How to Think About Magic

Posted in Top Decks on December 30, 2010

By Mike Flores

I was actually going to write the Survival of the Fittest article I published the following week, but I put it out to my indomitable Twitter army, and they overwhelmingly voted I write "How to Think About Magic." I was actually terrified to write this one as it was a not-very-Top Decks episode of Top Decks, if you take my meaning. The day it was supposed to come out there was unscheduled server maintenance going on so I was like, "Was my article so bad they didn't update the site at all?" (Doubly terrifying.) But in the end, it came out well, and I think this will go down as one of the most memorable columns I ever produce. I hope you like it (again).

This article originally ran on October 21, 2010.

So what are your interests outside of Magic?"

Um, thinking about Magic?

– Hall of Famer Zvi Mowshowitz, circa 1999

I read interview (Part 1 and Part 2) an that Mark Rosewater did with Teddy (Card Game) Knutson and decided to write this article, which is a bit of a change of pace for this column. So next week we'll probably talk about Hall of Famers wielding Goblin Guides, plus Survival of the Fittest (and Survival of the Fittest), but this week we reveal the answers to all kinds of questions that I get asked all the time.

One last thing before we begin ... I've written, read, re-read, and re-written this article four times at this point. Only now do I realize—though, I knew at all times, that I wasn't using all of my notes—that I was only submitting a portion of the totality of how I think about Magic. I didn't put in all the stuff about how the line between my "Magic" friends and "friends" blurred as I reached adulthood, about how giving and giving leads to more getting. Nor did I write about never settling, constantly striving for self-improvement, or how each of us is, at least partially, driven by a need for significance (and how all those things intersect and even direct my relationship to Magic). Instead, I guess this stuff is mostly about how I think about strategy, card selection, making decks, choosing decks, and advising my bullets and apprentices. Just so you know, while you're reading.

I hope you love it!

    People Don't Actually Want to Buy Products

Yes they do!

No, actually they don't.

Trust me! I hella want to buy all kinds of shiny stuff!

No, you actually don't.

If you have a girlfriend or wife or whatever, she might like shopping. She might want to fill her closet with innumerable iterations of little black shoes that you can't tell apart from one another (trust me, she probably feels the same way about your Magic cards), or perhaps duvet covers (I know, what's a duvet anyway?), but people don't actually want to buy products.

What they want is to either have a particular experience, or solve a particular problem.

You know who "needs" to buy a drill?

Someone in the market for making holes.

Think about that for a second. Don't focus on the drill. Focus on the holes.

What does this have to do with competitive Magic: The Gathering?

This is the essence of how to—or rather, how I—think about Magic: The Gathering. Everything else emanates from this. Don't focus on the drill. Focus on the holes.

In theory, if the need is holes, you can get there all different ways. You can ram pencils into the wall, hire a crack team of trained termites, or, I dunno, pay someone else to think about it. A drill is just the most obvious (even lazy) route to the holes, so most everyone defaults to the drill.

A lot of the time people are all worried about buying the biggest, fanciest, shiniest drill. Whatever the drill! Whatever the damn drill!

It is important to stay aware that the drill is not what we are about. Don't focus on the drill. Don't be married to any particular drill. The drill—for that matter a drill—might not be the best answer. Especially when everyone else is thinking "drill".

How do I use this skill in Magic: The Gathering, you might ask?

I once started off ahead of the curve by playing main deck Rebel Informer to beat Rebels decks. Rebel Informer theoretically gave me a way to demolish many Rebels for one card, even zero cards. Some people sideboarded this card. It became, for some, a proxy for trump.

However the real trump card was Mageta, the Lion. That guy really killed lots of Rebels, as well as Angels, select Idols, etc.

Over time—especially after I killed some of my opponents' Rebel Informers with my mighty Mageta, the Lion—I realized that playing both cards was ultimately counterproductive. I would watch other people play their Rebels decks against each other and work so hard to gain a mana advantage to be the winner of the almighty Rebel Informer fight ...

