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Silvestri Says – The Value of Information

 

No article this week, guys, I have NorCal Regionals for Street Fighter 4 this weekend. I gotta practice in anticipation of SoCal and Justin Wong (A.K.A:: best player in the U.S.) showing up. Later!

That doesn’t work? FINE. Here’s my article for the week. Warning: contains mean things.

Yes, Jund is the dominant deck, yes we all heard you, please shut up about it now. We just got out of a format where the top deck was a blue-based control deck that had an absolute edge over everything else in the field. Somewhere deep in that heart of hearts all you absurd people have is the gnawing notion in the back of your head that this game really isn’t as based on skill as you’d led yourself to believe. Why? Because of what a deck like Jund represents, a deck that seemingly plays itself and involves blatantly stupid cards like Bloodbraid Elf which involve a chance effect.

I don’t think anyone can deny the current Standard format may be the “stupidest” we’ve had since Mercadian Masques times in regards to skill level. Wizards decided to push creatures really hard while cutting back on all of the “un-fun” elements we’ve had in Magic like land destruction, efficient counters and strong hoser effects in general. The problem with this is the format we now have, which is heavily creature-dominated and very difficult to get an edge on. Sadly, all the cards that are obvious to play like creatures or sorceries are now beyond strong, while instants, enchantments and artifacts took a bath. I’m not asking for Brainstorm, Oath of Druids or Cursed Scroll back, but some sort of powerful instant or artifact that required decision-making would be lovely.

Jund

Regardless of this though, Jund is the best deck, and yet what is the Internet largely filled with? A million articles telling you not to play Jund and how to supposedly beat it when no deck to date has been able to get better than a 60/40 match against it, let alone dominate Jund. Cedric Phillips’ article on why Jund sucks was interesting (even if I felt it was a bit flawed in places), because at least he was trying to explain why he thought Jund was awful and everyone was being scrubby in letting it win. I thought some of his complaints were pretty invalid, like not having a plan B and having a horrific mirror. To me, burn/discard /cascade counts as a pseudo-plan B and the mirror for just about every deck in the format is painful, because all of the cards are dumb. You can’t do anything tricky with your deck; you just kick the other guy in the shins and then let him kick you in the shins until one of you falls over.

However Ced at least had some valid observations about why Jund was currently dominating along with a few other worthwhile points of discussion. It got me to thinking though; as a player do you actually gain anything important from reading articles, past the obvious pattern recognition and tech updates? Honestly it seems to be harder to gleam anything useful from articles and I don’t think that’s anybody in particular’s fault. A large part of it falls on what medium’s articles are trying to cover and how people take in the information available to them. People tend to read Magic articles in a very passive way, rather than trying to actively process the information alongside the players. Few people think about concepts as the author conveys them or a deck through the eyes of the author to accomplish X or Y goal, rather they sit there and soak the information up and then try to apply the usual evaluations to it.

This is why I sometimes laugh when decks that I feel are obvious and I talk about get panned and then win large tournaments a week later. Or when I talk about a horrible design, but some key nuggets of knowledge from the failure and people are still stuck on the whole “you didn’t break the format” part. Match coverage is even worse, because the written word simply can’t do justice to how games play out in real time and can’t express body language in any meaningful way. Evaluations are already difficult to apply in a meaningful way, so when randoms insert themselves into the situation and throw something entirely out of context to wrap their brains around why so-and-so is definitely correct and you are awful!

Every time people try to talk about the level above the obvious in Magic, people immediately complain about stupid things you assumed they already knew. You know instead of asking the author why he didn’t include a certain choice in a deck, maybe instead of harassing him, you could ask yourself why he DOESN’T play that, why they DON’T do such and such in certain matches and so on. At some point when video coverage becomes even more common and Magic Online becomes more accessible, you’ll be doing this a whole lot more – ala Street Fighter or Smash Brothers tournament videos. Nobody enjoys explaining every reason they play a certain card or made a certain move; some things you should simply learn on your own.

