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Rule of Law – The Railbird HOF/Being Impulsive vs. Being Deliberate

I’m really sick of HOF articles at this point. The first one or two articles were a decent read, to catch up on historical trends and forgotten heroes, and Teddy K’s article was sweet, but other than that, I’ve been skimming pretty heavily. Here’s a forgotten criterion for entry into the HOF: “no one had to make an argument for this person, their career spoke for itself.” Anyways, who cares.

Instead, I’d like to discuss my idea and ballot for the Railbird Hall of Fame. Railbirding means participating as an observer. The term has its origin in horse racing, the sport of kings (and degenerates), and came to Magic by way of poker. In Magic, the Railbird is somewhat of an ignored species. We all know who we want to show up and watch us, who makes the events more fun, and who has a smile on their face after watching you win round 3, even though they themselves went 0-2 drop. Even though we have a sense of these things, we don’t stop to thank the Railbirds for their dedicated service. The Railbird Hall of Fame seeks to change all of that.

Many sports halls of fame have wings dedicated to writers or broadcasters, the ‘birds of the sport. Observing, commenting, enhancing the experience, these writers and broadcasters deserve recognition, and many sports give it to them.

Here is my 2010 Ballot for the RHOF:

1. Tim Aten

This picture from GenCon 2010 is so powerful that it almost earned Tim Landale (pictured to the left, just behind AJ Sacher in the foreground) an honorable mention. The focal point, however, is Railbirding Legend Tim Aten.

Just this year, Aten showed up at Grand Prix Columbus, but didn’t even bother to register for the tournament, as detailed in his brilliant report here. But here’s the thing, it’s not just 2010, with the above picture from GenCon and the GP Columbus ‘birding and report. He’s been doing this his whole Magic career, and I assume his entire life. Railbirds like Aten aren’t made, they’re hatched. He’s never left a site early in frustration; even when he does play and scrubs out, he sticks around and entertains.

One more picture from the Aten archives:

Look at the guy in the Michael Vick jersey (weeks after Vick’s fall from grace) sitting to the right of this Catch Phrase game. Many people are spectating. How many of them are seated, directly in the middle of the game, looking over the shoulder of not one, but two of the players? One. That one man deserves to lead the inaugural class of inductees into the Railbirding Hall of Fame.

2. Megan Holland

In a certain sense, Megan carries the torch for a category of Railbirds: the rare group of wives and girlfriends who not only put up with Magic, but express an interest, learn the game, and even become familiar with and close to our “Magic friends.” Early trailblazers like Bob Maher’s wife Courtney paved the way for Megan and her baked goods, which have fed PT Champions and PTQ Grinders alike. With that important recognition given, it’s unfair to Megan to describe her merely as just a “Magic wife”; she is her own member of the community.

If you can look at this picture for more than 2 seconds without being creeped out and Googling “Gerry Thompson sex offender registry” (I often can’t), look for Megan in the background. Once again, the best ‘birds find the best rail, right next to the action and within arms reach if a pat on the back to console the loser of a feature match is necessary.

Here again we see the same thing: proximity and focus. She isn’t texting, she isn’t following Kitt (her husband) around and annoying him, she is watching Gindy attempt to beat a master. She knows the game, and she knows how to ‘bird it.

Finally, picture seeing this after losing to someone round 5:

The frustration from the fact that you somehow just lost to someone named “Calosso” just melts away as you peel back that paper wrapper.

3. Cassius Weathersby

Every ballot includes that one player you grew up with, the slugger you covered for 12 years as a beat writer, the guy who isn’t nationally “in the discussion” but would be if everyone knew what you know. Cassius Weathersby, III is that pick for me. He’s a no-brainer for me, but for you, he probably needs an introduction.

Like Tim Aten, discussed above, Cassius is a good Magic player, much much better than most, but he often chooses not to play tournaments, even those tournaments he attends. He’s traveled to PTQs and GPs near and far just to ‘bird, and he makes every single one of them more fun for his friends who did decide to play. He’s also rarely in a bad mood. Cassius is the flag-bearer for me in two important categories: 1) the road trip, and 2) the inside joke. Regarding the road trip, if Cassius is in your car, a 6 hour drive can seem like 3, and sometimes you don’t even want it to end. One of the reasons is category 2, inside jokes. Remember that time 2 months ago when you thought the girl at the Taco Bell drive through was cute, and you started to say something but then backed out and made an ass of yourself? Well, Cassius remembers. In fact, he intends to quote it word for word next time HE pulls up to the drive through with you in the passenger seat. If you think of something clever, Cassius is ready with the second and third versions of the joke that are even funnier and keep the laughs going.

