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Systems and Magic, Part 2 – Cascades & Influence


The impact of thinking about Magic as a system rather than a series of discrete events affects the way you approach the game, but it doesn’t necessarily result in revelation. I feel that conceptually unifying all the disparate elements of the game into a single approach (a system) helps to show the interconnectedness of everything. Seeing each game, even each situation, as a union of a variety of factors will shed new light on the game for learning the various angles that exist. Bringing everything together under a single approach makes things easier to consider and analyze. Let’s take a look at this idea in a little more detail.

The Butterfly Effect

No situation in Magic is the result of a single factor. You, as a player, need to weigh various elements and decide which takes precedence in a given situation.

You can say that Magic is simply a bunch of individual game states strung together. You would be right in many cases. What’s also true is that Magic is at its best when an individual game state has relationships with the game states in its immediate vicinity. It has, in some way, derived itself from previous game stats and has, in some way, influenced a subsequent game state. This goes back to the points I made two weeks ago on interactivity. Interactive situations arise from one another, and thus create a sense of flow and continuity within games, which is more fun than games in which one player simply wins.

I see this all the time at FNMs and prereleases (I’m guilty of it, too). One friend asks another, “How’d it go?” and the other friend responds with something like, “Oh, we both played some dudes and some removal and traded a bit, then he got and I lost because I had no answer.” Now, sometimes this is actually just a player losing to a single card he has no way of dealing with. Examples of cards like this are Gideon Jura, Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Sometimes, your opponent just has a nutso card that you can’t deal with.

Still, how many times in those situations does the responding player go back through the entire game and look at whether there was any possible way he could have changed things so that he had an answer to whatever it was his opponent beat him with? Frequently, the player won’t do this. What he’ll frequently do is look at the one to two turns surrounding whenever the card in question showed up. He will then determine that there really was nothing he could have done about it, but fail to look earlier in the game to see if there was an earlier point at which he could have changed the flow of the game.

I see this with aggro players quite frequently. Many of these players will lose games they could have otherwise won because they weren’t insufficiently aggressive with their midgame spells. For example, a player will get to a point at which his opponent is between 12 and 15 life but has weathered the initial rush of creatures. Then, he’ll play a second wave but be unsure how aggressive to be. Is it right to wait extra turns to get activations out of Grim Lavamancer to kill his opponents’ Squadron Hawks so that he can get through with his other guys, or should he simply run his X/1’s and X/2’s into Hawks? I will see players opt for the Lavamancer option and then complain when their opponent tables a Wurmcoil Engine four or five turns later. Here, the Red player is put in a situation in which he has to weigh the relative merits of card disadvantage against tempo disadvantage, and I find that when this choice comes up, many people choose incorrectly. Of course, I choose incorrectly many times as well, but understanding why you make the mistakes you do will help you become a better player.

When you look at any individual situation, it is important to go back through the situations that generated that situation. Sometimes, you can avoid it altogether because Magic is an interactive game and your opponent is forced to respond to the way you are playing.

Let’s look at a simple example, which will bring us into the second point.

You are playing Texas hold ’em poker at a table. You’ve had a number of pots wherein you checked to a player who had position on you and you folded to his bet. Now, you’ve put yourself in all those situations by checking to the player who has position on you. If you notice this at a table, you can change your play a bit by opening the range of hands you bet with. If you make a small protection bet, you force the other players behind you to react to the fact that you may, in fact, have a strong hand. It is likely that you will just avoid some of those situations where you are facing the “call-or-not-call” dilemma because your opponents will simply fold.

Playing to the Player

It’s important to consider various possible interactions outside the current game state—your opponent being the biggest such factor.

The poker situation above is just a simple example of this point in action. Your opponent has a huge amount of influence over how a game proceeds, and how he plays should dictate how you play. For a simple example, let’s look again at a post-round conversation between two hypothetical players.

Location: SCG Open after Round 3

Player A: How’d it go?

Player B (playing Solar Flare): Oh, my opponent was playing mono-Red. He won the die roll, and in Game 1, I kept an awesome-looking hand that was slow and he ran me over. Game 2, I never found a White source, and he killed me.

Player A: What’d you keep Game 1?

Player B: Oh, three lands—something like Swamp, Isolated Chapel, Drowned Catacomb, plus four spells: two Forbidden Alchemy, Mana Leak, Snapcaster Mage.

Player A: Seems fine. Who were you playing?

Player B: Patrick Sullivan.

Player A: Face-palms.

In the dark, the Solar Flare hand looks decent, if a bit slow. Against an unknown opponent, keeping two Forbidden Alchemy, Mana Leak, Snapcaster Mage, and three lands is a perfectly fine thing to do. But, you do know who your opponent is.

