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Attention to Detail #45
Recently I've had a lot of free time, and one of the things that I've used this time for is to develop a fondness for a current television show – House. Perhaps you've heard of it? Well the long and short of it is that House is the name of a particularly brilliant and surly doctor. He has a knack for deducing the cause of illnesses. It's a television show, so of course he wins the fight at the end of every episode. But that's not important. What is important is the way that this doctor goes about his examination of problems. He uses the following three things to figure out what's wrong with people:
An encyclopedic knowledge of medicine
Keen observation of the symptoms and environment of the patient
A static list of tests for every symptom
Now, I'm not just wasting your time here. This really does have a lot to do with Magic. I've found myself feeling a certain kinship with Dr. House because though our problems are quite different (Magic vs. medicine, real vs. television), we use the same tools to diagnose the problems. Today I want to talk about problem solving in Magic and just how you should go about it. It's not just a case of knowing what the answer is. It's a case of knowing what the questions are. Douglas Adams knew what I'm talking about.
So here is – for lack of a better term – The Method. This is what you need if you want to examine Magic like a doctor.
An encyclopedic knowledge of all cards in the format
Keen observations of the metagame
A static list of tests which you can apply to every situation
The first one is something which you can't just acquire. Or rather, it's something you can't just know. Certainly, acquiring an encyclopedic card list is as simple as going to Gatherer. Remembering these cards takes a lot of hard work and time. Memorizing cards is probably the most important thing you can do to make yourself a better Magic player. If you know what someone could do, you're one step closer to knowing what they will do. This is the most common flaw I see in the way people play Magic. They have strong decks and they pay attention to the board situation. However, they don't think about the contents of their opponents deck and hand. They're not familiar with all of the potential choices their opponents could have made. Even if you read all of the net decks for a format, there's still a lot of unspoken cards. This is especially useful for playing against combo decks. If your opponent plays a card which you don't recognize the function of but it seems like it might be part of a combo, knowing the rest of the cards in the format can help you quickly deduce what they might be doing. A very simple combo to illustrate this point would be if your opponent played an early Martyr of Sands in a Standard game. Now, if you were unfamiliar with the popular Proclamation of Rebirth deck (and, of course, with the Proclamation itself), you'd be pretty clueless as to why this person was playing such a card in competitive constructed. If you hadn't seen the deck before but were familiar with the Proclamation of Rebirth, you might be able to deduce what your opponent was doing and therefore be better able to combat it. Read card lists. Look at all your commons and uncommons carefully, not just the rares (or timeshifted cards).
The second thing you need is keen observation of the metagame. This is most important when your opponent plays a card and you know that the card appears in different decks for different reasons. It might sound like this applies only to a few popular cards, but the number is greater than you might think. That's because the first five cards on this list are always basic lands. From the very first turn your opponent is giving you information about his or her deck. If you see them play an Island, then they are severely limiting the number of decks they could be playing. Knowing what decks in the local metagame play Islands (an especially interesting question in the days of Ravnican dual lands) will give you a much better idea of what that Island is going to be used for. If not knowing what cards are in a set is the most common mistake, then not knowing what decks are played with those cards is definitely in second place. Even if you know all the cards in a set and you are a very good player, not knowing what decks are popular means that you don't know how to adjust your deck and sideboard correctly to get ahead of the competition. Winning at tournament Magic is about more than just playing well during the matches. You need to play well before and after the matches as well. The best Magic players often say that they eat, drink and sleep Magic. That's what this means. This means paying close attention to what decks are being played and why. Lack of this information was one of the things that made early competitive Magic so strange. Back in the mid-90s, Magic hadn't fully invaded the internet yet. In fact, many people still didn't use the internet. So when they went to big tournaments the only information they had on popular decks came from their local tournament scene and in many cases from their own little group of friends. This works great if your group of friends happens to be Your Move Games or Cabal Rogue or something. But if you're just playing around the kitchen table, you probably haven't come up with the best possible decks for the format. And you certainly haven't come up with all of the possibilities. So use the tools that the 21st century have brought us. Every day the internet is full of deck lists from tournaments around the world. I bring them to you from time to time, but there are writers who do this and only this every single week. They know what these decks mean to the format. For an example of what I'm talking about, I strongly advise reading Frank Karsten's “Online Tech” article. Each week he examines the most popular decks in the fast-moving Magic Online metagame. It's worth a read.
