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Attention to Detail #32
A Game of Inches
by Jordan Kronick
August 4, 2006

I have to admit it's been a week devoid of much Magic for me. Since last week I've packed up my belongings and moved across town. And since getting settled in, I simply haven't played around with Magic much. Besides the business of moving and getting settled into a new place, I've also rediscovered an old favorite. Those of you who have been playing Magic since 1994 (and I'm sure you're out there somewhere) will probably remember that at Gen Con of that year, two very cool things happened. Firstly, the inaugural World Championship of Magic took place. Zak Dolan of the US took home the first trophy in a tournament that seems pretty quaint by today's standards. The second big thing that happened at Gen Con that year (at least for Magic players) was the release of the second game under the Deckmaster (flip over a Magic card to see what I'm talking about) imprint. That game was Jyhad, later renamed Vampire: the Eternal Struggle. It was designed by Richard Garfield and in many ways addressed some of the flaws that existed in the way Magic works, while still being a very unique game. It was popular for a short time but eventually the steamroller that is Magic drew most players back from the world of Machiavellian methuselah machinations. The game has been produced for the past six years of its existence by White Wolf (the makers of Vampire: the Masquerade – the roleplaying game that it's based on). Although it comes nowhere near Magic in terms of worldwide support and sheer number of players, it's still around after 12 years. That's a pretty stunning achievement in a market where most games that aren't Magic have a lifespan of a couple years at most. Call it a testament to just how good a designer Richard Garfield really is. In any case, this week I discovered that an online version of V:tES is being developed and is in beta right now. It's been a lot of fun rediscovering the game. But as with most activities – no say nothing of games – it made me think of Magic. There's a lot of similarity in the rules of V:tES and Magic. Although the games have diverged over the years, players of each can learn a lot from the other. I've been doing very well at the Jyhad tables this week and I attribute my success greatly to my understanding of the underlying strategies that exist in all games of this sort. I may not have played much Jyhad since the mid-90s, but Magic has honed skills of mine which transcend the limits of just one game.

When I first started playing Jyhad, I wasn't a very good Magic player. I'd been playing only a year or so at that point and the limits of my strategic thinking was something along the lines of “if I play one color instead of five I'll have a been chance of drawing the land I need”. Jyhad taught me a lot about analysis of game states and when I returned to Magic I was much better able to figure out what I was doing in the game. Jyhad plays a whole lot slower than Magic (I've had some games take three to four hours), and the winner is the one who can manipulate the situation in the game to their benefit and also the one who is best able to read between the lines and understand the motivations of the other players. I think there's a great deal to be learned from Jyhad. Rather than just telling you to check the game out for yourself (though I recommend that as well), I'm going to go through some of those lessons this week.

I mentioned towards the top that Jyhad corrected some of the flaws in the way Magic works. One of those flaws is the potential for escalation of power. Everyone's had it happen that they're playing a deck full of small creatures and their opponent drops one big flashy creature that just nullifies the whole bunch of them and can't be stopped. Although you might be able to get the quick rush with your weenies, sometimes the big guys just start to hit play too fast. And then what are you to do? You and your opponent are roughly even on life, but they simply have higher quality creatures in play. It's a bad situation to be in. Jyhad has a very elegant solution to this problem. While the mana and life systems of Magic are both quite clever, Jyhad combines the two. In order to play your minions, you need to expend your own life. Imagine a game of Magic where the only way to draw cards was to use Necropotence. It's not exactly like Jyhad, but you get the idea. When having higher quality creatures depends on your willingness to bring yourself closer to death, the game becomes quite a bit more interesting. I stopped playing Jyhad initially right around the time when Necropotence decks were first arriving on the scene. I fully attribute my understanding of the power of Necropotence to this game. Jyhad is the purest example of “life as a resource” and so it gives you a much clearer understanding of how to play with Magic cards that treat it as such. Treating life as a resource is one of the fundamentals of moving from the realm of “new player” to “wise player”. New players are often loathe to take any damage when they could chump block. They also put a higher value on life-gain cards. I'm not the first person who said it, but the keystone here is understanding that the only point of life that matters is the last one.

The ability to exchange one resource for another is often the building block of great decks. Whether you're trading life for cards (Necropotence), cards for damage (Psychatog) or cards from mana (Cadaverous Bloom), beneficial exchanges are always important. The key is figuring out what each point of life, each card in hand and each permanent in play is worth. And then finding a way to get more than it's worth. The most basic fact of Necropotence is this; if you can expect that each card you draw will, on average, deal more than one point of damage, then spending one life to get it is an equitable trade. Necro decks were filled with small efficient creatures which had evasion abilities (protection from white on the knights, flying on the hypnotic specters, etc) and which were also capable of large amounts of damage and disruption. The deck got the most out of every single card it played. And it played more cards than anyone because it was willing to trade its own life to do so. This is a lesson I most definitely learned from Jyhad.

