5 Questions Magic: The Gathering Players Ask Incorrectly (and How We Can Fix It) – Wisdom From Under the Bridge
“I’m severely overrated. I’m just above a hack. That should be the name of my new DVD: ‘Chris Rock – Slightly Above Hack’.” – Chris Rock
Shadows over Innistrad has just recently been released. The set has the daunting task of filling the massive shoes of Khans of Tarkir, and there is naturally quite a bit to discuss. This got me thinking about the nature of discussion surrounding Magic: The Gathering, and how it often goes awry. Beyond this there have been some substantial changes to the judge program, as well as a noteworthy article about gender in gaming making the rounds, leading me to give to consideration to community issues.
The purpose of this article is to look into some areas in which friction arises between people in Magic: The Gathering. It’s worth noting that this is a subjective thing – I’m basing it on my experiences, where I’ve had difficulties, and where I have observed other people doing so. On a personal level, I’ve found that some of these issues can drastically undermine relationships and, given the massive influence social interaction has in the game, I think there is some value in trying to outlay these conversations in a constructive way.
If you’re looking for advice for what to do about Standard this week, this may not be the article for you – but I would suggest that you make sure whatever you play beats UW Humans. OK, lets get started…
5. “Why Don’t You Get It!?” – Stop! Think! Is Everyone On The Same Page?
It’s very easy to go into a conversation assuming the other person is starting from the same baseline as you, regardless of the topic. I was discussing Modern with someone the other day, talking about how [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] doesn’t need to be banned, that the card isn’t that big a deal due the diversity of the format and no signs of any outcry from the community. However, it took ages for that to actually be said. I was progressing through the discussion with the assumption that she understood that I have a problem with the card because it’s difficult to gain an edge against it.
Of course, it would have been perfectly reasonable for her to say “That’s not as important as a larger number of people liking the card”, but we were essentially talking about two different topics. The reason for this happening is understandable because people don’t assess their conversations in terms of functionality, instead treating them as an experiential thing, like music. For the most part this is completely fine, but it can result in some long-winded and fruitless discussions within as complicated a subject as Magic: The Gathering.
In many respects, social media is unhelpful because we tend to involve ourselves in conversations constituted by people who either agree with us, or who’s dissenting opinion can be characterised as ‘trolling’.
The key here is to define the landmarks of the discussion early: If someone asked me what I thought they should play at GP Manchester in three weeks time, the very first thing I would ask them is “what result would you be happy with?” followed by “how much Magic can you play between now and the event?”. I’ve written about this before, and I think this is a very important factor in deck selection. When someone asks what they should be playing, it’s reasonable to assume they are seeking to play a deck to achieve what they would consider to be a desirable outcome, but of course said outcome is a very subjective matter. By asking this early, you can shape the discussion in a productive way for the person asking this question, and also use it to figure out where a conversation is getting congested. Maybe it’s becoming circular, or you’ve reached a disagreement and don’t know why, or you just don’t know how to progress the conversation.
In short, it’s a good idea to ask if everyone is actually talking about the same thing – so often in conversations this isn’t the case, and that ends up being counter-productive and confusing. Return to the “pillar” (or central topic) of the conversation for reference to ensure global understanding of the topic at hand.
4. “Can’t You See How Powerful This Card Is?” – Avoid Over-Exaggeration And Be More Specific
Magic: The Gathering is a difficult game. The tendency to try and reduce complicated subjects to something less complicated is understandable, and yet these “shortcuts” need to be taken infrequently and with care, especially when evaluating new cards. Sometimes a card can be ostensibly powerful, for example [card]Drana, Liberator of Malakir[/card], but it may never see play because of another card in the format ([card]Jace, Vyrn’s Prodigy[/card]’s +1 ability totally shuts her down, and there was a great deal of competition at three mana). Other times the deck just wont come together for a card, for example I thought [card]Savage Knuckleblade[/card] was going be cast far more than [card]Siege Rhino[/card] when I saw them spoiled.
The other night somebody asked me what I was playing at GP Manchester, yet they’d have been better off pitching the question as “I’m thinking of buying or trading for Abzan cards – which ones do you think are good?”.
Me: “No idea. I played a bit of Abzan the other week, it seemed a bit lacklustre. I’ll maybe try Jund next, but I’m really waiting for the Star City Games event to inform me for next week. Manchester? Who knows.”
- Him: “Was the one you were playing Delirium based?”
- Me: “No. just a really basic deck with solid cards. No risks.”
- Him: “I’d hardly call a deck with baby [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] and 4/5 fliers for 4 a risk”
- Me: “….Listen, I’m just not going to have the conversation if you can’t avoid the hyperbole.”
[card]Mindwrack Demon[/card] and [card]Moldgraf Scavenger[/card] are the cards we were talking about here, and he is right in that if these cards were all upside, they would be excellent. They’re obviously less good under the wrong circumstances, and if you want them to be consistently positive, then you’ll need to build around them, which involves a fair bit of opportunity cost.
