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By: jcf, Jose Freitas
Mar 15 2021 12:29pm

Devising Pauper

Magic the Gathering is a complicated monster. It is a game full of decisions, from deck choices and individual card choices to each and every move you make inside each match you play.

Some decisions require multiple angles to be considered, sometimes they can even be contradictory, requiring you to find the right balance among them to take a proper line.

Today, let's try to throw some light at the main factors we should consider when making decisions before and during our games of this amazing endless puzzle called Magic the Gathering.

Five axis of decision making in Magic the Gathering:

1 - Logical Axis:

MTG is - in many ways - a game of logic. This is the first layer of decision taking and it is the most transparent one.

Stating it is transparent doesn't mean it is easy, MTG is a complex game and we all make logical mistakes all the time. Some logical decisions are quite subtle and often you must take into account what will possibly happen two, three, four turns ahead or even events that might happen in the whole game to make well-founded logical decisions.

It is important to consider: what are the possible answers your opponent might have to your actions? What is your general role in this particular game and your opponent's role, how are each one of you trying to win? How can you make best use of your resources and optimize the chances of your plans working ?

One great way of improving your logic skills is to analyze your own games and even games of other players, looking for logical flaws. This will both increase your reasoning ability and put you in the right mindset - realizing even the best players make mistakes - taking our decisions as carefully and deeply as possible.

Don't rush your decisions, unless you are having trouble with the clock, some turns look deceptively simple. Sometimes the land you choose to play turn one significantly changes your chances of winning or losing a game.

Here we have an interesting example of what I consider to be a very subtle logical error

Both players are skilled and experienced. The Dimir Delver player starts with Island and Faerie Seer, hoping to find another untapped land and land a Ninja of the Deep Hours turn two. Since he knew opponent was playing a very agressive deck - Monowhite Heroic - I believe the best logical decision would be to play Ice Tunnel turn one enabling black mana to start casting removal spells like Cast Down as early as turn two.

That doesn't mean the Island plus Faerie Seer could not win the game, it might have worked. I believe in that circumstance the defensive line would give a slightly higher chance of winning the game, therefore being the correct decision.

And then again, maybe I am wrong on that one. Both lines have ups and downs and I cannot state with absolute certainty being defensive would lead to better chances of winning. To be absolutely sure about it would demand a considerably complex analysis. I don't think I am even capable of performing such by myself. That goes to show that, if you really want to optimize your chances, MTG can be a very complex game and you should consider your in game choices carefully - as often as possible.

2 - Statistical Axis:

Logical reasoning isn't easy, but things get even more complicated when you add the statistical component into the mix. Thinking statistically means you should consider what cards players are mostly using in a given archetype, what archetypes are the most commonly played and even the odds of your opponent drawing a specific card or a type of card that may affect the outcome of the board. Statistical information isn't perfect and it isn't the same for each player. As an example, a player that runs two or three leagues every day on MTGO should have a more accurate statistical feeling of the field than a player that runs one league every other day. Neither of them will have perfect information about the field though. 

Taking a correct statistical decision won't always lead you to win, but it will certainly optimize your chances of winning in many cases. Sometimes it is hard to acknowledge a correct decision in a game that didn't go well or in a terrible match up. But even the worst matches deserve statistical thinking, having a 30% chance of winning a match is better than a 25% chance of winning the same match any day of the week!

When two axis are in conflict in your decision process - that can happen - one must assume the difficult task of deciding which axis is more relevant in that given moment. This is often not a transparent decision, sometimes it is nearly impossible to tell which direction is the right one to go, in that case: trust your feelings, choose a path and pray.

Here we have a very interesting example of what I interpret as a subtle statistical error.  

This is the same match observed in the first example, but in a different point. In the middle of game two, players had a little "stack war". The Dimir player tries to kill an enchanted Deftblade Elite using Cast Down and Snuff Out. The Heroic player answers with two protection spells. Dimir player is left with Dispel, Echoing Truth and a couple creatures in hand. Dimir player took action at opponent's turn (during combat), so he untaps and cast Echoing Truth solving the pumped Deftblade Elite issue. 

At first glance, everything is ok. Dimir player used well his mana, something we consider a very logical move in almost any match.

The problem here is the Dispel left in his hand. In the "stack war turn", the Dimir player used two removal spells, inducing the Heroic player to use the protection instant spells he had in hand.  Considering statistics, monowhite heroic decks don't use a massive amount of instant spells, they also have a tendency to finish games fast, meaning there is a significant chance they never draw another instant during the rest of the game. That did happen and our Dimir player got stuck with that Dispel in hand the whole game, it became a dead card.

