A while ago, I had an idea for an article titled, “The Strategy of Strategy Writing.” I imagined a sort of how-to guide on gaining influence. A Machiavellian player’s daydream.
The idea has its problems, which is why I never wrote it. Still, I think about the topic a lot, and every once in a while I’m in the middle of writing when I start thinking, “on a certain level, this article is a poor play.”
I had that thought in the middle of writing this. After all, education is a bad business model if you’re looking for return customers. Three years from now, the warranty won’t expire, and you won’t have to buy a new set of knowledge all dressed up in fancy plastic. If the brewmaster teaches his readers how to brew, what’s to keep them coming back?
My uncertainty was unfounded. Magic simply doesn’t work like that. Even if we only read articles for knowledge (we don’t), the game has enough complexity and growth to keep a hoard of Caleb’s busy forever.
So read on, and may the power of the beard be felt o’er the land.
Mythinterpretations of Intelligence
“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” -Albert Einstein
Genius can be a tricky thing to measure. A common notion within psychology is the “10-year rule.” The idea is that, for a given creator to rise to eminence within a field, that person has to have been working in a domain for a minimum of 10 years. Pause for a moment and consider how ridiculous that idea is when applied to Magic—a game that’s only been around for 19 years. Amazing breakthroughs in deck design and theory were made in the first decade of competitive Magic, where the necessary expertise had to be created from scratch.
Even if people don’t directly apply the “10-year rule,” some still believe that only experts can create—that nobody can reach the heights of creativity without developing the proper skills and knowledge base. Yet it’s not uncommon to see people who’ve only been playing a year make it to the Pro Tour.
It all relates back to the nature vs. nurture debate. I used to believe development was almost entirely tied to the nurture side of things. In 2009, I was proven wrong when a genetic root for both creativity and psychosis was found in a variant of the Neuregulin 1 gene. This gene variant, tied to increased chances of developing a mental disorder, also helped people test higher on measures of creativity.
I still believe that anyone can brew, but I can’t deny that some are more capable of creative endeavors than others. Creation comes hard for some, but possible for most. The trick is figuring out how to turn on that part of our brain.
Switching on Creativity
“The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify … into every corner of our mind.” -John Maynard Keynes
Creativity is an interesting thing. I took a lot of writing classes in college, and a common problem among beginner writers is “writer’s block,” the most dreaded of conditions where you can’t seem to put one letter after another. It’s almost unheard of in professional writers.
How do they manage? Perhaps through some well-kept industry secret. A magic tree with fruit that imbues the writer with the ability to spew out a complete written work in one sitting. Or perhaps it’s due to necessity. Before I embraced a weekly column, it was hard to write one article every couple of months. Now, I don’t write because I feel like it, but because it’s what I do.
Similarly, I make an effort to play original decks, which forces me to come up with a new thing every week. As someone who loves deckbuilding, this is akin to putting myself on a diet of pizza and ice cream. While the constant brewing keeps me sharp, there are always weeks when I can’t come up with anything viable, or a known deck is too good a choice to pass up. That’s fine. You don’t get hiking legs by virtue of reaching the peak, but from the journey.
The easiest time to brew is when a new set comes out. If Wizards prints a new finisher, I can extrapolate the best shell for it, each card slot falling after the last in a way that both works as a whole and targets an underdeveloped format. If they print a new disruption spell, I can decide if it fixes any problems for existing archetypes, or even allows a new one to exist (see Vapor Snag).
The hardest times come in the dead of a solved format, when the deck to beat doesn’t have any particularly damning weaknesses. At these times, especially in a Standard or Block format with a limited card pool, creating something new and viable can be (insert difficult cliché of choice).
At times like those, when I’m sick of swimming upstream/cutting against the grain/doing my own dishes, I wish I had a magic cap that could boost my creativity level. As I recently read in an online article, a team of scientists at the University of Sydney have invented such a device.
Their inspiration came from a condition known as the “idiot savant” syndrome. Basically, after one side of a person’s brain becomes damaged, the other side takes on more work to compensate, and a person starts exhibiting unheard-of math or language skills.
The scientists found that, by running an electric current through the brain, they can temporarily adjust the likelihood that neurons in specific areas fire. By inhibiting the activity in the cathode while helping the anode, they got a group of test subjects to dramatically increase their problem-solving abilities (yes with a control group and all that sciency stuff). Rather than increase our capabilities, this approach is designed to reduce the limitations of prior knowledge, and it appears to work.
Since this device isn’t on the market yet, I recommend the zapping of one’s brain with bare electrical wires to… ah, no, that could end badly. Still, maybe the idea that inhibiting the brain can lead to creativity, an argument I long took as an excuse to imbibe, has merit.
The one thing the scientists emphasize is that we need to get away from our preconceptions. In Magic, we know to avoid going on autopilot because we see the disastrous effects in-game. Perhaps we wait to cast our important instant on the opponent’s turn, only to make it vulnerable to countermagic.
The impacts of autopiloting in deckbuilding are equally dire, yet rarely written or talked about, and as such are harder to notice. I spend a great deal of time talking to players who aren’t sharks, and for good reason. I, with my preconceived ideas of mana curve, would never think to combine Deceiver Exarch, Gilded Lotus, and Deadeye Navigator to create infinite mana, yet maybe a format is unique enough that such a combination breaks it.
