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Mental Shortcuts: A Double-Edged Sword

Let me take you back in time to the first week of May. War of the Spark has just released and early signs suggest that Simic Nexus is now the deck to beat. The deck was already popular before and the addition of Tamiyo seems likely to push it to the next level. The first week of competitive play sees Nexus decks all over the ladder and coming out in numbers at small tournaments.

And then, something changes. The competitive community has been back-and-forthing about Teferi, Time Raveler but finally concludes that this card is going to be very important. This isn’t just a footnote–as soon as Teferi is recognized as a format-warping card, so too does it begin to have a narrative-warping effect. If you’re not talking about Teferi, you’re not talking about Magic. Everyone tries to figure out what the best decks are in a format where Teferi is ubiquitous. Counterspells start to disappear, and plans start to become more proactive. For control, this means Esper Hero pushing aside Esper Control. For midrange, it means decks being built around powerful proactive cards, generally planeswalkers. And for aggro, it means that mono-red is back on the menu, to keep all the above decks honest.

In the meantime, Nexus all but disappears from our collective consciousness, even quicker than it has risen. Nexus decks are fundamentally driven by Wilderness Reclamation, which allows them to generate large amounts of mana during their end step. However, in the presence of an opposing Teferi, such mana becomes inaccessible. What’s more, as the Teferi discourse develops, it is noted that Narset, Parter of Veils also has a significant format-warping effect. Decks that rely on drawing lots of cards like Izzet Phoenix or Nexus will struggle against this card. As the War of the Spark standard season develops, Nexus becomes an increasingly fringe strategy.

Fast forward to 21 June and it’s time for the Mythic Championship III to commence. 68 players have arrived and only 3 of them have brought Nexus decks. One of them is Matias Leveratto. Leveratto has never given up on the deck. In fact, he cruised through Arena’s MCQW to qualify for the event piloting his trusty Nexus deck. And, as luck would have it, he does the same in Vegas.

Leveratto

Leveratto subverted all expectations, winning as a challenger and doing so with a deck that others had dismissed.

How did this happen? What did he see that everyone else missed? To properly unpack this story, we need to talk about heuristics.

What are Heuristics and How Do We Use Them in Magic?

A heuristic is a problem-solving shortcut. Sort of like a rule of thumb, the idea behind a heuristic is that it helps us to problem solve in complex environments where engaging every detail at every opportunity is simply impractical.

Magic is a beautifully complex game and as a result of this it naturally lends itself to the use of heuristics. Learning heuristics is a significant part of developing as a player. There are basic ones like usually casting spells after you attack or drawing cards first when all else is equal and then there are more complex ones related to particular gamestates or matchups, like “target mana dorks when playing against ramp decks.”

As a player improves both the quality and quantity of their heuristics, that player frees up more mental bandwidth to focus on key decisions in their games rather than having to make each minuscule choice every single time.

The Problem

However, sometimes rather than enabling greater room for decision-making, heuristics can have the opposite effect. Because heuristics are shortcuts, they are imperfect. This means that it will not always be correct to follow them. If you become too accustomed to using these rules, you might mistakenly defer to one of them in a situation where the circumstances required you to make a different decision.

To use the above examples, it is better to cast spells like Benalish Marshal pre-combat if those spells will somehow improve the combat for you. In some situations it might be better to cast spells that draw cards pre-combat, in case you draw something that will be relevant for that combat. Conversely, it might sometimes be a bad idea to draw cards first, where this will weaken your position going into combat.

Similarly, if you’re playing Mono-Red against Bant Ramp, you’ll usually want to burn all their mana dorks. But this is not necessarily the case if your opponent is already low on life, or if they already have an oversaturated land count. In some respect, heuristics need to be balanced up against other heuristics. They must also be applied in a manner that is context-sensitive. The tricky thing here is that the more nuanced your application of heuristics becomes, the closer you get to just making individual decisions again and risking over-burdening yourself mentally.

What is the solution, then? I think probably it’s up to each individual player to judge their own capacity for mental strain and evaluate how much effort each kind of decision is taking for them. At amateur and rookie levels, learning and broadly applying heuristics will be beneficial to your game. However, expert players will need to find ways to prevent themselves from over-relying on shortcuts.

Matias Leveratto, Mythic Champion

Returning to the case of Matias Leveratto, one way to understand his story is to say that the Magic community as a whole developed certain deckbuilding heuristics around Teferi and Narset, and Leveratto succeeded because he was able to think beyond them.

Teferi, Time RavelerNarset, Parter of Veils

Both Teferi and Narset present static effects that turn off your ability to do certain things. Teferi stops you from playing things at instant speed, and Narset stops you from drawing multiple cards in a turn. But these are both things that people regularly want to do. And so, to prevent ourselves from walking into these traps, we created heuristics. Don’t play decks that depend on casting spells at instant speed. Don’t play decks that rely on incremental card draw.

Since Nexus falls at the intersection of both the above heuristics, it’s simple enough to see why the deck fell off in popularity. One consequence of this is that the deck fell off people’s radars. Those attending MC III were by and large unprepared to face Nexus decks. And why would they be, when they thought the deck wasn’t a viable archetype for the tournament? Teferi, Time Raveler and Narset, Parter of Veils were the two most-played cards at the tournament. They were everywhere. So anyone who thought the presence of these cards invalidates the Nexus strategy had a good read and made a smart call not to prepare a sideboard for Nexus. The flipside, however, is that if someone came along with a good case for why Nexus can compete in a format dominated by these cards, that person would be in strong standing for this event, because everyone else would have their guards down. Instead of 4 Thrashing Brontodons, people came with 0-2 copies on their sideboard. Only one player registered Cindervines in their 75, and only two copies at that.

