I have a shameful admission. I’ve missed land drops.

The incident that sticks out most in my mind right now came during the recent Standard PTQ season. My turn was a flurry of activity, with attacking, responses, maybe an attempted counterspell from my opponent. At the end of it all, I came out ahead and, with much satisfaction, passed the turn.

As my opponent was drawing his card, I reviewed my hand and saw a Treetop Village sitting there, rather than on the battlefield where it should by all rights have been. My successful turn suddenly became a bit disappointing. I’d not just missed a land drop, but also deferred the option of attacking with a 3/3 trampler for an entire turn for no good reason at all. Why did I make such a poor yet obvious misplay?

I short-circuited my OODA loop, turning it into a DA loop instead and skipping right past my opportunity to make the right play.

Let me explain.

John Boyd and the OODA loop

Colonel John Boyd (b. 1927, d. 1997) was an Air Force flight instructor and theorist who helped develop a number of influential theories of air combat and combat in general. His Energy-Maneuverability theory has influenced the design of every American fighter plane since the F-15, but it’s his OODA loop idea that can help us structure how we play Magic.

OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. Boyd’s contention was that human decision-making fundamentally follows this cycle. First, we Observe the current state of the world, then we Orient by analyzing what we’ve seen in context to develop our mental model of what’s going on, then we Decide what to do, then we Act and actually carry out our decision.

Boyd originally developed this model of decision-making in the context of air-to-air combat. There, we can imagine that the pilot Observes that his opponent is moving into a High Yo-Yo in an effort to get a better attack position. The pilot Orients this observation by placing it in the context of his air-to-air combat training and realizes that he’ll be in a terribly disadvantaged position if he lets this happen. He Decides to try a Split S to disengage. He then Acts by actually maneuvering his plane.

Lest this sound too esoteric, let’s consider the OODA loop that happens during your draw step. You draw your card for the turn and then Observe the new card, the contents of your hand, the board state, life totals, the number of cards in your opponent’s hand, and possibly even your opponent’s demeanor. You Orient by seeing how the new card fits in with all these other factors to influence what you want to do during your turn. For example, you just drew Bituminous Blast off the top and now you can cast that instead of using Terminate to kill your opponent’s creature. You then Decide to make a play based on this new understanding of the game, and Act by making the play.

Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. That’s our basic decision cycle, when everything is working properly.

When OODA loops go wrong

I led into this discussion by citing an incident when I “short-circuited” my OODA loop. This happens when we accidentally skip out on part of the normal decision making cycle, whether due to sheer accident on our part or because our opponent is using superior tempo to induce errors.

Boyd’s goal in applying the OODA loop to air-to-air combat and other fighting endeavors was to identify ways that you could get “inside” your opponent’s OODA loop. For fighters, he figured out that this came down to how quickly the plane could gain or lose energy. If your jet can speed up and slow down more effectively than your opponent’s, then you can cut tighter turns, punch up high and come down in that High Yo-Yo, or do any number of other moves that they simply can’t compete with.

More generally, Boyd observed that if you could operate faster than your opponent’s OODA loop, you would appear to be making random or incomprehensible decisions. While your opponent is in the act of Observing and Orienting about your first action, you’ve already moved to your second, and now they have to Observe and Orient all over again.

If you’ve played against someone who is significantly faster than you are you know what this feels like.

In combat, people tend to react to this by hacking off either half of the loop. Either you get stuck in a perpetual cycle of Observing and Orienting until you’re shot down, or you give up on understanding what’s going on and instead engage in Deciding and Acting. In the latter case, you’re pretty much banking on having good reflexes and trained responses, because you really have no idea what’s going on.

OODA loop errors in Magic

We see two big kinds of OODA loop error in Magic – slow play and reactive play.

Slow play occurs when your OODA loop is too long but you’re unwilling or unable to either make it faster or, as we’ll see below, disrupt it. You’re going to go to time on the round, and you’re going to time out on MTGO. There’s nothing more to do about this than to learn to play faster.

