Theory and Practice in Magic the Gathering – Wisdom Fae Under the Bridge by Graeme McIntyre

5 Things Magic Players Need To Think About At MTG Tournaments by Graeme McIntyre

“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.” – Jan L.A. van de Snepscheut and/or Yogi Berra

I have found myself discussing – often heatedly – the best way to approach formats with Matt Light of late. Discrepancies in the way in which my peers and I approach the game are hardly unexpected; I’ve only recently moved here, and both he and I have been playing for years and we certainly both have strong views on the game.

What is somewhat unexpected is that Matt is actually more theoretically orientated than I am. For the longest time I have viewed experiential learning with a degree of disdain, seeing this as a sign of poor theoretical understanding, or simplicity of thought. If I made a point based on theoretical principles which made sense, and I’d been playing a reasonable amount of the format, it would rake at me when someone would then want to play the games anyway… “to see”.

On one hand this was because it would often be followed by them playing three games, something contrary to my theory occurring, and them acting as if they must be right. On the other, it would be because there was the possibility that they were right, and we would need to sink some (finite) time into it because they wanted to.

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Guy Southcott was a big influence in changing my mind on the value of practice. Guy would listen to what I said, maybe just take it at face value, but if he wasn’t sure he would generally play the games he needed to play to evaluate the situation at home on Magic Online. This is actually where he did the majority of his testing; he’d play just about as much time as I did on paper, and then play as much again on his own, if not more.

Often the first thing people say about guy is that he was a “workhorse”. While this is true, the thing I remember about guy is that he won loads of PTQs in what was a relatively short time playing serious Magic, and it was his work ethic and good methodology that got him there. I’ve pretty much modelled how I test on how guy used to. live22

The Theory

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(For the purposes of this article) Includes…

  • Concepts such as tempo, card advantage, expected value etc. These are broad ideas which underpin the value of cards and actions within the game.
  • Archetypes like control, aggro, aggro control, midrange, etc. These inform players about the role of their deck against other decks, and the sorts of cards it ought to include as part of its strategy.
  • The ways in which decks rise and fall in prominence from week to week. This can be used to predict the expected effectiveness of a given deck going forwards – e.g. if deck A beats decks B, and C, but loses to D, while D inverts this, then A is likely to be a good choice the week after B and C are successful, because they will likely be strongly represented the following week.

It’s possible to prepare for events solely on theory, provided you have an excellent memory, read a lot, and can handle all this information while you play an exceptionally complicated game. A background in mathematics is likely to be helpful both for managing the statistics for the predictive elements, and the probabilities in deck building and during play.

I think the number of people who can actually do this exclusively without losing value is miniscule. I’m certain my brain is not nearly that powerful, and I’ve probably never met someone who could do it.

That said, I can think of plenty of people who rely largely on theory to get things done when they play who are admirably successful. Stuart Wright, Bradley Barclay, Matt Light, Craig Jones and Steven Murray spring to mind.

In Practice

Image by Anna Przywecka
Image by Anna Przywecka

(Again, for the purposes of this article) Includes…

  • Playing the games! This is how you work out if a card like Afflict is actually good in a limited format. Counting the number of 1 toughness guys doesn’t really cut it. It lets you know if you need to burn Dark Confidant or not.
  • Hypothesis Testing/experimental method. This is where you want to find something out, or want to check and see that something is accurate in practice. A good example that I’m sure I’ll want to test is how much Frenzied Goblin helps the red deck get out of jams in standard. Stopping critical blockers might make that deck considerably more threatening, and as such both more viable as a deck to play, and a bigger consideration for a different deck I might play.
  • Creating a collection of first-hand information from which to draw conclusions. When 5 colour control and fairies were decks in standard, the consensus was that fairies beat 5 colour control very consistently, but my results showed that they were pretty close. I played that match up over and over and over because of this discrepancy, and I am comfortable saying that match up was pretty close to 50/50.
  • It’s good for playing a strange card, too. I once splashed green for goyfs and cut Demigod of revenge and skred in standard when no one else did because I thought it gave an edge in the mirror. The problem was that after boards they brought in Murderous Redcap and had enough time to ruin you with demigods. I went 6-1 in limited and 2-5 in constructed that year at nationals. Nice bit of theory there… probably cost me a top 8.

