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Systems and Magic


I was planning on writing about some more nitty-gritty things today—specifically about the aggro-versus-control matchup. However, I came to a realization, and felt it important to explore this new idea I had. It relates to a new way of thinking about the game . . . in viewing Magic as a whole—as a system. I intend to lay out some general ideas and principles here in order to explain the idea as a whole.

What if we draw an analogy between Magic and economics? Any given game of Magic shares many similarities with economics, but only when viewed from an ideological, systemic standpoint. Consider that both are based on small numbers of executable exchanges that can be combined in a number of ways and that generate a complex system because of it.

These are the basic exchanges in economics:

  • You can trade a good for a service.
  • You can trade a good for a good.
  • You can trade a service for a good.
  • You can trade a service for a service.

But wait, what about money? We never actually trade our labor for a book; we are paid for our work and then go buy the book. So, every trade is actually conducted with money, right? Technically, this is correct, but from a theoretical standpoint, money is simply a scale on which trades are evaluated—a universally accepted, symbolic scale we use to facilitate the above four exchanges. (Note: To people who want the “official” definition from Econ 101, yes, it also stores value and provides a means of exchange, but these are dependent on the standard system of measurement.)

So, what is our analogous setup in Magic? Well, let’s take a look:

  • You can cast a spell.
  • You can activate an ability.
  • You can engage in combat (attack or block) with a creature.

The system we use for two of these exchanges should be mostly familiar to you: the mana system. As a whole, mana is the means by which we conduct our “business” in a game of Magic. In a sense, mana within Magic operates much like money in an economic sense, facilitating your exchanges and the continued advancement of your game plan. This is similar to how money operates in economics; it acts as a resource that enables a business to acquire or use other resources to generate profit.

When people think about Magic, they tend to think in terms of individual, discrete events. We do cost/benefit analysis on the basic principle that each play has a definitive result—a creature dies, damage is dealt, cards are drawn, and so on. This basic idea or principle causes us to generate simple “theories” about how to play the game. In reality, these conceptual approaches are not fully developed theories, but rather rudimentary models—much like microeconomic models—that reflect certain types of interactions. These models assist us both in building decks and in making decisions while we play, but like economic models, they are also painfully incomplete. Each model helps to describe one type of interaction, but none have a broad enough view to tell us when the model no longer applies, when another model takes precedence, or over what time frame we should be using it.

However, if we take a broader, more systemic view, maybe we can develop a new way of thinking about Magic that will enable us to make better plays and determine what models we should apply when, and how the models should be applied to a given game state. If we start thinking about Magic as a system of interactions, we are forced to consider how various unique models interact, thus revealing new folds in gameplay and helping us better understand the system we are examining.

Keeping all of this in mind, let’s first describe the core analogy—that is, the systemic view we want to be taking—and then we can move on to discuss how this mode of thinking applies to particular game states.

To begin, remember that any given Magic game is comprised of a series of exchanges, both between two players and between a player and the system (the game). Each of these exchanges has consequences, both immediate and in the future, even if the player is not able to see them at the time. Magic games are games of opportunity, and taking advantage of these opportunities is absolutely crucial to success.

In this respect, Magic is sort of like competing companies. Companies in the same industry compete for market share and business. Each company has a business model, a guiding principle that it follows. This is like your deck’s strategy in Magic. Business models allow companies to differentiate themselves from their competition, which gives them the opportunity to establish advantages. These advantages, if exploited correctly, translate into profit and increased success (market share). Magic is similar. Understanding your strategy and operating it with consistency will generate various advantages for you. These advantages are what you use to bring yourself success (in this case: winning the game).

Note: On the other hand, it is also important to remember that your deck’s strategy is just the principle under which it operates . . . not a hard-and-fast rule. There will be times when you need to diverge from the core principle of your deck in order to win a game, just as companies need to take advantage of certain unforeseen opportunities that present themselves.

