Author Archives: Jim Pekoll

Grand Prix Chicago: Too Long, Didn’t Read

Trying to be gracious in victory and in defeat is a skill I am still trying to perfect. I do not know if I have ever pulled it off, but I am very sensitive to how my opponent feels and try to act appropriately. So far, I was in rough shape having suffered from insomnia for at least a week before the GP and just stressing very badly. Not that I felt pressure to win or even place highly (really, I probably had a better chance of winning the Powerball without a ticket) but I am “very hard on myself” as many people close to me have said. I started playing in 1996 and this was the first really high level event I have played in.

There was a long gap between active phases, I gave up Magic after returning to WI after my service in the Army, only getting my cards out sporadically after that and actually playing even more rarely. When I found out people still play Magic and met some around here to have regular games with, it still took a while to start getting new cards. I cannot remember the exact circumstances but there were real tournaments I played in during the Army days in Kentucky, though none were even close to the size of a Grand Prix. I simply mean that the 37 year old me is a very different person and player than the 21 year old me. Back then I was all about burn, mana flared fireballs and forked were among my weapons of choice. I thought the older, wiser, more patient player was a U/W control kind of guy but after my poor showing despite all the work I put in to succeed I have to confront the possibility that I’m just not cut out for this.

Joe and Dan, my first two opponents at the GP were not exactly fun but they weren’t jerks either. The next matches were the high and low of it. My next opponent was Marvin Abram and a more jovial, good-natured fellow I probably could not have found. He came all the way from Virginia to play so I was a little bit intimidated. Would you travel almost halfway across the country if you did not think you had a good chance of taking down some dollars? Love of the game is one thing, but gas is not cheap. Anyway, Marvin had a Bant ‘Walkers deck and we had practically identical sideboards, this made for another grueling slog as we tried to resolve spells, build board presence, and answer each other’s threats. After 2 rounds of going to extra turns I was not looking forward to it again but I flashed the thought that another draw would actually be a pretty good result. So after going to a third game with only about 13 minutes left, I thought maybe I could stall enough to be saved by the bell. I am blanking on the exact events but I did not make it. First loss of the day, but I like to think I played well and accepted the defeat graciously. I finally found Vince on my way outside for a smoke break (at that point, I did not care that the next round could begin any minute, I had to take a hit the restroom and needed to recover my nerves a little) and was telling him about the match with Marvin. Then, when we actually saw Marvin talking with his buddy I got a kind of after-action report, he told Vince that our match was awesome and I’m pretty sure he was sincere. So Marvin, if you’re out there, you’re alright in my book.

I was not so lucky next round, there was enough time for me to get to the assigned table (I think) but by this time my brain was pretty much fried. I read that his name was Gary on the slip but there was no friendly banter, no questions, no nothing. Just an angry white guy who could barely contain his aggrieved sense of entitlement to easy wins. Gary had a Jund Monsters deck, under better circumstances I know I would have beat him but that’s the way it was. Combat and street fights are rarely under ideal conditions, in some respects magic is the same way. I tried to be cool, but it was just a waste of time. This was the only time during the day that I was tempted to simply sign the slip, punch him in the face, and walk away. First impressions are often correct and the match did not get any better no matter how polite I was. So Gary, you’re a dick and I don’t know how I put up with sitting across from you for an hour.

Next was the “gift” I alluded to in an earlier post. I have not played against a female Magic player since Caleb’s little sister stopped playing in our group. Now, there were women playing, and I know that a lady made it all the way to the finals but it was still a surprise to see Jaelene when I sat down. She was very nice but had only been playing a month so all the misplays she had were not really mistakes, just lack of experience. Her boyfriend came over while we were still playing and I gathered that he had taught her to play and gave her the Selesnya Aggro deck she was using. It was a really good deck and even with all of the missed triggers and missed attacks winning was no cakewalk. Even though I knew she must have won a match to be playing me at that point I still kind of felt bad beating her the same way two games in a row. It was exactly how an Azorius control deck is supposed to work, survive the first few rounds to stabilize the board, establish control, and get an Elspeth on the board for the win. I went ultimate with Elspeth several times that day and kept saying “I’m going to get an emblem for her right after this, I promise.” I usually do not need to announce that I am casting a Sphinx’s Revelation in response to my opponent’s end step, it is just implicit but against Jaelene I did. It was a little unnerving.

