Silvestri Says – Limits of Skill


People don’t seem to fully grasp that there is a limit to skill. This comes up most often in deck selection, where time and time again people choose to play the complicated control deck because it is “better”, instead of just playing a more straightforward deck. They acknowledge it on some level, and may even admit to themselves that they’re making a bad decision by playing that sort of deck, even if they gain more options and potential to gain a small edge against the opponent as a result. In fact, entire archetypes have been built around such a concept and some have even done well, perhaps even being the best choice for a given tournament. Sometimes the most complicated deck is the best deck in the field, such as the case with KBC Gifts or TSP Block Teachings decks; however, I often find these two don’t coincide with one another.

Other times people create entirely new metagame archetypes, looking to cash in on surprise and by gaining small edges that way. Again, there’s a limit to how effective such plans are, but the only ones people remember are decks like Dump Truck or Zvi’s ‘Solution’ deck and how well they did at a given tournament.

Certain people who constantly stick with these types of decks also tend to incur a lot more failure and a far larger hit-miss ratio than the guy who consistently sticks with the best archetypes in a given field. Some players try to adapt some sort of a control strategy in every format even when the format is openly hostile to any type of control strategy. This Standard format is a good showing of that, but even in Extended with very powerful Blue decks, often the best decks were still combo. Part of this is simply the skill limits Magic has, no matter how good you are; you can be given circumstances where you are effectively dead before a single card has been played.

Street Fighter: 3rd Strike has no true cap on skill and what you can accomplish if dedicated enough. One of the best Japanese pro players, Kuroda, has such a mastery over the game system and optimal strategies over nearly the entire character roster that he played character roulette and still consistently won tournaments. This meant he could win with characters that not only lacked the advantages of the top tier, but ones with disadvantages so large they would be ranked 2-8 in certain match-ups between players of equivalent skill, even against other top ranked players. That’s simply impossible to do in Magic and yet some people make it sound like every small edge can somehow be capitalized to great victories.

In Magic, it’s rare to have a single legitimate 75/25 match between competitive decks, let alone even worse percentages. In Magic terms though, the numbers are what they are and no amount of skill will make that into a truly unreasonable number due to factors built into the game. You can surely gain some percentages points by having large skill gap and perhaps win individual matches in a convincing fashion, but over a longer period of time you’ll come to grips with the grim reality of it.

I’m not pointing this out to demoralize people or point out any flaws in the mechanics of Magic; rather I want people to be realistic when they talk about skill in some objective sense and the benefits it can provide. Remember that many of you will never reach the skill level I talk about, which is why I implore people to really consider deck choices and trying not to outthink yourself. Chapin made a good post about it during the Dredge days of Extended.

“If I was going to play Kenji in a $1,000 money match, I might want a deck like dredge. However, if I was gonna play in a tournament where I thought that I was one of the best in the room, I might be more inclined to NLU, unless everyone else was dredging.

My strategy is to just play Flash against tournament players, 1-on-1, when they have a normal deck. My deck isn’t fair. I am better than 50-50, so EV is positive; however, if I play in a tournament, I am just rolling dice (even if dice are loaded). This is why I don’t play in Vintage tournaments. It is dumb to me that the best deck beats everything but doesn’t pay enough to provide the EV I need to be able to game the tournament.

I also think Narcomoeba should have been banned, even though I didn’t play it, is undesirable to have that sort of environment. The only thing holding it together is that most people agreed not to resort to dredge. As a result “skilled players” won (skill having to do with in game skills), where if enough people sold out to dredge, the “skilled players” would win, it would just be the test of deck picking skill (with a lot more coin flips)…”

Just this past weekend someone asked me why in the NorCal metagame people moved away from certain types of top decks such as combo or certain types of midrange. My answer was simply that almost all of the best players in our area tended to gravitate toward either the best Blue decks or the best deck period. The distinction was to indicate that sometimes the Blue decks were in fact not a consensus best deck choice and were even the second or third best if one were to do power rankings. People would lean toward the Blue deck though, because for the decrease in overall power, they gained the ability to influence the game-state far more than the best decks and make best use of their skill. Sometimes though, these types of Blue decks are simply so much weaker than the best deck that whatever edges you gain are simply negated by the loss in free wins by playing the best deck. As I said above, it becomes a case of diminishing returns where you’ve drawn all the power you could from your vehicle and nothing short of an upgrade will get you past a certain point.

