Most Magic players have undoubtedly come across the term "heuristics" at some point in their cardboard-slinging career. It's one of those complex, looming, pretentious terms that academics like myself love to sprinkle in conversation or incisively insert into a research paper. So…what exactly is a heuristic? Traditionally, most Magic discussions concerning heuristics only cover the concept in a general sense, as some sort of mental shortcut or rule of thumb for decision making. And that's pretty much what a heuristic is: any mental method that helps us solve problems faster, and uses shortcuts to produce a solution in a limited amount of time.
The average round of Magic is 45 minutes, has hundreds of possible in-game decisions, and we all use mental heuristics within games—even if we don't realize it. Psychologists have categorized and studied many mental heuristics over the years, and they can be broken down into unique mental shortcuts. The three most commonly known are the representative, affect, and availability heuristics. If you can learn, observe, and understand these heuristics, they can be harnessed in a positive way to help avoid negative reasoning errors and level up your Magic skills.
In order to understand the representative heuristic, you must first understand the psychological concept of prototypes. A psychological prototype is a mental structure which reflects something perceived to be a "typical" or "the most accurate" example of a given concept. We all have prototypes for all kinds of concepts in our minds. For example, if someone asks you to picture a cat, what initially comes to mind? Most likely a small, quadrupedal, domesticated feline; probably with a black, gray, white, or minorly patterned coat. Things like tigers and lions don't immediately come to mind for most people. Even though they are also cats, they aren't representative of the mental prototype most people have for cats. We live with domesticated felines, and the average person won't interact with tigers or lions on a regular basis. So while we know intellectually that both domestic felines and tigers are cats, our brain unconsciously thinks one type of cat is more representative of that category than any other.
So...how does this apply to Magic? Within a game, we are constantly sifting through different mental categories to assist in making quick and (hopefully) accurate in-game decisions, which will ultimately lead to victory. Opening hands, board position, win conditions, threats which need to be removed—these are just a few categories we might deal with in a given game, and we have to quickly mentally process and decide how to respond. Our mental prototypes can help us make these decisions, but since they aren't fully representative of a given category, relying on them too much can sometimes lead us astray.
Consider the following examples:
Jess is primarily a drafter, and she's spent the most time over the years drafting Magic Origins and Ixalan. These are her favorite formats, and she considers them to be ideal draft formats which in turn forms her mental prototype of a draft format. What Jess has gathered from her extensive time with these formats and the representative heuristic she has developed is that in a given draft curving out with creatures is important, and she puts a premium on 2/2s for two. She attends her first War of the Spark draft and drafts as many two-drops as possible, and finds herself 0-2 drop very quickly. The average decks in WAR are too grindy, creatures have higher toughness, and games err on the long side. The representative heuristic she used based on her mental draft prototype has led to an error in reasoning in assuming that a given limited format will be conducive to a curve-out, creature-heavy deck.
Jess attends a throwback Zendikar draft at her local game store. She's never played the format before, but uses her same mental prototype for drafting and ends up in a B/R low-curve, creature-heavy deck with only 16 lands. The format is blazingly fast, and she easily trounces the pod to an undefeated finish. In this example, Jessica's mental representation has led her to an easy victory.
Representative prototypes in Magic can be applied to just about anything. Consider what represents a "good" hand in Magic. Have you ever sat across from an opponent deciding to mulligan or not, and they sigh, "Well, it has lands and spells; I guess I'll keep." The mental prototype they hold for a keepable hand is "lands and spells," which does work—as a general rule. On the other hand, it can lead to an error in reasoning depending on the format or the deck you're playing. If you're playing a Through the Breach deck in Modern, you wouldn't want to keep a hand of three lands and four Emrakuls, even though this meets the representative prototype of lands and spells. The same thinking can be applied regarding representative prototypes of when to attack, cast a creature, counter a spell, or just about anything you can think of. The mental prototypes we hold can help cut back on a lot of the thinking involved with in-game decisions, but they aren't 100% accurate.
Have you ever done something out of character or questionable because of how you were feeling at the time? Something like, oh I don't know…keeping a one-land hand in the finals of an FNM because you're feeling awesome that you haven't dropped a game all night and your deck is unstoppable? The affect heuristic dictates that an individual's current emotions and feelings can strongly influence their decision making and judgment, and has a marked impact on how an individual perceives potential risk and reward in a given situation. Any relative feelings about a person, location, activity, or stimulus can influence decisions. Positive emotions often lead people to judge situations as low risk and high reward, and negative emotions can lead people to judge situations as high risk and low reward.