Could anyone say I “deserved” that win because of all the work I did? There is a saying “if hard work was all it took to succeed, every woman in Africa would be rich.” So no, there is no entitlement in Magic, I did not deserve to win because I was more prepared anymore than I deserved to win because she was a girl. I put together the full standard control after the last outing to Chicago, gone were all the creatures and Ephara, in were all the regular mix of counter spells and removal. I practiced and refined every chance I got and tested it at FNM and our local tournaments but it is never enough. MTG is still a game that depends on chance, you can try to improve your odds by playing the strict minimum of 60 cards and the maximum of 4 copies of key spells but there is still a chance of mana-flooding or drought, or never hitting the card you need at the time you need it. Even the best pro players still lose games and matches. Defeats are as inevitable as bad dreams, bad days, and paying taxes. My last match was against a guy from New Jersey, he had a Jund Monsters deck too. I lost to him, life goes on.

Grand Prix Chicago: My Take on the Tech

My last post was just a preamble of what it took just to get to GP Chicago. Now I can get into my experience a little, this is just from me. I wanted to record my impressions before reading the big picture coverage at wizard’s site or anywhere else. I did see who won but I am mostly ignorant about the metagame and analysis. There was first a heat wave outside, then a thunderstorm and flash flood warning; my wife and mother-in-law’s situation was never far from my mind as I got text messages from her about all the adversity she was having. Between that and the stressful trip I was really tense, I unfortunately keep all my tension in my shoulders and they were just on fire most of the day. That is not an excuse, I gave this event my best; there are always obstacles and unforeseen bad news so I tried to be prepared for playing at less than 100%. I do not think I am being pessimistic to state that I cannot think of any positive or good surprises that can jump out of a competition, the one “gift” I received made me feel guilty as hell. In fact, both of my wins were basically flukes (2-1-3). But hey, I got to play at a Grand Prix!

My first match was with Joe Hletko, nice guy I would have a beer with him. He was playing mono blue devotion and I felt kind of confident despite my haggard condition. I practiced against mono blue and had a pretty good record against it. This was definitely not practice though, both games we finished were long, draining affairs even though we were friendly competitors. I was kind of relieved when we ran out of time in the third game even though I had just resolved an Aetherling and probably could have pulled out a win with more time. It really was a good match and I wished Joe the best of luck as I hurriedly packed up my stuff with shaking fingers.

I should probably state that I have been working very hard on my deck. I played U/W Control, partially because I feel it reflects my personality and partially because the very first card I pulled at a Return to Ravnica Draft was a Sphinx’s Revelation. I may not be the best judge of power but I have never seen a combination Alabaster potion and Braingeyser, and knew that this was really something. Since then I pulled 2 more revelations, 2 hallowed fountains, an Elspeth, detention spheres, Azorius charms, and a few other components of the deck. Then I traded a Wasteland for 2 Jace Vs. Vraska sets, 4 Temples of Enlightenment, and 4 Supreme Verdicts (a test Esper deck I made with proxy sweepers convinced me some months ago to keep on this path). I spent what my wife believed to be an obsessive amount of time refining and practicing with this deck and GP Chicago was probably my only shot at really testing whether it was worth it or not. Jim Davis’ innovation of removing D-spheres for planar cleansing caused me some consternation but in the end my deck contained none of the latter. My only contribution was two main decked Kiora’s Dismissals to recall my D-spheres, bounce my opponents’ enchantments, and in a prime testament to my commitment to cutesiness I believed I could use this card to reset D-spheres if I they played additional copies of whatever I was detaining. I do not recall actually pulling this off but in my next match I did make Dan sacrifice a Jace when two of them were suddenly in play on his side of the table.