Coin-flipping with Jund is the best idea people that aren’t masters can hope to do. Just this weekend at our charity Standard tournament, Riki Hayashi of all people made top eight of a seven round swiss tournament playing Jund. You can literally just pick up Jund with no real experience or preparation and just take people to the cleaners all day. The owner of said Jund deck will be happy that his Jund placed yet again in the money (for the 5th time in a row), perhaps someday he’ll actually choose to use it!

We had a local Extended tournament not so long ago that LSV won with his Tezzeret deck, crushing all the competition. Oddly enough, that may have been the most popular deck in the room despite all the other powerful strategies available from PT: Austin and Worlds. Regardless of if you believe Tezzeret to be the best deck or not, if we accept that it is (for the sake of argument), for many of these players Tezzeret was still an atrocious choice for the tournament. Why? Because they couldn’t handle making decisions with it in real tournament situations, many of them punted and racked up draws and losses they wouldn’t have received with a simpler strategy. Even for the ones who could generally handle the deck, they still went to time far often than they should’ve due to the complexity of the deck.

Another issue players have with the limits of skill is confusing the concept of controlling the game-state as gaining edges on non-interactive decks. Against a deck like Swans or Dredge this may be an acceptable way to look at things, but a look through history at other successful combo decks reveals different angles of attack that were the true way to gain an edge. Many times the proper strategy was to take the proactive approach and just beat the crud out of your opponent while using a minimal amount of disruption, often having the same kill turn or one turn later while maximizing the impact of those few disruptive resources.

Zvi once said something that every competitive player should know and live by: “Never play fair.” Why would you want to? The only time you should play fair is when that’s your only option. If you want to qualify or cash, pick up one of the most powerful decks in the format and learn it as best you can. Even if you think Hypergenesis is complete garbage and Dredge is too easily hated out, find the next most powerful deck and go from there. You can’t possibly tell me in a format that includes a multitude of turn three / four combo decks, Dark Depths and Thopter Foundry – Sword combo that attacking for three is your absolute best option.

So at what point do you just accept the best deck is the best deck? Some point around when this conversation from one of Flores old articles looks accurate:

Too bad about that whole High Tide thing, the rotations and all…

Yeah, High Tide was terrible.

What are you going to do now?

I can’t believe they expected me to pay six mana for seven measly cards and a full untap.

What are you talking about…

Now I can pay ZERO mana for NINETEEN cards! And forget about losing to those stupid Pyroblast Goblin decks! I get Duress this year, so none of that. And just to make sure I never lose to “the beatdown”, I’m gaining 20 life in the middle of the combo, too. Thanks BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.

You can’t get away with this.

How do you plan to stop me? GREEN CARDS? I know! WHITE cards will save you! Bwahahahahaha!

At some point it just becomes obvious to all involved that the best deck is better than everything else you can pick and small edges don’t mean anything. If you’re smart, you pick it up and play it and possibly modify it to beat the mirror. If you want to hold onto your hope of nickel and diming the deck to death, you better have a very novel and effective strategy to bring to the table. Almost every success story these types of decks have involves being good for one tournament and then falling off the face of the Earth. When you try to counter the best decks, they simply don’t do the job on a grand scale. Now you would have to be even crazier to try and play these types of decks simply due to the variety in the formats. The best deck may have been Jund, and it was obvious to many, but each metagame still contained a significant number of decks that would smash your well-crafted plans and nobody elses.

A good example would be Three Deuce; a terrible deck that people jumped all over because it got lucky. It beat one version of Trix and many people automatically assumed a deck with 12 one-power creatures, Dwarven Miner, River Boa and useless utility cards was a good deck against Trix. All because one guy once beat YMG with it. Hello, anti-Jund rogue guy.

Of course you occasionally have the exception which makes me feel all warm and squishy inside. For me the most famous case of skill trumping all else was in 2002 in the Tog mirror with Carlos Romao, where he understood the match better than everyone else in the room that day. He dominated the Standard portion of Worlds and eventually took the whole thing down because he was a step ahead of everyone else.

In summary, I agree with Zvi; you want to play the best unfair deck you can, even if you have to use the Fairy Godmother excuse to justify your decision. Everyone needs a little help sometimes and if your deck is willing to forgive your many transgressions and failures, so much the better. However, I also understand that sometimes the best deck in a field is the ‘fair’ ultra-complicated control deck and if that’s the case, suck it up and practice until blood comes out of your ears. It may not be what you are used to or what you enjoy, but there are only two outcomes for you in a tournament: winning or losing.

Josh Silvestri

Email me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom


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