"Belief and Luck" is the first part of a short series of pieces by Michael on the topic of increasing your luck.
You've gotten your draw. You've gotten the draw. The nasty combo player on the other side of the table didn't have the Force of Will; not this time. You can barely suppress the bwahahahaha belly-laugh from your lips.
It's the second turn of the game and in the center of your side of the table is a six-drop Dragon Legend.
And not just any six-drop Dragon -- Crosis, the Purger!
He makes his drop, taps two for Sapphire Medallion, and passes.
Your palms are a little sweaty. You rack your brain about how this turn can go wrong. Nothing. You can't think of anything. He's tapped out and situations like this don't come up very often. They don't come up "every day." Heck, a spot like this might not come up again, ever, on the Pro Tour.
Crosis connects, taking a deep chunk out of his life total; and you pay the Dragon. Shockingly, not one but two copies of Illusions of Grandeur hit the graveyard as Crosis Persecutes. Is this really happening?
He untaps, draws, plays his third land, and casts a now-discounted Illusions of Grandeur; which is a little eyebrow-raising, you suppose, but you know there are no other blue cards in his hand.
Crosis comes in again. Bam!
He pays the first upkeep on Illusions, plays his fourth land, passes.
Crosis comes in again! Blank. "Blank" is just fine when its 6/6 Mind Twisting Dragon versus... well...lands.
Now with four lands in play he has the opportunity to pay the upkeep on Illusions of Grandeur, but doesn't. He lets it go into his draw step, breaking even on the previous plus-twenty. You haven't won yet, not quite. Fire // Ice would buy a turn while putting him a little further up (but would hardly be the game); Capsize, to be fair, would be really bad here, but with now three copies of Illusions of Grandeur in the graveyard he has almost no ways to win left. And Capsize would be about as likely as...
The fourth Illusions? Really?
Crosis yum yum six // pay two leaving up two // topdecks Donate // game
He topdecks Donate with Sapphire Medallion in play what the!?!
And that, dear readers, is quite possibly the luckiest -- or depending on which side of the table you've parked your can, unluckiest -- game in the history of Magic.
The STAGE was the Top 8 of a Pro Tour. And if you know anything about the history of the Pro Tour, our combo player ended up winning.
The SCALE of the game was immense, even for a Pro Tour Top 8. Our victim -- if you can really call him a victim -- was Pro Tour Hall of Famer in Darwin Kastle. He got, quite literally, the draw for his deck against a combo deck. The combination of a fast clock (6/6 evasion creature on the second turn) plus heavy hand disruption put Darwin squarely in the driver's seat.
But the reason that it was so So SO SO lucky was how mathematically unlikely Kai's draw sequence was. I had actually forgotten many of the details of the game before hitting Kai up to chat last week. With no Force of Will his win wouldn't likely have been possible without starting on Sapphire Medallion (happens less than half the time). Just topdecking an Illusions of Grandeur kold and then "just" topdecking the Donate kold were the extent of my recollection.
But Kai pointed out to me that "[he] had to draw 1 of 45 and then 3 of 44 in exactly that order."
The combination of competitors, under the Top 8 lights, given not only the enormity of Darwin's advantage but the specific unlikelihood of Kai's success factors make this, from the perspective of Darwin, probably the un-luckiest game of Magic that has ever been played.
So the next time you want to complain about your opening draws or an opposing topdeck, think a moment about where the scale on bad luck is.
You might have noticed I took last week off to prepare for this short series. Just as Make the Play Monday / Flores Rewards Friday attempted to shift the focus from deck lists to tactics, I wanted to discuss a bit over the next couple of weeks about something that Magic players typically can't stop talking about: Luck.
What is luck?
I kind of love the opening paragraph of luck's Wikipedia entry:
"The definition of luck (or chance) varies by philosophical, religious, mystical, or emotional context of the one interpreting it; according to the classic Noah Webster's dictionary, luck is 'a purposeless, unpredictable and uncontrollable force that shapes events favorably or unfavorably for an individual, group or cause.' Yet the author Max Gunther defines it as 'events that influence one's life and are seemingly beyond one's control'."
Both the Webster's and Gunther takes are useful for different, if somewhat overlapping, reasons. Surely we can all accept that there are some things outside our direct control, which might have some downriver effect on the outcome of a game of Magic. For our purposes luck is probably less malicious (and more controllable) than Webster's take, and while such outside forces do exist, Gunther's has the greater utility.