That would be Dan Johnson, not Charles Johnson who had originally sat down across from me in the second match. In all honesty despite winning this match, I would almost have preferred Charles’ Boros Burn to the control mirror with Dan. This epic struggle pretty much consumed my will to continue. Even with an extension of time due to the mix-up of Johnsons, there was only one game completed in this match. I am almost 99% sure that I would have pulled the second victory if time had permitted but Dan was very upset that 1-1-0 is still a win, not a draw. Whereas some players will simply concede if they are going to lose, nothing I did in either game convinced Dan to let it go so that was what we were left with. It was such a mess, at one point all 8 Detention Spheres and a couple of Banishing Lights were in play but no advantage was to be gained. One think occurred that I had never experienced or thought of before, the text box of D-Sphere where it says “target nonland permanent and all other cards with that name” means your side too,  oops. Not sure if that particular copy of Jace would have given either of us the edge for victory but you never know. I definitely will consider that in the future and try not to make the same mistake again.

Grand Prix Chicago: The Hard Road to Magic.

It is still 106 miles to Chicago, it was dark when we left for the windy city but I did not wear my sunglasses and I brought an extra pack of cigarettes. This time the cast of characters was different as my wife and mother-in-law accompanied me. The ladies wanted to do some sight-seeing in the big city while Vince, Devin, and I attended the tournament. For various reasons I was the only member of team moo to make the journey back to Chicago. And a rather harrowing journey it was.

If the event begins at 10am and Google maps estimated a 1 hour 53 minute travel time, one would think leaving at 7:30am would give us a comfortable buffer, but I should have marked movement for 7 because comfortable is not enough. Vince arrived at the AA ahead of schedule and the four of us set out to pick up Devin along the way, but Murphy’s law intervened. One thing you have to understand is that my wife is the boss in our family, I lose all capacity to make decisions when she is around and often times she refuses to take command. So the cluster f#$ks along the way were a direct result of my inability to overcome this state of indecisiveness. She forgot the Ipad with some of the info they would need for the day, so a reverse wheeling maneuver was performed and I dismounted the driver’s station to execute a search for said gadget. After fruitless minutes of our buffer evaporated Kristin came to tell me that it was in the van all along. “It’s going to be one of those days,” I said to myself. I also discovered that when travelling to a big city it is important to update your GPS maps.

But, several missed exits and reverses later we did in fact arrive at the Donald Stephens Convention Center only a few minutes late. Luckily registration is online for GPs and after Vince and I stood in line for a few moments at the “missed” counter we consulted a judge who informed us that we did not need to check in at all and could just consult the posted seating arrangements to turn in our decklists and waiver forms. At this point we also received our promotional Batterskull cards, so everything turned out alright. I will at this time give thanks for Xanax, without you my friend there may have been blood. It was also great that the other players near me were quite cool and we had some good dialogue, it was at this time that I found out the count stood at 2,023 competitors assembled for the first day. Team moo was also not the only outfit experiencing difficulty as the event organizers drew much ire from the floor, at least as far as I could tell but I may not have overheard a representative sample. I was just glad to have made it to the event alive, unharmed, and suffering no penalty for being late.

It’s 106 Miles To Chicago…

Team Moo rolled into the Windy City yesterday to represent the West Bend Magic community at The TCGplayer MaxPoint Diamond Open. Though we did not make the Final 8 it was a great experience all around. This game is so competitive, sometimes it can be frustrating as well as invigorating. It cannot be a stretch to say every player has experienced the roller coaster of excitement in victory and agony of defeat. As cliché as it may be, one should not lose sight of the fact that Magic is a game of fantasy and imagination. So many players I ran into yesterday really seem to have forgotten this all-important fact. MTG is a game, and taking the game too seriously just makes it work. If work is all MTG is too you, well there are easier ways to make a buck.

Vraska

Caleb brought his “new and improved” Golgari deck that had passed play testing and seemed ready to go. Bret removed Courser of Kruphix from his Green Blitz deck to give it that extra “pin your ears back” all-out attack. Stephen brought the best of 3 colors together for Jund.  I gave it my best shot with an hybrid Azorius control strategy that I was comfortable with and play tested well. We were mentally prepared for the worst and best that could happen.

