Spiking the Punch
By Adam Styborski on December 18th, 2008 · Filed in Casual, General Magic · Comments not available just now
"That’s not fair!" It's a phrase we've all, at one point or another, either heard in response to something we did or was our response to something that happened to us. It's easy to look at a game of Magic and feel that it was, somehow, "unfair" for you: you like to win and you just lost. But the terrible truth I’m sharing with you today is this: myself, and every other potential opponent, wants to win, too.
There have been just a few articles on winning, and I don't have anything truly new to add to tournament playing: I don't play in tournaments. But before you click away, consider this: how often do you play Magic outside of tournaments? With friends and buddies? With newer and/or inexperienced players? With random people at school/work/store? Do they win against you?
It would be easy to chalk this up as "another casual player who can't hack it in tournaments talking about how unfair my tournament deck is" but that's not what I'm going after. Your tournament deck is perfectly fair: you play in a format that restricts cards, balances against other decks, and is monitored for unbalancing synergies that create an unhealthy environment. Your tournament deck is likely "more fair" than some casual decks that pack four copies of Demonic Tutor and Lotus Petal. Your deck is great (if it wins in tournaments) and anyone who says that your deck is "unfair" isn't playing on the same level. That is what I'm after: getting to play on the same level.
Do or Do Not: There Is No Try
Unfair is an odd concept. It is generally based on two mutually exclusive concepts:
Try? There is no "do" here.
(1) The cards used are illegal or knowingly broken and result in an inherently unbalanced game state that the opposing deck, regardless of circumstance, will rarely be capable of overcoming.
(2) The cards used are at a power level significantly above the cards in the opposing deck and result in an inherently unbalanced game state that the opposing deck, regardless of circumstance and play style, will not be consistently capable of overcoming.
Definition 1 covers "unfair" in tournaments. Whether it's in Limited by slipping in additional multiples of specific cards, or Constructed by using a proxy or switching a sideboard card in for game one, or even a store-run League format by swapping in a better rare for a dead card (Mudhole, anyone?), the conception of "unfair" is one strictly defined by the rules of deck design and card pool restrictions. It is generally agreed that, for tournaments, equal opportunity for bringing any deck is provided since all decks are to be made from the same set of cards under the same circumstances. Tournament results are generally considered a better reflection on individual skills like deck construction, archetype, card choices, play skill, and reading the metagame for the tournament ahead of time. This is the environment that the Spike player types thrive in and are generally rewarded the best: the high-level nature, individual skills and time involvement to be dedicated yields a "cream of the crop" with a clear winner. Nothing really detracts from the win in as clean an environment as properly DCI sanctioned play.
Definition 2 covers "unfair" in an ugly, inelegant way. What is power level? What is comparative power level between two decks? This isn't a foreign concept to many tournament players; some cards are just plain better than any of the alternatives. In tournament play, one of the generally agreed upon requirements for success is to remove as many limitations to your ability to win as possible. For example, using less expensive/not-as-rare cards is one such limitation; appropriate and skillful testing to ensure proper sideboard and deck construction is another. But trying to generalize this outside of tournament play becomes very murky. Is it possible to own a play set of every card in Magic and have these cards readily available for use in any deck? Is it possible to test against every potential deck, archetype, and color combination? Clearly here the answer is no: the cost and physical limitations (storage, organization, and deck construction permutations) are enormously unrealistic for the vast majority of Magic players. Online, MTGO is fairly expensive to get a play set of every card available there. Even doing that you do not have access to large pieces of Magic that exist in only paper form: MGTO's "Classic" format is as different from Vintage or Legacy in paper Magic as Vintage is different from "true, anything goes" casual formats.
These Aren't the Droids You're Looking For
So we've identified that outside of tournaments there isn't an easy, clear way to measure fairness. The card pool and individual players' resources vary so dramatically that even pretending that equality exists is unrealistic. I'll repeat it here again: equality in cards outside of tournament play is a truly broken concept. Since we are firmly entrenched in idea that fairness is inelegant, but readily understandable, in casual play, how do we talk about it? There is a surprisingly simply concept that can help restore some confidence in talking about fairness: disregard tournament constructions.
