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By: TheMiseDotCom, Andrea Faliero Lassi
Mar 24 2009 12:00pm
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 Because its a Skill game.


A known poker site uses this as logo. But why?
How many of you,magic players got asked by a non-magic player friend this question: "But isn't it just a matter of who's luckier and draws the best cards?  This used to annoy me since I didn't want to waste my time by being outdrawed by someone. Then I started to play some real magic and I got the answer for myself. "No." Has been my answer for the last couple of years. 

Luck can only take you so far. I'm a very pragmatic person and I don't believe in Luck as an entity or a universal force or constant. I see it as a serie of coincidences or events gone to one side,which for me means that there are lucky situations but not lucky people.
Sure, in all magic communitys or stores there is that guy,probably not a top player but he ALWAYS seems to draw that right card at the right time. And also the dreaded Mana Screw or Mana Flood that should both have their rightfull place in Hell next to Stasis and Faces of the Past
But still, "luck" is part of the game as the number of cards or the number of copies your playing of a unique card. Its a feature. Its what makes this game fun, the random element. Have you ever seen a professional chess game?When played at high level its not fun,its just a matter of skill. There is no random piece sneaking to the table, no 2 lands in a row or no mulligans. For me,besides being funnier, Magic is almost as hard as chess when played at a high level. You can predict which 7 cards your opponent as in hand but you can't know which 7 cards he has. Neither what he draws. This is a point I wanted to make before continuing, Magic is a Game of Skill with a luck component,but as I said: Luck can only take you so far.
One of the first points you can use to backup that theory is: "If its a matter of luck, then why are the same people that usually win?"
Do you know Kenji Tsumura?And Gabriel Nassif?You do?Do you believe they are the luckiest people alive? I bet that you all recall the Holy Honululu Lightning Helix Play by Craig Jones, described by many as one of the luckiest situations in Magic History,well,it was luck,but was it all luck?

               Lightning Helix

Calm down, I'm not claiming he skilled his way into shuffling a Lightning Helix into the top of the deck,but; those who watched that game and recall the last sucession of plays can understand something: He skilled his way into that situation.
Thats one of the main points of this article. You can be lucky,but you must be in a position to take advantage of that luck. He knew what he needed to do and what where his outs (A Char would have also drawed that game forcing a 6th game) and he played the game to get into a position where drawing one of those cards would have given him that game.  During this last PTQ, I've witnessed a similar situation that I would like to share with you:
It was in the middle of the tournament and I didn't know any of the players. They where both playing the Naya Burn deck and they where in the 3rd game so I believe that they knew each others decks, and they reached this situation: It was Player A's turn and without any card in his hand he drew for his turn, pondered and attacked Player's B.

Player's B only card in hand was a Mountain while sitting at 6 life. Hist opponent had a mistery card just drawn and 7 life to play with.  How do you block here?  First you would have to know Player's B list, he was playing Tiago Chan's version of Naya. Well I'm using this to make a point about thinking your actions over in order to be in the best possible spot during your game. The normal thinking process I've heard about this play by many players is: Wild Nacatl blocks a Wild Nacatl and the Kird Ape doesn't block. At first sight seems obvious since you trade a critter and you are able to attack back if you draw a creature of your own. I've also heard that you block both in order to prevent a topdecked Char , Incinerate or Lightning Helix. At this moment of the game, speaking only of this spells, Player's A graveyard had 2 Lightning Helix, 2 Incinerate and 1 Char while  Player's B had 4 Lightning Helix and 1 Incinerate. I didn't knew Player's A list at the moment but since Chan had won 2 weeks prior to that event with Naya burn I figured he would also be on that list and If I were in Player's B spot I would also assume that.  So that leaves Player A with the possibility of have drawn this turn 1 of 2 Lightning Helix,1 of 2 Incinerate and 1 of 2 Char. Looking at the statistics I would like to assume that he didn't drew any of that.  Also looking on how land light are both players its a nice assumption to think he draw blank (Land). One thing I would like to point here is that if Player A has drawn either a creature or burn you are dead anyway but since you are Player B right now,you can only think on how you can still win here. Well Player B made the mistake of not seeing that. He proceeded to do the regular block of Nacatl in front of Nacatl and Kird Ape out of combat falling to 3 life. Player A passed the turn without a play and Player B drew a Char. He attacked for 2 leaving his opponent at 5 and passing the turn. Player A drew for his turn and attacked, Player B Chared the Wild Nacatl falling to 1 and lost to a Mogg Fanatic.

