4 Lessons other Magic: The Gathering players know, but never write about (Can you guess what they are?) by Graeme McIntyre

Danger Expectations

Cartoons, and Magic: The Gathering and New Years, Oh My! – Wisdom Fae Under the Bridge

Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.” – George Orwell


It’s been a while since I have written, and that’s partially because I moved house this month, and have been dealing with a combination of moving furniture, building furniture, emptying boxes, finding trades people to replace boiler and garage roofs etc, etc. I’ve also only played 6 rounds of magic in the last 5 weeks, going 4-2 drop in Francois Hauchard’s Big modern event earlier this month, and as such haven’t had much in terms of topical, experiential stimuli to write about. I’ve been playing loads of Warhammer 40k and 9th Age Warhammer (a worldwide, community driven project), a bit of poker, board gaming and some Xbox. It has been really good, and the lack of compulsion to play Magic: The Gathering is likely indicative of the positive impact of a much needed break. I’ll likely attend a couple of pre-releases, start testing Standard, and then play Sealed PPTQ in Birmingham on the 24th of January, followed by being back in full swing with Manchester’s PPTQ/Cash event weekend on the 30th and 31st.

In many ways November was “Magic New Year” with the PPTQs coming to a close for a prolonged period, and I wrote a couple of reflective pieces with this in mind at that point. Now a combination of spoiler season generating a lot of discussion and some self-reflection about non-Magic: The Gathering elements of my life has made me think about a couple of things about the nature of discourse in Magic.

This next section is going to seem pretty out there, but tough it out …

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe

When I was a kid, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was the best thing on TV and as I got older, it was X-men the Animated Series. From He-man, I developed an American accent and a lot of basic moral principles, instilled by the end of episode debrief in which a character from the show would explain to you how – for instance – co-operation and sharing was better than rivalry and greed, because the bad guys failed in the show due to greed and rivalry. The next week, the episode would be about not going off with strangers because Little Timmy from the Village got captured in this way, and needed bailing out from He-Man. Immanuel Kant, eat your heart out!

X-men the Animated Series was an adaptation of the comics, which were broadly interested hostility towards mutants due to fear and bigotry. This cartoon I’m pretty sure laid the foundation for a decent sense of empathy and put me on the right road regarding racism. Perhaps more importantly, the good guys didn’t always win, and the primary antagonist is debatably not a bad guy. Magneto was a mutant who’s family had been killed in – on second, adult watching – conflict during the fall of the Soviet Union, who wants to protect mutants through aggression towards their most prominent enemy; Humanity. The issue is that given the way the mutants are being treated throughout the series, it’s not especially difficult to see it from Magneto’s perspective.

What I’m getting at here is that there was a moral element to children’s TV aimed at my generation. I was born in 1984, so towards the end of the depression in the 1970s-1980s, and my parents were both pretty well off and left wing, forward thinking, bright, well-read types. So I am in the middle ground in respect to the next point I’m going to make…

I was the tail end of Generation X (people born from the late 1960s, to the early 1980s). This is a generation which struggled through economic hardship, lost opportunities, and was lucky to maintain the economic status that their parents – who did pretty well in the post war economic boom – had. Things started to pick up around the middle of the 1980s, and naturally parents wanted more for their children. University access was becoming more common, jobs were easier to get… the outlook was generally more positive. My experience was that my dad kept telling me I could be anything I wanted to be, praise was hyper abundant, criticism was rare, and my mother agreed on the general principle, but was slow to praise, and always combined praise with advice on how to improve.

Generation Y, then, we’re told that they were special – each of them – and that any failure was just them “finding their way in life”. I suppose Generation X imagined that streets would be cleaned by robots, and cars flown about automatically as they were in The Jetsons by the time their children needed jobs. You don’t need me to tell you that it didn’t work out like this, and that many, many people from Generation Y are leading very terrestrial lives.

What was generation Y’s big cartoon? Let’s have a look at the theme song for …

“I wanna be the very best,
Like no one ever was.
To catch them is my real test,
To train them is my cause.

I will travel across the land,
Searching far and wide.
Each Pokemon to understand
The power that’s inside

Pokemon, (gotta catch them all) it’s you and me
I know it’s my destiny
Pokemon, oh, you’re my best friend
In a world we must defend

Pokemon, (gotta catch them all) a heart so true
Our courage will pull us through
You teach me and I’ll teach you
(Po-ke-mon) Gotta catch ’em all

Every challenge along the way
With courage I will face
I will battle every day
To claim my rightful place

Come with me, the time is right
There’s no better team
Arm in arm we’ll win the fight
It’s always been our dream

Pokemon!” – Pokemon Theme Song

Now, I know this probably loses something in translation, and that a literal interpretation maybe does it something of a disservice, but that likely didn’t occur to English speaking kids hearing it, and as a result having it seep into their unconscious mind.

I wanna be the very best,
Like no one ever was.

Not simply to do well, not even to excel, not even to merely be better than everyone else, but to be better than everyone who is, or who has ever been? Ok then, buddy!