One key question remains: what did Leveratto see? Honestly, I can’t be sure, and the real answer could only come from the man himself.

However, having watched the event closely and having played against the deck dozens of times in high mythic ranks, I do have some ideas. The first thing to understand is that Nexus decks basically have inevitability against everyone. If they get to really “go off,” they will beat you, no matter who you are. What this means is that you must shut them out before they go off. The tricky thing is that they can actually assemble everything they need very quickly. Cards like Growth Spiral allow the deck to play one turn ahead. One consequence of this is that even though Nexus decks dislike facing aggro opponents, they absolutely can beat them.

The best way to beat Nexus is with the combination of a fast clock and some disruption. Neither of the two on their own is reliably enough. But how many decks that play Narset can present a fast clock? How many decks that play Teferi can? Can Mono-Red be disruptive? Can White Weenie? The one sweet spot where these two elements aligned in that meta was in the mono-white deck that splashed blue for Teferi. I would imagine this was the worst matchup a Nexus player could face. But the deck had lost some popularity in War of the Spark, and those still playing the deck were split on whether Teferi was even worth it. Indeed, Lee Shi Tian was the only White Weenie player to register any copies of Teferi, and he registered exactly one copy, on his sideboard.

The impact of Narset was also criminally overstated in this matchup. Leveratto played 23 “card-drawing” spells in his starting 60. Narset was a serious problem for only six of them: Chemister’s Insight and Memorial to Genius. Tamiyo, Azcanta and his own Narsets all draw cards without explicitly using the “draw” mechanic. Opt, Growth Spiral and Blink of an Eye only draw one card each and are typically played in the opponent’s turn anyway, where an opposing Narset won’t stop you from drawing a single card. It is true that she stops you from drawing from multiple of those spells in one go, but the point here is that the perception that Nexus cannot be played into Narset was very, very wrong.

Simic Nexus

3 Memorial to Genius
5 Island (335)
4 Breeding Pool
4 Hinterland Harbor
5 Forest (347)
3 Blast Zone
1 Mobilized District
1 Simic Guildgate
3 Tamiyo, Collector of Tales
1 Nissa, Who Shakes the World
2 Narset, Parter of Veils
1 Callous Dismissal
1 Blink of an Eye
4 Growth Spiral
3 Chemister's Insight
4 Nexus of Fate - Foil - Buy-a-Box Promo
4 Root Snare
4 Opt
3 Search for Azcanta/Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin
4 Wilderness Reclamation

Sideboard
1 Nissa, Who Shakes the World
2 Crushing Canopy
3 Negate
4 Paradise Druid
3 Biogenic Ooze
2 Bond of Flourishing

Lastly, even where Teferi and Narset do pose issues to Nexus decks, there is always room to bounce them the turn you’re going off. And once you start going off, well, your opponent might not even get to play again. It would be obscene to say that every matchup at the event was good for Nexus. But we can certainly say that none of the matchups were irredeemable. And that is a good place to be when your deck represents inevitability against everyone. Certainly, it’s a much better place to be than the allegedly “unplayable” status that many players ascribed to it.

It would be a grave injustice to ignore just how well Leveratto piloted his Nexus deck at Mythic Championship III. However, his decision to stick with the deck was also a necessary condition in achieving the outcome that he did. Ultimately, the two are likely to be related. Piloting a deck really well is usually a matter of having played with it a lot and having played with a deck a lot also makes you more likely to notice when people are incorrectly dismissing that deck.

The Lesson

The lesson to be learned here is that heuristics are merely tools and how and when we use them is just as important as the fact of our using them. A discerning player will interrogate the heuristics they use on a regular basis and figure out if they need to revise or update them.

dota 2
Wings Gaming won the International 2016, taking home over $9 million for their efforts.

In Dota 2, Wings Gaming changed the course of the esport forever when they won The International 2016, following several months of wildly unorthodox play. For most of 2016, teams and analysts alike could not figure out the motivations behind many of their key strategies and decisions. This is because, before Wings, Dota 2 was still in its strategic infancy. Everyone looked at them through the lens of pre-existing assumptions about how the game and metagame ought to be approached. Wings showed that it can pay to go back and think about the decisions that we have trained ourselves to automatically make.

Magic is a much older game and strategic thinking about the game has had more time to mature. That said, while we may not need a revolution in our thinking, Leveratto’s victory should serve as a reminder to all competitive players to stay vigilant in interrogating the assumptions we make along the way.

Funnily enough, a good place to start would be with Teferi, Time Raveler all over again. One of the most powerful archetypes to emerge with Core Set 2020 has been Simic Flash. I’ve already seen a lot of people commenting about this deck’s lack of viability with respect to Teferi. Let’s enrich the discourse and ask follow-up questions. What sorts of decks are playing Teferi? How do those decks fare against Simic Flash overall? Can Flash counter Teferi? Can they attack him? You be the judge.

Discussion

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