What is the difference between data, information and knowledge? by David Brannon

The UK Magic scene from a cross cultural perspective by David William Brannon


First congratulations to Cyrus (Cy), Mark and the rest of the Reading crew (notable Ryan) for a good showing at this weekend’s PTQ. Second, a thank you to Becky; EG, Charlie, Jason; MM, the judges and David Turner (for playing Valakut from day one and giving Cyrus more experience than he could ever wish against that deck). Saturday was a great day, even though I did not get to play myself, it was a complete day with Cy winning it for the home team.

But I would like to highlight a simple sentence that Cy asked, which was probably what eventually booked his seat on the plane to Philadelphia. “Can I keep this hand against Valakut?” Down a game, mulligan to 6, on the play, against what some consider to be the best deck in the format piloted by a decent player in a match that would take him to 5-1. So what went into the question, and why is Cy on a plane to his first PT while some struggle to reach top 8?

In this section I will be exploring, understanding and explaining the skills that might one day allow me to ask “Can I keep this hand against Valakut?”

At this point I would like to offer a little phrase “start at the beginning and finish at the end,” a phrase that manages to keep me firmly in line with my PhD. So where to start? Well this reminds me of one of the best Magic articles ever written, Alice in Wonderland, which was published in the Duelist. At its very core Magic the Gathering is nothing other than an individual’s ability to process large amount of data from which to build knowledge. This article’s focus is in appreciating the difference between data, information and knowledge. Only once a player really understands these distinct differences, can they even start on the road to successfully playing the game, winning a tournament and booking their plane ticket.

Data: Signals that the environment sends us. How many cards do I have? How many cards does my opponent have? How many cards are in each other’s libraries? How many lands are in play? How many are untapped? What colour can they produce? Is the spell an instance, sorcery, enchantment, aura, artifact, creature or equipment? What does the card specifically state it does, e.g. is it a may trigger or mandatory? What is the power and toughness of a creature? What are the life totals and how many poison counter does each player have?

Simple maybe, and yet how often do players miss on-board tricks? Forget that a player has 3 rather 2 lands untapped when choosing between Mana Leak and Spell Pierce? Not realize the array of mana types an opponent can access? Not recording life totals and poison? Failing to note how many cards an opponent has or even miss a trigger, even in Pro Tour top 8s? Just recently a friend rammed his golem into mine, forgetting to note that my Splicer was giving it first strike. It was an on board trick, that might have lost him the game, which he would have noticed had he just read the signals. Another example was last year in Nationals, where having clearly tapped my creatures, an opponent miscounted and did not see that I had attacked with more creatures than he was blocking.

Information: Processing signals the environment is sending us. What am I doing with the cards in my hand? What might my opponent do with theirs? What spells can be played with the cards in play? Why has my opponent tapped the lands they have, was it accidental or deliberate? What other sources of mana might they have? How does spell type impact on how my opponent might play their spells? What is the full range of interactions possible from this card? How does a creature’s power and toughness impact combat? How does life total and poison influence the game? What effect does the trigger have and has it been resolved?

Again, these small concerns might seem clearly obvious and yet many players still struggle with these points. How many times has a Stoneforge Mystic been played without reaching for a sword? When this happened, did the player think it was an oversight, or was it because the equipment was already in hand? How often when counting opponent’s lands for mana has a player not included the mana from a fetch land cracked with a cobra in play? Cracking a fetch land before the draw step in order to get a land from their library, but not appreciating the fact that they were thinning their library of land when they were mana screwed? Or simpler still, how often have debates between players occurred because of poor life keeping or incorrectly recording poison?

Just recently I was playing in Grand Prix London when two such cases occurred. I had swung for lethal poison damage, based on the data I had collected, when my opponent suggested that he was in fact only on 9 rather than 10. Having carefully processed the data, poison, by maintaining the record I was able to explain my reasoning and thus after the judge arrived, won the match, such disputes can happen at all levels. Another example was the first round when playing a friend, I made a very silly mistake. After surviving for many turns, I had almost stabilized and would likely win if I could stay alive for one more turn. All I had to do was not tap a green mana so that I could block his flier with my Wall of Tanglecord, which I was fully aware of. However in the heat of the moment, I panicked and missed this, costing me the game.

Knowledge: Apply the information being gathered. What is the strategy I am following and do these cards allow me to do this? What strategy is my opponent following and what information can I glean from his decision to keep his 7? How might I play the first 4 turns in order to make sure I can play my Hero of Bladehold on turn 4 without it being countered? How is my opponent likely to sideboard against me and how might this influence my own game? Am I planning on milling, poisoning or dealing 20 points of damage to my opponent, and if so how? What is my opponent’s choice going to be and how can I prevent that from happening?

The New Phyrexia block nicely highlighted the last conundrum by allowing players to focus on at least 2 if not 3 of these plans. The challenge for many players is that they become too focused on the current turn rather than thinking several turns in advance, i.e. their actual game plan. This is especially highlighted when players fail to realize when they should switch plans and instead invest too heavily on the wrong one.

Another example was illustrated when Cyrus asked “Can I keep this hand against Valakut?” First he looked at 6 cards, data, reading the signals that they were giving him. At this point he saw lands and spells, but this was not sufficient. He then considered how these cards would interact to what effect, information. Did the lands in his hand allow him to cast the spells he had? Having gathered this information, and thus knowledge of both decks and the situation, he considered whether or not this would allow him to sufficiently develop his strategy while restricting his opponents’ game plan in the process. The answer was no, and he took another mulligan down to 5, but went on to win the game and match, then later in the day; the plane seat.

The next time you are sitting down for a game, ask yourself this simple question, “Can I keep this hand?,” and understand the several layers of questions that this is built one. Once you are able to appreciate the full complexities that this involves then you might too win a plane seat to a PT. Next week I will be looking at how this question changes based on environment, draft, sealed and constructed as well as when reading tourney reports an so on.

Thanks for reading and thanks for sharing,



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I am a TA and PhD Student at Henley Business School at the University of Reading, focusing on Management and SocioPsychology. I have played Magic for some time although mainly being active as a community member rather than serious tourney player. My main achievement to date is having a 100% qualficiation for Nationals, being a co-founder of Magic in the Middle East and playing in a top 8 of a PTQ after coming 10th. My favorite deck, as my PhD would indicate, combines bluffing, strategy and luck i.e. UB Faeries, while my favorite card is Lightning Angel.