“Pokemon, (gotta catch them all) it’s you and me
I know it’s my destiny
Pokemon, oh, you’re my best friend
In a world we must defend”

Not “you, me, and our friends”, then? You and that yellow Bagpus have the defence of the world down, due to it being your “destiny”, eh?

“Pokemon, (gotta catch them all) a heart so true
Our courage will pull us through
You teach me and I’ll teach you
(Po-ke-mon) Gotta catch ’em all”

True hearts, courage, and colourful, non-verbal animal thingys… not working hard, co-operating and like… not going off with strangers, then?

“Every challenge along the way
With courage I will face
I will battle every day
To claim my rightful place”

Where Generation X learned that bad things happen, and it’s about overcoming adversity and being stronger for it, because people are racist, and sexist and things aren’t cheap or easy, Generation Y learned that so long as you push yourself courageously to the front, continually, you would “claim your rightful place”…

Come with me, the time is right
There’s no better team
Arm in arm we’ll win the fight
It’s always been our dream”

Prophetic moments of ascendency, dismissal of opposition, arrogance, based on the idea that if you want it, you get it.

No wonder people 5-10 years younger than me are bumbed out about not crushing at Magic – they were sung to on a daily basis about how they were going to rock at cards since they started primary school!


4 Lessons other Magic: The Gathering players know, but never write about

Here are 4 things you might want to do if you haven’t already caught ‘em all. They’re not the best 4 things you can do, but they are pretty decent, and they’re not written about in every other Magic: The Gathering article (I’m not going to tell you to get a good night’s sleep, stay hydrated, concentrate or call a judge this week…)


1. Expected Value (EV) isn’t a reason to go to a Magic: The Gathering tournament if you are competing, so get that out of your head right this minute

calculator finance money

Talking about going to Magic tournaments “for value” is – on the whole – laughable. An event with a good prize (say a win a box, with some supporting prizes) is likely to get 40 people or so, meaning 6 x 50 minute rounds + a top 8 + inefficiency for about 9 hours. Add on to that the time it takes to travel (say an hour each way, all in) and you have 11 hours which are worth about £70 at minimum wage. Add on the petrol and the prize for getting in at say £5, and £10 and you have £85. If you win the tournament (which 1 in 40 people will do…) you’ll get a box, which you’ll be lucky to sell for £65. You won the tournament, and you’re effectively down £20.

That’s all assuming you win the event, which you were no doubt destined to do, but looking at it using some sort of realistic expectation (say that you’re pretty good – better than me – and have an overall win percentage of 65%) you’ll win about 1/6 of these events.

When you go for lunch at the McDonalds across the street from the venue, the guy behind the counter serving you has much better EV on his day than you do; He’s 100% to make £70. This term ported over from poker, where you can realistically expect to do better than the guy at McDonalds, and in the way it is used in respect to Magic tournament attendance it is grotesque.

Ask yourself will you enjoy the recreational experience of going to an event to play a game, and then ask yourself why you feel compelled to express this in clinical mathematical terms which bear no true resemblance to the activity in which you are engaging. If you’ll have fun, great, go. But don’t try to get other people to go on the basis that it is mathematically correct to do so, because it is very unlikely that this is so.

For me, I never go to these sorts of event because I play so many PPTQs (which are also terrible EV, unless you count the subjective value of the implications attendance has for qualifying for the Pro Tour, which somewhat misses the point). Going to random events isn’t fun for me, and I really like getting a weekend off. I didn’t even attend the UK GPs last year because they were unlikely to do anything for me.

If you can get your head round this, and realistically appraise why you play, then you’ll be in a better place mentally to achieve the goals you have for yourself. It really isn’t about “battling every day”.


2. Avoid bad argumentation, unless you just want to cheat yourself

Dead Drop mtg


That website is pretty helpful if you’ve not studied philosophy. The core of this is that when you’re discussing Magic, you’re not in competition like high school debating society, or when you’re trying to avoid getting detention in school, or shift the blame onto a sibling, or even just trying to get something done with office politics in mind. Instead, you’re trying to get to the truth. There are loads of logical fallacies which apply to Magic: The Gathering all of which are problematic, and reading about them with the intent of identifying them in discussion will likely be helpful to some degree, although other people are generally so focused on fulfilling their destiny or whatever that they will just find your attempts at rational thought cowardly and undermining… perhaps you can help yourself, however.

One that comes up for me frequently is Reductio Ad absurdum which I use often. People mistakenly think that it’s a Strawman Fallacy (misrepresenting someone’s argument to make it easier to attack) and become frustrated, when I’m generally attempting to demonstrate a flaw in a – often hyperbolic – statement.

For instance,

Them: “I’d definitely pick a 3rd Dead Drop if I’d picked one first and second, and I’d play two Taigam’s Scheming to support them”

Me: “I don’t know…”

Them (frustrated at their wonderful ideal being challenged): “What? Turn 3 dead drop is insane!”

Me: “There are loads of ways where the card is actually pretty average + if you’re casting scheming to enable it then all you’re doing is trading 2 cards for 2 cards”

Them(incredulous): “I don’t know how you can’t see that this would be nuts”

Me: “What if they don’t make any creatures on turns two or three (I wouldn’t bother saying this, but this is the reduction in its truest form, establishing the absurdity of the premise that the card is always nuts…) /they cast Hoardling Outburst?”

