A week ago, Sam Black wrote an interesting article called “Make the Right Play for You”. In this article, Sam explains that there isn’t a perfect play in the abstract, but rather a perfect play for each person, because people have different styles and what is right for me might not be right for you.
Respectfully, I disagree. Today I’m going to argue that, while this can be true in some situations, I think this line of thought will result in a worse play overall, and might actually be detrimental to your growth as a player.
Throughout my Magic career, I’ve played and watched a lot of games. I can’t recall many where I thought, “the play is X for this person, and Y for this other person.” It just doesn’t happen. The right play is the right play, for everybody, almost all the time. Even if I can’t find the perfect play, that doesn’t give me free reign to do whatever I want—I’m still going to try to find the objective best play that I can, not the one that I feel matches “me” personally the most.
Imagine I’m going to present you with a puzzle where you have to find the right answer. What information do you ask for? Well, you need the game state—the cards in play, the life totals, your hand, and so on. You need the decks—at least the player’s deck list, but if you also have theirs, it’s better.
Then you’d probably like some history—how has the opponent behaved this game, what could they possibly have? What has the player done? Maybe the player bluffed [ccProd]Giant Growth[/ccProd] turn three and the opponent still believes you have it.
What do you not need to solve the puzzle? The name of the player! If I tell you it’s me, does it change your answer? What if it’s you? What if it’s Frank Karsten? Are you suddenly going to say, “oh, the play was to Bolt the creature, but if you’re Frank Karsten then you should hold it?” You are probably not going to say that. If the name of the player (and his personal style) are so irrelevant to your decision, why should you let your name and who you are dictate your plays?
It’s possible that a player will think of a good play and have a good reason, and that another player will think of another good play, with a completely different line of thought, and that play will also have a good reason. That doesn’t make the play necessarily right for each of them—maybe they’re both just good plays and we can’t tell which one is better, but that doesn’t mean one isn’t. The reason they came up with different plays is perhaps because they have different styles, and not the other way around—the kind of play you make gives you a certain style, but you should not assume you have a style and then make plays because of that, because at that point you’re forcing things and could end up with an inferior play because it fits your definition of your style.
The way I see it, “style” is a very passive characteristic. The plays you make define your style, but your style should not define the plays you make—it is a consequence, not a cause. If something is truly your style, then you will naturally do it—you don’t need to think, “hey this is my style I should do X.” Branding yourself with a “style” and then trying to follow it constrains you for no reason. You know that a play is better, but your style tells you to do something else? Doesn’t seem like a great style to me, yet people seem to have no problem saying just that.
In Sam’s article he said: “People want to feel like they can know that they’re doing things right. After all, if you lose but you know you did everything right, it’s not really your fault, and you can just feel good about having made all the right plays.” According to Sam, this would lend credence to the idea of a perfect play—people believe there is a perfect play because they want to.
I completely agree with the quoted statement, but my conclusion is the opposite. The fact that people want to feel they are doing everything right leads them to think that the perfect play is a matter of style, when it is not. If I think there is a right play for each person, then my play can be the right play for me regardless of any evidence, and there’s nothing that anyone can say that will make me feel like I messed up, because clearly the play is right for me, not for them. Being me is something no one can relate to, so how can there be any discussion? If I ask, “why did you attack?” and you say, “it was the right play for me, it fit my style,” what can my argument be? I am not you, I don’t have your style. So, believing that there is such a thing as a perfect play for each person will make you feel good about yourself, because even though you’ve been making bad plays, you can convince yourself that they were right for you, and that’s a very dangerous way of thinking.
As an example, let’s take this player:
“I like to be aggressive. When in doubt, I make the aggressive play.”
Does that make sense? We certainly know a lot of people like this, we might be one of those people ourselves. The other side of the spectrum, “I’ll play conservatively because I’m a control player,” is also common. It doesn’t seem wrong; we have a style that works for us and we follow it.
Now, let’s take this player:
“I like to kill my own creatures. When in doubt, I use burn spells on my own guys.”
Now we can all see that this is just ludicrous. It’s a very bad “style” to follow, a very bad rule to adopt. Killing your guys might be right sometimes, but it’s obviously not right every time. Yet, is this player really different from the first player? Sure, being aggressive is going to be correct way more often than killing your own guys is, but it’s still not going to be correct every time, it’s still a sort of arbitrary rule that you’re following for no real reason. I’d argue that, while player #2 handicaps him or herself a lot more, player #1 also does that, to a lesser degree. And why would you want to do that?