I realized that the holes was killing Rebels, not being the more potent Rebel Informer player. So I shifted focus, eventually, to being the best Mageta, the Lion player instead. Killing Rebels and Informers rather than Rebels and my own Informers. This was especially satisfying in games where the opponent would spend all kinds of time and mana getting "card advantage" with his Rebel Informer over my Rebels.

Once you figured out what was going on, it was like watching a starving Dalmatian chase after scraps thrown down a dark alley leading to the back of Cruella DeVille's waiting limousine trunk. He would do whatever you wanted, run wherever you wanted, would be happy to! Run doggy, run.

Modern implementations might be aligning internally counterproductive cards that are both good against Elves. I don't understand decks that play both Linvala, Keeper of Silence and Day of Judgment. Linvala, Keeper of Silence can be very good against small ultility creatures; Day of Judgment, in the absence of an Eldrazi Monument, is typically better. Sometimes they can make enough little guys to overwhelm your one 3/4. Then you have to Day of Judgment it away. Or maybe Linvala is right/better (at least in your build).

But I have some experience looking at the confused faces of players who play one, draw the other ... know what I mean?

Either way: Holes. Not drill.

    Strike While the Iron is Hot

I got married in 2002 after knowing my wife (to-be) for exactly six months, to the day.

Previous to this, for most of 2001, I was having the best dating year of my life. Stupid falling in love with my dream girl totally spoiled all the fun!

However previous to that, for most of 2000, I was dropping the ball on account of just playing Magic non-stop and making Pro Tour Qualifier Top 8s. I'd meet someone—often under fabulous, exciting, or unlikely circumstances—get a number, chat name, email address, or whatever ... and follow up with her at some point weeks or months in the future. Maybe. If there wasn't a tournament.

How could I possibly ask for a date this Saturday? There was a PTQ in Philadelphia I had to hit with PJ, Ravitz, and Magellan ... and then, I'd have to run it back in Maryland the next day! (Provided I didn't qualify.) (By the way, I didn't qualify.)

Unsurprisingly, this was a terrible dating strategy. Half the time what's-her-name didn't even remember who I was. Me. Me! Despite the fact that we met in such a fabulous/exciting/unlikely way. It had been, if you recall, weeks or months.

Seems pretty obvious, right?

So members various of the female cadre I hung out with back then all told me the same thing: You have to strike while the iron is hot.

I know you've all written that down now.

In order to someday have myself attached to a partner who will attempt to fill the closet with seemingly indistinguishable black flats, pumps, and heels, I need to ... Um? Was there something about heavy metal?

Don't worry. You'll get it!

For now, let's focus on how you can use this principle to mise in Magic: The Gathering.

I think the notion of mastering a particular deck or strategy and "sticking with it" is generally overrated.

Value for decks changes over time.
Opportunity comes and goes.
Today's "innovative" is tomorrow's yesterday's news.
The metagame shifts.
New ideas that are just much better than existing ideas appear, present an undeniable edge, and then go away.

Here's a hint: You want to take it while you can.

Strike while the iron is hot.

One of the most famous stories in Magic is around the development of the Memory Jar combo deck. Randy Buehler was at the time the Road Warrior of Magic, an innovator of the "travel to Europe and make Top 8 of every Grand Prix" strategy. He and his playtest partner Erik Lauer—in the midst of a format that was dominated by a different combo deck—discovered the Memory Jar / Megrim deck. It was so good Erik grabbed a last minute flight to a faraway GP.

Both players made Top 8.

Weeks later, in unprecedented fashion, Memory Jar was banned in the middle of a PTQ season, seemingly just moments after the combination was discovered.

But remember, when they had it: Both players made Top 8.

The best decks in a format—let's say a PTQ format, which typically lasts for a period of weeks or months—almost always starts off as a templated archetype deck or rogue deck that appears while things are already in motion. Then, around the middle of the season, it redefines the whole format, and by the end of the season, dozens of unsuccessful PTQ grinders are complaining about how Patrick Chapin / Gerry Thompson / Peppermint Von Corduroy ruined the format.

