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By: CZML, Cassie Mulholland-London
Oct 08 2014 12:00pm
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Hello, and welcome back to The Perfect Game. If you haven't read my previous article on Expected Value and Opportunity Cost, I highly recommend that you do so, as my article today will be referencing those concepts.


Today I'm going to give you an overview of the two major paradigms regarding modern Magic theory, and discuss what I believe to be their strengths and flaws. This will set the stage for next week's article, in which I will finally begin to describe my Grand Unifying Theory of Magic.


Before I jump into modern Theory, I'm going to give you a bit of a history lesson. You see, way back in the dark ages of Magic (before creatures were powerful, even before the stack), there wasn't very much that was known about how the game really worked on a conceptual level. I'm not talking about how people won the game—ie, the rules—but rather why they won the game. People were good at the game, sure, and knew that killing an opponent's creature in response to a pump spell was better than killing it without the spell being cast, but there wasn't a very thorough analysis as far as what kind of advantage that play generated.


Enter Brian Weissman, inventor of The Deck and the person that is credited with coining the term “Card Advantage.” Although the Magic community at large would eventually realize Card Advantage was only one important aspect of Magic, it has remained one of the most relevant concepts in the game, although it is often misunderstood by newer players. The idea of card advantage is that if a player sees more cards over the course of a game, they have more options and are more likely to have high-Expected Value plays. I touched on this briefly in my last article, and will explain the most relevant part of it a bit later in this article. Fundamentally, Card Advantage describes a resource you start the game with and naturally gain more of over time.


Eric “Danger” Taylor may not have coined the term Tempo, but he certainly popularized it in his articles. Tempo usually refers to board presence and mana, although it encompasses many other factors like attack steps and other phases of the game. It is similar enough to the concept of initiative that many people conflate the two, but there are subtle differences. Fundamentally, Tempo describes the resources you don't start the game with but gain naturally over time (land drops being the prime example).


Eventually, Mike Flores realized that while Tempo and Card Advantage were good, they weren't enough to describe how Magic works as a whole. Flores proposed (and Adrian Sullivan expanded upon) a third pillar of theory: the Philosophy of Fire. Flores and Sullivan suggested that burn decks (and dedicated mill decks) ignored the theories of Tempo and Card Advantage entirely. If a player casts Shock to take their opponent from 20 to 18, they have lost both Card Advantage (the Shock itself) and Tempo (the mana it took to cast the Shock) for minimal gain. However, if a player casts ten Shocks over the course of the game, they win, despite completely ignoring the philosophies of Card Advantage and Tempo. The Philosophy of Fire is relatively straightforward: Card Advantage and Tempo are irrelevant if a player is just dead. Thus, the single most important resource either player has is the ability to continue to play the game. Fundamentally, the Philosophy of Fire describes the resources you start the game with but don't naturally gain over time (namely life and cards in your library).


You'll find that every resource in the game of Magic (and in almost every other strategy game you play) fits into one of these three categories. Looking at chess, for example, you start with material but don't naturally gain it over time (ignoring pawn promotion because you have to specifically work for it), you don't start with time but gain it as the game progresses (forcing moves, applying pressure, etc), and you start with some amount of position and also gain it naturally over time. None of these concepts fit perfectly, of course, but they are extremely close.


To the best of my knowledge, Patrick Chapin was the man who really tied the three major pillars of theory together. Chapin broke them down based upon whether players start the game with them and whether players gain them naturally. He also clearly defined what players' primary goal should be in a game based upon this assessment. Chapin's big contribution involved assigning a utilitarian purpose to resources: they serve as options to let players continue playing the game. Being in possession of each resource affords you options that you wouldn't have with less of that resource. Chapin identifies the most important of these options as the option to continue playing the game, and describes each player's goal as denying their opponent that option. The more options you can deny your opponent over the course of the game, the better.


I think Option Theory, as it's been called, is very accurate, but it's missing a piece: relevance. For denying your opponent options to affect the game, you have to deny them relevant options. For increasing your own options to affect the game, the options you gain have to be relevant. If having more options doesn't increase your Expected Value for the game, then there's no point to having them. I'll go into more detail about this in my next article when I present my own Theory of Everything.


The other major branch of Magic theory is called Mana Theory. Mana Theory holds that all of the resources in Magic boil down to one thing: the ability to spend mana. Card Advantage? More ways to spend mana. Tempo? More land drops mean more mana to spend. Philosophy of Fire? More time to spend mana. The idea behind Mana Theory is that the person who can spend the most effective mana (the “adjusted” mana cost commensurate with the effect, as opposed to the actual mana paid) wins, as long as they make precise plays.


Generally, Mana Theory is interesting, but not entirely accurate. It works as a rough guideline for most games, but often fails to capture the subtle nuances of play. My major issue with Mana Theory is similar to my issue with Option Theory: relevance. A 2/2 with haste is worth approximately 3 adjusted mana no matter what. If your opponent is at 2 life and tapped out, that 2/2 is actually worth an infinite amount of mana, because casting it practically wins the game. Similarly, Mana Theory doesn't effectively capture the difference between casting a Vendilion Clique in your opponent's upkeep or in your opponent's draw step. Also, Mana Theory only looks at the present. It focuses on how the board is now instead of what the board might look like five turns from now, which makes deciding between two similar spells somewhat difficult.


As you might have noticed, I have similar issues with both Option Theory and Mana Theory, although I think Option Theory is much closer to the mark. I think that both systems could do much more to account for the issues of efficiency (spending as few resources as possible to get the maximum effect possible) and relevance (having the effect you generate be the one that increases your EV the most as opposed to the one that makes the largest impact on the board). You can probably guess that my unifying theory of Magic will deal with: relevance.


I think I've given you a strong foundation to understand my theory when I explain it in depth next week. If you have any questions at all, don't hesitate to let me know in the comments and hopefully I'll be able to clarify things.


Thanks for reading! I can't wait for you all to read next week's article.



Casper Mulholland


Aw... by Elbinac at Thu, 10/09/2014 - 05:07
Elbinac's picture

A recap and a teaser, you are a cruel cruel being.

Thanks by CZML at Thu, 10/09/2014 - 12:15
CZML's picture

Thank you, sir. I try :P.