Sometimes, what we think of as “style” are just conclusions for a particular matchup, and should actually be shared by everybody. Sam pointed out that, if you’re the kind of person who taps out early, then you should not have [ccProd]Dissolve[/ccProd]s in your Mono-Blue deck. I agree; however, I would change it to, “if the matchup demands you to tap out early, you should not have [ccProd]Dissolve[/ccProd]s in your deck.” Why would you ever want to be, “the kind of person who taps out early”? Clearly it’s preferable to be the kind of person that taps out when they have to tap out, and that doesn’t when they shouldn’t. In this case, the best style is, “having whatever style each situation demands,” or simply “no style.” Having even a slight personal inclination for tapping out seems bad to me, unless it’s based on how the match plays, in which case it should apply to everyone and not just to you.
Tapping out or not should not be a question of style—either the matchup and the way the games go require you to tap out often, or they require you to wait. If you don’t know which is correct, well, try to find out! Play games with both configurations and see how they turn out, or try to imagine what would have happened if you had played differently, but do not make it a matter of personal preference. If one person never taps out and brings in [ccProd]Dissolve[/ccProd] and the other always taps out and doesn’t bring in [ccProd]Dissolve[/ccProd], they are both consistent, but they are probably not both right.
Some of the comments that I saw on the forum drew a comparison to chess. I’m not a chess player and I understand very little of it, but I remember reading about the World Championship, particularly a sequence where Anand had a play that he considered the best play but that would take the game to a scenario in which his opponent particularly excelled (end-game positions, or something). So, the people asked, should Anand make the play that he thinks is the best, or should he try to do something else to account for his opponent’s style and arrive at a different position?
In the end, Anand chose the “best” play. He ended up losing, though I have no idea if it was because of that and if it would have changed anything.
If people have styles in chess, and they make plays to get to certain game states in which they excel even though those might not be the best plays in the abstract, why is it not the same for Magic? Because Magic has a component that chess does not—decks. In Magic, what will dictate your style of play, far more than your personal feelings and strengths, is your deck. While I have never thought, “player 1 makes play X, player 2 makes play Y,” I’ve certainly thought many times, “with/against deck 1 I make play X, with/against deck 2 I make play Y.” What sort of deck you’re playing, and what sort of deck you’re playing against, will determine the route you have to take when you aren’t sure, and, again, not your personal style. In Magic, a person is very rarely “strong in the late game”—a deck usually is.
Another example: imagine I am a control player. I like to feel in control, to know that I have the answers, to give myself time to make decisions, and I am very good at it. Then I pick mono-red against a slow deck that has a great late-game. Should I try to play to my strengths (controlling the game) or to the deck’s strengths (rushing the game early and trying to finish them quickly before they can do their more powerful things)? Should I be methodical, playing around everything, or should I just try to kill them? Clearly, I should follow the deck—if I’m playing an aggro deck against a slow deck, I have to be aggressive no matter what I prefer. Another player in my position would behave the same way, regardless of his inclinations either, and it will only differ with a change in either the lists or the game state So, in Magic, personal style will usually defer to the kind of matchup you are playing and to the current game state, which are the actual determining factors of how you should play the game.
Thinking in deck terms also offers a better way to discuss a given play and arrive at a conclusion. “Why did you attack?” “Because this is the right play for this deck” is an answer that people can actually relate to and discuss, because they’ve seen or played that deck. It is something you can say to justify your plays, but it is subject to confrontation, so you actually have to be right.
The one exception to this is making a play specifically against a person, because they’ve shown a pattern that you can exploit. While I don’t think there is the right play for a person, there is definitely the right play against a person. Attacking a 4/4 into two 2/3s is generally bad, but if my opponent has proven that he will not double-block (maybe he simply doesn’t know you can, or doesn’t like being exposed to tricks, and so on), then you might as well attack. In this case, it has nothing to do with you—it has to do with your opponent’s style. Because your opponent has a style, because they have proven that they will make a certain play because it is their style and not because it’s the best, you are able to use it to your advantage.
Another of Sam’s points is this:
“If you can only win games of Theros Limited with 15-land mono-black decks, please take [ccProd]Tormented Hero[/ccProd] over [ccProd]Elspeth, Sun’s Champion[/ccProd] if you need to win that draft. Just because it’s “wrong” doesn’t mean it’s not the play you should make.”
