Magic is an infinitely complex gaming experience that culminates in a tournament performance when you play an event. It all starts at the moment you begin to think about which deck you will sleeve up: What deck will you play? How will you build it? What cards will you include in your sideboard? By the time you lock in and register your 75 for a tournament—before you’ve even played a single match—you’ve already made hundreds, possibly thousands, of Magic-related decisions.
The actual game play compounds the number of decisions you will make over the course of a tournament. How will you sequence your plays? Should I play a creature or a removal spell? Which cards should I sideboard in or out? I’ve heard Hall of Fame players say with a laugh, “I rarely see a single turn cycle played ‘perfectly,’ let alone entire games or matches.”
In a game where you constantly strive for perfection, it's hard to comprehend a reality where something as simple as making the "correct" plays for a few turns in a row becomes as impossibly elusive as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. I’m here today to explain why I believe that stressing about finding the perfect or correct play in every situation is as futile as tracking down a chupacabra.
In chess, each player has an identical set of pieces and plays on a board where all information is known and public. There are no land drops to be missed, there are no instant-speed removal spells inside of combat, and you never get blown out because the white pieces randomly peel a Stony Silence after you Thoughtseized them on the first turn.
It’s all on the table.
In chess, there are known opening sequences and counters that can be played out by experienced players that go dozens of moves deep. Strategically, an experienced player can know that in order to maximize their position in a set opening, they ought to move a certain piece to a specific place on the board and that the proper counter is to move another specific piece to a certain place on the board.
When most people think about chess in relation to Magic, they create a specific paradigm where the better player will nearly always win because they will make perfect plays and the weaker player will invariably make a mistake. Imagine a scenario where one player knows how to play an opening 30 moves deep but the opponent only knows the defensive posture 20 moves deep. The player who understands the matchup better will make more correct plays and therefore capitalize.
It’s not actually that cut and dry. Even in a game with perfect information there are choices that result in risk/reward scenarios, like Magic. At a certain point in the game players may make gambits. In these situations, a player may make a move that potentially risks pieces or board position in return for challenging opposing pieces or positions.
These are typically the most important moments in a match. When they are taken and how the opponent responds ultimately dictate the outcome.
A gambit is not necessarily right or wrong, or correct or incorrect, but a series of choices that both players make inside of the game. It is never cut and dry. Some gambits are riskier than others, but it always comes down to how well each player can identify what is going on and how their choices impact the game.
The point of the game is the play. The outcome is decided by the play. It is why professional chess matches are not decided by the first player saying: “King’s pawn to E4. Checkmate in 375 moves,” and the second player saying, “Yep, you got me. Concede.”
Skill Versus Luck
On the one hand, people cling to the idea that there is a technically correct play for every situation. You arrive at a board state and there are several plays that you could make, but one of them is correct and the others are incorrect. It is a skill argument that determines that the player who makes the correct play wins.
On the other hand, people believe that Magic is high variance thanks to the cards you draw, whether or not you curved-out, whether or not you drew lands, etc. In this line of thinking, Magic is less of a skill game and more a game that relies on random chance.
There is a tension in Magic between being a pure skill game (where the best player could potentially make a perfect play every turn) and a game of chance (where ultimately what you drew dictated the outcome more than the plays).
Essentially, if both players played perfectly, the outcome would be decided by the luck of the draw.
Yet, we also know the following:
- You can make worse plays than your opponent but draw a better mix of cards and win.
- You can make better plays than your opponent but draw a worse mix of cards and lose.
It is clear that both skill and luck are necessary to win games and tournaments.
Back to the idea that if both players played perfectly the outcome would be determined by the luck of the draw:
Perhaps most important to this concept is the fact that it is nearly impossible for both players to play perfectly over the course of an entire match. I make a distinction here between playing perfectly and playing well (which is the entire point of today’s article).
To me, playing perfectly implies the ability to somehow play with perfect information. If you lined all of the cards drawn up against one another over the course of the game and figured out exactly how every interaction would go down, one hand would win over the other. But this is not how Magic is played.
You do not play Magic with perfect information, which is one reason why this game is different from Chess. You do not inherently know what cards your opponents are holding. You do not know which cards you will draw from your deck. We, as players, frequently need to make difficult decisions that hinge upon what we might draw or cards our opponents might have.
Another pseudo-myth about Magic is that the best players have an uncanny ability to know what is in their opponent’s hand and it's like they are playing with the card Telepathy in play.
Therefore, the ability to play perfectly hinges on the ability to decipher what the opponent is holding and make the best play.
The fact is that even the best players are making educated guesses about what might be in the opponent’s hand. They use probability to determine the odds of drawing particular cards from their deck. They weigh the pros and cons of making one play over another based upon the risk/reward of an opponent holding particular cards versus the likelihood of an opponent actually having those cards.
Perfect play is actually making better choices and choosing the best gambits at the right time.
It’s about determining what kind of game you want to play given the board-state and what is going on in a game. Do you want to exchange a knight for a bishop or do you want to use your turn to fortify pawn structure somewhere else on the board?
More than one option could be advantageous given the situation, and in Magic these decisions are compounded because they are often made without knowing the contents of the opponent’s hand and what cards each player will draw.
How Do You Choose?
In Magic there are often decisions that are very easy and so you don’t see them as decisions at all. I believe this helps fuel the “perfect play” myth.
“Should I play a land on the first turn?” Obviously, right?
