Category Archives: Philosophy of Magic: The Gathering

Looking at Magic: The Gathering from a larger view.

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.

 

SteamVents

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.

Magic: Then and Now

I started playing this game “late” as it was, in that I missed all the really powerful sets when you could still get them easily on the shelves in their sealed, virgin form. This situation gave me perspective on what happened before as an outsider looking in, but it also gives me perspective on what happened after I gave up and how things are now. It feels like I missed out on both ends of the time spectrum as the really powerful cards came out during times I did not play. Sure, Fourth Edition had its moments as did Ice Age, Mirage, and Tempest blocks. And today the Return to Ravnica block and unfolding Theros saga have nuggets of strength that would have made me piss my pants if someone had pulled it on me back in the day. Magic is a living, evolving game that is really more of a lifestyle than a hobby.

TabletoftheGuilds

To give one small example of how things have changed. I always thought of “control” as a strategy that actually took control of your opponent’s board. Permission decks are what we called “control” back in the day, where your opponent gets so frustrated with counter spells and removal of creatures, enchantments, and artifacts that they start to ask your permission before casting anything. Newcomers to the game sometimes exclaim “hey!” the first time they see control magic or another card played that steals their stuff. But that was par for the course back then, the reason you did not put all your hopes into one or two big fatties as your “win condition.”

LilianaChandraGarruk

Then we agro, the other big strategy. You know what a player today would find “undercosted” back in the day? Savannah Lions and that was pretty much it. Anything else that gave you more bang than bucks was so costly in other ways that you really wanted to stay away from it. Now, reading the comments on the Gatherer website, basically anything I thought was fast then is junk now, or deadwood as the jargon holds. The big agro deck then was mono-red Sligh, where you tried to spend all your manna each turn to get maximum damage for it. But this strategy bogs down very easily in the face of many modern creatures. Burn was often a major component of sligh, but it was burn for removal. In sum, creatures were creatures and spells were for bending the rules or changing conditions. Now creatures are very often what set the conditions on the battlefield with their abilities and players rely far less on spells or non-creature permanents to bend the field.

You could almost make the case that, as the first CCG, Magic is analogous to the first Parliamentary democracy in the modern world; Great Britain. The British have miles and miles of rules and laws, just like Magic, but their constitution is unwritten. WoTC can change the constitution, or set of core principles, traditions, and rules, of the game at a whim. Such as planeswalkers, the first time I heard about them I was floored but now they are just as much a part of the game as creatures. The extinction of interrupts is another example. Back then we had an idea of something called “the stack” with the handy rule of “first in, last out” order of resolution but there were interrupts that served as trump cards. You could interrupt anything with a counter spell in a series of spells that were working out their resolution order. How it is that planeswalkers tax our brains less than interrupts I will never know. And of course in any society, you have ne’er do wells working constantly to game the system. British and American statesmen know all too well how special interests hire expensive accountants and lawyers to figure out how to tilt legislation and enforcement of laws to their advantage. In Magic it is the players themselves who, and of course this is the name of the game, put cards together and break things to the point of WoTC stepping in to ban or restrict things. A game that does not put out new sets every year and therefore stays static could be considered an American constitution.

Jace, Memory AdeptAjani

This constant change and evolution does bring me to why I stopped playing around 1999. Obviously, the rotation of cards and introduction of new ones is a great way to separate gamers from their money. But the real concern I had was what the game was moving toward. The first real drop off of power came with the introduction of the Revised core set. Whoosh! Gone were the power 9 and all the abuse that went with them. Then Fourth Edition came out, sure cards looked better, more professional and brighter with the better ink but another big chop in the power level of the set pissed a lot of people off. This one still inexplicably had ante cards, though no one played with ante for years at that point, but gone were Sol RIng, duel lands, and any other vestige of original power. They were replaced by… Nothing. By the time Fifth Edition was getting ready to hit the shelves I read in Scrye magazine (the official journal of MTG) an interview with some corporate lackey. I can only imagine what this woman looked like, probably a perfect ladies’ business suit with hair and makeup to boot, nothing like the gaming nerds she was talking down to. It has been a long time so I will need to paraphrase but she was saying how they needed to slow down the game and rebalance the power. So fifth edition was saying goodbye to Serra Angel and Sengir Vampire and Lightning bolt, etc. Because these cards screwed up the curve. Huh? I hope that empty suit was booted soon after that interview, classic example of putting an MBA moron in charge of anything creative, suck the life out of the product and jack up the price.

RTR-Key-ArtSteamVents

I wanted to shout at the top of my lungs: IT’S A GAME LADY! That was exactly why people played it. The game’s freaking title should have given her a clue. “Magic” the very idea was to fill people with a sense of wonder, of doing crazy things, of commanding amazing creatures, and doing things that were as far away from the mundane world of corporate bullshit as possible. There were a lot of other reasons I put the cards away and stopped getting new ones but this one, how disappointingly weak fifth edition was and the subsequent sets soon came to be, were the proverbial straw breaking my back.

