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The Little Things (or, Don't Ping the Marsh Flitter)


I recently had a game of limited, in the finals of a Lorwyn / Lorwyn / Morningtide draft, where I lost because I chose to ping a Marsh Flitter with a Thornbite Staff instead of doing the one damage at my opponent's face. One single point of damage, only 5% of my opponent's starting life total—that was the difference between winning and losing the game a couple of turns later.

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It just so happened that this was the first game of the finals, and I quickly cruised through game two. If I had chosen to do that damage to my opponent's face, the match would have been over and I would have won the draft. Instead, because I killed the Marsh Flitter, we were on to game three. In game three, my opponent, playing a crazy four-color Green deck full of expensive bombs, got an aggressive draw, while I drew the wrong half of my deck. Suddenly, the game was over. I had lost. When it was all said and done, one small choice—one single point of damage—was the difference between winning the draft and doubling my prizes, and falling in game three of the finals to a clunky draw. 

This is admittedly a tiny, relatively meaningless example. The difference between finishing first and second in a draft on Magic Online is $10 in prizes, and while I am a big fan of value and enjoy winning, coming in second instead of first had literally zero impact on my life. That said, small percentages have huge impacts on Magic careers. Have you ever looked at the tiebreakers for a Grand Prix or Pro Tour? It's often fractions of a percent that separate the players in eighth place and ninth place. In almost every situation, one win or loss is the difference between having a chance to play for thousands of dollars in the Top 8 and ending up with a pittance in fifteenth. We play a game where small, insignificant percentages mean everything.

What this means is that choosing to ping the Marsh Flitter on Turn 10 of game one of Round 5 at a Grand Prix could very easily be the difference between making or missing the Top 8 (or making/missing day two; take your pick). Out of 15 rounds of Magic, maybe 200 turns played, and thousands of decisions over the course of the event, something as insignificant as one point of damage directed at a Marsh Flitter could very well have been the difference between success and failure, finishing in the money or going home with nothing, and making day two for the first time or going home early. One tiny decision, making up 0.0001%  of the tournament—a percent so small that, at first glance, it appears meaningless.

And then look at Chris Pikula who, in one of the greatest travesties in the MTG community, is still trying to grind his way into the Hall of Fame. One decision, out of millions, is likely the reason (along with a broken HOF system that is weighted against players whose accomplishments are less recent) why he is still on the grind today, rather than enjoying his Hall of Fame invite to every Pro Tour. So, in a very real sense, pinging the Marsh Flitter can be the difference between making and missing out on the Hall of Fame—the game's highest honor. 

The point of all this is that Magic is a game of teeny, tiny, seemingly insignificant percentages. In a world where winning 5% more games is the difference between being one of the game's greats and a grinder, and another 5% swing is the difference between being a grinder and being an average player, the small percentages add up. I mean, assuming you're playing another experienced player, it's very unlikely that you are going to get any huge percentage swings (discounting deck building / matchups, but that's an entirely different topic; we're focusing on game play). It's unlikely your opponent will do something so misguided that they go from 50% to win the game to 20%. Instead, the way you win is by piling up a whole bunch of +0.1% edges until these eventually add up to a significant enough shift that you are winning 55% percent of the time, then 60% of the time, and so forth. Eventually, these game wins add up to match wins, which add up to better tournament finishes and everything else. The trick is consistency; doing these small, seemingly insignificant things the best way possible; and gaining tiny little percentage boosts over and over and over again, every single game, every single turn. 

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This brings me to the topic that started me down this path to begin with: deck thinning by cracking fetch lands. I'm not going to bother running all of the math, because lots of other people have done it, There is no doubt that the percentages are small; cracking a single fetch land might decreases your odds of drawing an additional land by less than 1%, depending on a bunch of factors. Many people see this and think "fetch land deck thinning—false." They look at the tiny percentages and assume the benefit doesn't matter, but I see it the other way. For me, it's about the cumulative advantage. Remember: gaining 0.1% repeatedly is how you win Magic games, so even though the odds that cracking any individual fetch land is going to generate an advantage significant enough to win you the game are super small, insignificant percentages add up over the course of turns, games, matches, tournaments, seasons, and lifetimes, and in a game where 5% is everything, they end up being extremely meaningful. 

Image from Mathemagics: Onslaught Fetchlands by Garrett Johnson

Now, this isn't an argument for cracking fetch lands every chance you get or running 12 fetch lands in your mono-colored deck (although this may be correct in Burn. Most people agree that it costs about four life to draw an additional card with fetch lands due to thinning, and Burn is perfectly fine with this tradeoff in many matchups). A lot goes into cracking a fetch. You lose life, you decrease your odds (very slightly) of drawing a land, you end up with one less card in your library, and you give up the opportunity to crack that fetch land later if you draw into a Brainstorm or get a Courser of Kruphix on the battlefield. The choice of when to crack a fetch depends on the deck you are playing and the deck you are playing against. There are simply too many variables at play to say you always should or should not crack fetch lands. 

What bothers me is the fact that many people view small percentages as insignificant and therefore meaningless. I mean, smoking one cigarette has an insignificant impact on your health, but the cumulative impact of smoking one cigarette every couple hours, over and over and over again, can add up to major health problems. At a decent interest rate, putting away $100 a month, an insignificant amount of money based on the average income, will end up being over $200,000 in 30 years and over $500,000 in 40 years. Many of our elections are decided by a few percentage points, one way or another. If anything, real life, just like Magic, shows that repeatedly gaining a small advantage can have a huge payoff over the long haul.

