Neil deGrasse Tyson is the Carl Sagan of the early 21st century. If you’re unfamiliar with either of those names, you probably aren’t particularly interested in theoretical astrophysics—and I can’t really blame you for that. It’s about the most abstract science you could practice, if you even consider the ponderings of the furthest stretches of the cosmos a “practice” at all, and at first glance it has very little impact on the world we live in.
Of course, taken at first glance, most things are just as incorrect as thinking astrophysics has nothing to do with your daily life.
I don’t actually want to discuss the relative merits of branches of science. It’s not so important to me what specific scientific hypotheses one is testing, as much as it is important that they’re students of the scientific method.
When I was a teenager, struggling to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, there was a period of time I believed I would be the next Carl Sagan—or at least that I wanted to try. I had devoured every book I could find by him, and by Stephen Hawking, and by Alan Lightman, and a multitude of other writers who had a knack for interpreting very complex processes and concepts in a way a 15 year-old science geek could understand. They had a way of making you feel smarter in spite of your ignorance.
In an effort to be more practical with my interest and proficiency in science and math, I chose to enter the field of engineering rather than hard science, and a lot of the curiosity for what lies beyond the visible, and what is out in the night sky was lost. I’m sad to say that it’s been a long time since I picked up A Brief History of Time, and I consider a lot of what drove me to be who I am today to have been derived from what’s in those pages.
This week, while falling deep into the greatest rabbit hole of them all (YouTube), I managed to rediscover that childhood passion for science-made-simple, in the form of televised discussions with Sagan, Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Richard Feynman, and of course, Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Neil Tyson is quite possibly the most important contemporary American scientist. I don’t mean this in the sense that he’s doing the most important research, or that he runs the most important facility, but rather that his enthusiasm and charisma allow him to be the best weapon the science community has against ignorance and science illiteracy within our country.
In a time when the funding for NASA’s space exploration program has been cut severely (1,2), the struggle to demonstrate the importance of supporting research in some of the more abstract fields on the edge of our universal knowledge can be a difficult one. However hard it may be, it becomes more and more important in an age where science literacy can be the difference between success and failure as a society.
Much of what Neil deGrasse Tyson believes and speaks about during his time in front of the powers-that-be focuses on the idea that the short-term gains by reducing the focus on science, math, and technology in our schools and in our environments are short-sighted, and though the gains are admittedly long range, we reap much more from the focus on these topics than is easily seen in a spreadsheet of costs and incomes.
“Go figure out how it works! That’s why we need a scientifically literate electorate. So that when we go to the polls, you can make an informed judgment, and you can draw your own conclusions, rather than turning to a particular TV station to have your conclusions handed to you.” ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson
Regardless of your political affiliation, I think we can all agree that if individuals were empowered to make their own decisions on what is right and what is wrong—from an informed and educated position, rather than one based in ignorance and rhetoric—we’d be in a different and better place than we are today.
I’m a person whose beliefs are based in science and fact. These facts lead me to make conclusions based on my experience and those of people whose opinion and experiences I trust. This applies to many things, and Magic: the Gathering is no different. In fact, Magic has a lot to do with why I feel this way in the first place.
As a scientific medium, the card game we all play and enjoy is good, but not great. Often we’re working with empirical data, sample sizes that are too small to gain any meaningful results from, and far too many variables to adequately account for all possibilities. There’s a bit too much intuition, and far too much eyewitness testimony to make conclusive determinations except in the most extreme cases, and so we see things like ranges of matchup percentages, which don’t actually mean all that much when you get right down to it.
And yet, even with all its flaws, this game teaches its players to trust in a scientific method of formulating a hypothesis, rigorously testing it, and concluding results based on those tests in order to address the initial hypothesis. All without the player recognizing that this is the process they’re working through at all. When a player decides to try out a new sideboard slot in their Delver deck, they aren’t always necessarily aware that they’re performing a science experiment. There’s no baking soda volcano around to let them know “SCIENCE!”
However, this research is essentially the same that is going on at places like CERN on the France-Swiss border, albeit a much less nuanced hypothesis is being tested in your kitchen. Yet the overall strategy is the same.
I firmly believe that my experiences with Magic as an adolescent directly contributed to the career path I chose. The experimentation with cards and decks—which, at the time, were quite primitive by modern standards—allowed me to feel comfortable with the kind of analysis I do on a day-to-day basis, and developed those skills in a way that was unconscious and intuitive. There is support for this line of thinking.
Children are constantly experimenting with their surroundings. While a child who gets into the pots and pans cupboard and begins banging on them with a spoon may be seen as an annoyance by a busy parent just trying to go about their day, this is an important lesson in acoustics for the child, and there is a very tangible tactile response that comes with banging on things that pleases a toddler (or an adult, for that matter).
Nearly everything a child does is a test, in order to determine what the results of their actions may be—not because they’re a pain, but because they don’t have the experience to be able to determine the result if they don’t see what happens. By facilitating the child to perform these types of experiments, rather than discouraging them, you’re also encouraging the child to develop an analytical mind, and they become more comfortable with the idea-test-result chain of events. Of course, there should be limits to the range of experiments a child should be allowed to do, but that’s part of being a good parent.
I can distinctly recall a time when I was about three years old, when I walked to the kitchen in the middle of the night and took a steak knife out of the drawer. After running my finger across the blade and slicing it open, I ran to my parents for help. They, of course, were furious because I woke them, but were concerned because I was hurt. When they asked me why I did what I did, I could only tell them that I wanted to know what the sharp side of a knife felt like. Now that I knew, I’d go ahead and avoid doing that again if I could.