There are only a few articles in a given time frame that if you study them and try out what you took away from them, you could actively become better as a result. Everything else requires inferring into what the author didn’t say or what. An exception to this rule would be whenever PV writes an article, because he lays it all out there on the table. He provides his thought processes, why he thinks decks / plays suck, how bad he is (it’s called humility: more of you can stand to have some) and so on. You can actively get better at Magic by attempting to take in and understand the knowledge he’s putting out there. Sadly he’s more of the exception than the rule.

I think readers lean too much on what they read and supposedly are understanding from articles. Back in the day when I’d read a quick play-by-play breakdown Flores or Feldman wrote, I’d wonder who the hell he was possibly testing[1] against for some of these results. Errors abounded, along with, “Well these results said one thing, but I think it’s clearly favorable for me, blah blah,” and it was just a train wreck to read about. Yet in all honesty, that’s probably a more accurate portrayal of how testing goes in most groups compared to the idealized version we hear about.

The tl;dr version of the last couple of paragraphs is basically this: Reading good tech is no substitute for testing and making sure you understand decision trees.

Ultimately the thing articles succeed at the best, other than entertainment, is giving out deck tweaks, major tech, theory-craft updates and big overviews of metagames and formats. Most of the other things that you see in articles, tournament reports, minor tweaking, interviews, quick hit PTQ Top 8 / winner updates, etc. would be better suited to a blog format. Or a variation on the previously established model the Dojo used back when it existed, where you could easily jump subject to subject for all available information from pro to scrub alike. The big thing about those subjects is the same sensitive nature typically attached to them. Knowing a PTQ breakdown from the previous couple of weekends becomes much more relevant early in the week rather than a day or two before your own qualifier.

An interesting aspect is the route our information takes to get to you. For Magic there’s very little in the way of global information currently present. No main site where you can look up global tournament results, no easy way to read material that isn’t present on two or three big sites as far as supposed strategy content goes. There used to be larger link portals available, but for the most part those have all died or are woefully under-developed compared to how Meridian Magic[2] was. Personally that boggles me, but so do a number of other aspects surrounding the dissemination of information.

How do I find many of the decks / results that you won’t normally see mentioned in articles or on the Mothership main lists? Well basically I searched a lot and relied on some of my friends to help find sites in the native language of the area I’m looking for. Thankfully many decklists are available in English even in other countries or with names similar enough that I can make out what they are. In a pinch you can even use some of the translation programs commercially available and get some decent views into certain countries tournaments. That’s what I’ve been doing with Italy and certain parts of Japan thanks to a few well-run foreign websites.

Even for relatively tight-knit communities like in the Vintage format, for a long time even something as simple as getting access to the Canadian results was a major pain in the butt. Let alone in the early days, where none of us had a clue that Europe actually knew what Magic cards were, let alone ran thriving Vintage tournaments. Personally this boggles my mind, the amount of information and shared information that simply isn’t there that can be found in other games. Nowadays the amount of cross-culture results is still at a minimum outside of a few people scouring foreign Magic: The Gathering sites. Thing is you can get a big edge if you see the initial idea for a techy idea even if it isn’t fleshed out yet and get to start working on it before anyone else. Of course you can’t really ask these people any questions, but you have the raw material to make something great.

People have said this is the information age and Magic secrets have all but died as a result; yet every single PT you hear about the insane decks people have brewed up. Some of these get spread a few days beforehand, but even then, all of these decks are developed by small groups or one unrelenting thinker. Not the Internet collective as a whole, rather they come after the party is over and attempt to “optimize” these types of decks, despite missing out on the work that went into them to begin with. This is why you see so many horrible decklists on Internet forums; people automatically assume the netdeck list is wrong and make their own changes based on assumptions that it’ll improve the final product.

Long story short, think for yourself and try to sit yourself behind the driver’s seat of why decisions are made instead of passively soaking it up and attempting to add your two cents later. Too many people toss out excuses and false contexts to justify their own terrible decisions and just want people to agree with whatever brilliance they supposedly came up with. People hate working for knowledge; they want it given to them in a magical elixir where they are as awesome as the professional players who have been battling for years and years without putting in the effort. Working on your execution when playing is far more important than the technical side of the game, but because that’s repetitive and requires tedious work and time, people want to ignore it.