Them (fury): “So narrow, so unlikely, that’s an uncommon, so pessimistic, you can say this sort of thing about all cards, in a particular situation….”

Me: “You know you could just draft two on curve creatures and block for the same effect, without the investment in a particular deck, the clunky hands, etc, etc, right? It’s not Channel + Fireball; it’s just a decent effect. Casting dead drop early isn’t even that good – later if you trade of cards, fuelling your graveyard and playing an attrition game which favours your dead drops, you will get higher casting cost, bigger impact cards…”

The reductio has been around since about 570BC as a legitimate form of argument and an important tool; it’s not something out of this year’s self-help book. It’s pretty amazing how worked up people get over it and I’m on the fence about adapting my behaviour to accommodate for this. It’s definitely worth thinking it because it’s a very useful tool for analytical thought, but it might be better to find a different way to express the problem to avoid Charizard plushies being thrown around (or finding people to play with who can keep it together…)


3. Get a basic grasp of probability, because you are probably wrong

Third time's the charm

70% means seven times out of ten; it doesn’t mean always. The nature of the game is that luck is a pretty massive component, so clearly understanding what that realistically means is important to your appraisal of various courses of action. This is a major problem for a lot of pretty good players I know, who on one hand act like I’m slow rolling them if I think about a play for more than the time to snap-do it because it’s better than 60% to work, but on the other act like the won the anti-lottery if someone gets them on a sub 40% thing. It’s going to happen all the time!

Like I said during the break I’ve been war gaming a bit, and I learned a lot about this sort of thing by playing dice games like Warhammer (particularly Bloodbowl), and it has been my hope that this would have a similar impact on the guys I play cards with. The other day, Matt Light chose to reroll 3 dice when he could have chosen only to reroll 2, when 3 results of a 1 or 2 had a disastrous consequence, and the upside was marginal, because “It was ludicrously unlikely that he’s roll that badly”. That’s 1/3×1/3×1/3, e.g. 1/27, or 3.75%. Needless to say, his roll was 1,1,2. Every day is a school day, if you let it be; you teach me, and I’ll teach you!


4. Manage your expectations or your expectations will manage you

manage your expectations

You’re probably not going to be the best, like no one ever was. Have a hard think about how good you are right now, how happy you are with that, and what you can realistically do to improve. Set realistic goals, and actively try to reach them. If you try and then fail, don’t feel bad, just look at what you could do to improve. If you don’t try and then fail… you should feel bad then, because you’ve let yourself down (unless something special happened). *Realistic* is the big word.

*Don’t* worry about other people’s goals. Your friends might well not have realistic expectations, or they might have more time, or more aptitude than you. That’s all fine.

My goals are – with no real time period in mind – to get on a pro tour and a half a year, top 8 a GP, and maybe spend one year as silver pro. Those are my big goals, e.g. the things I would be really pleased to accomplish in Magic if that’s all I ever did. They might not be realistic – it’s hard to say. Short term, I’d like to work on my communication skills and mental game (the fact that I don’t feel great about Magic: The Gathering is making it harder to do well, which in turn makes me feel worse, and so on…). Neil wants to win a Pro Tour. Matt wants more than I do. David says on one hand “I might never get on the PT again” and the other “We could maybe do better than you’re expecting”.

The big difference is that it would be inconvenient for me to do any better than what I’ve outlined. If I won a PT, I’d take a shot at doing that for a few years and that would be great, but at the same time I’m getting older and it would get in the way of other things – an opportunity like that is essentially a two year sabbatical from whatever you’re doing at the time, and I’m already looking at being 37 before I have my first professional job.

They want more. Maybe they’ll get it, maybe they won’t but that won’t shape my expectations. This is a pretty big one – I’ve seen a lot of people struggle to keep up, end up unhappy, then revise their expectations only to feel a lot better.

It’s a cheesy phrase, but life really is too short, so make the most of it – including Magic: The Gathering. Workout what you want, and if it’s realistic, go for it. Our culture tells us to reject and resent this next thing, but I’ll say it anyway – it’s ok to aim for second best. You really don’t need to win the Pro Tour, and run tour own company, and cure cancer, and fight for the heavy weight championship of the world, and, and, and…


Community Question: So that’s my list of 4 things that I’ve not seen other Magic players write about (but I am sure they know). What important advice would you give to new Magic players that isn’t talked about enough or even at all? Let me know in the comments below!

What important advice would you give to new Magic players that isn't talked about enough or even at all
Image by Anna Przywecka

…that’s it for this week. I hope this year brings you some fulfilment.

Thanks for read

Graeme McIntyre

4 Lessons other Magic: The Gathering players know, but never write about (can you guess what they are?) by Graeme McIntyre
Here are 4 things you might want to do if you haven’t already caught ‘em all. They’re not the best 4 things you can do, but they’re pretty decent, and they’re not written about in every second Magic: The Gathering article (I’m not going to tell you to get a good night’s sleep, stay hydrated, concentrate or call a judge this week...)

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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.