If you play Magic competitively, chances are pretty good that you would agree that you play to win. Just like there is nothing wrong with playing casually and not caring whether you win or lose, there is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying winning at something when done in a healthy manner. Of course, there are plenty of unhealthy ways for this drive to impact your life, which we will get to later on, but the drive alone and the joy you get from success is perfectly valid.
In fact, much of the competitive Magic community is centered around this idea of "Playing to win." Sometimes this theme stands out as people point you to the "best deck," or perhaps even write about the topic explicitly, but even when the topic sits under the surface, it still manages to impact the way competitive Magic functions.
Ever notice when a new set comes out, most cards receive a day or two of talk and speculation, but by the time the release events happen, that focus has shifted to a few dozen cards that are likely to see Constructed play. Maybe a card is so wacky that it stands out a bit, but the majority of a set is written off as bulk and challenging that idea is very much fighting against the crowd. As a result, unless someone feels very passionately about a card, they allow the consensus opinion influence their own and they move on, without ever realizing what long-term impact this may have had.
People view themselves as being on a road to winning, to success. The idea is that you take certain steps to improve your game and improve your chances of winning. You move along this road with victory as the destination. Maybe it's winning a game, or winning a tournament, or winning an NBA championship. We set these goals for ourselves and then begin treading the path to reach them.
This is where my problem lies.
Let us pull the analogy into the world of golf. Imagine you are on a course with an undetermined number of holes. Each hole is the equivalent of a tournament. You can do well or poorly at that tournament and, regardless of outcome, you have another tournament right around the corner with its own chance at success or failure. Since you have no means to arrive at a course total, what you shoot on hole 13 has no direct impact on what you shoot on hole 14 (ignoring emotional states, etc.).
The actual cup (hole) you are shooting your ball at each time is in fact a destination, but can you claim there is only one "correct" path to get there? If there is only one correct path, the argument implies that the path is unconditional. I certainly am willing to agree that there is a suggestion for the best path or that, statistically, the best path will usually be within a certain direction, but to declare there is a singular best way for every player to hit their ball on each hole is ludicrous and unrealistic to me.
Guidelines and suggestions are a great thing. They help people who have no idea where to even begin on something. They support you along your journey. But guidelines and suggestions are not instructions and they should not be treated as the only way to do something.
When we tell a player to play 17 lands in Limited, we are giving them instruction to make sure they have a playable deck. That said, we expect at some point, that instruction will meld into a suggestion as the player gains the ability to understand why and when to play more or less lands in their deck. Imagine if that player played 17 lands every single time in Limited, without exception. They would probably land on the right number more often than not, but they would be giving up significant advantages every time it was not correct. If the player instead learns that 17 lands is a guideline and then learn the whys and whens that form the foundation of that guideline, they are now equipped to make this decision on a per-Draft basis and extract maximum value. There is room for Error, of course, but the burden of that Error is now on the individual and not the system.
I like to use basketball in my examples because of how intimately familiar I am with the culture. Right now, if I asked you to go shoot a free throw, how would you do so? Picture this in your head. If I asked you how to teach a 15-year-old how to shoot a free throw, what would you do? I assume most of you pictured standing on a free throw line, pulling a ball above your chest/head, and shooting it, flicking your wrist in the process. That is how free throws are shot after all, right?
That is a guideline for shooting free throws. For many people, most even, that guideline will be enough to get them to a form that allows them to shoot free throws to the best of their ability, but it is certainly not the only way.
Rick Barry is one of the best free throw shooters to ever live. He shot 90% from the line across 14 years in the NBA, which is remarkable. Rick Barry famously did not shoot free throws by the book, however. Instead, Barry shot free throws in a very strange underhand manner. A manner that most coaches would not even mention in passing, let alone teach to their players. Why? Well, probably because it's different and probably because more players are going to shoot better with a traditional overhand method than they would underhand. But "most players" is not the same thing as "all players" and that is where your job comes in as a living, breathing, thinking being. Rick Barry understood that the way for him to be as accurate as possible was not by the book, but he went with it anyway because it was right for him.
