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Decisions and Magic – Why Blue is Best


Blue has historically been the best color, but why is that true? You might answer and say that blue is the color that most skilled players play. That’s true, and it’s because blue is the color that most allows better players to leverage their skills over lesser players. And that’s because blue is the most skill-intensive color. Being skill-intensive is absolutely crucial for any competitive event because skill is the only reasonable way of differentiating various competitors. Thus, in any competitive setting, there must be a reasonable level of skill-intensiveness—otherwise, the better competitors would not be consistently able to rise to the top.

There are essentially two types of skill-intensiveness: physical and mental. Physical skill-intensiveness focuses on the ability to refine and perform certain physical tasks with a great degree of consistency (for example, throwing a baseball on target from various distances). Mental skill-intensiveness relates only to one thing: decisions.

So once again, we return to the question, “Why is blue the best color in Magic?” The answer is very simple: Blue is the color that allows the player to make the most decisions. Why is this so important? To understand this, we have to understand the following basic principle of games:

The more decisions a game allows you to make, the more skill-testing it is.

The progression of this is, “The more decisions a game forces you to make, the more skill-intensive it is.” Why is this true? Because decision-making is the only reasonable way to differentiate skill. In a physical game, you differentiate levels of skill by having players perform a small subset of actions repeatedly. The player or players who perform those actions the most consistently will rise to the top. In a mental game, the only real test you can issue is to ask players to make decisions within the framework of a specific set of rules. Those decisions then play out, and one person wins or loses.

Let’s see how this plays out in actuality. Consider a game like rock-paper-scissors. Within any small sample size, rock-paper-scissors is essentially random. It can be played to a certain degree of skill (there is, after all, a Rock-Paper-Scissors World Championship), but for the most part, the game is essentially random. Why is this? Because the decision tree is extremely small. Each player only has three choices: rock, paper, or scissors. Because of the small number of choices and the limited ability of each player to make decisions, the game is not very skill-intensive.

Now, compare rock-paper-scissors to another rather simple game: Minesweeper. Minesweeper definitely has a higher degree of skill differentiation. I have seen people beat expert-level Minesweeper in around two to three minutes, which is fairly impressive. I can beat it, but my times are usually in the ten-minute range. Minesweeper is not all that complicated, but it does present the player with significantly more decision points (and thus a larger decision tree). Keep in mind that every single square you look at in Minesweeper is its own separate decision point—flag or click. While many decisions are relatively obvious, it doesn’t change the fact that Minesweeper has a very large binary decision tree.

The thing to look at with Minesweeper is another aspect of decision trees: triviality. A trivial decision is one for which the choice is clear and obvious within the parameters of the game. Minesweeper is a game that presents the player with a lot of decisions, but many of them are trivial. Often, the flag or click result is known to the player based on information already possessed, making it the ultimate trivial decision.

Finally, we have a game like chess, which, I think everyone would agree, is a highly skill-intensive game. So, what about decision points in chess? Well, each individual move for each player is a decision point, and there are a number of possibilities at each point. White has twenty possibilities for the opening move (sixteen pawn moves and four knight moves). Black has the exact same possibilities on his first turn. Thus, solely based on the opening moves for each player, there are four hundred possible combinations. Expanding to the first four moves, there are over three hundred billion possible combinations of chess moves. That is many possible decisions indeed.

Chess is a game that forces players to make a number of subtle evaluations (each a decision point) and make moves based on the results of those evaluations (also decision points). Because of the large number of decision points in a typical chess game, chess is very good at skill differentiation. Chess presents players with the opportunity to make many decisions both trivial and non-trivial, and thus a better player will defeat a lesser player the vast majority of the time.

So, how does this relate to Magic?

Magic is also a game of skill, and thus Magic, fundamentally, is a game of decisions. Thus, it stands to reason that the greater the number of decisions, the greater the skill involved. This, in general, holds true for Magic.

It’s often said that aggro decks are easier to play than control decks, and for the most part, I agree with that statement. The reason is that aggro decks present far fewer non-trivial decision points than control decks. This is why you see more good players playing control than aggro. Good players want to win, and to do so, the best course of action is to leverage skill advantage. Doing so requires the ability to make good decisions, and a control deck presents players many more opportunities to make relevant decisions. After all, you aren’t going to decline to play your Wild Nacatl on turn one, but you might very well decline to play a Swords to Plowshares to kill it. Thus, everything skill-related comes back to this idea of decisions. Let’s take a look at this phenomenon in detail.