Ever feel like you're missing something?
"Disregard tournaments? Blasphemy!" you decry. I can understand your perspective clearly - the ability to win that tournament decks provide is an awesome attraction to hold to. Giving up a known, tested, and effective winning deck, even if it's "restricted" in some ways, is literally asking for failure. You may not win as much (or at all!) without the "best deck available" for use. This is exactly what you need to do. Nothing short of regarding your best decks with utter contempt (or at least putting them out of handy reach on casual gamer nights) will help you move away from bringing "unfair" into areas that make it difficult, and therefore argumentative, to define.
I've talked about casual Magic before. The idea that agreeing on the terms of decks was deconstructed, quite soundly, by some members who commented. While the idea that by agreeing to terms and setting up a tournament-style match seemed great in theory, the practice thereof resulted in just as bad mismatches as before: the individual differences in resources, time, and knowledge still held true. Instead of properly resolving the problem of disparate deck strength, it only mitigated it in an insufficient manner: those players that are the Spike type still won handily.
Is there a more effective, revised solution? I argue that there is. Individual players must be more proactive in how they approach other players. Simply agreeing to play only with cards legal in Standard is meaningless if your opponent doesn't have copies of Cryptic Command, Reflecting Pool, Wrath of God, Garruk Wildspeaker, or any of a number of tournament-caliber cards that are expensive and more difficult to obtain through trade. However, banning specific cards because "it's unfair" doesn't solve the problem, either. If it's not Cryptic Command tapping down all of the creatures it would be Mistbind Clique tapping down your lands. If Wrath of God is unavailable then Hallowed Burial, Firespout, Infest, Jund Charm, or even Pyroclasm would work fairly similarly.
The answer is much more subtle and powerful: intentionally plan to not use the best cards. Self-censorship or self-imposed deck construction rules are often derided by tournament players because you are intentionally handicapping yourself - and that is undeniably true. In tournaments, any additional, self-imposed rules are a direct counter to your goal of winning as quickly and efficiently as possible. But in the casual world of "random jank meets singleton copies of any decent cards I own" and "I only use the cards that my friends give away to me" you need to handicap yourself to bring your decks down to a different level. In some cases you will need to handicap yourself well below a comfortable level due to poor plays and even poorer construction on your opponent's side.
Don't worry; you won't need it anyway.
The Rule of Thumb
Are all casual players bad? No. Are many? I would argue no, again. The real issue with handicapping yourself isn't that other people can't play as well as you, but that since you're intentionally using under-performing cards and interactions you will lose far more often and your ego will take a big hit. You might be the "best player in the store" but you will lose to the guy who plays only Elder Dragon Highlander. You could have just won a PTQ last weekend but you will lose to "a scrub" at school or work. Obviously if you're a Spike type this is going to feel awkward (and by "awkward" I mean "very, very wrong"). Losing goes against the nature of almost everyone playing a game: you play games to win. While losing games isn't your goal with a "bad" deck (on the contrary, you still want a deck that pushes the opponent to have to win and plays consistently) the path it will carry you on will win the friendship of fellow players (new and old) as they find joy in playing with you, win or lose. Overpowering force is great when it is met with equal force in kind (and quite often pretty interesting to just watch) and you will find plenty of overpowering force at tournaments; your buddy Jake who has been to a handful of FNMs and doesn't buy new cards anymore isn't the opponent for this.