99.9% of the time, you are going to play the land, because there is very little risk and high reward. But what if I was playing Vintage and played Gitaxian Probe and saw my opponent had a hand with Mox Pearl and Land Tax that was not functional without triggering the Land Tax? What if my hand had artifact mana and was functional without playing a land?
What if you played out the land before you cast Gitaxian Probe? It would feel like the incorrect play given what came next.
The example is a strange set of circumstances, but the extreme illustrates a point about decisions in Magic. It is often unclear whether one play is better or worse than another given imperfect information.
Things that seem irrelevant at the time can heavily impact the outcome of a game and even decide a match. Have you ever lost a game because you played the wrong land on the first turn? Or because you decided to shock yourself instead of not taking the damage?
Are these even really mistakes? Hard to tell.
The Difference Between a Choice and a Mistake
In my experience, when people say "perfect play" they actually mean “mistake-free play.”
Your opponent is hellbent at 3 life, and you choose to Lightning Bolt their Sprouting Thrinax instead of winning the game. I watched one of Ari Lax’s opponents make this choice at a GP back in the day. This wasn’t really a choice, but a mistake. It is a very poor choice when compared with another available option.
The difference between a mistake and making a choice is that a mistake doesn’t consider all of the known information when making the decision to do one thing over another.
If the opponent had taken the time to consider the fact that Ari was at 3, he would have 100% made a different decision.
Again, we are dealing in extreme examples where the upside of one play is tremendous and a player overlooks it.
I will also admit that it is extremely difficult to simply play “mistake-free” Magic. There is so much information to unpack at any given time that it's easy to overlook something in the moment, especially when you are trying to play quickly.
One of the reasons that the best pros win at such a high clip is that they make significantly fewer mistakes than the average player does. The more you practice and play, the less likely you are to make mistakes. It makes sense that the best players make fewer mistakes.
If you want to win more games of Magic, simply cutting down on the mistakes will go a long way.
But I have bad news. Even if you were able to eliminate mistakes from your game (which is basically impossible), you would still not be anywhere close to achieving perfect play. You’d just have mistake-free play.
Actual Choices Are Not Right or Wrong
Actual choices are not right or wrong—they are risk/reward scenarios.
It's very common to arrive at a point in a game where you have more than one option that seems viable. Each has upside and downside. What is the play?
You start running simulations in your head about how each line might turn out depending upon what your opponent has on the board. A smart move! You should always consider the known information first.
Based on what is going on in play perhaps you can establish that two plays seem to be the most ideal. Let’s keep it simple: Should you play a creature or cast a removal spell?
You determine that there are significant upsides and downsides depending on what your opponent has. If your opponent kills your creature you’ll be really far behind, but if they can’t you’ll be far ahead. What if your opponent plays an even better creature and you burn the removal spell and can’t deal with it? Maybe it is really obvious that if you had a second removal spell you should just kill the creature. What are the odds of drawing another one?
The list goes on and on and on and on. These are the kind of decisions that decide games and matches. You choose your own adventure here. This is what Magic is.
The ability to make smart choices in these spots is what differentiates between weak, average, good, and great players. Situations like these (which are extremely common to most games of Magic) are the trenches in which you win or lose.
Stronger players are able to first consider the known information and routinely eliminate mistake choices from the decision tree. Next, once they have narrowed the options down to choices that make sense given the known information, they begin to consider the unknown information.
Are some plays significantly more risky with lower reward if the opponent has certain cards or makes certain moves? The ability to discern the greater upside between two seemingly viable options is very difficult.
Yesterday, my LGS RIW Hobbies called me and asked if I could come in and sort a collection. I was planning on working on the collection during the day and then playing in the Modern tournament in the evening. Unfortunately, I got a flat tire and couldn’t get there until later so I worked on the collection while the tournament was going on.
I typically am not an innocent bystander in a Magic tournament. I’m in the event with my own games and thoughts. But I made an observation sitting around at the judge station sorting cards and watching and listening to matches.
I heard the phrase: “Yeah, I punted… if I would have done this and then this other thing and then played around the card you topdecked I would have won.” A lot of times!
Are these really punts? If I would have taken completely different lines of play throughout the entire game with perfect information I could theoretically have won the game. Some of the lines seemed very reasonable and the suggested alternate lines didn’t even make sense.
Magic would be a lot easier if you had the ability to only play around the cards your opponents have and/or will immediately topdeck and if you also never played around cards they didn’t have. But that isn’t how Magic works.
In fact, trying to rationalize losses in this way is often self-defeating and counterproductive.
The key is to understand that these choices have risks and rewards, and the better you become at assessing the value of the outcomes, the better plays you are able to make.
It comes back to understanding whether or not there is more value in exchanging a knight with a bishop on a particular board or whether strengthening one’s position elsewhere has more value. Just make sure that you don’t overlook that making one play or another puts your queen in jeopardy. Make sure you don’t overlook the known information and make a mistake before you take your finger off the piece!
It may be comforting to hear this, but it is often impossible to know which play will turn out to be better or worse when you make it. Often, even if you were a super-computer and could crunch all the numbers, one play would only be marginally better than the other given the known information. Obviously, in an ideal world you’d always want to take the option that is a few percentage points better than the other, but given the difficulty of the calculations and time constraints, it's difficult if not impossible to figure it out.
Maybe it isn't comforting to know that it may be impossible to figure out the highest percentage play on a given board. But it is comforting to me that at least my opponent is in the same impossibly complicated situation.
Ah, Magic! What a game!