection between decision and results. This caveat is sometimes expressly discussed and often implied in discussion on this topic. However, other times the “don’t be results oriented” mantra is stated in such absolute terms that a reader may be tempted to follow it absolutely, and never look to results to inform their evaluation of the quality of a decision.
Cause and Effect, the small sample vs. the big picture
A common decision in Magic is whether to mulligan. Let’s assume, for example, I draw 2 lands in my opening hand in a draft game in which I have decided to go first (the numbers themselves aren’t important to the example). If I keep the 2 land hand on the play, and I draw 2 straight lands and win the game vs. my opponent’s seemingly typical draw, I certainly don’t want to advance the following argument: “I won the game, therefore my decision to keep was correct.” The person who has only thought of this one premise and this one conclusion has left out nearly every useful step in analyzing his/her decision. You should avoid this common pitfall.
That being said, if I do want to go through the useful steps to determine whether the decision not to mulligan was correct (when I have time for such things, as opposed to in-game), is it “results based” to use the outcome that “I won” in my analysis? It may actually be very useful to look at whether you won or lost, and I’ll get to how in a bit.
A decision outcome tree is a simplified representation of the perhaps millions of possible games you could be playing after keeping this hand against this opponent. You can group the many possible games into categories, the specifics of which are not critical to this discussion. The many variables that make some 2-land hands better than others (e.g. perhaps one has 2 [card]Rampant Growth[/card] in it, perhaps another has five 6-drops) have also been excluded for simplicity. Our goal should be to use our practice and experience to fill out a mental picture of a decision tree for each decision that is likely to come up repeatedly, and then assign rough probabilities to each of the outcomes. This may not be a conscious or visual process, but it is what we need to accomplish on some level.
As described above, it is dangerous to observe any one outcome in the tree and think you have a sense of the entire tree. A critical point to remember is that we will never have perfect knowledge of any decision-outcome tree in Magic. Two decisions are rarely identical, we must group together similar decisions and similar outcomes. We don’t have perfect knowledge of when an opponent’s draw is “typical” or “below average,” we must make our best guess (or withhold our guess until we are confident we can look back and make a reliable guess). Magic decision-making is extremely complicated. All we can do is try to make the most reliable generalizations and assumptions we can, based on the information we have.
This is where results might come into play. In the example I gave above, I kept a 2 land hand, drew 2 land in a row, and won the game vs. my opponent’s seemingly typical draw. This is only one of 9 possible categories of results, and only one result within that category, so what have I learned? For one thing, I have conclusive evidence that this draw can beat my opponent’s typical draw (assuming my opponent’s draw was indeed typical). As I drew my opening hand, an onlooker may not have been confident when I kept the hand that I would win the game even if I drew 2 lands in a row. I also have some evidence that keeping this draw is a good idea if I assume 2 lands are on top of my deck. I’m not saying that it necessarily is a good idea to keep this draw if I assume 2 lands are on top, but I have one observation to this effect. The possible utility of one observation is particularly clear when one imagines if this one outcome was all the information we had. If my one observed outcome is that this outcome was “WIN,” I might be pretty comfortable about keeping this 2 land hand. After all, one of the subset of “worst-case scenarios” occurred, and I won! Inferences from a “LOSS” in this column are much less dramatic. The game may have been very short, and we likely don’t know how much would have needed to go right to swing the game to a win.
The above examples illustrate two things that are critical when we only have one decision and one outcome to observe: 1) what other outcomes can we infer if we assume this outcome is representative, and 2) based on our experience, how representative is the outcome? The first element is a logic problem. If I can win with a particular 5 card hand, it is likely I can also win with that 5 card hand plus any 2 other cards in a game I did not mulligan. The second factor is more complicated.
It is essentially the question: “If I can win with this particular 5 card hand, can I also beat that same draw of my opponent’s with 5 similar cards?”
This is where the first part of this article ties into the second. You can use your “gut,” “intuition,” “emotion,” (once you have played enough Magic to test and refine this intuition) in order to determine how representative a particular outcome is. We have to use all of our past experience to inform any analysis we engage in, but if we do, we may be drawing reliable conclusions from even one single game of Magic.
A large sample size is not necessarily required
People often say one game is not enough to learn from, “anything can happen in one game.” But it’s not just sample size that matters. Representativeness of the sample is what is important. We can use a large sample size to infer that the sample is representative OR we can use our pre-existing understanding to estimate how representative the sample is, even if it is only one game.
Here’s a key example: if I am playing a deck that cannot defeat another deck, one game might be all the sample I need to draw a complete decision-outcome tree for any decision that deck might make. Let’s say I am playing a deck that wins with Tome Scours, Glimpse the Unthinkables, Twincasts, and Sanity Grindings. The rest of the deck is bounce and countermagic. My opponent is playing a 500 card Battle of Wits deck that has 4 Battle of Wits, 200 land, and 294 Quagnoth and things that tutor for Quagnoth. I play one game in which my opponent is severely mana hosed, and I manage to cast nearly all of my “milling” spells before dying to a turn 27 Quagnoth. Do I now think, “well, it was only one game, anything could happen, let’s play 10 more?” Of course not. But what am I using to conclude that I can see the possible outcomes with such clarity? I am using my knowledge of how the cards interact with each other and the gamestate, which is fine. This is of course a silly example, but it illustrates the point that more than “sample size” is relevant in drawing conclusions from an observation. Having a large sample size is extremely helpful, but it isn’t always practical. Everyone has limited time and Magic has functionally unlimited complexity, so we need to use estimations of representativeness even in the absence of a large sample size.
How can I get better at estimating the representativeness of an observation?
To some extent, my advice to you is the same as everyone else’s: practice, practice, practice. However, I would advise focusing on more than just number of times decisions X occurred, and the number of times results A, B, and C occurred thereafter. You may learn a great deal about a particular matchup or format this way, but you will have developed your tape-measuring skills and neglected your visual estimation skills. You need to arrive at an understanding of the interactions of the various moving parts. Why do I always want to counter a turn 2 Bitterblossom vs. this particular deck? Why not vs. this other deck? I won 298 out of the 500 games I countered it as opposed to 192 out of the 500 games I didn’t doesn’t answer these questions. Furthermore, since it doesn’t, you will be at a loss when the format rotates or you face a similar but different deck. Develop a “feel” (see part one above) for why the deck likes to have Bitterblossom out. Play with both decks in a matchup, not just your own to develop this feel. What other cards make you feel less disappointed that your Bitterblossom was countered (or from the other side, more upset that you couldn’t counter it)? You must avoid becoming an automaton.
I want to emphasize that I am not just making another suggestion that you play a ton of games to get better. I am suggesting you practice, but with a particular goal in mind to develop a certain feel for the game. If you do, you will need smaller and smaller sample sizes of games from which to draw reliable inferences. A reliable subconscious sense of how typical a situation is, for me at least, much more attainable than a reliable statistical or probabilities-based understanding of the likelihood of the same or similar events occurring again.