That said, it is almost obviously the case that there are many more things outside our control than there are inside. If you're in Darwin's spot the prospect of Illusions of Grandeur #4 followed by one of only three Donates must have seemed like the worst possible cascade of remote dominoes. But what about from Kai's?
Imagine you are in a Make the Play Monday situation with four lands in front of you and an Illusions of Grandeur asking you to pay four life. How many of us pay for it? How many let it go?
Now given sufficient time, I am of the mind that every player of reasonable skill can and generally will find the correct play in over 80% of potential in-game circumstances. That is one of the reasons I spent the last year and a half focused on tactics - to help at least my readers build the focus that would facilitate those decisions in-game. But as we all know, most of us fair to take the time required to find the right path, every time, at the actual tables.
In the specific moment? The vast majority of the time rote kicks in and the vast majority of players just do what is automatic to do.
Consider this Bad Play counter example:
In 2010 I qualified for the US National Championship via Nats Q (there used to be such a thing as US Nationals as an actual tournament). The tournament report for that Nats Q is actually one of my favorite things I've ever written for TCGplayer so if you are interested in five-year-old tournament reports you might want to give it a look.
In my Grixis Hits deck I played four copies of Spreading Seas. Back then I surely loved a Spreading Seas, to the extent that I argued it was actually the best (if not "most powerful") blue card in Standard; a Standard concurrent with Jace, the Mind Sculptor.
I wanted to play Spreading Seas at US Nationals because - against the ostensibly tougher opponents - I wanted the opportunity to get as many free wins as I could. Spreading Seas itself was just a fine card; it's not so far off of current Standard Role Player Anticipate, but in addition to replacing itself for 1U you get to potentially mess up the opponent's mana. Even if the opponent were blue you could put Spreading Seas on a Celestial Colonnade; but against decks with Savage Lands? Boom. There was no better card to draw in your opening hand.
More than that, because Spreading Seas drew a card, there were a large number of games where Spreading Seas would draw you into more Spreading Seas. That's actually how I qualified in my last game of the Nats Q. My Jund opponent was just manascrewed, or rather Island-screwed.
So going into US Nationals I practiced drawing lots of Spreading Seas in my opening hand. It was an actual thing I did in my imagination, walking to the train; I would even gesticulate the "peel" motion with my right hand, imagining I was peeling a 'Seas. It was an actual thing I practiced during commercial breaks: I would stack decks to have multiple Spreading Seas at the top, and draw up hands to look at them. I know it might seem like a lot of hoodoo mumbo jumbo but parallel visualization techniques are actually widely used in other arenas, from executive training to free throw shooting.
And come US Nationals it really seemed to work!
There I was in the first round. My opponent was Jund. And I was staring at a hand full of Spreading Seas.
So I'm all messing up his lands with Spreading Seas. Somewhat predictably he has done nothing and even more miraculously I've drawn my fourth Spreading Seas.
His board was something like this:
Imagine this is a Make the Play Monday. Where do you drop the fourth Spreading Seas?
I made a rote play and played my Spreading Seas on the Dragonskull Summit. I mean 2 > 1 right?
Let's look at this from a position of process of elimination:
● Swamp is the weakest option of the opponent's three non-Island lands. He will be left with B from the Dragonskull Summit anyway, giving him access to all three colors still; so selecting Swamp will have essentially no impact on his ability to cast spells.● Dragonskull Summit (which is what I targeted) is better than Swamp but still not the strongest play. While he is cut off from red, he still has access to BG● Forest is the right play; or at least the best of the available targets presuming we cast Spreading Seas this turn. You can't cut off B 100% because of Swamp, but leaving him access to R without G is essentially harmless. He hasn't done anything so it's not like I would have lost to even all four Lightning Bolts in the near term; but leaving BG means...
He could topdeck Maelstrom Pulse (which is what he did). His outs were actually Maelstrom Pulse or Bloodbraid Elf (for Maelstrom Pulse). Both those outs require G. Needless to say I squandered my god-draw and started off 0-1 in my biggest tournament in years. I rallied and ended up X-2 on the day, but X-1 would have been much nicer!
I assume we can all agree my play was a mistake.
What makes the outcome of my game a result of poor play (my mistake) versus Kai's being luck?
The two scenarios have quite a few similarities. Each has a deck getting a god-draw to slow down the opposing boogeyman. In each a fortuitous topdeck (or two) destroys the momentum of the god-drawing player. And in each one Magician is given the opportunity to make a rote play or pause for a moment. I made mine. Kai didn't.