Cassius is the ULTIMATE comedic railbird. Gary Talim (one time Pro Tour Top 8 Competitor and the ORIGINAL Gary/Gerry T) once was playing for top 8 in a Zendikar limited PTQ.  Gary is at 3 life in game 3. He plays a Stonework Puma onto an empty board.  It gets Mark of Mutinied for the win.  Cassius immediately, from the rail, says at full volume in a robust falsetto, “Shoulda played around it!” I still can’t discuss this event without laughing, and it’s a recurring joke.

When it came to light that James Gates is religious, Cassius was ready when the time was right with, “Should have PRAYED around it,” and I laughed uncontrollably.

He comes up with songs like “Jungle Weaver” (to the tune of Jungle Fever) and even auto-tuned a song about Magic using the T-Pain App that no one but him could have pulled off.

Cassius earns his living as a respiratory therapist, working with and supervising patients. He’s chosen to be a medical Railbird of sorts. He doesn’t prescribe anything or perform surgery, but he’s working with you and can be just as important. I thought that was worth mentioning.

That’s it for my ballot. See folks, if you can’t immediately spot 5 candidates who stand out, then you shouldn’t vote for 5 people. I’ve restricted this very important first ballot to those who deserve to be inducted in the initial ceremony.

Impulsive vs. Deliberate

Now for the “strategy” half of the article, where I’ll discuss one of the most important differences between 17-year-old Matt Sperling, and the now 27-year-old me who is actually good at Magic.

You walk into a seedy bar off the strip in Vegas, and you go up to the first patron you see and shout “You’re a piece of sh**.” I’m now going to ask you to imagine the reactions of different hypothetical patrons receiving this insult. First, picture Nicky Santoro, Joe Pesci’s character in Casino. Next, picture Sam “Ace” Rothstein, DeNiro’s character from the same film. If you haven’t seen the movie Casino, instead first picture Rasheed Wallace, and then picture Phil Jackson. If you aren’t familiar with either Casino or the NBA, picture someone who has reasonable tastes in movies or entertainment and then picture them picturing the above examples.

If those who are impulsive and brash, and others who are calculating and reserved, sit on opposite ends of a continuum, characters such as those described above make it fairly easy to imagine the extremes along this continuum. Somewhere in the middle we likely find ourselves. Personally, I’m more Nicky than Ace, though I don’t routinely physically assault or murder those who frustrate me. What this means for my Magic game is that I make most of the decisions impulsively without really consciously considering alternatives. When I was younger (8-10 years ago), I was a full-blown Magic: The Gathering version of Nicky Santoro. I hardly thought deliberately about even the mulligan decision. If it looked good, I kept. If it looked bad, I would mulligan. The fact that I won PTQs back then is a testament to the power of human automaticity with enough repetition. Nowadays I always make myself deliberately consider not just my first instinct, but also the alternative decision (mulligan or keep) when deciding whether to mulligan. My phrasing here is important: I make myself consider the alternatives. It still isn’t all that natural for me. There are benefits to my generally impulsive style. As an example, I played Counterbalance-Top in a 16 round Grand Prix recently, and only went to extra turns once (and the game ended on turn 3 of those extra turns). Some people, pros even, won’t play Counterbalance-Top; they can’t handle the swings (they fear numerous unintentional draws).

Let’s take an example of someone closer to the Sam Rothstein end of the spectrum: former Pro Tour luminary (and current casual trading luminary) Chris Benafel. A skeptic familiar with the history of the PT’s first reaction might be that Chris played slowly in order to stall or put himself in a position to stall if he needed to later on. Two responses: 1) obv, and 2) I’ve played a lot of unsanctioned, untimed Magic with Chris Benafel on my team (doing something that rhymes with “Funny Draft” but is more serious) and Chris takes forever to finish a match even when you eliminate the incentive for stalling. He’s essentially very deliberate about nearly every decision he can spot. He takes forever, but plays well (and tilts the opponent along way).

In terms of developing a maximally productive play style, Matt Sperling has a lot to learn from Chris Benafel, and Chris Benafel has a lot to learn from Matt Sperling. Perhaps you can learn from both. The fact that rounds of Magic are timed means that there is a limited amount of deliberation you can allocate among the hundreds of decisions you have to make in a match. This means that in addition to working on your general level of impulsiveness vs. deliberateness, you’ll need to dive into the specifics of when you should be acting deliberately, and how much to deliberate.

