Brain Tricks

Posted in Limited Information on November 4, 2015

By Marshall Sutcliffe

Marshall came back to Magic after discovering Limited and never looked back. He hosts the Limited Resources podcast and does Grand Prix and Pro Tour video commentary.

If anything can be learned from the transition from Magic Origins to Battle for Zendikar, it's that each format is different. Origins is an aggressive format that rewards high individual card quality. Battle for Zendikar is a synergy-based format that rewards critical mass of a given category of card.

From what I've been hearing, this transition wasn't easy for many of you. The ever-changing landscape of Limited is one of its greatest attractions, but it's also just plain difficult sometimes.

Once you get used to playing a certain way, it's easy for your brain to continue on that path, all the while assuming repeated success. This is normal behavior, yet it sets you down a path that doesn't necessarily lead to success. Why is that? I mean, we, as humans, figure that we have a pretty good hold on a great many things at this point, right? Why is it that our behind-the-scenes brain actions are misleading us?

There are some theories around this, but the one that seems to be the most popular is that our behaviors developed out of the base desire to survive. Basically, when it comes to figuring things out, our brain will favor the thing that gives us the greatest chance to survive longer. The interesting part to me is that we seem to subconsciously apply this same behavior to situations that don't involve survival at all. Like a game of Magic, for example.

This leaves us and our brains in an interesting position. We can have the knowledge that doing something gives us a better chance to succeed at Magic, but our brain will tell us to do something entirely different instead. How do we overcome this? What are some examples?

We'll start with an example, a board state that comes up all the time in Limited. Let's say you have some creatures, and so does your opponent. Life totals are getting low for both players, and you are out of gas with just one land left in hand. After crunching some numbers, you realize that you can win the game if you attack with all of your creatures this turn, and then do so again the next turn. If your opponent attacks you back, you'll be at 1 life and can win the game on your turn.

The only problem is that if your opponent has any removal spell, combat trick, or anything else that interferes with your plan, you'll lose. This is where your brain will tell you not to go for the win. Why? Well, it's scary, and feels super risky. Maybe even reckless. So you decided to just pass the turn and hope that it all works out in the end.

The problem is this: If your opponent has the removal spell, you'll lose anyway. This comes up pretty often. You'll play as if your opponent had a spell in hand that you can't beat anyway. Why do we do this? It's partially due to just not thinking things through all the way. But I also believe that our old brain is telling us that it's scary and risky and let's just not do it.

Our brains are generally bad at assessing risk. This can lead us to make poor decisions in a game of Magic. We tend to fear things that are unlikely to happen, and to overreact in our attempts to avoid them. You see this all the time when people play around haste creatures that aren't in the set or sweepers that are rare and unlikely to be in the opponent's deck. Playing well means sometimes making plays that feel scary or even have a low percentage of actually working. Your brain may tell you not to do it, but let logic prevail and you'll win more.

Sometimes you just have to smear Eldrazi guts on your face and turn everything sideways.

Results-Oriented Thinking

I'll often say, "Don't be ROTty," referring to the idea of falling for the trap of results-oriented thinking, or ROT. Along that same line, you'll hear me say, "Decisions, not results." These are lines that are designed to steer you away from the fact that your brain will overcompensate relative to the sample size it has available to it.

The fact is, it's quite difficult to get a reasonable sample size from which to glean information in Limited Magic. The mistake you'll see most often is one where a conditional card performs well for someone in the two or three times they had a chance to play it, concluding with the user of the card declaring it busted, broken, or otherwise awesome.

This has an inherent problem in that it may have just been good those times the player cast it, not at other times. There simply aren't enough examples available to figure out what the truth is in this scenario.

This also pops up with cards that are both powerful and conditional. Someone may make a great devoid deck with Gruesome Slaughter in their first draft of the format. They fire off the Gruesome Slaughter a few times that draft, wipe the opponent's board, and win those games. Afterward, they put Gruesome Slaughter very high on their list of rares for the set and even tell their friends about what an amazing card it is.

This is problematic for a few reasons. First, it falls for the trap we outlined about results-oriented thinking. It's basing the evaluation of the card on a small sample of positive outcomes, rather than a large sample of average-case scenarios.

But further than that, it may be ignoring some of the data present even in the given sample. This reveals another shortcoming in how we process information.

The best way to describe it is to recall the battle cry of everyone who falls for this trap: "Every time I cast the spell, it won me the game!"

This sounds really impressive until you remember that there were times when the spell was not cast and may have directly contributed to the loss of the game. Since the card was in hand and taking up space that could have been filled by a castable card, it actually hurt your chances of winning those games.

Yet for whatever reason, people love to hoot and holler about a big, conditional, swingy card.

Another way to illustrate this is with a more extreme example:

Every time I've cast Emrakul in Limited, I've won the game. That's actually a true statement for me, by the way.

But as you may know, a card like Emrakul is horrifically bad in Limited based solely on the fact that it has an absurdly high mana cost. Yet it still holds true that every time you cast it, you will win the game. While it's pretty obvious for a card like this, it gets muddled with more conditional (and castable) cards.


These mental barriers are strong, but they are manageable once you are aware of them. And that's the key: You have to train yourself to recognize when your brain is leading you astray. Take some time to look up some of the more common ways this can happen, and you'll know what to look out for in the future.

It's very difficult to completely rid yourself of these natural instincts, but that may not even be the point. The point is that you train yourself to recognize in the moment when you are falling for one of these traps, and then learn to avoid it. Eventually it just becomes mental muscle memory, and you'll see your results continue to improve as a consequence.

Until next week!


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