Why Creature Is the Worst Card Type in Magic

I firmly believe that creature is the worst card type in Magic. Why do I believe this? We return to the concept of decisions. In general, there are two types of creatures: creatures that act like spells, and all the other creatures. I categorize these creatures as follows:

  • Creatures that act as spells are played primarily because of a specific effect (usually an enters-the-battlefield ability), and being a creature is an added benefit. Examples include Shriekmaw, Eternal Witness, and Snapcaster Mage.
  • The other creatures are those played for their ability to attack and block (or affect attacking and blocking), and any ability outside that is the icing on the cake. Examples include Hero of Oxid Ridge, Lord of Atlantis, and Tarmogoyf.

Creatures that are played as spells often have the same properties as spells because the timing of the effect is very important, but many creatures are played and designed for their ability to attack and block, and these creatures that act like creatures are the cards that I consider the worst card type in Magic. This is because of the fundamental limitation inherent in this approach to the game. How so? Decisions once again.

When you have a normal creature, there is only a single decision point each turn: attacking and/or blocking. Having a decision point every turn seems reasonable, but when you actually examine it, you realize that the decision is often a trivial one. Frequently, the answer about whether to attack or block is extremely obvious. This is especially true in Constructed where people don’t block very much.

So, why are spells better? You can only cast a spell once, and then it is gone forever, so what makes them so powerful? With a creature, you have a decision point every turn it is around—even after you cast it. With a spell, you have a decision point every turn it is around until you cast it, then none, so don’t creatures create more decision points?

The short answer: Technically, yes. The long answer: Creatures create less important decision points.

The inherent property of instants and sorceries that makes them powerful is the exact same principle that might seem to restrict their decision trees: the one-shot nature of the effect. By only being a one-shot effect, many instants and sorceries have an extremely powerful effect on the game immediately. A card like Praetor's Counsel is a great example of this. How many Commander games have you seen simply end because someone resolved a Praetor's Counsel? What about Tooth and Nail or Time Stretch? These are all examples of extremely powerful effects that are only printable because they are on instants and sorceries.

I’ve spoken about the ability to threaten instants and sorceries being an important part of successfully playing with those cards. This introduces an interesting decision point that many people fail to realize: Not casting an instant or sorcery is an important part of playing them, and thus casting them is a non-trivial decision. In essence, the necessity in many instances to decline to play an instant or sorcery in an otherwise favorable spot is a huge part of their decision tree.

The archetypal example of this is Wrath of God. I wrote about that card a number of weeks ago and looked at a game in which LSV casts Day of Judgment way too early and showed how that caused a cascade of failure in his ability to respond to other threats, eventually costing him the game. The ability to threaten a card like Wrath of God is so important to the power of a spell that, in many instances, declining to cast it is correct. Every time you are presented with an opportunity to cast a powerful instant or sorcery like Wrath of God, you are presented with a non-trivial decision on the usage of the card. Thus, it is possible for you to never have cast Wrath of God the entire game, and for that decision to be correct.

This is often not the case with creatures. Because creatures do nothing until they hit the board, putting them on the table is always correct. Declining to “use” a creature is always incorrect. Thus, the decision of whether or not to use it is a trivial one. I’ve already gone into attacking and blocking decisions and how they are frequently trivial, thus, the actual number of non-trivial decisions the average creature presents you with is actually quite small.

What about cards like Eternal Witness or Snapcaster Mage, though? Well, like I said, those creatures frequently hold the properties of instants and sorceries. Why? The timing of the effect is extremely important, thus, declining to use the Regrowth on Witness or the Recoup on Snapcaster Mage has value—just as declining to use Wrath of God has value. Inherently, creatures like Eternal Witness and Snapcaster Mage present the player with far more non-trivial decision points, and are thus far more skill-testing. In practice, they operate more like spells than creatures.

Looking at Blue: Why Blue Is Tops

So, what does this have to do with blue?


Blue is the best because blue is the color of decisions. Blue is the best because blue, due to its core mechanics, allows the player to make the most relevant decisions and thus have the largest impact on the game. This property of promoting decision-making is the single reason that so many good players are drawn to play blue and why blue has historically been the best color in Magic’s history.

One of the biggest constraints in Magic is the fact that you can only draw one card per turn. This means that your decision tree has, in general, a relatively finite expansion rate. Because you can only add one card per turn, you can only realistically add so many decisions per turn. There are exceptions for this (Survival of the Fittest being an excellent example), but for the most part, this is the way it works.

Blue, however, breaks this rule very often. Think about what drawing extra cards means from a decision standpoint, though. Each extra card drawn is worth its own decision tree. Think about that for a moment. You are starting an entirely new decision tree each with each and every card you draw. If one of those trees leads to another card-draw spell, you have created another entire nested decision tree within the one you started with your first spell. Thus, from a decision standpoint, the ability to draw cards causes a huge, exponential expansion in your decision tree. Not only do you have to consider when to play your card-draw spell, but there also is a decision tree expansion that comes afterward.