To step back again and reiterate: not all casual players are bad, have only bad cards, or play only bad decks (although it's very tempting to generalize any of these). If with your scaled-down deck you are losing significantly more games than you win, you obviously need to scale back up and give them something more comparable in power. For example, Force of Will is a relic of the past that keeps the two most potentially degenerate formats (Legacy and Vintage) in a fragile relative check: a free counterspell stops truly terrible things from happening too often. If you have one casual player who has never even heard of the card and another player who packs a play set of Demonic Tutor in every deck, who do you think should have to play around the Blue Rage? (Hint: If someone hasn't heard of the card, you should probably assume that he hasn't heard of many other cards that are as old or older.) Scaling your deck is trickier than construction for tournaments. You want just enough power but not too much while playing against a blind metagame and a diverse, bizarre range of card choices. Can you fill a car with gas, holding the handle, and cut the pump by releasing the handle at an exact, even dollar amount? It takes delicate and thoughtful changes to effectively mitigate but not entirely remove your opponents' strategies, and to do this in a manner that is interactive, engaging, and potentially more fun.
A general rule I to hold to is that decks I carry should run across the gamut of power, with everything from decks that would be pretty bad even for Limited up through custom theme decks and into top-tier tournament decks. Magic players come not just in all shapes and sizes but also with different skill levels, deck capabilities, and card pools. Assuming that all your opponents should be able to handle your most powerful deck(s) is as ignorant and rude as assuming they can't handle even the most basic of decks; give them a chance to try out many different power levels and they've be glad to play you again later (and hopefully a little better or different than before).
Losing Is Hard Work
So why bother to play decks that you think will lose easier to others? The obvious benefit of giving others players satisfaction aside, being on the weaker side of a match can give you a much clearer and better view of Magic in general. How do you approach a bad situation when you're not in control of the game? Are you making smart attacks/blocks too early/late, or should you even be attacking/blocking at all? Are there ways to add consistency to your deck without giving away too much information to your opponent? There are thousands of questions you can look at; here are a few key highlights you should be on the lookout for:
Feels right at home in Suicide Black.
I can't win with a deck that doesn't have counterspells/removal/etc...
Is there a card function or type that you use as a crutch? For example, counterspells certainly give a measure of control in your games but there are other, equal or better, options available? Instead of Remove Soul or Negate, try Branching Bolt or Smallpox for creature/board control, and Dash Hopes feels right at home in any deck that can run its mana cost. If you load your decks up with removal (like Lightning Helix, Unmake, and Swords to Plowshares) try using efficient creatures that work well in combat (like Boros Swiftblade or Benalish Cavalry) or creatures your opponent will want to block to stop (like Nip Gwyllion and Hypnotic Specter).
The cards you want to use most may result in overuse and can potentially cloud your mind. If you play a lot of X, Y, and Z, then you may more often anticipate X, Y, and Z than you should. Your opponents will sometimes bring P and Q to the table. New players will bring K. The entire alphabet soup of card possibilities is certainly daunting, but being able to step back and quickly reevaluate the board after each play, a skill you can gain by forgetting about long-term plans and focusing on "How do I win knowing what I know now?", will improve your general game immensely (not to mention the not-so-subtle application to tournament play it will bring).
I love this card and I want to put it into every deck!
An extension to the overuse problem illustrated above, using the same card(s) in virtually every deck yields too narrow a selection of play experience and prevents you from truly understanding the game. That great combo deck you assembled back in the days of Fifth Dawn is a fine deck to have, but if aggro and control are the currently in vogue (and winning tournaments) you should reconsider your deck choice and strategy. Instead of trying to speed up or futilely protect your combo, work to build a deck that plays off the inherent weaknesses of what your opponents bring. "Outdated" concepts like blocking and defense, as well as lesser-used Auras and Equipment can not only challenge an opponent to work outside what his deck originally anticipated, but can also be very fun for a player to play against (except if you're using cards like Rancor, Skullclamp, or Umezawa's Jitte - in that case, shame on you!). For some bonus points try using Shuriken in a deck without any Ninjas, Blinding Powder with Ninjas, Surestrike Trident and big green fatties, or Fire Whip/Power of Fire in a deck of red creatures with defender.