Still,thats not the point. Player B put himself in a position where he could not win that game. If you don't block the second Wild Nacatl there then you are assuming that with the counter attack you can put yourself in a more favourable position but how? At this time the only way that Player B has of winning this game is chumpblocking a Nacatl with Kird Ape, falling to 3,cracking back with his own Wild Nacatl and topdecking a Char. Sure you can go for attrition where Kird Ape still may chump-block next turn if you draw a blank but in that case you leave more turns for your opponent to draw either critters or burn. Drawing that Char is obviously a sick topdeck of something like 1/35, or 3%, but if you put yourself in a position where that Char can give you the game then you are minimizing luck to a single well thought draw.

One of the most important things to do while playing Magic is thinking. Automatic plays are bad for you and not thinking your actions over and over its way worse. Speaking of chess again, a game where the minimum thinking process takes you 2 or 3 turns into the future, thats a feature you could apply to your game. If you start following a more "tridimensional" plan, you can really see yourself improving. I'm gonna share another situation,this one happened to me in the last T2 tournament I won at a local store last week:

Its game 3 of the 1st round and both me and my opponent are playing roughly the same builds of 5c Control. We play it through until we reach this situation: Its my turn, I drew for the turn and play out a Broodmate Dragon for 6 mana leaving 2 lands untapped.
What happens next can obviously be a "DUH" for most of you but I believe that its important to freeze it anyway. I didn't play any land this turn. Why? Well he has 9 lands in play,with 1 card in his hand, while I have 4 cards in my hand, being 2 of those a Cruel Ultimatum and a Broken Ambitions. If I played the untapped land I could Broken Ambitions for 2 during my opponents turn but is it worth it? Knowing what deck I'm facing, there are 3 cards that I should be "afraid" right now: Broodmate Dragon,Cruel Ultimatum and Wrath of God. Even with a +2 Broken Ambitions the Wrath of God would still stick so its unimportant. Broodmate Dragon costs 6 mana,even if he plays an untapped land for his turn,that would leave him with 4 unused mana,which means that after I untap,play an untapped land and play out my Cruel Ultimatum he could only use his Ambitions for 3 or a Cryptic Command,the ambitions I could pay and the Cryptic would always be devastiting so even for the Broodmate Dragon the land is still useless. And least the card that popped first into my mind, his own Cruel Ultimatum. He has 1 card in his hand and 9 lands. Hypothetically he draws for his turn and doesn't play a land (Best case scenario), taps 7 and plays a Cruel Ultimatum. If I had played my land I could use my Broken Ambitions for 2 and he could still pay it without playing any land which would mean that my 2 remaining cards (Cruel Ultimatum and a land) would be discarded. But if I don't play the land there,his cruel resolves and I still have my own Cruel Ultimatum in my hand besides a 4/4 in play. Well he did play out his Ultimatum and got destroyed by mine. While this play may have been obvious for most of you I still advise you to think your turn well,even the wrong land drop or attack could ruin a perfect game.