Vraska

Then, over a decade later I met some young people who let me in on the secret. Yes, idiots like that empty suit were overruled, the game was fun again. Of course, I was like a Civil War soldier going up against modern SEALs. But what the heck, I could learn the new rules and the new metagame. So far it has been mixed, there are teenagers out there who beat me before I even know what happened. I have had a very hard time adjusting to the new power curve, back then a 2/2 for 3 manna was pretty respectable and there was a reason I captioned Shivan dragon with “Big Daddy” in my last post, he was. Mr. Shivan was the biggest, baddest, most efficient monster there was when I started playing. I had two of them and thought I was king of the castle, but Big Daddy has become so out-classed by the modern ‘roid o’sauruses out there that I can’t even find a slot for him in my dragon deck anymore.

M13-Key-ArtThundermawHellkite

Overall, the game has slowed down. The power curve has been pushed out a bit but holy cow has it gone up. Cards that back then would have given their benefits to everyone now tend to affect only the player casting them. Counter spells and other permission type cards have scaled back far from where they were, as has removal become a more difficult prospect. There used to also be cards we called “hosers” things like Flashfires or Karma that could just annihilate an enemy color. Now having just a creature with protection from a color is a big deal. But the biggest change of all is the internet, not just playing online but the access to so much more information is just absolutely huge. That is probably where I will pick up next time.

Game on!

Inaugural Post: What MTG means to me.

Is this even English?

Hard to believe that it has been Twenty years since these little pieces of cardboard hit the shelves. I was not present at the creation and I have no more knowledge of the game’s origins than your average player could find in five minutes of Google searching, but I wanted to make my first post here about what Magic: The Gathering means to me.

I was on the yearbook staff during my senior year of high school and got to see the story a colleague did on the game’s first appearance before publication. Hmm, Dungeons and Dragons on playing cards? You don’t need all sorts of books and sheets and crazy dice? IT CAN BE PLAYED ON LUNCH BREAK!?! Each game stands on its own? No running story line? I need to check this out. Of course, my best friend at the time put his foot down that “oh that game is stupid, it is for freshmen.” He was an overbearing son of a bitch who never, ever let anything go, so I did not look into magic at that time. The Paralyze card above was the picture that accompanied the yearbook story, so it was really the first card I got to take a close look at. What does this mean? “Untap phase?” “Pay an additional 4 during his or her upkeep?” What in the world is this strange language?

Big Daddy

Big Daddy

If I knew then what I know now I would have told Tom exactly where he could stuff it and given Magic a shot. But you know high school, codes must be obeyed, conform, play your assigned role; or become an outcast. In the long run I would rather have a Black Lotus, or one of the other power nine than a friend like that.

 

Luckily I made new friends when I left home for the Army. A fella from Illinois had the bunk across from mine, we found that we had a lot in common already when he asked me if played magic. Being that I was Eighteen years old, in this macho setting, and under the influence of my overbearing friend from back on the block, I said “no I don’t play that bullsh&t game.” Schroeder and I stayed friends anyway. Eventually, I grew more open-minded and met some of the other guys that played. Not pimply, dorky freshmen, these guys and gals were cool, people I wanted to hang out with anyway. So one night smoking and joking over coffee and nachos, I said “okay Schroeder, tell me how this magic game works.” I remember not liking the term “manna” but the more he talked, the more I was intrigued. Magic reminded me of a game played in a book of the same name called Interstellar Pig that I had read in middle school.

I was pretty well hooked after that. Though disposable income is always tight for an enlisted man, especially one who bought a snazzy new car after basic, I usually bought 3 boosters or 1 starter pack on payday. Slowly I built up a decent collection, almost always through trading because somehow buying singles seemed like cheating. At first anyway, my only regret was only picking up 4 copies of Force of Will at 50 cents each later on. Also, even though revised was still available here and there, the new guys and I thought Fourth edition looked so much better that we bought that instead.

It was so easy to get into really big trouble in the Army. This was peacetime, the Cold War was over, budgets were shrinking if you can imagine that. We were hated by the townies and river rats off-post, we were watched by CID (think the Gestapo), and we were subjected to misanthropic rule by officers and NCOs who actually had an incentive to punish and chapter enlisted men out of the service. Playing magic was, without getting too melodramatic, a godsend by keeping me and my buddies out of real trouble. Some of my best memories of those days are sitting on the floor, smoking cigarettes and drinking mountain dew, and playing magic with three or four other guys. We were safe in our barracks room, staff duty and CID would not bother us, we could avoid all the tension outside.

While we could not bring our cards with us to the motor pool or out to the field, talking magic gave us plenty to do. I do not think it is a stretch to say that playing magic got me through those years with my sanity (mostly) intact. Army life was incredibly stressful, and there was so little to relieve or avoid it, that having an outlet in those cards kept me from being a statistic. Then when I got home I could not find a game, the only players I met were those same pimply kids whom I had nothing in common with. And none of my friends would give magic a chance. So for many years my cards went in the closet. I was very upset with what I saw as a watering down of power in new sets and the constant rotation of sets in Type II tournaments.