Thoughtseize No. 1: The Man (or Woman) with Two Brains


So I suppose when you look at a new blog you’re thinking to yourself ‘Who’s this guy?’ and possibly ‘Why should I be listening to what he has to say?’

I’d consider these to be reasonable questions and have to admit at this stage that I have few credentials to persuade you to read on. I’m wholly ordinary.

However, I would ask you to consider a far more valuable question; Who’s this guy?

I would be surprised if many of you recognised Daniel Kahneman. He’s been dubbed the world’s most influential living psychologist. He’s won a Nobel Prize. If you put him into Magic terms he would be a Planeswalker and probably someone like ‘Kahneman: Architect of Thought’.

The reason you don’t recognise him is because he has absolutely nothing to do with MTG or card based games in general. To the best of my knowledge he has no awareness of Magic and has certainly never commented on it. So why bring him up?

Time for an anecdote.

I was recently listening to the consistently excellent Limited Resources podcast, hosted by Marshall Sutcliffe (if you can’t already tell, I’m a fan and would recommend it to everyone) and he was in conversation with LSV about heuristics. They often discuss the decisions we make during games and were examining how and why we make those decisions. It was enlightening and startling in many respects and it led me back to a book I read a few years ago. A book by Kahneman called ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’.

It occurred to me that I spend so much time during a match trying to work out how my opponent’s brain is working that I don’t consider how my own brain is working. Because although psychology can be useful in outwitting an opponent, sometimes what you really need to do is outwit yourself.

And so, as a long winded means of introduction, welcome to the blog. What I hope to do is shed some light on how and why we make decisions in Magic, discuss ideas and theories that haven’t been applied to Magic before, and hopefully give you the chance to revise your practice and become a better player.

So, let’s get back to Kahneman and one of the fundamentals of psychology itself; the idea of the two different versions of you.

Let’s have a good, long look at this card.

Look at the artwork. What’s your initial reaction?

OK. It should be a feeling of revolt. As you look at it you’re probably very aware of your ears. You can’t help but think about the effect it would have on you if it were real and that were your head in the picture. Your pupils will dilate slightly, your arm hair will raise a little and your sweat glands may fire up. But don’t feel bad. You can’t help it. It’s a natural reaction.

This reaction is caused by a process in your brain known as System 1. It’s the same part that does things automatically. If you ever drive home and can’t remember the journey, that’s your System 1 working. If you keep a hand because it has two lands (one of which is blue) and a Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy in it without really looking at the other cards, that’s System 1. If you swing because you’re playing aggro and you have more creatures but you didn’t really do the maths, it’s System 1.

Essentially, it’s the part of us that runs on automatic pilot. It’s incredibly useful and it saves us considering every single decision we make in exhausting detail. However, it’s lazy.

And the other problem with it is that the more frequently we make a decision and it works, the more likely we are to start doing it automatically and relying on lazy System 1 for guidance.

So the example I gave about keeping a Jace hand can become second nature and you can find yourself saying ‘keep’ before you even think to actually make a decision. The more often you do this, the more comfortable you become with it, even if Jace isn’t the card he once was and the hand isn’t as good as it used to be. I’m pretty sure you’ll all agree that this can be dangerous, especially in a competitive environment.

So what’s the other part then, since our brains aren’t set to auto for every decision we make?

It’s the rather unimaginatively named System 2.

So System 2 is what we engage when specific thought is needed. It’s the mental solution to 58×71 (go on, solve it. You’ll have to engage System 2 to do it). It’s a complicated trigger resolution in a turn with a storm deck. It’s working out the probability of hitting a Languish with Anticipate. This is where your brain is really working.

So it might sound as if I’m simply saying that we need to be more System 2 than System 1 when we’re sat opposite an opponent, but I’m not. I’m not saying that at all.

Anyone put the gruelling experience of competing in a GP is more than aware of the mental strain this can cause. Game after game of competitive Magic will take its toll on even the most experienced of players but you cannot make every decision in every game a System 2 decision. If not for your own physical wellbeing then because your opponent will be calling slow play as you decide whether to keep your opening hand.

The key lies in balance, and an awareness of which part of your brain is playing at that time. When are you prone to making a lazy System 1 decision that might cost you a game? When do you need to unlearn and revise a play that at one time you would have automatically relied on? It’s simply a case of being aware of these decisions and which process you want to employ at any given time.

Now this might seem obvious and if it is, and you’re thinking ‘well duh, obviously I know when I need to really think about a play’ then I applaud you. If, however, you make simple misplays you regret, as I often do, then consider the advice.

However, even if you are the king of your local FNM, there might be some further useful advice listed below.

Because these two systems aren’t only at work during matches.

Consider the decisions you make in draft, deck building, evaluating new cards. How often do we turn to the autopilot?

At the risk of boring you with tales from my own life (although if a blog isn’t for this purpose, I don’t know what is) I’ll refer to one of my earliest experiences of Magic.

I started playing during the Theros block and one of the first cards I opened in a booster was Thoughtseize. As a newcomer to the game I assumed a card that cost you 2 life to cast was terrible and was astounded when I was surrounded by a host of players at my local shop who wanted to trade it. I walked away with two Ashioks, two Aetherlings and a variety of other jank rares that delighted me as a new player. Obviously, hindsight affords me a more experienced view but had I fully employed System 2, even at that early stage in my playing experience, I should have been able to figure out exactly how effective this card could be. My lazy reflex action simply saw the downside, not the cheapness of the mana cost or the exceptional opportunity to scupper my opponent’s plans, just the idea that losing two life by my own hand was a poor decision.

This is an extreme example and one that would only trip up a new player in that context but I use it deliberately to highlight the issue. When we evaluate a card, either during deckbuilding, during a draft, or during a spoiler season, we can make snap judgements. Lazy judgements. It might be because a card is similar to a card from another set that was good/bad. It might be because it’s a constructed staple and you think you should automatically pick it for Limited. It might be that it’s the best card of a certain colour and everyone else is playing it so you automatically put four copies in your new Standard deck.


You might get to that stage eventually, just don’t get there automatically.

With an acute awareness of exactly how preachy that sounds, I’ll sign off. It’s my intention to dive further into your psyche in future instalments and hope you’ll join me in doing so. Until then, feel free to get in touch with tales on MTG related mental anguish and any feedback you might have will be suitably considered.


Thoughtseize No.1
Thoughtseize No.1
Ever stopped to consider what your brain is doing when you play Magic? You might be surprised. (Of course, you might not, but you won't know unless you read it, will you?)

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