The third thing you need is a static list of tests for every situation. Well, I can't give that to you. Just like House couldn't tell a med student all the possible questions to ask about any particular illness. There's just too many of the,. The key is knowing which ones are relevant to every situation. So now, let's look at the problems. And along the way we'll probably find some important questions to ask again and again.
What's the Problem?
The first thing I want to do in this section is to figure out what kinds of problems you might encounter that require this method to solve them. After all, you need to know where this information is going to be useful. Not all problems involving Magic require this kind of in-depth thought process. Deciding whether to use black card sleeves or red ones is a question for someone else. I'm a doctor, not a fashion designer. To start things off, I'm going to talk about Limited Play. This is, of course, my favorite way to play Magic. And I think it might be the most relevant to the analysis. Check back next week when I bring you Doctor Doctor part 2 and talk about Constructed and wrap things up.
In limited play, decisions don't just determine how you play your cards, they determine what kind of cards you're going to play with in the first place. To a certain degree, this is true of all formats. You need to choose which constructed deck to use, and I'll get to that a bit later on. But the decision making in limited can make your deck or ruin it from the very first pack. So what are some of the basic problems that could arise?
Should I draft this card into my deck?
Should I play this card from my pool?
Is this card worth hate-drafting?
These are the three big ones. There are others – like “Should I rare draft this card?” - which I will leave up to you the reader. Only you know if a foil Psionic Blast is worth throwing away a draft for (though I'd have to lean towards “yes” on that one). So lets go back to our list of methods for answering these questions and look at why each is important.
Knowing what cards are in an environment is very important in all aspects of Magic. When you want to know whether a card is worth drafting, knowing its relative strength against other cards in the format is important. For instance, if you were doing an Arabian Nights draft, your card evaluations would be very odd. Knowing the cards in the set could change things dramatically. If you'd never seen Arabian Nights before, a card like King Suleiman or Cuombajj Witches might seem pretty awful. However, in the confines of Arabian Nights drafting, these are both bombs.
The same reasoning tells you whether or not to play a card in your deck. You drafted the King Suleiman because you know there's quite a few Djinns and Efreets in Arabian Nights. But should you run it maindeck or sideboard? Knowing the exact number of Djinns and Efreets in the set makes a big difference here.
And hate drafting likes card knowledge as well. For instance, in many formats it would be a strong move to hate draft a card like Guardian Beast. If this were a Mirrodin block draft, you definitely wouldn't want your opponent getting their hands on one of those. But this is Arabian Nights. And not only are the artifacts fairly limited, they are also fairly lame. Your opponent's Pyramids or Ebony Horse probably aren't going to cause you too many problems. Once again, knowing the set determines your answer in part.
The second method is knowledge of the metagame. How does that play into whether you should draft something. I'll continue to use the Arabian Nights example because it's such a small card set which is easy to understand. Lets say you somehow do a lot of Arabian Nights drafting regularly. First of all you're a lucky and rich person. Secondly, you've seen what kind of decks your opponents like to use. You probably understand that the two strongest colors for removal in Arabian Nights are Green and Black, whereas red has virtually no removal. Knowing this, there are two options upon seeing a strong red card in your pack (like Ali from Cairo – great in a format with very little removal). You can either pass this, knowing that it will strongly tempt the people next to you into red. Or you can take it, hoping that your opponents are avoiding red to pick up the green and black cards. This is an extremely simplistic way to look at the situation, but it's the same sort of thinking you have to do in any draft. In a Time Spiral draft you need to know whether Slivers are popular. In a Kamigawa draft you need to know whether Dampen Thought decks are popular. The popularity of a card or a deck can tell you whether or not to draft it.
