We All Lose, But Why? – Wisdom Fae Under the Bridge by Graeme McIntyre
“Error 404 – Joke not found” – Rob Catton
I’ve been wanting to add a “Magic: the Puzzling” bit to the end of my articles for a while, but the problem is that appropriate game states don’t actually come up that much, and even when they do you can either forget the board, or it slips your mind to take note of it for an article. But one came up the other week, and it got me thinking about imperfect play in Magic. So, I’m going to lead with the example.
I’m playing my 3rd game of a PPTQ final with Black Green Delirium vs Chris Vincent on Blue White Flash. It’s my turn and I have 8 untapped lands, including a [card]Hissing Quagmire[/card]. My creatures are 3 1/2 spiders, [card]Ishkanah, Grafwidow[/card], [card]Grim Flayer[/card] and [card]Sylvan Advocate[/card]. I’ve got [card]To the Slaughter[/card] in hand (and delirium, probably 6 types). I’m on 2 life.
He has [card]Avacyn, the Purifier[/card], 2 [card]Thraben Inspector[/card], [card]Smuggler’s Copter[/card] and [card]Jace, Unraveler of Secrets[/card] (6 Loyalty) and 1 card in hand, as well as 7 lands, 2 of which are untapped (they’re UW duals of some sort). He might also have a clue in play, but I’m not 100%. He is on 8 life.
What’s the correct play?
He untapped and bounced my [card]Ishkanah, Grafwidow[/card].
What’s the correct play?
I drained him after some reflection, and he [card]Declaration in Stone[/card]ed my spider tokens, making his [card]Avacvyn, the Purifier[/card] lethal.
So this went pretty badly. The board position on my turn is pretty complicated because activating the land and casting [card]To the Slaughter[/card] doesn’t do it, because he crews the [card]Smuggler’s Copter[/card] in response, then then sacrifices the tapped [card]Thraben Inspector[/card] letting him block the [card]Ishkana, Grafwidow[/card] with the [card]Smuggler’s Copter[/card], the [card]Grim Flayer[/card] with the [card]Avacyn, the Purifer[/card], the [card]Sylvan Advocate[/card] with the [card]Thraben Inspector[/card] and let the [card]Hissing Quagmire[/card] and 3 spider tokens in, which leaves him on 1 life with [card]Avacyn, the Purifier[/card] to kill me. So I can’t do this.
I can make the play I did, which is safe enough, but there is another line. I could just attack with the [card]Hissing Quagmire[/card], which he can only kill by blocking with either the [card]Avacyn, the Purifier[/card] or two other creatures. If he lets two creatures die, that’s great for me and I would feel very comfortable about my chances of winning the following turn, given how close to just killing him I am on the current turn. So he is probably better off taking the 4, in which case I have spent 4 mana (the 3 to activate the land, and the tapping of the land to attack) to deal 4 damage, instead of 7 to drain for 4 at the end of turn.
But given I just passed, I have two options when he bounces my [card]Ishkanah, Grafwidow[/card]. I can drain, or I can keep up the [card]To the Slaughter[/card]. The drain leaves me dead to the [card]Declare in Stone[/card] which he drew that turn. If I keep up the mana, I can [card]To the Slaughter[/card] targeting myself in response to the [card]Declaration in Stone[/card], get rid of the one he targeted, and then I can still block both the Angel and the Copter when he attacks. Then I can untap and recast the [card]Ishkanah, Grafwidow[/card] and I’m in great shape for winning the game.
“Top decked on the turn before I was going to win” and “punted and lost because of it” are two of the most likely things people will take out of that interaction, and while given those two choices I would tend towards the latter, neither is as constructive as it might have been. Clearly, I could have played the game better and I accept that (I just explained why it was incorrect, so it would be odd not to accept it…), but the board was really pretty cluttered, and you have to make plays in a reasonable amount of time, even during untimed rounds. I think I spent around a minute on the turn, and I still wasn’t 100% sure (although I did reach the block above, I wasn’t confident that I hadn’t missed something). That’s different from just running a 2/2 into a 2/3.
There is a tendency in Magic: the Gathering to try and find reasons for things which are seemingly random, or otherwise beyond our control, and this is fuelled by writing in the pro community which – rightly – states that one of the most important parts of learning is analysing mistakes, and not just blaming luck for things. While this is useful, there is potential to go too far in this, and attempt to reconcile things which truly are beyond our control as error, and as such in our control.
This is our attempt to “make right” some of the challenges in the game in a way which appears more fair, and is generally more palatable. If you lose, but it is because of an error you can now see, you feel as though you have become better for it, but also that the loss was somehow “erased” because of its new category of “user error”. While this is obviously better than tilting, simply noticing that you make a mistake without any sort of reflection has no real impact on future expected outcomes. Why have you made this mistake? What are you going to do about it going forward? How are you actually going to improve? It’s all well and good saying “oh, that’s a weakness in my game” (or whatever gamer-jargon you want to use to describe it, on the faulty assumption that something which *sounds* insightful *is* insightful…) will have about as much impact on your ability to play as my realisation that I eat poorly and don’t walk enough will have on my waistline.
self-improvement is largely a product of introspection, not grandstanding
A second element to this phenomenon is the tendency to use hyperbolic terms to describe error, like a sort of intellectual flagellant. “Confessing” your errors won’t result in Richard Garfield forgiving you for them, and letting you through the pearly pro tour gates. All of this bluster and image crafting (e.g. by saying “I punted that game” because you cracked a fetch when you knew you’d Scryed a bad card to the bottom, and as such gave yourself a marginally weaker chance of drawing a live card… because you’re responsible, and learning from your mistakes…) in the absence of any actual analysis is both unhelpful to you, and tiresome to hear. The bottom line is that no one cares anyway; self-improvement is largely a product of introspection, not grandstanding.
The reason I realised that I had made a mistake was because I had to wait an hour and a half at the train station to get home, and I thought about the game a fair bit. One of the things which contributed to making the drain play instead of keeping my mana up was that the turns leading up to that situation had given me the impression that Chris was super weak in the situation, and had to some extent given up, so the bounce looked like a desperation play to stave off losing for another turn or two. In part, I think I underestimated him as a player, and I made a similar sort of mistake in the semis the week before. That is a real thing which I can take action to prevent in the future. Taking ownership of mistakes isn’t about saying Hail Marys and finding redemption; it’s simply the first step in the process of identifying and correcting future errors.
To reiterate, I still made a mistake. I think I would have spotted a play like that about 60% of the time, and my aim is to try and get it so that I see them more often. Having played with some people over the last while who are better than me at the game in general, seeing stuff like this a little bit more seems like the major difference between us.
That said, I am in a good place about the game at the moment and I feel like some real progress could be made in 2017. That’s it for this week, I expect this article will be out in the new year, and I hope that I will be writing a bit more regularly then as my life settles into something more routine. My PhD starts on the 9th, so while I don’t expect that I’ll have more time – I won’t! – I would hope that it will be more structured, so I ought to be able to find a slot for writing regularly. This was a bit of an odd article for me – using a single example and talking about the technical game to make a single point is pretty much the opposite of what I normally write – so let me know what you think, and if you like it, I’ll try and do more like this one.
Thank you for reading, and happy New Years.