Alex has drafted War of the Spark for the past four weeks. Not only has he developed a handle on the format, but he's also been quite lucky with his pulls. Ugin, the Ineffable found its way into several of his decks before, and any time Ugin resolved he went on to win the game. Alex plays in another draft and pulls Ugin again, but finds himself on the backfoot in his first game. His life total is lower than his opponent's, he has fewer creatures on board, and while the game isn't completely lost, he is starting to feel hopeless and unsure if he will be able to gain control of the board and mount a comeback. Alex has a Burning Prophet in play and after a scry, he sees Ugin (the stimulus) on top and feels a rush of positive emotion. The affect heuristic convinces him that if he can resolve Ugin (low risk), he'll be able to win the game (high reward). He changes his play pattern to resolve and protect Ugin at all costs, and goes on to win the game.
Alex has continued drafting War of the Spark, and even though his decks have been impeccably built, probability has been against him and he's on a losing streak. He also has been losing to bombs from his opponents, and this is making him feel like the format and Magic in general are unfair and a waste of time. His opponent taps out and resolves a God-Eternal Oketra. Alex has lost to this several times before, and even the sight of the card makes him feel angry and hopeless inside. He immediately scoops, fills out the match slip, and looks at the top card of his deck before packing his things. The top card is Kasmina's Transmutation, which would've been an answer to God-Eternal Oketra and potentially allowed him to win. In this example, Alex's affect heuristic and emotional reaction led him to erroneously decide that the very sight of God-Eternal Oketra (the stimulus) hitting the table had meant the game was pretty much over (high risk) and not worth playing (low reward), even though he still had outs.
It's important to note that the takeaway from these examples shouldn't be "positive emotions lead to decision rewards and negative emotions lead to decision errors." Rather, our emotions influence how we perceive risk and reward and heuristically make decisions. Seeing an opponent play a turn-one Orzhov Basilica in Standard might trigger a negative emotional response if you're playing aggro and conjecture they are playing Esper control. This emotional response could lead you to heuristically decide that overextending with creatures is high risk, and in the case that your opponent is on Esper control and packing a playset of Kaya's Wrath, you would experience a decision reward.
Magic is an emotional rollercoaster of a game; full of extremely high highs and wallowingly low lows. Games can be decided by luck, and unlike team sports, all the pressure is on ourselves. Nobody can deny that it's incredibly frustrating to make all the "correct" decisions, and still lose to something like the statistical probability of drawing all lands. It's only human that we react to these things emotionally sometimes. Regardless, in those extremely emotional moments, it's important to take a step back and not let them impair your judgment. Strong emotions can lead to bad decisions like scooping too early, making an impulsive attack, incorrectly assessing the board state, and many other actions which can lead to an unwarranted loss. Affect heuristics are incredibly subtle, and we often don't realize just how emotional we might be during a game and how it can influence our decisions.
We retain an incredible amount of information in our minds, and we subconsciously make decisions based on how easy it is to recall relevant examples. It's much easier to recall recent, vivid, and repeated examples, and this is known as using the availability heuristic. One of the classic examples in psychology involves assessing the safety of airline vs. car travel. If an individual is asked to assess whether travel by air or car is more dangerous, it's generally easier for people to recall vivid news reports of airplane crashes. After all, when an airplane crashes, the news coverage is often constant and pervasive. On the other hand, driving a car is a daily occurrence for most people. In a day they might go to and from work, to the grocery store, and later see a friend, all without issue. Car accidents also rarely receive the level of coverage in any media that an airline accident gets. Because of this, people often make the mistake of considering airlines less safe than car travel. However, people are far more statistically likely to be in a car crash, and they occur at a much higher rather than plane crashes. Think about it—you most likely remember plenty of famous airline accidents, but how many famous car accidents can you recall off the top of your head? The same applies to shark attacks, disease outbreaks (ebola, swine flu, etc.), and many other dangers which get overblown in media and have a greater ease of availability for our brain to recall.