Almost 400 players descended on Chicago to give the event and its $1500 top prize a shot. They came from all over the Midwest, I had an interesting conversation with 2 bearded fellows from Owensboro, KY who were actually vendors from a card shop there. I recognized a few faces from FNM in Menomonee Falls and others from Pink Bunny in Milwaukee. Unfortunately, “friendly competition” is not a concept many were familiar with. Generously, you could say these guys (and a few gals) came to play.

So to start the day (at 6am) I loaded the last minute items into the van, my IPod, a big cooler with water bottles and other beverages, and punched in the address to my GPS. The team arrived by 7am and we were on the road shortly thereafter, only 1 real no show and one other team member sick with the flu (though admittedly, this whole trip was Adam’s idea). The ride down was smooth and conversation stuck pretty closely to the business at hand, how to give our best. We arrived at the Hyatt Regency right around 9 and coughed up $13 to park in the tower a little down the road. I mention this just to demonstrate that this was a real, physical tournament and not a “roll out of bed and play in jammies on the computer” kind of day.

I got separated from the team and spent far too long wandering around the hotel looking for the event, though I should have realized right away that they would want to stick a bunch of stinky, disheveled magic players in the basement. Caleb texted me to say that this was indeed where they were and I had to quickly write out my decklist by hand to get in line. The line to the registration table took us past a half dozen vendor’s tables, reminding me what a money-rending scam magic really is at its core but no matter. For some inexplicable reason, we had to all sit at assigned seats just to give the judges our decklists. I got to sit right across from a pimply, overfed jerk who was not there to have fun, just make everyone miserable with his narcissism.

Luckily, my first match was with a cool guy named Dave. Short, muscular, short-bearded he was playing W/B enchantments and quickly knocked me out with [[Hero of Iroas]] and several bestow creatures that made me lose life just by attacking. I was mana short and could only manage a “too little, too late” [[Supreme Verdict]] before going down 0-1. Next game, same thing, land was just not coming. I got a detention sphere on the hero but was just overwhelmed by weenies. Dave wished me luck and gave me some appreciated advice. Then Brandon was wielding a Boros deck, I don’t remember much that he did but I was land-short again. Ugh, 0-2 on the day without even putting up much of a fight. Time to hit the bar.

I don’t remember the next guy’s name, he was pretty cool though. After 2 guildgates hit the board I was starting to think he wasn’t serious, then [[Maze’s End]] hit and I understood. Okay, no creatures or other threats, just stall, stall, stall, while he dug gates out. First game, with all my removal and such I could not get pressure fast enough to get ahead of his land drops. Second and third though after sideboarding I was in the driver’s seat, especially when [[Gideon, Champion of Justice]] hit the board only 11 counters away from nuking all the gates away. With more creatures and more counterspells, including a very active [[Ephara, God of the Polis]] I was able to secure a 2-1 victory.

My fourth opponent could have been Paul Rudd’s dorky younger brother. He was gunning hexproof creatures with potent auras. I had enough non-targeting spells to destroy or bounce them but I made some unforced errors and went down. One and three is disheartening. Okay, officially out of contention but I still wanted to get as much experience as I could before getting too tired. Next up was the flip side of my coin, U/B control/mill against a guy who was more burned out than anyone I met that day. I think his name was Matt and he scored immediate cool points by offering me a piece of gum, I forgot mine and really needed it. This match went all the way to the end of the round and was interesting enough that I think Matt perked up a little here and there. I probably would have remembered less of this match if I had not won. [[Sphinx’s Revelation]] was definitely the star of that show.

It was a good match, even Matt said that was the matchup he was looking for in this tournament, I was kind of pumped. Not to the point I was at the start of the day, but a little enthusiasm was back. So when the team got together in the hall for a caucus on what to do now that we were all out of the running, I had a hard time deciding. Not sure what time it was, but I knew my stomach was gurgling it’s discontent. Considering we ended up at Gino’s eventually, I should have just given in to the need for deep dish and pitchers of beer. Especially when I sat down across from Jabba the Hutt…

Maybe I will continue this later, when I am in a better mood.