Another major aspect I want to point out is that Magic is a game of imperfect information. Just as companies are frequently in the dark regarding their competitors’ plans, you also don’t have perfect knowledge of your opponent’s hand. Still, just as companies can use corporate espionage, we have spells that give us a view of the opponent’s hand in a game (e.g., Duress), and play-testing prior to a tournament gives us information about what types of lines of play we should expect from our opponents, enabling us to position ourselves to counter multiple lines of attack. This is where theories like card advantage and the “philosophy of fire” help us. By using these models, we have a basis on which to predict our opponent’s behavior, allowing us to act in unfamiliar situations. This is the primary advantage of the existing models that we possess.

In this respect, things like card advantage are models. They exist because the basic principles and ideas outlined and used in the models do in fact broadly correlate with successful strategies and lines of play. However, it is important to realize that models are just models, and while their predictive nature is useful, they don’t always show what is actually going on.

The easiest way to show this is to look at scientific models—Newtonian physics, for example. There is nothing actively wrong with Newtonian physics; it just breaks down after a certain point. Newtonian physics correctly and accurately models the motions of large bodies, the particle properties of which far outweigh their wave properties. When you get down to the atomic and subatomic level, it just stops working. This doesn’t mean the model is useless; it just means that we need to be careful how we use it.

In the end, models are designed for utilitarian reasons. We create theories and models as ways of simplifying and approaching a problem. Because each Magic game is such a complex problem in its own right, we need a way of simplifying and approaching it. Thus, we have basic Magic theory, and I do stress the term basic. Much like Newtonian physics, Magic theory only provides us with an idea of how things actually work. Unlike Newtonian physics, there is no decisive point at which it becomes inaccurate, but it is important to note that Magic theory is more of a set of guidelines than actual rules.

Let’s delve into an actual example.

Let’s say you are playing a deck with Duress against a Pyromancer Ascension deck, but that is your only real way of interacting with the deck’s namesake card. You have no relevant play on turn one or two outside of that. You don’t have counterspells or enchantment removal main-deck. You have the ability to cast and play Duress on turn one on the draw after your opponent opens with a first-turn Mountain. Do you?

A lot of people will play Duress here. Why? Because there is a legitimate chance that the opponent has the Pyromancer Ascension. You might even say that this play is the “best” play, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the correct play.

Let’s take a look at two possible situations your opponent could be in.

Case 1: Your opponent has Pyromancer Ascension, Preordain, Preordain, Lightning Bolt, and two Islands. The top eight cards of his library are, in order: Call to Mind, Mountain, Island, See Beyond, Island, Lightning Bolt, Mana Leak, See Beyond.

Case 2: Your opponent has Lightning Bolt, Preordain, Preordain, Mana Leak, and two Islands. The top eight cards of his library are, in order: Call to Mind, Pyromancer Ascension, Island, See Beyond, Island, Lightning Bolt, Mana Leak, See Beyond.

Note the incredible similarity between the two situations. Given your deck in Case 1, it is obviously correct to play the Duress on turn one, since it gives you the best chance of winning. You can take his Pyromancer Ascension, and because that is by far the best card in his deck for your Duress to hit, you have maximized both the effectiveness of that card and your ability to win the game.

However, in Case 2 it is objectively correct to wait until turn two. Why? The best card you can take by playing it on turn one is either the Lightning Bolt or the Mana Leak. However, there is a significant chance that your opponent draws Call to Mind and plays Preordain. If he does, he will end up with a Pyromancer Ascension in his hand but no way to defend it. If you Duress him immediately after that, you will take a much better card with your Duress. If he doesn’t, your Duress is likely to be Mana Leaked anyway, so in the end you really aren’t losing that much.

If you are in Case 2, however, you have no real way of knowing the actual situation you are in. This is due to imperfect information. You have no idea what cards are in your opponent’s hand, what cards he will draw, or how he will use them. If your opponent is the type of player who will leave up Lightning Bolt on turn one, play Preordain, and leave up Lightning Bolt on turn two, you should wait; otherwise, it probably doesn’t make that big of a difference when you actually play the Duress. The point is that you are lacking critical information that influences what the actual correct line of play is. Given perfect information, it is possible to determine what the objectively correct play is. Without perfect information, we’re left searching for the best line of play, which may be subjective.