Similarly, it can tell you whether or not to play something. Certain decks will always be strong counters to other decks. If you ended up with a Repentant Blacksmith in Arabian Nights drafting, and you know that red is extremely poor, you might think against playing it main deck. On the other hand, if you know that Dampen Thought is very popular, you might consider a maindeck Reito Lantern. See how that works?
The metagame is, of course, most important for hate-drafting. If you see a Dampen Thought coming around and you know that it's a popular deck, you can hate draft it and throw people off their game. Maybe they're pulling blue cards and hoping the Dampens will show up. This is especially important in later packs when people have already chosen strategies and need things to fill them about. Taking a Cloudhoof Kirin in pack three of a Kamigawa block draft takes away a very strong weapon from the Dampen Thought players.
The last method for analysis is that pesky list of questions to ask about every situation. So what kind of questions have we stumbled upon during this instruction?
The most basic questions have to do with card evaluation. Knowing whether one card is better than another on a very basic line. Without paying attention to whether a card is popular or what other cards exist in a set. These questions need to be asked as well, but the first question is -
Is this better than that?
Of course, the way that you figure out whether this is better than that is by using – ta da – the three methods of analysis that we've been talking about for the last 2000 words. Know the cards in a format, know the popular cards and ask some questions about the cards in front of you. Let's say you're in a Time Spiral draft and you have to decide between Spinneret Sliver and Ashcoat Bear. Two bears with two abilities. Knowing which is better depends on these things:
Knowing how many flying creatures are in the set (relevant to the Sliver).
Knowing how many slivers are in the set (relevant to the Sliver).
Knowing how many creatures have a toughness of two or less (relevant to the Bear).
Knowing how many flash creatures are in the set (relevant to the Bear).
Once you know what the answers to these questions are, you can start to figure out which is a better choice. Knowing the metagame is important because it can pull you away from a “clear” choice sometimes. If, in your estimation, the Sliver is a way way better card, but you know slivers are very popular, you might have a different opinion of the pair, one way or the other.
The kind of questions you need to ask are the following;
How do the power and toughness of the cards line up (if applicable)?
How do the effects of the cards line up?
How do the costs of the cards line up?
I happened to choose two cards with the same power, toughness and cost. So those questions are answered for us. The question of effect is what were were determining with card knowledge. Whether blocking fliers is better than Flash is a question which depends on knowing what else is in the set and what is popular.
Determining whether to move something in from the sideboard during deck construction or later follows similar rules. However, instead of just looking at what is in the set, you need to look at what might be in your opponent's deck. After a draft you've seen most of the cards that are in your opponent's deck. They went by you during the draft, after all. Knowing which ones they chose and which ones were available can help you decide what to play. If you were playing that Kamigawa block draft and you never saw any Dampen Thoughts or any other milling effects, you might not want to play that Reito Lantern maindeck.
So you need to ask yourself these questions:
Is this card good against one deck or many decks?
Is that one deck a possibility in the following round?
Is there a better choice based on the same criteria?
Lastly, when it comes to hate drafting, you have to follow most of the same questions you've devised for choosing cards for other purposes. With one addition;
Do I have a problem with this card?
Just because a card is a huge asset to another deck does not mean that you'll have any issues with it. If you're playing a Time Spiral draft and you've managed to get a ton of small-calibre removal, should you worry about hate drafting a fragile creature like Magus of the Scroll? If your deck isn't going to have any trouble with a card, then it doesn't really matter whether the card is good for your opponent against other people.
And that's what I was talking about when I started examining the method of House. Next week I'm going to continue this series by examining the kind of questions you need to ask in Constructed Magic and to give you some pointers on how to answer those questions. Until then, be in good health.
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