PV’s Playhouse – Thinking Outside the Box

Hello everyone!

My article today starts with a challenge. You might know it already, it is a pretty famous problem, and I think Americans actually see it in their math classes. We don’t, though, and I stumbled into it a couple weeks ago, and thought it was pretty interesting to start an article with.

Your goal here is to connect all the dots using four straight and connected lines or less. Ready? Go!

Did you get it? If not, do not despair, it is pretty hard and the overwhelming majority of the people can’t solve it at first glance. This is one of the solutions:

There are many more solutions to the puzzle, most of which are variations of this. If you want to get cute, you even have those clever, creative solutions that use less than four lines, though they do seem like they bend the rules a little bit more:

The “thick dot” solution:

The tridimensional solution:

The Origami solution:

Ever wondered where the phrase “think outside the box” came from? This is probably it. This puzzle is only hard because we imagine a box that restrains our movements; it requires us to throw away our preconceived notions about something – in this case, the fact that we have to work within the nine dots area. Yes, the problem didn’t say you could do that, but it also didn’t say you couldn’t – it never placed a restriction on you and you, for some reason, placed the restriction on yourself. We use the phrases inside the box and outside the box, but, in reality, who put the box there? Why, you did. There is no box.

There are two general categories of problems. The first one is the routine problems – the ones that we are used to, and solve through repetition and recognition of a past solution. In Magic, it would be the kind of situation that you see every time in playtesting and kind of solve in auto-pilot, such as “do I Bolt his Goblin Guide or not?” The second is the non-routine problems – problems that do not have a pre-existing solution procedure, such as the 9 dots problem for those who haven’t seen it before. When we are faced with those problems, we have to invent the solutions. In Magic, those are the situations I am going to talk about, in which you should think in an “outside the box” manner.

For me, the easiest way to do this is to just remove the box entirely – the moment you place no restrictions that you don’t have to upon yourself, then you are able to solve problems you had never seen before. Therefore, I am going to work a little bit on those restrictions. The way we are going to do this is with a bunch of examples – as you might know if you’ve been reading my work for a while, I like examples a lot. I believe they are the best way for me to make myself understood, and at the same time they instantly show you a practical application of the concept, so they are like two-for-ones.

My very first example is going to be one I’ve already used a while ago, but I think it’s so interesting that I am going to use it again. It happened when I was playing the finals of PTQ Hawaii, Gifts Rock versus Affinity, and I rather like it because it was winning that PTQ that let me go to the first Pro Tour of the season, and then I managed to qualify for all the others and finished the year at level 6 (which was the 8 of that time).

The Puzzles

The situation is this:

I have in play a Carven Caryatid, two Temple Gardens, an Overgrown Tomb and a Forest. My hand is Putrefy, [card]Smother[/card], Living Wish and some other stuff that is not relevant to the example, but that lets me win the game if I stabilize.

My opponent has a Somber Hoverguard, a Blinkmoth Nexus, an Arcbound Ravager and enough artifacts to kill me if I tap out.

I am in a bad situation there – I have a Kataki in my board, but if I Wish for it and play it, I just die to the Nexus. If I Wish for Kataki and don’t play it, then my opponent is going to realize something is up (after all, why didn’t I play Kataki?) and is just going to attack and not go all-in, so I can’t get him. If I merely pass the turn, then next turn if I draw a land, I cannot go Kataki + Putrefy, which is the way I’m going to win this game. So, what do I do?

I thought for a while, and came up with a solution – I played Living Wish tapping both my Temple Gardens. Then I got Kataki and reached for my lands to tap and play it, and “realized” I had mistapped them so I could not play him, and had to pass in dismay. My opponent took the bait (in fact the entire room did as I could hear whispers of how I had messed up terribly), and attacked and sacced everything when I blocked the Ravager, so I killed the Nexus and then next turn I drew a land and was able to play both Kataki and the Putrefy, sealing the game.

When I used this example before, someone pointed out that I could have just Smothered the Ravager mainphase, and hoped he wouldn’t sacrifice everything and put it on the Nexus, and I guess that is also valid (even if not really relevant here).

Of course, my play also only works if he falls for it, but I think it is pretty interesting anyway, because it was a unique situation that had never come up before ever, and I was able to come up with something that would maybe win me the game because I worked freely, without any restrictions as to what my cards could do and the mana I could tap, even if in general you would rather have, well, the option of casting your cards.

You can also let go of this restriction in a lot of situations where you do not actually want to represent something. Normally you would rather keep as much different mana up as you can, but sometimes you actually want them to think you don’t have a certain card. For example, if you have Volition Reins in your hand, you might just casually tap all your Islands on a turn, so that he is not afraid of running his bomb into your Stoic Rebuttal. If you have Grasp of Darkness but are convinced you are not going to play it this turn, you can leave UB open instead of BB, so that they have a reason to think you don’t have it. Let’s see a few more restrictions which you might impose on yourself for no reason:

Restriction 1: You have to target your opponent’s permanents.