As weird as it sounds, it would be legitimate to start the "stack war" with Snuff Out instead of Cast Down, leaving two open mana, and them using Dispel instead of Cast Down  even "wasting" one mana, but keeping one extra removal spell in hand for later while. The point here is to make sure Dispel is put to some use. Keep in mind the removal spells carry a much smaller risk of becoming useless cards in this particular match.

This is not an intuitive decision and it feels - at first - that the Logical Axis and the Statistical Axis are in conflict. We are extremely used to use logic to make decisions in MTG, but a statistical mindset doesn't always come that easily. 

3 - Behavioral Axis:

Another complex layer of decision making in MTG is trying to predict your opponent's behavior. Acting around their behavior or even trying to induce your opponent into actions that are favorable to you inside the game.

This can be actually a different skill inside MTGO versus paper MTG. Inside MTGO you can only have access to their game actions and perform your game actions, like representing a "Counterspell" by leaving two untapped Islands or reading their representation of Vines of Vastwood on that untapped Forest as examples. On paper MTG, some high level players are actually capable of obtaining information from every little action you take, the way you look at your cards, how long you take to make a small decision even that glance you take at a specific land.

I don't really play paper MTG nowadays, and even if I did I don't think I would be capable of being that good at reading signals.

Inside MTGO, it is certainly possible to improve at behavioral axis but it is really hard to present a formula for that one. It is nearly a form of art: trying to trick your opponent into making bad moves, or believing you have cards in hand you don't. Trying to not fall for their traps and bluffs. It requires a lot of flight hours and there is no path to get perfect at that art. 

This is a very cool example of the behavioral axis being skillfully used:

In this game, as the opponent taps their mana elves to attack, the Dimir player quickly calculates that those three untapped Forests could be used for a relevant spell, like Lead the Stampede. So, in the middle of attack phase he taps one of two untapped Islands to stop representing Counterspell and inducing opponent to feel "safe" and cast such spell. It worked: opponent casts a three casting cost spell and the Dimir player is able to deny it using Force Spike. Essencially, the Dimir player induced the opponent into a trap by taking a game action that looked like a mistake or sloppy play. 

4 - Emotions Matter:

We are not robots programmed to play MTG. We are human beings (well, most of us I assume). Sadly (or maybe fortunately), that means our emotions can deep affect our state of awareness, our capabality of making complex decisions, our whole cognitive system for that matter.

That also means we should consider this factor when deciding which deck to play in an event. Do you like to play this deck ? Do you feel confortable playing it against most decks in the format ? how familiar does this deck feels to you ? How long each game will take ? If the event is really long, can that be a problem ? 

In shorter events, ask yourself: are you bored with your current deck? Do you feel it is not giving you good in game options anymore? Do you feel the metagame adapted to it and you don't know how to react? Does it take to long to win ? Is it to defensive ? Or maybe to agressive and narrow ? How does that make you feel ? How do you feel playing it ?

If you want to increase your win rate, you should always pick a strong deck. But that doesn't mean you should always play the deck you consider to be the strongest in the format at any given time. There is no unbeatable deck (those get banned), pick a strong deck that you feel confortable playing. That you feel happy playing.

Emotions matter in MTG, we all seem it. We all experienced it. Player X had a bad draw game one, loses temper and falls into tunnel vision trap, playing poorly the rest of the match and losing. We all been there at some point. We know how it goes.

MTG is often a game of resilience, a battle of wills. Waiting for the right moment to cast that spell, being able to keep a clear mind and seeing all the factors thru a long and complex match. It requires patience, it requires serenity, it also requires thirst for victory.

 Play a deck you like, try to have fun. It matters, it affects your cognition, this is inevitable.

5 - The Physical Condition Matters:

Finally it is impossible not to briefly mention: Your physical condition does have impact on your cognition, specially for longer events or sessions of game play. Eat well, rest properly, practice a bit of exercise daily. Follow every advice your grandmother would give you to maintain your health. Not for your health, of course, we don't care about that little detail. But those extra points on our win rate percentage, oh boy those are definitely worth the effort!

P.S. I am kidding! Do care about your health at least a little bit! 

That is it for today, my friends. Hope you liked. Leave your thoughts in the comments. Battle well and have fun!