Against Patrick Sullivan, that hand is a snap-mulligan. While it’s possible that Patrick Sullivan isn’t playing mono-Red, it’s very likely that he is in fact playing his favorite deck. If he is, that hand has almost zero chance of beating any reasonable seven cards from mono-Red, and thus is a hand that you should throw back. As you can see, it’s possible for your opponent to influence the game simply by his mere presence in the game. Various decisions you make in the game have to take into account not just what you are playing against, but who is playing it. Sure, your opponent is playing a deck, but he is also a real live person, and you have to remember that in the game.

Draw spells are another great, simple example of this. In the control mirror, card advantage is important, and people know this. However, they don’t always make the correct decision when it comes to countering the draw spell. I’ll go through two examples of this.

At the beginning of the last Standard format, I was playing W/U control through a sea of U/B and Valakut, and I had a very powerful weapon: Jace's Ingenuity. In the U/B versus W/U matchup, Jace's Ingenuity frequently gave me the advantage because it allowed me to draw more cards than my opponent (after all, we had the same number of Jaces). Also, the denser counter suite I possessed helped me resolve my draw spells more effectively and therefore run the U/B player out of gas. Knowing this, I would frequently run my Jace's Ingenuity out as soon as I had 5 mana (at the end of the opponent’s turn, obviously), just to see if he would counter it. Sometimes he wouldn’t.

After I figured out whether my opponent would counter Jace's Ingenuity, I attempted to use that fact against him. If he didn’t think about it and quickly let it resolve, I would cast the spell at the optimal position for my hand, using it to filter through draws and sculpt a good hand with which to go into the inevitable sequence of counter wars and Jace wars. If he was the type of player who would counter Jace's Ingenuity, I would plan to use the card to draw counterspells, leaving him lighter on critical defensive spells when I played the real backbreaker: Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Sometimes, I would even fight a little bit over my Ingenuity, just to put him in an even bigger no-win situation. For me, Jace's Ingenuity was a card the use of which changed depending on the type of control matchup I was playing, and this depended heavily on my opponent—specifically on whether he would attempt to counter this card on a regular basis.

The best example of this, though, is from an older format that many of you probably don’t remember: Invasion/Odyssey Standard. During that time, Standard was dominated by what, at the time, was considered the best creature ever printed: Psychatog. Dr. Teeth was rampant, and the best players in the world were all playing him. In 2002, Worlds was all about Psychatog . . . and all about what the players who did well had figured out—that Fact or Fiction wasn’t the end all, be all.

You see, at the time, there was a saying: EOTFOFYL (End of Turn, Fact or Fiction, You Lose). People said it because it was true. Fact or Fiction was so powerful that in many situations, a single resolved Fact or Fiction meant that the game was over. Thus, early Psychatog mirrors revolved not around the namesake card, but around Fact or Fiction. It was very common for Psychatog players to play fewer than the full number of Psychatogs (two to three happened pretty often) and simply rely on Fact or Fiction to find and resolve the U/B creature. But eventually players realized a simple fact: You can beat a resolved Fact or Fiction in the Psychatog mirror. The only spells that actually mattered in that matchup were Upheaval and Psychatog, and your opponent could realistically only have six total copies of those cards (two Upheavals was standard for most of Psychatog’s run). In a good number of situations, it was simply correct to let Fact or Fiction resolve. This was something that took a lot of players a little while to figure out and revolutionized the Psychatog mirror from a tactics standpoint. The players who did well were the ones who figured this out quickly.

The role of draw spells in any individual control mirror is very subjective and relates to the players at hand. The willingness of the players to pull the trigger on counterspells against these powerful draw engines frequently defines the way the games play out. Understanding where your opponent lies on this spectrum and exploiting that is absolutely crucial to victory. If your opponent is afraid of Fact or Fiction, exploit it. Let him counter your Fact or Fiction, and then win the fight over Psychatog, and you’ll be fine. If your opponent has a tendency to let Fact or Fiction resolve too often, bludgeon him to death with the card advantage.

Considering how your opponent plays is absolutely crucial to being successful at Magic, but he isn’t the only external factor that influences a game. Your own personal stylistic preferences, luck, and unknown information all have an impact. You have to consider how those various factors all come together and influence the game state you are in.

The purpose here is not to present any new information, but to present a different approach. Everything stated above is already known, but if you stop thinking about Magic as a series of discrete events and start thinking about it as a simple system (in the vein of economics, but, in fact, much simpler), you begin to think about this sort of thing automatically. Instead of having to actively think about what your opponent could possibly have or why your opponent did what he did, the answers become clearer if you simply use a unified approach.

I feel that the unified approach has some other benefits from a theoretical standpoint as well, and we’ll delve into one of the bigger issues next week: tempo. Thinking about Magic as a system and not as a series of discrete events and game states will help players who have trouble grasping the concept of tempo to understand it.

Chingsung Chang

Conelead most everywhere and on MTGO

Khan32k5 at gmail dot com

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