Anyone with a different mindset can similarly jar you from your norm. Earlier today I was talking with Jacob Baugh, a man who loves to durdle more than myself, who suggested playing a gratuitous number of Oblivion Rings and Detention Spheres in a control shell. I would have never realized how the clever stacking of triggers can allow me to exile as many permanents as I want with triple-Oblivion Ring and a single Sphere: With two Oblivion Rings in play, cast Detention Sphere to exile them. Cast a third Oblivion Ring, removing Detention Sphere (the other Rings will return to play). Stack the triggers so that the first Ring, targeting an unwanted permanent, resolves last, and have the second Ring exile the third, which has Detention Sphere under it. Detention Sphere will exile the Rings again, and the loop will start anew. In this loop, each Oblivion Ring trigger targeting an unwanted permanent won’t get a chance to resolve until you end the loop, and when the stack of triggers go to resolve they see the Oblivion Ring as a new permanent (since it left the battlefield). Thus, the permanents will stay exiled.
I imagine that the tools we use to avoid autopilot in game can be adapted for deckbuilding. Just as watching others play will help you mull over new lines and decisions, playing another’s deck can put you in the designer’s shoes. A peculiar card on paper might reveal its secrets in-game.
For example, consider the deck I’m going to test out tomorrow night. It’s an Esper Control list that Nick Fettback placed second at British Columbian States with.
Esper Control by Ryley Kirkpatrick
I’m no expert on [card nephalia drownyard]Drownyard[/card] control. My instincts scream that I want a Titan-like win condition in the main deck, and that I want Dispels in the board to win the battle over Sphinx’s Revelation. Yet, I’m going to test the above list first, card for card, before I start tuning it. Rather than think, “What is this card for? Surely there’s something better,” I think “What is this card for? I can’t wait to find out.”
Many don’t try to brew because they think other people are better deckbuilders than them, so why bother? Others see deckbuilding as an exhibition of natural talent, a fantastic display of genetic superiority. To a lesser extent, they might not trust their conclusions or feel the need to seek validation from their peers.
The need for validation was one of my biggest weaknesses when I first started brewing. I showed my lists to stronger players, and when my choices were belittled I folded. After playing a few suboptimal lists, I learned my lesson and started trusting my own testing. Balancing the necessary openness to new mindsets with confidence in your own abilities is the trickiest part of any creative endeavor.
Just as my insecurity held me back, my stubbornness brought me forward. In the early days, I built a lot of new decks to prove to some forum troll that a card was viable. My idiocy in caring about some online quibbling led me to prove my position with results, and in the process develop a set of skills that I’ve been able to live off of these past two years of grinding. If you lack confidence, pure doggedness can substitute.
I’m certain that confidence is one of a Magic player’s more necessary traits, which in turn is why overconfidence (or arrogance) is one of the game’s more accepted negative qualities. Most players think they’re better than they actually are, which might be necessary for the ego to withstand the brutality of losing a high percentage of the time.
To see the impact that confidence has on gaming and creative genius, we need only look at women in chess. Very few women excel in the chess world, and for a long time society thought this was because women were inferior intellectually. I read an article a few years ago that suggested that, since more men play chess, they’re more likely to do well. And the reason fewer women play chess? Possibly because they were convinced (by society, perchance) that they didn’t have the intellectual capabilities.
Deckbuilding and BVSR
In BVSR, creative thought occurs through a process dubbed Blind Variation and Selective Retention. In this theory, a person must try out a slew of things, failing more often than not, before hitting a breakthrough. This process isn’t necessary when the creator can predict either the outcome or the utility of an idea.
The reason I’m bringing up the theory is because it most aptly describes my deckbuilding process. When I sit down to build around a new engine, such as sol lands in Legacy Tezzerator, I don’t know how good it is. I have to try a variety of configurations, a slew of tutor targets and side engines, before I figure out what works best.
In contrast, decks that are known qualities take much less work, and are much less impressive. For example, the soft lock in Rest in Peace and Energy Field is common knowledge. To prove my point, I’ll make a list on the spot.
I didn’t copy this list, and I haven’t tested a game with it, yet I know I could take it to a given tournament and perform well. Why? Because its utility, its probability of performance, and my knowledge of the deck’s components are all very high. Even though this is my list, others (notably ChannelFireball’s own Adam Barnello) have already put work into the archetype. As such, my list, while new, is not creative, and I didn’t have to try a variety of combinations before figuring out something serviceable.
It is when we delve into the unknown that BVSR comes into play. There’s an old expression for when someone’s trying hard. We tell him or her that, “we’re not inventing the wheel, here.” Yet, it’s by tackling things that aren’t broken that breakthroughs are made, and many players try and invent the wheel every day. For me, trial and error are my best friends, and a finished brew is often 20 cards different from where I started.
And I’m not alone. Other brewers have mentioned how only one deck in tens is good enough. It’s common among professional fiction writers to keep one page while scrapping many. Thomas Edison, sadistic animal torturer that he was, set about developing the light bulb by making hundreds of glass bulbs of various shapes to see which one worked.
If this theory of creation is well documented and understood, then why aren’t there more geniuses? Well, necessary for eminence is remarkability, exceptionalism. If everyone is running the same race, then whoever puts in more time is going to win. A simple example of this is Michael Phelps, who added another day to his training (beyond the norm for swimmers) and saw incredible results because of it. In the field of science, Nikola Tesla lived his whole life celibate, claiming that chastity helped him focus on his studies.
Given the time commitment that eminence requires, if you truly desire to be the best Magic player in the world, I recommend full sterilization. If you’re fine not living up to your full potential (for some reason), having an understanding significant other who can tolerate your absence on the weekends goes a long way. In college, I dated a girl for almost two years, and we never spent a Friday night together. While that might’ve been a deal breaker for some, she developed her own hobbies and gave me my space.
As our relationship matured, she began to jokingly refer to herself as a “Magic widow,” and found joy in commiserating with the girlfriends of my fellow players. When I graduated a year earlier than she, I chased my ambitions far away from that little college town, leaving our relationship to starve in the harsh northern winter. And with it, my last chance at normalcy, for a time.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a list that needs testing.