That’s unfortunate. Next week I’ll be back to giving you fish, sorry if I scared you away with the huge amount of cynicism.

Josh Silvestri
Email me at joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom

[1]At some point you also have to stop and think, well if I’m not learning from this due to the mistakes, why am I not trying it for myself and going over those results? Oh right, that’s work. Can’t do that!

[2]Yep someone still remembers that site and misses it.

34 thoughts on “Silvestri Says – The Value of Information”

  1. Yes yes yes yes etc. 95% of magic articles will teach you nothing (the precise stat being as aribtrary as most made up figures in said articles!); the important thing is to recognise you’re reading them for entertainment value and not fool yourself that you’re getting better by skimming someone’s lazy factless diatribe on why they don’t like a given deck. Most writers are neither entertaining nor informative; no knock on them as people, it’s a hard game to bring to life at times as any Wizards coverage of sealed deck GPs tends to demonstrate.

    I think the recent phenomenon that best illustrates your point about the paucity of data is the recent trend of ‘5k standard tournament results are in’ –> 9 in 10 magic writers write their next article on ‘my view of the top 8 decks without having ever played them or watched any of the games’.

    That said there’s still some good stuff out there, and some improvements in the method- eg LSV’s video coverage of jund/boros matchup was genuinely informative.

    Anyway you made some sound points in this piece- good job!

  2. I gain a lot by being able to read Spanish and having access to the very organized aggregator that is imtg.es. I was particularly surprised to discover really interesting Spanish-language articles by Remi Fortier and others that I wouldn’t have otherwise encountered. My Spanish isn’t good enough for the podcasts, though (not that I like most Magic podcasts all that much anyway).

  3. I’m printing this out as we speak, and am leaving it at the comic/cards shop I work at and I’m forcing everyone to read it.

  4. Chris: I main Zangief (and probably permanently til SSF4 since now I can beat some of our better Sagat players) and my secondary will likely be Blanka. I have a decent Seth as well, but since I don’t play the console version ever, I’m super rusty with him so I probably wouldn’t risk using the glass man.

    Blanka comes in as a counter-pick / alt against Akuma (I’m just not good enough w/ Gief to beat our best two Akuma players), our best Guile, Zangief, Blanka (lol), Seth and turtle Ryu’s.

    @others: thanks!

  5. Josh,

    I liked this article except for the fact that you didn’t break any formats or provide new tech. Please do that next article…

    Just kidding – great article. I think the internet collective as a whole could have much more effective discussions on the forums if said collective had more discussions as opposed to just thrusting your own ideas out their as “correct”, bashing the author, and moving on.

    For example

    Is there anyway the jund deck could improve some matchups by lowering their curve, even if the overall card quality decreases a little? I’ve tried a bunch of two drop creatures to no success, but I was wondering if anybody else had tried this and had any success. It seems that in a world of putrid leeches and thrinaxi that no non-protection two drop is going to be good. Am I wrong?

    End example

    Maybe this is an unrealistic expectation, but just a follow up on some of the thoughts you had in your article. Once again, excellent work as always.

  6. So… it’s an article about how articles are bad?

    Nowadays you can just hang around YouTube subscribing to a few Japanese tech uploaders and go “wtf” when they find something new. As I understand it, back in the day Wizards used to come down on community sites, so there were few of them opening.

    The fact that Magic Online has little to none social interaction aside from certain rooms really does make a difference. Most interactions are 1-on-1, so developing communities is really more up to individuals.

    Heck, even communities on the local scale feel fragmented. Every time there’s a tournament here (advertised on IRC, our local games store and two forums) we get people who “barely heard from a friend” there was a tournament going on. The ones who are active stay active, and those that aren’t… aren’t.

    The problem with most community sites is that people just stop checking them at some point. They either get bored with it, don’t find enough to keep their interests up, or just get swamped with other stuff. So they end up relying a lot on word-of-mouth without meaning to.