Marginal Definitions

TabletoftheGuilds

  1. Risk: the potential for loss
  2. Reward: the potential for gain
  3. Advantage: something you have that your opponent does not have
  4. Cost/Benefit analysis: What does the card cost and what does it do? This can be done with combinations of cards, whole decks, even the entire metagame (hereafter referred to as a “resource”).
  5. Marginal utility: After examining the cost/benefit ratio of a resource, measuring the expected risk versus the expected reward. The difference between risk and reward is the utility.
  6. Utility: unquantifiable measure of value for each given resource.*
  7. Relative vs. Absolute: A resource has an absolute advantage if that advantage is constant under any circumstances. A resource has a relative advantage when the advantage changes with the situation.**
  8. Margin: sum total of advantages. In practice the margin can only be calculated hypothetically using the net utility of each resource.

While this is a definitional post, I am not very happy speaking of MTG in economics terms. Unfortunately, economics is the only science with any applicability. The definition of that dismal discipline is the methods by which limited resources are distributed to satisfy demand. Demand by definition is unlimited because people’s wants are unlimited while resources are finite and therefore also by definition scarce. MTG fits this profile; all players want to do unlimited things but are constrained by the rules limiting hand size, turns, draws, land plays, etc. Economies of scale and diminishing returns can apply for understanding relative advantage. One could even argue that luck plays the role of externalities or that “best of” matches and tournaments will show evidence of regression toward the mean.

Putting the game in economic terms is utterly contradictory to my purpose of restoring or maintaining a sense of whimsy or awe in MTG. Reducing the spectacle of wizards casting spells and fantastic monsters to statistical analysis sucks all the fun out of things.

*Utility is immeasurable because each player has a different personality and playing style.

**Absolute advantage is assumed to be unattainable in MTG.

 

Gathering the Margins

This game we love is all about playing at the margins. What I mean is searching for that little extra that will put you over the top. To define, a margin is the cost paid for seeking advantage. In finance, a broker, investor, or institution will borrow money to buy a greater share of an asset than they could with cash. Then if the asset gains value, it is sold and the difference between paying back the borrowed money and interest costs is a marginal gain above and beyond what the actor could have achieved on their own. This is speculation by definition and while plain old price speculation plays a part in MTG, this post is about the marginal gains and costs of various cards and strategies.

Notice I do not use the word “advantage” in describing game play. The only advantages you could gain while playing would be by cheating, no cheaters here right? Good, so let’s assume that an absolute advantage in Magic does not exist. There are only marginal gains and the prices paid for them. First we will examine a single card that is very popular, “Thoughtseize” , and then a group of cards collectively known as “dual lands.”

Magic players always benefit from extensive research. But it does not take much knowledge to realize how Thoughtseize can help you. However, certain conditions must be met and a price must be paid. Now WoTC tries very hard to keep the game balanced, therefore this card is a sorcery and in addition to the 1 black mana casting cost you lose 2 life. Thoughtseize is a play, not an advantage. First you must have black mana, second you have to draw Thoughtseize, third you must be willing to lose the 2 life, and finally there must be a legal target in your opponent’s hand. Those are a lot of “ifs.” Ideally, you draw Thoughtseize in your opening hand, cast it, and catch something crucial to your opponent’s strategy in their opening hand. There was an opportunity cost in that you could have played a creature or some other card. There is the neutral card advantage cost, you played a card, your opponent lost a card. Then there is the fact that you are now at a 2 point life disadvantage. Adding all of these costs together, can you calculate the marginal effect of playing Thoughtseize?

No, there are too many variables left unstated to do any realistic calculation. I read a comment about Hymn to Tourach the other day, how if it made you discard Fallen Empires cards then it was not very powerful. And that was true enough, it is also true that today the Hymn is game-breakingly powerful. Explaining why you cannot simply slap 4 in a Standard deck and make your opponent never want to play you again. When by an oversight there is some advantage to gain in real terms, WoTC steps in like divine intervention and makes it go away. So keeping in mind the real costs of using Thoughtseize, you can make a more informed calculation of risk vs. reward in using it.

We can go a step further and use what we know about Thoughtseize to compare it to a similar card. Duress gives you about 75% of the effect Thoughtseize has without the 2 life cost. You still can play it first turn, still get a look at your opponent’s hand, and still make them discard a card of your choice. Different sets; different rarity; very, very different price, but almost identical in function. Until you look at the margin, where all of magic is played.