Still,this is a game where "LUCK" its a constant force since a wrong draws could ruin a perfectly played game at any level.  Many people consider that when you're playing at such high level such as the Pro Tour you have to get a real load of luck to win it through,but there's a sentence that I would like to share with you that may help you understand this article. Its was Pro Tour Kobe 2006. Kenji Tsumura barely made day 2 and picked up a 3rd loss in round 7 meaning that he would have to go X-0 to top8 the event. Julien Nujiten had a few lucky strikes the day before but he summed up Kenji's day in this:

"Yesterday I was reminded of how much luck you need to make the Top 8 of a Pro Tour. Today I was reminded of the opposite."
To win one Magic Tournament, you NEED luck. To win more than one, you need luck and Skill. One of the things I've been hearing in this years playing magic is "born skill". A natural tallent born with the player. Well yes, there are many players which you can look and say that they were born to play this game but that doesn't mean that you cant get there. Practice makes perfect. Everyone that puts his mind into it can improve their game,playing in real life with friends or practicing on MTGO are two of the best ways you have to become a better magic player. Understanding what went wrong or right like in the above situations is a good example of what you need to do.Being able to learn from your mistakes in a step by step improvement,always trying to get to the top and having fun on the way over.
My feature player this week will be Gabriel Nassif, recent winner of Pro Tour Kyoto and Grand Prix Chicago, but also, if there is a lucksack player in the world,thats Nassif:

See you soon,
Andrea Fonseca, Dust_ @MTGO



Good stuff! by hamtastic at Tue, 03/24/2009 - 12:26
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The person who taught me to play Magic was an ex-pro. One of the invaluable lessons he gave me was the ability to 'play the game as if you'll draw the card you need'. That's what Craig Jones did, and that's what often separates a winning top deck from a 'too little too late' top deck. It's harder to do than it sounds, but it is crucial if you want to start winning those 'unlucky' games. If you're going to lose unless you draw a certain card then play the remaining turns as if you're going to draw that card. Take the steps with board position and with cards in hand to make sure that if you do draw that card that it will indeed be able to do what you need.

Worst case scenario is that you don't draw the card and still lose. You've essentially lost nothing when this happens. However! It does, can and will happen that you will draw that card you've been setting up for and bam! You take the game that seemed lost.

I actually got so used to people calling me a 'lucksack' that I made my ingame signature "Thanks! I practice my topdecking for four hours every night!". Just because I'd play the games I was losing in such a way that a topdeck perfect card would bring me back into it.... So I'm very happy to see this article. :)

5 Stars isn't doing it justice. by Guinhenhas at Tue, 03/24/2009 - 12:31
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...just... Wow.

What an article! Please, please keep discussing this type of subjects in the future.

Playing for your outs is one of the most important steps a player can give to improve their game.


Keep 'em coming, and I'll keep reading them ;)

Great Article by DRAGONDUNG at Tue, 03/24/2009 - 12:50
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I like the comparison of pocket aces to a turn 2 dragonstorm or turn one possibly after mull. I agree that while luck or chance may play some role in winning, consistant winning is brought on by steady play and planning. Now I myself have been called one a million times and hate to hear it as I think it just shows the maturity level of a player (lucksack). I think people dont realize you set your own luck in this game as you point out the number of a card in your deck is set by you, so if anything it boils down to you preparing and setting up that win.

Hope to see more articles like this in the future it may help the younger players understand more.

When doing a little research by TheMiseDotCom at Tue, 03/24/2009 - 12:51
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When doing a little research for this article I also stumbled across this quote from Osyp Lebedowicz:

"Like Chess, with Magic you have to think a couple of turns ahead," he said. "There are a lot of decisions you have to make, not only about what you are going to do but what you're opponent is going to do. I'd say that Magic is a lot harder, too. There's more variables."

I do agree with him since its possible to theorize completly a game of chess while its impossible to predict 100% how a game of magic will proceed.

very nice article by TugaChampion at Tue, 03/24/2009 - 15:04
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I guess this won't change anything at the moment you lose due to bad luck but everyone should reflect about their losses if they could have done anything different to win the game. It's human nature to be upset right after it happens but we should always think about it when it had time to settle down.

Also it's always nice to have an article like this remind us about there details once in a while. If there's anything most players tend to forget, is that luck is part of the game.

Nice one!

BTW: there was one pro that said he liked having powerful 1ofs in his decks as long as they would win the game on the spot (or make it very likely for you to win) because they would rarely mess with your early game, while it also gives you outs to those "already lost" games.