In the same way, making the best possible decision during every game of Magic, even if it only shifts the percentages a teeny, tiny amount, also pays off in compound interest. Every time you take the effort to really think through a small decision, you're training yourself to do it right the next time as well. Eventually, these decisions will be more and more automatic until decisions that took a lot of thought eventually become second nature. You'll just automatically crack a fetch at the right time, or instinctively ping your opponent's face rather than their Marsh Flitter

Now, this might seem strange coming from me, since tight play isn't exactly my calling card, but in another way this should be coming from me, because this article is for me just as much as it's for everyone else. One of the biggest holes in my game is a lack of consistency. I have the ability to make very good, high-level plays, but then I follow up those plays by pinging a Marsh Flitter, and consistency is what separates the truly great players (in all competitive pursuits) from the merely good players. 

Take basketball, for example. Just about every single player in the NBA has the ability to score 30 points in a game or make a 30 foot three-pointer. The simple fact that a player is in the NBA means they are extremely good at playing basketball. So, what separates Steph Curry, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant from Jordan Clarkson, Robert Covington, Ewe Blab, and James Michael McAdoo? Consistency. The first group can score 30 points most nights; Curry can make ridiculous shots regularly. The second group has the ability to do those things, but maybe once a season or once a month, not multiple times a week. 

Magic's the same way. Nearly all of us can make the most optimal play some percentage of the time. What separates the truly great players is the ability to make the best play more often than the rest of us. As a result, the way to improve at Magic is to make an intentional effort to become more consistent. While it's impossible to play perfectly, and as the fetch land argument illustrates, there isn't always a clear-cut right and wrong answer to every situation in a game with so many variables. Striving to make the best possible choice at every decision point should be the goal. Over the course of time, you'll see your optimal play percentage increase, and along with it will come more game wins, match wins, and big finishes. 

So, how can you develop consistency as a Magic player? There are a bunch of ways, but here are a few of my favorites. 

1. Slow Down and Think

For me, this is a big one. I tend to play fast, sometimes too fast. In fact, the pinging of the Marsh Flitter that started this entire article? The turn before, I had told myself that if I dealt just 1 more damage to my opponent, I would be able to win the game with Sunflare Shaman. I even intentionally left open the 2 mana necessary to activate Thornbite Staff. Then, a creature died, which gave me a "free" untap trigger for the creature wearing the equipment, and impulsively I killed the Marsh Flitter. While I don't think I actually mentioned it on video, I knew almost instantly that I had cost myself the game. Sometimes, our hands and instincts run ahead of our minds, so just take a deep breath and think for a second before making the next move.

2. Practice Mindfully and Well

One thing I learned playing music is that while people like to say "practice makes perfect," this is only half true. You can spend 1,000 hours absentmindedly jamming the rift to "Smells like Teen Spirit" and not get any better at playing the guitar. Sure, you might get slightly better at playing "Smells like Teen Spirit," but even this isn't guaranteed. Practicing something forms habits—that's the entire idea. If you are practicing badly, you're just reinforcing your sloppiness and making it harder to eventually do things the optimal way. The same is true in Magic. While there is some amount of benefit to absentmindedly playing games because it helps you learn cards, mechanics, and synergies, if you don't practice mindfully, it's easy to form bad habits, and it's a lot harder to break a bad habit after it's developed than to just practice the right way in the first place.

3. Learn from Mistakes

One thing I can tell you is that, next time I have the option of pinging a creature or my opponent's face, I'm going to think it through before making my move. One horrible part of the Western psyche is that we think of mistakes as bad things. When we mess up, we take it personally, it diminishes our self-esteem, and we feel like failures and sometimes even give up altogether (interestingly, research suggests that this isn't the case in Eastern cultures—mistakes are viewed as a positive and unavoidable part of the learning process, and are embraced, which in turns means they don't diminish the mistake-makers' self-worth). That's why punting, even on stream or on video, doesn't really bother me. Yes, my goal is to punt less and less, but punting is how you get better. Making less-than-optimal plays is how you learn to make optimal plays.

The problem is it can be difficult to remember what exactly happened in a game of Magic. What was the board state? What was in your hand? What were the life totals? This is why I'm a huge fan of the replays available on Magic Online. It's super easy to go back and see exactly what was happening, which in turn allows you to figure out what you could have done better. In the paper world, it's a bit more difficult, but if you're playing with friends, make sure to use them as a resource. Ask them what they would have done in a situation or what you could have done differently. 

4. Focus on the Little Things

This is the bottom line, and hopefully this idea has been coming across throughout the entire article. In both Magic and life, it's the little things, the small, 1% edges that make the biggest difference. Basically, Magic isn't about whether or not you crack a fetch land to thin your deck; instead, it's about thinking about whether or not cracking a fetch is the most optimal decision at any given point in time. Don't ignore the tiny advantages that are to be gained because over the course of time, pinging the Marsh Flitter could end up being the reason you're not in the Hall of Fame. 

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. Make sure to leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive, or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com. 



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