  7. This is the internet. Deal with it.

    On a more serious note: For global tournament results there is http://www.deckcheck.net.

    Now they don’t provide detailed information on the tournaments other than the lists but I still see it as a very good starting point.

    That said: great article.

  8. A format is only as ‘stupid’ as the players allow it to be. Saying that Jund ‘plays itself’ is a horrible misconception that I am ashamed to see you say. They semi-shaky manabase often leads to your turn two or three land decision dictating the rest of the game. Playing that Blightning or Thrinax on turn 3 vs a T4 BBE is often something to agonize over.
    Yes, someone who has never played the deck can pick it up and do well, but realitically, any Tier 1 deck is the exact same way, assuming the pilot has some skill. Fae required more skill and thought, but if someone has never piloted the deck they could still be carried by the power level of their cards, and just because one has little experience with a deck doesn’t mean one has little playskills.
    In the end, everyone always hates the top dog. I have outplayed opponents both in the mirror and in random match-ups, winning games that I should never win and losing games I should never lose due to crazy plays on either side of the board. Play skill is never obsolete , and I wish people would stop acting like it is.

  9. I really liked this, but sadly it’s nothing new. About 80% of the words written or spoken about Magic will be about the latest event and the decklists that came from them. They will include little to no real information, and totally be opinion pieces. This has been the same since the Duelist.

    The other 20% can be very good. Philosphy type articles like “who is the beatdown”, and the math behind fetchlands can really improve your game and how you interact with players and your deck. I still struggle with people that refuse to play a 60 card deck.

  10. This wasn’t mean. It was honest. You hit the nail on the head, sir. I admit that sometimes when pros bash decks (ie Vampires), I sometimes pontificate when it is not necessarily warranted. I eventually realize that they put way more testing (they do this for a living for the love of God), then I do eventually take the “active” role of thinking about it and testing mostly to realize that they were right.

    I’ll try to put more thought into my comments now because if I see any of these guys at a large event, I would want them to help me instead of thinking I am a mook (though I can be, and that is another case of humility [is it really humble to say you are humble?]). Good advice, sir. Another gem.

  11. I pretty much agree with everything in this article. When people hear pros say something they take it like it’s a fact. When Lsv said nighthawk was the best first pick in zendikar or Reul said m10 took no skill EVERYONE agreed. To disagree would be rediculous right? However, in reality pretty much everyone would first pick sorin or bloodwitch over nigthhawk and m10 sealed wasn’t nearly as bad as zendikar sealed is. I notice that most magic players(and people in general) just take things other people say and state them as their own opinions without actually thinking for themselves. If you do anything that isn’t the accepted standard people will treat you like you have no clue what you’re doing when you may know way more than they do.

  12. I suddenly feel more in tune with my inner Magic child. I am pretty sure reading this article made me an all around better player.

  13. The rant against Jund is just that…a rant. I learned nothing other than the fact that you haven’t found an answer to the deck. Yet. I hope that in your next article you write something with strategic/tactical value Jund is strong and resilient but it’s not broken. It can be beaten. It is also not easy to play and therefore its pilots shouldn’t be hated on because they do have skills.

    The rest of your article was insightful, not only about reader behavior but for the need to store, access, and use data. I agree with you there completely.

  14. I have to agree with the above poster. Efficient counterspells aren’t necessary… interesting counterspells (see: Cryptic Command) are better for the game. I fail to see how land destruction takes any sort of skill. Artifacts could use some help, though, and hopefully we get that in the rest of ZEN block.

    That said, Jund is a pretty stupid deck. Someone completely new to the game can pick it up and start winning after playing few enough games to count on one hand.

  15. @Tokwana
    “Play skill is never obsolete , and I wish people would stop acting like it is.”

    I never said it was, I implied that it was lessened by a considerable amount. I think this is true and really I think it’s undeniable. You’re right, playskill will never be obsolete. It can be diminished though.

    For example, in Super Smash Bros. Melee or Street Fighter 3S/4 you have to be a very good player on the technical end (execution and adaptability) and on the strategy end as well.