Chess and Magic by ArchGenius at Tue, 03/24/2009 - 15:55
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Very nice article.

I'm glad you made the comparison between magic and chess. I started playing chess competitively long before I played magic, and my friends and I learned to play competitive magic during chess club. Magic and Chess are very different games, and you have to think about the games differently. In Chess, the goal is often to gain a small positional advantage and grind it out to the end game to win. In Magic, that strategy doesn't work so well. In chess you never want to drop pieces or sacrifice pieces unless you can guarantee victory. In chess there are no equalizers/sweepers like Wrath of God. I often find myself playing magic with bad chess habits. I sometimes put more emphasis on keeping my creatures alive than on reducing my opponent to zero life. I often don't want to chump block when I should because I don't like "dropping" pieces. Sometimes I just have to remind myself of what game I'm playing.

Great article, it's by Zouily (not verified) at Tue, 03/24/2009 - 16:07
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Great article, it's interesting to look at the deeper stragretic parts of magic.

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Although that's mostly because of star inflation. 5 stars these days means "very good", while this is more like "very very awesome".


You're absolutely correct about how when one topdeck can win you the game, and otherwise you lose, set yourself up for it. Another thing to keep in mind, though, is that many topdecks are not that unlikely. For example, "you just had to topdeck that Force of Will"... well there were four in my deck. Oh and there were also four Counterspell, and four Daze, and four Spell Snare, so it wasn't that unlikely for me to draw an answer for Flash. Although that might not be relevant to the point, it's still a good refutation for "it's all luck" or "you just got lucky".

Actually, game theorists have by blandestk at Tue, 03/24/2009 - 17:33
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Actually, game theorists have been trying to completely theorize the optimum game of chess for decades and it cannot be done.

I've actually read an by TheMiseDotCom at Tue, 03/24/2009 - 17:47
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I've actually read an interview by Veselin Topalov in wich he said that if you have a minimum knowledge about chess and what your opponent is going to do its impossible to lose a game simply because you know how it is going to play out. But that nots actually the point of the comparison, I simply used it to express that Magic is a game where there are many factors besides how well you play and know the game.

Of course if you have by blandestk at Tue, 03/24/2009 - 18:04
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Of course if you have information about how the game will go, you cannot lose, especially if you are a master. You can say the same thing about Magic. If you know what cards are going to come for your opponent and you know what cards you have, it should be fairly difficult to lose. In most games, you can use game theory to work backward to determine the optimum result. But in chess you cannot do that; I would imagine you could not for Magic, as well. I'm not trying to blow up the analogy, I just don't think Magic is MORE variable or complex than chess.

Not really true. You CAN work by Reaper9889 at Wed, 03/25/2009 - 07:09
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Not really true. You CAN work backwards and find the optimum solution (and figure out if it is better to be black or white or that a draw is optimal assuming both players play perfectly). The computers of today are just not powerful enough to do so within a meaningful deadline.

But chance is expensive in game theory. Here I mean that you CAN model Chess as a Deterministic Graphical Games (you can also model it using simpler systems but it will not be much faster to solve), but you will need the added power of Simple Stochcastic Games (which is nodes allowing randomness) for Magic. We can solve any Deterministic Graphical Games in time O(n logn + m) where n is the number of nodes (positions) and m is the number of edges (ways to move).

I think the strongest published result for SSGs with ralative few random nodes is O(r!mn) (By Florian and Horn) where m and n is like before and r is the number of random nodes. It is often expected that it is a polynomial but none have actually shown it (the usual solution for this kind of games is using Hoffman-Karp but it got exponentiel worst case - atleast U(2^(n^(1/2))).

Furtheremore I expect that m and n is alot larger in Magic than in Chess. I mean just think of how many ways you can manaburn your self (in your upkeep, drawstep or any other)...

