Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Nature of Standard - Games Are Not Close

Billy Moreno recently put out a really great article called the Magic Schoolbus. It introduces us to Matt, the young, up-and-coming player. Matt reminds me of myself - although he has the youth advantage. He decided he wasn't satisfied with merely "being good" at games. He wants to win, and he's open to learning how.

The problem is he doesn't know where to focus his attention, and he doesn't know exactly what he needs to be doing to get better than he already is - what else can he do but play more games of Magic?

The problem I see with many good players is that they've gotten to the point where they let their intuitions guide them more and more. They play faster. They play more aggressively (not that they take more risks, they are just more in-your-face to their opponents). In other words, they are more-or-less on autopilot.

And most of the time it works. 

I have been birding PTQs on Modo recently, and most of the games are uninteresting (to watch) because most of the games don't look close. The tides turn quickly because spells are more powerful - and they're actually resolving. The Mythic deck is one of the best examples of this in Standard.

The deck asks a series of questions. This? This? How about this? And so forth, and if the opponent fails to answer each question Mythic asks, the opponent loses. So, oftentimes, games don't look close - either Mythic asks a question the opponent can't answer, or the opponent kills everything Mythic lays out and proceeds to take over. It feels like a lot of decks in Standard operate similarly. They just each ask different questions. 
Some of the other ways games often play out in Standard:
  • One player gets manascrewed - sometimes with help from Spreading Seas
  • One player lands a Baneslayer Angel the other player cannot remove
  • One player plays an Eldrazi Monument or Sovereigns of Alara or Martial Coup and wins almost immediately
  • One player has a very aggressive start, and the other player fails to control or race
  • One player snowballs into a position where it becomes impossible for the other player to catch up
Planeswalker control decks, Turboland, and Next Level Bant don't generally win very quickly. But they do seem to win in a well-defined manner, much of the time. This is what AJ Sacher called the Snowball Effect in one of his SCG articles. They start even - and then take the advantage step by step. The first step results in a small advantage, but with each subsequent step, the strides become longer and longer, snowballing out of control. 

Sometimes it's as quick as: play Elspeth, play Jace, play Gideon. Sometimes it's as fast as: play Oracle of Mul Daya, play Time Warp, play Avenger of Zendikar. Often it's just a series of plays over the course of several turns, and suddenly the opponent has no way of coming back.


I am not saying Standard decks are easy to play. I am not saying that games are brainless, or uncomplex, or all blowouts. There are still many decisions, many interactions, and much complexity. But it's easy to fall into a mechanical style of play in this Standard. The most we have to worry about is getting Blightning'ed. Most of the time, our spells resolve, our creatures live to the next turn, and our opponents aren't going to see our hands and pick the best spell for us to discard.

We have long-ago stopped playing in a realm of Thoughtseize, Cryptic Command, Tidehollow Sculler, Spellstutter Sprite, Broken Ambitions, Vendilion Clique. We don't have to worry about whether our opponent has Plumeveil, Volcanic Fallout, or Broken Ambitions as options for our turn three.

Perhaps this is reason for a sigh of relief. But perhaps this is limiting those players that primarily play Standard, as many of today's players do. Today's Standard is the "tap-out" format. When players exchange resources, it's often not in the same turn, and indeed, it's rare for cards to be taken preemptively through discard effects. The dynamics are very different because of this. It limits how much we have to plan ahead. One can get away with playing decks on autopilot, reacting to what the opponent does, instead of planning ahead for what the opponent might do. This is not an optimal way to play, and one may lose many games doing this, but it is not impossible to win without thinking numerous steps ahead.


There's more limiting today's players. I think a weak grasp of theory is another one. There's too much disorganized literature - a lot of good articles but not in a sensible order or easy to find. Chapin's book is one place to go, but I think the book I have in mind is more than one man can write and organize.

The book I envision is more like a textbook of sorts. It begins at the very beginning, requiring nothing outside of itself -- it would be self-contained, and no outside references would be needed. It would define all terms, it would use no obscure analogies, it would be absolutely timeless. Which is kind of hard with Magic, but perhaps there needs to be a new edition every year to keep it up-to-date.

As Chapin has stated, I think deckbuilding is becoming a lost art - it is very hard to do, besides. But I think the rewards for innovation aren't high enough. I think there should be incentives created to promote innovation - one of these is a way to test decks without having lists revealed publically. I don't know how to achieve this, but I think one should be given the option to hide innovative decks from the internet and still use them to play in events online. And earn prizes while doing so.

Deckbuilders need greater control over exactly when and how their tech is revealed - this gives them more opportunity to use their successes to gain fame and recognition. Instead of having it all dissolved into the noise that is Modo.

There is also something inherently keeping back a lot of players in Magic - this has probably been true for years. But good players tend to be cliqueish. The best players among a community keep to themselves, largely. Instead of branching out to the other players, they discuss tech amongst themselves and do not share information openly. When they see worse players, they turn their nose and scoff. They do not reach out and help. They do not correct, they merely mock.

The Magic community is largely hierarchical among tournament-attending players. Ascending the hierarchy is sometimes more work than actually just improving your game. I think if you're Matt, you'll be able to get an in because you happen to be young, eager to learn, and apparently naturally inclined to the game. Things seem to be aligned for Matt.

Fortunately for the rest of us, Billy Moreno is willing to help out and do his Magic Schoolbus thing.