There are often times where we should target our own guys (or ourselves) with a certain effect, but we don’t because we are so used to targeting the opponent’s. You should always be open to the possibilities your cards present you, and be aware of everything that they do. Even though Threaten and Volition Reins are going to target your opponent’s permanents 99% of the time, the 1% where they won’t is likely to win you the game if you can spot the play. At Pro Tour Amsterdam, for example, a friend of mine lost a game by Threatening and then attacking, whereas he would have won if he had attacked with everything and then Threatened one of his own guys to keep it as a blocker. Another friend of mine once played Volition Reins on his Barrage Ogre to deal the last two points of damage, etc – if your cards don’t specifically say “target opponent’s something,” then there is always the possibility you want to use them on your own guys. If you want to be hardcore, you can even ultimate Jace on yourself when you both have more cards in hand than in your libraries!

By the same token, you don’t always have to target your stuff with cards that generally target your stuff. I was talking to Owen and he showed me a play he made, which was to play a Throne of Geth into his opponent’s Ratchet Bomb with one counter when he already had two 2 casting cost guys in play. His opponent then pumped the Ratchet Bomb to 2, and Owen sacrificed his Throne to proliferate on it, bringing it to three counters. To do that, you must know exactly what your card is capable of doing.

Restriction 2: There are specific times in which I have to play my spells.

Another common occurrence is playing your spells in the wrong moment just because you are so used to playing them at certain times. Once I was playing against Tomoharu Saito in GP Buenos Aires, Faeries versus RDW (you can probably guess who was playing what). Saito had Magus of the Scroll in play and four lands, and three cards in hand. On his turn, I let him draw and then I played Mistbind Clique.

Mistbind Clique is probably my favorite card to exemplify this with, because it was a card with so much potential that people rarely explored. Sure enough, most of the time you did it on upkeep to stop them from playing spells, but there were many instances in which you had to do it before combat, or after he attacks, or after you’ve blocked, or at the end of the turn, or even in your main phase, and people were so tied to their notion that they had to do it on the opponent’s upkeep that they didn’t realize you didn’t HAVE to do it. In this example, I could have played it on his upkeep, but I figured that he would just use his mana to activate Magus of the Scroll. By waiting for him to draw, I give him the opportunity to use his mana for something else that he might draw (which is why it was pretty much never done in the draw step), but at the same time I make him more likely to miss with his Magus that he is probably going to use, because he has one extra card in hand.

One card from Scars of Mirrodin with which this happens a lot is Heavy Arbalest – we are so used to using our abilities at the end of the turn that we don’t realize that using it EOT is strictly worse than using it on your own turn, since it isn’t going to untap anyway, so you might as well wait and see what happens. This is not really an outside the box play as much as a flat out mistake, but it is also caused by placing restrictions where they don’t exist.

Other situations in which this happens is usually with instant card drawing, when we are so keen to play it on our opponent’s end step that we end up missing that one drop that we could have played if only we had cast our Brainstorm on our turn, but I’ve talked a lot about this already so I won’t dwell on it.

Restriction 3: You cannot do something radical while you are sideboarding.

Outside the box plays also happens a lot with sideboarding, and perhaps the most extreme situation is against mill decks. Katsuhiro Mori was playing against my friend in the last round of GP Gothenburg (M11 draft), and my friend was playing a UG mill deck, with Jace’s Erasures and Tome Scour. My friend lost game one, and then for game two Mori sided into 49 cards. Then my friend milled him anyway. For game three, Mori sided into 59 cards, and then killed him with Arc Runners and Unholy Strengths.

The main point here is that, though it is generally advisable to play with 40 cards, sometimes special circumstances happen that make you throw this convention to the winds. In this case, Mori felt like he would have better chances by diluting his deck with other bad cards while effectively increasing his life total; for this to happen, he probably figured out that he wouldn’t have enough time to kill his opponent with only 40 cards, and that his deck was not good enough – basically that the quality between his deck and the cards in his sideboard was not much different.

My friend, on the other hand, failed to think outside the box. He had a bunch of decent green beaters in his board, and he failed to bring those in even after he saw what Mori had done game two, and that he had increased the number of cards for game three. For him, the “box” was playing a mill deck, and, though his regular cards were probably not good enough to beat a normal deck, they were definitely fine to beat a 59 card deck. (No, this example does not mean you can start playing 41 cards).