To win in Magic one needs (in by Lord Erman at Tue, 03/24/2009 - 18:04
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To win in Magic one needs (in the right order);

1- A good deck. Actually a very good deck. Not even Nassif can trow in all the 10th Edition draft junks and expect to win the next big Classic event with them.
2- A lot of playing skills. That comes from practicing. Yes, being gifted is a big plus that might put you ahead of many players but a lot of practice should bring you to somewhere too.
3- And luck. We can't deny this.

Practicing against new players who just bought their first 10th Ed. starter deck won't help. One must play against very good players playing very good decks. And that means one must play tournaments because only there you will meet them.

And as I said, one can't deny the existence of luck. In one game in a tournament, I remember clearing the board and everything was in my favor at that point. But then I got 5 lands one after another when I already had over 8 lands in play (and some in the graveyard too). Of course I lost. These things happen.

Or in a draft when I had a really junk deck, I beat a 1900+ player just because once he had to mulligan to 3 and the other game he got stuck at 2 lands and I beat him with my trash 2/2's. These things also happen. And that is a part of Magic, we can't deny that.


I agree. I think the poker by blandestk at Tue, 03/24/2009 - 18:23
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I agree. I think the poker analogy is the best. It's a mixture of luck and skill, but in the long run, the best players will rise to the top.

On a sidenote, recently I played a game of pauper with a white/blue/black blink deck and had my opponent, playing mono-black control, on the ropes. He had no cards in hand and at one life. These were his draws in a row:

Corrupt for 7.
Crypt Rats clears the board.
Crypt Rats clears my new board.
Crypt Rats clears my new board.
Corrupt for 7.

Each time the guy writes in-game some sort of "wow" comment and I had to do the same. It's one thing to optimally play for the one out you can have. That is skill. But to draw those five cards in a row when you're in full topdeck mode is not playing optimally, it's pure luck.

But sometimes in poker you draw runner-runner and luck out too.

In the long run, though, great players rise above small-scale luck because they are prepared and they know the odds.

All this commentary is really not about the article, which I enjoyed. Just going on about the subject.

Thats kind of my point.There by TheMiseDotCom at Tue, 03/24/2009 - 18:31
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Thats kind of my point.There are lots of details and minor plays that always separate the best players from the average. Stuff like:
Don't break ur fetchlands vs storm to get away from a gigadrowse or the Life from the Loam + Vendilion Trick. Or even what land to play for ur turn.

It's a very "painfull" by Anonymous (not verified) at Tue, 03/24/2009 - 18:08
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It's a very "painfull" Religion,some believes...others don't!!
But I think you make the right choice on your words!!
Excelent Article Andrea

liked the article very much. by riclas (not verified) at Wed, 03/25/2009 - 14:48
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liked the article very much. it has been sometime since i've seen an article discuss these issues online.
way to go!

WOW By FAR your best article! by Erdene (not verified) at Wed, 03/25/2009 - 16:05
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By FAR your best article! And that means much as all your articles have been top notch!

Great aproach to the whole "luck" factor in magic, it's rewarding seeing this dept and to understand a little more about what is, in it's core, Magic as a "trading-card game" opposite to Magic as "Skill game".


Very good article. by BlindedSight (not verified) at Thu, 03/26/2009 - 19:12
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Very good article.

One of your best articles by Matteo (not verified) at Thu, 03/26/2009 - 19:18
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I thinks this is a very nice article. One of your best, without doubt.

Wow!! by angeliti (not verified) at Thu, 03/26/2009 - 19:24
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I liked the article! It's not all about luck, but about skill.

sweet by Anonymous (not verified) at Thu, 03/26/2009 - 19:25
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more luck on MTGO by mtgotraders at Sat, 03/28/2009 - 09:35
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Would you agree that there is more luck involved when playing MTGO vs. MTG? Same as online poker vs RL poker. I guess it also depends on if you know the person your playing or not. Great article!
I'd say that luck plays a by cdiegor (not verified) at Sat, 03/28/2009 - 14:22
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I'd say that luck plays a much bigger role online too. And that comes from two main factors: 1. some cheats people do IRL while manipulating their decks (searching cards, shuffling, etc.); 2. IRL bluff is completely different from the online one.