Beyond this, the [card]Moldgraf Scavenger[/card] will never be enabled on curve, and if you’re playing it later, the comparison to [card]Tarmagoyf[/card] is even less appropriate. While [card]Mindwrack Demon[/card] might be possible to set up on curve pretty consistently, it would be at the expense of doing something on a previous turn when you could have been casting a removal spell or a creature, or playing land that enters the battlefield tapped, or literally any other turn three plays.
So how might we have these conversations in a more constructive way?
A lot of this comes down to thinking before one speaks: Before entering a conversation about specific cards – beyond “oh, [card]Avacyn’s Judgement[/card] is an OK removal spell even when you don’t discard it. Perhaps it could go in a deck with [card]Jace, Vyrn’s Prodigy[/card] and [card]Chandra, Flamecaller[/card]” – I normally sketch out roughly what I think would go in the deck, and I avoid evaluative statements where possible. What this comes down to is that it’s annoying and wasteful to have to talk down a ridiculously hyperbolic statement to get back to the subject you’re actually trying to discuss.
How about: “I’m thinking of buying and trading for some Abzan cards so that I have the cards I need for GP Manchester next month. Are there any cards you would recommend that I pick up? I’ve seen a Delirium build on the coverage which looks fairly promising in terms of power level.” This may be a bit formal, but still sounds like it was actually said by an adult.
3. “What Deck Are You Playing?” – Cut the Smalltalk And Hit Me With The Real Question
This question is often asked in an innocent way to make conversation, but sometimes its undertone is anything but. For example, At an event I won’t really want to tell you because it will impact your mulligan decisions if we play, and maybe you’re unsure what your 15th sideboard card should be. Maybe you’re just fishing around for information to make your decision rather than making conversation, or perhaps you are actually expressing interest in my card choices. When asked this question three weeks before the event, I won’t know what I’m going to play, and why would I have chosen so early?
At a week or two before a major event however the question is at its worst, potentially when I have locked in my deck selection. In my experience, it is so often the case that people asking this will just be looking for validation of their own choice, and will then attempt to persuade you to play whatever they’re playing, even if that is something of their own design and hasn’t done well in any recent events…
For a while, I was really confused when people asked that question and followed it up with “You should be playing this deck which I’m playing and you haven’t tested”, sending me a list, and then thinking I might actually switch to their deck because they know how much I play and critically evaluate my deck chocies. Then I realised that they don’t really expect that, they just want to argue. This one is a real pet hate of mine, I’ll admit, but I expect this is a recurring time sink for many people.
“I’m thinking of playing this deck, would you share your thoughts on it please?”
This question is far better than “What deck are you playing?” because it cuts to the chase on the relevant information which you vaguely try to fish for when discussing deck selection, and evaluate your choice in relation to theirs. It really doesn’t matter what they’re playing, and if they wanted to know your thoughts, it’s pretty likely that they would have just asked you.
Asking the question in the way I’ve suggested allows for a much easier transaction of information, and it’s pretty likely that they’ll mention what they’re playing in the duration of the conversation without the needless conflicts that arise from leading with “What deck are you playing?”.
2. “Why Aren’t You Playing In This Event/Format/Game?” – The Classic Dig For Information [Card]Behind the Scenes[/Card]
Although my following point isn’t all about Magic: the Gathering, it does apply and is pivotal to maintaining friendships within the game as time goes on.
I understand why people say things like this – they’re excited about whatever it is the topic in question (an event, format, new deck, new game, etc.) and they know you have similar interests to them so think you might like it too. The problem is that gamers are often become really invested in their activities, to the point of being overzealous when you don’t answer “Yes, I’ll sign up, pay for and make time for that immediately!”. It’s partially about validation, sharing mutual enjoyment and friendship, and I know that I personally lose sight of that on occasion when asked questions like the above in the past.
Lately I’ve been asked about playing poker, board gaming, Civilization V Multiplayer, running Dungeons and Dragons, playing about six different new computer games, Cube, Battlebox, Warhammer… The list goes on, in addition to non-gaming topics, or things I’ve come across on my own and thought “Oh, that sounds interesting. Maybe I’ll give that a go”.
I’m nothing special when it comes down to it, and I say “no” a lot, which means I should likely get fewer invitations, so I would imagine that a lot of people face similar pressures. It’s not that they wouldn’t enjoy these activities if they to part in them. It’s a matter of opportunity cost; there is just no way to do all the things that present themselves at once, so choices need to be made. What is so strange about these conversations is that people virtually take it in turns to be the one advocating. The whole thing is bizarre in its lack of empathy, ironically discordant with the initial thought, which was largely considerate and is at it’s core an attempt to reach out socially.
The point is to try and have a shared experience with someone you like – otherwise you might as well just cold call people. On this basis, maybe you could do or discuss the activity they’re enjoying instead? I recently played in a Warhammer 40k campaign with a bunch of the guys who play cards in Nottingham, despite not being that up for 40k because I wanted to foster that sort of gaming being a thing in my Magic circles too (in the end there were loads of people, so I bailed out on it – win-win!). You never know, aybe they’ll end up playing one of the systems I prefer in a few months.
