What’s The Big Idea?

Posted in Serious Fun on July 25, 2006

By Anthony Alongi

Having recently played Magic in public, beyond the bounds of our modest play group, for the first time in several months, I noticed something I hadn't noticed before. You may have seen it already, or you may be on the lookout for it the next time you're at a Qualifier or Prerelease.

Ideas_UnboundA lot of Magic players are "Big Idea people".

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying we're smart. But we get some pretty Big Ideas, I tell you. Big Ideas happen with creative types, and they happen with analytic types, and once you count those two groups of people, you've pretty much counted most Magic players at least once.

When I say "Big Idea", I don't necessarily mean "Big Picture". Big Pictures require Big Cameras and Big Photo Printing Cartridges, whereas Big Ideas can happen in Small Minds with Minimal Effort. That's my kind of big-ness. And a lot of you are the same way.

Ever come up with a spanking new way to improve the game of Magic? That there's a Big Idea.

Ever discover the hidden reason in the latest expansion why Magic is dying? Well, that there's a Big Idea, too.

Ever resolve to find a way to force every Magic player in a tournament to walk through a sonic shower (or similar contraption) before entering the play area? Big Idea.

Ever experience the eureka rush that comes with a bold new strategy to recruit more women in the game, so your girlfriend (or wife, or daughter, or whoever) wouldn't be so terrified to come to Magic tournament events? Big, Big, Idea.

Big Ideas come in all shapes and sizes – helpful, not-so-helpful, ambitious, lame, and everything in between. And for the next few "non-theme" weeks (today, August 8, and August 22), I'll be looking at three Big Ideas.

These ideas are concepts that will help you in Magic, of course. Specifically, I will be talking about concepts that are central to succeeding in casual, multiplayer Magic. But it will not surprise anyone who has come to know this column, that I will claim further use of these Big Ideas in arenas beyond card games. My Big Ideas, arrogant and presumptuous as they are, will apply to just about everything you do. Oh, yes they will. Just watch.

The First Big Idea

In a multiplayer Magic game, how do we identify the biggest threat (whether permanent or player)? How do we know how much impact that huge sorcery just had? How do we decide whom we'll attack next?

Answer: we analyze. We crack open the top of our skulls, scratch our noodles a bit, work our eyeballs up and down, and figure a few things out.

But we are not just analyzing for the sake of looking smart. We are analyzing because we are trying to determine values. That determination, or evaluation, is the First Big Idea.

Evaluating A Card

Think back to the expansion (or, if it's easier to think in years, the block) where you developed the most as a Magic player. Was it Urza's block, where you became aware of explosive combos and insanely powerful cards? Was it Mirrodin block, when so many subtle and useful cards joined the game? Or was it Ravnica block, when Wizards revisited the power of colors and mana-fixing in explosive new ways?

For me, it was the most unlikely of blocks: Masques block. More specifically, the expansion Nemesis. Because that's when an unassuming five-card cycle of commons came out: the Seals.

I started using Seals in decks, mainly because they were new and different. I saw that they worked, which made me happy; but I didn't really think of why they worked. Then one day, Pro-Tour-Qualifying Phenomenon Todd Petit disrupted my work day (and cost taxpayers a few dozen bucks by distracting a critical State employee from his duties!) by calling me at the office.

"Those Seals are pretty good," he told me when I answered the phone.

"Who the hell is this?" I barked. "What seals? You mean circus seals? Yeah, I guess they're cute."

Once we had everything straightened out, Todd repeated his assertion.

"They're good in multiplayer," he explained good-naturedly, "because you don't have to use them for them to work. They sit out there, and people get scared. So instead of just bolting one creature that might attack you, you stop several from attacking you at all – and they hit someone else."

"So you're saying that Seal of Fire is better than Lightning Bolt?" I asked, incredulous.

He sighed a patient sort of sigh. "No. I'm saying in multiplayer Magic, Seal of Fire is better than Shock. And I'm also saying that in certain situations in multiplayer Magic, it might be better than Lightning Bolt. You should talk about this in your column. You know, offer your readers something more than wild stories about slow Pouncing Jaguars."

"Better than Shock, eh? Sounds fishy," I told him. "I'll get back to you." And then I hung up and worked twice as hard for the rest of the day, just to make it up to the good, hard-working, taxpaying residents of Minnesota.

Of course, Todd was right, which is the sort of thing that makes him completely insufferable for the next, oh, six years. Seals are good in multiplayer – 90 percent of the time, they're better than the instants with similar casting costs and abilities. That's not an advantage you necessarily see in duel, because the "stay away" message is lost on a single opponent. But in a group game, your opponent has other options.

Shortly after that "stay away" thought, I got the image of a rattlesnake in my head. And shortly after that, I started thinking there are definable attributes of cards that, if you slapped a number on 'em and gave 'em cute animal names, people would pay good money to edit and post on their web sites. And damn it all if I wasn't right.

By now, you can see where I'm going: the "animal elements" that are key to so many of my columns are all about evaluation. Each element – cockroach, gorilla, pigeon, plankton, rattlesnake, and spider – literally assigns a value, but you don't have to be that geeky about it.

I do, though. Let's look at a specific card printed about a year after my "Seal" epiphany: Questing Phelddagrif.

Once you start looking at all six dimensions of a multiplayer card, instead of just one (say, gorilla), you start making better decisions in the cards you put in your decks. You also do a better job of determining which card on the board is the biggest threat, which brings us to the next section.

Evaluating A Board Position

Evaluating what's going on during a game, and deciding upon the best course of action, is a skill we never fully master. Sometimes, we can become so focused on what looks "cool" that we lose sight of what is smart.