    Then you have a game like SSB Brawl, which tries to eliminate so many of the execution and strategy elements that it lessens the game considerably. Including adding stupid ‘random’ stuff like tripping that neither player has any control over.

    Both require skill to win at a high level, however one set of games requires much more skill than the other with an unknown peak. The best are tops and it’s a considerable jump from one tier to that top point. Over the years that point will also become even higher unless the game sucks.

    For games like Brawl, you know where skill tends to flatten out and it’s common knowledge that it becomes a much easier game to play well at a high level in. At that point you’ve stopped the best from advancing and instead it comes down to a large group of ‘very good’ players trying to get lucky against one another.

  16. Efficient ways to destroy lands have a direct impact on deck design, which in turn encourages more skill in regards to deck building / optimization. It also puts more onus on learning how to properly evaluate hands in regards to risk.

    So yes, applying use of a land destruction spell is about as skillful as applying a Lightning Bolt. You pick what you believe will be the optimal target and let’em rip. However it creates a much more interesting dynamic in the metagame. Just think of how interesting last season would’ve been had something like Wasteland or Back to Basics existed.

    I understand why they won’t print LD, it isn’t fun and with Cascade it can produce broken monstrosities (people are playing Spreading Seas and Convincing Mirage and it kind of works FFS). However if you gave us a simple Stone Rain or Rain of Tears this format would be vastly different. Right now everyone is trying to out midrange one another, LD breaks that stalemate by allowing a more aggressive deck or a true aggro-control deck to attack from another angle.

    Counters are more arguable, but I have a hard time believing you can’t give blue Rune Snag or Mana Leak and it’d suddenly devestate the format. Right now creatures are beyond ridiculous and the best counters you can run either are narrow or too expensive for how efficient the opposing cards are. It’s like if you ran a deck of all removal against Jund, you wouldn’t get anywhere, because all their guys 2 for 1 or are more mana efficient than your shit.

  17. “At that point you've stopped the best from advancing and instead it comes down to a large group of ‘very good' players trying to get lucky against one another.”

    Which is, incidentally, how Olympic gymnastics has been described to me by an Olympic gymnast.

  18. Also, I so wish we had Mana Leak right now. I don’t even enjoy countering spells, and I wish we had Mana Leak in the format.

  19. @Alex: Thanks, there are very good writers here in Spain, but… so few!.
    Too much spanish articles are “copy paste” from US sites or (as said @Troll Slayer) articles on ‘my view of the top 8 decks without having ever played them or watched any of the games'.
    I believe that “Information is power” ok, but too much information (internet) maybe causes that “you can’t see the forest for the trees” I’ve see many times people that plays the exact 75 cards of a deck and don’t understand why are some cards there, don’t even stop and think about the local metagame in order to change the side!!
    I’m totally agree with Silvestri when he says “playing is far more important than the technical side of the game, but because that's repetitive and requires tedious work and time, people want to ignore it.”
    I’m a spanish blog writer and also have a video-blog, I write about my own tournaments, my choices and mostly about my mistakes, becouse I think that doing this I’ll remember better what not to do again.

  20. Alright, thanks for explaining your thought process on LD; I can see better what you mean now. And yes, Mana Leak would be nice to have back in the format. It would slow down the silly-fast meta that we’re facing right now.

  21. I sort of understand the Smash bros analogy but let’s use it again to provide a counterpoint. Imagine we have a Melee-like game whose characters have a bigger learning curve but, at the end, two characters are so far above the others that the competitive environment consists of nothing more than those two. Now put a Brawl-like game where the mechanics are less complicated, yet there are 8-10 characters that are equally strong, so the competitive environment sees more diversity. Which one is better? In terms of videogames, they may be equal but in Magic the deckbuilding and edge that can be gotten with cards give a whole new dimension to the comparison, making the second case better than the first one. That’s how I feel; a Faerie deck may have required more practice to play than Jund, but if you had the skill, choosing to play Faeries was far more obvious and trying to play another deck against it had little sense; in the end, where is the skill when the choice was so damn obvious?