HallowedFountainBloodCrypt

The Return to Ravnica shocklands are a similar case. I had a case of shock the first time I saw the guild gates. “Holy cow! Dual lands at common? Amazing!” I had not been back in the game long at that time. And again, is it worth 2 life to have the shocklands come in untapped? If a shock land is only played untapped 25% of the time, then it is exactly like a guild gate 75% of the time. Paying the 2 life as an option when you need to cast something now, is that margin of risk and reward. What are the odds as well on needing 2 colors right now? What percentage of time would a basic land suffice?

OvergrownTombHallowedFountain

If you answered “it depends” then you are seeing my point about margins. Magic is all about options, the more options you have, the higher your potential reward. Because the game is so varied, however, there is always a chance that your opponent is playing a strategy to limit your options or increase the chance of failure and defeat for using risky cards. All you can really plan for is to create relative advantage in certain situations, but there is risk in any strategy. While the marginal utility of shock lands in a mono-color deck is zero and the risk of using Thoughtseize on an all agro deck is near 100%, the infinite combinations even in standard make risk and reward always relative, advantage always situational, and brings luck or even karma into play. All a magic player can really do is fork over the dollars for cards that give them the best tools available in any given format.

Pro Tour Boogie

When I asked around for the subject of my next blog the owner of Wizard’s Moo, Mr. T, and the designer of this site, Adam, both suggested that I write about organizing collections. Seriously, a great topic but I am not the guy to write about it. My wife, on the other hand, is a librarian who perpetually writes lists. She spontaneously started organizing my cards once, that was really cool especially since she had no frame of reference for methodology. My philosophy tends toward viewing the game as a constant evolution and therefore beyond the static categorizing possible with books or archival materials. This is not a great answer for Mr. T, who has a whole store to organize. So I will keep the grey matter churning on the subject, and when that charade is exhausted I will ask my wife. Until then, let’s talk a little about the Pro Tour event this weekend.

Nykthos

The Moo now has a flat screen television in view of the gaming tables, a very nice addition. And we can stream Magic events from Twitch internet TV, which broadcasts all sorts of gaming programs. When I first got back from the Army I was amazed to find Magic events broadcast on ESPN2. I do not know how long that lasted but it was pretty cool and probably helped give producers a learning curve for covering professional poker, which had a pretty good run on TV until Congress spoiled the party by banning real money in online gaming. Oh well, on to the next fad. But Magic perseveres, Pro Tour Born of the Gods was very professional with high production values and quality side commentary.

I have to say from watching this event, that if I ever covered one of these I would have to be the color commentator. Holy cow, Modern is a very broad format. There are so many sets that you need to know the cards for. I had Gatherer open so I could refer to it and have some idea of what was happening. Maybe it Is just that Modern covers the period when I was inactive.

The actual coverage of the event though, it was hard to watch. Those players can sure be twitchy, so much hand shuffling and other nervous energy. Many of the matches I saw featured non-English speakers so trying to follow the actual game was difficult. Then I missed the finals and saw just the award ceremony. All in all it was fun to experience top players vicariously. It made going 1-2 in our Draft Theros cycle a little more bearable.

Modern Tournament Tomorrow!

In case anyone reading is not a member of our Facebook page, the Moo is hosting a Modern tourney at 6pm 20Feb14 at 450 Main Street, Newburg, WI. The entry fee is $6 and prizes will be announced as soon as the player count is determined.

WateryGrave

Modern makes me think Zombies. Maybe because Innistrad was the first block I actually played in consciously understanding that there were new sets lol. And Innistrad was chock full of zombies. Then again I’ve been a zombie nut since long before The Walking Dead
, World War Z or even Fido. Actually longer than I have been playing magic, I saw Savini’s remake of Night of the Living Dead before the original 1968 version and have been a Tony Todd fan every since then. Anyway, I don’t need to establish bona fides on this, everyone loves zombies these days right?

Here’s what I’m thinking about playing, it will probably change though. I’m wishy-washy that way. http://tappedout.net/mtg-decks/the-remake/