For me, bad analysis happens even more often among teammates than among opponents. Less than two weeks ago, our group was playing an eight-player emperor game, after drafting Ravnica block. (Two teams of four, the "true" emperor sits second to the left, player range of 3, global range all players, no creature movement.) I was the "false" emperor on a team with (from the left) Andy, Paul H. (also known as "Evil Paul"), and (to my right) Todd. The other team was (starting with the player across from Andy): Paul S. (or "Good Paul"), Joe, Theo, and George.

I had drafted a fun little R/U/b/w support deck with lots of auras, bounce, removal, etc. Todd was the teammate I was looking to support most, since (a) we hadn't played together for a while and (b) he had won the game for our team last time with a fast Green/Black blitz. Both of these reasons, incidentally, have nothing to do with evaluating board position in game 2. (Well, beyond a bit of foreknowledge of what's in people's decks.)

But I'm a stubborn little dork, and when the time came to play an Ocular Halo, I looked at the board and saw the following:

  1. Andy has a bunch of boring white flyers, including a Mistral Charger and a Freewind Equenaut.
  2. Evil Paul, being our evil emperor, has a Vigean Hydropon and plenty of untapped mana.
  3. Todd has cool green ground-beaters, including a Greater Mossdog already enchanted with a Fists of Ironwood, and a couple of 2/2 saprolings (beneficiaries of the Hydropon).

So what do you think I enchanted?

If you guessed the Mossdog, you are correct! Here's how the dialogue went after this amazing play:

TODD: Wow, you enchanted the Mossdog.

ANTHONY (feeling proud of himself): Yep. Sure did.

TODD: You know, it would have been better to enchant a saproling, rather than give the other team a 3-for-1 opportunity.

ANTHONY. That's true. But look at how cool that Mossdog looks! Plus, now I can give it vigilance. (Gives the Mossdog vigilance, even though it's now Evil Paul's turn, just because he can.) See?

TODD: Stunning.

ANDY (as Evil Paul immediately passes his turn): You know what would have been an even better play?

TODD: I have already determined the best play: Ocular Halo on my saproling. No better play can exist. Thus speaks the Pro Tour player.

ANTHONY: Okay, smart-ass, which saproling?

ANDY: I'm just saying, you could have –

TODD: The one on the left.

ANTHONY: Really? I would have guessed the saproling on the right.

ANDY: It's just, you see, that –

TODD: No, a lot of players make that mistake. The saproling on the right is better poised to get vigilance. See how the glass bead's a bit rounder? That means it's harder to tell when it's tapped. So giving it vigilance helps everyone on the board understand the game state better.

Freewind Equenaut
ANTHONY: Truly, Todd Petit you are the king of kings. And to think I put that enchantment on the Mossdog! Lordy, what was I thinking?

ANDY: Here's something you could have –

EVIL PAUL: Cripes, Andy, will you take your combat phase already? Why aren't you attacking with your flyers?

ANDY: Well, Good Paul has a 2/2 flyer in the way.

ANTHONY: So, just use your Freewind Equenaut to… He trails off, eyes wide. Oh.

TODD (looking across Anthony and Evil Paul at Andy's board): Ah.


ANDY: Yeah. Anyway, I'm done with my combat phase.

So, anyway, evaluating board position is important. So is reading cards. With that, let's move off Magic for a bit and talk about the wider universe.

Evaluating An Opportunity

Many Magic players being young men, you are going through phases in your life where you're making one critical decision after another. Between the ages of 15 and 25, the average American guy:

  • selects a college
  • selects a major at college
  • selects a career
  • hates that career and selects another one that has nothing to do with his college major
  • dates a few women
  • tries to convince one to marry him
  • gets rejected and tries to find another, more tolerant woman
  • makes a decision with that woman on matters of where they will live, if/when they'll get married, whether they'll have children, and when they'll stop arguing

Every one of these choices represents an opportunity – for you to excel, or to pass for a better opportunity, or perhaps to crash and burn. How do you know which opportunities to take advantage of, and which to let go?

Since this isn't an advice column, I'll keep it short and simply suggest you ask yourself three questions:

  1. Who are you? (No, not your name. Really: who are you?)
  2. What values do you hold highest?
  3. What are your greatest challenges?

The cool thing about these questions is, they also work for defining yourself as a Magic player and choosing a deck for the next evening's casual games. If you're a creative type who loves combo decks and struggles against control, you build your deck accordingly. And if you're a self-centered brat who only loves the superficial attributes of women and can't commit to a serious relationship…well, that's useful information, too!

As you can see, evaluating opportunities (in Magic or life) requires you to evaluate yourself. This, in turn, requires absolute honesty with yourself. The more you can honestly assess your skills, interests, and shortcomings, the better you'll deal with what life throws at you…from Fireballs to fiancées.

Evaluating This Column

It may not look like it every week, but I spend quite a bit of time at the end of each column looking it over and deciding if it's good enough. What do I generally use as criteria?

  • Does it add value to at least one subset of my audience?
  • Is it readable?
  • Do I stick to the theme (on theme weeks)?
  • Is it as brief as it can be (read: have I avoided too many digressions, sidebars, parentheticals, etc.)?
  • Do I pick up all the threads of the topic I promise at the beginning of the article, by the end of the article?
  • Have I left the door open for reader response?
  • If I could rewrite this column, how would I do it? If I could do a second in this series, how would I do it?

We'll get to that last bullet point…in two weeks.

Anthony Alongi has been playing various Magic formats for over eight years, and has been a writer for much longer than that. His latest book, JENNIFER SCALES AND THE MESSENGER OF LIGHT, was co-written with wife MaryJanice Davidson.

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