There are also many occasions when you should side into a completely different deck, usually in different colors, and people often don’t even consider this – I know I almost never do when I am playing Limited, but I should. Sometimes the reason for you to play red (say, your three Shatters) is just not good enough anymore, and it might be that your Grasp into Darkness plus two Moriok Reavers are going to be better against your opponent’s Cystbearers – if that is the case, you should probably make the switch, even if the cards are “worse.”

Restriction 4: You have to play your lands (or your spells).

You can also make some outside the box plays by skipping land drops on purpose. My friend (another one!) was telling me about his match at a tournament, where he went turn three [card]Explore[/card] keeping U open, and didn’t play the fourth land that he had in his hand. Then his opponent saw that he didn’t have mana for [card]Mana Leak[/card], and played his [card jace, the mind sculptor]Jace[/card] right into my friend’s [card]Spell Pierce[/card], so that he could untap, play his fourth land and then his own Jace. This is not much different than the mistapping that I talked about a while ago.

The intentional miss of land drops is not that outside the box, but very few people use it, and there are plenty of situations in which you could, and should. Take Luis’s report from GP Bochum – he talks about how he played turn two Myr and his opponent thought about killing it, then he purposely skipped his next land drop to give his opponent reason to do so, when he had a hand full of lands. I’ve also heard stories of Wafo-Tapa skipping his third land drop in Limited so his opponent would play a bunch of guys and then get [card]Firespout[/card]ed – most of the time your opponents are not expecting you to do that (and lets face it, you are not expecting it either), so when you do it you can really get them. I’ve also seen Brad do that, discard instead of playing lands to get the opponents to overextend into [card wrath of god]Wrath[/card].

A while ago in GP Sydney, I watched a rather interesting play in a quarterfinals. Luis was playing against a guy with BG poison, and the guy was at four life. Luis had two [card]Galvanic Blast[/card]s in hand – it was game one. Then, Luis passed with RR up. The guy sacrificed Moriok Replica, went to two life, and next turn he died after playing a spell – Luis never played another spell. This play is very interesting, because it costs absolutely nothing (the guy was dead and they had a lot of time, since it was the top 8), and it can only gain – by not playing Blasts, he not only hides the fact that he has two from his opponent (which is definitely something that should change the way he plays in some situations), but he also gets to see more of his opponent’s deck as the game goes longer. In this case, Luis knows the game is over, but the opponent doesn’t, and he will do everything in his power to win it, which includes playing any cards such as Putrefax, Skittles or Contagion Engine, and knowing about those is huge. Yet, how many people do you know that would do that? If anything, the people I know would hold the Blast because they “like the slowroll”, but not for strategic value.

Restriction 5: There are only archetypes X, Y and Z in this format, and everything that is not one of them is going to automatically be bad.

Another moment where you can be outside the box is when you are drafting. I always remember a story about someone who saw [card]Searing Meditation[/card] in a big tournament draft, and then saw another one. Then, on a later pack, he saw a third. He then assumed he would be able to get the other two back, and he picked the Searing Meditation – the card that no one ever picks. He did table the other two, and drafted a deck based around them with a lot of terrible life gain cards, and easily 3-0ed the pod; If that person was bound by preconceptions, he would just never have picked the first Meditation on the first place, and if he had he wouldn’t have built a deck around them, because no one had done that before.

This format we are playing now (SOM) is pretty good to exemplify this – it is the conventional wisdom that there are two major archetypes, infect and metalcraft, with some branches of BR/U here and there, but there are many decks that you can draft and that, if you are in the right position and get the right cards, can be very successful. This goes from the somewhat famous [card]Furnace Celebration[/card] deck, to the proliferate/[card]Golem Foundry[/card] deck, to the GR [card]Molder Beast[/card] deck. Just in the three days I was in Toronto, I saw someone draft a deck with a lot of walls and two Grindlocks, another deck with a bunch of artifacts and 5 [card]Screeching Silcaw[/card], a RB infect and a weird deck with a lot of [card]Plated Seastrider[/card]s and Grindlock + [card]Inexorable Tide[/card] deck. Again, you should never go into the draft with the “I’m going to draft the Grindlock deck,” but sometimes, just sometimes, it is going to be the best thing you can do, and it is interesting if you know that you have the possibility.

It is important to keep in mind, though, that like in a draft, you should not go around thinking about making an “outside the box” play. To quote professor Umbridge, “progress for progress sake must be discouraged” – you must not make a different play because you want to make a different play, but because the situation calls for it. You should never have restrictions, but you can have certain guidelines that you follow, and we all follow them for a reason, so do not go around breaking them lightly, only know that they are not absolute and that you can break them if you think it is going to be useful or necessary.

I hope you enjoyed this, see you next week!


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