This was just talking exclusively about creature-based strategies. Control can be fun with interactive cards like Shared Fate, Illicit Auction, and a personal new multiplayer favorite of mine, Radiate. Combo decks are perhaps the most difficult to properly handicap to increase the other players fun, but with unique cards and "more fair" combos (that decks in general have the tools to resist without having to expect the combo) follow the lines of three cards interacting in an interesting way. Individual elements of a combo help you survive, smooth your mana, and draw cards.
By playing the same types of decks repeatedly you will not learn how aggro decks work but only how to best stop an aggro deck from wrecking your one deck. The subtle difference is that while you can try and hold out against any aggro deck, understanding at a fundamental level how they work will give you insight into any aggro deck and, therefore, how to go about defeating it. Your ability to predict is no longer based solely on prior experience but also on your ability to deduce and predict which cards are more important for the opponent when you are unfamiliar with the cards.
They aren't playing their deck "right!"
In tournament play you can generally expect a deck to be played in a specific manner. Rogue decks may be different, but once you see it once that new deck, too, performs in a similar manner every game. Outside of this restrictive environment, decks can take on a more dynamic myriad of styles and forms. The idea that there is an "optimal" play strategy is an unachievable dream here. With the wider selection of cards, decks can easily be transformed between games, or become so large they play fairly dissimilar each game. Aggro decks played defensively, control decks that do not run counterspells, and combo decks that "combo" out creatures to run as aggro thereafter are just a few notable examples of these "wrong" play styles. Ultimately, by not just stepping back to reevaluate between plays but also adapting your play strategy to that of your opponents is crucial.
Sometimes, these "wrong" decks turn into something much more interesting. Consider the advent of Sligh and how it came to dominance: a deck that was considered bad design and play strategy at the time became the strongest deck available and became a staple style for consideration in every new format thereafter. It has generated numerous variants (Red Deck Wins, Boros Deck Wins, Red FTW, etc) and impacted deck construction theory at a fundamental level. It isn't a matter of will there be another Sligh, but when will the next great flip in deck design happen. Will decks that run 61 cards or multiples of only 3 eventually become the new standard in design? Perhaps not, but don't miss the benefits that design experimentation (even if it's not intentional) can bring to every deck you have.
Cutting edge tech in 1996.
There are two distinct ways to classify games that run into later turns: boring stalemates that are ended by one player drawing the card the decisively breaks the stalemate, and back-and-forth seat-of-your-pants nail biters that come down to a single or series of great plays to result in the winner. It is imperative that you do not run cards that can outright blow away your opponents. While Wrath of God and Counterspell may seen very disparate in power levels, they both are well above the power level that some casual players will run their decks at.
Creating a deck that can function over many turns, in a meaningful manner, without dominating the opponent's deck is a very time consuming task. You must test, test, and test more until your hands cramp from the shuffling. Tuning a deck to first meet and then edge out over opponents is not as impossible as it sounds: how many times have you played in Limited where the game come down to top decks and play decisions? The common nature of decks being fairly equal in Limited can be generalized only via careful experimentation and testing.
Never forget that you are in control of your decks. While Counterspell may be called unfair in your play group, they are going to have a hard time arguing against you using Remand or Arcane Denial instead. If Swords to Plowshares is called cheap, Reciprocate and Sunlance are going to do a similar job and be more palatable. Scaling and adjusting your decks to meet varying levels of power doesn't have to involve any of the radical design or strategy changes I've illustrated above: it can be simply using cards that are lower on the power scale for a similar effect.
Casual Magic will always be a muddy arena. But by forgetting about tournament play to develop uniquely casual decks, you will find that not only does your play group have more fun, but that you can continue to hone and develop your Spike senses... even when you lose.
By Adam Styborski on December 18th, 2008 · Filed in Casual, General Magic · Comments not available just now
About Adam Styborski
Adam Styborski has played Magic on and off from around Ice Age onward. With his B.A. in Mathematics, he promply got a job in the insurance industry and moved far from the tiny towns he grew up in to the urban metropolis of Washington, D.C. Constantly trying new things, he loves to win with the unexpected and has found a home in the very diverse Magic community in D.C.