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An Unexpected Enlightenment

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I've spent two weeks discussing terminology from apparently opposite ends of the Magic spectrum: what "casual" means in terms of Magic and players, and what the concepts of reactive and proactive can mean (a generally tournament and competitive oriented understanding). With just two weeks I've established a baseline for what you could expect: a well-reasoned, thoughtful discussion backed up by appropriately cited quotes and research.

But having expectations and having expectations that are consistently met are very distinct concepts. As any competitive player can attest, knowing the strong decks and running a reasonable gauntlet for testing does not directly impact the actual decks and players you are paired against in events. We see it often: nights where you run into the "10% of the field – your only bad match up" in over half your matches. An EDH deck, like a Rhys the Redeemed or various aggro-oriented Goblin leaders, that is weak to mass removal seeing nothing but Wrath of God and Pernicious Deed all night long.

Expectations can be broken. Expectations do get broken. Some of you even expect your expectations to be broken (which can be broken by actually experiencing your expectations – a certainly convoluted but understandable twist). But there is something more important to recognize amid this flurry of repetitive wording: you never fail to lose sight of your actual goal.

The Most Interesting Man in the World

Playing off of good marketing is a staple in the marketing world. I know this because I live it every day working in the marketing department for one of the largest auto insurers in the US. I've seen marketing campaigns start as amusing tangents and develop through highly successful (and satirized and mimicked) campaigns. Print media. Direct mail. TV, Radio, and Internet buys. Successive messaging. Storyline development. The world of marketing is intimately fascinating for me because I follow the data, stats, and flow of these creative concepts.

The flow and design of decks is eerily similar in Magic. Good ideas get replicated in other places. Concepts and principles – the theory of how things work – are applied repeatedly, iterated over the years to continually be honed and refined. Social media is just beginning to become the bigger player in integration of the messaging into the everyday lives of us all – and similarly Twitter and other instant-update applications are on the cusp of changing directions, and sources of contention, in the Magic world.

"What do you expect?" is never as simple as the question presents itself. We all take a look at the information we know in order to draw conclusions regarding unknowns. The whole point of discussing a metagame isn't to know exactly which decks you're run into but to have a general expectation of what's out there in order to properly prepare your personal deck. This is why when something new comes along we refer to it "breaking the format" – it completely demolishes the expectations brought to the table.

This week I had originally planned as an exercise in looking at threats and answers, two similarly intertwined concepts like proactive and reactive, but found that my expectations of seeing disparate and uncollected thoughts shattered: there are several surprisingly awesome explanations already available. While I still have some new things to say I wasn't keen on a brief rehash followed up by a thin layer of new icing.

So I ditched it.

I had a perfectly respectable article that was coherent, thorough, and respectful as my articles always attempt to be. But it was an incomplete hack to riff on the conventional. It was too thin to be really fresh, and too repetitive to be anything interesting to the already indoctrinated.

It was utterly and unapologetically boring. So I ditched it. For this.

You Were Expecting Something Else?

So my expectations were shattered? What's new? Our expectations continually meet the fate of so many ideas: the realization that it's just plain wrong. Having expectations broken is often more than that though. Understanding why your expectations were wrong often provides meaningful information to factor into expectations in the future.

"History has a tendency to repeat itself."

"History has a tendency to repeat itself." I'm not sure where the oft-quoted words arose but the principle that things tend to be cyclic is certainly prevalent in Magic. Aggro decks do well at the beginning of a season rotation and, as time moves forward, control strategies begin to overtake – and there are good reasons that this usually occurs. Then the reset button is triggered and we begin all over again.

So what is "this" exactly? It's my way to sharing with you that having good intentions, and a solid plan, does not always yield desirable results. Sometimes, it's the intuitive stick-to-itiveness of a hunger for more that keeps our focus on target when all our pillars of thought come crashing down. Without a "plan" or "working theory" to run off of, those who rise to the challenge of handling information on the fly find greater success.

It's this principle that makes Limited both a challenging format to engage, and grants a berth of respect when mastered. Handling the rapid flow of information with a greater requirement to properly identify competing strategies and optimize against existing choices makes for a way to play that is often vastly oversimplified. Broad strategies like "blue-green aggro" and "black-red removal" convey a general meaning but it comes down to individual card choices being balanced and synergistic when rolled up into a deck, regardless of the initial strategy employed or individual card quality of picks.

How do you feel when you hit a wall of information that objectively defeats your preconceived notions? Moreover, how do you begin incorporating this new data into revisions of your ideas? Being wrong is only a binary state: yes, or no. As soon as you recognize your thoughts are on the wrong path you have a choice available: begin anew.

The paralyzing shock of hitting a wall of "this is wrong" is precisely when moving becomes most important. I've seen my fair share of "this is absolutely, bit shit insane" board states and every time I locked up I lost. But of those times I continued to work the angles, recalling what I do know and how that impacts my potential plan moving forwards, I found my chances to get to the correct path.

The push and pull of information is like the current of a river

It wasn't necessarily winning (though for competitive play it will be) but for getting to the goal I had set for myself. The push and pull of information is like the current of a river, and constantly adjusting the course you're piloting is the only way to arrive safely. It might help that you're in a whitewater raft and have the help of an experienced crew, but you're still always at risk for having the entire adventure wiped out by ignoring or overcompensating for any of the information flowing in.

And even that experience, failure, can be new and exciting information. Every piece of information is a new puzzle piece to begin assimilating into the grand perspective: a tiny piece of the real truth that lies underneath of everything you've seen so far.

I ditched my dry, boring rehash because I found it lacking. My goal every week is to share something that makes you think: the brief pause that draws you to a new idea or view that you hadn't considered before. I'm challenging you to move beyond just heading to the tank when things fall askew. The processing of information, and realignment of plans you can arrange on your feet is a skill that only comes with practice, patience, and the fortitude to continuously reevaluate everything you think you know.

What else did you expect?