At this week’s M13 league, I decided to try another experiment—this one a little less risky than running my hand across a sharp knife.
We’re deep enough into the league at this point that our card pools are becoming less prohibitive. Many of the players have strayed from the original color combinations they began with, removing a splash or adding another to capitalize on the opportunities their packs have delivered to them. My deck is really no different. Unfortunately, I’ve been stretched across the entire gamut of colors, and have very strong draws to each. In my pool, I now have:
Along with a multitude of commons and uncommons, and the base green of my event deck, which includes a [card yeva, nature's herald]Yeva[/card] and a Predatory Rampage. Unfortunately, the only color-fixing I have in the pool is a Gilded Lotus and a Gem of Becoming. We’re over a month and a half into the league, and I STILL have zero Farseeks.
I’ve been waffling back and forth between G/W and G/B over the past few weeks, and this week I finally decided to test the hypothesis that W/B would be better than either. For some time, it had seemed that the green cards in my deck were just worse than the black and white, and now I finally hit critical mass to be able to try out a deck that didn’t need the green. Taking perhaps a few more minutes than the 15 allotted for deck building (seriously, fifteen minutes to build a deck when you have to re-evaluate your entire pool every week is bordering on the asinine), I came up with the following list:
I wasn’t happy with the curve, which basically contains only twos and fours, but I figured I’d be happy to play a Sign in Blood or a second two-drop on turn 3, so it wouldn’t be a big issue. With the sheer amount of removal in the deck, I thought it would be a great spot to try out the Touch, because if you can control the number of threats the opponent can throw at you, you can often just keep yourself out of range of ever being killed with the Touch in play. The deck had all the best cards in my pool, and while I had a few clunkers in the deck like Walking Corpse, I was fairly sure I could overcome that with little difficulty.
In short, I was wrong.
While I was able to put up a respectable 2-2 result, it wasn’t without great difficulty. In my first round, I rant the classic Flood/Screw play, with 12 mana sources to my 8 spells (only one of which was a threat) in game one, and being stuck on two Swamps all of game two. I don’t blame anyone but myself for this, as I probably could have been more conservative with my removal in the first game, although my opponent did have a pair of Rancors, and I almost assuredly should have mulliganed in game 2.
My second and third rounds were uneventful, although I did manage to stick a Touch on 12 permanents in one game for the win. It was the fourth round where I really learned the most important lesson of the day. I played against an opponent with a reasonable, but not exceptional version of the UR Talrand deck, and we both had slow starts in the first game.
When he played a turn 4 Talrand, I had to rip a land to hit the Essence Drain on my turn 5, but I missed, and he made two drakes on his turn. By the time I did kill the Talrand on turn 6, it was too late, and my Rise from the Grave on it, even followed with a Sign in Blood (targeting him, unfortunately, as I was dead to his board if I took the two) wasn’t enough to get around his army of fliers. In our second game, he simply ran out an Invocation, and I was almost entirely dead to it.
I had a couple Bats to stay in it, but the tempo swing of trading 2-for-1 with his uncommon put me too far back to get there. I was waiting a very long time to hit five mana, which would have let me play a Gilded Lotus into Touch of the Eternal, but my window with him tapped out was missed, and he had Rewind for the Lotus. By the time I would have made 7 mana otherwise, it was too late, and he was representing a second Rewind anyway.
So where was the lesson here? Unfortunately, the lesson was that filler cards are important. While it’s true that the top end of the BW deck is better than the entire green deck by itself, the bottom end of the deck is MUCH worse, especially if I don’t start with a bunch of Exalted guys. By switching to BW, I’m effectively trying to change to that event deck, except any given player who began with that deck is going to be in way better shape on week one than I am here in week 7.
They began with far better filler, so even though they may have been playing Walking Corpse the first or second week, any random Aven Squire or Knight of Glory they crack will be replacing those cards, where I’m playing them because I didn’t start out with the right chaff on day one. Because of that, I think I’ll be required to play green the whole event—since regardless of the power of [card nefarox, overlord of grixis]Nefarox[/card] and Sublime Archangel, I’m going to need my [card arbor elf]Arbor Elves[/card], Deadly Recluses, and Centaur Coursers to get me there.
While I consider the deck a failure (at least for this week), I consider the experiment a success, and it’s taught me quite a bit about the real heart of the deckbuilding process in this environment. The concept that it’s the commons that make your deck, not the rares, is one that I’m familiar with from limited play, but because this system of deck construction is fairly different, it’s tough to distinguish what the most important aspects of the deck are ahead of time—especially under time constraints. If I had the ability to play with the deck more often than the four rounds I get per week, I’d likely be able to determine what the best configuration is, but as it stands, there just isn’t enough time to get sufficient data to determine the right list.
I still kind of regret not picking the UR deck. It seems that the players who are at the top of the standings are all on that deck, and for a good reason. Out of the box, there is more power in the Talrand deck than in any but the Nefarox, and there’s much more room to grow. With the luck of a few good pulls (Carl Dillahay, for example, has an RG Dual, three Evolving Wilds, a Farseek, and a Thragtusk in his Talrand deck) your deck is far beyond the capability of most of the other decks, and it’s very difficult to beat the best deck in Standard with a bunch of draft leftovers.
Of course, not even Carl’s insane deck goes 4-0 every week, and that’s part of the allure of both the format and the game in general. No matter what your experimental results may tell you, there’s no such thing as a 100/0 matchup, and there’s always a one time.