Thursday, December 3, 2009

Helping Hands Everywhere Hands

It's one of those nights. I should've turned down the offer to playtest because now I'm super awake and thinking about Magic. Also, hungry.

But I am feeling too pumped right now to sleep. I've been reading a lot of voices today, and it's struck me how different they are. They all treat Magic like a different game, a different story. They approach it at different angles. Often, systematically. Sometimes, they just do what feels right. I am one of those that just likes to do what feels right (intuition really is the shortcut to success...), but now I'm realizing something else.

I have to share these with you. And then I can get some rest.

There's a guy at my FNM, located at Jim Hanley's Universe near the Empire State Building, who is probably one of the best of the current pack. I like using names because ... well, it's a journalist thing, but for the sake of anonymity I'll call him H. He tends to play offcolor decks, or at least, he doesn't play THE best deck. He enjoys trying out a lot of new decks. But he doesn't tend to innovate or go completely rogue.

I asked him how he playtests, and H said, when he's not at the store, that he actually just plays against himself. Not even using a program. But with proxies and real cards. I thought it was strange, but when you go more in depth into his style, it's not that he's mindlessly throwing cards back and forth. He's fine-tuned it to a training ritual.

I thought the whole "knowing what your opponent is holding" thing would get in the way of making decisions. At least subconsciously. It's impossible for it not to affect the game. But H uses it to his advantage. He plays while assuming the opponent CAN see what he's holding and makes his opponent play optimally, given complete knowledge of the situation.

NOW the game becomes more like chess. In chess, there is no hidden information anywhere. The skill then lies in predicting future moves and looking ahead. NOW there IS one optimal move that will be better than all the others you can make.

H makes his opponent make that move and then sees how his own deck can respond to that. (These days he's testing more controlling decks, so this perspective makes sense.)

In real games, if his opponent makes a suboptimal move, H will know because he saw what the optimal play was given a situation when playtesting with himself. This makes decisions easier for him in the long run. Knowing what the right play is, and knowing what the wrong play is.

I still think it is weird to play knowing what your opponent's hand is. It's one thing to just assume your opponent knows your hand. It's another to try to pretend you don't know your opponent's. I think it's impossible to do. But that won't prevent me from trying this approach anyway, to see what happens.

If MtG were more played like chess, it could certainly illuminate things about matchups not known before. I often find that when I can see my opponent's hand, it becomes very clear to me how the opponent SHOULD play in order to beat me. But it still remains somewhat foggy on what I have to do to beat my opponent, which is odd. Perhaps it is because there's still that uncertainty there where I don't KNOW what my opponent will do.

If I could switch the positions, and put myself in the opponent's shoes, maybe I could see different answers.

Moving on, I want to share this other blog article I found. It is very good, in my ESTEEMED opinion, so you should check it out.

I'm not going to talk about that one, though. His other article is the one that interests me at the moment. The author of both these articles is Dogukan Sakar, or kedi, as he is known on the WOTC forums. His name has a weird g in it, but I am not going to bother finding the right character. It's 2:30 AM, and I do not care.

His strategy is simple enough to explain (more so than it is to execute), so I'll do so briefly. You take the deck you have been testing and want to improve. It's easiest when the deck doesn't have a LOT of room for tweaking (unlike for instance, GWx builds, which are all over the place at the moment).

Then, given a certain matchup, take the build you most want in that matchup. It can have niche cards like Deathmark, Celestial Purge, whatever. From turn one to turn five or six, imagine the interactions and the plays. And work out what cards you most want in the matchup. I think it's also important to imagine what cards you most want to top deck in the late game. Ah, and you have to imagine different scenarios completely for when you're on the play and when you're on the draw.

Do this for all matchups. Come up with a perfect sideboard and maindeck. Voila.

Not that easy. Obviously. But it's a very systematic, clear, and functional way of coming up with a list of 75. Sounds like more trouble than it will be worth sometimes. But it's definitely a better technique than copying it straight from a Worlds deck or sticking in a bunch of random cards that you THINK will do something.

It seems there's a huge gap between overpreparing and underpreparing. Most folks will be in the underprepared group. If you're in the overprepared group, you will know it and feel it. And that is when you are IN the zone and ready to win. I recommend being overprepared.