In Jyhad, the vampires (who comprise most of your minions) can cost anywhere between 1 and 11 of your pool (which is the same as your life in Magic) to play. You only start with 30, so that means you could be paying more than a third of what you have just to play a single creature. For such a huge investment, you need to know that firstly it will be protected – losing something that you paid a third of your life to get is not a good way to win games. Secondly, you need to know that it will have an effect commensurate to it's cost. An example from the world of Magic would be Krosan Cloudscraper. This is the biggest non-token (thank you Marit Lage) creature in Magic. And yet, it never saw play in tournaments. Why is that? People are certainly willing to play with huge creatures from time to time. The reason is that it was a) unprotected, b) expensive and c) not guaranteed to do much of anything. The cloudscaper dies to a lot of black removal spells. It dies to big white wrathing effects. It can be Pacified, Shackled and Pilloried. It may be hard to burn out, but that doesn't mean it's hard to deal with. Secondly, it is very expensive. Although the mana cost is less than you might imagine, it has an upkeep associate with it. Over time, it can grow to be a burden that your mana is being used up on such a big creature. Especially if c) comes into play. This is the fact that the Cloudscaper can be neutralized by some of the most humble creatures in Magic. A simple Drudge Skeleton can hold it back indefinitely. Even without a regenerator, a long string of small creatures can keep it useless for a long time. The Cloudscaper is huge without being powerful. In Jyhad, it would be suicide to play a deck full of nothing but the largest Vampires. You'd never be able to play more than two of them and there's little hope that two minions can hold out a defense against half a dozen of your opponent's guys. Jyhad taught me that power comes from two sources: speed and utility. The best minions in Jyhad – and the best creatures in Magic - are those that are very fast or those that have great utility. For example, Savannah Lions is very fast. As such, it has been a staple whenever it has been legal. On the other side of the coin, Morphling is a huge mana investment. But it has such incredible utility that it overcomes being slow. The only times when sheer size matters are when cost is not an issue. And even then, utility often overcomes all other concerns. In the Tooth and Nail decks of the Mirrodin era, there were a lot of creatures to choose from. Before Kiki Jiki appeared and started making copies of Darksteel Colossus, people played with the clever combination of Triskelion and Mephidross Vampire. These are not the biggest creatures available. They aren't the most survivable. But what they represent is extreme utility. A combination which wipes out your opponent's creatures. That's a lot of utility. Necropotence decks didn't win with Minion of Leshrac. They won with Order of the Ebon Hand. This is why.

Fundamental to the game of Jyhad is social interaction. The most important way that it improved on Magic's design was that it was made to be a better game with more players. Large numbers of the cards from even the first set were intended to be used in a game with three or more players. So imagine a game with five people who are all trying to win. Each of them is trying to play stronger cards but they are all getting weaker in order to do so. That's a desperate situation where simply talking to your opponents can mean the difference between winning and losing. All of the best things about multiplayer Magic are magnified in Jyhad. Since the game takes so much longer (especially in a big group), there's a lot more time to analyze the situation. Nobody's going to suddenly pull of a combo that wipes out all the other players. That kind of thing simply isn't possible in Jyhad. Instead of trying to win in one fell swoop, it is game of inches. I've always enjoyed Magic when it feels this way. My great love for control decks comes from the same place. I like to win games by slowly establishing a situation where my opponent suddenly has no power in the game. This doesn't always mean that I'm countering all of their spells until I play an unstoppable win condition (though that certainly applies). It can also mean assembling a complex combination of cards which, when together, cannot be stopped. My old Chains of Mephistopheles deck functioned on that principle. Each card on its own was useful but not a game winner. When assembled correctly, there was very little that my opponent could do to stop me. Playing Magic by inches is an important lesson. Even if you're playing an aggressive deck, it is important to look around and make sure you understand every phase of every turn. The first attack with your Savannah Lion is just as important as the last big alpha strike. Even more important than that is remembering that each time your opponent takes an action, they are trying to move one inch closer to victory as well. When your opponent drops a Llanowar Elf on turn one that isn't just a non-issue. It's a piece of the puzzle that they are trying assemble. If you start to ignore the pieces, then you will be surprised when the final image gets revealed (it's a schooner). If there's one lesson that I try to impart every week in this column, it is that nothing is trivial. Every single land your opponent plays matters. Observing the small things will help you understand the big picture. An example of this stuck in my mind recently and I want to share it to illustrate what I mean. In a RGD draft, I ended up with blue-green-black deck (not my favorite by a long shot, bu that's what happened). I was splashing red for a single Demonfire that came to me in the third pack. I had no red signets and no red karoos. However, I did have a Farseek and a Silkwing Scout. I played one mountain to provide the red mana. In the first round I was playing a rather talkative opponent. In the first two games my red and my Demonfire never showed up. That was fine with me. In the third game, I dropped the mountain and my opponent asked me what I was splashing for. I didn't tell him because I didn't want him to play around my Demonfire of course, but it made me think about what I would do on the other side of the table. Demonfire is one of the most potentially dangerous cards in RGD drafting. It's right up there with Hex in the way it can suddenly win a game out of nowhere. If my opponent appears to be splashing a single mountain, Demonfire is going to be my first thought. That mountain means so much more than just red mana. It means that my opponent has access to potential that I would not ordinarily associate with their deck. If your opponent ever plays a card that confuses you, remember that there is probably a good reason for it. An off-color land in draft means that they are splashing for something particularly powerful. Prepare for that possibility and you won't be surprised when the puzzle is revealed.

In closing I simply want to reiterate a point I've made many times. Skill playing Magic can come from many sources. Magic has been described as “chess with 5000 different pieces”. Learning to use those 5000 pieces is very important, but learning to use overall strategies – and more importantly to recognize overall strategies – can be equally important. Magic is a game of inches and you need to know how to cover that ground.



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