When Kai had four lands open and an Illusions of Grandeur to pay for, he let it go. It's not just that 1) letting it go (under Kai's control) gave him the opportunity to 2) draw the Illusions on top of his deck (out of his control); had he made the dead-end play of keeping the first Illusions, 3) Darwin would have been able to Crosis-Persecute away the Illusions he needed to win the game (ultimately at least somewhat under his control).
Not everything is under our control. Kai couldn't have dictated what was on top of his deck; but by making the one or two decisions he did have correctly (instead of, say, giving up like many players would have under the turn-two Crosis conditions, if not the rote Cumulative Upkeep payment) he was in position to take advantage of good fortune. Which is the opposite of what I did in 2010, or squandering good fortune.
I want this short series on luck to have actionable takeaways. The first of them is that there are more things under your control in a Magic tournament than might seem immediately obvious.
The second is that by choosing the correct side of any number of A/B splits before and during a tournament you actually increase your likelihood of taking advantage of topdecks under pressure. Here, Kai's non-payment of Cumulative Upkeep put him in position to take advantage of the Illusions of Grandeur #4 topdeck.
But what about a more systemic example?
What do you think about these two cards?
[Lightning Strike] v. [Magma Jet]
As two different instants that cost 1R, Lightning Strike and Magma Jet have competed against one another for a limited number of removal spots in Standard (but not larger formats). In rare occasions they will come as an eight-pack; but that is not the usual course. Many of you would probably just say that Lightning Strike is the higher quality card based on recency. You see a fair number of Lightning Strikes in current Standard circulation and few if any Magma Jets and come to the conclusion that Lightning Strike is superior.
History would not tend to agree with you.
Magma Jet has seen heavy play in larger formats, including at least a Pro Tour second place in the Extended format, and even some Legacy play. It was an important Staple in its original Block, and an important early game component to Joshua Ravitz's otherwise slow US Nationals Top 8 deck from some years back.
As recently as the first big Standard Top 8 of Khans of Tarkir Standard, Magma Jet was a four-of in a RW Control deck, with Lightning Strike nowhere near the 75:
There are many who would call Magma Jet the stronger of the two, historically.
Now Imagine for a moment you thought the top creatures in a format were Prognostic Sphinx, Eidolon of Blossoms, Sylvan Caryatid, and Courser of Kruphix [the first three were three of the top five cards of Theros Block's Pro Tour Journey into Nyx, per Wizards of the Coast; though Courser of Kruphix tied Sylvan Caryatid with twenty-eight copies in the Top 8]. Would that affect how you thought of Lightning Strike v. Magma Jet?
Both cards are actually pretty bad against all four creatures. Neither one of them kills Courser of Kruphix alone; and even when you kill Courser of Kruphix, you're almost certainly hemorrhaging Overload damage and not just cards / value when you use Lightning Strike. 'Striking an Eidolon of Blossoms is definitely wasteful. And neither one is very likely to hit either a Prognostic Sphinx or a Sylvan Caryatid.
You might convince yourself, if you're a red mage, that Magma Jet isn't where you want to be. After all, if the best creatures in the format are all key cards that can help snowball value, you might want Magma Jet to blunt the impact they have for the opponent when you kill one, or help you draw your own. There is ample precedent for Magma Jet being played in isolation of Lightning Strike, and certainly as a teammate to Courser of Kruphix. From the same Top 8 as Fulk's RW:
Now what if you are staring down a Fleecemane Lion?
One of those two 1R instants is much, Much, MUCH better than the other one against a Fleecemane Lion, either on the second turn or when the opponent has four lands in play and is itching to draw a card. Patrick Chapin used that knowledge to tear through a Pro Tour where he was the only person playing it in the Top 8 (despite having multiple teammates in the Top 8 with him!).
Next time we will talk about how Patrick's decision was more about luck than math, but for now I think you'll agree that players who have "only" Anger of the Gods must get twice as lucky with their backs to the wall against Patrick's Fleecemane Lion than those who have Lightning Strike in addition to Anger of the Gods (and probably over some number of Magma Jets). There is probably luck in either side's topdeck, but the second player will be pulling from a deeper well.
1. While there are many things out of your control, in the context of a Magic tournament there are probably more things under your control than seem immediately obvious.2. Choosing the correct side of one or more A/B splits before and during a tournament will increase your likelihood of taking advantage of topdecks over time. To many, this will look like luck (which is only partially true).