And then we start up a new format, and a new different deck rises a few weeks in. Rinse. Repeat.

Ultimately you want to either be the guy who is redefining the format with the unbeatable new deck (like Gerry Thompson did with Dark Depths / Thopter in Extended last year), or you want to figure out the deck that beats the newly defined metagame, much later in the season.

But as with dating, success goes hand-in-hand with timing. You want to get the timing right. You want to strike while the iron is hot.

So why don't people do this / do this right / do this more often / whatever?

Usually it's because they are frightened. They are afraid to make a change, or afraid of looking foolish; but usually, they just haven't thought about the situation enough. But if you want to become the legend, you have to follow the value. I'm not saying buy the last minute plane ticket like Lauer did (though it worked out for him, and now that I think of it, Andre Coimbra in the same situation), but if you really have a deck that's good ... You might want to think about it. Still, the best ever story about not slavishly sticking to a deck/strategy but rather doing the right thing when the opportunity presented itself.

So what happens if I don't win with currently-unproven Upcoming-Rogue-Deck-X?

You won't win the tournament.

That will suck!

Interestingly, it's the exact same result you'll get with your outdated deck, if you don't go at all!

See what I did there?

    Don't Major in Minor Things

I have been at this for about 15 years now.

In order to properly contextualize this section, I am going to quote my 1995 self, in the first known piece of Mike Flores Magic writing, as unearthed by my old Righteous Babe teammate, John Shuler for his introduction to Deckade:

Re: White/Red deck
Originally posted on February 1st, 1995

I also use a white/red combo. I also use Icatian Moneychangers. However, you are minimizing their effectiveness by not using Circle of Protection: White. Why not add three more life profit? I think it is suicide to have so many weenie whites and so few red cards. Beef up red with four Orcish Artillery. Add Circle of Protection: Red to compensate. Bring your direct-damage spells up to max. Four Lightning Bolt, Fireball, Disintegrate. Cut all the rest of your creatures. I guarantee you will thank me. Add some Rod of Ruins if possible. You might also revise your white spells. While Disenchant is good, I really like Divine Offering. It's not as versatile, but it adds life. Oh, I forgot, add Icatian Javelineers. Finally, it is essential that you have a sort of balance between colors. Only 6 red mana is suicide in a deck this large. If you are feeling adventuresome, some Castles are a good idea to keep your white weenies alive against Tim, et al.

Before reading this section it might not have surprised you that about half the interactions I have with the community (today) can be boiled down to "Can you make my rusty tin can competitive with that there Star Destroyer?" Which should be shocking given the fact that I made my first mark on Magic "instruction" by "helping" someone with his deck by telling him to play with Orcish Artillery + Circle of Protection: RedandIcatian Moneychanger + Circle of Protection: White. I guaranteedthanks while suggesting Rod of Ruin!

Which will hopefully soften the next bit.

Many, even most, ideas that players have are just pointless for competitive Constructed. Including most of my ideas, and those of many and most top deck designers.

Time is the most valuable thing we have. I haven't had a week where I got eight hours of sleep every night in over six years. I don't get eight hours of sleep a single night on the average week, now. In our world of Google Instant and broadband Internet, wasting someone's time is about the worst thing you can do.

And I (all of us) still end up wasting time on bad decks! But I at least have some guidelines that help me cull away most of them.

How can you tell the difference?

It actually comes down to holes versus drills again.

Most of the ideas that are flat-out bad are simply inferior takes on existing decks. Imagine you had the opportunity to play a red beatdown deck with four copies of Suq'Ata Lancer, but you replaced them with Gray Ogre. You wouldn't need to playtest to know that the Gray Ogre version would perform not-as-well in essentially every competitive Constructed situation. My first rule is to never, ever, think about a deck that I can put into this category.

Another thing that I try really hard to avoid is to work really, really hard on the third-best strategy. And oftentimes, the third-best idea requires the first-most amount of work to get going.