In general, as you deliberate, you reduce the intuitive “sense” about what to do, and in exchange, you (hopefully) receive a logical reason or set of logical reasons why one choice is the best choice. Just keep in mind the tradeoff; there’s a reason that on multiple choice tests your first instinct after reading the question and answers should be accorded some extra weight if later on two answers both seem plausible.

The process of answering questions such as “Who’s the beatdown?” and “Does he have a counterspell in hand?” should be intuitively driven, with a little boost from deliberately considering the possibilities. Personally, I only occasionally actively consider who is the beatdown and who is the control player, and yet I play differently based on who I feel is which position. Playing a lot is the only way to develop this sense.

When it comes to something like mulliganing or figuring out which 5-drop will kill the opponent faster, additional active thought can be helpful.

What I advise that you do is to take stock of which decisions you actively deliberate on, and which you make automatically. As a first step, if you find that you deliberate almost all the time or almost never, you’ll know you need to strike a better balance. Second, think about whether it would be better to just trust your instinct about who was “winning the race” rather than trying to calculate who is the beatdown. Are you consistently correct when you do calculate? How often does your deliberation yield a different result than your intuition? If either of these questions is “not very often,” just trust your instincts. On the other side of the coin, if you’re like I was, you’ll be able to spot impulsive decisions that are costly. That “snap keep” of a risky 7 card hand, those times you don’t even figure out if an alpha strike would be lethal. For me, I construct mental signposts in a way, little things to look for that tell me “slow down, think about things.” One of those signposts is “if each player has several creatures, consider attackers carefully.” This reminder might sound silly, but I really have a tendency to act, even on a complex board, without careful enough deliberation.

For “slow” players, it isn’t that you need to trust your first instinct every time and act impulsively to improve (and start finishing round after round without going into extra time). It might just be that you deliberate too long when you “go into the tank.” I wouldn’t waste my time giving the advice “come up with the right answer faster.” Everyone knows that is optimal, and everyone knows it takes practice and maybe a little “talent” to become really good at it. What I’m suggesting is different. Even with the same analytical skills you have now, just trusting your first, second, and third intuitions about a situation will speed up your game while likely not decreasing you level of play by much. I see too many players not trusting themselves and waffling back and forth on a decision without a sense of determination and purpose. Here’s an aid I would use to picture why you shouldn’t “tank” too long: decisions are like women – Owen Turtenwald has never hooked up with a good one, and also, you don’t want to always say the first thing that comes to mind, but if you aren’t spontaneous and your actions appear “forced,” it’s actually worse than just being impulsive and occasionally insulting/forward. OK, that might not have made much sense, but if I delete it I have to delete that beat against Owen so just reread it a few times then give up.

Confidence is an important part of deliberation. A lack of confidence is what leads to a lengthy tank session. An opponent at GP Columbus told me something about my game very close to “even when you’re revealing blind off Counterbalance, you seem so confident you’re going to counter the spell.” In reality, I have no idea whether the spell will be countered by a blind Counterbalance, I’m just a dick who thinks he’s good at Magic (not really but that’s what it looks like at least). Confidence helps me make decisions quickly, listen to my instincts, and not give away information. When a player lacks confidence, you can spot all their decisions during a game. There are reasons Cabal Therapy in the hands of a trained professional plays like Thoughtseize. One of those reasons is that players reveal their “decision points” (meaning the times during the game when they are contemplating their options) by deliberating, and based on when you observe those decision points, you can deduce (or get a feel) for what cards they are holding. Sometimes it’s a conscious “What was he thinking about doing with just 1 mana open?” and sometimes it’s an intuitive sense that the opponent chose not to kill your creature, rather than was unable to kill it. By playing intuitively and with confidence, your decision points are less visible to the opponent. Of course, it’s also helpful to mix in some fake deliberation, of the same duration as your real deliberation. The reason mixing a lot of fake deliberation in with your real deliberation is a sub-optimal strategy (relative to concealing all or most of your deliberation in the first place) is that the rounds barely have enough time for all your real deliberations, let alone real + feigned.

Over time, with practice, what must be deliberate becomes what we are able to do automatically. Think about how much thought it takes you to start your car and drive to work, whereas when you first learned, everything took deliberation. Yet even as things are automatic, you still need to train yourself about when to stop and think, such as when you feel the urge to text someone, or you might miss your freeway exit if you don’t think about when it is. Maybe you’re just learning to drive, or maybe you keep missing that exit because you just “autopilot” home when you mean to go somewhere else. Either way, be patient, you’ll figure it out.

-Matt Sperling
mtg_law_etc on Twitter.

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