The final thing that is important to realize is the interaction cascades that systems create. Every action has a ripple effect that causes changes in decisions and other reactions across the game. Looking at the sort of chain reactions and effects a play can cause is important to understanding the system and how a single individual decision can be blown up. A simple example is in order.

You are playing Grixis Faeries with Jace, the Mind Sculptor against Zoo in the older Extended format. You open with a first-turn Scalding Tarn, and your opponent opens with a first-turn Wild Nacatl and passes. Your only Red sources are Steam Vents and Blood Crypt.

Your hand is as follows: Lightning Bolt, Mana Leak, Smother, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, River of Tears, Mutavault.

You don’t know this, but your next three draws are lands.

You don’t know this, but your opponent’s second-turn play will be Tarmogoyf, and his third-turn play will be Knight of the Reliquary because he will draw a mix of burn spells and lands, one of which will be Lightning Bolt.

Facing his turn-one Wild Nacatl, you have four real options:

  1. Fetch now and Bolt the Nacatl.
  2. Fetch now and Bolt the Nacatl during your turn.
  3. Fetch now, play a land, and pass turn, Bolting the Nacatl when he goes to attack with it.
  4. Fetch now, play a land, and pass turn, allowing your opponent to hit you with Wild Nacatl once so you can hold up Mana Leak and/or Smother.

Before you move on, pick what you feel will be the best line of play.

The correct play is Option 1.

Let’s look at Option 1. If you examine how the play turns out, this is what happens. You Bolt his Nacatl at end of turn, going to 17 off the fetch land and the Blood Crypt you find with it. You then untap and Mana Leak or Smother his next play. You play your third land and use the spell you didn’t already use on his Tarmogoyf to deal with his Knight of the Reliquary. You go to your fourth turn, untap, and play Jace, the Mind Sculptor into an empty board. Thus, you have Jace, the Mind Sculptor on an empty board and 17 life. You can +2 Jace from here, likely ensuring Jace’s survival, which means the game should easily be yours.

Let’s take a look at Option 2. This might seem like a strange line of play to some people, but it closely simulates another common removal spell for Faeries in this metagame: Deathmark. U/B Faeries played fetch lands and Watery Grave anyway, so it is possible to see how Deathmark would interact in this situation. You fetch, and now you can get Steam Vents tapped instead of untapped. You then untap and main-phase the Lightning Bolt, leaving up only a River of Tears. Your opponent untaps and resolves a Tarmogoyf, which you can either let sit on the table for a turn or kill immediately with Smother. If you let it sit, it hits you for at least 3, and then the Knight is Mana Leaked. If you kill it, the Knight hits the table. When you untap for your fourth turn, your Jace, the Mind Sculptor will be opposed by either a Knight of the Reliquary or a Tarmogoyf, and you will be at either 19 or 16 life, depending on whether you allowed the ’Goyf to hit you. If you do go to play Jace, you will likely have to −1 him, meaning that he’ll probably bite it to a burn spell. Thus, you probably don’t have a Jace and you’re either at 19 facing a Knight of the Reliquary or at 16 facing a 4/5 Tarmogoyf.

Let’s look at Option 3. If you follow this line of play, your opponent’s Tarmogoyf hits the table, but his Nacatl is dead. This results in the exact same situation as Option 2. This means that both Options 2 and 3 cost you the same thing. What do they cost you? They cost you two things. First, they cost you an empty board. Second, they cost you your Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Thus, that simple decision to not play your Lightning Bolt on the first turn has cost you an empty board and a Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

Let’s look at Option 4. If you do this, you take 1 from the fetch and 3 from the Nacatl, putting you at 16. You can then Mana Leak his Tarmogoyf and then, on turn three, Bolt his Nacatl with mana up to Smother his Knight. On turn four, you can play Jace, the Mind Sculptor into an empty board. However, you have taken 1 more damage than you did in Option 1.