That is a tricky point. If it’s THE draft (PTQ Top 8, for example), and you literally don’t even know what the cards in any other color do, then I agree you should take the [ccProd]Tormented Hero[/ccProd]. My question is – how do you get to that point? Do you want to be the person whose style is so limiting that, when you open the best card in the set, you can’t even take it? Unless you honestly think mono-black is the best archetype by miles and no one has figured it out yet because no one comprehends your genius, taking the [ccProd]Tormented Hero[/ccProd] there because it’s your “style” makes you no different than the person who attacks a 1/1 into a 3/3 because they are “aggressive” and “aggressive people must attack.” Taking the Hero is a palliative measure, it is not a solution to your problems, and if you do things like that constantly it will stifle your development as a player.
The ideal scenario, if you can only win with [ccProd]Tormented Hero[/ccProd] but other people clearly win with [ccProd]Elspeth, Sun’s Champion[/ccProd], is to try to understand what you’re doing wrong—because you are obviously doing something wrong. If your style is mono-black aggro, your style is dragging you down and you should change it. The same happens when choosing a Constructed deck—if your style is being a control player and you end up playing control every time, even if it’s not remotely playable, then you need a different style or you will just keep losing.
Style in Deckbuilding
While I don’t think style should change the way you play, I do think it has a bigger impact on deck selection, because choosing a deck is a much more abstract situation than picking a play during a game, and you often know far fewer of the variables, which makes it very hard to define one choice as the best. If you go to a 100-person tournament, there will probably be over 50 different lists being played. If you show 100 people a play, there won’t be 50 different answers. I can say with 100% certainty that some play is correct, but I can never do that for a 75-card list. As such, you have much more leeway for personal preference, since no one knows what’s correct anyway.
Playing a deck that fits your style offers many benefits. You will enjoy yourself, you will play better, and you will more often arrive in scenarios where “your style” leads to the correct play. If I am an aggressive player and I play an aggressive deck, then it’s more likely that my instinctive play of playing aggressive is right. It’s not because it’s my style—it’s because of the deck—but if I can make both the same, then I have one less problem to worry about.
One of my personal qualities, for example, is that I play better when I’m losing the game. I find interesting sequences of plays, different angles to win me the game that everyone thought I was going to lose. I like the challenge of trying to figure things out, rather than just being the one to hope they don’t have it. For that reason, I tend to do well with decks that fall behind early—control or aggro control—and I also enjoy those decks a lot more. This has led to me playing control and aggro-control in a lot of tournaments, to the point where I’ve legitimately become better with them than I am with pure aggro or combo decks. Ideally we’re masters at everything, but that’s a dream, and as a result, when the option is at all close, I gravitate toward those two decks, because I like them more and because I’m better with them. The issue comes when there is a deck that is “your style,” and another deck that isn’t but you think is better.
When choosing between raw power or “style” (what you like to play, how comfortable you are with it, how well you play it), you always have to try and quantify things in your mind. Not necessarily with numbers, but with comparison ideas. If you think a deck is so much better than everyone else, then it’s unlikely that your style should stop you from playing it. At the last PT, I had a choice between a deck that was very much my style (Esper) and a deck that was very much not (Mono-Red Devotion). I thought the Red Devotion deck was enough better to warrant playing it, even though I’d enjoy it less and I’d play it worse, so I played it. During the last Legacy GP that I played, I thought Elves was maybe the best choice, but I was so much more comfortable with Sneak Attack, and I thought it was close enough, that I just went for that instead. It isn’t an exact science, you just have to judge.
That’s what I have for today. To sum it up:
• The best style is usually no style. Since that’s impossible, try to limit the influence it has on you.
• Style should be a passive quality—don’t do things so that they fit “your style,” if it’s truly your style then things will happen naturally.
• It’s very rare that a play is right for someone and wrong for someone else. More likely than not, one person is just wrong, even if we can’t tell who it is.
• It’s convenient to believe that the play you made is right for you and wrong for everyone else, but that’s usually false.
• If you notice your style is making you miss good opportunities in draft, try to either change it or ignore it.
• It’s possible to play differently against a player who has a style or patterns you can exploit.
• In deckbuilding, you can let your choices be influenced more by personal preference, since things are less black and white.
• When there is a deck that is better than the deck you like, try to assess how much better it is, how much better you will be with the other deck, and decide what’s better to play—there’s no hard rule.