Your coach, your parents, your teachers, and your peers are not you. They can only ever suggest guidelines for these highly individualized activities. We just need to do a better job of emphasizing that these are, in fact, guidelines rather than masking them as instruction or steps. If Rick Barry's father had forced him to shoot free throws overhand and stifled his son's Exploration of a new and innovative way to do things, one of the NBA's 50 greatest players may never have come to be.
Obviously, I am a person who has embraced individuality over the years. Going rogue may broadly mean playing things that are not popular, but if often actually means playing things that you, as a player, enjoy playing. Maybe you are choosing to like those things explicitly because they are different, or maybe you have other reasons and they just happen to be different.
Many people have "accused" me of being different for its own sake many times in the past. The truth, at least in most cases, is that I was doing what I thought was best and what I wanted to do; it just so happened that my conclusions were not the popular ones. I actually have a pretty loud pattern for the types of decks I have chosen over the years. Ramp, midrange-tempo, and combo-control decks probably make up 75% of the decks I have ever played in competitive tournaments. It just so happens that those things have not always been good. I thought they were good, or at least thought my skill set could best be used on them, but for the average person that was not the case. I was not going out of my way to play things others were not, I just wanted to play decks and other people didn't want to play those decks.
The idea that the secret formula to winning exists at a micro scale is just crazy talk. This is Magic: The Gathering. We have thousands of moving pieces with millions of combinations to use them in. Do you really think it's possible that popular decisions are identical to correct decisions at all times? The formula to winning DOES NOT look like this:
- Play the best deck
- Memorize match ups
- Test extensively
In reality, it should look more like this:
- Do what you love
If winning is what you love, you will find a way to make that happen more often. Maybe that is by playing the best deck, or maybe that is by casting Acidic Slime every opportunity you get. Who knows, maybe I would have picked up a few extra match wins by playing the consensus best deck every time, but maybe you would have no idea who I was if that had happened, or maybe I would have been just a little bit sadder as all of my creative energies washed down the drain tournament after tournament. I won and I did that by doing things my way. Each of you should do the exact same.
Back to Golf
Remember that golf course we were on earlier, let's head back there.
First of all, let's realize that we are on a large golf course and competition is about to take place. Some number of you would prefer avoid that altogether and, instead, go hang out with friends playing mini golf. Go do that. You do you. Have fun with it and enjoy yourself.
If competition is something you enjoy though, follow me on to the course. Now here at hole one, we have a par four with a water hazard along the right, a cart path along that, and two bunkers near the hole on the left. Allow me to tell you that the most common way to play this is to hit it into the middle of the fairway and then, with more shots, get onto the green and eventually into the cup. With that, have at it!
This type of guideline doesn't corner players into any one thing. When Lucy goes up and decides to tee off with an Iron and not a Wood, maybe it's because her Wood comes with a serious right slice to it and she knows she's likely to make it into the water. Maybe Johnny is skilled enough to bounce his ball along the cart path and makes it on to the green in one shot. These players are not wrong for not making the common play; they are simply making adjustments and using discretion, which is beautiful and shows critical thinking.
Sure, it's possible Lucy could fix her slice, but at what cost? Does she need to spend five additional hours a week at practice and not focusing on her school work? Does she need to buy new clubs and miss rent this month? Only Lucy knows that, so it's not your place to tell her she is doing anything wrong when she tees up with that iron.
If Lucy comes to you for advice or counsel, by all means tell her what improvements you think she might be able to make and what you would do differently but, in the meantime, assume Lucy is playing to win just like you. Embrace her unique set of skills and find a way to maximize them as opposed to attempting to redefine them.
Even after Rick Barry began shooting underhanded, I am sure critics argued against the method. He could have caved to external pressures and changed to a more conventional form. I, for one, am glad he didn't though. He trusted his set of abilities and his execution and knew that the best thing for most people was not the best thing for Rick Barry. Then he went out and proved it.
Magic is not a solved game and it will never be a solved game. There are holes, cracks, shortcuts, back alleys, hills, and valleys. It is an ever-evolving game and, as such, there is no one way to approach it. Let The Explorers explore and let the dreamers dream. You do you, regardless of what that is. The game needs players who show up to satisfy themselves and not the expectations of the invisible oppressor that is popular opinion.
Winning can be fun, sure, but fun is always winning! Thanks for reading!