Now, if you examine this example, you will see that Option 3 in particular is a line of play that a good number of players will take. It follows established patterns, which include playing your spells at the last possible moment. If the Faeries player in question goes on to lose that game, he likely never looks at the fact that he waited until his opponent attacked to play his Lightning Bolt—but as I have shown, that move cost him a huge amount of positioning. The decision to wait on the Lightning Bolt had a cascade reaction, causing either your Mana Leak or your Smother to be less effective in the early turns of the game. Thus in reality, if the Faeries player goes on to lose that game, it wasn’t because the Zoo player top-decked burn or had a good draw; it was because the Faeries player elected not to play his Lightning Bolt immediately.

I brought up this example because it features a real decision in the first turn of a game in what was ostensibly a tough matchup. Note that the correct line (Option 1) entails the Faeries player suffering the maximum possible damage (3) in the short term, but it greatly improves the player’s long-term position because it improves the effectiveness of two other spells in his hand: Mana Leak and Smother. This is a decision that is counterintuitive to some players because they are so focused on preserving their life totals each and every turn; thus, if they have the opportunity to only take 1 damage in the near future instead of 3, they will do so. However, as you can see, that decision can actually be costly in the long term.

When you begin to approach Magic as a system of interactions, you can see how various factors begin to influence each other to produce the game states that you are so used to seeing. As you begin to look at Magic the system and not Magic the game, you can delve deeper, understand the various factors at work, and better see how each individual decision you make may not show its consequences immediately—but always has a rippling cascade effect somewhere.

The two examples I used were both incredibly simple, limiting the influences on the game (and thus the system) to one thing—your own actions. Of course, this is not the case in a Magic game. In the actual game (system), there are other factors as well—the biggest factor being your opponent. His own behavior, preferences, and play style will all have influences on the game because he will be making choices in response to yours, causing moves and shifts within the game.

The most interesting thing to note is that due to the complex nature of Magic as a game, there are a number of factors that cause any given situation. Too often, we, as players, try to simplify the game to a smaller number of factors and situations just to make our lives easier. While this is useful to a certain extent, it is necessary to remember that there is far more beyond what we usually think about. Concepts like card advantage and tempo exist to help us, but learning how to weigh various factors against each other is a huge part of becoming a better player.

It is here that thinking about Magic as a system becomes useful. If you begin to see Magic as a series of related, cascading interactions as opposed to a game full of discrete, individual actions, you begin to see the flow and the pulse of the game, which are, in fact, its core elements. This comes more naturally to some people than it does to others, but looking at the game as a system will still teach you to approach situational Magic and situational analysis from a different direction, revealing to you completely new options and possibilities that you would not have seen any other way.

In a sense, both Magic and economics require you to model behavior. In economics, companies do this all the time. They attempt to model customer behavior (like spending) and market behavior (price flux, for example). A lot of these things take into account real-world situations that are out of the company’s control. Take a restaurant as an example. Restaurants have to take food costs into account, which can change not only based on season, but also based on crop yield—a factor an individual restaurant has absolutely no control over. High prices on strawberries, for example, could easily affect the menu. In Magic, you are often also seeking to model behavior—usually your opponent’s. Learning which lines of play he is likely to follow allows you to prepare for those plays and have the appropriate countermeasures in place.

But no model is perfect. A huge part of understanding Magic as a system is to realize that everything you have learned so far is only a guideline. You still need to adapt these concepts and theories for situational use. You still need to understand the basic principles and precepts behind the model so that you can accurately determine when you should and should not be acting according to those principles. A model, when used correctly, is a powerful tool. However, a model used incorrectly is a terrible crutch.

I will look at some more specific aspects of this idea next week. The tactics article is on hold for a while, since the basic ideas it contains will remain both the same and relevant for some time.

Chingsung Chang

Conelead most everywhere and on MTGO

Khan32k5 at gmail dot com

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