Reactive play occurs when you do not engage in the full OODA loop for each game play decision. Sometimes, you’re going to find yourself carrying out decisions without thinking about how the game has developed. Effectively, you’re engaging in a Decide-Act cycle that doesn’t account for changes in the game state. For example, you’ve been thinking all game about how you’re going to Path your opponent’s Marit Lage token, so when they cash in their Dark Depths, you do just that only to be reminded that they played Chalice for one last turn. Path is countered and you lose. Oops. At other times, you don’t engage in a decision cycle at all, such as when you get all the way to declaring blockers before recalling that you wanted to Bituminous Blast your opponent’s 4/4 Knight of the Reliquary before Noble Hierarch’s exalted ability kicked in.

Common reactive play errors include playing the wrong land, playing the wrong card from your hand, casting a spell into a Chalice of the Void, missing a land drop, passing the turn when you had something left to do, failing to make a play at the end of the opponent’s turn, forgetting to make a play before the proper stage of combat, or accidentally suiciding a creature in combat. An opponent made that last mistake against me in a PTQ match last year, when he attacked a 2/1 creature into my Doran and followed it up with an Incinerate. Having failed to Observe the current game state, he accidentally 0-for-2ed himself and I got to keep my Doran.

So how do we avoid these errors?

Embracing the OODA loop

Boyd intended the OODA loop to be a model of how people make decisions, and focused on ways to operate ‘inside’ your opponent’s OODA loop. In the context of Magic, that’s an admirable goal. However, I want to start by making the OODA loop not just an unconscious process, but rather a very conscious and intentional one. I recognize that many of my own game play errors come from short-circuiting the OODA loop, or just failing to apply it altogether. I believe this is true for a number of other players as well.

As a training exercise, consider when you’d want to very consciously walk through an OODA loop in a given turn of Magic. If you had infinite time, you’d probably want to do a full loop through the decision-making cycle with each priority pass. More realistically, you’d want to consciously go through the OODA loop each time you or your opponent draws a card, casts a spell, plays a land, declares attackers, declares blockers, activates an activated ability, or discards a card.

Now, consider what we want to Observe each time we go through the loop. My notional list includes all of the following:

Your life total
Your opponent’s life total
Your cards in hand
Number of cards in your opponent’s hand
Known cards in your opponent’s hand
Permanents in play and their current state
Spells and effects on the stack
Your graveyard
Your opponent’s graveyard
Exiled cards
Your opponent’s demeanor
Time left in the round

That seems like a tremendous amount of work – and it is, if you don’t take the time to consciously practice it when you aren’t playing in a timed round. Much like any other skill, you don’t want to be trying to figure this out during normal game play. This is why I recommend doing this as an exercise during playtesting, or just on your own. Walk through a game and see what you notice if you force yourself to pause and review the checklist at the appropriate times.

I suspect that you’ll first notice just how many potentially important things you’ve been skipping over because you’ve been dogmatically sticking to one dominant in your mind as you played. For example, you may not have been conscious of exactly how your opponent is tapping their mana and what that represents. You may, like many of my opponents, find that instead of noticing atypical cards and paying special attention to them, you simply gloss over them because you assume they are unimportant. Although no one should be getting ambushed by Knight of the Reliquary now that it is a core card in so many decks, I repeatedly had opponents walk into terrible misplays in the past year because they did not know how Knight worked – and did not stop to read the card. This is a failure to Observe and Orient, and it leads to incorrect Decisions and Actions.

The second thing you’ll notice is which game elements you need to focus on in a given environment and matchup. For example, graveyards are generally more important as formats become larger. If you’re in Extended, it’s likely that you want to be evaluating the graveyard frequently for possible plays. In other contexts, you can check in every so often to remind yourself what your opponent is likely to have in their hand, but the real emphasis should be on cards in play and number of cards in hand.

This is much like the way a trained driver’s eyes move between road and dashboard. You’ll want to spend most of your time on the road, some time on the speedometer, and probably no time on the trip odometer – unless you know you’re going to be near your destination at the 100-mile mark, in which case you’ll want to check on that odometer slightly more often.