I doubt it’s possible to completely ignore theory and just do things with practice, but there are definitely players who are less concerned about theory. It will improve your speed, allow you to make choices with an actual basis in reality for doing so (the scientific method) and it’s actually quicker a lot of the time to play the games than discuss them if there is a remote difference of opinion.

The obvious example is Neil Rigby, who plays an insane amount of Magic (mostly limited) and has insanely consistent top 8s in limited, but less so in constructed as he plays less. I think I had him marked for more of a talent+theory guy before, but it’s definitely talent+practice. Mark McGovern, Gary Campbell and Jamie Ross are all pretty practice orientated.

The Synthesis

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Unsurprisingly, I think the best thing is a combination of these two things. The scientific method – a fundamental building block of my educational background – is principally built on theory and experimentation.

Clearly you can’t just play 100 matches of each deck in the gauntlet vs the other decks and find an ideal choice because of the insane amount of time it would take. Even if you did likely as not your findings would indicate that a given deck is good in one field but not another, and it would be helpful to employ theoretical insight to predict what the field might look like. You also want to not bother testing cards which are just not good (according to theory) because they almost certainly aren’t good.

That said, I’m almost certain that testing extensively allows you to play a lot better, which is obviously important, but also have a good version of the deck you’re playing. Sometimes – especially with control decks – you can change around a few cards, and gain a big advantage from doing so.

For instance you don’t need to play 4 Azorius Charm or 4 Spell Snare just because everyone else is – you can cut them, play the games where that might be a problem, see if it is, and if it’s not play something else. I use those two cards as an example because I remember loads of times when I was stuck with the latter in hand, or just slowed down by the former.

A combined approach might be something like…

  • Read Modo decklists while having breakfast. Think about this.
  • Think about what decks might be good to play on the bus to work. Maybe read a magic article at lunch.
  • Discuss things on your facebook group about magic before tea/on lunchbreak/on the way home on the bus.
  • Turn up to testing with some objectives for the evening. Consider the results for the next session, and in relation to the other information you’re digesting.
  • Try and play the games with the weird cards or the match up other people don’t want to test online. Share the results. Advocate acting on them if there is something conclusive to act on.
  • Ground contingent theory in empirical evidence, but accept fundamental concepts. (so “aggro loses to midrange, so because people are playing coursers and caryatids, no one will play aggro, so it’s ok to play this deck that loses to aggro” needs to be supported but “casting threats at end of turn pressures their mana and hurts their tempo” is fine, all things being equal).
  • Play with people you trust, and listen to them.

That’s it for this week. It’s worth noting that my definitions of theory and practice are explanatory tools and not a representation of a given persons view of the game. Hope you all enjoyed the M15 prerelease!

Graeme McIntyre

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Graeme McIntyre
I've been playing magic since the end of Rath Block, and I've been a tournament regular since Invasion Block. I started studying for a PhD in Sociology at University of Leicester in 2017. I was born In Scotland, but moved to Nottingham three years ago, seeking new oppertunities both academic and magical. I play regularly with David Inglis, Alastair Rees and Neil Rigby. I've been on 5 Pro Tours the 2016 English World Cup Team, and Scottish 2003 European Championship Team, but what I really bring to the table is experience. I've played 136 Pro Tour Qualifiers, 18 Grand Prixs, 11 National Championships, 13 World Magic Cup Qualifers, 51 Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers and more little tournaments than I can remember. More than anything else, my articles are intended to convey the lessons of this lived experience. Likes - robust decks, be they control, midrange, beatdown or combo. Cryptic Commands, Kird Apes and Abzan Charms. Dislikes - decks that draw hot and cold. Urza's Tower, Life From the Loam and Taigam's Scheming.