Ultimately, how do you prioritize?

I try to err on "how much am I getting out of my mana," but different designers have different biases. While I am never going to end up with the same 75 in front of me that Zvi Mowshowitz will (independently), I think we share a respect for tempo, speed, and mana versus just big, impressive, possibilities.

One of the most influential articles I ever wrote was about how, even when we move closely towards our goals, we can fall short. So in that spirit, if you are going to fail, fail brilliantly!

I try to build the best holes I can. The biggest holes. The deepest holes. The most holes in the shortest period of time. Don't settle for just thinking about one good hole ... or you will too often find yourself the master of a mediocre drill.

    No Long-Term Alliances or Allegiances

About 14 years ago I became enamored with white-blue decks.

I read a piece by Robert Hahn on the Weissman deck and—like so many young mages—was mesmerized by the sheer difference of the fortress defensive strategy. My realm of possibilities at the time went no more exotic than the hyper-redundant, Ice Storm-enabled, land destruction deck.

I think a lot of players at the time fell in love the same way. More, some of them (maybe me, too, to an extent) missed the point completely. Weissman's deck was creature-poor, not creature-less. Part of the genius of the original design was that it actually eventually killed with creatures, making creature elimination cards clunky but not completely useless. Thereby making strategic and sideboarding decisions complicated, frustrating, and inefficient for the opponent.

But the perceived sophistication of the white-blue deck relative to "regular" decks became translated to "creatures are bad" or "creatures are crude" or something like that. It was no longer about the dragging inefficiency we could tax the opponent with, or the clear and present card advantage that a creature-less deck could force, but a kind of blinding "purity" ... Which was even more limiting given that Necropotence decks were actually just better :)

But as I said, like many at the time, I was all over the white-blue, thought the white-blue was the best, thought I was better and smarter than everyone else because I was piloting a complicated and challenging white-blue deck rather than some simpleton's beatdown deck.

I would try to make all different white-blue decks in all the different formats. Millstone decks, Circle of Protection: Green decks, and Helm of Obedience decks ported to Ice Age / Alliances.

But you know what?

The night before my third ever Pro Tour Qualifier, I just wasn't winning with my white-blue deck.

I made the first stark, allegiance-less, decision of a long line of faithless deck desertion. I jumped into the Necropotence camp ... and 24 hours later, I had my first Blue Envelope.

So that's it?

Well, not quite.

If someone says to you "play the best deck," you kind of know that you should be playing the best deck.

But it goes beyond that.

It is about not minoring in major things; it is about not slaving yourself to any one idea or color. "I am a control player" or "I am a red mage" are just prison shackles masquerading as five-word sentences. It isn't even about growth (though it is about growth).

It's mostly about not confining yourself to one idea or identity in the context of a game of millions of possibilities.

Really, you're bigger and better than that.

    We Build for ONE Tournament

One of the biggest misconceptions that predominantly small minds make is to confuse the long term Magic Online longevity of a deck with how good the deck was for the tournament in which it was intended to be played.

Certainly sustained success over the course of a PTQ season, or over the course of many, many Magic Online queues can be an indicator of a deck's strength; when I expressed my opinion that Gerry Thompson was the best deck designer in the world last year, it was largely on the continued success of the hybrid combination deck that he put on the map.

But the truth is, we build for ONE tournament.

If we get that tournament right, it is completely irrelevant if the deck continues to perform in the future. Do we get it wrong? Often. That isn't the point at all.

If you want to become an elite deck designer, I think this is the attitude you have to have. It's almost like golf, don't play for the score; play for the shot.

Look at how a deck like Naya Lightsaber puts all these things together.