The third thing you’ll notice is that even if you don’t run through all possible Observations each time you do this, the simple act of pausing to engage in a conscious OODA loop will keep your brain involved in the game. It forces you to engage in conscious decision-making. This then informs you about when your “autopilot” decisions have been good ones, or when you need to retrain your reflexes.

Making it work in-game

Clearly, we can’t go through this exhaustive version of the OODA loop in actual tournament play. However, we still want to make sure we engage in a normal, real-time OODA loop when we should. How do we make ourselves do that?

For me, it’s about tools that make sure I don’t rush. Last week, I talked about the advantages of taking notes. This sparked a discussion about whether taking notes during play is distracting or not. I’d say that’s entirely a matter of attention styles. For some people notes are going to be distracting, but for me, they’re focusing. Those half-second pauses where I note a life total alteration or a significant change in the board state also generate a gap where I naturally fit in a conscious OODA loop.

I am not a slow player, so this kind of gap generation is critical. My ongoing mantra while I play is “pause, take a breath”. In addition to those gaps that are engineered in by my note-taking, I try to use verbalization of game steps as a way of making myself think about the game as I go. Thus, even if I don’t think anything exciting should happen before my first main phase, I try to say, “untap” followed by “upkeep,” and “draw.” Later on, it’s “move to combat” and “end my turn.” Conveniently, verbalizing all of these steps also reduces ambiguity about game timing with my opponent.

Verbalizing game elements, and making the concomitant pass through the OODA loop, also helps you avoid game play errors. For example, a couple months ago I was moving in for the kill in a Standard game. My opponent cast [card]Firespout[/card] and I dutifully tossed my Noble Hierarch and Knight of the Reliquary into the graveyard. A helpful bystander immediately stopped us and pointed out that I had five lands in my graveyard and my Knight was far from dead. We fixed the incorrect game state and moved on.

Imagine if I had instead Observed and Oriented before Deciding and Acting? Then I would have actually thought about the 3 damage taken by each of my creatures, and the consequences of that damage. From there, I would make the trivial, but correct, decision to place Hierarch but not Knight into the graveyard.

This is not an academic exercise. Remember that story about Progenitus ending up in a graveyard where it was subsequently reanimated with Dread Return? That only happened because of a dual OODA loop failure by both players”¦but the consequence was the Dredge player being able to Dread Return a Progenitus, which isn’t the happiest thing in the world for the opponent.

You’ll have to find your own tools that help you remember to carry out a conscious OODA loop at appropriate times. For me, notes and verbalizations work. For you, it may involve placing a reminder on your library, or moving your hand of cards from one spot to another on your play mat.

The other major factor in carrying out proper OODA loops in-game is remembering that you are allowed to set your own pace of play. Remember that as long as you are not engaging in actual, rules-violating Slow Play, you are not required to play as fast (or as slow) as your opponent. Good players who can do so will try to set a pace of play that is faster than their opponents are comfortable with. This is, in the most classic, John Boyd sense, their way of operating ‘inside’ your OODA loop. If you can’t keep up, my best advice is don’t try. As long as you are playing at a reasonable pace, you gain nothing from trying to match them, and you are going to start short-circuiting your own OODA loops in a fruitless effort to keep up.

Intentional play

All of this can be summed up as an emphasis on “intentional play.” We want to be making plays on purpose, not simply because we’re reacting to our opponent, because we feel rushed, or because we simply forget to crack our Verdant Catacombs at the end of the opponent’s turn. The idea of the OODA loop as a model of decision-making gives us an effective framework against which we can evaluate our choices and play style. By walking through a conscious OODA loop, we can tighten our play and ensure that we can only lose to our opponents and not to ourselves.

I’ll be keeping these mental tools in mind as I head into a big tournament this weekend. After that, I’ll probably be back with a final look at my Standard deck of choice, and then it’s time for an exciting new Extended PTQ season heading into Pro Tour: San Juan 2010.