Tiny Edge #3: Play Exactly 60 Cards

Most of the edges you can get in Magic come from a macro-perspective. They’re about choosing the right deck for an event, or understanding that you should adopt an aggressive posture instead of a defensive one. Those are singular decisions that will radically change your win percentage—choose a bad deck, and you’ll win 40% of your games; choose a good one, and you might win 60%. Go aggressive at exactly the right moment, and you might swing a game that you could otherwise never win. This type of big strategic decision is where I feel I personally have the biggest edge, even among PT competitors.

There are, however, a series of small things you can do that will also give you an edge in a tournament. By themselves, each will each increase your win percentage by a tiny amount—say, a quarter of a percent, or half a percent—but once you add up 10 or 20 of them, then the increased win rate becomes noticeable. Most professional players already do those things regularly, so if you do not do them or do not realize they are being done, you’re letting them get ahead of you.

In Tiny Edges, I talk about one small change you can incorporate into your game play to win just slightly more than you do now. Some of them will be basic, and some will be more complex. Hopefully, once the series is done, the tiny edges will group together to give you a significant edge over your opponent.

Tiny Edge #3: Play Exactly 60 Cards

A couple of days ago, BDM posted a question on Facebook: “41 cards in Limited—sometimes, always, or never?” No one answered “always” (thank God), but quite a few people answered “sometimes,” which I think is a mistake. Playing 40 cards (or 60 in Constructed) is simply better than the alternative, and if you don’t, you’re giving up a tiny edge.

Most of the time, when we start to play, we don’t realize that fewer cards is better. When you tell people that the lower limit is 60 but there’s no upper limit, a common reaction is, “so I could just play 500 cards if I wanted?” Yes, you could, but you shouldn’t want to if your goal is to win. The reason why you should not play 500 is the same reason why you should not play 61.

When you have a deck of 60 (or 40) cards, those are the best 60 cards—if they weren’t the best, then they wouldn’t be in the deck. Once you add a 61st card, you’re adding a card of a lower value to you than the first 60 (or it would have been in the original 60 to begin with). As a result, the average value of your deck went down.

There are two main arguments used to justify 61/41:

1) “The ratio is better when I play 41.”

If you play 40 cards and 17 lands, your deck is 42.5% lands. If you play 16 lands, your deck is 40% lands. Some people argue that the correct ratio for certain decks is between 40% and 42.5%, so they play 41/17, which gives you 41.46% lands.

Technically, there could be decks that want 41.46% lands. But a) it’s far beyond our ability to accurately calculate that you need 41.46% as opposed to 42%, and b) it’s not free—you’re doing damage to your overall card quality by playing 41 cards, so even if the perfect ratio is actually 41.46%, there’s a chance you’re making your deck worse anyway.

Given that we cannot accurately calculate what the perfect ratio is, and given that we know that adding a card has a downside, it’s silly to ever use that as a reason.

2) “I don’t know what to cut, so I’m going to cut nothing to avoid making a big mistake.”

This reason is a bit better, but still flawed because even though you don’t know which of the 3 cards you should cut, you know that they’re all worse than the cards you’re not considering cutting (otherwise you’d be considering those as well). You’re never going to have identical power and importance levels in your cards, be it in Limited or in Constructed, and you’re going to see your best cards more often if you play the minimum allowed.

Is it possible that you’re making a mistake? Yes. But how big of a mistake can it really be if you know that all the cards you’re considering cutting are worse than the ones you’re not considering cutting?

In a scenario where the average card in your deck is a 9 and you’re deciding between 2 cards that are 8.4s or 8.5s, then it’s still better to cut one of them—at random, if need be—than to play 41. Even in a spot where you end up cutting the 8.5 and keeping the 8.4, you’re better off than if you had both in your deck.

3) “I’ve seen player X play 41 and win.”

Playing 41/61 is bad, but it’s a small mistake—that’s why it’s a tiny edge. It’s possible to play 64 cards in Constructed and get 2nd in a GP. Ben Rubin did that a couple of years ago. But that doesn’t mean it’s better. It’s possible to mulligan to 6 and still win, but you wouldn’t say someone won because they started with 6 cards, just like you shouldn’t say Ben Rubin won because he played 64—he won despite playing 64. Make no mistake—he was handicapping himself there, and so are you if you do it.

Are there exceptions? Yes, there will be rare spots where it’s the correct thing to do, but those are so, so rare, that the answer might as well be “never.” Makihito Mihara, for example, played a Valakut deck with 68 cards because he needed Mountains to Scapeshift but couldn’t afford to play 70% mana sources. There are rare scenarios where you’ll side to 41 in draft—if your opponent has Worship, for example. But those cases are, again, very rare, and it’s almost impossible to find a build that actually wants to maindeck 41 cards (as opposed to siding in a 41st). In my professional career, I’ve never felt like it was correct to play 61 or 41.

If you think you’re facing an exception, one of those rare moments where it’s correct to play 41 or 61, it’s likely that you’re wrong. For all intents and purposes, the answer to “when do I play 41/61?” is “never.” And if you think your particular deck is an exception, then you’re just fooling yourself—and giving up a tiny win percentage edge to your opponent.

2 thoughts on “Tiny Edge #3: Play Exactly 60 Cards”

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