Similarly, if you’re into Battlebox but everyone is playing Cube, there is a lot to be said for just playing Cube and waiting for an opportunity. Facebook is such a great tool for finding people who share similar interest, so you don’t need to force Legacy on all the Modern players, or Modern on the Standard players. Meet new people, build up your connections.
I realise this section might come over as something of a curve-ball, but I think it’s important to the social aspect of Magic. In my experience, it is often what you do which is peripheral to the meat and bones of playing Magic (for me testing for and attending events that lead to the Pro Tour) which really builds friendships.
1. “Everyone Else Agrees With My Deck Choice, So Why Don’t You?!” – Your Deck, Your Reasons
It’s really easy to get on the hype train about a deck once it’s started to do well in testing. After all, finding a deck that crushes everything is the most desirable outcome from testing, right? From there it’s just a matter of sleeving up, and collecting the plane ticket.
The problem is that once you start doing this it becomes easy to dismiss problematic match ups – especially with emergent decks late in the format – and to assume that they’re just a flash in the pan. I nearly did this with Rally last season because it looked like a mess on paper, but luckily it was everywhere and loads of people played it, so I changed my perception. If the deck hadn’t been quite what it was, I would likely not have prepared an appropriate sideboard plan, and may have lost to it more as a result.
“I’m doing / thinking / playing this because…”
Asking this of yourself, or in groups, is pretty useful. There are times when we mentally sketch in a part of the rationale for doing something on the basis that it will get fleshed out later, but is then overlooked. I once played [card]Broodmate Dragon[/card] in five colour control right after [card]Baneslayer Angel[/card] came out, and after much deliberation the best reason I could have come up with was “…because I don’t want to shell out £50 for two cards”, at which point my wallet would have been lighter and my deck considerably better.
“I’m taking this weak red card over a good blue one because I prefer red.”
“I’m not playing affinity because Jamie is.”
“I’m tapping out here because I’m intimidated playing against Eddie Ross.”
We all make these sorts of choices and sabotage ourselves. Right now I think I keep some seriously sketchy hands if they have land in them because I have had so many top eights where I didn’t get past three land and was eliminated. Just asking this question is useful in and of itself, but having the conversation with this as a starting point is useful too, ensuring your future decisions actually make sense.
Hopefully these points will contribute to better discussions about Magic: The Gathering, and more importantly, fewer arguments with your friends. It’s all too easy to let go of things that annoy us because we don’t want to rock the boat – I’d been doing that frequently before the turn of the year, and it was starting to impact me negatively. What I’ve been finding recently is that taking a step back to avoid losing my temper, whilst still being direct about the issues which are bothering me has been quite empowering, and without alienating other people in the process.
Right, it’s time for this week’s Magic Fable!
The Tale of the Hobgoblin and the Luck-See Stone
Once upon a time, in the far away northern land of Smoketown, there lived a Hobgoblin. The Hobgoblin was an affable sort, and he would oftentimes parade around Smoketown – a dark place to the north of Waspford – waving and grinning broadly.
The Hobgoblin was an avid Variance Chess Player, and so when he was approached by the Wicked Peddler in the streets of Smoketown, it didn’t take long to sell him on the notion of the Luck-See Stone. The Luck-See Stone, it was said, could harness the power of positive thinking and hard work, and convert this into luck.
“How much?” asked the Hobgoblin.
“Ok, another time… oh, wait. You want it? Ok… erm, let me see…” stammered the Wicked Peddler, as he regained his wits. “A fool and his gold are easily parted”, they say.
“…£10?” He said, at last.
“Done!” said the Hobgoblin.
And so it was that they parted ways, the Wicked Peddler moving onto fleecing other people. The Hobgoblin entered the big Variance Chess Tournament, and won some rounds.
“All my hard work, positivity and wanting it more than anything is paying off – Thank you, Luck-See stone!” the Hobgoblin beamed. Then he won a few more rounds… and bet a fraction of his savings, because he might as well get the best expected value out of his event, right?
Time past, and he won even more rounds… he was going to make top 8!
“This is it – I’m going to make the big time!” he thought, as he put more of his winnings down, increasing his value, for the Luck-See Stone had guaranteed his success. He won more and more, and bet and bet. Until the final, where he bet his house, and all his other trappings… but lost out due to variance…
And that was the story of how the Hobgoblin didn’t win the Big Variance Chess tournament, and instead ended up broke, trying to sell rocks in Smoketown city centre with the Wicked Peddler. And the moral of the story is: “If you’re going to fleece people selling rocks, think bigger than £10; you won’t catch many marks, so they need to pay off big.”
Well that’s it for this week – What do you think of the points I’ve raised above? What are the best and worst conversations that you’ve have had in Magic? Which conversations grind your gears, and which ones make you smile? Let’s hear about it in the comments!
Thank you for reading,