Sydney has been trying to draft as much Modern Horizons as she can while it's still available at her local game store, and she's had a string of successful drafts using white-green creature heavy decks with anthem effects. She also got an undefeated finish using one of these white-green decks, in which she opened a Serra the Benevolent and was passed a second one. That was among the most powerful decks she's ever drafted, and it stands out as a very vivid memory in her mind. Several months go by, and the store announces they are doing one final Modern Horizons draft before it's officially out of print. Sydney sits down to draft and thinks about potential draft strategies, and recalls her string of successes with white-green and the vividness of her powerful draft deck, and looks to draft white-green. The cards just aren't there, and she passes up several opportunities to jump into a powerful B/R goblins deck. She ends up in a W/G deck, is short on playable cards and has to splash a few red cards. Overall, the deck can't keep up and she finishes 1-2. The availability and vividness of her previous string of wins with the W/G deck caused her to erroneously decide to draft W/G, even though the deck clearly wasn't open.
Sydney is getting ready to attend the Magic 2020 prerelease, and she has been watching several skilled streamers play sealed events on MTG Arena. Most of the streamers are choosing to draw in their sealed rounds and finishing with positive records. On the day of her own prerelease, Sydney sits down for her first game and wins the die roll. The opponent asks "play or draw?" Sydney immediately recalls the success multiple streamers had by choosing to draw, and she chooses to draw herself. The strategy proves fruitful throughout the day, and she finishes her prerelease 3-1. She attributes her victories in part to the slow speed of the sealed format, in which the extra card on the draw is more impactful than getting to play a land first. The availability of recalling multiple streamers choosing to draw allowed her to reason that it was the correct choice for the format, and she was rewarded accordingly.
Magic is more popular than ever right now, and such a massive proliferation of events and consumable content can influence the availability at which something is recalled to mind. Recalling only the most available items can potentially lead to incorrect judgments which negatively affect our win rate. It's important to be mindful of the content we are consuming and the memories we are creating, and how those are recalled later on.
From these examples, it's evident that our mental heuristics can help or hinder us. The point here is not to say if heuristics are good or bad. I would posit that in general, heuristics are more helpful than they are harmful—but they aren't concrete rules. As a Magic player, I heuristically "know" that cards which include the text "Draw a Card." are usually pretty good, or at the very least worth looking at. But that doesn't mean I'd include as many Blindblasts as possible in my War of the Spark draft decks. And have you taken a look at Ember Shot lately? The point of this discussion is to help you recognize that these small, often unconscious decisions are happening all the time. So much of Magic is unconscious and instinctual. We might "know" certain rules for making optimal plays, but occasionally we should take a big step back and ask ourselves:
What are the prototypes I have for concepts in Magic, and how do those apply to different formats and situations? No prototype will be representative of every situation we encounter.
What are my emotions in this moment, and how are they affecting my decisions? Magic has high highs and low lows, and sometimes we have to mentally distance ourselves from those extremes and return to a more grounded mindset.
What does this situation remind me of, and how do these memories influence my current decision making? Even if a memory is vivid or easy to recall, it won't always point to a correct decision in a given situation.
By closely examining the heuristics and mental processes we use, we can better spot some of their inaccuracies and how they influence the multitude of decisions we must consider in an average game of Magic. In the same way we might gloss over lions and tigers when we think of "cats," we can miss great plays by using mental shortcuts thoughtlessly. When you notice yourself using a heuristic, take a moment to ask yourself: In this situation, is this shortcut helpful or misleading? After we notice and understand these exceptions to the general rule, we can practice consciously recalling them until they're a mental habit.
Over time, we can train our heuristic processes to become more nuanced and accurate, and it will be easier to notice when we are using mental shortcuts that might not apply to the current situation. We can learn to ignore thought patterns that aren't helpful, such as "This feels hopeless, I should just scoop," or "I have three lands, there's no way I can mulligan." Becoming aware of heuristics is a major level-up moment for players, and working toward that moment involves consciously correcting yourself during play. With practice, you'll be able to add nuance to your mental shortcuts (e.g. "spells and lands make a good hand, unless I'm playing a combo deck"), and eventually your heuristics will evolve.
When I started drafting, I made decisions based on my rudimentary prototype of draft decks, which was "draft decks are 40 cards; 17 lands and 23 spells." As I continued playing Limited, I developed other heuristics and a deeper understanding of different types of draft decks, and now have different mental frameworks for when to play anywhere from 15 to 20 lands. By consciously noticing and adjusting your mental processes, you'll be able to make a wider variety of quick, informed decisions in relation to judgments, emotions and memories. Which in turn can help you level up your play, develop more flexibility as a player, and increase your win percentage.
And it doesn't take an academic exposition to understand that if there's one thing Magic players have in common, it's a desire for more wins.
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