1.Holes, not Drill. The format at the time—which was pre-Jace, the Mind Sculptor, under the long shadow of Jund—was a format largely defined by card power. Jund's overwhelming strength came largely from its relentless card quality. Putrid Leech was so strong it almost invalidated other two-drops. Blightning and Bloodbraid Elf were simply the best cards in the format. Bituminous Blast was explosive. Many good deck designers focused on making the best Jund deck. How can we build Jund to beat Jund? Or they attempted decks that, percentage wise, were simply effective anti-Jund decks. Which is not to say that any of those might not have been relatively successful strategies. I mean just playing good old "Jund" might have been fine. But the route we took with Naya Lightsaber was to focus on holes. What is the goal? What do we want in life? To play the best cards, to get the most out of our cards and mana, to present the most potent threats. In fact, Naya Lightsaber did a better job of that than Jund!

2.Strike While the Iron is Hot. Naya Lightsaber was, in some ways, a deck of opportunity. Patrick Chapin pointed out that part of its success was that Day of Judgment decks under-performed against cards like Sprouting Thrinax. Even beyond the card power of Naya—which was, exclusive of Blightning, stronger than the card power of Jund—the value of Naya came in part from the shape of the rest of the metagame.

3.Don't Major in Minor Things. This was a deck that I really thought was the best. Not good. The best. Andre Coimbra was not even planning to attend the World Championships (busy with work). But the week of the tournament I told him I was "100% sure" that this was the best deck, which influenced his last minute decision to ... you know ... go and become the World Champion.

4.No Long-Term Alliances or Allegiances. It's not like I was sitting around brainstorming different Naya builds. At the time I was much more enamored of the cards Blightning ... and, um ... Borderland Ranger. But I embraced the successful efforts of previous designers like Brian Kowal, Ben Rubin, and Tomoharu Saito, embracing all kinds of stuff that I wouldn't have thought of all by my lonesome. The result?

5.We Build for ONE Tournament. By the next Pro Tour, Naya looked completely different. It was the best, again, but Tom Ross's deck went and ignored all the things my deck stood for, and probably ended up better for them. Cunning Sparkmage + Basilisk Collar made its "under the spotlight" debut in Boss Naya, and Stoneforge Mystic replaced my venerable Baneslayer Angels. Tom added Terramorphic Expanse of all things to a deck full of one-drops. Any and everything changed. And for the better.

    Be Results Oriented

Being results oriented gets a bad rap from Magic players... Something they have inherited, I think, from poker players.

Players vilify being "results oriented" when they see players—often who have made a mistake—try to justify what they did with the old "it was right because I won" (when it wasn't). I think that is a misuse of the term.

What I think you want to do is state your goal (often in an actual sentence), and do everything you can to move towards it. Results orientation in this case is not about falling back and justifying doing something wrong, but in fact to set a target and move forward.

I would echo the idea that we so often fall short. So set challenging, if still achievable, goals. And when you fall short, you will often find yourself in a very satisfying place at the end of the process.

    If You Can't Measure It, It Doesn't Exist

This last point is a practice I use in playtesting, but can also be a useful principle for everything you do.

If there is something worth your time—your most valuable and real resource—it is worth measuring how you do. How you measure is going to be closely linked with what your focus is and what it is you are working on and trying to improve. Here are two ways that I measure Magic results, in different contexts:

For "known" or sustained formats, I play a lot of Magic Online queues (usually one-on-one queues). I keep a spreadsheet in Google docs that records the deck I played, the deck I played against, whether I won or lost, and my points delta. That way, after many repetitions, I can see which deck, at least which deck among the ones I tried, had positive expectation, and by what degree, before I finalize my deck for the PTQ or whatever tournament.

When working on new decks, I try to set up a gauntlet of the three to five most expected decks. I make special effort to do no customization or innovation whatsoever in the "gauntlet" decks; I try my deck against all the expected decks and record the Win-Loss records. Did I do great against the most popular decks? How bad were my bad match-ups? I use the same process to test sideboard games, especially in the tough match-ups that can require more sideboard slots. It is important to understand win percentage rather than just W-L because that will inform your deck choice based on predicted individual deck popularity, plus (where justified) how much sideboard room you can afford for each individual match-up.

So to answer your many, many questions: That is (at least a lot of) how I think about Magic.

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