  22. I’ll have to agree, a lot of Jund’s dominance comes from (in my opinion) the deck being easy to assemble, powerful, and relatively easy to play. And I also agree with the idea that a lot of builders are lazy. But, again, after Jund, the format is pretty well balanced. Jund isn’t so much good as it’s popular, I think.

    As far as the herd mentality thoughts are concerned, I direct everyone to this article: http://www.starcitygames.com/magic/fundamentals/12201_Information_Cascades_in_Magic.html It’s probably the best thing that Chapin has written, and it’s 100% valid in this situation.

  23. @jav

    Well in that case it comes down to sales figures and the nebulous use of ‘fun’ as a gauge. The problem I find with your counterpoint is that traditionally less complicated / unique points for decks or characters end up the same and boring after a while. Since there are no universal safeguards, you can’t push the envelope for fear of breaking the system. Right now for example, everything is effectively a creature-based midrange deck with slightly different cards except for Red and some lackluster tier 2 decks like Crypt Combo and G/R Valakut.

    So in essence it’s more of a question of, would you like a game that’s well-balanced, but generic in nature or an unbalanced game with only a few ‘right’ choices, but each one of them is powerful in a different way.

    The other problem with my initial analogy is that in the end, if you put enough work into it you can beat anybody with any character.There’s a famous example of this in Street Fighter Third Strike where the top player in Japan played half the cast to tournament wins, including two of the worst characters in the game. That simply can’t happen in Magic.

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  25. Being one of the people this cynicism is directed at… I must agree with every word you are saying. I desire to get better, but the environment I need to improve my play hasn’t materialized in front of me, and working towards building that environment so that I can work on my game sounds too much like work… I’m lazy. Probably the same reason I haven’t improved my chess game much at all since high school.

  26. Some thoughts:

    1) After the past two years of Faeries dominating and control countering everything, it is a nice change of pace to see an aggro environment. What is the point of set rotations if the environments are minor variations of the same thing?

    2) More importantly, regarding what appears to be your condescending attitude, specifically referring to people asking for clarifications as “harassing the author”, if your target audience doesn’t understand what you are saying, it isn’t the audience’s fault; it is yours. What little I remember about English 101 and Public Speaking 201 is – do not assume the audience is just going to make the same assumptions you are.

    For an illustration of this, say this statement out loud: My Magic decks are designed very niggardly. Now, the actual meaning of that sentence is that I spend as little money as possible on my decks, but it sure doesn’t sound like that’s what I’m saying. Most people wouldn’t know that niggardly is an old English word meaning spending as little as possible. Hence, the author has the responsibility to be clear about what he is saying.

  27. I’ve just returned to Magic after a 10-year hiatus (damn you, Xbox Live!) and a couple of things rang really true here – the lack of centralised magic theory, discussion and coverage sites, and the generally snide and unpleasant tone of most user comments on articles such as these – especially on this site, it seems. Too many people seem to want to score a cheap point by attacking an obvious fringe element of the article (in the fashion of an enormous jerk) rather than discuss the general principles.

    On the other hand places and articles like this are great for time-limited scrubs like me who are trying to get back up to speed in a hurry. More please!

  28. 1) I think it’s possible you’re underestimating the portion of your audience that actually wants to “succeed” in Magic. Understand that for every one of us who put in the effort when it comes to testing and practice, there are ten guys out there who go to FNM instead of a bar (and bless them for that), and the bar they set for themselves is much lower. There is nothing wrong with this. Don’t confuse the two groups!

    2) You are 100% spot on about PV’s writing. My $x/month over there is worth it just for his articles alone.

    3) Good luck this weekend, SF4 is great although I miss Dudley / Ibuki from 3. Do you like Tekken 6 at all?

  29. I like Tekken 6 a bit, but I haven’t played Tekken competitively since TAG TEAM. 😀

    That said, I think Rage is on the same stupid scale as Ultras and the character designs have gotten way too far out there for being only martial arts based.

  30. It’s great fun reading a guy who so often plays rdw and burn complain about June and demand cards that require decisions to be made.

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