Consider the core mechanics of the other four colors: white, black, red, and green. None of those has a core, fundamental mechanistic focus that expands decision trees anywhere near as much as blue’s core mechanic of card drawing. This mechanic has been bled into other colors, but fundamentally, it’s still a blue mechanic, and it’s a huge part of blue’s dominance.

Why has black been historically the second-best color in Magic? The answer is simple: Black is the second-best color at card manipulation. Black has access to cards like Skeletal Scrying, Night's Whisper, Plunge into Darkness, Demonic Consultation, Demonic Tutor, Vampiric Tutor, Phyrexian Arena, and many more that allow the black player to manipulate his draws much like the blue player. This expansion of decision making is often what is leveraged within the game, and black’s ability to do so is second only to blue.

However, card drawing alone wouldn’t push blue to the level of dominance that it has had over the course of Magic’s history. Why? Because card drawing comes at a cost: time. The fact that card drawing costs time (and extra mana) is a natural damper on the power of the effect. It makes drawing cards powerful, but not insurmountable. So, what pushes blue over the top?

Take a look:

This is certainly the effect that not only makes blue what it is, but that gives blue the power to be blue and be the color of decisions. All the card manipulation and card drawing that blue has would be significantly weaker without counterspells backing them up. There are two main properties of counterspells that are incredibly important at making blue as powerful as it is.

Let’s look at counterspells from the perspective of decisions. Remember what I said earlier about declining to use an instant or sorcery being a very important part of playing the card and a non-trivial decision? Nowhere is this more apparent than with counterspells. Because of the flexible nature of counterspells, using them on the correct spell is a huge part of playing them well. By the nature of playing counterspells, you will decline to counter more often than you will counter. Every single time you reach a counter-or-not point it is a non-trivial decision.

Why is this important? Because every single spell played when you have the mana open is a counter-or-not point. You always have the option of using Counterspell, and that is what makes the card so powerful. It makes it a far more powerful defensive option than even the best removal spells because of the ability to deal with every type of spell and every strategy. There is a reason the defining card in Legacy and Vintage is Force of Will.

This is the decision-making property of counterspells—there is no other single card type in Magic that forces you to make more non-trivial decisions. Thus, there is no single card type or category that allows you to leverage your skill as much as counterspells do.

Now, if we return to the basic principle of skill games (decisions equal skill), we see how blue holds a huge advantage over other colors in terms of the ability to make decisions. Blue has the two mechanics (counterspells and card-draw) that create the most non-trivial decisions. This alone would push blue to the top. But there is one last little cookie—the icing on blue’s proverbial skill-based cake.

Think again what the primary disadvantage of card drawing is: time. The biggest cost to drawing cards is the mana (time) you invest in the ability to draw more spells. Those spells don’t actually do anything until you cast them, so that extra mana you sink in is mana that isn’t being spent on other things. Thus, in order to effectively use card-draw, you have to have time to use the cards you draw.

Now, think about what counterspells do. Counterspells are phenomenally good at one thing: buying time. Sure, counterspells don’t actually catch you up on the table, but they are tremendous at making sure you don’t fall further behind. This means that they are second to none in the ability to purchase time from a mediocre board state. They allow you to hold the state constant and predict what you need to do to maximize the amount of time your other spells purchase.

The interaction between these two should be obvious to you now. Counterspells enable the blue player to buy the time necessary to use the cards he draws from his card-drawing. In effect, the interactions between two is an automatic, decision-maximizing scenario. Blue, through its two core mechanics, forces the player into a situation in which he is maximizing the number and effectiveness of his non-trivial decisions.

That is why blue is best.


I feel that blue will continue to be the best color in Magic as long as card-drawing, card-manipulation, and counterspells remain fundamentally blue mechanics. The reason for this is that the combination of those mechanics makes blue far and away the color of maximizing decisions, and thus the color of increased skill. Sure, other colors will have powerful tools, but those will come and go. The one constant that has been—and will be for the foreseeable future—is that blue is the color of decisions.

This is why you need to play blue if you want to become better at Magic, and it’s why you will continue to play blue if you value winning at Magic. This is why so many good players gravitate toward the color. Blue is skill-intensive because its core mechanics force it to be so, and until that changes, blue will remain blue, and it will remain the best color in Magic.

So, how do you become better at Magic? Make more decisions. In other words, play blue.

Chingsung Chang

Conelead most everywhere and on MTGO

Khan32k5 at gmail dot com

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