Magic and Pants

Hey everyone, sorry about missing last week, I was actually on vacation in lovely Shreveport, Louisiana.  What’s in Shreveport, you may ask?  Well, for those of you not from the southern area of the country, Shreveport is a gambling mecca practically on the border between Louisiana and Texas.  Before last week, I had never been in a casino before, so this was a first for me, and a good break from the grind. 

Being a gamer, my goals were different than most in going to a casino for the first time.  I wanted to find games that I could break and make money on, but I knew going in that casinos don’t make tons of money because they give the players fair odds on the games, so that could be tricker than I thought.

(Stick with me here, Magic and pants will be tied into all of this by the time I’m done.)

I initially tried my hand at the old standby, Blackjack.  I bet very conservatively for a long time, as this game doesn’t generally pay off great, but it can eat your money in a heartbeat if you’re not careful.  Betting $5 a hand I sat at the table for a good five hours straight, and during that time I watched people who repeatedly walked up, dropped a big pile of money and walked away empty handed.  I watched one gentleman cash in $600, then fifteen minutes later throw in another $300, only to walk away ten minutes later empty-handed.

For those of you who have never been in a casino, there’s one thing you’ll notice immediately, besides the cocktail waitresses, and that is the abundance of slot machines.  From a nickel to play up to $100 to play, these things make up a large percentage of the casino I visited.  People sit there for hours, pumping in money, then just hitting a button repeatedly, leaving their money to the mercy of a programmed machine.  The thing that freaked me out even more were the video slots.  Instead of three spinning cylinders, video slots had a video screen that simulated five spinning cylinders.  Obviously these were programmed, and your chances of winning were based strictly on how the casino owners decided to program the machine you sat down in front of that day. 

Needless to say, I wanted games I had some control over, so slots were out.  I tried my hand at Craps, which is way too complicated to get into here, but while it is a more stable game than playing slots, you’re still crossing your fingers strictly on the roll of the dice.

Eventually, I found a card game called Three Card Poker.  You would put in an ante of, say, $5 to start, get three cards, then look at them.  You could fold and lose the $5, or you could then match the ante and stay in the game for that hand.  Then your cards were played against the dealer’s hand.  If the dealer had a qualifying hand, and you beat the dealer, you got your money doubled on both the ante and the bet.  If the dealer didn’t qualify, you got your ante doubled, and then just got your bet back.  The trick to the game was the “Pair Plus” hole.  Before hands were dealt, you could put money in this hole that was basically a bet on if you could get a hand of a pair or better on that hand.  If you did, it paid of on excellent odds, as much as 40 to 1 on a straight flush.  The trick was getting one of those hands to pay for that donation you’re making doesn’t happen very often. 

I watched the game for a while and recognized that one could make money simply off the ante and the bet by folding when required and having lots of patience.  I also noticed how the Pair Plus hole took out players left and right.  People would start conservative, putting $10 on the ante and on Pair Plus, then as they started to get low they might put $15 on Pair Plus.   Now the people that got one of the jackpot hands of three of a kind or straight flush were happy, because it only took one of those to get ahead, sometimes very much ahead.  However, most people ended up just functionally donating money to the casino every hand, watching their stack of chips quickly disappear to the Pair Plus hole regardless of how well they were doing versus the dealer hands.

I sat down with $50 and started playing.  It drove people nuts that I refused to play the Pair Plus hole, especially one time when I got a three of a kind hand that didn’t pay off big for me because I didn’t have money up there.  I took the long term view and wanted to stay in, not hoping for such hands to make my day, but rather just slowly build my stack and walk away ahead.  After about 15 hours of playing across two days, I managed to turn the $50 I started with into $350. 

(I’m almost there, I promise)

I watched multiple people walk up to the table while I was there, drop a few hundred dollars, then walk away an hour later with nothing.  One man in particular cashed in $1000, then hit a couple jackpot hands in the space of 6 hands, and was up about $1200, but by the time he left the table, he had put given back all his money, plus put in another $1000.  Even the few people who recognized what I was trying to do chastised me.  One guy said “I know what you’re doing, and I respect it, but I just can’t do it myself.”

Why, in spite of the fact that people knew better, would they possibly decrease their chances of winning intentionally?  The more I thought about it, and I had PLENTY of time to think at that table, the more I realized that it was just like playing Magic.  People want it easy.  They want the easy money, the easy win.  They want to be able to sit down for a little bit, and walk away winners easily.  That’s why people play slots.  Why they play Roulette.  Why they play the Pair Plus hole.  And that is why Magic players play Fires.

Magic players LOVE the jackpot deck.  Combo decks like Tolarian Academy and High Tide, or fast decks like Fires or Suicide Black.  While the effectiveness of these decks varies, they are all based around one general idea.  Go for broke.  Players love to play Fires because they love to see that opening hand of Forest, Forest, Forest, Bird, Fires, Blastoderm, Saproling Burst which means they likely have won the game before it has even started. 

Some players, however, don’t love to play those decks.  Players like me.  Players that are happy to sit down for a long period of time, and slowly work for the win, rather than relying on great draws to win the day for them.  I’m happy to get an Ace high hand and beat the dealer and make $20, rather than sit there and pray for the straight flush that will make me $400, but if I don’t get it, I end up losing $10.  These people play control decks, stuff like counter-rebels.

The players who will excel, are the players who recognize what kind of deck fits them best, and play that deck accordingly.  Some top-level players truly can take the best deck of any format, sit down, and win.  For the rest of us, though, especially when the best deck is still highly debatable like the Regionals field currently is, we are best served to choose a deck that will fit how we like to play the game, then play that deck to the best of our abilities.

If you like to be able to have control over your scene, don’t play a jackpot deck, or you’ll end up playing it wrong.  Maybe I’m off base, but I don’t understand running Rishadan Port seems like it would only mess up the deck’s tempo and not really be that helpful.  Of course, I am not a jackpot player, so I can’t hope to completely understand the workings of Fires without playing the deck through lots of playtesting.

My point?  At Regionals, and in general, you’ll do better if you play the deck that fits you, and that you’re comfortable with.

Just like you pick your pants.

Tim Stoltzfus